#511: Null By Design – When “No Effect” Doesn’t Mean No Effect

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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Co-Hosts for this Episode
  3. Related Resources
  4. Premium Content
    • Detailed Study Notes
    • Transcript


Numerous nutrition studies present findings of “no effect,” but interpreting such results requires caution. A null finding, indicating an absence of impact from a nutrient or exposure, may not necessarily suggest a lack of effect overall. Instead, it could stem from issues related to the study’s design, the nature of the exposure, or participant characteristics.

We’ve often referred to such studies as being “null by design”.

These studies, often termed “null by design,” may yield inconclusive results due to insufficient contrast in exposure levels to reveal a significant effect size. Additionally, participants’ baseline nutrient status or intake can contribute to false negatives. For instance, if a study provides a nutrient to individuals already replete in that nutrient, it may lead to an erroneous conclusion. This phenomenon can be understood by considering the bell curve of activity for a nutrient.

Moreover, a lack of methodological rigor can generate ‘false negatives.’ If previous literature indicates associations between high intake of a specific food or nutrient and certain outcomes, a study comparing levels of intake well below that threshold may produce a misleading result.

Some challenges arise from an overly reductionist perspective. In disease processes, reductionism simplifies diseases to a single primary source at the cellular and molecular level. This perspective assumes that if a nutrient shows a relationship with health or disease outcomes at a population level, its biological activity should manifest in isolation. However, applying such assumptions to exposures like diet may not be tenable.

In this discussion, we delve into the concept of “null by design” and present three specific studies with null findings, emphasizing the need for careful interpretation.

Co-hosts for this Episode

Dr. Alan Flanagan has a PhD in nutrition from the University of Surrey, where his doctoral research focused on circadian rhythms, feeding, and chrononutrition.

This work was based on human intervention trials. He also has a Masters in Nutritional Medicine from the same institution.

Dr. Flanagan is a regular co-host of Sigma Nutrition Radio. He also produces written content for Sigma Nutrition, as part of his role as Research Communication Officer.

Danny Lennon has a master’s degree (MSc.) in Nutritional Sciences from University College Cork, and he is the founder of Sigma Nutrition.

Danny is currently a member of the Advisory Board of the Sports Nutrition Association, the global regulatory body responsible for the standardisation of best practice in the sports nutrition profession.

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