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Think like a scientist: How to identify credible health and nutrition articles

colored journals on a bookshelf
  • Learn how to tell the difference between credible and less credible sources of nutrition and health science research
  • Learn how to find reader-friendly scientific literature review articles

If you are someone who can read nutrition science or biomedical research papers and understand them, then this article probably isn’t for you. But if you’re one of the large majority of people who enjoy reading about health and nutrition but lack the technical background and specialized training to evaluate the research behind it, then read on!

Two key features of quality non-technical articles

For the typical consumer, finding access to understandable, high-quality nutrition and health science information is more challenging than you might realize. At the root of the problem is the extreme abundance of ‘internet authors’—journalists, bloggers, web personalities, and degreed ‘experts’—who purvey information of widely varying quality, and often provide an interpretation that is biased at best, and factually incorrect at worst. What’s more, it’s not uncommon for doctors and specialists to receive financial compensation for their endorsement of research studies or products—regardless of the state of the research. 

Although the list of red flags to avoid for nutrition and health science reporting is rather long, there are two key features that should be present in every credible, science-backed article. With practice, you will find go-to websites and authors who are particularly good at health science reporting. The most substantive articles will have these two features in common:

1. The limitations of the study results are discussed

When an article doesn’t discuss the results within the context of study limitations, it can seem like the information is ready to be used to make dietary or health decisions. However, most of the non-technical articles you encounter probably describe the results of only one or two studies, and this is almost always an insufficient amount of evidence to apply to many people.  Even well-designed and well-executed studies have limitations that could affect the interpretation of their results.  As you read the examples below, consider whether such statements would affect your impression of the information.

“This study was performed with a small number of people, so the results need to be repeated in a larger population.”

“These results have only been demonstrated in mice, so it’s hard to say how humans may react.”

“The results were based on subjective impressions of health, which are prone to bias.”

Although these statements may make the research findings seem less compelling, the fact that the authors are pointing out the imperfections of their own study bodes well for the credibility of the research reporting. Also, when scientific results are put into the context of their limitations, the non-technical person gets a more realistic picture of the state of research, and hopefully, is less likely to feel confused or disheartened by conflicting information. 

2. Claims about research results are backed up with references to professional sources of information

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who makes a claim that you don’t quite believe, and you ask, “How do you know that?” You ask this because you want to evaluate the validity of their information source. If it’s bogus, you’ll disregard the claim, right? You’re essentially asking them to reference their information. The same applies to nutrition and health information. 

Every time an author makes a specific claim about research results, there should be at least one reference (usually a hyperlink to the source). The reference demonstrates where the author got their information and allows the reader to evaluate the quality of information used to write the article. Even if the author is a degreed professional, they should still back up their statements with references to relevant sources.

Even if you don’t intend to read the source information, it’s good to check what the author considers a good source of information. Are they referring to another page on their own website? Sources should be non-commercial and have some scientific or clinical affiliation, such as government agencies (e.g., NIH, FDA, USDA), clinical professional organizations (e.g., American Medical Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), and university websites (e.g., Berkeley Wellness, Linus Pauling Institute). 

Keep in mind—Websites that sell nutrition supplements are legally prevented from linking directly to research articles or websites that discuss disease; they can link to a bibliography, usually at the end of the article. 

Statements that refer to a specific study should reference the original research article. A hyperlinked reference will most likely go to the abstract of the research article on PubMed, a free, public search engine for biomedical and life science research, maintained by the National Institutes of Health. If the article you’re reading has a bibliography, you can copy/paste the entire reference into your favorite search engine and it will take you to the reference’s PubMed page. 

A common approach in non-technical articles is to quote a nutrition or health professional as the source of information. Just keep in mind that the information is based on professional opinion rather than a peer-reviewed publication that has been subjected to professional scrutiny. A good rule is, the more impactful the information to your decisions, the more evidence you should require before acting on it.

While not a guarantee, if you look for these two features when reading articles for nutrition or health science information, the likelihood of encountering poor quality information is greatly reduced.  

Boost your understanding: Find reader-friendly scientific articles

People without advanced research training aren’t the only ones who need help understanding research information. Science can be so specialized that a researcher can have difficulty understanding the research in another closely related field. This is partly due to the large abundance of information in any particular field, but also because there is so much specialized jargon that it can seem like a different language. So, scientists turn to scientific literature review articles, written by experts within the field who write in less technical language and summarize the current state of research. 

Since they’re written using easier language, people can find valuable information in these articles that they can’t get from the mainstream press. It will likely be more challenging to read than a non-technical article. Yet, while you may not understand the entire article, it will definitely advance your understanding.  

To find literature review articles:

  1. Go to PubMed.
    1. Type in your keywords of interest (e.g., vitamin D) and click ‘Search’ to produce the search results. 
    2. On the left side menu, click ‘Review’ under Article Types and ‘Free Full Text’ under Text Availability. (This will list only review articles that are free to read in full.)

You don’t need a science degree to identify reliable sources

So, to review, if you’re someone who enjoys learning about health and nutrition but lacks the specialized training to read biomedical or nutrition science research papers—don’t worry; you don’t need a technical background to identify reliable sources of information supported by science. While sensational headlines and “get healthy quick” articles may make for an interesting read, you should always evaluate the credibility of the source and speak with a health care professional before making any significant alterations to your diet or lifestyle. 

Sharon Matheny, PhD is Manager of Nutrition Science Communications for Nordic Naturals. She holds a doctorate in Cell and Molecular Biology, with specializations in cancer cell signaling and molecular neuroscience. After a career in biotechnology developing molecular diagnostics, she has found her calling in bringing evidence-based nutrition and health science information to the general public and health professionals.

Abstract: A brief summary of a research article, review paper, or any in-depth analysis of a particular subject; often used to help the reader ascertain a general sense of the paper’s purpose or conclusions.

Bibliography: A list of all the sources used in the process of researching or preparing a work.