Separating Science From Marketing

There seems to be an inverse relationship between our awareness that we’re an unhealthy nation and clarity on what we, as individuals, can do to be healthier. One of the biggest reasons that we’re simultaneously more aware and less informed is the incessant barrage of news headlines and magazine ads telling us what’s good for us and what’s not, without ever including enough detail for us to make a truly informed decision. We hear a sound bite, form an opinion, and move on.

This is not science. It’s marketing.

As I discuss in Don’t Die Early, one of the most difficult things about adopting a healthier lifestyle was digging beneath the sound bites and separating the science from the marketing. Even when I tracked down scientific articles and medical studies, it seemed that no matter what topic I picked, I could find a source showing it was healthy for me and another showing it was unhealthy.

How does a person make sense of all this? How do we determine if a claim is backed by science or wishful thinking? And how do we separate science from marketing?

To separate the fact from the hype, let’s take a look at one often cited study that shows “whole grains can help protect people from diabetes.” This Harvard study, quoted innumerable times by heath experts, followed the eating habits of 43,000 men aged 40 to 75 for 12 years and determined that those who ate the least amount of whole grains had a 60% higher incidence of Type 2 diabetes.

The message is clear: If those who ate the fewest grains developed diabetes more often then we must eat more whole grains to reduce our risk of diabetes. It has to be true if Harvard says it’s true and countless nutritional experts are telling us to take heed.

If this is true, sign me up! I’m all for reducing my chance of Type 2 diabetes! Could it be that simple? Could anyone decrease his chance of Type 2 diabetes just by eating more whole grains.

Let’s take a closer look at the study, entitled White Rice, Brown Rice, and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women that was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine so we can see the science behind the headlines.

First of all, the title (conveniently missing from the sound bites and news articles), is a huge clue to the focus of the research: white rice and brown rice.

(Before we go any further, class, please raise your hand if you can guess which of these two foods is better to eat, white rice or brown rice? Take all the time you need…)

If you still haven’t guessed the focus of the research, the first sentence in the section entitled Background will provide the next clue:

“Because of differences in processing and nutrients, brown rice and white rice may have different effects on risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus.”

Hmm. This comparison between white rice and brown rice already feels far less compelling than the sound bite “eating more whole grains reduces the risk of diabetes.” The sound bite makes it sound like anyone can eat more whole grains and reduce their risk of diabetes but it looks more like the study is saying only those who eat white rice can reduce their risk of diabetes by eating whole grains.

For the sake of impatience, let’s cheat a little and sneak a peek at the conclusion:

“Substitution of whole grains, including brown rice, for white rice may lower risk of type 2 diabetes.”

I see. It’s not even as simple as adding whole grains to our diet to reduce the risk of diabetes; the study is talking about replacing white rice with brown rice. (This reminds me of the Folger’s commercials: We’re secretly replacing Mr. Smith’s white rice with brown rice.)

You see, due to the nature of nutritional research, especially clinical research in which two carefully controlled groups are compared, an item of interest is almost always studied in comparison to something else. It pretty much has to be this way. For example, a study showing health benefits from exercise must compare a group of people who exercise to a group of people who do not exercise (or who exercise considerably less). Without a point of comparison (in this case, those who eat white rice versus those who eat brown rice), such studies would be meaningless.

Unfortunately, the sound bites rarely talk about the “in relation to what?” part.

Instead of comparing a group of people who eat whole grains to those who have replaced all grains with vegetables, nuts, and berries, this study compared people who eat highly refined grains to those who eat whole grains. Of course whole grains are healthier than highly refined grains. This is proba­bly not a surprise to most people—fewer things are less nutritious than highly refined grains.

By care­fully controlling the comparison, studies like this can tell the truth without providing the complete picture.

Where the even greater subterfuge happens is when pro-grain interests argue that because whole grains are shown in this contrived comparison to reduce diabetes risk over highly refined grains that it’s a good idea to make whole grains a staple of our diet forever. And the sound bites and nutritional “experts” propagate this by stating “whole grains reduce your risk of diabetes” and using that as justification for telling us to eat plenty of grains.

As many have pointed out, this is analogous to advising everyone to smoke plenty of filtered cigarettes because filtered cigarettes are less likely to cause cancer than unfiltered ones, while conveniently overlooking the question of whether or not cigarettes of any kind are intrinsically healthful or harmful.

This sort of sleight of hand is useful in showing just about anything to be healthful—merely by controlling the comparison.

The observation that eating whole grains reduces the incidence of Type 2 diabetes as compared to those who eat highly refined grains instead is science.

Extending this rather obvious bit of science into a recommendation that we should eat plenty of whole grains is marketing.

Don’t confuse the two.

Don’t fall for something just because it’s shown to be an improvement over some carefully contrived base­line. Instead, dig deeper to find the truth behind the superficiality and strive for finding what’s best, not just what’s better. Always ask “in relation to what?” when you hear claims about something being “healthful,” or “good for you.”

It’s all relative.

Or as a physician cousin of mine is fond of saying “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

6 thoughts on “Separating Science From Marketing

  1. Great article. I love to read about the details in any study like the Harvard one. It is also interesting to see who is sponsoring the study.

    • I didn’t want to get on a tangent when writing the story but I was tempted to point out that if researchers truly wanted to pursue the goal of reducing Type 2 diabetes they would have traveled farther down the path of glycemic load being “an established risk factor for T2D” and addressed the question “if lower glycemic grains reduce T2D over high glycemic grains, what about examining the effect of even lower glycemic vegetables instead of grains?”

      I speculate that taking such a proposal to any governmental funding entity would result in a slammed door and a blacklisting. Such is our government’s love affair with whole grains.

      A future post will talk about what a coup it was for the grain industry to get the federal government to mandate enriching grains with folic acid.

  2. Thank you so much for this information! I’d love to know of some other studies you’ve found around nutrition that are also misleading.

    • Thanks!

      Along with talking about self-assessment and preventive health, I’ll be dissecting studies on a regular basis. Finding our way through the maze of conflicting information requires that we be able to see research for exactly what it’s saying, not through the distorting lens of marketing, superficial journalism, and misguided experts. As you can see, this study didn’t say that “whole grains are healthful” or indeed that anyone should eat whole grains. It simply pointed out that replacing highly refined grains with whole grains was an improvement. By the time this very obvious morsel of science reached the public’s ears, however, the message was very different.

      It reminds me of the game where a bunch of people whisper a message down a line to see how unrecognizably distorted the message becomes by the time it reaches the last person in the chain.

      Unfortunately, this sort of distortion happens all the time, both intentionally and unintentionally.

  3. The most remarkable and disturbing fact which informs any notion of a baseline for assessing the impact of whole grains, were such an honest study to ever truly be undertaken, is that by and large, we are subjected to an influx of grains and their byproducts from the time we are in the womb (when our mother’s ate them, processed them, and passed on the digested byproducts of them to our systems) through to the day we start asking honest questions about the efficacy of their use and their impact to our health.

    There are very few, if any, legitimate questions that one can ask and then test in a scientific fashion about the effect of grains owing to this skewed baseline. Grains are always part of our diet until we make the explicit choice to pull them out. Even then, as you allude to in other posts, it takes time to see the results of that decision, time for the body to recover from the onslaught it has endured for, perhaps, decades, and time to truly assess the effects of that change before one has a valid baseline from which to ask that more fundamental question: what the #$*! did eating grains do to me?!?!

    Until that time, we have to work from what we have in hand. The available science being as skewed as it clearly is (re: your post here) is not a good source. The prevailing nutritional wisdom (which relies on some currently popular, factional portion of the available science) is not a good source either. That leaves us with ourselves and an exercise of supreme willpower to act on a set of decisions that are extremely hard to make and to stick with over time – and of course, the progressive work of a small but passionate cadre of doctors and nutritionists who see through the fictions that cloud these decisions for the average person.

    We are grain junkies. It’s in everything, and we love it.

    I am convinced, though, that we love it because we have been trained to love it from before birth, and that pervasive, unsolicited exposure over time makes it an extremely difficult (but wholly necessary) cycle to break.

    We are frogs in the proverbial pot that has been slowly heating up since before we were born. As longs as our legs still work, though, we have a chance to get out of it before we wind up on a plate staring in horror at an incoming fork.

    • As William Davis observes in his book “Wheat Belly,” the gliadin protein in wheat is an opioid that simulates appetite. This means that in addition to harming nearly every body system, modern wheat, by its very nature, simulates our craving for it. Either by accident or by design, the grain industry has engineered the perfect food for keeping us addicted, and you and others observe, wheat is in virtually everything. And what amazes me are the nutritional “experts” who fall for superficial, obvious studies like this and turn a nearly useless finding into absolutely incorrect nutritional dogma. A better analogy in my posting would have been ‘because we’ve shown that hitting test subjects in the head with a 10 oz. hammer results in fewer concussions than hitting them with a 16 oz. hammer, we all need to buy 10 oz. hammers and hit ourselves regularly in the head with them.’

      It’s time that that this grain-based experiment on the American people stop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>