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Being a Critical Consumer of Information

01/17/2018, 5:15pm CST
By Sam Callan, USA Fencing Senior Manager of Coaching Education

We can be buried in information that sometimes is seemingly contradictory. So how does one separate truth from fiction or make a decision when opinions of experts vary? While I will focus on nutrition, the same principles apply to other products as well.

Who has not had the experience of hearing or reading a news story with the latest study “proving” that some food is bad for you only to have another study come along later to say that same food is good for you? You may remember how eggs were once seen to be as deadly as cigarettes. OK, that is a bit of hyperbole (or is it?), but eggs were certainly not recommended. Now eggs are considered far less problematic for most people.

On a simple level, one study should not be considered the final answer on a topic; too often we assume the latest study is best when that is not always the case. Instead, the preponderance of evidence from all studies should be considered. For instance, if fifty studies show no benefit to taking a dietary supplement, but one study shows a benefit, that study needs to be examined closely as to why it showed a benefit. Maybe the people in the study somehow differed from the people in the other studies. Or maybe the methods used were different, such as the amount of supplement given. Or, maybe there was a flaw in that single study (or a flaw in all fifty other studies, although the odds are long on all of them having the same flaw).

Too often media sources do not have anyone on staff with a strong science background who can put the study in context and often just report on the press release sent from the university or research organization. These press releases frequently are not written by the researchers and too often inflate the results beyond what the research actually shows.

So, what is one to do?

First, when you hear a news report on the “latest study,” take a breath and then listen to or read the information. Put the new information into the context of what you have heard and what other studies have shown. Does it reinforce? Does in contradict? If the latter, why might it contradict the previous information?

Second, if it really is an interest, see if you can find the study. In some cases, you might just find a press release. Maybe you can find the abstract to the study. An abstract is a relatively short (200-300 word) summary of the entire study written by the researchers. The abstract provides critical information such as who the subjects were (sex, age, training status, etc.) and some information of how the study was conducted. In a few cases you can access the entire study in the journal and read all the gritty details. Getting access to the full study is challenging as most are published in peer-reviewed journals that require a subscription or a high cost ($40 is not unusual), even for a single paper.

A third option is to find an unbiased source you trust like a local expert. Specific to nutrition, finding a local registered dietitian –­­ ideally one with a strong sports nutrition background[1] who can assist you in making sense of the new information.

When it comes specifically to dietary supplements, two sources that I have relied on are Supplement411 and The former was created by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to help athletes navigate the world of dietary supplements, including which ones are prohibited by USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). is a website that seeks to present unbiased nutrition and dietary supplement information. The creators of do not take money from supplement companies and also list the peer-reviewed papers used in evaluating dietary supplements.

Even with all this, we get very well-credentialed experts who disagree even on major points, so it is understandable that you might just want to bury your head in a bowl of your favorite food and ignore all the studies, but that is not a great idea either. Be open and willing to do a little digging if it is something of interest or that you are asked about.

While I have focused on dietary supplements and nutrition, the same concepts apply to exercise products. Many are promoted as being training aides, like special masks or items that will improve your life/health, such as copper bracelets. Think critically of these devices. While wearing a copper bracelet may not be harmful to you, just how is it supposed to help you win a fencing bout?

Assess the potential risks along with the potential benefits of the item before deciding whether or not use the product.

In short, when contradictory information comes out, take a few minutes to be critical and examine the information provided. If it is something important, take the time to do a little digging to see how the new information compares to the body of knowledge already available.

Additional Resources

NCAA Sport Science Institute Nutrition, Sleep and Performance

Find a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, a website from Asker Jeukendrup, PhD


[1] To find a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), you can search at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.

Tag(s): Blog