A combination of time, preparation, money, and patience goes into nutritional research.
Health studies generate headlines, sales, and controversy. Take for example two Stanford University studies in the past month. They were big news: One showed that garlic does nothing to reduce cholesterol. The other proved that the Atkins diet initially took off more weight than other health plans. Previous studies suggested the opposite.
Flip-flopping results confuse the average dieter, while researchers are frustrated by how difficult it is to come to any conclusions about nutrition.
The most efficient studies into food and its effects on our health require spending months perfecting realistic research menus that are both appetizing and scientifically reliable.
Then there are the volunteers. They are average people who must pledge to never give in to their weaknesses, and to always clean their plates. Not to mention, they have to yield samples of blood, stool, or urine to measure the consequences of a particular vitamin or a whole diet.
Typically, the tests begin with a studied hypothesis. Researchers might know, for instance, that a certain nutrient has been shown to provide a health benefit. From there, they must be realistic about what they are studying and how they can make it apply to the average diet.
A Tufts scientist, for example wanted to serve volunteers 17 or 18 prunes in one sitting for a study. But after criticism for the impracticality of eating so many prunes at once, and a personal test of his own hypothesis that kept him close to the bathroom, he realized that such a study would not be beneficial or realistic.
After designing a menu and settling on a schedule, researchers look for people willing to be paid to spend weeks or months following a prescribed diet.
Still, study recruiters are diligent in explaining the rigors and requirements of the research, said Alice H. Lichtenstein , director of the cardiovascular nutrition lab at a USDA-funded research center towering about the Chinatown medical campus of Tufts.
In Lichtenstein’s study of whether eating specific proteins can protect the heart, participants pick up all their food three times a week and must follow instructions to eat the food from the container it comes in and to use water and a scraper in order to consume every last bit.
While tests are conducted, participants may swear they are staying faithful to the study, but the scientists can’t just rely on the words of their subjects.
By occasionally adding small amounts of harmless chemicals to food, researchers can use urine tests, for example, to catch cheaters. "If we put it in food and you eat it, we get it back," said Dr. Edward Saltzman of Tufts.
And if something shows up that wasn’t in the prescribed diet… such as sodium?
“That’s usually because you’ve gone across the street to McDonald’s or had chips,” Saltzman said.
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