Nutrition Researcher: 'One Little Thing At A Time Never Makes A Difference'

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Among all my weekend media-reading, here's the bit that keeps echoing in my mind:

In a long Boston Globe Magazine feature titled "Walter Willett's Food Fight," about the famously mustachoied and outspoken (in a data-driven way, of course) Harvard researcher, way down near the end, comes a daunting vignette that rings exceedingly true.

Christopher Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, "confesses to suffering from a professional 'midlife crisis.'" To wit:

He explains that what we know about nutrition so far comes from big studies like Willett’s and small targeted trials like his. Willett watches thousands of people, year after year, to see who dies and who lives. But Willett can’t prove that it was, say, the whole grains in their diet that protected them — so Gardner runs randomized trials to isolate one element and try to determine cause and effect. Here’s what he finds instead: “One little thing at a time never makes a difference.”

A few years ago, Gardner ran a National Institutes of Health-funded study on garlic. Because he must test a specific hypothesis, lest he be accused of going on a fishing expedition, he asked whether one clove per day helped lower cholesterol in people with moderately elevated levels. Six months and $1.4 million later, he found no effect. “I couldn’t even answer: Is garlic good for you?” he says.

Collectively, the work that he and Willett and others in nutrition and epidemiology have done has built a large body of knowledge, Gardner says, but they’re hitting a ceiling. “We know about 90 percent of what we’ll ever know,” he says. “And it’s not enough.”

Yes. The "garlic is good for you"-type studies are the bane of many a health reporter's existence, because such findings flip-flop so annoyingly. (Globe Magazine reporter Neil Swidey describes the public reaction as "will-you-make-up-your-minds-already exasperation.") So readers, if you don't see a lot of those types of studies posted here on CommonHealth, you'll know why...

This program aired on July 29, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.