The News May Confuse

by Marisa Mead on January 18, 2012

Two-thirds of America’s population is either overweight or obese. Weight loss is guaranteed to be a hot topic in the news (and this blog apparently). Most of the research findings regarding obesity, diabetes, and weight management are disseminated to the public through the news media. Unfortunately, news sources often skip the science in order to write catchy headlines and engaging articles.

In early January, CBS News attempted to explain a recent study about weight gain published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The JAMA study looked at how high or low levels of protein influence weight gain in an excess calorie diet. It turns out that protein levels have nothing to do with it: excess calories leads to increased fat and weight gain regardless of protein content. It is certainly important for the general public to understand that eating excess calories will cause weight gain, but this is common knowledge and not the basis for an interesting news story. CBS tried to extrapolate weight loss tips from the findings of the JAMA study, but missed the purpose of the study and, in the end, mislead at-risk Americans with confusing conclusions. The news article does not clearly explain that the subjects were overfed while on low, normal, or high-protein diets. Additionally, the language of the writing suggests that high protein diets cause more weight gain than low protein diets, and protein is not important for weight loss.

Although the study’s findings are interesting for scientific researchers in health and nutrition fields, they are not applicable to the average American dieter because it’s not a weight loss study. The experiment was set up so that the subjects over-ate by about 1000 Calories/day. Most dieters agree, eating an extra 1000 Calories/day is not a good weight loss strategy. Even the title CBS uses, “Calories count more than protein for weight loss”, suggests that the JAMA authors uncovered a big secret to losing weight. But the actual point of their study was to see how the body gains weight when it is fed too much. There was nothing in the study relating protein with weight loss.

Most readers will not take the time to fact check on their own. So to prevent confusion, it’s important for the news media to be an accurate source of information, especially relating to a topic such as weight management which is already plagued by misinformation, myths, and unhealthy solutions to a growing (pun intended) problem.