Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tortured by Chocolate: Second Course, Mea Culpa

Yesterday I was really harsh on the chocolate study report in Jezebel.  Possibly overly critical given that it wasn't featured in a noted journalistic source. Mea culpa. Then a New York Times Well column on the same weak study landed on the paper's Most Emailed list and because I expect more out of that organization I have a few more things to say about the latest dietary aid.  Even the New York Times couldn't get it right. The report leaves the reader with the impression that although the underlying reasons remain uncertain, chocolate keeps weight off: 
The researchers could not explain precisely why something usually loaded with sugar, fat and calories would have a beneficial effect on weight. But they suspect that antioxidants and other compounds in chocolate may deliver a metabolic boost that can offset its caloric downside. The Chocolate Diet, New York Times, March 26
At least the journalist mentions the unreliable nature of dietary studies - but fails to say it's in large part because people have difficulty remembering what they ate and fessing up:
Dietary studies can be unreliable, since so many complicating factors can influence results, and it is difficult to pinpoint cause and effect. Ditto that last part! But the researchers adjusted their results for a number of variables, including age, gender, depression, vegetable consumption, and fat and calorie intake.  “It didn’t matter which of those you added, the relationship remained very stably significant,” said Dr. Golomb. So disregard the fact people might lie or not remember what they ate and the other potential variables, chocolate helps shed pounds. 
By the way, the only expert interviewed was, of course, the study author. 

The reporter cautions "the findings should not be taken as a license to overindulge" not because there's really no proof of chocolate's metabolic benefits here but because the study shows the benefits accrue from the frequency and not the amount of chocolate a person eats as testified by the evidence those who ate the most were in fact heavier. 

Nowhere in this report does the journalist, a health/science writer who has a degree in psychology from Yale and a published book ever specifically question whether chocolate helps keep weight off.  Maybe the editor cut the nuances.

Yes I am once again being harsh but this is our future right here.  Yes it was well-written at least without regard to scientific accuracy. No, the piece didn't land in the printed paper but it's on the website. Look, I could have chosen any number of other articles there including ones printed on dead trees.  It's similar to so much other reporting in major media. It sounds critical in that it mentions some methodological issues but really doesn't get them quite right and worse fails to portray the study as a speculative set of results from a small study that indulges our appetite for easy solutions to complicated problems (i.e. a thickening national waistline).

Why go and on about it? 

It's easy to see why chocolate, even in moderation, might not necessarily boost metabolism.  It doesn't take much effort to wonder if people who are thinner might be more likely to take nibbles more often. We all know chocolate, can see it, feel it. Unlike phthalates, DNA or abstractions like maternal sensitivity or peri-natal distress. Alternative explanations become trickier when we're talking endocrine-disruptors or neural activity. 

Now if you still feel like unwrapping that Hershey's kiss, go for it.

Update: The Wall Street Journal report says "the researchers caution that the study doesn't prove a link between between frequent chocolate munching and weight loss."  Think they meant the study doesn't show chocolate causes weight loss.  Ughhh.   

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