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How to write a science article when you have no hard science.

March 14, 2010

Learn from the masters at men’s health

So the article starts out with our fearless author knocking down that out calories in/calories out model. Not through citing research or even quoting an expert but by appealing to our shared experience. Now I don’t have a problem acknowledging the complexity of the mechanisms that regulate fat levels, food intake and all those hormones that affect body weight. I do have a problem with oversimplifying that complexity until it sounds like you think that the human body breaks a fundamental law of the universe. Any energy you take in has to go SOMEWHERE – now show me the research that in some people ingested energy is used much less/more efficiently and that’s cool, talk to me about hunger and individual experiences of satiety and I’m all ears. Ok, I’m ranting and this isn’t the point of the article. I just always feel like I can tell something is going to be crap when they bravely take on calories in/calories out.

What is the point of the article? Well, it’s chemicals. A particular kind referred to as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and how they might be behind weight gain in the US. Here’s the part where we have our minds blown by the results of new studies showing how these chemicals cause us to gain weight even in the absence of a caloric surplus.

Oh no, here’s the part where we spend two pages dancing around the lack of hard data with clever wording and lots of super vague references.

A few paragraphs in and we can see where this is going:

Obesogens are chemicals that disrupt the function of hormonal systems; many researchers believe they lead to weight gain

I’m sure many researchers ‘believe’ a lot of things.

Now new research is finding that some EDCs, the obesogens, may be helping to make us fat. This field of research is dominated by animal and test-tube studies. And while researchers note that the known effects of many obesogens are more potent in the unborn and newly born, some suspect a similar impact on adults.

First, there’s a reason why animal research is not the final step when it comes to understanding how something works in humans and that has to do with the fact that you often can’t draw conclusions about human physiology based on animal models. And note the ‘some suspect.’ Translation: ummm, we have no hard data, but wouldn’t it be neato if this was true?!

He does include a quote here from a scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health sciences stating that EDC’s are linked “to practically every major human disease, from cardiovascular disease to attention-deficit disorder.” I don’t doubt that’s true. But since the strength of those associations is never mentioned, I’m going to say that linking EDC’s to ‘every major human disease’ sets off my bs alarm. Finding associations doesn’t mean you’ve found causation and if EDC’s are fairly ubiquitous then it would make sense they would be associated with multiple diseases.

Here’s what might be my favorite part: a bizarre argument based on what I suspect is a fabricated version of an outdated understanding of fat.

Decades ago, before big, soft guts were the norm in the United States, we referred to overweight people as having “glandular problems.” Their weight was not their fault, doctors explained; their bodies just didn’t have the ability to fight off weight gain like most people’s bodies did.

We don’t use that polite phrase any longer. What changed? Now that about two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, did those folks with “glandular problems” disappear? No; it’s just that many others have caught the same disease. Thanks to the obesogen effect, we may all be at risk for some glandular problems.

Ummmmm, what? So now that fatness is more common than it used to be, it must follow that outdated explanations for what caused fatness back then are true and now apply to a much greater percent of the population? Does this make any sense at all?

Ok, so we have the quickest recap of the endocrine system ever and another vague quote about how these obesogens are ‘thought’ to act. Then we get to the hard proof

“The rise in the incidence in obesity matches the rise in the use and distribution of industrial chemicals that may be playing a role in generation of obesity,” it stated in a recent report, “suggesting that EDCs may be linked to this epidemic.”

There’s nothing wrong with recognizing this kind of link and then doing research to see whether or not it actually means anything. But it’s not even close to actual proof. I’ve seen low-fat diets, video games, cable television etc etc etc… all singled out as the ’cause’ for the rise in obesity because of just such an association.

Having made their case so convincingly, the author again reminds us that these obesogens are why ‘traditional’ diets don’t work. The pesticides on those apples are making it impossible to lose weight! What are you to do???

But as we began researching our book, “The New American Diet,”

YAY!!!!! We’re saved!!!!! What fantastic timing too what with all the new information coming out about these chemicals – I mean just look at this article. Those things are everywhere and they’re making you fat.

For some reason, it’s not until after the introduction of the diet book that the author bothers to cite anything that sounds like actual research.

In one study, the adult daughters of women who had the highest levels of DDE (a breakdown product of the pesticide DDT) in their blood during childbearing years were found to be 20 pounds heavier, on average, than daughters of women who had the least.

Interesting. It’s possible that the daughters of women with the highest concentrations of DDT in their blood might share other characteristics that could also explain their higher weight, but since the study isn’t linked in the article, I don’t know. Let’s move on to the research bomb this author suddenly drops on us.

-Researchers have noted a link between organochlorine pesticides and impaired thyroid function. According to the Endocrine Society’s 2009 report on EDCs, changes in thyroid function can result in metabolic effects. Indeed, the authors of a 2009 Thyroid Research article cited hypothyroidism, a symptom of which can be weight gain, as a possible effect of organochlorines on the thyroid.

-The authors of a study in the journal BioScience found that tributyltin, a fungicide, activates components in human cells known as retinoid X receptors, which are part of the metabolic pathway necessary for fat-cell formation. They also found that tributyltin causes the growth of fat cells in mice exposed to it. Although tributyltin is no longer used on crops, experts suspect that a similar compound still used on produce, fenbutatin, is at least as potent.

-The authors of a recent study in Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology note that organophosphates and carbamates, two common classes of pesticides, cause obesity in animals.

Notice in the first one, the slight of hand the author employs. There is a link between organochlorine pesticides and impaired thyroid function. How strong is the association? Who knows. What we do know is that experts have said that these chemicals lead to hypothyroidism which leads to weight gain? No, the experts merely affirmed that hypothyroidism can cause weight gain and they did so in a report about EDC’s. The author puts that sentence in the middle of a paragraph about organochlorine pesticides so that a quick reading leaves the impression that experts agree they cause hypothyroidism.

The second one references some actual research on the effect of a fungicide on human cells. Well, that one has been discontinued, but there’s suspicion another chemical still on the market has similar effects. More of nothing.

The last one would be interesting if it gave more information. At this point, are they talking about low exposure levels or the kind where they’re making animals practically swim in the stuff and seeing the effects? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway. This is about selling a book, not facts.

I’m bored now, but the article continues on to BPAs and hormones in meat. And it uses the exact same vague language, referencing of ‘some researchers’ and selling hypothesis as fact as the rest of the article.

It’s not that I have a problem with the organic movement (not at all) or that I don’t support an individuals decision to eschew certain types of plastic or only eat organic meat. It’s just to 1)sell it as a weight loss solution when AFAIK there is absolutely no evidence that switching to organic has a profound effect on weight and 2)to twist the state of the science to scare people into believing that they must start buying organic (and doubling their food budget) in order to be healthy – it drives me batty.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2010 9:26 am

    That’s it — I’ll have to write an ENB*
    People who do that seem always to have Found The Answer. (Doesn’t really matter what the question was, the Answer is the important part.)

    I became convinced that organic meat was the way to go after a study that proved eating a reasonably healthy diet where the only meat consumed was organic reduced the pain level of cramps 50% in only 30 days. Of course, since this was a study performed on a group of 1, and the researcher and the subject were in fact the same person who is typing this comment, this is not a study that you’ll find published in any journal, respectable or otherwise. Hey, it was still research :)

    *Exciting New Book

    • March 17, 2010 5:13 am

      What’s amazing about the ENB phenomenon is how short people’s memories are wrt all the other Answers that have already come and gone.

      I absolutely conduct many studies of different dietary combinations, exercise schedules etc… on myself. I figure if I ever get my clone army up and running, they’ll need all this information.

      • January 30, 2011 9:13 am

        That’s exactly what I’ve done as well. Results: To feel good, I need to work out intensely for 30-60 minutes a day six days a week, eat about 1700-1800 Calories a day spread out over three meals of 400 Calories each and the rest in two snacks and a recovery drink, and get 8+ hours of sleep on a regular basis. 20-30% of my diet should be fat, 30-40% protein, and the rest low-GI carbs. Some of the intense exercise needs to be weight-lifting. I don’t know for how many other people this is true but I’m certainly not trusting an article over my own knowledge of how I feel!

  2. March 15, 2010 8:18 pm

    I am a researcher and I believe…

    OK, just kidding, but I have read a few articles, and don’t remember an association with weight, but possibly a connection to gynomastia (man boobs), all the way down the line to hermaphroditic frogs, but I have not paid too much attention. I don’t think organic meat has any relevance here, one way or the other, but perhaps I missed where the risk lies.

    As long as the fault is not with our eating or sedentary lifestyles, because that just makes no sense. :-)

    • March 17, 2010 5:23 am

      I know I’ve read some things about different chemicals from plastics (and maybe some pesticides too) and effects they can have on wildlife when dumped in the environment. Personally, I’m someone who pretty much never microwaves plastic just in case. It’s hard to separate out real answers though because you have one side which will take any study showing a negative effect and conveniently ignore the details (like that the amount of exposure was a billion times what any person gets) to play up the dangers. And then you have the sort of libertarian/corporate types who are more ‘if it doesn’t kill you upon exposure, then the hippies are just overreacting.’

      Yeah, I’m starting to think that there is no idea too outlandish to sell so long as it starts with ‘the problem is not about overconsumption/underexercise.’ Of course part of the problem is that we as a society can’t talk about overeating or being sedentary without it turning into a judge-fest of fat people so I understand why another explanation is so tempting.

  3. March 18, 2010 3:48 am

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