ASN argues that diverse methods enhance nutrition science
In May 2020, the ASN Board of Directors commissioned a task force to prepare a white paper, Valuing the Diversity of Research Methods to Advance Nutrition Science, to argue the case that the wide breadth of methods used in nutrition science all confer value. According to ASN President Martha Belury, “all methods in nutrition science complement one another in order to advance health and well-being.”
The report, published July 2022, was prompted by concern over growing polarization among nutrition scientists who have increasingly advocated for the application of certain research methods at the expense of reasoned consideration of alternate methods. Often, valid differences of opinion have been cast as conflicts, compromising the quality and credibility of science, rather than as different perspectives that, viewed together, strengthen our understanding of key issues and challenges in nutrition science.
Moreover, the credibility of scientists and their work is increasingly attacked by public leaders, misreported by the media, and questioned by general consumers. Controversies among scientists that extend beyond normal civil debate have further eroded this distrust in science.
In response, The ASN Board of Directors appointed the Nutrition Research Task Force to develop Valuing the Diversity of Research Methods to Advance Nutrition Science, exploring the diverse range of scientific methods used in nutrition science that collectively advance the field. Interest in this report has been high: it already ranks within the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric.
The report is not a compendium of methodologies. Instead, it highlights how different approaches and methods can be used together to build strong science. The report also identifies limitations in the methods as well as the conclusions that can be drawn from these different approaches. “These limitations do not negate the value of the information they provide,” the authors argue. “Instead, they underscore the fact that no one approach is sufficient to comprehensively address any question in nutrition science as well as where the type and nature of complementary data are most needed.”
To determine which topics the report would address, task force members were asked to consider the nutrition research methods that they encounter in their work and to identify related methods. Members were also asked to consider approaches that have generated friction within the field of nutrition science such as observational studies versus clinical trials, basic versus applied research, and animal models versus human testing.
The task force was then divided into seven writing groups, each with a different topic and corresponding scope of methods to consider: health disparities; cognitive performance and behaviors; dietary assessment, genetics and epigenetics; microbiome; nutritional status; and cross-cutting considerations. Precision nutrition was identified as an important emerging nutrition topic that transcended each individual topic and therefore was used as a device to organize nutrition research methods rather than as a separate topic in this report.
Co-chair Sylvia Rowe noted, “This paper will be useful not only for nutrition researchers and other nutrition professionals but can lead to improved understanding of nutrition research methods by audiences that translate nutrition research findings, such as journalists, educators, clinicians, and policymakers.” As such, the report fits within our long-term strategic vision for ASN’s centennial, ASN 2028, to be more outward facing as well as more relevant to the field of nutrition research and policy.
According to the authors of the report, “the strongest, most reliable, and actionable knowledge stems from confirming research findings by applying dissimilar methods and approaches to study common problems. Hence, embracing the varied methodologies used by nutrition scientists within the American Society for Nutrition is critical to the conduct of nutrition science and the formulation of healthful and equitable dietary recommendations.”