1 November 2009

Food for Thought

How to read articles about health and healthcare
By Dr Alicia White

‘If you’ve just read a health-related headline that’s caused you to spit out your morning coffee (“Coffee causes cancer” usually does the trick) it’s always best to follow the Blitz slogan: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. On reading further you’ll often find the headline has left out something important, like “Injecting five rats with really highly concentrated coffee solution caused some changes in cells that might lead to tumours eventually. (Study funded by The Association of Tea Marketing.)”

Keep calm and carry on

The most important rule to remember: “Don’t automatically believe the headline”. It is there to draw you into buying the paper and reading the story. Would you read an article called “Coffee pretty unlikely to cause cancer, but you never know”? Probably not.

Before spraying your newspaper with coffee in the future, you need to interrogate the article to see what it says about the research it is reporting on. Bazian (the company I work for) has interrogated hundreds of articles for Behind The Headlines on NHS Choices, and we’ve developed the following questions to help you figure out which articles you’re going to believe, and which you’re not. It’s not possible to cover all the questions that need to be asked about research studies in a short article, but we’ve covered some of the major ones.

  • Does the article support its claims with scientific research?
  • Is the article based on a conference abstract?
  • Was the research in humans?
  • How many people did the research study include?
  • Did the study have a control group?
  • Did the study actually assess what’s in the headline?
  • Who paid for and conducted the study?
For more, go to Behind the Headlines at http://www.nhs.uk/for news for daily breakdowns of healthcare stories in the media. Read the whole article HERE.


DON RAHM said...

I must be the only exception to this article. I am prediabetic. I cook everything from scratch and buy no prepared foods except canned beans and canned tomatoes.

I do not own a microwave. I am not sure this is a healthy way to prepare food.

I have lost 32# and brought my A1c, blood pressure and cholesterol back to healthy levels.

GI Group said...

Congratulations Don -- that's great news. And good for the environment too!

Anonymous said...

I cook! I buy fresh food within my budget- always have. I am teaching my granddaughter to cook and clean up after herself and know that cooking is not a horse race (the less time the better) take your time and enjoy the process. Less watching cooking on TV and actually get in there and do it. A big plus is I know whose hands have been in my food. We do not have any health problems; it's just the way we live.

Patrick Bowman said...

What a well-written and pertinent article! It should be required high-school reading. It underscores the need for us to assess news stories a little more critically, without being cynical or automatically rejecting them.

Anonymous said...

What about the article that says the low fat diet did worse than the mediterranean diet in the management of diabetes?
The low fat diet (<30 fat) was not really a low fat diet. So why did GI publish this bad kind of research on iets website?

Johan Smits

GI Group said...

Hi Ragnarok, Glad you liked the piece on assessing health news stories. The NHS Behind the Headlines service is brilliant and worth checking out even if you don't live in the UK. The health "news" stories around the world are all pretty similar and often syndicated.

GI Group said...

Dear Johan Smits, GI News simply alerts readers to stories published in peer reviewed scientific journals that may be of interest. Annals of Internal Medicine is one of the best. If you have concerns with the research or want to know more, why don't you write to the editor of Annals or contact the authors of the study.