Rules of Reading: Know the Source and Get the Full Story

Sifting through health-related studies can be a daunting task, especially when those studies get condensed into bite-sized paragraphs or scare-inducing headlines. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine recently released a twelve-page study titled Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men. The study followed 120,000 healthy individuals in health related professions for 20 years, checking in every 4 years to weigh them and assess their lifestyle habits.

The original study concludes with this: “Specific dietary and lifestyle factors are independently associated with long-term weight gain, with a substantial aggregate effect and implications for strategies to prevent obesity. ”

Now, what does the media do with this information? Descend upon it like a pack of hounds, turning 12 pages of research and 20 years of studying into:

Potato Chips Worst Culprit for Weight Gain
Study: The Foods Keeping You From Weight Loss
Still Counting Calories? Your Weight-Loss Plan May Be Outdated
Why Potato Chips Make You Fatter Than Ice Cream and Alcohol
Say No to Fries and Chips—but Cheese and Diet Soda are O.K.

If you were to only scan the headlines of these stories you could infer that potatoes chips are the worst food ever, certain foods are sabotaging your weight loss efforts, counting calories is futile, ice cream and alcohol are just fine to consume, as are cheese and diet soda. (Nevermind that French fries, not potato chips, were the main source of fat gain)


Don’t let the smile fool you, he’s evil. (Source)

So what you’re saying is….I can eat all the ice cream and cheese I want, I just have to cut out potato chips and I’ll lose weight?

Eh…no. This study wasn’t done to villainize potatoes and shut-down the potato farmers of America (although they were quite unhappy about the results). The study looked at a variety of variables and found that the consumption of some foods correlated with weight gain or loss over the span of four years.

Pounds gained (on average) over four years based on additional daily servings of foods:
* French fries – 3.35 pounds (.83 lbs per year gained)
* Potato chips – 1.69 pounds
* Sugar-sweetened beverages – 1 pound
* Unprocessed red meat – 0.95 pounds
* Processed meats – 0.93 pounds
* Foods containing trans fats – 0.65 pounds
* Boiled, baked or mashed potatoes – 0.57 pounds
* Butter – .30 pounds

Pounds lost (on average) over four years based on additional daily servings of foods:
* Yogurt – 0.82 pounds (.20 lbs per year lost)
* Nuts – 0.57 pounds
* Fruits – 0.49 pounds
* Whole grains – 0.37 pounds
* Vegetables – 0.22 pounds

Oh, and the average study participant gained 3.35 pounds over every four-year period. Does this mean we’re eating too much of the wrong foods, too little of the good foods, the wrong quantities of foods, not exercising enough, or some other mystery variable?

Likely all of the above.

Exercise helps, but it cannot undo the damage of a diet filled with potatoes. The participants that exercised the least gain gained 1.76 pounds more (.44 lbs per year) than those who exercised the most. Those who ate the most fattening foods and exercised the least gained nearly 6 pounds more (1.5 lbs per year) than people who consumed the least fattening foods and exercised the most.

In case you missed the memo, sitting can kill you and watching TV also makes you fat (every additional hour spent watching TV adds .077 lbs of weight per year)

Diet soda? Perfectly safe, no correlation.

…until you think about all the other studies you’ve read and how they contradict the findings of this study.

Some potatoes are good for you!

Diet soda may cause Type 2 Diabetes, increase waistline up to 500% compared to non-soda drinkers
Eating lean red meat in small amounts can be part of a healthy weight-loss plan
Butter is the newest health food

I’m so confused! What does it all mean? Everything contradicts everything else!

The media is eager to be the first to have the scoop on any study, regardless of its validity. A study is a study and they’re all legitimate, right? Well, we used to think smoking was a perfectly safe habit but that’s been long disproved. Technology has evolved food production faster than our bodies can adapt and it will probably be decades until we truly understand the repercussions of our actions and technological advances.

I do think headlines are sensationalized to draw readers and page clicks, which translates into advertising revenue if you’re reading your articles online. In terms of the study, the actual pounds gained relative to specific foods consumed is relatively small, less than 1 lb/year for the first-place french fries. But…those pounds add up, especially with multiple servings. The “bad foods” are all over-processed, barely recognizable forms of their former foods or foods that tend to be consumed in large portions paired with unhealthy condiments.

Parting words: Everything should be fine in moderation (less than once a week for the fattening foods). Try to replace the “bad foods” with healthier versions, like baked sweet potato fries instead of fried and salted Russet potatoes. Swap butter for olive oil if the recipe permits; eat the fruit instead of drinking the juice (you’ll consume more fiber, which slows down sugar absorption).

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2 comments on “Rules of Reading: Know the Source and Get the Full Story

  1. Constance on said:

    So true…make sure to notice WHO is writing, and WHY might they benefit.

  2. Glies Adkins on said:

    Ugh, who can you trust? EVERYONE has an agenda!

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