Junkfood Science: Mothers and children are not rodents

July 01, 2008

Mothers and children are not rodents

I will try not to spit and sputter in this post, but geesh! Efforts to frighten young mothers and pregnant women about being fat or gaining weight during pregnancy have taken a new low. First, it was worms, then zebra finches. Now, young women and their children are being compared to rats.

Today, a press release about a veterinary study published nearly 2 months ago was issued from Wellcome Trust in the UK, which had funded the study. Within hours, some 300 news outlets around the world were breathlessly reporting: “Junk food mothers could condemn unborn children to a life of ill health.” The opportunity to spread stereotypes about fat women and children as “gorging on processed junk food” have proven too irresistible.

Every news story has been taken from the press release, as evidenced by the fact that every one repeated the same inaccurate information. Clearly, no one actually read the research or took the time to fact check.

The 32-page study, first published online at the Journal of Physiology on May 8th, worked from unsound premises about bad food and obesity. Its actual results were not only different from what was reported by the press, but most of its data failed to even reach statistical significance. Yet, the findings, taken from 12 specially-bred mother rats, were spun with exaggerated interpretations for humans that far exceeded the science.

Junk premises

In the opening sentences, researchers from the Royal Veterinary College, a veterinary school in London, repeated so many food fears and myths about fat people that, clearly, consumers would be ill-advised to visit their rat’s veterinarian for health advice. And it’s unsettling that public health officials are.

They began by describing a worldwide obesity epidemic attributable to diet changes and sedentary lifestyles. People are eating increasingly more fast food, said the authors. That’s bad stuff because: “Manufactured foods are often industrially processed, [and] contain high amounts of fat, sugar and salt.” According to the authors, this qualifies them as “junk food” because they’re less wholesome than “homemade foods.”

Wow, Dr. Johan H. Koeslag called it. Junkfood is believed to be anything not processed at home, following unscientific fears of chemistry and misunderstandings of food processing, with a heavy sprinkling of vitalism.

And just because there are more fast food restaurants to meet demands of today’s time-strapped consumers, does not mean the food is higher in calories, fats or sugars than what has been made at home for generations. Nor does it mean that it’s the fat people eating more fast food. Both assumptions are false. And these facts have been widely known in the food industry for decades. The largest consumers of fast food are the thinnest demographic group, not the fattest. And they’re most certainly not fat women who, anymore, are obsessed with their figures. Stereotypes, as seen on TV or in the movies, are not reality.

In fact, the latest fast food industry report just released by Research International USA, was similar to other industry literature. It reported that 14% of the population accounts for about half of all fast food sales. These high-frequency uses are young men, mostly employed, with high incomes. As has also been known for years, it’s not the poor, uneducated masses eating the most fast food. “High frequency users have an average income of $76,575,” the report found. After young men, patrons are young people and families with children. Convenience is the main reason consumers choose to order fast food. And “while the stereotype of a typical fast-food customer may be that of a couch potato,” said Alexander Kleijngeld, Research International, vice president, “our research found the opposite to be true, as high frequency fast food users are more involved and more active than the average consumer.” Running to soccer practice comes to mind. And looking at what people order, finds women are also more likely to look for diet-conscious choices.

Study in a jiffy

The researchers set out to show that transgenic rats fed junk food “exacerbated adiposity”and poor health in their liters. So, this was a study on fattening up rats. They took 24 female Wistar rats from Charles River and impregnated them. During the pregnancy and lactation (breastfeeding) period, 12 were given unlimited amounts of cookies, chocolate, doughnuts, muffins, potato chips, sweets and cheese to eat. The other 12 were the controls and given rat chow, processed pellets called RM3. Upon being weaned, the babies from each group were then equally divided into groups allowed to gorge on unlimited amounts of that human junk food or given the dried rat chow.

Insulin and glucose levels in the offspring were the same among all of the groups (regardless of what their mothers had eaten during pregnancy and lactation), with the measurements only elevated among the offspring who were allowed to gorge on the human junk food up until two hours before they were euthanized and their blood levels checked. But the higher glucose levels in the girls were not statistically significant. Differences in the IGF-1 mRNA levels among the groups didn’t reach statistical significance. The changes in the expression of genes involved in adipocyte proliferation (build up of fat mass) and differentiation were greater in the girls rats than the boys, but the differences among the offspring whose mothers had eaten chow or junk food during pregnancy were inconsistent and didn’t fall within statistical significance.

Each of the metabolic measures were more related to what the rat kids had eaten immediately before being euthanized, than their mother’s diets. Temporary increases in surrogate health indices aren’t evidence of anything about the long-term health effects of these measures in rats. All this study showed was that rats allowed to gorge on human food may be able to be fattened up — not that humans should eat like rats!

Why did a small, dated rat study become international news?

What on earth does allowing rats to gorge on a diet of cookies, chocolate, doughnuts, muffins, potato chips, sweets and cheese, have to do with real life and people? People don’t live on diets of cookies, chocolate, doughnuts, muffins, potato chips, sweets and cheese. No one does that, not even fat people. As repeated clinical studies have shown, fat and thin eat no different to explain the natural diversity of our sizes. When allowed to eat whatever they want, humans naturally eat a variety of foods and our diets have become healthier over the decades, not worse.

Co-author Neil Stickland said in the media release that humans share a number of biological systems with rats, so there’s reason to think that fat mothers gorging on junk food during pregnancy could explain why their children are fat and “have a tendency towards overeating.” In other words, it isn’t genetics that explain obesity among families, but that fat women are “overeating” junk food and their fat children overeat, too.

That this study and media hype would even pretend that this has any relevance to fat women and children, and foster the belief that they gorge on junk food like the rats in this study, is the ultimate portrayal of fat prejudices.

Give women credit for being smarter than rats!

Rats are dumb and have so little gray matter they will pig out without appetite control on anything that tastes good. They are missing ingestive controls even found in nonrodent farm species. They don’t even have enough neural brain connections between the brainstem and viscera to be coordinated enough to vomit or burp!

Their brains weigh a whopping 2 grams. The human brain is 700 times larger, weighing in at 1,300 to 1,400 grams.

We’re being told there’s some nutritional or health take-home message for us in this study. There isn’t. A veterinarian study is not human research. All this study showed was that rats may not be designed to eat human diets (although they thrived surprisingly well on the junk food). It’s stupid to think that we should eat the same diet that’s best for rats. People are not meant to eat rat pellets.

There are lots of foods known to be harmful to rats, that are healthful and completely safe for humans. If we ate like rats, we could never eat blue cheese, licorice, dried beans or peanuts, sweet potatoes, raw cabbage and Brussels sprouts, raw artichokes, green bananas, rhubarb, tofu, orange juice or onions. Even chocolate can lead to heart failure and neurological poisoning in rats, according to Pet Rats Canada. Even tap water isn’t good for them.

Repeat after me: Women and children are not rats.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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