Is wine good for you? How about coffee? Will a standing desk improve your health? Is fat worse for your heart than sugar, or is it the other way around?

Research any one of those questions and you're likely to find some conflicting answers. Coffee, for example, has been linked to an increased risk of esophageal cancer, a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, better concentration, worse sleep, and both longer and shorter lifespans—and that’s just in the past few years. It’s enough to give a person mental whiplash or at the very least make you wonder which health headlines, if any, you can trust.

“Consumers are inundated with health news, more now than at any point in recent memory,” says Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical director at Consumer Reports. “It can be very difficult for people to sort through it all and figure out what to do to stay healthy.”

To be sure, there are fair explanations for at least some of these discrepancies. Science is a slow and incremental process: Changes in health advice can result from honest changes in thinking, as doctors and scientists learn more about a given issue over time. And at least some conflicting headlines—about the downsides of hormone-­replacement therapy, for example, or the value of annual mammograms—reflect legitimate disagreements among experts that have yet to be resolved.

But there are also cases where scientists themselves or the media outlets that report on their work add to the confusion, either by accident or intentionally. One 2014 BMJ study found that a significant percentage of health-related press releases from U.K. universities contained exaggerations.

Looking Beyond the Health Hype

Another study, published the same year in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that most health news articles do a poor job of assessing the scientific studies on which they are based. Reporters and editors, short on time and expertise (and eager for grabby headlines) tend to overstate conclusions and underexplain caveats—and, by extension, shine a spotlight on findings that simply don’t merit the attention. “We are drowning the public with a tsunami of information that isn’t ready for prime time,” says Gary Schwitzer of the website Health News Review. “People don’t know what to make of it.” 

To help you navigate the news, here's a list of questions to ask about any new health headline you encounter. 

Is the Research Trustworthy?

The best research tends to come from double-blind trials, where people are randomly assigned to either a placebo group or an experimental group. Neither the study subjects nor the researchers themselves know who is in which group until the study’s end, so there’s less chance for bias.

Observational studies, which compare large groups of people with each other, can be useful and help make associations—for example, between the use of artificial sweeteners and weight—but their findings may not hold up to further scrutiny. And usually the longer and larger a study is, the better.

Was It Published in a Respected Journal?

Research that's published in peer-­reviewed journals has been reviewed by experts and meets certain standards. But not all journals are peer-­reviewed, and all peer-reviewed journals aren’t equal, either.

Some of them, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, are more highly regarded than others. (For a ranking of the impact of different medical journals, go to this website and click on "Journal Rankings.")

Be aware that findings reported at scientific meetings are often preliminary and may change when the study is complete. And some of those findings are never published because of flaws in the research.

Who Paid for It?

Follow the money.

Some research suggests that funding by pharmaceutical and medical-device companies may have an effect on study results. For example, a 2017 Cochrane Collaboration review found that studies sponsored by a drug or device maker were more likely to be favorable to a sponsor’s product.

If an article doesn’t mention funding, check online. You can almost always get an abstract (a brief write-up) of a study free from journal websites and from pubmed.gov. And they often mention funding sources.

This shows a man reading a newspaper. Many newspapers report on new health studies.

Do the Conclusions Seem Overstated?

Be wary of breakthroughs. “Medical knowledge does not grow by leaps and bounds; it advances in very small steps,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser.

If a study is unique, wait until more research has replicated its results. For studies that add to a body of research, find out whether results agree with previous findings or raise new questions. Avoid being among the first to try a new medication or procedure.

Are the Findings Relevant to You?

Test-tube and animal studies may sound intriguing, but most of them have little to do with actual human health.

To a lesser extent, the same is true of studies involving people. The more that research subjects resemble you in gender, race, age, health, family history, genetics, and lifestyle habits, the more likely any findings will apply to you. If a study was done on very old, sedentary white men and you’re a highly active, middle-aged African-American woman, you may well be able to ignore the results.

What Does Your Doctor Think?

In the end, the best way to figure out whether a new finding is relevant to you is to discuss it with your physician. He or she is qualified to interpret the research in the context of your specific situation. A doctor who knows you and your health history can provide context and a reality check.