Decoding Health Media

Here’s what you need to know regarding the food industry’s influence on what we hear about nutrition.

In January 2012, health reporter Tara Parker-Pope wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine titled “The Fat Trap.” The 5,500-word article, packed with pedigreed sources, explored the science of weight loss. Its conclusion? For most obese people, permanent weight loss is a pipe dream.

The piece was widely disseminated — this was the Times, after all. It was broadcast on radio stations and television news reports, and big media outfits like National Public Radio and the Huffington Post interviewed Parker-Pope herself to spread the once-fat-always-fat message.

There was just one problem, though. The article, according to David H. Freedman in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), was “dead wrong”: “Many, if not most, researchers and experts who work closely with the overweight and obese would pronounce [it] . . . misleading in a way that could seriously . . . damage the health of millions of people.”

In the days after the article appeared, many experts did indeed point out a number of major problems in it. These issues included the fact that the key study she cited required people to basically starve themselves, which, as CJR pointed out, “has long been known to produce intense food cravings and rebound weight gain.” Even worse, Parker-Pope made no mention of insulin, the primary hormone involved in fat storage. This glaring omission prompted a petition letter to the Times editor, signed by more than 250 medical experts, stating that “her article omits several major issues that are critical to understanding the obese condition, and its cure and prevention.” (You can read the entire petition at IPetitions.)

The damage had already been done, however. Despite the experts’ public outcry, the headline health news spread like a disease via the Internet, helped along by tweets, likes, and pins. The end result? Many people around the world now believe in the misguided once-fat-always-fat message.

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