An exciting new study came out at the end of August this year in the Lancet Journal. It was the 3rd part in a series on Obesity. What makes this particular study intriguing is how the media has shaped some of its results into “sexy” headlines and is a wonderful illustration of how we, as consumers, can get ROYALLY confused by that type of stuff.
We will be spending the next few weeks sharing different highlights on this topic as there are so many great things to discuss on this article and the media influence from it.
The title of the actual study is: Quantification of the effect of energy imbalance on bodyweight. It was written by Hall et al. (et al. means that he wrote it with a bunch of other people and I don’t have the space to write it all down) and was published in the Lancet Journal on August 27th, 2011. As you can tell, the title is quite catchy all on its own, right? No, not really, I’m being sarcastic. And this is true for most research articles. The titles are over the layperson’s head and the journalists charged with reporting on these studies are forced to get “creative” all on their own. Here is where the misinterpretations begin.
To illustrate my point I will dissect the New York Times’ (NYT) take on this study with its interpretive title:Why Even Resolute Dieters Often Fail.
The writer starts off great with, “If you’ve been trying for years to lose unwanted pounds and keep them off, unrealistic goals may be the reason you’ve failed.” I full-heartedly agree. Unrealistic expectations are usually the culprit behind many intense negative emotional reactions such as feelings of failure & disappointment.
Then the bomb hits, “It turns out that a long-used rule of weight loss — reduce 3,500 calories (or burn an extra 3,500) to lose one pound of body fat — is incorrect and can ultimately doom determined dieters.” This has also been seen in other headlines such as, “When 3,500 calories do not equal a pound: new study.”
Here is the scoop on this: Many medical professionals have known this for YEARS. It is NOT a secret. Technically, yes, 3500 calories does equal 1 pound. Does this fact tell us everything about how to calculate out weight loss calories? No. Human metabolism is very complex and several factors play on how our body functions. This is why there has been more research focused on how hormones, sleep and stress influence hunger levels.
Unfortunately, this particular study did not assess those important factors and therefore, did not include them into the development of their simulation model that they tout will predict a more accurate view of weight loss and gain over time. We will talk more about that later though.
Now think back to the New York Times article titled: Why Even Resolute Dieters Often Fail, and consider how many people (even teenagers and kids) may have read this title or one similar. How do you think they will interpret this study based on that title alone?
Do you think they will infer that this is an article written for everyone or only overweight or obese individuals (which was the only population of people whom the researchers collected data on)? Nope, probably not. I personally hope that they get a sense that dieting is not a “cool” thing to do and it is not a healthy mind-frame.
When you see these types of articles, BE SKEPTICAL of what you are reading. Discernment is okay. Ask your dietitian about the validity of the articles you read, especially the ones that really speak to you. Sometimes the message hits close to home ONLY because the journalist knows how to attract his/her target audience, NOT because he or she is representing the information correctly.
The NYT article over dramatized much of the actual study and stated a couple of things that were never mentioned. For example the author writes, “Their work, spelled out in a new study published in The Lancet, explains how body weight can slowly rise even when people have not changed their eating and exercise habits.”
The study actually states (from the study itself), “In other words, weight loss continues for many months at the same time that the average energy intake is slowly increasing. The dieter might then incorrectly infer that adherence is not essential for continuing weight loss when, in fact, impending weight regain has already been set in motion. The slow timescale for weight change is responsible for the gradual weight regain over many years despite the fact that the original lifestyle was resumed within the first year.”
What are your first impressions? Feeling a little dooped by the mis-information? The journalist tells us that this reputable study in a really prestigious journal says that no matter what we do, we will gain weight. I’d feel hopeless and kind of depressed.
Emotionally and logically speaking here, I feel like the journalist did an injustice and falsely represented the study and this valuable message to its readership. And guess what, THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME!!!!!!!!!!!
And not just in online newspaper articles but also on television, books, the radio, and from our friends and family.
When it comes to weight management seek out the help of a Registered Dietitian, not just your medical doctor or naturopathic doctor or personal trainer.
If you needed a heart transplant, would you go see a Gastroenterologist? Probably not. RD’s are trained specifically to use all the multi-faceted parts of your lifestyle to help you realize those weight and health goals. We have the skills, the know-how, and the TIME, to invest in you and your well-being.
Registered Dietitians work with your doctors and other health care providers to consolidate the information you receive and help you to interpret and apply that information to your real life situation.