Don’t trust the media when it comes to study results!

by Amy Renee
Don’t trust the media when it comes to study results!

Today was a normal day. I woke up to Bella, my calico crying for food as she always does as soon as the sun begins to rise. And just as cats like maintaining a regular routine so do I – vacuum the hard wood floors (two cats = lots of cat hair and litter everywhere), mop, feed starving (although Bella is quite fat) cats, and start making breakfast. All the while I like to turn on my television and listen to Good Morning America in the background (when I’m not vacuuming of course).

I’m in the kitchen cooking my steel cut oats and I overhear something about “the latest research study” on Good Morning America. Oh geez. So annoying. Don’t get me wrong, I like Good Morning America and all, and they aren’t the only ones, it’s ALL media from television to newspapers to radio to magazines to blogs…one poorly organized study comes out and the media takes the results and runs with it to create a media frenzy. Ugh.

So the report went something like this: A newly published research study found that a low-carbohydrate diet is healthier – reduces cardiovascular disease risk factors and weight more than a low-fat diet does. And of course the medical professional GMA had on explained why this is true (biased)…

But do they even go into the details of the study? NOPE!

This irritates the crap out of me. Seriously. So frustrating. Because anyone who is not educated on how scientific research studies are set up – the kinds of studies, statistical methods used, parameters measured, etc. – would have no clue as to what to look for, so it is only natural that they would believe everything the media tells them. And unless you have some sort of medical degree, you likely have no idea about how research studies are analyzed no matter how educated and intelligent you are. Also, many people think that if something is published or reported (especially in the news) that it must be true. AND IT’S NOT!

So the study that was all the rage and all over every news station today – not just on television, but all over the blogs, newspapers, EVERYWHERE is this study titled, Effects of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets: a randomized trial. The media all made it seem like it is conclusive evidence that a low-carbohydrate diet is much healthier than a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. Here’s what they don’t mention:

  • The number of study participants is super small – only 148 people were included in the study and only 119 (60 in the low-fat group and 59 in the low-carbohydrate group) completed the study. This is a VERY small amount of study participants. Most reliable studies have thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of people in EACH group being observed!

 

  • This was not a longitudinal study. Longitudinal studies are better at representing how specific lifestyles (such as a low-carbohydrate or low-fat diet) affect health status since it can take several years to actually observe results. Many longitudinal studies follow their participants for 10+ years or until death. This study only observed the participants for one year.

 

  • The low-fat group in this diet consumed 30% of their daily energy (calories) from fat. This is a HUGE problem in studies comparing low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets. An actual low-fat diet should contain no more than 10 to 15% of daily energy intake from fat (leaning toward 10%).

 

  • The type of carbohydrates consumed were not taken into consideration. This is a biggie! Of course highly refined/processed and sugary carbohydrates are going to lead to unhealthy outcomes. The low-carbohydrate group was only allowed to consume 40 grams of “digestible” carbohydrates meaning that they subtracted the amount of fiber they consumed. This likely led to the participants of this group consuming more plant foods such as whole grains, beans, and fruits and vegetables since they contain higher amounts of fiber and the participants could consume more food than they would if they had eaten a single piece of bread. The low-fat group wasn’t restricted on what types of carbohydrates to consume, so they ate much less plant foods and more processed and sugary carbohydrates.

 

  • The authors of the study define a limitation of the study as, “Lack of clinical cardiovascular disease end points.” Yet they conclude that a low-carbohydrate diet is more effective at reducing risk for cardiovascular disease risk factors (as well as weight loss) than a low-fat diet. What???

This is why you can’t believe everything you hear or read in the media. Just because one study comes up with XYZ results doesn’t mean anything. In an evidence-based practice medical professionals take a combination of SEVERAL studies, preferably systematic reviews that are critically analyzed and are appropriate to the client in which the evidence being gathered is intended for (age, gender, health status, ethnicity, etc.).

The point I’m trying to make is this: there are SEVERAL studies that get published that do not really give ANY knowledge about anything at all – except that more research needs to be performed. In fact, many times the results of research studies are solely used to come up with better, more appropriately organized studies that can be done in the future to figure out more information. A lot of the time results tell us WHERE more research needs to be performed or WHICH parameters needs to be examined further.

Not only that, but there are TONS of SOLID research studies available that prove that a high-carbohydrate, low-fat plant-based diet (note: low in refined/processed and sugary foods) is better at reducing risk factors for several chronic diseases as well as overweight and obesity.

As far as the media goes – consider this: most people who report study results are reporters, not scientists. They don’t have the education to be able to critically analyze the study set-up (i.e., type of study used, type of statistical tests used, parameters measured, confounders identified, etc.) and it doesn’t really make sense to have a medical professional explain these results since most often they are biased one way or another.

Main point – DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU HEAR, READ, OR SEE! Do your own research, ask questions, find truth!

As always, thanks for reading.

 

References:

  1. Jabbour G. Low-carb may trump low-fat in diet wars. Good Morning America on NBC. https://gma.yahoo.com/blogs/abc-news/low-carb-may-trump-low-fat-diet-wars-160648986–abc-news-health.html. Broadcast on September 2, 2014. Accessed on September 2, 2014.
  2. Bazzano LA, Hu T, Reynolds K, et al. Effects of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2014;161:309-318. doi:10.7326/M14-0180.

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