TCS Daily

Mikey Doesn't Like It

By Sandy Szwarc - August 21, 2003 12:00 AM

My goodness. I'm amazed by Michael Fumento's reaction to my recent series on Tech Central Station, which he calls an "Oxford English Dictionary-length propaganda feast." If I were to condense it into a Cliff Notes' version, what I said was so simple: We all need to get regular physical activity, eat normally and nourish our bodies with a variety of foods (plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, proteins, with a balance of indulgences). And this, rather than trying to be a certain weight, is the key to good health.


Incredibly, Fumento says following this advice will kill you -- "believe her and die."


The Truth About Obesity
The Skinny on Fat
The Diet Problem
Dying to Be Thin
The War on Fat's Casualties
To Your Health
Where's the Epidemic?
To Do List
A Simple Plan
Mikey Doesn't Like It

He characterizes me as part of the "fatlash movement," which he equates with Big Tobacco. This struck me as odd, but I think I see what he was trying to get at. Lawyers and politicians made a fortune on tobacco settlements and they're eager to make another big score. They've now targeted the food industry, but before they can exact a settlement, they need victims ... lots of victims. To create them, a deadly obesity crisis must be fabricated. Fumento, himself, can tell you how it works. Years ago, in an article, "How the Media and Lawyers Stir Up False Illness," he described how easy it was to "wreak havoc in America" today by fabricating a health scare crisis, "particularly if the suggestion is made by your doctor, then your lawyer, and then the newspapers." The secondary gain behind these claims? "It's big bucks," he wrote, "which is where lawyers come in."


In another insightful article about SARS, he also helps us understand the whys of concocting "killer" diseases and panic. "It does sell papers," he wrote. Plus, "there's fame, fortune and big budgets" at stake. "The U.S. government and various universities have also seen these faux plagues as budget boosters."


But for some reason when it comes to the subject of obesity, all this good sense vanishes. In his response to my series, he makes his case by trotting out the same flawed and deceptive arguments and contorted research at the core of the envisioned big food settlement. He misquotes, sidesteps troublesome evidence, and even employs a peculiar research tool.


Those who follow his work have seen it all before. Earlier this year, Fumento wrote a similar piece called "The Big Fat Fake," attacking Gary Taubes' 2001 Science in Society Journalism Award-winning article, "The Soft Science of Dietary Fat." Taubes, like this series, dared to take a critical look at the popular tenets surrounding the fat hysteria. I can't hope to match Taubes' brilliant and eloquent rebuttal. Like Taubes, I'm also reluctant to respond to Fumento at all, but feel no other choice, and there are a few things that warrant pointing out that I hope will be of help to readers. 


Fumento Knows Best


In coming to the soundest conclusions, the scientific process involves considering all sides of an issue and supporting research -- not just what we agree with or that have convenient hyperlinks -- and weighing their merits.


From the start, it's clear that for Fumento this issue isn't about scientific inquiry. He doesn't acknowledge the hundreds of studies and references noted throughout this series, nor the comprehensive reviews of dieting research. He finds danger in even permitting consumers to have access to this information, threatening: "how many will die because they heard it?"


He disregards and demonizes the conclusions of noted experts in the field such as Campos, Garner, Wooley, Ernsberger, Haskew, Berg, Gaesser, Bruno, Klurfeld, Andres,  Keys, Blair, Johnson and others mentioned in this series, preferring proverbs and almanac sayings of "wise people who've known better." Fumento even discredits the medical doctors who are the editors of one of the country's most prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal, and who are far more qualified than most of us to evaluate the methodology and soundness of scientific research. The credentials of these experts speak for themselves.


Troubling Evidence


The evidence Fumento presents is filled with errors and poor judgment.


For example, he accuses me of being "so unfamiliar with" Total Nutrition that I "list the wrong co-authors." Just to be sure, I checked the copy on my desk and, just as I thought, I have the correct authors. Victor Herbert and Genell J. Subak-Sharpe (whose name he misspelled), are the editors.  Drs. Katz and Knittle of Mount Sinai School of Medicine co-authored two sections I quoted in this series: "Eating Disorders," pages 325-334, and "Weight Control," pages 277-304, and Dr. Kenneth Davis (also noted in this series) authored "The Effects of Nutrition on the Brain, Nervous System and Behavior" on pages 638-653. I highly recommend Fumento follow his St. Martin's hyperlink and buy a copy of this great nutrition book.


In amassing his case, Fumento repeatedly makes a common methodological error: attributing research on those with the highest BMIs, "greater than 45," as representative of risks faced by all fat people. The series addressed this artifice used by those in the war on obesity movement to heighten the dangers of obesity. Interestingly, he didn't counter my argument that dieting is dangerous and ineffective with a blizzard of data showing the opposite. He couldn't -- there is simply no convincing evidence he could even cull from. Instead, he accused me of advocating we get fat to live longer. However, nowhere in the series did I say that. Obviously, that's every bit as absurd as recommending losing weight to live longer!


He appears unable to differentiate sound information and sources from marketing and popularized dogma. For example, he accuses me of missing a small USDA Economic Research Service publication on Food Supply Trends, which he views as being "more reliable" for determining dietary intake than information from the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. For those unfamiliar with this little publication, it's what lays the groundwork for the litigation of food producers and supports the myth that Americans are fat gluttons. Its data is espoused by activists such as Marion Nestle and Center for Science in the Public Interest (a.k.a., the food police). It says that the food industry produces 3,900 calories a day for every man, woman and child, and, extrapolating from those numbers, it further claims we're all eating a whopping 2,750 calories a day!


In fact, I'm well aware of that publication. I purposely excluded it because including food production supply trends in a study of sound evidence on diets would have been irresponsible.


First, as I explained in Part 1 of my series, using only recent data from narrow sampling years that support their claims, while ignoring decades of data that doesn't, is a common sleight of hand used by those trying to sell us that foods are to blame for rising obesity rates.


Second, food supply data has been repeatedly shown to be faulty when applied to dietary intakes. Economists at the Harvard Institute for Economic Research noted that only in recent years has wastage been accounted for -- which they've found done imprecisely at best. (Cutler et al., 2003) More significantly, it doesn't consider industrial and other uses of foods. As David Klurfeld, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University, editor-in-chief of the Journal of American Clinical Nutrition and Nutrition New Focus and scientific expert with the International Food Information Council, commented about the "absurdity" of using this data: "Maybe she [Marion Nestle] doesn't know that soybean oil is used to make ink, lubricants, diesel fuel, plastics and many other useful products. Maybe she doesn't realize the U.S. feeds millions more people outside the country and that we don't have to eat six meals a day to get rid of surplus crops." (Klurfeld, 2002)


Deus Ex-Hyperlink


In addition to errors and misinterpretations, Fumento goes one step further, pioneering a whole New Science based on entering two terms on a browser search engine and reporting the total number of web hits as proof of a connection. Using this web-hit approach, he also tallies how many times a study has been cited and, if he deems it sufficient, claims it proves the validity of the study. Creative, I'll give him that.


So, Fumento's web-data-dredging of the terms "breast cancer" and "obesity" yielded 650 hits! Proof of a connection to him. In reality, it illustrates the potential harm for millions when actual risk factors and etiologies are incorrectly identified and researchers fail to look beyond mere associations. In this case, he evidently doesn't realize the difference between premenopausal and postmenopausal breast cancer, or the difference in types of adipose cells. And it's a shame he didn't take the time to read the comprehensive review of 176 studies mentioned in the series: "Nutrition and Breast Cancer" by Cheryl Rock, Ph.D., R.D., and Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., in Nutrition in the Prevention and Treatment of Disease (Academic Press 2001). But then again, it didn't come with a hyperlink.


These researchers noted what is acknowledged in the medical community: that the majority of studies have found leanness to be a significant risk factor for breast cancer in premenopausal women, while obesity itself is protective. In postmenopausal breast cancers, the risks are higher in those with larger amounts of visceral fat (the type of fat that accumulates with yo-yo dieting and sedentary behaviors). The soundest studies recognize and differentiate adiposities. Postmenopausal breast cancer risks have been found to be significantly reduced with regular physical activity (which also greatly diminishes visceral fat) and nutritious eating, just as these recommendations notably ameliorate glucose problems and the other traditional "obesity-related diseases" --  without weight loss.


Likewise, using his Internet research method, Fumento's proof that obesity kills 300,000 people each year is because he discovered that more than 60 journals had cited the Stevens study. Actually, this statistic has been cited by the media no less than 1,000 times in the last three years, according to a Lexus database search revealed at American Enterprise Institute's "Obesity, Individual Responsibility, and Public Policy" conference on June 10, 2003. But, popularity of an idea doesn't make it so.


"If 50 million people believe a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." -- Nobel Prize winner, Anatole France (1844 - 1924)


As Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University once told me, "Science isn't fair or democratic. Instead of majority rule, scientific understanding evolves only as rigorous testing, observations, and measurements build a body of unrefuted evidence."


Despite its popularity, the Stevens study, released in 1998 as the largest of its kind, generated considerable controversy within the scientific community for its flaws. American Cancer Society studies linking obesity with cancer were debunked in this series and by Steven Milloy, Paul Campos and others. Failing to grasp that association with obesity doesn't mean caused by obesity is prominent throughout Fumento's article. Even the causation of obesity to heart disease isn't a slam dunk in the scientific community, as was well addressed in the series. In fact, while the scientific community is in consensus about the healthfulness of sound nutrition and exercise, they're definitely not in agreement, nor is there a body of unrefuted evidence, about the deadliness of fat and the need to or safety of dieting.


As Malloy, bio-statistician and adjunct scholar at Cato Institute, author of Junk Science Judo (2001) and publisher of noted, the "fat kills 300,000" and other body count epidemiological studies are nothing more than data-dredging and "statistical malpractice." And bigger numbers just mean bigger nonsense. "When you read or hear about these big numbers," he wrote, "laugh out loud. I do."


Have You Heard the One About?


Ironically, in that earlier article, "How the Media and Lawyers Stir Up False Illness," Fumento gives us surprisingly sound advice for what to do when faced with a phony health crisis:


"The media, the courts, and the general public need to take a healthy dose of skepticism. This won't be a popular remedy; it's not as emotionally gratifying as blaming bad guys (corporations, government) or as financially rewarding as suing them. But then, the best medicine seldom tastes good. It's just good for us."


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