Nutrition Sensationalism: How Do Exaggerated Scientific News Affect Our Dietary Choices?

“We know that the news industry has changed over the years, which has put pressure on journalists to produce more stories in less time on topics that they may not have a background in” — Jen LaLoup, Editorial Media Manager for PLOS.

I’m sure you’ve seen headlines such as “Processed Meat Gives You Cancer”, “Salt-Heavy Diets Lead To Alzheimer’s”, or “Adding Sugar to Tea Leads To Irreversible Alzheimer’s”. Consequently, such sensationalist and shocking headlines lead you to believe things that aren’t accurately reflecting actual scientific research (Kininmonth et al., 2016).

What’s more, news articles often contradict previous findings. In 2017, coffee-drinking was encouraged, as it was “proven” to protect us from liver cancer (ITV Report, 2017). Nowadays, coffee-lovers are reconsidering the intake of the beloved drink, because as it turns out, coffee causes breast cancer (Rossman, 2018). But if you’re thinking of quitting, just remember that coffee still “protects” us from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and is good for your heart.

Unfortunately, consumers rely on newspapers and magazines for health and nutrition information (Miller et al., 2006). One study shows that the quality of scientific reporting in six UK tabloids and newspapers is rather poor and exaggerated, with The Sun, unsurprisingly, scoring the lowest. And the confusion and misunderstanding that journalists create through those exaggerations, will only lead to poorer health in the world's population. Indeed, people who could improve their overall health are not eager to do so, because they don’t even know where to start. They blame the media and too much conflicting information.

But scaring people sells.

Over-exaggerated headlines have the power to speak to people, because people are afraid. They feel overwhelmed by the negativity that comes from something in their lives that they could potentially control. If people find out that certain foods cause cancer — they will stop eating those foods. In a desperate attempt to gain more control over their own fast-paced, and very often, stressful lives.

Ah, if only life were that simple.

In reality, more than 60% of adults in the UK are considered overweight or obese, and around 33,000 deaths could be prevented if the Brits met the dietary recommendations outlined by medical professionals, instead of tabloids (N.A., 2016). Also, four out of ten cancer cases in the UK could be avoided if people controlled their weight (Davis, 2018). Instead, popularity of tabloids in the UK is rising (and yes, The Sun has the highest net readership…), and older generations are refusing to take any nutritional advice, because a staggering 67% of them admit that it’s hard to say who is qualified to give advice that they can actually trust (Statista, 2019; Mintel, 2019).

So, where do we go from here? What do we do when the information about what’s good for us and what’s not, changes multiple times a year? How do we know who to trust?

It’s simple. We need to trust ourselves. Trust our own gut (pun intended!). We have to remember that newspapers’ sole reason for existence is to provide catchy, newsworthy articles. They’re not supposed to provide us with a free public health service. And no one, not even a medical professional, knows how our bodies react to certain foods. Short- or long-term. Because eating is complex. And we, as human beings, are complex. So, eat the foods that make you feel good, that feed your body as well as your brain. Because trying to keep up with all the nutritional trends, is far from being as easy as keeping up with the Kardashians.

References:

Davis, N. (2018) 'Four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes', The Guardian, 23 March. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/23/four-in-10-cancer-cases-could-be-prevented-by-lifestyle-changes (Accessed: 26.11.2019)

ITV Report (2017) Drinking coffee ‘may protect against liver cancer’. Available at: https://www.itv.com/news/2017-05-25/drinking-coffee-may-protect-against-liver-cancer/ (Accessed: 26.11.2019)

Kininmonth, A.R., Jamil, N., Almatrouk, N. & Evans, C.E.L. (2016) 'Quality assessment of nutrition coverage in the media: a 6-week survey of five popular UK newspapers', BMJ Open 2017, Vol. 7, pp. 1–8. Available at: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/7/12/e014633.full.pdf (Accessed: 26.11.2019)

Miller, G.D., Cohen, N.L., Fulgoni, V.L., Heymsfield, S.B. & Wellman, N.S.(2006) 'From nutrition scientist to nutrition communicator: why you should take the leap', The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 83, Issue 6, June 2006, pp.1272–1275. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/83/6/1272/4633025(Accessed: 26.11.2019)

Mintel (2019) 'Attitudes towards Healthy Eating — UK — February 2019.' Available at: https://academic-mintel-com.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/display/944600/?highlight (Accessed: 26.11.2019)

N.A. (2016) The Sensationalism of Nutrition News In The Press. What to think?. Available at: https://foodonthefrontpage.wordpress.com/2016/12/15/the-sensationalism-of-nutrition-news-in-the-press-what-to-think/ (Accessed: 26.11.2019)

Rossman, S. (2018) Bacon, coffee, Nutella: These favorite foods have cancer links. Available at: https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/02/09/bacon-coffee-nutella-these-foods-have-cancer-links/322816002/(Accessed: 26.11.2019)

Statista (2019) Monthly reach of leading newspapers in the United Kingdom (UK) from July 2018 to June 2019. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/246077/reach-of-selected-national-newspapers-in-the-uk/ (Accessed: 26.11.2019)