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last updated March 3, 2021

Nonsense nutrition headlines

by Rob Arthur

Nothing gets under my skin quite like headlines, especially those that serve as nothing more than emotion-eliciting click-bait.

You’ve probably already seen how this happens in the world of politics.

Two news outlets can report on the same event yet come to wildly different conclusions.

Two reporters can take the same statement yet put out completely different quotes.

You probably already know that headlines and articles such as these are often written with an agenda.

Did you know that the same problem plagues nutrition headlines?

All those headlines telling you about breaking research that such-and-such is a super-food, such-and-such is going to kill you, or that we were wrong about such-and-such are usually written an agenda, too.

Maybe the headline is phrased just to get clicks.

Maybe the author is trying to make a name by saying something controversial.

Maybe the outlet is being encouraged to push an agenda by one of their larger advertisers.

Regardless the reason, we need to be vigilant when it comes to nutrition headlines.

Often, it’s not your best interest they have in mind.

In this post, we’re going to explore an article from May 2018 that demonstrates how headlines misrepresent studies, and how studies’ authors misrepresent data.

Here’s the headline of the article:

Study: Pasta isn’t bad for you after all

Before we proceed, I want to be crystal clear that I’m not here to pick on pasta.

I’ve written before that I’m not a fan of grain-based foods for a variety of reasons, but that’s not the focus of this article (you can read about that here, if you want).

The focus of this article is to walk you through an example of how we get headlines and articles that don’t reflect the research about which they’re written.

One of the first things I do when I see a headline like this is I look for a link to the study itself.

Often, these articles provide a direct link to the study about which they’re written, or at least the name(s) of the researcher(s) and the journal in which the study was published.

Fortunately, this article provided a direct link the study embedded within its text.

So, let’s see how this headline holds up.

The primary statement of the headline reads, “pasta isn’t bad for you after all”.

Such a headline suggests that researchers compared diets without pasta to diets with pasta and concluded that the diet with pasta resulted in no negative health outcomes compared to the diet without pasta.

The researchers concluded, however, “Pasta in the context of low-GI dietary patterns does not adversely affect adiposity and even reduces body weight and BMI compared with higher-GI dietary patterns.”

Phrased a bit differently, the researchers concluded that low-glycemic index dietary patterns, even they include pasta, result in about a pound lower body weight and a quarter point lower BMI than high-glycemic index dietary patterns.

In case you can’t tell how to conclusion of the study differs from the headline, let’s explore the study in a bit more detail.

The researchers originally intended to analyze data from existing studies “to quantify the effect of pasta alone and pasta in the context of low-GI dietary patterns on body weight and other markers of adiposity.”

The researchers, however, “failed to identify any trial comparisons for the effect of pasta alone but did identify 32 trial comparisons for the effect of pasta in the context of low-GI dietary patterns”.

They weren’t able to locate any data specifically for pasta, but were able to locate data from studies of glycemic index in which pasta was included, so they decided to pivot a bit and proceed with what they had.

Using this data, the researchers found that “pasta in the context of low-GI dietary patterns did not contribute to weight gain, resulting in a significant weight loss of −0.63 kg when compared with diets higher in GI over a median follow-up of 12 weeks.”

That is, the researchers found that low-glycemic index dietary patterns, even they included pasta, resulted in about a pound lower body weight and a quarter point lower BMI than high-glycemic index dietary patterns.

Here’s one of my first qualms with this headline.

When it comes to assessing whether any food or eating habit has a positive or negative effect on our health, there’s far more to assess than weight or BMI.

Yes, body weight and adiposity are associated with many health outcomes, but the researchers didn’t look at any other health metrics like inflammation, blood lipids, blood glucose levels, or intestinal permeability.

Now, I suspect these metrics would have tracked favorably along with weight and BMI, as the “low GI dietary patterns” would likely be higher in fiber and protein and lower highly processed starches, suggesting overall higher dietary quality.

This brings me to my next issue, not only with the headline but with the stated conclusion of the study.

We’re actually looking at a study of dietary patterns with different glycemic indices – not a study of pasta.

We aren’t really learning anything about the effects pasta on our health.

The researchers themselves acknowledge such studies don’t even exist, stating “we are not aware of any RCTs directly assessing the effect of pasta intake on any health parameters including body weight.“

So, wait.

Are we actually learning anything at all?

Didn’t we already know that dietary patterns with of lower glycemic index would be favorable to dietary patterns with higher glycemic index when it comes to weight management?

Yes, we did, and the researchers acknowledge this, too.

They go on to elaborate that “our findings, however, agree with earlier systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs of the effect of low-GI dietary patterns irrespective of pasta intake on body weight and adiposity.”

So, if the researchers acknowledge that their study doesn’t tell us anything about pasta, and doesn’t tell us anything new, why go out of their way to say something positive about pasta?

This may be the conspiracy theorist in me coming out, but I will say that this study includes one hell of a “competing interests” section.

Seriously, you should check it out for yourself.

Most notably, you’ll find that the researchers received funding from Barilla.

Yes, the Barilla that makes pasta.

You’ll also find that the researchers have ties to plenty of other major players in the food industry like Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (AAFC), Loblaw Brands Ltd, Quaker (PepsiCo), Kellogg Canada, General Mills, Unilever, and the Coca-Cola Companies.

Oh, and let’s not overlook the fact that one of the researchers is co-chair of The International Carbohydrate Quality Consortium (ICQC), whose “activities focus primarily on carbohydrate nutrition and health promotion.”

To the researchers’ credit, it doesn’t appear that these companies were directly involved in the funding of this particular study.

They’ve also acknowledged within their own paper some of the criticisms that I’ve pointed out above.

However, I find it naïve to think that the researchers’ ties to the food industry – particularly Barilla – have nothing to do with their efforts to include a positive statement about pasta in their conclusion, even when stating later in their paper that they didn’t find out anything about pasta specifically at all.

I plan to explore plenty more misleading news headlines and studies moving forward, but for now you might want to start taking news headlines about nutrition with a grain – or even a few shakes – of salt.

Come to think of it, you might want to do this with all news headlines you read.

Don’t take things at face value.

Do your research.

Until next time!


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