Next time your gluten-free, paleo-passionate workout buddy tries to tell you eating your kid’s Goldfish is going to wreak havoc with your bowel movements because he read a “big study” on it, keep this link handy. It’s a deep dive by the ace number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight into how most of what you read in the media about how X food causes Y outcome, while well-intentioned, should be taken with a bucket of salt — which, incidentally, they found is linked to reliable home WiFi (seriously).
The site exposed the biggest flaws with the studies that drive so many headlines about diet. For one, most studies use surveys or the standard “food frequency questionnaire (FFQ), which is based on people’s memory. The problem with FFQs is, do you remember how many milligrams of Sriracha you put on your hamburger last week? Exactly. Another problem: the media feeds the public’s desire for simple answers by focusing on a single study and spotlighting it, which downplays factors like context, relative vs. absolute risk, and the notion that studies require application to show causation. In their own FFQ experiment, FiveThirtyEight determined not just the aforementioned whopper about salt — they also linked raw tomatoes to Judaism, caffeine to cat ownership, and fried fish to Democratic affiliations.
Like social science, nutrition research is a work-in-progress and plenty of studies offer interesting insights that add to the growing understanding of the human body. But the next time you read about how pre-pregnancy potatoes cause diabetes, remember the most basic, unassailable advice in the history of eating stuff: ease off the sugar, get your fresh fruits and veggies on, and drink coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.