Misleading the masses with bad science about food and diet

A few months ago, a new study made it into headlines around the world. The title of the study? “Chocolate with high Cocoa Content as a Weight-Loss Accelerator”.

Such a topic was bound to draw mass attention, it put together two things many people around the world probably wish went together: weight loss and chocolate. Who could blame the media for quick to publish it, even with no further research?

does chocolate help you lose weightThe thing is, the author of the study has come out and said that the study was a fake. A Ph.D holder and journalist, John Bohannon, collaborated with a German television reporter named Peter Onneken to demonstrate just how easy it is to turn bad science into the big headlines behind diet fads.

Changing his name slightly to Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D (who actually does have a PhD, but in the area of the molecular biology of bacteria), he started the “fake” study by recruiting 15 participants aged between 19-67 who were then split into three groups. One group followed a low-carbohydrate diet, one followed a low-carbohydrate diet augmented with 42 g of dark chocolate each day and one control group followed their normal diets. The researchers tracked the participants’ body weights as well as 17 other measurements for three weeks.

According to Bohannon (if this is indeed written by Bohannon), a study with such a small number of participants, a short period, and a wide variety of measurements are doomed to be inaccurate, but almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result.

The study was written up and submitted to several journals, one of which “apparently” published it without peer review.

A bogus website for the “Institute of Diet and Health” was also created.

Where the study had been published is now a retraction notice: http://imed.pub/ojs/index.php/iam/article/view/1087

There is now also a disclaimer from the journal in question which gives its reasons for how the article was “mistakenly” published on its website. http://www.publishopenaccess.com/journals/list-of-journals/disclaimers/

However, it was too late. The “study” had already been featured in a number of well-known media outlets around the world, including the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail.

Tim Crowe dietitianAustralian dietitian Tim Crowe subsequently published a blog post with an intriguing headline: “Broccoli is bad for you, like, really toxic bad”. The post went viral soon after, over 10,000 shares on Facebook and 220,000 page reads. It was received with many comments of disbelief, amazement, and even some of joy from the “vegetably challenged”.

In a follow-up article, Tim Crowe said that his post is an example of how strong the effect of a headline is, and also confirms the inclination of readers to check only the first couple of paragraphs, thinking it must include the conclusion of an article. The second half of Tim’s post was actually full of praise about broccoli, giving facts about the nutrient content and benefits of the vegetable.

Tim Crowe said that if he had published the article with the original headline, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet to do with nutrition”, no one would be fooled, but it would not have had the same effect.

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Image: freedigitalphotos.net – Arvind Balaraman

Image: satit_srihin – freedigitalphotos.net

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