Lacking in Obesity: Qualitative or Quality Research?

With a new editorial published in Nutrition & Diabetes, Arnaldo Perez and Geoff Ball make an excellent point about a missed opportunity for qualitative research to “encourage more inclusive discussions about obesity as well as provide academic venues for publishing and disseminating research of greater epistemological breadth and relevance.” But perhaps without intending to do so, they are raising questions about quality research in obesity.

These questions come because it’s hard to miss the fact that observational studies play a large role in published obesity research. Like qualitative research, observational studies and the documentation of epidemiological associations are useful for developing ideas to test in more definitive research. The problem, as Casazza and Allison pointed out in 2012, is that many such ideas are never really tested in research with the power to prove or disprove anything. They simply get repeated enough to build a bias of familiarity.

Perez and Ball are correct in asserting that the perspectives of people living with obesity and those who care for them “have been under-represented in the field of obesity research where numbers from quantitative research often take precedence over meanings derived from qualitative inquiry.” Qualitative research can include a wide range of methods, such as focus groups and in-depth personal interviews.

But the problem goes deeper than they suggest because much of the quantitative research to which they refer is observational. It often relies on self-reported nutrition data that is known to be unreliable. It sometimes serves to reinforce a prevailing bias, rather than resolve questions or provide insight.

So yes, qualitative research holds potential to provide insights and reach beyond prevailing biases. But the quality of all obesity research must be held to a high standard — to resolve important questions and provide a more adequate evidence base for clinical and policy recommendation.

Click here to read the editorial by Perez and Ball.

Quality, photograph © Jason Taellious / flickr

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July 22, 2015