Fitness and misleading studies

Fitness and misleading studies – the problems with following scientific research in fitness

Fitness and misleading studies.  Health and fitness is truly a passion of mine, and it has been for a long time.  For that reason, I have often enjoyed browsing through different fitness related research and studies.  I find it interesting and I like doing it.  However, I recently had a rude awakening following a conversation with a friend of mine.  I didn’t know it until now, but I was being gullible and easily mislead.  I was also being a little lazy too.  It comes down to fitness and misleading research.  Let me explain…

fitness and misleading studies

Be wary

The purpose of this post is to remind people to question just about any health and fitness claim they come across!  Even if it is backed by some form of “research” or if it is published by the media!  Fitness and misleading studies, as you will see, is a very real issue.

 

Thanks to a conversation with a friend of mine, Marc, it’s recently been drawn to my attention that I was guilty of being too trusting of scientific studies.  I mean, why wouldn’t I trust a study?  If it’s been published, and I’ve found it somewhere like on PubMed, why would I not believe it’s findings to be accurate?  This friend of mine, Marc, (who is actually Dr Marc Barton) as well as being a qualified doctor, also happens to be my jiu jitsu instructor.  He is head of Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood London http://www.jiujitsubrotherhoodlondon.com/ .

 

fitness and misleading studies

Don’t just read the conclusion!

I admit that I was to blame for not delving deeper into each study I looked at.  If I just read the abstract or just focused on the conclusions, like I was, then I was unknowingly being lazy!  Without taking into consideration the methodology of a study, then I was just putting my faith in it blindly.

Questions I need to ask are

– what did they actually do?

– are there limitations to the study?

– how was it carried out?

– how big was the sample size?

– was it funded by someone who would influence the bias of the study?

I also need to have a look for what similar studies are saying.  For example, if the results of a study say one thing, but there are 100 studies out there saying the opposite, then common sense tells you to side with the majority.

 

fitness and misleading studies

Lets look at a terribly designed study!

As an example, let’s look at one of the studies I came across that first ignited this conversation between me and Marc:

Saris WH, Astrup A, Prentice AM, Zunft HJ, Formiguera X, Verboeket-van de Venne WP, Raben A, Poppitt SD, Seppelt B, Johnston S, Vasilaras TH, Keogh GF. Randomized controlled trial of changes in dietary carbohydrate/fat ratio and simple vs complex carbohydrates on body weight and blood lipids: the CARMEN study. The Carbohydrate Ratio Management in European National diets. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Oct;24(10):1310-8. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11093293/)

This study was drawn to my attention because it was cited in several articles I came across.  The articles used this study to argue their claim, that it didn’t matter whether you consumed a high sugar or low sugar diet, regarding body composition and cardiovascular health.

But what does this study actually show.  Read the paper, and you see that the researchers reduced participants’ dietary fat.

They then decided to alter the carbohydrates of the participants’ diets to that of simple or complex carbs too.  OK, so they are playing around with a lot of variables here.

And at the end of this poorly designed study, all they can conclude is that both simple and complex carbs are ultimately broken down into sugar, which we already know.

And not surprisingly, because a calorie deficit was created by lowering dietary fat, participants lost some weight too.

They then comment that they observed that blood lipids weren’t altered in the study.  Ok.  Great.  No surprises.  And no, this study cannot be reliably used to argue that there are no added weight loss or health benefits through reducing sugar intake!  Not to mention that this study is nearly twenty years old too!

fitness and misleading studies

The sugar industry’s funded study on CHD

When appraising a study, the need to question who funded it is very important.  This cannot be illustrated better than in the example of the sugar industry’s funded study on coronary heart disease, from the 1960s.  We all now know (or hopefully you all now know!) that saturated fat was wrongly blamed for decades for causing CHD.  This was a result of the sugar industry funded research that wrongly drew this conclusion.

Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA internal medicine. 2016;176(11):1680-1685. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5099084/)

And we now know that it is in fact sugar that was to blame for CHD all along, not saturated fat!  Suspicious, no?

              

 

 

And the sugar industry is still doing it!

Let me draw your attention to another more recent paper from 2016:

Rippe JM, Angelopoulos TJ. Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding. Nutrients. 2016;8(11):697. doi:10.3390/nu8110697. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5133084/)

This paper summarised that added sugar consumption wasn’t so bad.  But scroll down to the bottom of the paper where it states the “Conflicts of Interest”.  You find that this paper was actually funded by “ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, the Florida Department of Citrus, PepsiCo International, The Coca Cola Company, the Corn Refiners Association, Weight Watchers International and various publishers.”

Wow!  No kidding the results were that sugar wasn’t bad!

 

fitness and misleading studies

The chocolate industry’s funded research

Another example is that of research funded by the chocolate industry.  Dark chocolate has been hailed as a “health food”, with claims of cocoa having all sorts of health benefits.  However, studies making such claims have non-surprisingly been funded by chocolate producers such as Mars, Nestle, and Hershey!

Brickman AM, Khan UA, Provenzano FA, et al. Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults. Nature neuroscience. 2014;17(12):1798-1803. doi:10.1038/nn.3850. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4940121/)

 

 

The media

I must note that the media are very much to blame too!  Often, they will latch on to the claimed results of a study just to make a catchy story.  This is again, without delving into the methodology of the study much at all!  What makes it worse, is sometimes the studies the media latches on to have not even been published in any kind of academic journal!

 

Another point is that the authors of scientific / academic studies sometimes can be tempted to distort their research to get media attention.  This is in the hope of then obtaining more funding for further research.  Finding funding for scientific research is a common ongoing battle, so it is in the researchers’ best interest to spark attention.

fitness and misleading studies

Sometimes the science is lagging behind

Now that I have stressed the point of appraising any “evidence-based research” regarding health and fitness claims, I am going to backtrack a little!  I also want to remind you that sometimes in fitness, there are things that we know through our own practical experience.  “Time in the trenches”, so to speak.  But science may not fully back it up yet.  Let me use bodybuilding as an example.  Back in the “Golden Era”, when Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the sport, there wasn’t even a fraction of the sports science research that there is today.  Yet still, Arnold and the other top competitors at the time, managed to figure out by themselves how to train and diet to get big, muscular and lean.  Arnold and co didn’t have to wait for studies to come out to tell them that what they were doing was working.

I also want to remind you that sometimes in fitness, there are things that we know through our own practical experience. “Time in the trenches”, so to speak. But science may not fully…
So, what I am saying, is that often we must make best use of all resources available to us.  This includes our own experience; what we see others doing that is visibly working; as well as what the scientific literature tells us (after appraising it of course, to make sure it’s not a mickey mouse study!)

 

fitness and misleading studies

Note: I decided that I need to be better equipped to appraise research papers.  I don’t want to be misled or misinformed again.  For that reason, I am currently reading a book written by my friend, Dr Marc: “Evidence-Based Medicine and Statistics for Medical Exams” https://www.medicalexamprep.co.uk/product/evidence-based-medicine-statistics-medical-exams/

I am not going to be training for the medical exams anytime soon haha, but I think this book will be very helpful to anyone with an interest in the science side of fitness, but who doesn’t want to get duped by dodgy studies like I was!

 

 

Further reading:

http://www.jiujitsubrotherhoodlondon.com/

 

https://www.medicalexamprep.co.uk/product/evidence-based-medicine-statistics-medical-exams/

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/in-theory/wp/2016/08/17/the-media-is-ruining-science/

 

https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/11/7/16504548/chocolate-science-health-food-misleading

 

https://www.drpribut.com/wordpress/2012/05/misleading-studies-bias-and-hype/

 

Saris WH, Astrup A, Prentice AM, Zunft HJ, Formiguera X, Verboeket-van de Venne WP, Raben A, Poppitt SD, Seppelt B, Johnston S, Vasilaras TH, Keogh GF. Randomized controlled trial of changes in dietary carbohydrate/fat ratio and simple vs complex carbohydrates on body weight and blood lipids: the CARMEN study. The Carbohydrate Ratio Management in European National diets. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Oct;24(10):1310-8. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11093293/)

 

Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA internal medicine. 2016;176(11):1680-1685. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5099084/)

 

Rippe JM, Angelopoulos TJ. Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding. Nutrients. 2016;8(11):697. doi:10.3390/nu8110697. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5133084/)

 

Brickman AM, Khan UA, Provenzano FA, et al. Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults. Nature neuroscience. 2014;17(12):1798-1803. doi:10.1038/nn.3850. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4940121/)

 

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