Spotting bad science in the media

STOP PRESS! ......Please

The media is ever lacking in restraint for attention grabbing headlines. This is particularly true when it comes to reporting the latest press release of a nutrition based study. Fluffing science like this increases public confusion that constitutes a good diet. While there is often there will be a nice soundbite from the principal investigator, I won't lay all the blame at the scientist's door, it's a stressful job with worrying reports like this appearing more often. 

Behind the scenes being a scientist is frustrating, often with unrewarding work, looking after research students, writing research grant after research grant, pessimistically checking email to see if another paper has been rejected by the journal gods (editors).  There aren't many jobs where hard work does not necessarily constitute results. Personally speaking it's soul crushing when weeks worth of work are proved to be fruitless. However, some just do not help themselves with inflammatory statements that over step the mark

The worst culprits are those with significant conflicts of interest

The latest hysteria is that high protein based diets are disastrous to your health. This was seen in 'The Telegraph' this week. 

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When looking at papers always look at conflicts of interests. This quote comes off the back of research in the Cell metabolism journal, from the principal investigator who is also founder of L-Nutra, a company with products that are solely plant based. It doesn't mean it's not good science (this may be detableable), as this is published in a peer reviewed journal, but the bias can be skewed. This particular study shows that those are aged between 50-65yrs who eat a high protein diet (>20% of their calories) are at higher risk to getting cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Looking closer into this, the average calorie intake for the group was 1583, so thats 80g or more protein a day (under the assumption that 1g protein = 4 calories). Also, this was not adjusted for processed meats, but attributed to either animal protein and plant based proteins. 

Instead of comparing the mortality and cancer incidences per population, they looked at relative risk and hazard ratio (see below). To explain this in general terms even if you increase your risk 100 fold from 1 in a million to 1 in 10000 your OVERALL risk is still small. Whereas if it was 55% you can't even double your risk 

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The study does through up some interesting data regarding elderly, +65yrs, populations that have increased longevity with an increased protein intake. The elderly are prone to sarcopenia (muscle wasting) so this has been proposed as strategy to counteract this.
In a similar European study, in half a million patients, it was high processed meat consumption that was associated with CVDs and cancer. Whereas, no significance was found with high red meat consumption, and in fact all cause mortality was associated with low red meat consumption. Cue - 'Eat meat or you're dead' headlines from this one!

Now for the flavour of the month - sugar

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This was in response to a study in Gastroentrology titled "No Difference Between High-Fructose and High-Glucose Diets on Liver Triacylglycerol or Biochemistry in Healthy Overweight Men". Looking straight to the conflicts of interests, several authors on this paper have received funding from the Coca-cola company. The paper itself is a comprehensive meta-analysis of several studies, however all studies accessed after below 10 weeks. In a condition like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a chronic disease that will occur over years rather than a couple of months. This is not conclusive but shows that much more research needs to be carried out to provide evidence either way. To say 'fructose is not responsible' is ...just....not responsible 

The latest was on everyone's favourite subject 'weight loss', as becoming healthier is just not sexy anymore

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WOW. I can't wait to get some.

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Looking closer at the study in question, published in the Food Chemistry journal, it is an in-vitro study (using isolated enzyme not in a real system) that is far removed from effects in man. They focused on the lipase inhibiting properties of the seaweed alginates, that stop the breakdown and absorption of fats, in comparison to the already licensed, orlistat, that has a similar mechanism of action.

So did anywhere on the study suggest it's potential for 'weight-loss'? No

So, what should have been the headline? Well, I struggle to answer why this deserved a headline and article in the first place. It's good science, but 'Inhibitory activities of three Malaysian edible seaweeds on lipase and α-amylase' only goes so far. There is an endless quantity of good science that never makes it to public attention, or is hidden behind paywalls.

So remember next time you see a press about what may kill you, or make you live forever, look into it objectively, or simply take it with a pinch of salt (just not too much of that either ;) )