Yes. But No. Breakthroughs in Saturated Fat and Childhood Obesity

Teachable moments from the latest saturated fat and childhood obesity kerfuffles:

1) Sat fat – good, bad, who knows?

Lots of headlines popped up a couple of weeks about a new meta-analysis (a study of other studies). Most folks who skimmed the headlines probably thought the study’s conclusion was that animal fats were just as good for you as fish oils and vegetable oils.

What you should know:

First, what they actually concluded was that the evidence was unclear:  “We are saying that there is no strong support for the guidelines [that animal facts may be harmful] and we need more good trials.”

Second, their meta-analysis has received a ton of criticism from well-respected nutrition researchers who point out that their meta-analysis missed some of the best nutrition studies and skated over potentially important differences between other studies. Moreover, they issued a corrected version to correct errors, within just a few days of the publication of the original report. So it’s tough to feel super-confident about the quality of their work overall.

Bottom line: Is there any important new news here? Nope. As Obi-Wan said in Star Wars, “You can go about your business now. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

A teachable moment for your customers: Nutrition is a really, really tough area to study, for very good reasons that I won’t recap here (email me if you want to know why I think this). As a result, it’s not much of a stretch to say that virtually every nutrition study has methodology problems.

Put another way, the devil is always in the details. Before you swallow the latest nutrition findings without chewing, make sure you know the real scope of the study and its limitations and applications.


New Saturated Fat Meta-Analysis Headlines

Scientists Fix Errors in Controversial Paper About Saturated Fats

2) Incredible shrinking kids…if only

Let’s cut to the chase – childhood obesity trends have NOT improved. Those headlines that said “childhood obesity dropped 43%” were highly misleading.

They grabbed that claim from a Centers for Disease Control press release, which was itself misleading.

In a nutshell, the folks who wrote and approved the release rounded up all of the study’s data to the most optimistic end of the range — and then used that optimistic data to produce that 43% “decline”.  Shame on them. 

Bottom line: Not much has changed–and there certainly has not been a turnaround in obesity trends among kids.

The teachable moment: take research headlines with a grain of salt, especially when they tell you what you want to be true.

When I originally saw this headline, I was immediately skeptical. I just didn’t believe that anything in human behavior had changed that dramatically in the last ten years. Kids this age aren’t exactly free agents. So behavioral change would need to happen simultaneously, mostly among moms and daycares, in every region of the U.S., every income level, every ethnicity, every employment status, every family size, etc., etc.

What are the odds of that?

Now, we’re not clear on all the causes of obesity and overweight. So it’s also possible that something external changed. But I couldn’t think of any obvious external or exogenous factors that would have changed that quickly, and affected that many people.

As Carl Sagan paraphrased David Hume, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Always a good rule to remember.


Here’s a nice (and easy to follow) recap of the issue.

Another good critique here.

And a good discussion of the statistical problems with the claim here.


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Leslie Nolen, Radial's president, is the nationally-known expert on the art and science of selling health and wellness.

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