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Dean Pomerleau

Humorous Debunking of Mainstream Media Reports of Health Research

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All,

 

I'm often critical in my posts about how badly the popular media butchers studies of diet, health and nutrition - and it often only becomes apparent how badly the media distorts and exaggerates research when you read the actual text of the study with a critical eye. For example, the bogus data low-fat gurus use to criticize olive oil. Even Dr. Greger, whose perspective and analysis I'm generally very impressed with, is guilty of spinning the evidence (also discussed here) in favor of a plant-based diet on occasion. 

 

That's why I was pleased and amused to see this new segment from late-night talk show host John Oliver in which he humorously tears to shreds the typical coverage we see of diet/nutrition/health studies in the mainstream media. It's a rather long segment (20min) embedded below, but I highly recommend it. If you're just in it for the laughs, I suggest jumping ahead to 15:45 (here is a direct link to that spot), featuring "TODD Talks - where the format of TED Talks meets the intellectual rigor of morning news shows".  It is extremely amusing, while effectively driving home the point that you should believe very little of what you hear about "new research" on TV or via online news sources (except this one of course).

 

--Dean

 

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Over on this thread, Sthira points out that nutrition science is "muddled". Unfortunately, that is putting it charitably. Far too many nutrition studies are consciously or unconsciously biased by industry sponsorship of research, and the media is more than happy to report on it, often irresponsibly - as John Oliver points out (humorously) above.

 

In fact, there is an unholy triumvirate of the food industry, researchers, media who each have a vested interest in promulgating bogus research results about nutrition. The food industry sponsors targeted research to make their unhealthy products look good. Funding-starved researchers are often all-too-willing to accept the funding in return for spinning the research in the industry's favor. And the media, who want eyeballs and are also sponsored by the food industry, are all-too-happy to print stories people want to click on and read, by telling them good things about their bad eating habits.

 

This came to the fore just recently with this study [1] reported in the media to show "candy makes kids thin", which has received a lot of (well-deserved) backlash. The AP investigation into the cozy relationship between the researchers of [1] and the candy industry, as well as Kellogg's, the juice industry and the meat industry, are really pretty shocking. Through some kind of freedom of information act inquiry, the AP got hold of emails between the researchers and the companies, and they are pretty damning. Here is an example:

 

"We're hoping they can do something with it — it's thin and clearly padded," a nutrition professor wrote to one of her co-authors [on another candy paper] in 2011, with an abstract for the paper attached.

 

The "they" referred to is presumably the candy industry organization that sponsored the research, to whom they were sending the paper for "comment" prior to publication, as illustrated by this email exchange between researchers:

 

"I have finally waded through the comments from NCA [National Confectioners Association]. Attached is my attempt to edit based on their feedback," he wrote about a similar paper on candy and adults.

 

Regarding money, here is more on the funding trail:

 

A Baylor College of Medicine representative, Lori Williams, said the school did not receive payment from the candy association or Nutrition Impact for the paper co-authored by Nicklas.
 
In 2011, Nicklas sent Nutrition Impact an invoice for $11,500 for three manuscripts, including $2,500 for "candy." After being provided a copy of the invoice by the AP, Williams said the school began a review "surrounding funding and disclosures on this research."
 

It's well worth reading the article for all the sordid details. It will be interesting to see the fallout.

 

In short, the state of knowledge we have about human nutrition is muddled in part because it is indeed a complicated topic - the human body is pretty flexible and robust when it comes to what it can use effectively for fuel.

 

But a large part of the apparent confusion about nutrition is likely due to intentional obfuscation resulting from the unfortunately positive (or negative - depending on how you look at it) feedback loop between industry, researchers and the media.

 

--Dean

 

 

------------

[1] J Hum Nutr Diet. 2015 Feb;28 Suppl 2:59-69. doi: 10.1111/jhn.12200. Epub 2013 Dec

30.

Candy consumption in childhood is not predictive of weight, adiposity measures or
cardiovascular risk factors in young adults: the Bogalusa Heart Study.

O'Neil CE(1), Nicklas TA, Liu Y, Berenson GS.

Author information:
(1)Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Baton Rouge, LA, USA.

BACKGROUND: There are limited data available on the longitudinal relationship
between candy consumption by children on weight and other cardiovascular risk
factors (CVRF) in young adults. The present study investigated whether candy
consumption in children was predictive of weight and CVRF in young adults.
METHODS: A longitudinal sample of children 10 years (n = 355; 61% females; 71%
European-Americans, 29% African-Americans) who participated in cross-sectional
surveys from 1973 to 1984 (baseline) and in one of two surveys (follow-ups) as
young adults [19-38 years; mean (SD) = 23.6 (2.6) years] in Bogalusa, LA, were
studied. Dietary data were collected using 24-h dietary recalls at baseline and
at one follow-up survey; a food frequency questionnaire was used in the other
follow-up survey. Candy consumers were those consuming any amount of candy. Candy
consumption was calculated (g day(-1) ) from baseline 24-h dietary recalls, and
was used as a covariate in the adjusted linear mixed models. Dependent variables
included body mass index (BMI) and CVRF measured in young adults.
RESULTS: At baseline, 92% of children reported consuming candy [46 (45) g
day(-1)]; the percentage decreased to 67% [20 (30) g day(-1)] at follow-up. No
longitudinal relationship was shown between baseline candy consumption and BMI or
CVRF in young adults, suggesting that candy consumption was not predictive of
health risks later in life.
CONCLUSIONS: The consumption of nutrient rich foods consistent with dietary
recommendations is important, although modest amounts of candy can be added to
the diet without potential adverse long-term consequences to weight or CVRF.
Additional studies are needed to confirm these results.

© 2013 The British Dietetic Association Ltd.

PMCID: PMC4427247
PMID: 24382141 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

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Discussions of Really Shoddy Heath or Nutrition Studies and/or Their Popular Media Coverage

 

All,

 

There are so many discussions of shoddy health/nutrition research or shoddy popular press coverage of nutrition studies sprinkled all over these forums, I figured it would be good to start collecting links to them in one place, for future reference. So I'm starting a list in this post, and will update it when I come across new, really bad studies, or bad reporting about nutrition research. 

 

To kick things off, here is a post about a really bad popular press story alleging that diet soda (particularly aspartame-sweetened soda) may actually cause type 2 diabetes. The artificial sweetener study that the writer used to support her claim says nothing of the sort...

 

 I know we'd talked about many shoddy studies and/or shoddy popular press nutrition stories over the years. If you come across others either that we've discussed before on these forums or new studies we haven't discussed, please post about them below or private message me, and I'll update the list!

 

--Dean

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