Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Sound-bite Science

Sound-bite Science

“The Carb-Cancer Link”! Now there's a headline that gets your attention, and so does a recent study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. This article was used to confirm our newest darling diet fad, by stating that those carbs really are bad and can even cause breast cancer – one more reason to hop on the float, and ride along with the parade.

However, behind the headline startle lie the messy details. For example, this study was done on Mexican women whose main sources of carbohydrates included “tortillas, soda, and bread.” Soda was one of their top three sources of carbohydrates. Not beans, not fruits, not nuts, not vegetables. Nevertheless, the tie-in to the carb craze was seized upon for the headline.

Nowhere in this story does it point out that the Asian diet is predominantly composed of carbohydrates, that the thin French and Italians eat white flour baguettes twice per day every day, or that none of these healthy cultures rely on sodas as their principle beverage.

Nowhere does this story point out that the USDA’s top 20 food sources of antioxidants (which prevent cancer) are almost all on the to-be-avoided list of high-carb foods.

The headlines might have proclaimed “Soda Linked To Cancer” or, if you want to keep it on a more molecular footing, “High Fructose Corn Syrup Linked To Cancer.” But in choosing the most effective angle for this story, we were only served up carbs. Choosing the attention-getting headline is a completely arbitrary, half-full versus half-empty distinction decided not by the science but by the media.

All facts aside, they need a headline that sells.

For our part, most of us look at the media as if it were perfectly objective. And, to the degree that high fructose corn syrup is a carbohydrate, their take on the current study is factually accurate. But their concern about holding the attention span of a typically ADHD public readership will always play the largest role in the story angle. They tell the story we want to hear.

That’s why consumers get the news distilled for their own consumption. This creates a self-sustaining social inertia (like all fad diet trends). Dr. Atkins, for example, had the very same program and results back in the mid 1970’s, but it got no play because the lemmings at the time were heading in a different direction. Gaggles of low-fat eating, low-fat research, low-fat products, and low-fat news stories filled our lives.

That’s why the “carbs can cause cancer” headline is so ironic. Only a few years ago, the exact opposite result was pasted in equally large letters on the front page of health sections: “Fats Linked To Breast Cancer”. We were urged by organizations and their advertisers to eat up all the low-fat products and supporting stories they could produce.

Hence the inertia. The public moves in a direction (like low carb dieting). Companies turn demand into a supply of products, and advertise on the stations that report on the benefits of these products. Completing the circle, the public receives news stories as gospel from the organizations that prepare the stories we most want to consume. This feed-forward mechanism keeps the movement going and growing.

After all, we have no stomach for boring advice like … “don’t eat so damn much.” No one would read that story. We want quick fix, responsibility-absolving solutions.

Melanie Polk, RD, Director of Nutrition Education at American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) seems to agree. "Four out of five Americans … say they'd rather cut out entire categories of food from their diets than look for healthy ways to scale back their overall consumption," said Polk in a recent interview.

So if you want to sell papers or magazines or get click-throughs, you’ll be much more effective by confirming the lemming’s low carb trajectory than by advising balance, low volume eating, or eliminating all trash food from your diet. How many times, after all, can you repeat this common sense approach and still have people buy, read, or click-through?

In the end, sound-bite science leaves us with a chimera beast: a head of data, a body of entertainment, and a long trailing tail of self-fulfilling stories. But this animal (this form of health news) will never go away.

So reader be reminded that, as always, you are here to be entertained.

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