The news is full of commentary about nutritional supplements these days. You’ve likely heard all of these broad pronouncements, or others like them, but they’re not at all helpful for deciding what nutritional supplements you might need. Flip-flops in the news are commonplace, and it can make it hard to figure out what is best for you and your family. Remember when we were told butter was bad? Everyone started eating margarine. Whoops! Margarine contains trans fats, which are much worse for you than saturated fat ever was. Eggs are good. No, eggs are bad. Wait—eggs really are good for you. No wonder so many people are confused about foods and supplements!
There will always be another headline, another new miracle pill offered. To be a savvy consumer of health information, particularly when it comes to supplements, you have to understand a few things about health news, nutritional research, physicians, the laws that regulate dietary supplements, and the supplement companies themselves. The more you know, the easier it will be to tune out the noise and focus on the information that will benefit you the most.
Here are some key questions to consider when evaluating research. Each will help you decide whether this is a study to pay attention to, because it can help you make better health decisions for you and your family.
>> Do the findings contradict other studies, or do other studies support these findings?
Don’t be too quick to believe a study that is an outlier, whether positive or negative. The findings of a single study seldom prove or disprove anything.
>> Why is this news?
The goal of health reporting is primarily to gain viewers’ attention and keep them tuned in. It’s really important to realize that when one more study comes out and says pretty much the same thing as the last ten studies, it probably won’t make the evening news. If a study offers a shocking headline, you’ll find it showing up in all sorts of news outlets—even when, in the context of your health, the new research might not be that significant.
>> Does the story or health claim pass the common-sense test?
If your instincts say, “That can’t be right,” listen to them. If you hear promises that a supplement will cure cancer, lupus, or another complex condition, feel free to roll your eyes.
>> Are there similarities between me and the study participants?
Ask yourself whether the population in the study has a lifestyle similar to your own. Who was studied—men, women, children, people with a specific disease?
>> What nutrient was being studied?
Knowing exactly what nutrient was being studied is important. If you read something about the results of a clinical study that intrigues you, learn more about the product that was actually used in the clinical trial.
>> Was it a longitudinal study?
Longitudinal studies observe large numbers of people over a long period of time, and they are often very valuable for figuring out what you can do to support your health through lifestyle, diet, and nutritional supplements. Information collected over many years makes a study worth paying attention to.
>> What are some of the unique challenges of vitamin research?
To be enrolled in a drug study, patients must be drug naive, meaning that they have not taken or been exposed to the drug being currently studied. Unfortunately, that is difficult if you are studying vitamins like magnesium or zinc. You can’t be “nutrient naive” because these nutrients are present in your diet!
>> Who paid for the research?
Just because a drug company or supplement manufacturer paid for the study doesn’t mean the results are invalid, it just means that you have to keep a little skepticism in your back pocket until independent research validates or negates the findings.
Excerpted with permission from Fortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals, and More by Tieraona Low Dog, MD, published by National Geographic on February 2, 2016.