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John Y. Shin: Research into diet choices can be trusted

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John Shin
We are part of The Trust Project.

On Nov. 21, Forum News Service reporter Paul John Scott published an article entitled "Are dietary studies influenced by religious beliefs?" He highlighted a recent study conducted by myself and colleagues in Mayo Arizona in which we concluded that dairy consumption may increase the risk of developing prostate cancer.

I am a hematology/medical oncology fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and I am also a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Scott raised the question of whether my religious beliefs might have influenced the results of my study since Adventists are known to promote plant-based eating.

When Scott first approached me with questions on this topic, I was happy to respond because I felt this was important to discuss. However, after his article was published, I was disappointed to discover that it contained significant inaccuracies and distortions with regards to both my study and my religion. Therefore, I appreciate this opportunity to address some of these concerns.

In his original article, Scott implied our study had a pro-vegan bias because we cited "the plentiful number of studies with no finding, alongside the few studies showing plants were good and dairy was bad, all as part of the same trend."

This is an inaccurate portrayal of our study.

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The reality is that about half of the dairy studies showed no effect on prostate cancer risk while the other half showed an increased risk. If you had 10 people test your water and half of them reported that it was contaminated, would it be unreasonable for you to conclude your water might be harmful to drink? Of course not, and this is what we did with our dairy data. To his credit, Scott did issue a correction to the online version of his article when I pointed this out.

An additional concern with Scott’s article is his exclusive use of anti-Adventist sources.

In order to educate the public about what Adventists believe, Scott turned to Professor Ron Numbers, an ex-Adventist scholar who is known to speak and write disparagingly about the Adventist health message. He also quoted Belinda Fettke, a writer whose anti-Adventist sentiment is publicized on her blog. This would not be such an issue if Scott also reached out to sources who were not hostile to Adventism (I exclude myself because my study was the one being questioned), but the fact that he neglected to do so makes his reporting highly unbalanced. This is ironic considering his article was addressing the issue of bias.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the question remains: can Adventists conduct valid nutrition research? Absolutely.

To date, the scientific community has not questioned the validity of any major Adventist study on nutrition.

I speak for myself in freely admitting that I have a bias in favor of plant-based diets. However, this is not just due to my religious background, but also because of my own personal experience, the experiences of countless patients, and the large body of non-Adventist research demonstrating the benefits of plant-based eating.

It is important to realize that all researchers hold biases going into a study, be they cultural, political, religious, or social. If religious disclosures are required, then on the same grounds the other categories should require disclosures as well. However, religious disclosures would be particularly inappropriate because there is a great diversity of beliefs within every religion, and it would be unfair to assume all adherents of a religion hold the same biases.

For example, Scott failed to mention that the majority of Adventists eat meat and dairy. Would a meat-eating Adventist hold the same biases as a vegan one? Therefore, we must judge a study based on its own scientific merits and let the data speak for itself.

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If a researcher’s bias leads to falsification of data, the scientific community has proven itself capable of exposing such behavior. Requiring inappropriate disclosures would only serve to bias the reader against the researcher.

Related Topics: FOODDAIRYNUTRITION
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