When Media Reports Distort Study Findings

08/29/2013 03:58 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2013

I spent the last few months fielding questions about the latest media flurry concerning a food or supplement that was allegedly bad for you. In this particular case, the supplement was fish oil and the worry was prostate cancer. Titles like "Omega-3 Supplement Taken By Millions "Linked to Aggressive Prostate Cancer'" raised understandable concerns. "Should I stop my fish oil supplement?" was the obvious question most people asked.

In a word: no. Media drama and disturbing headlines should not guide your health choices. You need to look at the fuller picture rather than depend on short sound bites -- in this case extremely misleading sound bites. The study cited in the prostate cancer scare came from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

What the researchers noticed is that men with prostate cancer enrolled in a study designed to assess the effects of vitamin E and selenium seemed to have higher blood levels of fats that can be found in fish. This was the observation. One of the first rules of science is that an observation is meant to generate a hypothesis not establish a cause and effect. The researchers had no data on the men's eating habits or whether or not they were taking fish oil supplements. Some of the fats they measured can come from fish but can also be generated from other fats in the diet. The study design and conclusions have been widely criticized.

Nonetheless, what most people remember are the shocking headlines linking fish oil supplements to prostate cancer. To avoid falling into this trap in the future, ask the following questions when the next big scare comes along:

1. How does the new report jive with established research up to this point? The omega-3 fats in fish oil have proven anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Is the current research compelling enough to toss out what we know to this point?

2. What are the critics saying about the study? Most people do not have the time or training to read the full original research. In lieu of getting info straight from the horse's mouth, explore what other experts are saying. Even Dr. Oz weighed in on this one.

Finally, get more details. More in-depth reports of this study clearly stated that the researchers did not know if the volunteers were eating fish and most were not taking fish oil supplements. Further analysis uncovers study design flaws and other inconsistencies. The devil is hidden in the details. Read carefully.