“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” – Mark Twain

This post will be about a magazine, not a newspaper, but close enough.

While digging through my research files over the weekend, I stumbled across a handful of diet and health articles from TIME magazine online. If you’ve ever wondered why people are so confused about diets and calories and weight gain, just poke through old issues of TIME. Despite all appearing in the same publication, the articles contradict each other. Perhaps that’s TIME magazine’s version of objective reporting: don’t just quote both sides in a debate — argue both sides yourself.

Let’s start with a 2012 article titled It’s the Calories, Stupid. That article was about a study conducted by George Bray, who concluded that macronutrients make no difference for weight loss … even though the carbohydrate content was the same in the diets he tested. I wrote about that study in this post, but here’s what TIME magazine had to say:

When it comes to weight gain, it’s all about the calories.

That might seem obvious, but popular diets continue to suggest that lowering or increasing certain dietary components — carbs or protein, say — is the key to weight loss. A clever new study by researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge shows, however, that it’s not what you eat but how much that matters when it comes to body weight.

Okay, so it’s all about calories, period. Calories in, calories out. Got it. Thanks, TIME magazine.

I found that article so enlightening, I moved on to another titled For Weight Loss Success, Think About When, Not Just What, You Eat:

Timing is everything for losing weight.

Say what? I’m pretty sure you just informed me it’s all about the calories, stupid. George Bray said so.

In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, the scientists monitored 420 overweight participants on a 20-week weight loss program in Spain. The volunteers were split into two groups: early-eaters and late-eaters. Since lunch is considered the largest meal in Spain–about 40% of the day’s calories are consumed in the mid-day meal–half the participants ate lunch before 3 p.m. while the remainder ate lunch after 3 p.m.

The late-eaters lost less weight overall, and shed pounds at a slower rate than those eating earlier. Those eating lunch later were more likely to skip breakfast or eat fewer calories, while the timing of breakfast and dinner didn’t influence weight loss effectiveness for either group.

Let me get this straight: the late-lunch eaters skipped breakfast and ate fewer calories, but they lost less weight. So now you’re telling me it’s all about the calories, stupid, unless if you consume your calories later in the day. Then you won’t lose as much weight despite eating less. Got it. Thanks, TIME magazine.

I guess at the very least, we can agree that if Americans would just consume fewer calories (preferably at an early lunch), the obesity rate would decline. To confirm that, I read the article titled Americans Are Eating Fewer Calories, So Why Are We Still Obese?

The good news: we’re eating fewer calories. The bad news: that’s not translating into lower obesity rates.

Two federal studies on the amount of calories Americans eat show that we are eating less than we did about a decade ago, and that we’re also limiting the amount of fast food we consume.

But if Americans are eating less fast food overall, why are obesity rates still so high?

Uh … maybe it’s because we’re eating too many of our fewer calories during a late lunch?

As encouraging as the calorie data are, the decreases aren’t significant enough to make a dent in the upward trend of obesity.

I bet you’re about to say it’s because we don’t exercise enough.

Refining that message may require delving deeper in what Americans are eating, and addressing the balance between the amount of calories that we eat and the amount we burn off daily through physical activity.

Pardon the interruption while I gripe about word choice. If you measure something, you quantify it as an amount. If you count something, you quantify it as a number. We don’t measure calories; we count them. It drives me batty when reporters write about the amount of calories we consume instead of the number of calories we consume. Anyway …

And while eating less is a good way to start addressing the obesity epidemic, it may be that slimming the national waistline means we also have to boost the amount of exercise we get every day.

So we’re eating less but not getting any slimmer, and that probably means we don’t exercise as much as we used to. To confirm that suspicion, I checked an article titled You Can Run But You Can’t Hide:

More Americans are exercising more often, but so far, we’re really not losing much weight. According to one researcher: “To tackle obesity, we need to do this. But we probably also need to do more … Just counting on physical activity is not going to be the solution.”

Okay, uh, so … it’s all about the calories, stupid, but when you consume those calories makes a big difference, and we obviously need to consume fewer calories to lose weight, even though Americans are consuming fewer calories without making a dent in obesity rates, but that’s because we don’t exercise enough, even though we’re exercising more than we used to without making a dent in obesity rates

Okay, got it. Thanks, TIME magazine.

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47 Responses to “How To Become Confused In Record TIME”
  1. Adam Kosloff says:

    Thanks, Tom, for making my head explode! :)

    Your head exploded, mine hurts from banging it on my desk.

  2. Beowulf says:

    Good thing I don’t read TIME. I’d have some serious whiplash.

  3. marie says:

    But of course it’s the calories, stupid!
    And When you eat them. And how many you Spend….And you forgot the articles about Where you eat them, e.g. on the couch in front of the tv (the fact that those are usually high-carb, processed calories in seed oils or transfats has nothing to do with it) And….if it’s a full moon (seriously!, it affects sleep cycles so there has been speculation lately about effect on weight).
    Yes, the moon may have an effect on our weight (and eventually someone will find that the fault is in our stars And in ourselves, that we are porklings? ;) , but there’s No effect from What those calories are in, naturally.

  4. Hey Tom, did you know you can use up 150 calories an hour banging your head against a wall? I don’t have the exact figure for desk-banging, but maybe Time will run a story on it – Our Diet Articles Great For Fighting Fat, Say Scientists.

    And for lowering your IQ.

  5. Lori says:

    Slightly off-topic, but this reminds me of all the poor career advice I got when I was a young engineer back in the late nineties and couldn’t find a job in my field. Some people said it was all about networking (but everybody in the network was after the same few jobs), some talked about following your passion (fine if you like living with your parents), or starting your own business (most of them fail; hardly any of the rest provide a living for the owners). Others said you needed continuing education (it didn’t do a bit of good), and everybody talked up hard work (that’s great, but you can work your butt off for nothing). I didn’t know all the stuff in the parentheses at the time, and felt like a failure. My life finally changed with something I read in The Millionaire Next Door: some industries are just lousy. (Most of my value investing books say the same thing.) I looked in a field the authors recommended and easily got a real job. No degree, networking, classes, passion, or articles of incorporation required.

    In a similar way, some diets are just lousy for a lot of us, even though there are people who do well on them. All the hard work required leaves people spinning their wheels, and they’d have an easier time switching to a different program that’s based on broad reality that most experts don’t like to admit.

    I had a similar path. As a youth, I swallowed the nonsense about how if you just follow your passion, the money will follow. Bullroar. If you produce something other people want or need, the money will follow. Products and services that nobody wants are produced by passionate people all the time.

    • Marilyn says:

      Bullroar:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullroarer_(music)

      Note that it’s “paleo.”

      Sweet!

    • js290 says:

      I use my engineering training to decipher all the “bullroar.” Unfortunately, most people simply do not have enough science and math training to discern whether a problem is being addressed correctly. It’s easy to be misled. Charlatans are good at making quacks out of people who point out “hey, you can’t solve that problem like that…”

      • Lori says:

        My engineering degree was a waste of time. Problem solving is great, but it’s no substitute for reliable information or knowing how to weigh evidence. Sure, you learn a lot of facts in engineering school, but as we’ve seen, a knowledge of something like thermodynamics is useless if you’re confused about weight loss (or almost anything else).

  6. Jill says:

    HI Tom,

    hope it’s OK to post this here. I just read the review here of Supersize Me.
    It occurred to me that apart from the anti McDonald’s vibe of the whole film, if you look at the symptoms Spurlock experienced – depression etc – he really mnight have been extra-sensitive to the wheat, canola and even some fat in the food he was eating there.
    Of course this doesn’t take into account the mysterious no. of calories he didn’t account for, but what do you think?
    If he was actually addicted to the McD’s it’s no wonder he went through all that hatred. You tend to hate the thing you’re addicted to even as you’re scoffing it down!

    He lived largely on his vegan girlfriend’s diet before and after (she’s no longer a vegan, by the way), so he likely ate wheat and canola before. I think the “depression” was a good old-fashioned sugar crash. He ate a ton of sugar that month.

    • Firebird says:

      And as you stated, Tom, as soon as the experiment ended, he somehow was able to stop going to McDonald’s. I am sure there are meth and cocaine addicts that wish they could walk away from an “addiction” that easily.

      Indeed.

  7. Cary L says:

    As bad as this is with TIME Magazine, it’s literally five times worse with the little snippets provided by Good Morning America, The Today Show, CBS This Morning, or any other daily “news” show. And to make matters worse it seems as though these programs try to out-report one another when it comes to weight loss “research” as if the more ludicrous the report the better. “After the break, find out why your particular choice of toilet paper is preventing you from losing weight!!”

    Sure, TV news is generally more sensationalized.

    • Paul B. says:

      Can someone please get that Dr. Nancy Sneiderman off of the Today show? I had it going in the background yesterday while getting ready for work. They were discussing heart disease and the said the “key” to preventing it was a “very low fat” diet and statins. And this is an authority that so many people listen to.

      • Peggy Holloway says:

        I am also openly calling for Snyderman’s removal. I posted several comments on the network website after hearing on the evening news what I expect was the same she said on the Today show. It was in response to George W’s stent. She blamed it on “all those cheeseburgers and steaks finally catching up with him.”

        No surprise there.

  8. Tom Welsh says:

    The extracts from TIME you quoted reminded me that, most of the time, magazine and newspaper editors are less interested in finding the truth than they are in turning an empty layout into a full one.

    There’s a reason why the English satirical magazine Private Eye named two of its fictitious reporters “Phil Space” and “Poly Filler”.

    Love the names.

    • Cameron Baum says:

      I love the angry baby columnist…

      It is one of the few things that contaims proper news these days… And you forgot to mention Glenda Slagg, and Mary-Ann Bighead…

  9. Galina L. says:

    I guess, avoiding listening to a health advice from media outlets is important for one’s health and even balanced state of mind. My mom lives far away from me, I started her on a LC diet couple years ago, I also asked her to stop reading the health page in her favorite newspaper.

    Good advice.

  10. Kathy in Texas says:

    Thank you,Tom. Along the lines of count/amount, the difference between bring and take seems to be lost on some in the communications field, as does the pronunciation of jewelry. Je-wel-er-y? These people are supposed to be professionals and their message is lost on me when my ears begin to bleed.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect perfect grammar (and spelling) from everyone – just the folks who make their living with words. For everyone else, as long as the message is clear I’m ok with it.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

    It doesn’t bother me when people who aren’t supposed to be communications professionals misspell or misuse words. But the number of errors I see these days in national media outlets drives me nuts. I once saw a printed ad for sunglasses with this tagline:

    WHEN YOUR READY FOR THE LOOK!

    I almost fainted. Nobody in the entire process — copywriter, art director, client, printer — spotted that?!!

    • Marilyn says:

      Of course! Everyone relies on spell check. Since “your” wasn’t misspelled, it wasn’t flagged. Worse yet is what happens when people rely on grammar check.

      • Walter Bushell says:

        One letter can change the meaning of a message in a drastic way.

        “Millions yearn for immorality, but don’t know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” — Seen on a Church advertisement.

        I yearned for immorality in my younger days.

        Commas matter, too. I think I saw that one on a t-shirt:

        Let’s eat grandma.
        Let’s eat, grandma.

    • Firebird says:

      It drives me nuts on the evening news, too. They use poor grammar in order to get fewer words in when describing a news item, especially verbs. ie.

      Instead of “Action News was at the scene…”

      they cut it to “Action news at the scene…”

      I’ve had to buy an exorbitant amount of duct tape to fix my remote.

  11. ngyoung says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/health/broad-decline-in-obesity-rate-seen-in-poor-young-children.html?hp&_r=1&

    Michelle Obama’s federal nutrition initiatives will be happy to take all the credit.

    I think it’s because more and more people are getting the message that sugar is poison. Soda consumption is the lowest it’s been in 20 years, according to one article I read.

  12. Jenny W. says:

    Saw someone tweet that something had “less calories.” “Fewer calories,” people! Pet peeve of mine, too.

    • Marilyn says:

      A pet peeve of mine is the use of “healthy” to mean “healthful.” But I’m afraid I might as well get used to it.

  13. Kristin says:

    Whew. That’s just nasty. But it is also what I’ve noticed myself. Dr Oz does a similar thing. But he says himself that his show is entertainment, not a health information show. Probably the only thing I’ve every really agreed with him on, except that I don’t really find him very entertaining.

    My trainer talked me into tracking my calories and macro-nutrients for one day. I think he is worrying less about my crazy diet and now curious as to what I’m doing and getting results. After years of spending hours on food logs in order to keep from gaining weight I no longer bother. I eat when I’m hungry and not otherwise. I eat good fat, protein, vegetables and fermented foods. QED. I told him ahead of time what my estimates were. He wasn’t convinced. So I tracked on a typical day. 59% fat, 17% carbs, 24% protein; total calories 1630. I used to starve on over 2000 on my low fat diet. I’m rather pleased to have done the exercise since I now know the reality matched my estimates. This is proof to me that I’m on the diet I should be on. The Times and all those USDA researchers can go hang themselves for all I care.

    The calorie freaks would look at your diet and insist you lost weight because your total calories are 1630. The relevant question (which they don’t see to ask) is: WHY are you satisfied on 1630 calories?

    • Pierson says:

      Why, because she’s finally developed the willpower necessary to power through her fatigue and cravings, of course. Granted that only happens when she follows this diet, but that’s beside the point!

  14. Marilyn says:

    I was looking at a junk publication on Diabetes, which was lying on a table at the doctor’s office. (I think these things must be dropped off by the drug companies.) In a “steps to fix your diabetes…” article, recommendation #1 was: Balance your plate. Eat more non-starchy vegetables, such as green beans and broccoli. Eat fewer starchy foods, such as bread and pasta, and meat.

    There you have it, folks. It’s the meat that’s making you diabetic.

    If the magazine was in a doctor’s office, it was almost certainly provided by a drug company.

    • Pierson says:

      Starchy foods like meat? Seriously, how metabolically damaged was that cow if its meat became startchy?

      That would be a messed-up cow.

    • Paul B. says:

      I would agree with the more non starchy vegetables part. Also agree with eating fewer starches. But you have to eat SOMETHING and non starchy vegetables by themselves are not very filling.

  15. JasonG says:

    Is critical thinking taught in schools?

    Apparently not.

  16. Dwatney says:

    Next they should write an article about how we are fat because we get so much bad advice, but being right would probably violate some rule.

    Only if they write another article contradicting the theory.

  17. JW says:

    It is because of this misinformation that diet talk gets consigned to the dustbin of casual conversation. One literally cannot have a serious discussion on the topic among friends because of the tabloid treatment of it in the media.

    How do we rise above this flack? Diet is literally a matter of life and death. I can hardly convince my diabetic mother to take me seriously because, for every point I make, there is another counterpoint in the media. There is always an “expert” or a “study,” flawed or pointless as they may be, to create ever more ambiguity.

    I try to convince people to read Gary Taubes. But he is a long-form writer, and getting people to read a book, especially one full of hard logic and convincing arguments, is brutally difficult.

    So you see, there is a depressing parallel here. Time magazine’s health coverage, like the diet press generally, is the intellectual equivalent of carbohydrates: cheap, easily digestible, widely available, and very, very bad for you.

    Too true, and unfortunately, when most people see headlines along the lines of “meat linked to cancer,” they don’t understand what “linked” means.

    • js290 says:

      Yeah, I could not be nice to my mother. She would argue back with the same CW “bullroar.” When she finally relented, mysteriously her acid reflux went away and she was sleeping better at night. All the hopes and dreams of better health in soy milk completely dashed.

      Most of the garbage in media is propaganda for some product that’s going to steal your health.

    • SB says:

      That it means “when we write articles linking meat to cancer, our sponsors send us more research funds. When we get more research funds, we can afford to research and write about how meat is linked to cancer. And when we write articles…”

    • erik van altena says:

      Tabloids are one thing. Disregarding the confusing literature and studies that have pushed thinking about your health to the realm of impossibility for many people, in my environment I see active rebellion against thinking about this stuff. Thanks to Fat Head I’ve started to take it really serious and I research and study my behind off about nutrition; one of my coworkers is doing the same for other reasons; she happens to be vegan, but we get along well nonetheless and even without the meat, eggs and milk we still have large areas of overlap to talk about, especially our mutual unwanted guest the carb. So we do talk a lot about food, ingredients and recipes and what is good and what is bad. Not only during the lunch break in the lounge, but also at our desk.

      We actually got angry complaints from people… that we were talking too much about food. It was pissing them off, because of course all we said was completely contradictory to what they wanted to believe. No more bread? No more potatoes? Just shut up shut up shut up!

      Not that I care, I only feel sorry for the people who are grumpy because of their carb rich diet :) Wake up and smell the bacon and eggs, poor misguided people.

    • Walter Bushell says:

      Fortunately most people won’t change their diet based on health advice. For most people influenced by our USDA, vital nutrition comes from “cheat” foods. Our Peerless Leaders[1] are pushing the USDA diet, but according to Mrs. Obama they are a bacon and eggs family.

      Imagine the Obamas on a vegan diet. Oops, rather don’t.

      [1] obBullwinkle

  18. Bret says:

    I can’t decide whom I am angrier at: the sloppy news media or the lazy, gullible public that keeps the current media in business. Then again, before seeing Fat Head, I was unwittingly one of those lazy, gullible members of the public and didn’t even realize I needed to be skeptical of what I was reading.

    But I am overjoyed to see more books, films, blogs, podcasts, and other testimonials emerging to fight back with the truth. I think we have a bright future, in which people will no longer defer to the government or to giant, corrupt medical bureaucracies for advice about how to live their lives.

    I blame lazy reporters for not doing their job.

  19. HBODA ((Head Bang on Desk Alert)…

    Saw one of the Fox News medical “experts” last week discussing the recent study concluding that eating breakfast, regardless of content, results in fewer heart attacks.

    The study itself doesn’t even merit a dissection — it’s moronic on its face and any Fat Head could do a Science for Smart People take-down on the fly– but, according to the expert, Dr. Steven Garner:

    “The body is supposed to eat breakfast, lunch , and dinner — that’s the way we evolved.”

    HFS!

    I couldn’t help but sending an email to them…

    “Seriously? I’d be curious to know what period of time the good doctor thinks evolution comprises. The last couple of hundred years, perhaps? Perhaps he should read a few books. The ones I read suggest evolutionary change takes place over at least thousands, or more like tens or hundreds of thousands of years. At which point of our evolution back in the mists of time does the doctor posit we started sitting down three times per day for meals (plus one snack, of course)?”

    They report, we decide. We’ve decided to get our health information elsewhere.

    Cheers

    He probably thinks we evolved eating Cheerios for breakfast, too.

    • Marilyn says:

      Of course! Didn’t you know? That’s why archaeologists keep finding all these paleolithic sun dials. Our paleolithic ancestors needed to know when to stop for lunch.

      Now it makes sense. They probably stopped the hunt for tea-time as well.

  20. Elena says:

    I am diabetic and had followed the standard “diet” for 8 years. My sugar numbers got bigger and bigger, my medication was increasing year after year until the dreaded word “insulin” came up. Reading so many books about diet, I stumbled upon the following advise: eat to your glucose meter. So I discovered that pumpernickle bread (high on a diabetic diet list) does the same damage as white bread, so off the list. Fruits – all of them- off the list. Vegetables – most of them off the list. Coke – diet, no calories – off the list. Basically I am a carnivore now. My numbers are OK now. My family doctor calls my diet an ELIMINATION diet. I think in his world, very low carb, LCHF and the like are taboo words. But ELIMINATION diet works for me. In all this process, I am reading every day your blog to keep me motivated. Thank you Tom. I highly admire your work.
    Cheers

    If re-labeling the diet makes your doctor happy, go for it.

  21. Tanny O'Haley says:

    In the 1940′s, I. F. Stone, a “progressive” New York city editor/publisher, said ; “I have complete confidence in the veracity of the stories reported in the newspapers – except for those of which I have direct personal knowledge – those I find to be horribly wrong.”

    I believe that should apply to all media outlets. If journalists do a poor job on what you do know, how can you trust them on what you don’t know?

    Who can you trust? No one?

    I believe the moral of the story is that no matter what you read in newspapers and magazines, there’s a chance it’s wrong.

    • Bret says:

      Tanny, I would say you can trust people after verifying their reliability. There are plenty of good sources out there; they’re just not the most popular, most famous. This makes sense, because as soon as sources do take the center stage, their countdown to corruption–usually being bought and paid for by big money–is inevitable.

  22. Peggy C says:

    @JasonG, When you try to teach critical thinking in public schools (I know, I tried), you get slammed by an administration that only cares about PR and keeping the parents happy. Critical thinking isn’t easy and some kids are not as good at it as others and don’t get the top level grades (preferably As) that everyone HAS to have. So no, it’s not always taught in public schools, no. If you want your kids to learn how to think, best teach them (that skill, at least) at home.

    I guess parents want to live in Lake Webegon, where all the children are above average.

  23. Kathy in Texas says:

    “I guess parents want to live in Lake Webegon, where all the children are above average.”

    I wonder how many people don’t see anything wrong with that!

    All the people who aren’t above average.

  24. Larry says:

    Hey Tom,

    Cracked dot com mentions Spurlock’s film in an article about documentaries that are full of crap. You and your film are mentioned as sources.

    http://www.cracked.com/article_20585_6-famous-documentaries-that-were-shockingly-full-crap.html

    Cool, although I’m wondering why none of Michael Moore’s fictional “documentaries” are on the list.

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