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Sniffing out the woo-woo: how to sleuth out pseudo-science

by Ali Donahue February 07, 2017

Even though eating a plant-based diet can change your life and health, there’s a heck of a lot of misinformation out there. At MamaSezz, we do the research to give you the facts. We’d rather bust a myth than spread the hype when it comes to nutrition. We like to call it sniffing out the ‘woo-woo.’ And while you can count on us to help answer some of your plant-based health questions, we understand some folks prefer a DIY approach. Next time you’re reading about the latest nutritional claim, we recommended asking yourself these four questions from the T. Colin Campbell Center of Nutrition Studies at Cornell:

  1. Does the study focus only on a single-nutrient?

    When studies hone in on a singular nutrient, take it with a grain of salt (…and pepper, since we’re being inclusive). This isn’t to say the study’s findings aren’t true, but the body is a complex, crazy thing and focusing on one nutrient above all others hasn’t gotten us all that far. All nutrients play a role in our overall health. But in Western culture we tend to canonize or demonize single nutrients.

    Think of the anti-carb mania of the early aughts. Or our obsession with supplements. Both scenarios can actually lead to adverse effects on the body. When folks cut out carbs (which, when unprocessed, fuel your body) and boost their red meat intake, risk for stroke and heart disease sky rockets. And taking too many supplements instead of eating our nutrients poses a whole new set of health risks. Keep in mind the road to a healthy body isn’t typically eating, or not eating, one particular nutrient, but instead, giving your body all the nutrients it needs to thrive.

  2. What kind of study was it?

    To figure out what kind of study you’re reading about, you’ll want to consider:

    • What’s the problem this study intends to solve?
    • What kind of questions are being asked about that problem?
    • What kind of evidence is presented?
    • Was this research conducted on animals or humans? If the experiment cured cancer in mice it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll do the same for us.
    • If it was a human study, consider where it was conducted. A lot of folks in the U.S. eat the Standard American Diet (SAD), one high in processed foods, unrefined sugars, sodium, and saturated fats. When studies are conducted on folks with the same eating habits, the findings, though compelling for those of us in West, may not be universal.
  3. Who’s behind this study?

    If a blog asserts diabetes can be cured with weekly manicures, then links to a study supporting that claim, click that link and get to sleuthing! Understanding who conducted the study can help us to see if there might be a bias driving the research. Look into not only who conducted the study, but how it was funded. If the study doesn’t come right out and say “Paid for by Big Nail Polish,” try googling the lead scientist or author. Are they the chairman of the Nail Association of America board? If so, could that close affiliation perhaps influence their findings?

  4. Is the study based on fact, judgment, or opinion?

    These are three very different things and they can all influence studies, even those with the best intentions.

    • Scientific facts are objective, verifiable observations that are not relative to the speaker; they’ve been repeated and confirmed as true.
    • Judgments are assertions that may be well reasoned or poorly reasoned and based on more or less evidence. They are not fact, but they have some careful thought behind them.
    • Opinion is a view of judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

We live in an exciting time! We’ve got so much information at our fingertips and while it can be tricky to suss out the “good” info from the “bad,” asking these four questions is a good place to start.

Have a question about a particular nutrition claim? Let us know and we’ll get to sleuthing.

Ali Donahue
Ali Donahue


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