Research, the Media and Obesity – A Case Study

Reality and PerceptionIn a discussion about fatness and health that I was involved in on Facebook, someone posted an article called “Direct Link Between Obesity and Pancreatic Cancer” with the statement “there is an animal study that shows a direct, causal link between obesity and pancreatic cancer.”

This is a perfect example of how the media does a terrible job of reporting research around weight and health. I’m going to talk about this using just the contents of the article itself to demonstrate how poorly this was reported.

What the research actually studied was the effects of two different diets on signs of possible future cancer in mice.  They found that one diet led to higher body size and higher incidence of lesions that are often a precursor to cancer.   What the researchers actually found was correctly stated in the piece:  “These observations suggest that such a diet leads to weight gain, metabolism disturbances, pancreas inflammation and pancreas lesions that are precursors to cancer.” This is hardly proving causality between body size and cancer (note the use of the terms “such a diet” and  “suggest”), in fact, they are considering body size a possible side effect of diet, but are clear that this study is looking at diet, not body size.

The only fat mice they studied were fat mice who had been fed a specific high calorie, high fat diet.  They didn’t test low calorie high fat diets, high fat low calorie diets, diets that were high fat and calorie and included 5 servings of fruits and vegetables and 30 minutes of movement a day, nor did they have a group of mice of various sizes doing intuitive eating.  They studied only two specific diets – one high fat high calorie, the other low fat low calorie which limits the conclusions that they can draw about diet and cancer, and pretty much excludes any conclusions about general body size separate from diet.

The researcher said “These lesions take a long time to develop into cancer, so there is enough time for cancer preventive strategies, such as changing to a lower fat, lower calorie diet, to have a positive effect.”  Whether or not we agree with the conclusions (and let’s remember that they didn’t actually test these strategies to see if they worked in these mice), note that they do not recommend a change in body size, but rather a change in diet because, once again, this is a study of what the mice ate, not the body size of the mice.

The media is stating the correct facts and then drawing completely incorrect conclusions.   In order for there to be a “direct causal link” between obesity and cancer, they would have to study body size, not diet (because not all fat people/mice eat the same diet) and they would have to figure out the mechanism by which having a body with a specific ratio of weight and height (which is what “obesity” is) causes cancer (pro tip, assuming that all fat people eat a high calorie high fat diet is stereotyping, not science).  This study doesn’t even come close to doing that and so we’re back to correlation and we’ve talked about the many issues with that. The media has a pesky habit of reporting science in the context of the stereotypes and prejudices of our time, this story appeared on a website called Medical News Today so I can understand why people would take the headline at face value but, as we’ve so often seen, when it comes to the media and reporting on “obesity” and health, it’s always reader beware.

If you’re looking for more information about the issues with research and recommendations about “obesity” and health, I recommend this article http://www.nutritionj.com/content/10/1/9

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Published in: on January 20, 2014 at 10:36 am  Comments (25)  

25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you! And I will do the reading assigned.

    You are a treasure.

  2. And I would also like to point out, for about the millionth time, that mice are NOT human beings, & that our bodies do not necessarily react the same way to the same things & also that researchers usually feed mice an extreme amount of whatever they think it is that is ‘bad’. You are right that this is really about diet, not body size, but I will continue to take it with a large pinch of salt. When I have four legs & a tail & weigh about 4-5 ounces, I will worry more about eating this diet.

    • This reminds me of an old George Carlin routine about drug studies on mice where he said something to the effect of ‘sure, if you have a mouse smoke a whole joint, it’s going to become disoriented. If I smoked a joint the size of my dining room table, I’d be disoriented, too.’

      Rodents are useful to give us clues about things like the effects of some diets, etc. but there’s a reason the findings in these studies get taken up the food chain as it were until you get to human testing. As you correctly point out, we are not mice. Our bodies don’t always react like those of mice to the same stimuli.

      • Given the huge amount of DNA that humans and mice share, I am willing to accept that mice are a very decent model for how the human body works. Not perfect, but good enough that if a well-done study with mouse models shows some new information, I’ll at least consider it seriously.

        But a laboratory mouse cage is a terrible model for how the human environment works. There are so, so many personal, economic, social, and other factors that play into health outcomes that cannot possibly be replicated with mice.

        So basically, mouse studies can provide very useful information about one part of a complicated picture. I think most scientists know that, but I wish the media and the general public could wrap their heads around it.

        Of course now, though, I’m just busy lol-ing at the image of a mouse smoking a human-sized joint with its tiny little paws!!🙂

      • Well stated!

    • LOL that’s what I was thinking, but you said it better.

  3. Thank you. I am sorry that media has become blind to reporting and decides instead to sensationalize. I am glad there are people like you that call them on it.

  4. Wait, the recommended a change in diet without even testing to see what effect those changes had in the mice? That’s not actual science, that’s pulling stuff out of thin air.

  5. They are very good at pulling things out of thin air. I find it interesting that, in my own personal knowledge, virtually every person I have known & every celebrity I have heard about who got pancreatic cancer was thin to average-sized. People of all sizes get all kinds of diseases, &, while some behaviors can obviously increase your chances of getting a particular disease, the whole ‘personal responsibility’ thing has been greatly exaggerated, &, much as we humans with our desire for control hate to admit it, we have very limited control over when or whether we get a particular disease for the most part. This so-called ‘reporting’ is also very slanted, especially where ‘obesity’ is concerned, & the media seems to specialize in trying to scare us all to death & make us all feel guilty about every move we make & especially about every mouthful we eat.

    • Totally agree that a huge part of the personal responsibility/blame shtick is about a desire for control. Whenever I mention someone getting a rare or terrible disease at an unusually young age (not like I talk about that all the time, but you know, it comes up now and then), whether it’s someone I know, a patient I saw, or someone I read about, people aaaaaallllwaaaays want to know, “Well, were they X? Did they do Y behavior?” (Sadly, the question is often, “Were they overweight?”)

    • Whoa, hit post too soon! Anyway, I think in addition to a desire for control, it’s about a desire for reassurance. They want to be able to think, “Oh, well I’m not X, and I don’t do Y, so that could never happen to me!” Nope, sorry, it doesn’t work like that. Essentially anything can happen to essentially anyone.

      • Dead on. It’s not really “ZOMG, I’m so worried about you — you’re going to get cancer, because fat mice!”

        Because, let’s face it, that would be as stupid as it sounds.

        It’s much more about “ZOMG! I’m so glad I’m not fat like you, because if I were I’d be in danger of cancer!”

        Which happens to be just as stupid… just takes a bit longer for a lot of people to suss that out.

  6. So a study finds a correlation between *overeating* and cancer, and the media translates it into “fat people cause cancer.” This is even more ridiculous than those “IMPENDING ALIEN INVASION” headlines they puke up every time a rover finds traces of permafrost on Mars… and, given the real impact it could have on the lives of real, already-mistreated, already-stigmatized fat people, a hell of a lot less funny.

    • Silly Lady Rhapthorne! Don’t you know all fat people eat the same lard-covered donut diet????? And then force it on innocent bystanders to make them ZOMG!DEATHFATZ, too?????

      (end sarcasm)

      • Exactly. “Everyone knows” that us fat-fat-fatties all eat the exact-same high-fat, high-calorie foods 24/7 (literally, of course — we don’t even take breaks from eating to sleep), all cooked the exact, same way, and the researchers must clearly have been smart enough to feed the exact same thing to those mice.

        In fact, I bet they were also smart enough to study every food they gave the mice, just to make sure no precise food, or the way any food was prepared doesn’t correlate to cancer by itself.

        And I bet they were also smart enough to make sure that none of those foods was dangerous to mice eaten in any quantity, because it’s not like all mammals don’t eat the same foods. I mean, there aren’t any human foods dangerous to cats and dogs regardless of quantity.

        Oh, wait…

      • Countdown until the media thinks of combining the two sensationalist headlines into one: “Fat people are INVADERS FROM MARS!”

        Because, you know, since some models of early universe formation postulate debris from Mars landed on the Earth and played a role in the formation of life, it could techincally be true (it would also make thin people invaders from Mars along with us, but they’ve never had a problem leaving minor inconsequential details like that out before.)

        • Ha! Early *planet* formation, that should read.

  7. I’m fat. I’m oven “sun drying” a case of tomatoes so soon my diet will be high in tomato products. So tomatoes will the the “cause” of whatever good or bad things happen to me thereafter? Oh, wait…

  8. I work in a retirement community/assisted living. Last night at work I was looking over one of those “health” magazines that we get. One article was discussing inflammation as the major cause of heart disease. It listed “obesity” as an inflammatory condition.
    But of course! Your fat cells are “inflamed,” see, and that’s what makes you look all fat and stuff!
    Thin people, of course, can never have inflammatory conditions.
    Sigh…

  9. i don’t know if you get a chance to read all replies or not, but i wanted to let you know that i couldn’t agree with you more on fat and health not being linked to one another, i just wish more people would realize it too:here is a little of my story,i am a 33 year old female, i am about 60 pounds over weight, however my blood pressure is always 115-120 over 75-80, got blood work done and everything is great, this is despite the fact that heart problems and diabetes run in my family, the only health problem i seem to have is migraines and i am pretty sure weight has nothing to do with it, lol, i like what you are doing and i don’t think beauty has anything to do with size , it is society that has decided that it does, but i really don’t think that we were all meant to be one size, all one has to do is look at old sculptures and paintings and know that people have always been different sizes , even in ancient sculptings where they are naked, i guess then it was accepted and size wasn’t an issue i believe that the human body itself is beautiful, no matter the shape Date: Mon, 20 Jan 2014 10:36:22 +0000 To: lrbranlmb@hotmail.com

  10. I think the media stands in as the replacement for Church. The Church used to tell us what was good and bad, now, post-Enlightenment, not everyone belongs to it anymore, so they have to use something that everyone responds to.

  11. I wonder if this study was trying to prove a causality link. Was the study done in such a way that they made the results fit the theory? For instance, they didn’t add movement, to see if it had any effect! I’m just wondering.

  12. In re mouse studies, and possibly in re blaming it the wrong parts of lifestyle: People who live farther from the equator are more likely to get deadly heart disease.

    One possible explanation is that people have stores of precursors of nitric oxide (which lowers blood pressure) in their skin, and those stores of nitric oxide are released by sunlight.

    Research was sidetracked for a time, because mice don’t have the stores of precursors. Two theories from me: Why would they, they’re covered with fur. Maybe it’s because wild mice are primarily nocturnal.

    So sharing DNA isn’t enough to say “that mouse study probably makes sense”. Very few species need vitamin C.

  13. Thank you Ragen for this post. Stephanie
    Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

  14. I’ve been thinking about diets. I agree wholeheartedly that society and it’s views and reactions concerning fat people is a big problem. I agree that dieting people can take it too far just to reach that unreachable goal of a size too freaking small (XXS, what adult wears that?). But I’ve been thinking about the language connected with every diet out there. Or, to be more precise, about two phrases.

    Weight loss and weight gain. In every diet they talk about expected weight loss, how to fight against gaining the weight back etc. I think this is completely and fully misleading. I once read an article in a medical journal about the yo-yo effect when dieting. I learned that the fat cells accumulated in ours bodies are not going away ever. They’re basically the bodies emergency rations, the body won’t give them up. All dieting does is making those cells shrink, and a little more food makes them grow again, hence the yo-yo effect. That is also why people with a BMI of over 30 (about that, I don’t remember exactly) can never be ‘perfectly’ thin, because they have too many fat cells in their bodies (they can only shrink so much).

    Having that in mind, I question the use of gain and loss connected to dieting. You’re not actually losing the weight, all you’re doing is misplacing it. You’re not actually gaining the weight back, you’re just finding those misplaced kilos or pounds again. And if you ‘gained’ more than you ‘lost’, congratulations you will probably survive the apocalypse a little longer than think people. ^__^

    I think society should change those two phrases. Just strike them from the language connected with diets, because I believe those two are complete misleading lies. All they do is depress people and make them feel like failures when they inevitably ‘gain back’ their misplaced kilos. They never went anywhere and people should be aware of how their own bodies work.

    (inspired by my dad’s sad expression after he weighs himself)


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