How reliable are randomised controlled trials for studying the relationship between diet and disease? A narrative review

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Abstract

Large numbers of randomised controlled trials (RCT) have been carried out in order to investigate diet-disease relationships. This article examines eight sets of studies and compares the findings with those from epidemiological studies (cohort studies in seven of the cases). The studies cover the role of dietary factors in blood pressure, body weight, cancer and heart disease. In some cases, the findings from the two types of study are consistent, whereas in other cases the findings appear to be in conflict. A critical evaluation of this evidence suggests factors that may account for conflicting findings. Very often RCT recruit subjects with a history of the disease under study (or at high risk of it) and have a follow-up of only a few weeks or months. Cohort studies, in contrast, typically recruit healthy subjects and have a follow-up of 5-15 years. Owing to these differences, findings from RCT are not necessarily more reliable than those from well-designed prospective cohort studies. We cannot assume that the results of RCT can be freely applied beyond the specific features of the studies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)381-389
Number of pages9
JournalBritish Journal of Nutrition
Volume116
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 14 Aug. 2016

Keywords

  • Cohort studies
  • Diet-disease research
  • Nutrition methods
  • Randomised controlled trials

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