Obesity research: let’s cut out the fat

A smorgasbord of promises to achieve weight reduction are proffered in the 200-plus articles published daily in the media. In the scientific world too, there is an overabundance of research literature. Just the word “fat”, let alone “obesity” or “overweight”, generates 55 research articles a day.

The over-promising language used in the lay press doesn’t match the more cautious scientific language.

Despite all these publications, up to 50% of dieters who reduce their weight to a healthy level, put weight back on within five years; and the more we lose it the more likely we are to regain it.

It is difficult for the non clinical reader to pick out substantiated information from this voracious oversupply. Especially when the over-promising language used in the media doesn’t match the more limited evidence-based scientific language. Scientific reporting is a complex adaptive process, where facts, beliefs, hypotheses, speculations and opinions are separated out from each other.

Responsible reporting of scientific evidence is always has a degree of uncertainty. It is part of any pathway to discovery. The more complex the research area the higher the level of uncertainty and obesity research spans some of the most complex, for example the highest rates of scientific uncertainty are in psychology/neuroscience (32%) and medicine/dentistry (20%), which are key to our understanding of weight management.

There is a glut of words that appear in the discussion sections of scientific results that highlight these uncertainties, for example, may, could, might, suggest, indicate, appear, seem, and assume.  To counter these ambiguities, clinicians have developed a hierarchy of evidence which can be applied to clinical research to reduce the fat of uncertainty. It is called evidence-based medicine.

It is time for more evidence-based reporting and analysis in the media so that readers are able to assess the level of certainty in the research presented on obesity.

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