Reliability and honesty of weight loss diet research

Healthy diet plan / Category / Emile Du Toit / May 9th 2014

The weight loss industry

One of the problems with the weight loss industry is that it is just that, an industry. There are competing products and every ‘manufacturer’ is out there trying to sell you something. Facts become irrelevant. Sale pitch is everything! You will see that the written sales pitch gets more and more subtle. The headings make outrageous claims, and then towards the end there is fine print that pretty much nullifies all that has been preached up front.

That is sales. What is far more alarming is that the academic research in this field is getting tainted by the bottom line. Research is often conducted via grants from someone with a vested interest. Leading professors in fields often run clinics, sell products or publish books that promote one product over another. The waters get muddier and muddier.

This is not unique to the weight loss industry. Areas such as exercise and nutritional supplements are equally fraught with poor research and poorer opinion pieces.

Quality of research

What I find is that the more contentious a field and/or the greater the (financial) stakes, the worse the quality of the methodology used in the average research study. What many people do not know is that the integrity of the methodology and also of the statistics utilised is absolutely vital.

Stats, as we know, are pliable indeed!

Generally speaking a good indication of the quality of research can be judged by the quality of whichever particular journal it is published in. Nowadays though many studies are published ‘online’ or awaiting publication and quality is harder to judge without actually reading and understanding the methodology itself.

Now there is much excellent research out there, but access to the rubbish also appears to be growing.

Quality of online opinion pieces

Much of the pure published research out there still has both integrity and the knowledge to interpret results appropriately (often irrespective of where the money comes from). However the opinion pieces (hopefully unlike the one you are reading) are often more suspect.

Much is just lazy journalism, where a writer has latched upon one already rehashed article and rehashed it once again, without considering the accuracy of the content.

A lot out there is also motive driven. People are selling something, albeit a product, advertising space or reputation. My own personal opinion is to be wary of articles that are militant in their views (‘all good’ or ‘all bad’) and are light on facts and research. Words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘all professionals in the field’, ‘not a single study’ and ‘no research’. Not that they mean that there is anything wrong with an opinion piece, but when used continuously they do give off warning signs that something might be off.

For example, the low carb research (which I have a lot of respect for and which will lead to progress whatever is ultimately decided) has been its own worst enemy. There is some quality research and some not so much. Some of this we can lay at the feet of enthusiasm to prove the merits of a new viewpoint. But a lot of the opinion pieces in particular have been of poor quality and high bias, which for researchers and scientists out there has raised a lot of questions before the facts have even been given due consideration.

Indeed we might consider the now somewhat famous/notorious article by Gary Taubes where he misquoted or quoted out of context a fair wedge of the top scientific minds in the field. They have come out en masse to deny the quotes, but it didn’t stop him landing a glamorous book deal with a mere $700 000 in advance. Some of the ‘facts’ he presents are frankly ludicrous. Sadly though, his words will be read by many and re-quoted ad nauseum.

The intention of this particular journalist

I see my job as an educator here. I am doing my best to separate fact out from fiction, opinion from evidence. This does not mean that I come without my own personality and subjective biases. As a psychologist my goal is to consider these as accurately as I can. Where I believe I have a particular bias I will do my best to put it out there.

Equally, if I am deriving any sort of financial benefit, whether directly or indirectly from any product or theory that I am writing about, I will certainly disclose this too!

Having said all of that, this humble psychologist is very much mortal. I attempt to read text books, original research and/or quality opinions on what I write about, supplemented by clinical experience and my interest in methodology. Nevertheless, time is always limited and mistakes happen. If you ever find a fact that you doubt or an important, quality research article that contradicts something I have researched, please email with it immediately. If I agree with the evidence (and that it is relevant to the point that I made) then I will immediately make the alteration. This too enables learning for both myself and my readership!

Conclusion

Those of us who look at the actual statistics and methodologies utilised in research into specific diets realise how methodologically unsound many of them are. Many of the conclusions extracted from data that is ambiguous at best are somewhat unfathomable. Opinions are sharply divided, and it appears that proponents of a particular diet cannot sit with the fact that many diets actually have both strengths and weaknesses to them. Diets being promoted somehow need to be perfect in every respect. Those of opponents need to be terrible all round. There cannot be grey zones, and the stats are invariably bended to fit the conclusions that need to be reached.

I advise much caution when reading articles in contentious money spinning fields such as weight loss, exercise programs and dietary supplements. Where possible, try to stick to the original research itself or opinion pieces from respected journalists that you trust.

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