STATS ARTICLES 2006

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Fat Foods And Fat Bodies
February 08, 2006
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D.
Media does nothing to divert likely public misunderstanding of low-fat diet study

A study, published today in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has indicated that a low-fat diet does not lower the rate of heart disease or cancer in middle-aged women. The study was reported across the country, with leads such as “Low-fat diet benefits rejected” (Washington Post) and “Low-fat diet does not cut health risks, study finds” (New York Times). As the Times put it, “The results, the study investigators agreed, do not justify recommending low-fat diets to the public to reduce their heart disease and cancer risk.” The study was big, expensive, and carefully done. Two groups were followed over eight years – one assigned to eat a low-fat diet, and the other to eat whatever they please.

Eat whatever they please? No health consequences? Does this mean we can eat however much fat we please without any health consequences?!

While the media did not mangle the results of the study, the message that most people hear from these headlines is that losing weight does not cut health risks. Only deep into the article do we hear the point made that “The two groups consumed about the same number of calories.” And, buried somewhere else, that there was no particular weight loss in the low-fat group.

So perhaps the true message of this study is: a low-fat but high calorie diet does not reduce your risk of heart disease. In other words, fat on our bodies is what’s harmful, not fat in our food. The press might be a little more sensitive about how people read their work.

A good piece of journalism on this recent JAMA paper would both explain the results of the low-fat diet study, and put it in the context of other known risks to our health: being overweight or obese is unhealthy, and one way to lose weight is through decreasing fats and calorie intake overall.