Math is Hard, Let’s Blame Fat People

So I saw a video at CNN.com.  The title was “Say Goodbye to Obesity”   It was late and I was tired so like an idiot I clicked on it.

The gist of the report is that an experiment was published in the Online New England Journal of Medicine.  It’s called  “The Healthy Study” and the goal was to increase health in children.  Is was a 3 year, nationwide health program of school-based interventions.  In this study, half of 42 schools adopted healthy food offerings and more PE time.  The report tells us that students at the intervention schools kept their “weight down, sugar levels lowered and lowered their body fat”. The program was deemed successful.

Question of the day:  What percentage of difference between the two groups would you consider to be successful?

I won’t keep you in suspense.  The difference between the intervention schools and the non-intervention schools was 3%.  Three. 3.

Let’s see…get out my calculator… carry the four…. Yup, I’m right – the intervention failed  97% of the time.  It’s been a while since I was in school but I think you had to do a little better than 3% to get a passing grade back then.  Shouldn’t the video have been titled  “Study a Big Giant Failure” or at least tempered  “Say goodbye to obesity for at least the short term you lucky 3%?”

So I went to the source material and read the actual study – ready to yell at the people who created it.  But in the conclusion section they said “Our comprehensive school-based program did not result in greater decreases in the combined prevalence of overweight and obesity than those that occurred in control schools.  However, the intervention did result in significantly greater reductions in various indexes of adiposity. These changes may reduce the risk of childhood-onset type 2 diabetes.”  If you read further you find that what they were able to do was decrease BMI and insulin levels.  I have explained before why BMI is a fairly crap measurement (in the post A Little More Health from our Healthcare) and I won’t go into it again here, but the insulin level is significant because that is an actually measure of how they have affected the children’s health.

However, they were very clear that the study did NOT affect obesity.  Which begs the question…why the F would CNN call this video “Say Goodbye to Obesity?”  That’s a question I will probably never be able to answer.  Here are some more questions that I have:

First, before someone accuses me of being against healthy food and PE,  let me say that I’m all for healthy food options and more PE time in schools.  I AM FOR CHILDHOOD HEALTH. I am glad that 3% of children were helped by this.

My concern is this:  If the schools and CNN are calling this a “success”, what does it say to the 97% of children who did not “succeed” by the study’s own criteria?  What do the PE teachers and health teachers say to those 97%?  If they are calling the  study a success, then aren’t they necessarily calling the  97% who didn’t have experience the study’s desired outcomes failures?

This is why the War on Childhood Obesity is such a problem.  I’ve addressed this before in “Dear Michelle Obama – Good Intentions are Not Enough”  but I think it bears repeating:  let’s be for children’s health instead of against childhood obesity.  Let’s support kids to develop healthy habits and high self-esteem in a way that is empowering and fun instead of trying the terrify and shame them.

Its time for a little integrity and calling 97% of children failures so that you can call yourself a success is not the way to go.

Published in: on July 27, 2010 at 5:38 am  Comments (4)  

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. So first off, welcome to mass media. Headlines like “Increased Physical Activity and Healthier Foods Reduce Likelihood of Childhood Health Problems But Do Not Necessarily Effect Weight” are both wordy and not very sexy. Plus, reporters are not necessarily experts on the topic on which they are writing, but somehow expected to become so in a matter of a day or half a day. You might remember that I have run into this exact problem before in the Chinese Herb Realm

    http://herbalogic.net/drops/?p=222

    Although you are likely to get no response (I certainly didn’t when I pointed out to Reuters that their reporters are morons) I highly recommend that you email CNN’s editors and bring it to their attention. In addition to how offensive their report is, there is also the part where they are just plain misrepresenting the conclusions of the researchers.

    • Jeanine,

      I’ve done a lot of work with media and I absolutely understand headline creation. I also typically have sympathy for reporters but in this situation the information that they needed was on the simplified top sheet results – the first thing that they would have read. I would have forgiven, for example “Say goodbye to Diabetes” even though that’s a gross exaggeration. What I can’t deal with is the fact that a headline would be so completely erroneous in terms of the conclusion of the study. I did e-mail them and may I just say that you are extra awesome for having notified Reuters of their issues and that your response was fantastic!

  2. Good for you for emailing them! But did you get that sensation of banging your head against the wall repeatedly and then being surprised to discover blood puddling on the floor? That’s how I always end up feeling… Seriously though, someone has to tell the reporters they are full of it, and if not us, who?

  3. Isn’t it sad though that we know activity helps kids, yet PE is one of the “extras” getting cut in this education budget crisis?!

    I once did a paper on day care–whether it was a good idea or a bad idea. I came across a study whose results were being used by both the pro and con sides. That was the day I learned to distrust the media!

    xo Susie


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