Obesity Pop Science — Not So Much Science

Obesity pop science reporting sometimes does more to reinforce popular bias than to translate new scientific findings into a better understanding of obesity. When you add the glittering distraction of a gee-whiz technology like functional MRI scans to a story about new obesity research, health reporters seem to have difficulty staying focused.

A case in point is a new study of the effect of a food’s glycemic index on cravings and reward responses just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The headline from MSN News on this study reads: “Food Addiction: Those French Fries Really May be Addicting.” But french fries played no part in the study.

The study used functional MRI scans to assess brain activity in regions of the brain associated with cravings and rewards after low and high glycemic index meals. The investigators found the high glycemic index meal caused low blood sugar, increased hunger, and stimulation of parts of the brain associated with cravings after the meal.

“Everyone knows that french fries are addictive, and here’s the proof” seems to be the logic of the misleading headline that resulted.

Functional MRI scanning is the kind of cool technology that misleads superficial readers into thinking the technology can explain everything. In situations like the reporting on this study, it certainly seems to have the power to interfere with critical thinking. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld explore this phenomenon in their compelling new book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.

Sloppy scientific reporting is unfortunate, because we need good scientific reporting to lift the popular understanding of obesity above prevailing bias. Reliance upon bias, rather than evidence, is what’s crippling our response to the urgent health issue of obesity.

Click here to read the study of glycemic index and cravings, click here to see the sloppy reporting from MSN News, click here to read more about mindless neuroscience from David Brooks, and click here for more information about the book, Brainwashed, by Satel and Lilienfeld from Amazon.

French Fries Delicious, photograph © Daniela Hartmann / flickr

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