A Beginner’s Guide For Interpreting Research

By Sara Glanz, MS, RD, LD, CNSC

Because nutrition is a science-based discipline, research has an important role in how dietitians practice. We learn about new developments and recommendations on a regular basis. To properly keep up, knowing how to read and interpret research is a must. Here are some tips to help you find the best information out there.

Know where to look.

You probably know where not to look already. For trustworthy information, search for articles published in peer-reviewed journals. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ASPEN each have their own journals, which are excellent sources. Other professional organizations often publish journals as well. These journals and organizations have high standards, and you can generally trust their information.

Newer is better.

When looking for the latest and greatest information, the latest is oftentimes the greatest. (See what I did there?)

Healthcare is always changing. Sure, there are some well-established beliefs that can be found in articles published 30 years ago, but make a habit of limiting your search to research published in the past 5 years for the most up-to-date information.

Be a skeptic.

Don’t take everything you read at face value. When reading an original research article, scrutinize the details. First, the study design. How were the participants selected? Was there a control group against which the treatment group was compared? Did enough time lapse to observe all the effects of the treatment or intervention? Were the participants a strong representative sample of general population in age, gender, number, etc.? And did the researchers take into consideration any confounding events that could have influenced the study’s outcomes?

Even the most promising results may be unreliable or limited depending on the study’s design.

P is for…statistical significance?

Before I knew anything about statistics, I would read the written results section of a research article, and my understanding was limited to whatever the authors explained to me. The tables and graphs with data were too complex and daunting for me to try to interpret on my own. One thing that will help you to make heads-or-tails of the results is to understand what results are actually significant.

Just because X is higher than Y doesn’t mean it’s relevant or meaningful. That’s where the p value comes into play. The p value is a number ranging from 0 to 1. In very basic terms, the closer the p value is to 0, the more significant the results. So, two groups being compared either are or are not significantly different from each other, depending on the p value.

You should focus your attention on the lowest p values or those than fall below a threshold designated by the researchers (generally, p<0.05 or p<0.10) for the information that is most meaningful and relevant. To read more about p values, click here.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist.

That’s right — you don’t need a PhD to be able to read nutrition research, interpret the results, and draw your own conclusions. The more you read, the easier it gets. Who knows, we might be reading about YOUR research one day!

Sara Glanz, MS, RD, LD, CNSC, Malnutrition Awareness

Sara Glanz, MS, RD, LD, CNSC is a travel dietitian for Dietitians On Demand. She is passionate about empowering dietitians to be more involved with the interdisciplinary healthcare team. Her favorite adventures while on assignment include: The 17-Mile Drive in Monterey, CA; Lake Placid, NY; Montreal, Canada; and of course, the Jelly Belly® Jelly Bean and Ben & Jerry’s® ice cream factories located in Fairfield, CA and Burlington, VT, respectively.

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