Barbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
5 Tips for Communicating Science
Updated: Apr 24
One of the biggest frustrations of credentialed food and nutrition professionals is helping the audiences they serve to make sense of the science of food and nutrition and not be overwhelmed or confused by the onslaught of messages that are often misleading or downright false.
Many articles and advertisements about food and nutrition claim or promote benefits of food, food components, or production methods that stretch the truth or imply more than what is completely truthful.
Does that food really boost your immunity?
Does it really prevent cancer?
Will the way it is grown or raised or processed mean it is actually healthier?
The answer to those questions is likely “maybe… or maybe not.”
Fears and falsehoods are attention-getting
Many articles and advertisements use fear to entice you to purchase one product over another. What is or is not in food is touted to be a danger to health or the environment.
“Gluten-free” foods have caused many people who do not need to avoid gluten to do so thinking gluten-free foods are better for them.
Many foods are labeled “GMO-free” even when no GMO version of that food exists and because many people fear the concept of GMOs, labeling foods as “GMO-free” has become a marketing ploy.
What other food and nutrition claims have you read or heard? How often have you seen words like “natural,” “organic,” or “free-range,” used to give a food a “health halo” that boosts sales and leads consumers to think a food product is in some way better for them?
The Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) is the food and nutrition expert. In that role, the RDN needs to clearly and creatively communicate the complex science of food and nutrition and counter the misinformation so rampant in the public press and over social media.
5 tips for communicating science
Tip series #25 covers “5 Tips for Communicating Science.” The 5 tips are:
Tip #1 Understand the nature of research
Research is an ever-evolving process. Each study builds upon previous research, gradually growing the body of knowledge about a topic. Study findings may contradict prior research or elicit more questions than answers.
When the public expresses frustration or confusion about research, communicate clearly how each study adds just one more piece to the research puzzle.
Tip #2 Interpret research accurately
To accurately interpret research requires a basic understanding of the research process from generating hypotheses through interpreting results.
It requires an understanding of research methods, data analysis, and basic statistics. It requires knowing the different types of research and which ones can demonstrate cause and effect and which ones can only show associations.
Tip #3 Create context
Clearly communicating science involves putting research findings into context.
This includes examining one study’s findings within the entire body of research; recognizing research findings may not generalize to other populations or to specific individuals; understanding the impact of environmental factors; and acknowledging the importance of realistic dose and application.
Tip #4 Beware of bias
Assume the potential for bias in the presentation of research. It is natural for researchers or science journalists to have viewpoints they wish to support.
This can lead to presenting primarily favorable findings or a biased interpretation of results. Look for a discussion of results that describes the strength of the evidence, research limitations, and areas for further research.
Tip #5 Communicate findings clearly
Research is inherently confusing and difficult to understand. To make it more meaningful and relatable, provide real-life examples. Present data visually with carefully chosen graphics such as bar graphs, pie charts, and scatter plots.
Highlight key findings and significant relationships. Infographics are an effective approach for summarizing main ideas and research findings.
Countering misinformation and misleading claims will continue to be an ongoing challenge for nutrition professionals. We can equip consumers to more critically analyze what they read and hear.
Learn more about locating, reading, interpreting, translating, and citing nutrition research in section 2 of Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide.
“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” ~ Jonathan Swift
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