How researchers get heard

Can You Target Anyone?

Here’s a basic trope of nutrition and diet science, as covered by the news media: There is a new best way or thing to eat or drink for optimal health. We just discovered/confirmed it. All previous best ways are now rubbish.

This trope is based on two attractive but false notions: 1) Science routinely works through new studies reversing decades of evidence (AKA, the “discovery model” of science); and 2) we all respond to diets or various nutrition regimes in the same way. Because the science-media-industrial complex depends on a constant supply of fresh meat for headlines (pun intended), the indefensibility of these notions has been ignored by both journalism and science. Instead, consumers have been fed a distorted view that nutrition science is subject to wild swings of consensus akin to summer fads or sports talk radio.

A new article in GQ by the science writer Andrew Zaleski — “Here’s What Science Can (and Can’t) Tell You About the Best Way to Lose Weight” — damages both of these tropes. The gist of Zaleski’s piece: The individual is not the population. The diet that will work best for you is the diet that will work best for you — your body, your genetics, your gut microbiome, your long-term tolerance of its limitations — but almost certainly not everyone else. That’s because diets that show benefits in the aggregate don’t always show benefits in the individual. Even people with identical glycemic-index values eating identical meals will have wide variability in blood-sugar spikes after those meals, according to one 2015 study following an 800-person group that ate a total of nearly 50,000 meals. No wonder, as one researcher told Zaleski, “trying to nail a one-size-fits-all-diet is kind of missing the point.”

The future of diet science, the piece concludes, should be targeted and cumulative: finding out for whom a particular diet might work best and then refining that application. So: Will diet science communication follow suit by becoming more targeted and cumulative as well? Or is the “this study has discovered something for everyone” model of science too addictive for science or journalism to abandon?

Games of constraints usually reveal weaknesses. If you had to abandon using general audience tactics to reach specific audiences, what parts of your communications strategy would be left? If you couldn’t target everyone, could you target anyone?