It’s becoming increasingly evident that the splashy “medical” headlines covering newspapers and lifestyle blogs are about as reliably accurate as the celebrity gossip we read in People. Spin rules in an effort to generate clicks, which means that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A few months ago, we debunked a study that claimed that chocolate won’t affect your BMI and around that time the results of a clinical trail conducted by journalist John Bohannon hit the headlines as well. The study was deliberately crafted, as Bohannon has now revealed, to demonstrate just how easy it is to spin information.
The premise of the trial was to show that eating bitter chocolate on a daily basis could, in one way or another, improve your well-being. Five men and 11 women, aged 19 to 67, were picked — already the study, which made major headlines, had little credibility given the small sample size. Nevertheless, the 16 subjects were put on one of three, three-week diets. One group followed a low-carbohydrate diet, another followed the same low-carb diet plus a 1.5 ounce bar of dark chocolate a day and the third group was a control group instructed to make no changes to their current diet.
At the end of the study, a survey was done and a long list of measurements were taken. The numbers showed that the treatment group lost about five pounds, the control group’s body weight marginally changed and those on the low-carb plus dark chocolate diet lost weight 10 percent faster (statistically significant), had better cholesterol readings and higher scores on the well-being survey. Unfortunately, while these results sound promising, they mean nothing. The researchers took 18 different measurements (from weight to blood protein levels), practically ensuring that something would prove to be statistically significant given that a large number of things were measured on a small number of people. Like most splashy headlines based on studies, this one, Bohannon explains, “is a recipe for false positives.” In fact, as any woman on her period can tell you, it’s pretty easy for your weight to naturally fluctuate a few pounds from one week to the next…with or without chocolate.
More disturbing still was how easy it was for Bohannon to get his research published. Within 24 hours, multiple journals agreed to publish the findings. A press release was then carefully laid out — visuals and all — to pray on “lazy” reporters who quickly disseminated the news. Bohannon reiterated a reader quote — “Every day is April Fool’s in nutrition” — and it appears that the statement couldn’t be more true.
Still not convinced? Just look at today’s news. A new bogus chocolate headline is making waves, “Study Says Snacking On Dark Chocolate At Work Increases Your Productivity.” Not only were the 122 subjects in the study divided into six groups (only about 20 were given dark chocolate), there was zero accounting for diet or any other lifestyle habits when examining the participants’ brains via electroencephalography after their single chocolate “snack.” So, next time you eat a few too many bars of chocolate, don’t feel bad if you gain some weight and feel like taking a snooze…it’s probably totally normal.