As we enter what feels like the 89th month of this pandemic, we cannot help but notice the ton of information being splattered across all forms of media.

From news articles to social media posts to podcasts and YouTube videos, we are being bombarded with information overload.

To help you better understand what you are reading this week, we are going to look at not only what some of the research terms mean but ways for you to separate the truth from the fiction. A better way to say this might be separating the fact from the fear.

The reality is there is so much information being generated right now that reading or listening to all of it can become overwhelming. With the overwhelm comes fear. But it does not have to be this way.

When you look at a news article, what is the first thing that grabs your attention? Likely your answer is the headline. No different than when you hear the preliminary line-up for the television news. They drop a little soundbite – a quick grab to get your attention. Sometimes these can be a little over the top.

Take my headline, for example. Instead of using what I did, I easily could have said something a little more sensationalized, such as “Medical reports predict impending doom.” Maybe that headline would make you read it more than mine, but the intent is all wrong. I want you to read my article to get a better understanding of what you are reading in the medical reports. I do not want you to have a sense that it is all bad news.

On the other hand, I also do not want you to walk away thinking everything would be just peachy if we only followed what this one research article showed. Most of these articles have a caveat in them that warns the reader that this is only one study and more research must be done.

A few things to keep in mind when assessing something you are consuming from the media include what source you are using. Are you reading a syndicated newspaper or are you reading a tabloid? Does the person writing the article have a background that makes them better at sharing this information? For example, do they have a science or medical/healthcare background?

Look at the writer’s source of information. Did it come from a peer-reviewed journal or was it a popular magazine or trade magazine? As with any health claim, be aware of any too good to be true statements or exaggerated claims. I am always skeptical when I read about treatments that “cure,” “boost” or use words like “revolutionary” and “breakthrough.” These words always give me cause to dig a little deeper.

Turning to look at understanding some of the science behind the research, we are going to keep it simple and discuss first the difference between correlation and causation, and then we will turn to clinical studies versus observational studies.

Let us be clear: Correlation does not imply causation. Causation means that one thing causes another. For example, we can say that action A causes outcome B. Correlation, on the other hand, shows a link or relationship between two things that happen. In this instance, action A relates to outcome B.

Using breakfast eating to further illustrate, it has been long correlated with better school outcomes for elementary aged kids. But does eating breakfast cause them to be better learners? Probably not. There are too many other variables at play here. Does this hold true for every child? Does the child have an issue with absenteeism? No doubt there are benefits to breakfast, but having breakfast by itself is not the cause of better outcomes.

Correlation can help us predict what might happen but in no way implies cause and effect. The truth is it is easy for us humans to find patterns even when they do not exist (hello conspiracy theories). We like things to be neat and tied up – that is how our minds work. Unfortunately, many of the articles published during this pandemic have weighed a little too heavily on the side of trying to show causation when in fact they should be showing correlation.

The way we get to these causation/correlation stats is through studies. For the most part they fall into two broad categories: observation studies or clinical trials. I am going to state for the record that randomized controlled clinical trials are the gold standard. These studies are designed to answer a specific question about a particular treatment, strategy, or technique.

Observational studies, on the other hand, are easier to complete and often less expensive to conduct. These studies, when well designed, can be a valuable tool in looking for associations (remember correlations) when it is not possible to do randomized control trials. These studies are often the first types of studies reported with a new or novel disease like COVID 19.

When you are reading through news reports or watching videos, pay attention to the type of studies they are discussing. This will help you identify if they are truly talking about causation versus correlation. Also pay attention to if it is peer reviewed. I can do a study and publish it without peer review, but that means it did not go through scientific questioning to weed out the variables that sometimes muddy the waters.

I could also work for a company that is selling the latest and greatest treatment modality, and that could bias my work. Maybe I own a specialty clinic and I am trying to drive business in my direction – I am probably going to try and “sell” you on my ideas. These are all things to keep in mind when you are consuming this information.

As a final reminder, I would encourage you to keep an open mind. This virus is new, and while we know so much more now than we did early in the year, there is still so much more to learn. As we move from observational studies to randomized control trials data will become clearer, and recommendations will become more streamlined. I can promise you that we are working hard to fight this for you.

Until next time … live healthy.

Kimberly Alton, RD, CSSD, LD, is the director of food and nutrition services at Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center.

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