The dangers of using scientific studies for clickbait

A controversy about low carb diets shows dangers of misrepresenting studies

A controversy about low carb diets shows dangers of misrepresenting studies
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This past August, various news outlets like BBC, Mental Floss and NutritionFacts.org set the Internet aflame by reporting on a scientific paper analysing the relationship between dietary carbohydrate intake and risk of mortality. 

The news inevitably made its way to people’s Facebook news feed, where posts and articles spread the false idea, “low carb diets cause reduced life spans.”

As someone who’s extremely interested in nutrition and how diets may affect health, I immediately clicked on an article from Food Navigator. After reading what it had to say about this supposedly ground-breaking discovery, I found it necessary to read its original source to get a sense of how the actual study was conducted. 

This is when I noticed some major differences between what the scientific community found versus what news outlets were reporting. 

As outlined in the scientific publication, a team of researchers conducted a study that included over 15,000 participants between the ages of 45 and 64, who were asked to complete a dietary questionnaire. The primary outcome was all-cause mortality—meaning any cause of death—and this was measured 25 years after the questionnaire was filled. 

They found a relationship between dietary carbohydrate intake and risk of mortality. The data generated a U-shaped curve indicating carbohydrate intake below 30 and above 65 per cent of total energy consumed was associated with the highest risk of mortality. 

Further, they concluded individuals with carbohydrate intakes between 50 to 55 per cent had lower observed risk of mortality.

From here, the researchers pooled similar data from seven other population studies and found the results mirrored what they observed in their initial sample size. 

They also discovered that risk of mortality in low carbohydrate intake groups decreased when populations substituted carbohydrates for plant products and increased when populations substituted carbohydrates for animal products. 

These results are relatively intuitive. Eating in moderation has always been promoted, but it’s difficult to conduct nutritional studies objectively if participants’ results are extracted exclusively from a questionnaire, which limits concrete information.

Thinking back to the tone of Food Navigator’s article, I was under the impression the results generated from this research contradicted all the fad low-carb diets we always thought would benefit us. I noticed the article was riddled with no mention of the initial study’s methodology or limitations, as originally outlined in the study’s findings. 

The purpose for omitting this vital information confused me. It was clearly outlined in the original publication. The researchers’ article alluded to there maybe being a relationship between dietary carbohydrate intake and risk of mortality—not that they represent a clear-cut cause and effect. 

The importance of informing the public on any progress made in scientific research is a topic I’ve revisited many times in my seminar courses, as the consequences of accurately portraying research to a wider audience are more important than some may think.

The media often plays an important role as a middleman that communicates any advances in scientific research to the general public, and this includes reaching people who don’t come from scientific backgrounds. 

But if the public doesn’t trust scientific researchers, they won’t trust the information they receive.

Misrepresentation of science in media can cause readers to misunderstand or miss valuable information. That sets a dangerous precedent. 

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