Making Sense of Headlines About Obesity and Health

When do you filter out the noise?

Every day, our news feeds fill up with sensational headlines about obesity and health. Somewhere in those headlines, important new truths are buried. But mostly, you’ll find hype. When we all have so many things competing for our attention, how can we filter through all this noise?

Here are five clues to do just that.

Separate Facts from Sensation

First and foremost, headlines serve the needs of the publisher. That means attracting readers. Having more readers will translate into more money for advertising. So a sensational headline that makes you look twice beats an accurate, boring headline every time.

This doesn’t mean that headline writers want to lie to you. But they do want to make you stop. For example, consider this recent headline: Can a Nutrition Bar Really Help Kids with Asthma Breathe Better?

You’ll note that the writer worked on a sensational claim, but without telling an outright lie. The writer avoided coming right out and saying that these bars actually make asthma better. But the headline gets your attention with the sensational suggestion that it might.

If you go to the underlying study, you’ll find out why. The intent-to-treat analysis found no effect on asthma symptoms. Researchers found some hints by digging through their data, but no proof for a benefit.

Hence, the writer fed us a sensational claim – but left wiggle room by phrasing it as a question. Even without reading the study, the headline tells you it’s an open question.

Look Hard at the Study

Unfortunately, some headlines are just pure sensationalism. They include no qualifiers, just a fantastic claim. Take this headline from the Washington Post, for instance:

The latest study about antioxidants is terrifying
Scientists think they may boost cancer cells to spread faster

“May” is the only qualifier in this headline. To put this “terrifying” news into perspective, you have to take a hard look at the study itself. It’s a study of mice transplanted with human tumors. Blueberries – a source of antioxidants used to illustrate the story – had nothing to do with the research.

Read further in the article and you’ll find that the primary researcher says these findings are not conclusive. Cancer patients should still consume antioxidants as part of a healthy diet, he says.

Of course, you can spend a great deal of time analyzing a study. But you don’t have to be a research geek to look for the big picture. Every study has an abstract. If the authors have done their job, the abstract tells you in a few words what the study is all about.

Does it show cause and effect? Or does it only show a correlation? Is this an animal study that simply provides clues for future research? Or is it a large, randomized, and controlled study in humans?

Merely reading an abstract and asking yourself what a study actually shows can tell you a lot.

Consider the Sources

Perhaps this is obvious, but it’s important. The reputation of a publication can be an important clue. Something published in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal is usually more reliable than something from the Daily

Express. Likewise, JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine (for example) carry more weight than many other medical journals. At the extreme, so-called “predatory” open access journals will publish virtually anything for a fee.

When in doubt, look at a journal’s impact factor compared to other journals with a similar focus. Check to see if the journal is indexed in the National Library of Medicine.

A publication’s reputation is not a guarantee of solid reporting. But it can help to screen out some flaky sources.

Look at the Big Picture

Breakthroughs are rare. Scientific knowledge about health, obesity and nutrition builds over time. So when an ambitious researcher or a journalist thinks they’re onto something new and important, ask yourself how this bit of news fits into what we already know.

A basic internet search can quickly provide a bigger context to consider. Google scholar can be especially helpful for finding other research on the subject. You can also get a clue from reading the background section of the paper that’s generating news.

It’s important to know if the news you’re reading is an outlier. Or is it a line of thought that’s gaining ever more support from ongoing research?

Beware of Bias

We humans are full of bias. The bias of commercial interests gets lots of attention. But plenty of other biases can influence the reporting of research. A righteous cause, a career committed to a particular concept, familiarity, repetition, and skewed designs are but a few of the factors that can play a role.

Bias is unavoidable. The only antidote is to read information from a broad range of sources and consider what biases might be in play. Develop an eye for objectivity. Ask yourself is the author of what you’re reading looking for the truth? Or simply trying to prove a point?

Critical Thinking

The bottom line for these five tips is really straightforward. Critical thinking is the essential tool for dealing with sensational news headlines about health, nutrition, and obesity. Voltaire’s advice on this subject is among the best you can find: Seek the truth and question those who’ve found it.

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