Why this dietitian reads beyond the headlines

Last week we all saw the headlines:

“Processed meats do cause cancer.”

“Bye, bye beef.”

“Hot dogs cause cancer.”

But, these are just a string in headlines meant to:

(1) Get us to pay attention to the media that is flashing the headline, and

(2) Scare us.

The processed meat headline is just the latest headline designed to frighten us. Last month this headline had us talking:

“Chemical lurking in citrus hikes melanoma risk proving ‘natural’ foods aren’t always good for you.”

Don’t you just love the word choice….”lurking”….that sounds sinister. The study that generated the headlines, like so many others, showed an “association” with increased risk. Note the wording. Association means correlation, not causation. Other words used as substitutes for correlation are “linked,” “tied to,” and “may have” increased risk. Which leads to the second part…increased risk.  The only way to know if the study affects you is to know who was in the study group (animals? men? women over 70 years of age?), what is the baseline risk for the disease in question and what is the increase in risk as a natural frequency, not as a percentage. Here is an example that I used in recent webinar on this topic. What if someone said drinking green tea every day increases your risk of having a stroke by 50% (this is a made up example, by the way!) That doesn’t mean that half of everyone drinking green tea will have a stroke. If the baseline risk is 2 of every 1000 people drinking green tea will have a stroke then a 50% increase means that one more person may have a stroke when drinking green tea. But, that isn’t headline-worthy because it isn’t scary.

There is no doubt headlines grab attention but they do a disservice to the public and undermine the credibility of scientists, researchers and nutrition experts. A 2009 survey of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists revealed that while interest in reporting on health topics has increased, the number of health care reporters has decreased. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said that news coverage of health topics was only “fair” and 14% thought it was “poor.” Even more discouraging was that 44% said their news organizations frequently or sometimes report stories based on a news release or press conference without substantive additional reporting.

I’m not encouraging people to eat a processed-meat rich diet. We should all strive for balance and taking the fear out of eating would help us all be healthier. We need more thoughtful reporting on health issues that encourage us to understand the science and put it into context. And, by the way, nobody mentioned that alcohol is on the list of foods that “cause” cancer yet I don’t see the outrage against alcohol.

If you need help decoding headlines, check out a few of my favorite sources:

ConsceinHealth http://conscienhealth.org/about/

Office for Science and Society at McGill University http://www.mcgill.ca/oss/home

Obesity and Energetics Offerings http://obesityandenergetics.org/