In a discussion about fatness and health that I was involved in on Facebook, someone posted an article called “Direct Link Between Obesity and Pancreatic Cancer” with the statement “there is an animal study that shows a direct, causal link between obesity and pancreatic cancer.”
This is a perfect example of how the media does a terrible job of reporting research around weight and health. I’m going to talk about this using just the contents of the article itself to demonstrate how poorly this was reported.
What the research actually studied was the effects of two different diets on signs of possible future cancer in mice. They found that one diet led to higher body size and higher incidence of lesions that are often a precursor to cancer. What the researchers actually found was correctly stated in the piece: “These observations suggest that such a diet leads to weight gain, metabolism disturbances, pancreas inflammation and pancreas lesions that are precursors to cancer.” This is hardly proving causality between body size and cancer (note the use of the terms “such a diet” and “suggest”), in fact, they are considering body size a possible side effect of diet, but are clear that this study is looking at diet, not body size.
The only fat mice they studied were fat mice who had been fed a specific high calorie, high fat diet. They didn’t test low calorie high fat diets, high fat low calorie diets, diets that were high fat and calorie and included 5 servings of fruits and vegetables and 30 minutes of movement a day, nor did they have a group of mice of various sizes doing intuitive eating. They studied only two specific diets – one high fat high calorie, the other low fat low calorie which limits the conclusions that they can draw about diet and cancer, and pretty much excludes any conclusions about general body size separate from diet.
The researcher said “These lesions take a long time to develop into cancer, so there is enough time for cancer preventive strategies, such as changing to a lower fat, lower calorie diet, to have a positive effect.” Whether or not we agree with the conclusions (and let’s remember that they didn’t actually test these strategies to see if they worked in these mice), note that they do not recommend a change in body size, but rather a change in diet because, once again, this is a study of what the mice ate, not the body size of the mice.
The media is stating the correct facts and then drawing completely incorrect conclusions. In order for there to be a “direct causal link” between obesity and cancer, they would have to study body size, not diet (because not all fat people/mice eat the same diet) and they would have to figure out the mechanism by which having a body with a specific ratio of weight and height (which is what “obesity” is) causes cancer (pro tip, assuming that all fat people eat a high calorie high fat diet is stereotyping, not science). This study doesn’t even come close to doing that and so we’re back to correlation and we’ve talked about the many issues with that. The media has a pesky habit of reporting science in the context of the stereotypes and prejudices of our time, this story appeared on a website called Medical News Today so I can understand why people would take the headline at face value but, as we’ve so often seen, when it comes to the media and reporting on “obesity” and health, it’s always reader beware.
If you’re looking for more information about the issues with research and recommendations about “obesity” and health, I recommend this article http://www.nutritionj.com/content/10/1/9
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