A few weeks ago a couple of articles appeared in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that I just can’t let go by without comment. Both articles had to do with the putative benefits of consuming cereal for breakfast. Since newspapers everywhere mentioned these studies, I figured it would be worthwhile to dissect them to see what they really show. After poring over both of them for–no kidding–about four hours, I couldn’t make heads or tails of them. They both are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
If I were to post accurately on these studies it would take as long as the articles themselves because almost every sentence is worthy of criticism. They are both written in the gobbledygook language of those who want to appear learned but don’t really have anything to say.
Instead of boring you to death with a detailed critique I will simply pick out and pick on a couple of items from each study to show the absurdity of it all.
The first study entitled “Is Consumption of Breakfast Associated with Body Mass Index in US Adults?” has a telltale sentence early on that puts any careful reader on alert:
Multiple logistic and linear regression analyses were performed to determine the extent to which BMI was explained by breakfast and RTEC [ready to eat cereal] breakfast consumption.
In other words, we tortured the data until it told us what we wanted to hear. Despite said torturing the data isn’t very impressive.
The other paper, “The Relationship of Breakfast and Cereal Consumption to Nutrient Intake and Body Mass Index: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study,” is even worse. It and its attending publicity demonstrate something that happens all too often with medical studies.
As with the previous study, I could spend pages detailing all the mush that makes up this study, but I’m going to focus on one small piece that’s representative of the whole.
The authors write:
In a model adjusting for demographic characteristics, physical activity, and energy intake, after days of cereal consumption was taken into account, days of breakfast consumption did not make a significant, independent contribution to the prediction of the two BMI-based measures (BMI-for-age z scores and risk of overweight).
In other words there was no correlation between whether or not the subjects ate breakfast and their BMI measurements, the determination of which was the goal of the study.
Bear this in mind as you now read what Dr. Bruce A. Barton, the lead author of the study, tells a reporter for All Headline News:
Not eating breakfast is the worst thing you can do. That’s really the take-home message for teenage girls.
Did your jaw drop as you read those lines? Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too often. A researcher publishes a study that pretty much hews to the data because because other researchers in the field vet the paper before it can be published. No such vetting occurs, however, when the researcher speaks with the press. The researcher figures that most people won’t dig out the study and read it critically–not even the reporter getting the quote. What ends up in the paper or on TV is typically the researcher’s spin, which is often calculated to benefit the sponsor of the study.
Oh, did I mention? One of these studies was underwritten by Kellogg, the other by General Mills.
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