Are some studies on nutrition by researchers wrongly biased against some foods and beverages?
Yes, says a professor in nutrition and a professor in biostatistics - both at the University of Alabama.
Mark Cope and David Allison wrote recently in a commentary in the International Journal of Obesity that in their research they have found a tendency by the public health community to distort research about certain products or ingredients regardless of the science.
Why would public health officials and researchers do this? When the distortions are perceived “in the service of what may be perceived as righteous ends” say Cope and Allison, who have labeled the phenomenon “white hat bias.”
We at Sip & Savor have noted such bias in the recommendations made in the past by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which serves as the basis for federal advice on nutrition advice. We now know that the Committee made erroneous and perhaps harmful recommendations on fat and cholesterol. Worse, the Committee made its decisions despite science and research known at the time that contradicted its recommendations.
Today, the public health community has a habit of oversimplifying nutrition science. They divide foods into “good” and “bad” categories, again ignoring science that says the key to a balanced lifestyle is not demonizing a single nutrient or product but balancing one’s calories among all the foods and beverages we enjoy with those we burn through physical activity and exercise.
Everything in moderation, as the saying goes. Which means that yes, soft drinks can certainly be part of a balanced lifestyle.
The problem with simplifying nutrition science – which may be well-intentioned but wrongheaded - is that biased recommendations made on “bad” or low-quality science can do more harm than good. Cope and Allison found this to be the case in scientific papers they examined in which the researcher reached biased conclusions on the causes of obesity.
“Clinicians, media, public health policy makers… should be cognizant of such biases” and view the literature (on obesity) “more critically,” they wrote.
They are not the only ones to spot improper reporting of research.
Paul F. Campos, professor of law at the University of Colorado, published an essay in Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy on the bias in literature in public health policy periodicals promoting the taxing and regulating of “bad” foods.
“The relationship between food, eating, and health is extraordinarily complex, and remains in many ways little-understood,” he writes.
“Confirmation, causal, and optimism biases all tend to obscure the complexity of this relationship — but we should not allow such cognitive distortions to cause us to underestimate the extent to which trying to legislate what Americans do and do not eat is likely to prove futile at best, and positively damaging at worst.”
The next time you come across an article or blog post that states taxes and regulation can solve the challenge of obesity in America, take a closer look at what that conclusion is based upon. Search for the facts in the original study and check to see if there is solid science that contradicts - or supports - what the writer claims.
Feel free to check out LetsClearItUp.org, which has a range of facts based on cited science from researchers and government authorities.