Sunday, November 20, 2005

Irresponsible diet hype is being offered by the media

Don’t trust popular media for health information
The lay press lacks nuance and perspective in reporting on medicine and health, with the result that the consumer gets served an endless series of hyped up sound bites. These sound bites are often superficially contradictory, leading readers to wonder if medical science can make up its mind about much of anything. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the popular coverage of diet trends.

The latest offering is this shocking headline: “Low-Carb Diet: An Alarming, New Danger.” Then, in bold type, the first sentence of the article reads “Low-carbohydrate diets may lead to dramatic weight loss, but dieters pay a big price for their thinner waistlines.” The article goes on to say that the diets lead to reduced myocardial energy storage and impaired cardiac relaxation. This is based on an Oxford University study that was apparently presented at the American Heart Association last week.

In attempting to dig deeper I was unable to find quality reporting on the study. The AHA will have some of the meeting presentations posted on the web later this month. I did find this from the British Heart Foundation, which sponsored the study. Their web page says that myocardial energy storage was measured by magnetic resonance spectroscopy. There were no clinical endpoints studied.

What’s irresponsible about the reporting is this study is far too preliminary and too low-level to warrant prime time. Specifically, the study period was all of two weeks, and the study population consisted of 19 subjects (the investigators themselves along with some of their friends and family!). Not exactly high level evidence. It’s hypothesis generating at best.

Next I did a Google news search and got this. Sure enough, the usual parade of contradictory sound bites appeared. The first few hits tell me low carb is bad (it reduces energy stores in the heart)---but, the next few headlines say it’s good for the heart (it helps improve the metabolic syndrome). So what’s the deal? Is low carb good for us? Yes and no, if you follow the popular press. Good last week, deadly today. What will it be tomorrow?

All this, of course, is rubbish. Science doesn’t move like the daily news. Its progress is gradual, with each new set of observations integrated cautiously with what was known before. There are no pat answers about low carb diets. They are probably good for some patients and bad for others. Basic research paints an enormously complex picture and suggests that it depends on one’s genetic makeup and associated risk factors.

If I were not such a passionate believer in open sharing and expression of ideas I’d be calling for a media ban at scientific sessions. I guess we shouldn’t blame them for being faithful to the interests of their stockholders. After all, hype sells.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. One reason they lack nuance is that the media often have to convey complex scientific data (such as you mentioned) to a non-scientific audience - the detail is bound to get lost.

Another problem is that of 'equal weighting'. In order that they be seen to be presenting a balanced argument or story, the media give equal weighting and equal time to proponents from both sides of the argument, when in reality the vast weight of evidence or informed opinion on a subject may well lie on one side or the other, with the evidence being far from equivocal. Such was the case with the MMR media debate over here in the UK.

Thirdly, controversy sells and most media outlets have an obligation not to the truth but to their shareholders to maxmise profits.

Will,
Medical Student
London UK

"The beauty is in the detail!"

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