Weight-loss and the deadly world of personal health journalism

“Survival of the wrongest”

CJR ColumbiaThat 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.

Tara Parker-Pope is the editor of the Well blog at The  New York Times

Tara Parker-Pope is the editor of the Well blog at The New York Times—earning a nice living doing exactly what her editors expect her to do.

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.

First female winner on the Biggest Loser. Wonder how she is doing today?

First female winner on the Biggest Loser. Wonder how she is doing today?

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.

Leveraging the simple, yet powerful concept of maximizing the percent of your calories from whole plant foods -- still in nature's package

Apparently Tara hasn’t heard about the 4Leaf approach to vibrant health, focusing on 2 words: WHOLE PLANTS

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.

Guess which one is the nation's foremost authority on obesity---from Yale University?

Guess which one is the nation’s foremost authority on obesity—from Yale University? Think khaki pants.

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.

Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from Amazon.com

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 jmorrishicks@me.com

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J. Morris Hicks, working daily to promote health, hope and harmony on planet Earth.

For help in your own quest to take charge of your health, you might find some useful information at our 4Leaf page or some great recipes at Lisa’s 4Leaf Kitchen.

Got a question? Let me hear from you at jmorrishicks@me.com. Or give me a call on my cell at 917-399-9700.

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—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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2 Responses to Weight-loss and the deadly world of personal health journalism

  1. Linda says:

    Oh how I would love to see a tape of your talk with the sixth-grade students and how they react to the information you provide to them. I’d love to know what questions they ask when you’ve completed your presentation. Please share with us! Thanks Jim.

  2. Joanne Irwin says:

    Weight loss fads, diets, protein shakes, reality shows, ad infinitum do one thing – make other people rich. They do nothing to awaken, educate, and transform the health of overweight individuals who are yearning for real, sustained health changes. Two gentleman on Cape Cod have embraced our Food for Life plant based lifestyle. They’ve been indulging in the New Four Food Groups (fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains) since last October. Both have lost weight easily and effortlessly. As of one month ago, one lost 25 lbs. and the other 20. Each has reported that the fat has melted away. How? Giving up a diet rich in oils, saturated fat (animal protein), and dairy. It can happen. It has happened. And the folks who experience this, keep the weight off easily, and I have to say, without sacrificing the wonderful taste and banquet of foods. On the other side of the coin I have direct contact with an individual who embraced a plant based lifestyle for 4 years……result, good health, staying slim and trim, and having oodles of energy. A year ago that changed. Back to animal protein, dairy and fatty foods. The result? A weight gain of 15 lbs. and a loss of energy. Need I say more? This country needs to awaken to the reality that the foods that heal, keep us lean, healthy and filled with energy are there for the taking.

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