Junkfood Science: A multiple-choice test

December 22, 2007

A multiple-choice test

“If one parent has a dimple in their chin, there is a 50% chance that the children will also. However, when both parents have dimples in their chins, the children have an 80% chance.”

This proves:

A). chin dimples have a strong genetic component
B). the social networking theory of contagious chin dimples

According to one professor (in essence), the correct answer is B!

While his column has been widely syndicated, how many readers believed a similar claim and didn’t stop to think critically about it? Given the quarter of a million articles that have appeared in print this year supporting this claim, it would appear quite a few fell for it...or at least the publications’ editors did.

We’ll take a critical look at Professor Mohamed Elhashemy’s arguments as we read his article today.

Oh, substitute “chin dimples” for the other physical characteristic used in this piece.

How to Get Your Kids Lose Weight through "Second-Hand Slimming"

The problem of childhood obesity has grown considerably in recent years. About 30% of children and adolescents are obese. Obesity is among the easiest medical conditions to recognize but most difficult to treat. Three out of each four overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults unless they adopt and maintain healthier patterns of eating and exercise.

The inaccuracies found in each of these sentences were recently addressed here. Childhood obesity has not grown over recent years, about 30% of young people are not obese, and it isn’t easy to recognize. It's rarely due to a medical condition and no special healthful diet or exercise program — no matter how comprehensive, restrictive, intensive, long in duration or creative — has ever proven effective, especially in any beneficial and sustained way, in reducing or preventing obesity. He goes on:

If one parent is obese, there is a 50% chance that the children will also be obese. However, when both parents are obese, the children have an 80% chance of being obese. This proves the social networking theory of contagious obesity, discussed in my previous article titled “Make Your 2008 Resolution End the Obesity Dilemma Using Luqaimat Diet Plan". Only about 1% of all kids' obesity is caused by medical problems, and the remaining 99% can be related to poor eating habits, couch potato kids, low self-esteem, and psychological depression.

Were your first instincts to concur and think "obesity's completely different from chin dimples"? If so, was that based on solid and consistent evidence, or beliefs in "what everybody knows is true?" The first two sentences of his paragraph do not prove the social networking theory that obesity is contagious anymore than chin dimples — in fact, it is still amazing anyone took this hypothesis seriously. Instead, it confirms what obesity researchers concluded long ago: that obesity, like other physical characteristics, is not due to behaviors, but is primarily genetic. According to one of the country’s foremost obesity researchers, Jeffrey M. Friedman, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller University, New York, the “simplistic notion” that obese individuals can ameliorate their condition by simply deciding to eat less and exercise more is “at odds with substantial scientific evidence illuminating a precise and powerful biological system that maintains body weight within a relatively narrow range.” Our body shapes and sizes are, to a most significant extent, genetically determined. “The heritability of obesity is equivalent to that of height and greater than that of almost every other condition that has been studied,” according to Dr. Friedman. Someone genetically predisposed to obesity will become obese independent of their caloric intake even when it’s restricted to that of thin counterparts, he's said.

Even if everyone ate the same number of calories and got similar exercise, there would still be people who would become fat, thin and everything in between. This goes for kids, too. The longest and most intensive clinical study which closely followed growing children for the first 17 years of their life, for example, found that no matter what the children ate during childhood or adolescence, they naturally grew up to be a wide range of weights. While there were great differences in the children’s diets, they were unrelated to their weights. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that, while all healthy kids ate and drank more as they grew older, there was no correlation between their varying diets and their weight status or their mother’s weight status. Fat mothers weren’t feeding their children more, nor were the fat children eating measurably different from the thin kids, either.

It's popular to believe that bad foods make kids fat and healthy foods will keep them thin, but Canadian researchers looked at the diets of more than 130,000 kids in 34 countries and found that kids’ body weights had nothing to do with how many fruits, vegetables or soft drinks they consumed. The 1996 American Heart Association Scientific Statement for healthcare professionals, after reviewing the evidence, concurred: “Studies of diet composition in children do not identify the cause of obesity in youth.” They also found that the association between sedentary activities (such as watching television) and “obesity” has not been consistently demonstrated. According to their review of the evidence, in studies indicating lower energy expenditure in fat children, it was actually similar to non-obese children when indexed to their lean body mass. They found no differences between fat and lean children in energy expenditure.

Multiple researchers, using a variety of methodologies, have for decades continued to fail to find any meaningful or replicable differences in the caloric intake, foods or eating patterns of the obese compared to the non-obese to explain obesity.

Short-term stunts of weight loss can sell a lot of diets, pills, and health programs but they are invariably just that: temporary. “People can exert a level of control over their weight within a 10-, perhaps a 15-pound range,” Friedman’s research has found. That diligence is never going to be enough to transform anyone into a different body type.

Notice how the last sentence in that passage above goes from a “cause” of childhood obesity to things that “can be related to?” Professor Elhashemy then uses these correlations as if they were causes to support his diet plan:

In the absence of a medical disorder, the only way to lose weight is to reduce the number of calories being eaten and to increase the child's or adolescent's level of physical activity. Lasting weight loss can only occur when there is self-motivation. Since obesity often affects more than one family member, adopting healthy eating habits and regular exercise can improve the chances of successful weight control for the child or adolescent.

While faith in such simple solutions has become popularly believed, the clinical guidelines for pediatricians just published, “Expert Committee Recommendations Regarding the Prevention, Assessment, and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity,” acknowledges there is no evidence in support of diet and exercise recommendations for kids to prevent obesity.

Professor goes on to claim it is easy to help kid’s lose weight with his “second-hand slimming procedure.”

It is well known that children can be affected passively by the parents smoking and this is named “second-hand smoking". My diet plan for children is intended to affect the children eating behavior passively (or subconsciously) through changing their parents eating habits, so I gave it a genuine term: “Second-Hand Slimming".

His Luqaimat Training Technique uses 3 mugs (2 for kids) to limit a meal to 900 cc of food, with one mug to be salad greens. By controlling habits, he claims, “an obese child will learn to be satisfied” with undersized food portions.

He provides no evidence in support of his Luqaimat diet.

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