A lot of times, when we’re deciding to cut out specific foods for better health, our decision is based on the latest study. But how reliable is that research?
Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, writes about health research and recently wrote about a study that found that there’s no difference in terms of health impact between honey, sugar and artificial sweeteners.
“It’s not a big study; it’s just a couple of tens of people looking at it for two weeks on different kinds of sweeteners, and that may sound bad,” Carroll said. ” Why would we assume that if we just look at some small number of people and follow them for a couple of weeks that we can make definitive assessments upon whether things are healthy or not?”
It turns out that the study he was referencing was actually a pretty good study. It was a randomized controlled trial, which already makes it amongst the better studies in nutrition, he says. But the vast majority of studies that are done upon which we decide what is healthy or not are very small studies, with very few people, over very short periods of time.
“It’s problematic to make big leaps and assume that we can make really big generalizations about how people should be eating off of this type of small research,” he said.
So why is it so hard to do more comprehensive studies for longer amounts of time?
“If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know that even when you’re dedicated to it, it’s very hard to stick to it for a long period of time… and that’s when you’re already predisposed to go for it,” Carroll said. “If you’re just a subject in a research study, the idea that you’re going to radically change your eating for a long period of time without some kind of major inducement, it’s just not going to happen.”
It’s also very expensive to do big randomized controlled trials. When they are done in drugs, Carroll says, the pharmaceutical industry usually invests the millions, if not billions, of dollars to make the study happen.
“It’s very hard to get public funding to do big nutritional studies.” he said. “and it’s not in the food industry’s best interest to pony up that money. They don’t have to prove that their food is essentially healthy in order for people to eat it. People will eat it just because it’s food.”
For more on this topic, listen to Aaron Carroll’s interview above with Pulse Host Maiken Scott.