How much can we rely on studies for our heath?

01/10/2018 - 12:12
Food-related studies are published near daily, from ones claiming that a Mediterranean diet can prevent depression, to the idea that low calorie soups, shakes and counselling should be available on the NHS, but how often should we listen?

In the modern day, many of the greatest health problems are contributed to overeating.  People are consuming too many calories and too much low-quality food, which are arguably contributing factors to chronic diseases like cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

These illnesses are harder to get a handle on because they don’t just appear overnight; they develop over a lifetime and fixing them isn’t just a question of adding an orange to a diet. It involves looking holistically at diets and other lifestyle behaviours, cultivating them into studies so caterers can use the ideas in menus and people in their dietary choices.

Christopher Gardner, a nutrition researcher has said that nutritional sciences, however, can be seen as imprecise.

“The sector is filled with contradictory studies that are rife with flaws and limitations, and the messiness of the field is a big reason why nutrition advice can be confusing.”

Meal Replacement

According to a recent study, published in the BMJ, total diet replacement programmes (TDR) made up of low-calorie soups, shakes and counselling should available be on the NHS.

The study contradicts the belief that losing weight quickly on this type of programme may lead to the weight piling back on again.

However, people on the diets, which replaced food with specially formulated drinks, soups and snacks, lost three times more weight than those given standard dietary advice by their GP.

Professor Paul Aveyard, study author, GP and professor of behavioural medicine at the university of Oxford, said: “It’s boring being on a normal diet and people struggle to stick to it for a year.

“But these programmes get you when your mental strength is at its highest.

“You have to concentrate effort into 12 weeks, and because they eat so little, they lose a lot of weight quickly.”

The study included 278 people from 10 GP practice in Oxfordshire where half followed usual weight management advice and support from their GP and the other half followed the Cambridge weight plan programme for eight weeks, which involved limiting calorie intake to 810kcal per day, before reintroducing other food gradually over the remaining four weeks.

They also saw a trained counsellor very week, for 24 weeks in total, to help them stick to the diet and keep the weight off.

But with ever-changing dietary advice, it could become a struggle for caterers to keep up. In the future, if individuals follow TDR programmes recommended on the NHS, would caterers have to formulate menus in line with the new advice?

Stewart McKenzie, chairman of the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA), said: “Diets such as those outlined in the BMJ study are regularly provided after full consultation with dieticians and nursing professionals, who are best placed to provide counselling for the future.

“The HCA would support the diet replacement programmes made up low calorie soups, shakes and regular counselling, should this be the appropriate course of treatment for the individual patient.

“As an association, our core focus is to be able to provide quality nutritious meals to patients, staff and visitors in hospitals. That be, to aid recovery and support healthy eating and drinking.”

Mediterranean diets

Another study suggested that a Mediterranean diet might help to prevent depression.

The finding came from a review of 41 studies published within the last eight years and said that a plant-based diet of fruit, veg, grains, fish, nuts and olive oil – but not too much meat or dairy – appeared to have benefits in terms of mood. 

It may be easy enough to dismiss the various claims that studies make, and instead stick with the NHS’ tried and tested guidelines, however even they have been questioned.

The traditional concept of  ‘five a day’ was challenged recently after a review found that people who regularly ate 10 portions, or 800g of fruit and veg a day, had a significantly lower risk of chronic diseases.

McKenzie added: “Studies in journals stating claims about diets can be useful but not always suffice to create a hospital menu. The HCA’s priority is to provide nutritious meals appropriate for all patients, staff and visitors.

“As caterers, we would always welcome any suggestions or recommendations when we are creating a meal plan for individual patients and support all dietary requirements should this be what the patient needs.

“It is important that we work closely with our professional colleagues and provide what is best for each individual patient. Food is an important form of medicine, but different patient groups require different needs. As an association, providing good nutrition and hydration is forefront.”

Find the right study

Food-related studies are not as easy to conduct as medicinal ones as they largely rely on self-reported data, imprecise food surveys and are often funded by food companies, which can create a conflict of interest.

Nutritional researchers have recommended that when finding science to trust, you should always consider all the available research on a question, and not just single studies, for example, look out for systematic reviews or meta-analyses. 

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