Conducting research into what we eat can be complex, challenging and laborious for many. It takes a lot of skill to conduct, analyse and interpret nutrition research efficiently and effectively including or writing up a research paper - which can be a great way to deepen your understanding of your chosen field. But for students, postgrads and early career researchers, this can seem like a daunting task. That’s why we’ve asked our Founder, Professor Janet Cade head of the Nutritional Epidemiology Group at The University of Leeds to provide us with some of her top research tips. So if you’re a final year student about to write a dissertation or a PhD student looking for some motivation, read Prof Cade’s top tips below.
A quick reminder, a good starting point when conducting any research is to outline your research process - a set framework that a researcher should follow to conduct high quality research. There are 5 main steps involved:
- Identifying the research problem: The initial step when conducting research. What is the problem you want to identify or study? Do you need an review?
- Reviewing literature: Be sure to read around the research topic, are there any systematic reviews you can reference? Use peer reviewed literature as opposed to web pages.
- Setting aims & objectives: This will help you establish a direction and give you focus for your research. (Remember: an Aim is the result that your plans or actions are intended to achieve and Objectives are a list of things that you planto do during the study.)
- Collecting data: The systematic process of gathering observations or measurements, this can be qualitative or quantitative. This is often the most challenging and time consuming phase. For collecting data online, you may want to consider using online questionnaire tools such as Online Surveys and Survey Monkey. For diet and nutrient intake data, digital assessment tools like can help to save you time. (As a reminder, qualitative data is the measurement and analysis of observations that can’t be quantified for example non-numeric information like interview transcripts, open-ended survey questions and images. Whereas quantitative data is the measurement and analysis of observations in a systematic and numerical way, for example things that can be counted or measured and assigned a numerical value.)
- Processing & analysing data: Translating the data into valuable and useful information that answers the research question. Sounds simple – usually difficult!
Here are Prof Cade’s 10 top tips for nutrition research!
Tip #1 - “All research should bring something new and cutting edge, decide what is the ‘wow factor’ of your project.”
When deciding on a research topic, it is important to find an area that will interest people. What hasn’t been done before? What’s relevant today? It’s essential to make the research original where no one has done the research before, that way you can make a practical and academic contribution to the evidence base. Think outside the box.
Tip #2 - “Make sure the aims and objectives are crystal clear – if you don’t know what you are aiming to do you won’t achieve it.”
Being able to think critically and analytically is crucial for good research. It’s important to define your aims and objectives before starting to understand how they can be achieved. This will give you a good framework and better focus at all stages of the research process. Simpler is often better, don’t try to do too much all at once. Answer one or two key research questions at a time.
Tip #3 – “Always speak to a statistician BEFORE you start, to make sure your assumptions, sample size and planned analysis all match up and are appropriate.”
Your University will have a statistician you can ask for help. Speaking to a statistician before you start can help ensure all your assumptions, sample size and planned analysis is sufficient. Otherwise, consult someone who is appropriately qualified e.g. https://rss.org.uk/membership/consultants-directory/.
Tip #4 - “Allow enough time for data collection, this is the part which can take the longest. Build in allowance for non-response and drop out. You might think that your project is amazing but getting people to take part is really challenging.”
Data collection allows you to gather first hand insights and knowledge of your research problem. This part can take the longest, sometimes months, so allocate enough time for this. Be prepared for participation drop outs and mention any problems in the limitations section where needed.
Tip #5 - “Use validated tools and questions to collect data, don’t just make up a few questions yourself – do your homework, is anything which has been used before going to be helpful?”
It’s always best practice to use validated tools and questionnaires in your research. Have a look at similar research projects and check out the questionnaires and tools they use. For dietary analysis, check out which can instantly calculate the corresponding nutritional content for each food and drink item for the food diary that was completed by the participant. For food and nutrient intakes, have a look on the Nutritools website where you can find best practice guidelines for dietary assessment.
Tip #6 – “Put your findings into context using external criteria.”
Whilst there is some debate about the Bradford Hill criteria of causality, they form a useful set of 9 topics to consider your results against. In particular, what is the strength of association you have found, could it be affected by confounding factors? You could draw a directed acyclic graph (DAG) to put all potential factors into the picture. Are your results plausible, think of any mediators, effect modifiers or possible interactions. Is there a mechanistic, biological explanation? What have others found?
Tip #7 - “Please think about what you are doing and reflect, can you improve? Think about your results, what do they mean, why have you got these findings, do they make sense?”
When conducting research, it can be helpful to reflect on the process. As you dive into research, you find more and more information, papers and more insights to your research question – all of which can be overwhelming. Reflecting can allow you to step back, rethink and help you be more critical in your write up, and chose what is relevant.
Tip #8 - “Your research should tell a story, what are the key ‘take home’ messages you want people to remember?”
What do you want people to remember after reading your research paper? A common activity to do before your write up is to note at the start of the paper what you want people to know and remember. Be blunt, and refer back to the note after every stage of the research process. Again, this technique allows you to refocus.
Tip #9 - “An important bit of advice, is to write something that you’re passionate about.”
This will make your whole research experience a lot easier as you are more interested in the area. Each particular bit of research will be different in some way, for example due to environmental factors, time or setting. However, all research is done to achieve a better understanding of the problem.
Tip #10 - “Make sure you write up and publish your findings, if you don’t no one will know what you did and the effort of all participants is wasted. In addition to writing up for publication in an academic journal, make sure you look for other ways to get the message out, for example, writing for the Conversation or using your media/press office to do a press release.”
Get the word out! Publish your paper. Add your research to the body of knowledge that’s already out there. Your findings may help or improve existing policies or advise professionals. Publications will also advance you in your career and get your name recognised.
With all the tips in mind, we hope we can make the research process as smooth as possible. Think on the positives on your research.
As mentioned above, our validated dietary analysis software myfood24 is quick and easy-to-use if you are measuring food and nutrient intakes. Key features of myfood24 include:
- Users self-complete on a smartphone, tablet or computer – an offline version is also available
- Simple and easy-to-use interface, users complete diaries in minutes!
- Smart prompts and portion images support accurate recalls and ease of completion
- Underpinned by a unique and robust food and nutrient database – choose from over 100,000 food and drink products
- Instant nutrient analysis on 117 nutrients – no coding required!
- Evidence-based design and methodology
- Validated against nutrient biomarkers by the University of Leeds
The myfood24 dietary analysis software is available in 7 different languages with 11 international food and nutrient databases that may be useful for your research. Find out about our international nutritional solutions.