Mark Twain

The Biggest Whoppers of 2018 in Health and Obesity

As we’ve noted, 2018 was a year of toxic misinformation. Scholars from the Rand Corporation warned us about Truth Decay, because misinformation is creeping into every corner of our lives. So let’s take a minute to review some of the biggest whoppers of 2018. One by one, maybe they seemed trivial. But add them all up and we see some disturbing themes.

1. A Big Year for Retractions

To be sure, 2018 was a year for a surprising number of retractions. For years, Brian Wansink shaped the thinking of many people with his novel and newsworthy studies about eating behavior – and the potential for nudges to be an important tool for change. However, his research became tangled in an investigation that ended with a stunning number of retractions – 15. JAMA retracted six of his papers in a single day.

While the Wansink retractions shook us by their numbers, retracting the landmark PREDIMED study from the New England Journal of Medicine had a similar effect, all at once. This was huge because – until its retraction – nutrition scientists viewed this study of the Mediterranean diet as one of the most important nutrition studies in recent memory.

Retractions are not necessarily bad. They can be a sign of vibrant critical thinking. But these and other retractions in 2018 certainly added up to a lot of corrections for the scientific record.

2. Null Results Served Up with a Spin

It’s a problem we saw over and over again in 2018. A study of an obesity intervention, which should have worked, comes back with a null result. It’s hard to believe. So sometimes, investigators try to put a positive spin on the findings.

We wrote about many examples of this in 2018. But one of the most vivid came with a study of the SHCP obesity prevention initiative. When seven experts from five different centers first pointed out fatal flaws in that study, authors of the study dismissed the concerns. Then, following another objection to the flawed analysis, the authors finally issued a partial correction.

3. Sugar & Carb Fibs

Sugar and carbs are on everyone’s mind it seems. We want to cut, tax, label, and do whatever it takes to drive them out of our diet. So for April Fool’s day we came up with a whopper of our own about labeling the added sugar in breast milk. To our surprise, it came very close to being our most widely-read post of the year.

The startling thing about this is that quite a few people didn’t get the joke. They thought the headline was real. No wonder. Extreme arguments and headlines about sugar and carbs no longer seem unusual.

4. Miracle Diets: Keto & Fasting

The hot miracle diets of the year were ketogenic (or just “keto”) diets and intermittent fasting. But the intermittent fasting hype that BMJ helped Jason Fung peddle wins the prize. He told Healthline that his case study of three patients “changes everything” about how to treat type 2 diabetes.

5. Surgery Will Ruin Your Life

Misinformation about bariatric surgery is just plain infuriating. A recent study showed that nearly half of adults view it as “an easy way out” for someone with obesity. As if suffering with a chronic condition is a virtue.

Worst of all, HAES activists and even some health professionals spread misinformation about bariatric surgery. Health professionals should know better. Misinformation is pernicious and it hurts people. It denies them good information for making important decisions about their own health.

6. Obesity Is a Bad Habit

The American Heart Association and even a few folks at Harvard persist in describing obesity as a habit or an unhealthy behavior. That’s simply false. BMI is a physical characteristic. Obesity is a chronic disease. This is the easy part of the pathway to understanding obesity. Time for them to get with it.

7. Pretenses of Caring About Childhood Obesity

Many people profess a deep concern about childhood obesity. However, their concern is often limited to preventing it. They can talk all day long in serious tones about “the issue” of childhood obesity. But the fact is that most of the five million children with severe obesity cannot get adequate care. So all that talk of concern seems like a lot of hypocrisy. Or more simply, a whopper.

8. More of Same Will Overcome Obesity

Three years ago, we were hearing from folks like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that “we’ve turned the corner on this obesity epidemic.” Now, in the latest State of Obesity report, they are facing up to the truth. This problem is growing relentlessly worse, despite best efforts to reverse it.

But in the pages that follow, they assert that more of the same old programs will work if we pour more resources into them. Forgive us, but at best, this is wishful thinking. It’s time to get curious about finding better strategies that will really work.

9. Employer Wellness Programs

At long last, it’s becoming evident to all that corporate wellness programs have been sold with false promises. It turns out that most of them are little more than overgrown placebos.

10. Academic Grievance Studies

An elaborate hoax cast a harsh light on something called academic grievance studies. The hoaxers fabricated absurdly bogus studies that appealed to the dogma prevalent in some arcane academic fields. Peer reviewed journals in those fields readily published the bogus papers because they supported a popular grievance.

The folks who perpetrated the hoaxes made a point, but they opened themselves up to a critique of their own ethics and the “fundamental meanness” of their tactics.

All in all, we certainly had a bumper crop of misinformation in the past year. Perhaps better days lie ahead.

Mark Twain in Oxford academic dress, public domain photograph from Wikimedia Commons

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


December 21, 2018

12 Responses to “The Biggest Whoppers of 2018 in Health and Obesity”

  1. December 21, 2018 at 7:59 am, Al Lewis said:

    Fantastic column. One “correction” would be that employee wellness programs claiming weight loss is a whopper every year, not just 2018.

    Another whopper: that employers can help employee “Reverse” diabetes.

    • December 21, 2018 at 8:22 am, Ted said:

      You’re right, Al, and you know this space better than I. What seems remarkable to me this year is that the lies about workplace wellness seem to be catching up with some of the perps.

  2. December 21, 2018 at 9:27 am, bob merberg said:

    Spot-on list, Ted. It just so happens that Dr. Wansink’s foibles appeared also in the #1 spot on my Top 10 (Employee Wellness stories).

    Regarding your response to Al, above: “The lies about workplace wellness seem to be catching up with some of the perps”: I think they are catching up only minimally. What we hear about in social media, in the mass media, and at conferences is not reflective of what’s happening at workplaces, where outcomes-based “incentives” and penalties are still the norm.

    • December 21, 2018 at 12:47 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for the perspective, Bob! Here’s hoping for more progress in 2019.

  3. December 21, 2018 at 10:40 am, Allen Browne said:

    Great post. Hopefully 2019 will be better.


  4. December 21, 2018 at 12:45 pm, pankaj said:

    Should not be there a pointer/link describing why these are whoppers? A contradiction also should have some research information, right?

    • December 21, 2018 at 12:54 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for the suggestion, pankaj. In each of the items in the list above, you’ll find at least one and as many as three links for more background. But if you have further questions, feel free to reach out to me.

  5. December 21, 2018 at 2:54 pm, Adam Gilden Tsai said:

    Ted, thank you so very much for doing this blog and summarizing the year so well. You have benefited so many people who work in the world of obesity in keeping us up to date on important developments.

    • December 21, 2018 at 4:12 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Adam! Your feedback means a lot.

  6. December 21, 2018 at 6:41 pm, Jennie Brand-Miller said:

    Hear, hear Ted! Thank you for being you. Cheers Jennie

    • December 22, 2018 at 8:49 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for your encouragement, good words, and above all, good work, Jennie!

  7. December 28, 2018 at 4:05 pm, Walter Lindstrom said:

    Spot on once again, Ted! This has been a great year for ConscienHealth – thoughtful and timely missives which keep us all well-informed. Looking forward to more of the same in 2019! Cheers and Happy New Year!