Monday, June 27, 2011

The deleterious impact of snacking on journalistic integrity


It's been a bad few weeks for obesity related press releases.

The first was that press release from CIHI, where its headline and first paragraph served here in Canada, to lead journalists to declare that all that's necessary to combat obesity are 15 minutes of exercise a day, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (and consequently anyone who's obese is lazy and eats Ding Dongs for supper).

Now there's this one.

It came from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and it was released in response to the cover story of this month's Obesity medical journal.

The press release was entitled, "New Study Highlights Perils of Snack-Filled Diet", and it made quite a splash, working its way through the Twitterverse, which in turn painted "snacking" as a dangerous behaviour for weight management.

Of course anyone who reads this blog will know that I'm a huge fan of snacking, and so I quickly clicked away at the links to see if maybe I'm wrong and that I should revamp my approach.

So what'd I find?

It had pretty much nothing to do with what I'd call, "snacking".

The article detailed the weight gain history of male Wistar rats, who for 15 weeks were fed one of 3 different diets: A high fat diet, a low fat diet, or a diet the researchers called the "cafeteria" diet, which in turn consisted of all you can eat chow, superimposed with, "3 human snack foods varied daily".

And guess what, rats who were offered unlimited amounts of human "snack" food 3x a day, ate a great deal more calories than their counterparts who were allowed to eat as much boring, unchanging, rat chow as they wanted.

Shocker, no? Rats given unlimited access to food almost certainly more palatable than that of their chow-eating counterparts, ate more.

But again I've got to come back to the question, what's a snack? After all, the press release has me worried that there are perils to my snack-filled diet.

For me a snack might be 25 almonds, or an apple along with an ounce of cheese, or some vegetables and hummus. I strive to have between 150 and 200 calories and a protein source each and every time I snack.

So is that what the rats were fed?

Nope.

Here's the list of foods to which the rats were given unlimited access:

Froot Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Little Debbies' Fudge Rounds, peanut butter cookies, Reese's Pieces, Hostess blueberry mini-muffins, Cheez-its, Nestle Crunch bars, nacho cheese Doritos, Keebler Townhouse Butter Crackers, Sugar Wafers, Kroger hot dogs, Kroger cheeses, Wedding Cakes, Frito-Lay Lays Wavy chips, Kroger BBQ pork rinds and Kroger pepperoni slices.

So ultimately what this study showed was that caged rats love junk food.

Is that news? How this got published as a cover story for the reputable journal Obesity, rather than simply a footnote in the Journal of Duh, is beyond me (though the authors report the physiologic changes in the junk food fed rats mimic human physiologic changes with metabolic syndrome) , but more importantly, the press release out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with last week's from CIHI, has me wondering about the journalistic ethics of press releases, and the responsibilities of institutional PR departments.

I know that it's all about the headlines, but snacking, while certainly open to debate as to its utility in weight management (in the vein of multiple small meals vs. three square ones) simply wasn't the subject of this journal article. And in this day and age, where multitudes of people get their information in 140 character sound bites, and at best gloss over full press releases, and rarely if ever click through to actual journal articles, headlines matter even more. Folks reading the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's headline will take from it that their plan of healthy between meal snacks is a bad one.

Makes me wonder whether or not the rise of Twitter actually puts a greater onus on PR departments to issue non-misleading headlines, even if a truthful one such as, "New Study Highlights the Perils of Unlimited Junk Food Diets", wouldn't garner as many hits.

Perhaps PR departments and journalists should stop snacking on headlines and press releases and instead, eat the whole article before fairly reporting.

Sampey, B., Vanhoose, A., Winfield, H., Freemerman, A., Muehlbauer, M., Fueger, P., Newgard, C., & Makowski, L. (2011). Cafeteria Diet Is a Robust Model of Human Metabolic Syndrome With Liver and Adipose Inflammation: Comparison to High-Fat Diet Obesity, 19 (6), 1109-1117 DOI: 10.1038/oby.2011.18

Bookmark and Share

3 comments:

  1. The studies with rats and mice regarding obesity need to stop anyway. A good part of our eating comes from culture, our world view, even our spirituality, our emotional well being and then there are those company that sell fruit loops. Obesity is complex and yet simple, but not much is to be found out through rodents. We hear so much about fat people and their habits, eating patterns, but there is more to the story. I would like to see some research studying people who in this culture keep a healthy weight and fit body (that are NOT health nuts or exercise instructors or vegans). What is it about a person who passes over the twinkie and grabs the apple and yet doesn't feel deprived? Too many studies on the obese of which we have very little to learn.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bravo Yoni! I have taught a course on research literacy for years to future health professionals, and have always told my students that the most important two words to bear in mind when reading research results are "be skeptical!" I've often felt that journal articles and their press releases should be published with these words as a warning banner plastered across the top! Clinical research is essential for providing us with an evidence base for what we do and promote; however, those who read and report on it in the media need to focus less on PR and more on real facts. "Snacking" on random bites of information from published research is just as unhealthy as the diets fed to those poor rats. Whole foods and whole stories are better for everyone!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Appears to be another instance where the headline is written to grab a reader, and doesn't relate to the actual article. It seems to me that headline writers scan copy for keywords, then give what they think the editors want.

    ReplyDelete