It’s true (no, it’s not)
December 5th 2018, 15:49
This is an urgent appeal on behalf of headline-readers. This troubled group are perpetually confused and bewildered, and some have already ended up in nursing homes, sedated by round-the-clock staff.
These unfortunate people read headlines and take them seriously. As with so many things, it started out with good intentions. They are busy people who are short on time, as most of us are, but they wanted to stay on top of events, including the latest health news.
The best way to do that, they figured, was to focus on the headlines and, if time permitted, perhaps the first paragraph or two. But they soon realized they were getting contradictory information: one day it was safe to drink some alcohol, the next day any amount was dangerous. The same went for different foods and diets, exercise, lifestyle advice, and so on.
Clearly, both pieces of information couldn't be true, and the logical brain of the typical headline-reader was unable to hold a contradiction. Eventually, these people declined into mental illness until they reached the sorry state so many find themselves in today.
Their basic error was in believing the headlines. But they hadn't taken into account two important factors: the journalist who wants more people to read his newspaper or blog, and the academic who needs to make a name for himself.
The most obvious example is the advice being churned out about drinking alcohol. One week, a little drinking is good for you, especially your heart, and the next, even the very whiff of alcohol will make you keel over and die on the spot.
Here's another example. Many of us are on a low-carb diet—such as Atkins—because we've read somewhere that it's healthy and a great way to lose weight, but that's not true anymore, according to recent headlines. In fact, the diet could shorten your life.
The journalists and bloggers jumped on the story because they like nothing better than giving a good kicking to some 'fad' diet, and the researchers got what they wanted, which was publicity, and radio and TV interviews.
It makes a great headline, for sure—but it isn't true. The researchers, from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, actually discovered that both a low-carb and a high-carb diet reduced longevity. The ideal was in the middle; those who got around 50 percent of their energy from carbs lived the longest.1
This requires quite a precise calculation, so how did the researchers figure it out? By the least reliable method of them all: a questionnaire. In fact, they relied on two questionnaires, spaced six years apart. As an accompanying editorial made clear, the results should be treated with caution. "So-called group thinking can lead to biases . . . and the use of analytical approaches to produce findings that fit in with current thinking." In other words, the researchers produced the result they wanted to see.
Even the authors admitted as much; the questionnaires revealed a statistical correlation, which doesn't prove anything, they said. It doesn't demonstrate that people eating a low-carb diet will die sooner as a direct result, but that those who ate low-carb tended to die sooner (and the same was true for those eating lots of carbs).
In fact, people eating a low-carb diet who relied more on vegetables for their energy sources were likely to live longer than those eating a high-carb diet.
Yes, the type of carbs you eat makes a difference—eat carbs that are rich in refined sugars, such as white rice or bread, and you'll also reduce your chance of a long and healthy life compared to those who eat vegetables (which also contain carbs, by the way), nuts and whole-grain foods.
So how did the journalists get it so wrong? For one, the researchers issued a press release that highlighted the 'discovery' that a low-carb diet shortens your life, and the journalists, being lazy or not wanting to have the facts spoil a good story, ran with it.
The journalists get a good story, and the researchers get on the map. Sadly, the poor headline-reader is the victim.
So please give generously; it'll make a difference (or won't, according to another study).
1 The Lancet, 2018; 3:e419-28