War on Food Science: Part 1 – Weight Loss Quick Fixes

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This month’s issue of National Geographic arrived in mailboxes (yes, those still exist) covering a pretty heated topic: The War on Science. You can dig into their feature online, which covers everything from the anti-vaccination movement to fear of “GMOs” or food biotechnology. In the spirit of the NatGeo exploration of the War on Science, we’re digging into key issues of the War on Food Science whether it’s about agricultural production, ingredients, or nutrition.

This week, we’re taking on the role of weight loss ‘miracle cures’ in turning the conversation on diet and nutrition away from science. Below, Hollie Raynor, PhD, RD, LDN and Julie Schwartz MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, ACSM-HFS, experts in diet and weight management, answer our questions.

FACTS: How does science come into the weight loss discussion? Where is it absent?

Dr. Hollie Raynor: Virtually all National Institute of Health (NIH) studies have shown success by 6 months and longer from using a combination of dietary, physical activity, and behavioral strategies.  These types of intervention are called lifestyle interventions.  They produce a degree of weight loss that improves health outcomes, such as the prevention of type 2 diabetes.   Several professional organizations have used this research to provide recommendations for obesity treatment. However, this evidence seems to be absent in the lay media like news reports and magazines.

Julie Schwartz: The word “science” is in almost every weight loss discussion. But some of the science that gets cited we would call “junk science,” meaning there isn’t any research to back up the claims.

Weight loss evokes emotion, and there is emotional messaging in trendy diets. We believe anyone who looks “good” and can speak well, we believe celebrities, and we believe many medical professionals. None of these people have studied food and nutrition, nor its impact on our body. Science is painfully absent in many so-called medical weight-loss programs. 

weight-loss-snake-oilFACTS: Does being science-based help or hurt weight loss plans in gaining traction with consumers?

JS: I don’t think it helps or hurts. However, when seeing a science-based plan that has been well-researched versus sexy-looking models and “easy” weight loss, consumers tend to follow their emotions. However, I do believe there is a strong segment of people who are tired of the trends and want lasting results, who desire help in making the changes to lead to that lasting weight change and to know the behaviors that will lead to sustainment.

HR: Consumers appreciate knowing that science-based approaches are effective.  However, it may be confusing to consumers to figure out what approaches are “science-based” or “evidence-based.” Unfortunately, science-based messages don’t have the magic bullet that many consumers are looking for. So, they actually may ignore the science-based messages in comparison to non-science-based messages that promise that magic bullet.

FACTS: What are the biggest non-science-based myths that circulate about weight loss and never go away?

HR: That exercise alone produces a large degree of weight loss. Also, that the reason why someone is not losing weight is because they are not eating enough energy.  

JS: That bread is “fattening,” or that eliminating a food or food group yields positive results. A few other big myths: 1) It’s the food not the calories; 2) You can’t eat after some designated time at night; 3) If I cut my calories, my body will go into starvation mode. And of course, there are the big marketing taglines: “Eat anything you want (or as much as you want) and lose weight,” or lose some large amount of weight in 30 days, or that a gadget or cream will melt the fat away.


FACTS: If you were to develop your perfect science-based media coverage of weight loss and weight management, what would it look like? What would writers and reporters do with every story?

HR: Stories would discuss that weight loss occurs due to achievement of negative energy balance, and that weight maintenance occurs because of a balance between energy intake and energy expenditure. Period.

JS: Every story would look sexy, it would look “sterile” at the same time—like a lab! It would show before and after pictures in time delay, not as just starting and ending points. It would show people living life and enjoying tasty and scrumptious food, not just eating plain, boring “diet” food. It would show people living active lives—not necessarily exercising in a gym. Individuals would share their successes with the plan, but also discuss the challenges.

Visit part two of the War on Food Science Series, focused on Bisphenol-A (BPA), and stay tuned for the next series installment during March 2015.