When the News Is Anti-Fat, the Volume Goes Up

Debbie says:

Laurie is once again traveling for a couple of weeks, so here I am, noting with no astonishment that she and I were completely right about how the media treats two kinds of stories.

Today’s front-page headlines are drowning in “fat increases cancer risk.” This is the result of a “metadata” study in which they say that 7,000 studies were collated and compared. Metadata studies are simultaneously useful and problematic because they compare and contrast studies with different methodologies, different hypotheses, different experimental conditions. (Are there really 7,000 studies to compare? The ABC news article quotes the principal investigator as saying they investigated 500 studies, which seems much more probable.)

My plan was to say that this study sounded interested and promising, and then to comment on how differently it’s being reported from the Women’s Health Initiative Study that Laurie and I talked about last week. I started out feeling neutral, and fair-minded, and open.

Then I started web-surfing, and my neutrality immediately began to slip. The study is the brainchild of an institution called The American Institute for Cancer Research (home page accessible from the previous link), which bills itself as “the nation’s leading charity in the field of diet, physical activity and weight management as it relates to cancer prevention.” You can bet they’re “leading”: they have a $40 million (!) annual budget and they absolutely do not want you to know where their money comes from. (Their financial statements claim that they do it all on contributions of no greater than $800,000, and they name no big donors.) The rest of their self-description sounds like they have an axe to grind here (and, yes, I am grinding the opposing blade).

I lost my temper when I looked at the headline on the study’s press release: “Excess Body Fat Causes Cancer.” This is such an outrageously incorrect conclusion that the newspapers haven’t even picked it up. Note that this conclusion cannot be reached from a metadata study, or even a human behavior study. It could be reached by isolating the biochemical mechanism by which fat initiates wild cell growth–something no one has even come close to doing, as far as I’m aware.

Needless to say, in everything from the ridiculous headline of the press release to the somewhat more balanced press reporting, two things are notably absent, and one is buried. The first is any acknowledgment that diets don’t work for the vast majority of people–even when you call them nutrition management or lifestyle changes. Here’s what ABC has to say:

“The news and conclusions are important because they help confront the view that cancer risk is something we don’t control,” said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. “In my experience, patients tend to recognize that they can control their heart disease risk, but they think of cancer as a bogeyman that pounces from the shadows–that isn’t so.

“Along with avoiding tobacco, weight control and certain dietary adjustments offer powerful means of reducing risk for many, perhaps most cancers.”

The second is any indication that a recent important study had results that contradict these.

Finally, the news reports bury, well past the middle of the articles, the truly important (and proven) point (again quoted from the ABC article):

Experts also emphasize that smoking, not diet, is the primary risk factor that people can address to reduce their cancer risk.

“From a global public health perspective, it is tobacco, not diet that is projected to be the driving force in increased cancer deaths,” said K. Michael Cummings, chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. “Avoiding tobacco, the green leafy vegetable that is not good for you, will prevent about 30 percent of cancers.”

Even with its tainted origins, ridiculous sponsor reporting, and uneven media reporting, this study obviously has some value. I just want to live in a world where it can be debated on an equal footing with studies that contradict, and where “lose weight to reduce cancer risk” isn’t treated like something as simple as “wear green on Wednesdays” or “don’t mix ammonia and bleach.”

food, diet,fat, healthy eating, cancer, weight loss, body image, cancer risk, media, science, American Institute for Cancer Research, Body Impolitic

10 thoughts on “When the News Is Anti-Fat, the Volume Goes Up

  1. My most enraged with this study were two points:
    1) Skimming some of the figures republished in Junkfood Science’s treatment of the reports, I noted that the study came out with its own synthesized risk factor that was just a little above 1.00, but did not publish the confidence interval information. Given the source studies for this meta-study all provided confidence intervals, it’s unconscionable to just pick a point out of the air, biased to support your assertions, without also carrying along the error/CI information. Given the actual source studies’ figures, I think it would be quite unlikely if the meta-study’s CI did not overlap with 1.00 (i.e. no finding).
    2) Reading a quote from the Junkfood Science’s summary of the study:

    Despite no epidemiological evidence showing a tenable connection, they concluded that both red meat and processed meats are a “convincing cause of colorectal cancer.” The risks of processed meats were so severe, that they recommended people eat “very little if any.”

    Why do the reporters/media and the other doctors continue to eat these summaries up? It’s obviously time to do our own homework (or to trust those we’ve vetted to do it, at least), and stop just reading the press releases and brochures.

    OT, have you considered installing the WordPress plugin for ReCAPTCHA? Not only do you get an additional layer of spam protection, but every CAPTCHA correctly filled out works toward digitizing old books for projects like Project Gutenberg. I installed it on my (far smaller) WordPress blog yesterday. Installation was a breeze. Let me know if you want a link to see how it works.

  2. In my experience, patients tend to recognize that they can control their heart disease risk, but they think of cancer as a bogeyman that pounces from the shadows … that isn’t so.

    If Dr. Katz had ever actually talked to a patient (instead of, you know, sitting there and vibrating) he would know what an utterly ludicrous thing this is to say. (Actually, I should say if he’d ever listened to a patient, since I know plenty of people do carry on private practices without hearing a word out of their patients’ mouths.) I mean, where do you even start with this? Does he seriously believe that people have NEVER EVER CONSIDERED THE IDEA that some cancer risks can be alleviated or exacerbated by your habits? He’s never met someone who quit smoking, or got regular pap smears or mammograms, or deliberately ate a cruciferous vegetable? Really?

    Whether or not your habits can affect your cancer risk, and I don’t know if we have good data that any habit besides cancer screening (and smoking) has a causal relationship, people certainly think they do. It’s completely absurd to suggest otherwise, and it belies his complete disconnection from reality (which he probably can’t see over the top of whoever’s pocket he’s in).

  3. Great Post! Keep up the excellent word.

    Love & Gratitude,
    Think Simple. Be Decisive.
    ~ Productivity, Motivation & Happiness

  4. I went to the story about this published by Market Watch on Google. Here’s the list of recommended behaviors from the people who published the study:

    # Be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight
    # Be physically active as part of everyday life
    # Limit consumption of “energy-dense foods,” foods that are high in calories, fat and sugar. Avoid sugary drinks.
    # Eat mostly foods of plant origin, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans
    # Limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat
    # Limit alcoholic drinks to one per day for women, two per day for men
    # Limit consumption of salt. Avoid moldy grains or legumes
    # Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone, without dietary supplements

    It seems to me that if ignores the first one — what’s “normal body weight”? — that the remaining seven items speak to health, not weight. I don’t have a problem with that.

  5. Every time I receive the humongous bills for various health procedures (which in our case are 90% covered by insurance), I wonder why we don’t see more front page headlines about cancer and cancer survivability and its relationship to . . . poverty.

    And – yes – the anti-fat/cancer study was front page in my paper, and upon seeing it I immediately thought of your post of last week about the other study.

  6. Malcolm, yes. I’m as sick of the health science press as I am of the U.S. political press, which is saying a lot.

    Fillyjonk, yes. And thanks for making that so clear.

    Lizzy, my problem is not with that advice, although I’m becoming less and less confident that it is “healthier.” My problem is with the “If you don’t do these things, the cancer boogeyman will come down your chimney and eat you up!” Read Junk Food Science’s post and then tell me if you’re still comfortable wtih the tone.

    Alis, yes. Poverty, and oppression are things I believe are trulyl dangerous to your health. Among other things, this is a plausible explanation of why life expectancy rises as national BMI rises, because it’s at least somewhat of a reflection of better living conditions for all. One thing Sandy Szwarc points out in Junk Food Science is that 1/4 of cancers in low-income countries are caused by infections which are better treated in first-world countries. In the U.S., of course, I live in a first-world country with a third-world country all around me.

  7. Deb, I entirely agree with you about the tone, and I object to the implications in many of these studies and in the reporting of them that people who get cancer must be doing “unhealthy things” or else they wouldn’t be sick — which is a crock. I think the advice I quoted earlier to probably good, but I would be happier if these folks would point out that even if you follow it, there’s no guarantee you won’t get cancer. As the T-shirt says, Everybody dies. There’s a certain hectoring, blame-the-victim attitude in all these reports which does not reflect well on the solidity of the science.

  8. Whoops, that should have read — “is probably good” — I posted too quickly.

    Have you considered allowing posters here to preview their comments?

  9. I’m not sure that all this health advice is healthy. Malnutrition isn’t just about eating foods that are high in certain desirable nutrients. It’s also about matching your own body’s needs correctly at anyone time. If you bias fruit and veg that’s fine as long as it matches your true needs, if they don’t, it merely encourages the same the leaving open of the eating urge, that is so associated with high density foods. IOW you eat your fruit veg and whole grains and end up eating the hamburgers or whatever as well, you end up with the diet of two people, one a so-called healthy eater and one a junk food junkie, schizoid!

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