In Headlines Versus Study, Science Loses

Student with NewspaperEvery week from the Obesity and Energetics Offerings, we get sharp reminders. Headlines about nutrition and obesity science very often don’t stand up to a careful look at what the study behind the headlines actually found. This charade, though, has a serious downside. As two studies in the last week show, it perpetuates a fiction about obesity – that simple dietary strategies can fix it.

Nordic Diet for Babies Could Prevent Childhood Obesity?

The first of these bogus headlines tells us that starting babies on a Nordic diet “may hold the key to preventing childhood obesity.”

The reality of this study fell short of this, though. This was an RCT. But it was not a study of obesity. It was merely a study of different feeding patterns for babies from four to six months. The only outcomes it tracked were dietary markers. The babies on the Nordic diet ate more fruit, berries, vegetables, and roots.

Did they have less obesity? Nobody knows. The research didn’t even pretend to measure that. But the idea of putting babies on a “healthy” diet to prevent childhood obesity fits with the false but prevalent narrative that childhood obesity is simply a consequence of bad diets. So this headline adds to the bias of familiarity that favors that idea.

An Individualized Eating Program for Long-Term Weight Loss?

Personalized nutrition has a lot of appeal. It’s true enough that different people respond differently to different patterns for eating. So a press release declaring that an “individualized eating program helps dieters lose weight and keep it off” rings true. Even better, the press release comes from a credible source: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But sadly, this is just a study of 12 persons with no control group. It doesn’t even provide evidence that people lose any more weight due to this intervention than a control group would. On top of that, there’s nothing whatsoever in the study about keeping weight off. Honestly, this press release is an embarrassment for a reputable university.

But again, it taps into the narrative that obesity can be easy to overcome with a personalized diet plan. It lines up with the bias that this shouldn’t be hard.

Both Science and People Lose

The real loss is for science – and for people living with obesity. Science loses when headlines distort a perfectly valid study. People living with obesity lose out because they come to think there’s something wrong with them when dealing with their condition is not as easy as the popular narrative falsely suggests.

Click here to find the Nordic diet study on page 914 of this book of meeting abstracts and here for an example of the misleading press reports. For the press release on personalized diet plans, click here, and then here for the study itself.

Student with Newspaper, painting by Pablo Picasso / WikiArt

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


July 18, 2022