Don’t be fooled: Decipher a health study like a pro!

conflict-of-interest

I am discussing the bad science and bias evident in this article by Fox News: Heart disease and diabetes risks tied to carbs, not fat, study finds

First some housekeeping: I do not like Fox News (so I may be a little biased…but so are they!); I adhere to a whole foods, plant-based vegan diet; and I just took a health epidemiology class, so I know what to look for when interpreting the findings of a study. Now that I’ve addressed all my potential conflicts of interest, unlike the author of the Fox News study (linked above), let us begin!

This post comes hot on the heels of my last post, “My (Hard-A**) Health Philosophy, #noexcuses” which sums up my position as a future health educator on health. Basically, I advocate for individual empowerment. Individuals need to take ownership of their own health which means seeking additional information, doing their own research and making the healthiest choices they can at every opportunity. This is a perfect example of why you should not take health advice from just anyone, and why it is important not to trust popular media as a source for health education. To put it bluntly, media journalists don’t know what they are talking about and they report on things that are eye-catching and sensational. So of course, when this study was published endorsing consumption of saturated fat a.k.a. meat and dairy, and vilifying carbohydrates, the Fox News reporters were all over it….who doesn’t like to hear good things about their bad habits?b111But…look a little closer! There’s some wacky stuff going on with this study. First, the journal that published the study PLOS ONE, doesn’t require peer-review beforehand by contemporaries of the author. Instead, their mission is to accelerate the publication of research and they state”fast publication times” as one of their positive qualities. Peer-review is the gold standard of scientific regulation. Basically, a study will NEVER be published in a reputable journal without rigorous peer-review by experts in the field.

Second, conflict of interest!!! Always do a little background research about the author of the study, the source of the funding, and the institutions represented. In this case, its clear there is some fishy stuff going on here. At a glance:

  • Who authored the study: Jeff Volek, senior author of this study vilifying carbohydrates is also the author of The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. It’s a little concerning that the findings of his study could also be used to sell his books…
  • Who funded the study: The Dairy Research Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Egg Nutrition Center, and the Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Foundation (yes, of the low-carb Atkins diet). Hmm, a little concerning that the findings of the study also promote meat and dairy products…bad-science-04

Third, study design! The only way to produce valid study results are to have a representative sample size of the population. This study only followed 16 people…I would fail my epidemiology class if I agreed that was an appropriate sample size! The subjects were also only followed for 21 weeks (a little over 5 months). Which is not long enough to reveal the effects of saturated fat consumption on cardiovascular health! Sure weight changes and blood lipid and glucose levels might change in 5 months, but hardening of the arteries that leads to heart attack and stroke takes years to assess for changes. I’m sure many people can go on a diet for 5 months, but how many people can sustain it for life?

The above video, “Heart Disease tied to Carbs, not Fat #study” by PlantbasedAthlete on YouTube thoroughly annihilates all the findings of this study. I highly recommend watching it. His video actually inspired me to write this post and discuss this topic. After taking my epi class, I realize now more than ever, how important it is to critically consume research like this…and that sadly, this is not a skill most people possess. PlantbasedAthlete also points out crucial factors such as:

  • the non-differentiation between processed, refined carbs like crackers and cookies, and whole-food carbs like fruit and vegetables in the study.
  • the inevitable caloric restriction that occurred in the low-carb phase of the study, followed by the rapid increase in calories at the end of the study.

This smells a little of intentional manipulation of data. The fact that the researchers did not control for calories during the different phases of the diet is extremely amateur…or blatantly dishonest. This glaring error doesn’t exactly promote confidence in their other findings…who know what else they didn’t control for?

This is why it is so hard to understand what to do to be healthy in America! If you don’t take responsibility for your own health education, you will end up fat and sick. The average American gets their information about diet and lifestyle from sensationalized TV shows featuring “doctors”, TV commercials funded by the industry who makes the product they are endorsing, and print advertisements that paid big bucks to appear in that magazine or on that billboard. These companies just want your money! TV shows just want the ratings! To put it bluntly, no one cares about your health…the only person who can help you is YOU! So just be careful, be skeptical, read the study, and ask questions. If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. There is no magic bullet or quick fix…but there is a simple answer. Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Eat less of everything else.

BadScience

Article Source:

Wanjek, Christopher. Fox News Health, “Heart disease and diabetes risks tied to carbs, not fat, study finds.” Dec. 03, 2014.

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