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.

Tom January 18, 2012 at 9:42 am

Nice article on the issues surrounding the media reporting on science. This is clearly an important topic, and I think you’re heading in the right direction.

I few comments:
– regarding the very first sentence, I would suggest citing a source for this statement to add credibility to your blog. These sorts of statements are often propagated without sources, yet we can’t just assume it’s true because “everyone” is saying it.

– the reader would benefit from learning what tips the report was trying to pass off as reasonable from the study (some people will dig further in the original source, probably most will not). This will help frame how much extrapolating CBS was doing.

-the last sentence of the 2nd paragraph is a little confusing – was CBS actually contradicting itself? (if they said protein causes weight gain, then it quite clearly is a factor in weight loss i.e. hampering it).

Keep up the good work!


Marisa January 18, 2012 at 10:52 am

Thanks for your feedback TJ. I definitely see your point about citing sources. Just because I’ve heard the statistics in every class doesn’t mean the audience has the same background.

Like you could tell, I did have trouble putting into words what exactly CBS was trying to pass off as health advice. I was more concerned that they left the reader confused by the end of the article because they weren’t clear about how the research findings apply to their own diet goals. Initially, I thought they were trying to say that high protein “diets” (in the weight loss sense) caused more weight gain than low-protein. It wasn’t until after reading the study that I discovered the participants were on excess-calorie diets.

Yes, it was found that more protein causes more weight gain (but equal fat gain)–in overfed diets. In my opinion, CBS did not make this distinction clear, which could cause the reader to think that protein in their normal diet hinders weight loss. The reader may be inclined to eat as little protein as possible. On the other hand, CBS also suggested that “too little protein may make you fatter”. The article’s story is poorly organized and jumps around to contradicting conclusions.

Susan Sanders January 18, 2012 at 10:19 am

I find that writing, like dieting, takes hard work! I applaud your analysis and explanation of the research study, and how it was interpreted by CBS. I don’t think CBS did a poor job of reporting the research findings, but I agree with you that their summary doesn’t add to a dieter’s general toolbox of weight loss tips. How about taking ideas from your third paragraph about the study’s findings being unhelpful to the average American dieter? Can you develop your story along that line of thought? I think your strongest point is the idea that the study validated something that’s obvious. As a consumer of health information, I find myself wondering why CBS would find the research meaningful enough to report.

Thank you for the opportunity to read and review your posting. Keep up the good work in this wonderful class!

Marisa Mead January 19, 2012 at 9:53 am

Thank you for reading and commenting Susan. You’re right, one of my main ideas was that the study findings were not interesting or novel enough (for the public at least) to be covered in the news. I didn’t know how to explain that without undermining the science and researchers of the study. I like your suggestions about developing the story for the dieter by explaining other studies that have been done which are useful for them. That would hopefully lessen the confusion made by the CBS story.

Dan Kahan January 18, 2012 at 10:21 am

You are right, of course, that “it’s important for the news media to be an accurate source of information.” But anticipating & steering media away from misunderstanding are in fact the primary missions of professional science communicators. *They* need to be exhorted to do a better job at least as much as journalists do.

It would be very useful (hint hint!) for someone to come up w/ a guide that identifies the sorts of recurring mistakes that the media are likely to make, explains when they are most at risk of making them, and furnishes instructions on how to present information to help the media to avoid them.

Marisa Mead January 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Thanks for your comments and suggestion Dan. I definitely thought about constructing some sort of guide to help readers be critical of news media on their own, but unfortunately I did not have time to write all my thoughts out. This would be a good idea for a follow up post!

MB Lewis January 18, 2012 at 10:47 am

Love your headline, Marisa, and love the points here about the need for critical reading and responsible reporting–which you explain well in your first paragraph. I appreciate knowing from the start where a blogger is going with a piece. Tossing in a pun at the end shows spirit! You have a natural writing style well-suited to this medium, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. You might want to do a final proofread before pushing the button on them, however. Sometimes you capitalize calorie, sometimes not. I stumbled at a few of your noun-verb agreement choices, and “mslead” should be “misled” if you want it as past tense…. You can affirm your authority with the little things…

Marisa Mead January 18, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Ah, thanks for catching those errors MB. It’s important that I proofread so those little errors don’t distract from the point I’m trying to get across. I will edit more carefully in the future. The calorie/Calorie issue was tricky. I used “calorie” as a general term, and “Calorie”, specifically meaning 1 kilocalorie, to reflect exactly how much the participants consumed. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your feedback!

G Kendall January 18, 2012 at 10:53 am

Your are right about news sources failing to explain the science in order to grab an interesting headline. I think reader would benefit from your explaining a little more clearly in the beginning that the subjects were divided into 3 groups in order to determine the effect of protein on weight gain, and all were OVERFED (That was the purpose of the study, wasn’t it)?
I like Dan Kahn’s comment that a guide to recognizing media mistakes in science reporting would be most helpful.
One of my peeves is studies are often reported as groundbreaking when the study sample was so small as to make the finding insignificant. Perhaps you science students can lead us all in accurate assessments of media messages.
Thanks for your insight!

Marisa Mead January 19, 2012 at 9:58 am

Thanks for reading and for commenting! Yes, you are right about the purpose of the study. I guess I shouldn’t be ragging on CBS so much when it was even hard for me to clearly explain the study.

Bob M. January 18, 2012 at 1:20 pm


I’m glad you have chosen to address this particular topic. Being a long time dieter myself, I pay attention to news stories like the CBS report you cited. I find it frustrating when the news media does a poor job of reporting the facts.

One thing you might do to increase the value of this blog post is to provide links to supporting information. For instance, where you state ” . . the writing suggests that high protein diets cause more weight gain than low protein diets, and protein is not important for weight loss” you could point to an article that properly addresses protein and weight loss.

Maybe include a list with links to authors/websites/news organizations that offer consistently good information on diet and weight loss. This has the dual effect of helping your blog reader find correct information, and simultaneously rewarding those good news outlets with increased readership.

Marisa Mead January 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Thanks for your feedback and helpful suggestions, Bob. I like your idea of pointing readers in the right direction with links to sources with consistently good information. The problem I have, though, is that I don’t completely trust any source and am critical of whatever I read. NPR is a source that has fairly trustworthy information, except that they posted a very similar article to CBS’ about protein and weight loss (such a disappointment!).

I should have cleared the confusion and addressed the protein-weight loss debate in my post. Although I think the jury is still out on the issue, this review of popular weight-loss diets found that high-protein intake had no effect on weight or body fat loss.

KK January 18, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Media coverage of science is absolutely an issue, and its not a surprise that the media would misrepresent an article about dieting research, as it remains a hot topic. Media outlets are, after all, for-profit companies who use headlines and skews on articles to make them appear interesting.

This definitely isn’t a problem unique to dieting and health problems, but one that spreads to coverage of other issues as well. Check out, for example, this critique of media coverage of a recent climate understanding psychology study:

Marisa Mead January 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Thanks for the link! Sample size is always a big issue that gets overlooked, in my opinion. The weight-gain study had a sample size of 25. This makes its conclusions even less significant and just adds to the list of why the article should not have been written in the first place.

PF Anderson January 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm

I was really pleased to see how you compared the two sources of information for accuracy and clarity. You had excellent points all around. I am curious. What recommendations would you have for the journalist to improve that article?

Marisa Mead January 20, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Thanks! In an ideal world, that article should not have been written in the first place. The study’s findings just aren’t significant enough or relevant for the general public. But if I had a chance to edit the article before CBS posted it, I would have told the author to explain the actual purpose of the study (to see how protein affects body composition changes during overfeeding), and then I would want the author to explain that the study does not support or refute high-protein diets. Hopefully that would prevent the audience from drawing conclusions about high and low protein diets.

PF Anderson February 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Those would have been excellent thoughts to include in the blogpost. Very good!

Paula Johnson January 19, 2012 at 11:37 am

What you write about is so true and important to address. And that’s why your job is important. Good and concise.
However, I almost didn’t read it because the title didn’t draw me in. I guess there’s a reason for reporters to come up with “catchy headlines,” eh?

Marisa Mead January 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Ah, thanks for letting me know Paula. Titles have always been a weakness of mine. I find it hard not to stretch the truth when coming up with a catchy headline.

Debbie Morrison January 20, 2012 at 12:45 am

Hi Marisa, I enjoyed reading your article, and you did a good job supporting your thesis, that media reports about obesity are not always helpful to the public, and more often than not, as you indicated – are misleading, with headlines designed to ‘sell’.

What might be a better approach for media? How might have CBS reported more effectively on the study? I would be interested in hearing your opinion. The CBS article was very poorly written – I was confused after reading the first sentence “Some dieters think increasing or cutting back on protein will trick the body’s metabolism into causing weight loss” – why would dieters think increasing OR decreasing could cause weight loss – which is it? You chose a good article to support your argument.

Well done – Thank you for the opportunity to review your work. :)

Marisa Mead January 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Thanks for your feedback Debbie and thanks for reading. In reply to PF Anderson’s comment, I believe that the article should not have been written in the first place. The study wasn’t significant or relevant for the general public and is best kept within the scientific community. A better study to report on would be this one:

High-protein Weight-loss Diets: Are They Safe and Do They Work? A Review of the Experimental and Epidemiologic Data

It reviewed a bunch of studies of different popular diets and found that high-protein weight loss diets had no effect on weight or body fat loss.

In regard to why dieters think high or low protein diets work: It has been found that changing the amount of protein in your diet may change the way your body expends energy. Having too little protein uses energy (burn more calories) to spare lean body mass, and excess protein is used to build lean muscle mass. In each of these scenarios, calories are used rather than stored as fat, which would in theory cause weight loss. This is why people think changing the amount of protein in your diet will increase weight loss. The study covered by the CBS article addresses this issue during overfeeding; it would be interesting to see the same study with normal or restricted calories.

Joanna January 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I agree that diets will continue to be a hot topic and the media often distills science too much (or just plain gets it wrong). But I want to mention health literacy- especially that due to low numeracy and lack of understanding of calories, portion, labels, etc. most people don’t really know what to do with that info or what it’s saying. These approaches aren’t really helping most of us. The Inst of Medicine has recommended a new ranking system that is simpler and on the fronts of packages so fingers crossed. Something like a 3 or 4 star or level of good/badness for quick/easy decision-making. Leave the calories and grams to nutritionists.

Marisa Mead January 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm

I completely agree with you. An easy rating system would be really helpful for our population, and I’m excited about that prospect. Australia, the UK and South Africa have been using the GI index and studies have shown that it helps consumers choose healthier options at the supermarket. Even if they don’t understand what the GI index is, they are able to compare GI numbers and choose the product with the lower number.

What concerns me about a “star” ranking system is the abuse of such a system by food corporations. Companies today are able to put healthy terms such as “whole grain”, “low fat”, etc on their products even if they are unhealthy and loaded with sugar and sodium (the best example I can think of are sugar loaded, “whole grain” breakfast cereals). Hopefully there will be an unbiased organization controlling the ranking system to prevent mislabeling of unhealthy items as healthy.

Maryse January 20, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Hi Marisa! I’m not sure whether or not we should call it poetry but I very much appreciate the news/confuse rhyme in the head.

This has nothing to do with your skills but I’m bored to death with obesity, fat, weight loss, etc. and the mainstream media reporting in this area has no credibility with me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard one thing is dangerous for my health, etc. and then, a few years, it’s reversed. (Fat in your food; fat in your food is good)

Your first paragraph leads with this, “Two-thirds of America’s population is either overweight or obese,” and then you did your analysis, which got me to thinking. Where did you get your statistic and are you sure it’s a good one? What is overweight and what is obese?

I ask because a lot of these definitions are socially defined and the statistics aren’t all they should be. For example, in Gina Mallet’s book, Last Chance to Eat, she describes a meeting with one of the researchers who helped to define ‘high cholesterol’. She asked how he and his colleagues had arrived at the cutoff number where someone is considered to have a dangerously high count. His answer was something along these lines, ‘A bunch of us got in a room and we picked a number’. It’s not the only instance, high blood pressure? That number has changed over the years and it keeps being lowered arbitrarily. Here’s another example, women have a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetimes? Wrong; the chance of developing breast cancer is dependent on a woman’s age. (BTW, the blood pressure thing and breast cancer material are pieces of information I’ve gotten from Canadian medical writer, Susan Baxter.)

Thank you. It was a very interesting read. Cheers, Maryse (name similarity noted)

Michelle Mathas January 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Hi Marisa. There are lots of good points in the posts above so I will try not to repeat them. Science is generally not very well communicated to the public – journalists are partly to blame. I must say however, I am still not sure that I understood a lot more at the end of your article. I understood that the newspaper was wrong, but I still wasn’t sure what was right. I have recently started weight training and been informed by my trainer, GP, dietician and my own research that a high protein low fat low carb diet is the best weight management/health boosting option. This article just confused me. Luckily I am taking your advice that it is irrelevant to me so I will ignore it. I am not sure if that is a good or bad thing for me and science writing in general.

I often edit articles by scientists in my job, and I am sorry to say that they are generally not very good communicators. I can sometimes work on a paper for days, including discussing it with the scientist, before I have the aha moment and work out what it was they were trying to communicate in the first place (and I am generally acknowledged as quite intelligent and more science literate than your average citizen). In fact my organisation has employed a ‘knowledge manager’ in our science department specifically to act as translator between the scientists and other people.

The mistakes that journalists make are sometimes due to looking for a sensationalist hook and overstating things, but sometimes they are due to poor communication of the message from the scientists in the first place. Hopefully courses and exercises like the one you are engaged in right now will help to fix that problem. Keep up the good work.

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