Studies Surrounding Obesity Overstated

by Michelle Fiscus. 0 Comments

The information you receive about nutrition and obesity may be a bit overstated, sending you the wrong message about dietary advice.

Researchers from the University of Alabama looked at papers and studies published on nutrition and obesity. They tracked how often the authors “overreached” in the summary of their findings.

In other words, the results were overstated to frame it in a more favorable way, even if the author did not do it on purpose. About one in 11 studies had some kind of issue that degraded the integrity of the research reporting.

Researchers looked at 937 studies published in either 2001 or 2011 to examine changes over time. All the studies were on nutrition and obesity. Nine percent of those studies overreached their findings. Studies from 2011 were more likely to overstate the results than papers from 2001.

Most of the overreaching statements came from observational studies that inappropriately described a correlation as a cause and effect relationship. Observational studies cannot prove cause and effect. In other overreaching statements, the author generalized the study’s claims and applied the results to large groups of people when the study population was different. Oftentimes, those overreaching statements were used in the public spotlight to make dietary recommendations without better data.

The media exacerbates the issue. When they get a hold of the study or a press release, they are usually given the summary or abstract. They report on the information without going to the original source and overstate the results even more so it sounds more interesting. The overstatements may be unintentional by both groups, but they distort what doctors and the general public know about nutrition.

Unfunded studies had more problems than funded studies, regardless of what group paid for the study.

The next time you hear a story about nutrition, obesity, or even exercise there are a few steps you can follow to make sure you are getting accurate and relevant information:

-Check to see if the study was done on animals or humans. Animals are not a good model for human health.

-Realize there is no quick fix in life. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

-Go to the source of the study and read the entire study—not just the abstract.

-Make sure the author of the study has no competing interests or conflicts.

-Look at the sample size of the study. Did the researcher study 8 people or 8,000 people?

-Identify how long it took to complete the study. In the majority of cases, research completed over several years gives more accurate results than short term studies.

-Compare the number on controlled variables to the uncontrolled variables. Ideally, researchers should control all possible variables. If study participants are left to choose their own diet or perform their own exercise, the results of the study are a lot less accurate.

-Compare the study results to others on the same subject and see how the results stack up.

-Make sure the study proves cause and effect. Observational studies draw a correlation without scientific proof.

-See if the story was funded and which group paid for it.

-Find out if the study was peer reviewed. They tend to be more accurate then studies with no review.

You can read about the research analysis in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Have a fitness or health related question? Email the author at


Michelle Fescues writes a regular column for Michelle and her husband own a personal training and nutrition business based in Frederick County and hold industry certifications and credentials. 

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