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Interpreting Media Health Messages: Read Between the Lines

Interpreting Media Health Messages: Read Between the Lines

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I happened to catch a diet story not too long ago on Today Tonight, an Australian current events program with a reputation for sensationalised media health messages.

The teaser clip for the segment was spouting off about the best diet in the world based on an unnamed weight loss study across eight countries.

It sounded like great copy but, in my experience, knowing how these types of shows sensationalise even the most trivial of health stories, I was curious to see just how far they’d take it.

In an effort to ensure accuracy in my own reporting, I created a transcript of the segment with the aim of dissecting it and providing in-text commentary about why you need to be vigilant when watching media health stories and why you shouldn’t accept everything they say at face value.

Where there are viewers, there are advertisers

You should know up front that a television network’s primary focus is not necessarily to entertain you but instead provide compelling programming to garner a large audience and then sell time slots to advertisers.

In a world growingly concerned about personal health, you can bet a diet story would be a big draw to keep you glued to the television for at least 30 minutes.

I don’t think it’s fair to say the show’s producers conscientiously orchestrated some misguided sinister plot with the express intention of duping the public, but I do think they were over the top with how they reported an otherwise underwhelming story.

<—Begin transcript—>
Host:  Well, in the weight loss world, there’s no shortage of big claims. Every diet and every product makes lots of promises about how much you can lose, but now they’re being put to the test in the world’s biggest weight loss study across eight countries.  Sally Obermeder has the results.

Testimonial from woman (holding out her pants waist line): “This has been the easiest diet that I’ve ever followed.”

Testimonial from second woman: “What I like about it the most is that it’s instant results.”

Content analysis

The segment just started and already I picked up on two red flag keywords in these testimonials:

1) “easiest diet”; and
2) “instant results.”

Both of these quotes give the impression that “diets” are difficult. Instead, these shows should be reinforcing the importance of healthy food choices rather than “going on a diet,” which for many consumers has the connotation that a “diet” is something you do temporarily and which, as occurs quite frequently, will invariably fail.

The suggestion of “instant results” only perpetuates the age-old myth that you can attain health and well-being virtually over night.

Both of these testimonials are ironic considering the host started off his monologue talking about “no shortage of big claims in the weight loss world.”

<—Transcript continues—>
Australians will spend over $750 million this year on low calorie foods and shakes, diet books, supplements, lap bands, and liposuction.  But is most of it a waste? For the first time ever, the worlds biggest diet study has proven that if you want to lose weight and keep it  off, then steer clear of the gadgets and gimmicks.

Content analysis

Agreed, gadgets and gimmicks have been – and always will be – an impediment to losing weight, keeping it off, and improving public health status.  People buy them based on hype and then after the novelty wears off, cliché as it sounds, they all end up as glorified coat racks or under the bed dust collectors.

Don’t make health decisions based on one single study

The comment about the “World’s biggest diet study” is another example of how the media over-sells one single piece of research. Tomorrow the virtues of another diet or superfood study may be trumpeted across the airwaves which will negate today’s study du jour.

The point is, consumers are like unwitting pinballs being batted to and fro trying to interpret media health messages.  While it’s anything but sexy, the best advice (based on boring science) is still to take up regular exercise against the back drop of physical activity and reduced calorie eating.

<—Transcript continues—>
Jennie Brand-Miller, PhD interview: “…what they found was that both high protein and lower GI(glycemic index) diets were helpful, they were equally helpful, but when you combine them together then you got the best outcome overall.”

Reporter: It was the early naughties when the low GI diet came to prominence.  And since then, its
effectiveness has been undisputed. The other weight loss strategy to gain mass appeal was the high protein diet. It’s only now, thanks to this study, that we know that it’s the combination of the two which provides unbeatable results that last.

Jennie Brand-Miller: “It’s really a landmark study because the findings are so clear cut.”

Voiceover: The glycaemic index, GI for short, indicates how quickly food is converted to energy.  Measured on a scale of 1 to 100, foods that are 55 and below are classified as low GI.  Professor Jennie Brand Miller pioneered the low GI diet

Jennie Brand-Miller: “This diet makes you feel fuller for longer, and the reason it does that is because the food stays in the gut for longer, it takes longer to be digested and absorbed.  It’s easy for people to follow this higher protein lower GI diet.

Content analysis

I’ve been fortunate enough to have met with Dr. Brand-Miller and can confirm she is is a legitimate professional.  I also agree with her comments.   We have known for some time that a higher protein intake and lower GI diet lead to weight loss due to a reduced propensity to overeat (for the reasons listed above).

Conversely, a donut meal washed down with a can of Coke is full of refined sugar which leaves the stomach quicker and leaves you feeling hungrier sooner and MORE likely to over eat.  But I’m not sure this is new news.

A number of meta-analyses (lumping together the stats from multiple studies) in top medical journals have shown that in the short-term (up to 6 months), a diet higher in protein intake results in greater weight loss than a diet higher in carbohydrate.

However, at the 12-month mark there tends to be a convergence in results where the weight loss differences between diets disappear.  In other words, no matter which diet you prefer, provided you’re reducing calories and increasing your activity levels, they’ll all result in long-term weight loss.

For those who insist on “losing weight” quickly (irrespective of fat, muscle, or water weight), it’s like wrapping tape around a leaky pipe.  It might hold off the ensuing flood in your kitchen for a little while, but it’s only a matter of time til the dam bursts and you’re back where you started.

Long-term FAT loss (yes, fat loss), on the other hand, is like replacing a the offending leaky pipe altogether.  Invest in doing it right the first time and you’re well on your way to lasting results.

The National Weight Control Registry based in the United States tracks and trends people who not only lost weight but kept it off for several years.  Specifically, registry members have lost an average of 30 kilograms (66 pounds) and kept it off for 5.5 years.

Independent of dietary macro-nutrient distribution, two key findings caught my eye:

  • 98% of Registry participants report that they modified their food intake in some way to lose weight.
  • 94% increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking.

Most report continuing to maintain a low calorie, low fat diet and doing high levels of activity:

  • 78% eat breakfast every day
  • 75% weigh themselves at least once a week
  • 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week
  • 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day

<—Transcript continues—>
Reporter: The findings of this world first study undoubtedly confirm that the famous Kick Start Diet was completely on the money.  Introduced on Today Tonight by Dr. John Darcy in 2003, the 28 day two stage program promised and delivered weight loss of one kilo a day. The first stage was a soup diet, while the second part followed a low GI plan. The results that were achieved made it a weight loss phenomenon.

Content analysis

I think these two passages are a bit over the top in their description of the study.  I am sure it’s possible to lose a kilo (2.2 pounds) of “weight” in 24 hours but I’d say it’s extremely unrealistic that the composition of this said “weight” loss will be fat – more likely it will be water weight.

Most responsible health professionals agree that losing one kilo of stored body fat per week is normal and expected in those eating less and moving more (let alone in one day).

As for the “soup diet” bit, I’m admittedly skeptical of any diet that is named “The[Fill-in-the-blank] Diet.”  While it will undoubtedly cause “weight” loss, this may not coincide with the psychological aspect of long-term weight management.  In other words, a radical overnight change in dietary habits might be sustainable in the short-term but it can be difficult to maintain over the long-haul.

<—Transcript continues—>
Woman testimonial:
“It’s kickstarted my life, it’s got me on track and I’ll never go back.  I feel fantastic. I felt the best I’ve felt all my life.”

Reporter: “To assist consumers in making better food choices, there’s now a low GI symbol found on a wide range of foods which should also help avoiding the dangers of high GI foods.”

Reporter asks Jennie Brand-Miller: “What about high carb foods that people really love, like bread, like potatoes?”

Jennie Brand-Miller: “Breads should be low GI breads. They should look for the symbol.  Potatoes, people love.  Australians love… everyone loves potatoes and unfortunately most of them are really high on the GI scale. They’re up close to 90 and 100.

Content analysis

This is a wonderful example of how the media unfairly lynches carbohydrates.  No singlemacronutrient is more misunderstood than the lonely ol’ carbohydrate. Clearly carbs need a better public relations team!

The idea that “carbs are dangerous” or “carbs make me fat” is so incredibly misinformed and misguided, but it’s the modern day dietary myth that refuses to die.

This line of thinking makes the assumption that simply eating carbohydrate, any carbohydrate, will result in obesity.  This is not true.

The true culprit is the abject over-consumption of nutrient-void junk food diets (chips, candy, soda, etc) which are high in both refined carbohydrate (simple sugars) and energy (calories or kilojoules).  As stated above, refined diets leave the stomach faster, leaving you hungrier sooner, and therefore more likely to eat excess calories.

So this is a classic case of the public confusing cause and effect from coincidence, with an uninformed media feeding the misinformation flames.  In other words, people get fat because they eat too many calories [kJ] (cause and effect).

Unfortunately, these excess calories are in the form of highly refined garbage carbohydrates so the public quickly blames carbs and completely neglects the fact that they’re simply eating too many calories (coincidence). Help it along with sitting front of a computer all day, TV at night, and a case of bad genetics by accident of birth and obesity is the only logical outcome.

The ensuing problem is that “good” low-GI carbohydrates (wholegrain bread, muesli, oats) are guilty by association, sin-binned and tossed in the rubbish heap when in fact they’re part of the solution.  But hey, the media never lets the truth get in the way of a good story.

<—Transcript continues—>
Voiceover narration:
Traditionally, a low GI diet has meant no potatoes.  But farmers have acknowledged that the GI message is sinking in and they’re responding accordingly.  A new naturally occurring potato has been found.  Non genetically modified, it’s available exclusively at Coles and it’s sure to keep dieting spud lovers very happy.

Jennie Brand-Miller: It has a GI of 55 instead of 90.  It’s called Carisma.

Woman testimonial: “It’s changed my life.  and I just want every one else out there to have a great life as I’m having at the moment.”
<—End transcript—>

Content analysis

I’m not sure I understand how they went from a general diet story to veering off topic and plugging a brand name potato (complete with info on where to buy it).  I’ve heard of paid product placement in movies, but now I’m curious to know if this applies to these types of shows as well.

Overall, I think the segment from start to finish was sensationalised and really didn’t offer anything more than yet another over-the-top spin on a topic we’ve already known about for some years.

I believe Dr. Brand-Miller’s comments were scientifically accurate, but I think the spliced-in testimonials were probably a bit much and didn’t really contribute any additional value to the content (other than as a shining advertisement for the diet they mentioned).

The voiceover tended to insinuate the misguided message that “carbs are dangerous,” which many lead some viewers to overhaul their diets based on a single (unnamed) scientific study.

While it’s clearly a good thing that health topics receive media attention (to create consumer awareness of health issues), the fly in the ointment is that these topics are often blown out of proportion and “caricaturised” into something more than they really are.

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