This piece was written by one of our contributors; nutrition and dietetics MSc student – James Bradfield.
When using almost any website today, you are likely to come across ‘clickbait’ of one sort or another at some point in time. In many cases, it is an advert for shoes or headphones you recently saw on Amazon, while others may be tempting you with ‘easy ways to get rich from your couch’ . Frighteningly, one of the most popular forms of clickbait today relates to the health industry and more specifically, to diet and nutrition. This poses an interesting question; why do we still fall for clickbait of this sort? The truth is likely to centre around one main factor:
When it comes to our health, there’s few things more appealing than a quick fix.
In terms of nutrition in the media however, it is not always enough to ignore the obvious clickbait. Adverts that appear underneath articles stating “UK Seniors Should Claim this Benefit!” and “Where [insert celebrity name here] lives at 42 is heart-breaking” are fairly easily identified as a ploy to get you to follow the link but in the world of nutrition, companies and those representing them use other means to tempt you to click. This may be through celebrity endorsements, event sponsorship or the promise of free samples. But, ladies and gentlemen, simple promises such as losing x amount of weight in x number of days don’t work for this reason: nutrition and the physiology of our body is more complex than that.
There are two things at play within nutritional science. Firstly, studying nutritional effects on populations tends to be difficult. Long-term studies are usually required to show the efficacy of a particular food or diet which cost lots of money and requires a complex ethical debate. It can also be difficult to account for the numerous factors which impact our health while the study is trying to find out the impact of one specific factor. Secondly, nutrition is a highly complex and nuanced scientific discipline and while many of its principles around what we eat have not changed since our grandparents were young, gaining a comprehensive understanding of cutting edge research is not always easily achieved.
When new nutrition research is reported in mainstream media, there are often issues with accuracy, or rather, the lack of. Sometimes these reports may be deliberately exaggerated to sell a product but it is worth bearing in mind that often it can be a genuine mistake. Reporting on science is not as simple as it may seem and mistakes are easily made. One commonly seen issue is extrapolation. This refers to extending the results in a study to an end point not actually reached in the study. Common examples of this may be headlines such as:
“Eating chillies four times a week ‘HALVES risk of heart attack and stroke’”(1)
While this may suggest that ordering the spicy curry can help your heart, is it really that simple? The answer is probably no. This study in particular was interesting and looked at chilli consumption in around 22,000 participants over an average period of 8 years (2). They found that those who ate more chilli had lower rates of premature mortality and heart disease. However, what is important to note is that they did not look at many other factors such as genetics, environmental factors, socioeconomic status or smoking, all of which we know are also intricately related to the above conditions. This is not to say that some extra heat won’t benefit your heart, but based on the results of this study alone we can’t say that chomping some extra chilli will have a significant impact on reducing the risk of heart disease.
This paper is worth noting for another reason as it’s an example of a particular type of research that tends to be somewhat abused in media headlines. In this study, the researchers did not technically influence the participants. They did not, for example, keep the 20,000 people in a lab for 8 years for obvious cost, space and human rights reasons. Instead, they simply monitored one variable (level of chilli consumption) and looked at certain outcomes (heart disease and early mortality). This is known as observational research for self-evident reasons. Observational research has its place but it is always worth bearing it mind that this type of research indicates whether there is a possible association between two things (such as chilli and heart disease), rather than a direct cause and effect link. The implication may be that the chilli is the defining factor for this outcome while in reality there are a myriad of factors at play with such a large population size over that period of time.
Another common form of extrapolation involves headlines like:
“New Study Explains Why Ginseng Can Help You Lose Weight” (3).
As humans, we like black and white answers and simple solutions but unfortunately nutritional science is never that straightforward. Instead this study examined the potential effect that a ginseng extract would have on the bacteria in the gut, which may ultimately have an effect in controlling body weight (4). Crucially, this study was conducted in mice. Once again, it’s not to say that this isn’t excellent research or that it won’t have a big impact in further findings but, for now, it appears we haven’t quite cracked it. On the subject of studies conducted in mice, the wonderful Twitter account @justsaysinmice points to countless examples of the issue above in many areas of research and should highlight just how prevalent this type of misreporting is.
Another way that nutrition may be misrepresented in the media is through celebrity endorsements. Social media influencers are frequently paid to promote new diet drinks, supplements or that dreaded word… detoxes. To be very clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with influencers being paid to promote something – it is merely a new form of advertising. However, Issues occur when the products may not work, may promote an unhealthy relationship with eating or when products are downright dangerous. Examples include Kim Kardashian posting about weight loss lollipops and Gwyneth Paltrow’s (unfortunately) highly successful lifestyle brand Goop with its wide variety of supplements.
This was recently brought to the public’s attention in a BBC documentary series called “Blindboy Undestroys the World” (5). In one episode, three prominent influencers agreed to promote ‘Cyanora’, a fictional weight loss drink which reportedly contained hydrogen cyanide (the almond-scented liquid or gas which is highly poisonous and has been used in chemical warfare). Though their willingness to promote a product without being fully informed about the contents was concerning, their admissions that they would have no problem in selling something that they had never used was even more frightening. This fact alone should give a good indication as to how much influence these types of products have on the body shape, size, fitness and appeal of modern influencers.
For those of you interested in a more light hearted approach to what is often termed ‘Nutribabble’ or ‘Nutribollocks’ have a look at Ian Marber on Twitter (@IanMarber). He runs a weekly #nutribollocks poll comparing the most ridiculous trends of the week, such as lamb chops which treat yeast infections, cancer fighting pancakes and acidic blood.
It’s interesting to explore why many of us are willing to take nutrition advice and follow plans made by people who have no training or background in the subject. This can largely be explained as an example of a theory known as argument from authority. While this may sound high-brow, it simply describes the phenomenon whereby we believe someone’s opinions or thoughts on a topic simply because of their perceived expertise in that subject or in this case, another subject. For example, it is widely accepted that Shakespeare wrote excellent plays. Trusting Shakespeare’s economic policies based on the fact that he wrote good plays and therefore must be in the know about economics would be an example of an argument from authority (as there was no evidence that he knew anything about economics). Similarly when a prominent actor or singer preaches about nutrition in the media, a similar argument is being made. To be clear, many celebrities do nothing of the sort and others actually give good advice. But again, it’s those that don’t who we should be concerned by but rather those who appeal to vulnerable people to ‘do as I do so you can be as I am’.
Also worthy of note the difference between research and anecdotes. Unfortunately a lot of the discussion around diet on social media is based on anecdotes. We’ve all become used to these stories of a particular diet that worked for one person being recommended for everyone or that by using a detox product that someone else has used, you are likely to get the same results. It would be great if research was that simple but it quite simply cannot be when you consider how much time, effort, planning and funding goes into studies like those mentioned above. A common line of thinking among the proponents of certain diets is that if you were to add up all the anecdotes and combine them that you could publish this as research. Again, it would be fantastic if this was the case but it is just not that straightforward because of the immeasurable number of additional factors at play when looking at the effect of a diet.
As a final tip for weeding out nutrition myths in the media, beware of certain buzzwords and terms:
“According to science” – as if science has unanimously spoken
“Boffins prove” – does the title boffin come before or after a PhD?
“Doctors don’t want you to know this weight loss cure” – why would any health professional not want you to know something that may improve your overall health?
These are often used to draw you in and often lead to an article such as those about ginseng or chilli above. Sometimes it will be useful information, or maybe it’s just something you enjoy reading about. Either way, it’s important to be aware of what is out there and how to navigate nutrition stories in the media… whether you have a background in the topic or not. And on that note, if you do have such a background then be aware of your position of privilege. The scientific discipline that we work in and love is one that so many are interested in. It’s one that interests young people and adults alike and that is not something that can be said for all sciences. This gives us a massive opportunity to share what we love and make sure that others can engage with it as much and as safely as possible.
With great understanding comes great responsibility…go forth and challenge all nutribollocks!
(1) Eating spicy food ‘cuts your risk of early death by a quarter. [Internet]. The Mirror. 2019 [cited 29 January 2020]. Available from: https://www.mirror.co.uk/science/eating-spicy-food-cuts-your-21112055
(2) Bonaccio M, Di Castelnuovo A, Costanzo S, Ruggiero E, De Curtis A, Persichillo M et al. Chili Pepper Consumption and Mortality in Italian Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019 Dec 24;74(25):3139-3149
(3) New Study Explains Why Ginseng Can Help You Lose Weight. [Internet]. Mbg Health. 2019 [cited 29 January 2020) Available from: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/new-study-explains-why-ginseng-can-help-you-lose-weight
(4) Quan L, Zhang C Dong M, Jiang J, Xu H, Yan C et al. (2019). Myristoleic acid produced by enterococci reduces obesity through brown adipose tissue activation. Gut, gutjnl-2019-319114. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2019-319114
(5) Influencers Audition To Promote A New Drink Containing Cyanide | Blindboy Undestroys The World. [Internet]. YouTube. 2019 [cited January 2020]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LAENo5l_sg