Pass the fat, bring the science

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A new study on fat and heart-health is bringing out the worst in journalism.

Open up the New York Times or turn on CBS news and you’ll see a meaty burger loaded with cheese, bacon and a fried egg.

The burgers, fries, butter and cream aren’t meant to entice you, except, maybe to the news stories themselves.

But the juicy burger in the newspaper looks more like an invitation than a warning.

Fat-laden foods serve as the illustration from stories this week that arose from a study in a medical journal that assessed the relationship between diet and heart disease.

Let me tell you what’s good about the study and what’s bad about the reporting.

The study uses the gold standard of research called a meta-analysis.

That’s when scientists look at a flock of studies together to figure out what the overall findings reveal about some question.

For example, one famous meta-analysis by CDC researchers looked at the causes of death for Americans and found that smoking is one of the best predictors of mortality.

For the study published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers looked at 76 different studies that examined 659,298 people internationally and found the presence of saturated fat (whether in the people’s blood or present in their diets) had no statistically significant association with heart disease.

On balance, that means the researchers couldn’t find a correlation between consuming fats and heart disease.

But findings show no benefits of eating fats, but that part of the story gets lost in the translation.

“Saturated fat isn’t bad for your heart,” says the UK’s Daily Mail while CBS wonders, “Saturated fats not so bad after all?”

NPR boldly states, “Don’t fear the fat.”

Finding no relationship isn’t permission to chomp on hot dogs and Ho-hos.

Problem is health is a complex web of interactions and intersections while journalism tends to look for bite-sized answers to complicated questions.

We need to be critical consumers of information but most of us don’t have the training to apprise or even access the scientific articles.

In fact, the new study on fats and heart disease isn’t even available to lay-folk.

Readers depend on journalists—many of whom avoided math and science at university—to interpret analyses, confidence intervals, statistics and probabilities for us.

Finding no statistically significant association between saturated fats and heart health deserves discussion and more analysis.

But it doesn’t mean saturated fats are harmless, either.

Picture of fat cells, courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in health, journalism, native american, native press, Native Science, neuroscience, news bias, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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