“Survival of the wrongest”
That was the title of an article that appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year (January 2013, see link below). It was written by David H. Freedman, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a consulting editor at Johns Hopkins Medicine International and at the McGill University Desautels Faculty of Management.
He begins by citing a well-written, well-research 6,000-word article by Taylor Parker-Pope that was published in the New York Times in late 2011. After acknowledging the excellence of the article in a multitude of ways, he adds the following paragraph:
There’s really just one problem with Parker-Pope’s piece: Many, if not most, researchers and experts who work closely with the overweight and obese would pronounce its main thesis—that sustaining weight loss is nearly impossible—dead wrong, and misleading in a way that could seriously, if indirectly, damage the health of millions of people.
In her article (See link below), Parker-Pope had laid out the scientific evidence that maintaining weight loss is a nearly impossible task—something that hardly anyone can accomplish. Freedman elaborates:
The article is crammed with detailed scientific evidence and quotes from highly credentialed researchers. It’s also a compelling read, thanks to anecdotal accounts of the endless travails of would-be weight-losers, including Parker-Pope’s own frustrating failures to remove and keep off the extra 60 pounds or so she says she carries.
In short, it’s a well-reported, well-written, highly readable, and convincing piece of personal-health-science journalism that is careful to pin its claims to published research.
Aha, notice the highlighted phrase above about Parker-Pope’s problems with her own weight. I just read her entire article and totally understand why she came to the conclusions that she did.
She’s been a victim of the same weight-loss hoax that I have written about in our book and numerous times on this blog. Diets to lose weight do not work. The weight comes back over 95% of the time, yet Americans continue to spend some $50 billion a year on a process that hardly ever works.
Why is that? It’s because we continue to glamorize the process in prime-time shows like The Biggest Loser. And there’s a new magic weight-loss book coming out every week.
Parker-Pope describes one ridiculous weight-loss example in her article:
Beginning in 2009, he and his team recruited 50 obese men and women. The men weighed an average of 233 pounds; the women weighed about 200 pounds.
Although some people dropped out of the study, most of the patients stuck with the extreme low-calorie diet, which consisted of special shakes called Optifast and two cups of low-starch vegetables, totaling just 500 to 550 calories a day for eight weeks. Ten weeks in, the dieters lost an average of 30 pounds. —- Then, most of them gained it all back.
It’s not Tara’s fault. So what does that prove? Absolutely nothing. Tara Parker-Pope is just doing her job, trying to earn a living and keep her bosses at the New York Times happy. She is one of thousands of people out there writing about health and, through no fault of her own, she is preventing many people from learning the truth about nutrition.
Maybe out of her own ignorance, she fails to explain how effortless and permanent weight-loss typically follows a lifestyle shift that focuses on whole, plant-based foods as the primary fuel that nature intended for us to burn.
Freedman summarizes the personal health journalism problem thusly:
Health journalists are taking advantage of the wrongness problem. Presented with a range of conflicting findings for almost any interesting question, reporters are free to pick those that back up their preferred thesis—typically the exciting, controversial idea that their editors are counting on.
When a reporter, for whatever reasons, wants to demonstrate that a particular type of diet works better than others—or that diets never work—there is a wealth of studies that will back him or her up, never mind all those other studies that have found exactly the opposite (or the studies can be mentioned, then explained away as “flawed”). For “balance,” just throw in a quote or two from a scientist whose opinion strays a bit from the thesis, then drown those quotes out with supportive quotes and more study findings.
The Bottom Line. We cannot depend on any part of our extended healthcare system to steer us on the right path to vibrant health. Reading these articles today reminded me of a blog I wrote last year following the HBO special entitled, “The Weight of the Nation.”
I later wrote a blog about the “three generals” in charge of our army that is fighting obesity. Links to both of those blogs are provided below. As for my use of the word “deadly” in the title, Mr. Freedman implies that many people are dying in our country because of the “confusing” messages about their health that they get from well-intentioned journalists.
While 70 to 80% of our cost of health care is driven by our toxic western diet—rare is the journalist that provides the clarity that we so desperately need to avoid or reverse the chronic diseases that account for most deaths. Mark Bittman and Jane Brody (of The New York Times) provide occasional clarity, but then usually contradict themselves a few days later.
If you’re looking for “clarity” on a regular basis, check out the other 800 blogposts and pages on this site. And give me a call if you’d like for me to speak at your venue. Next week, I am scheduled to speak to 220 sixth grade students at a middle school in New London, CT (over a period of four days). Click here for a look at my PowerPoint slides for those presentations. Credit for this blog idea goes to my friend Bernadine in Stonington, CT.
- Source article. Survival of the wrongest’ : Columbia Journalism Review.
- Source article. The Fat Trap by Taylor Parker-Pope, NYT Magazine
- Earlier blog. HBO Obesity Special: How important is the messenger?
- Earlier blog. Meet the “Big Three” Generals—in the War on Obesity
- Earlier blog. “Natural” Diet — Exactly what do I mean by natural?
- Earlier blog. Weight-Loss. Effortless and Permanent? (contains a poll)
Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from Amazon.com
- The movie that’s changing the lives of millions: Forks Over Knives DVD
- Healthy Eating, Healthy World, The “big picture” about food (our book)
- An essential scientific resource: The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell
- Dr. McDougall’s new book, The Starch Solution, with lots of great recipes.
Want to find out how healthy your family is eating? Take our free 4Leaf Survey. It takes less than five minutes and you can score it yourself. After taking the survey, please give me your feedback as it will be helpful in the development of our future 4Leaf app for smartphones. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation