Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sweet Headlines are Really Sour

The purpose of a headline is to grab a reader's attention and relay the take home message of the story in as few words as possible.  Headlines for scientific and medical stories must be both attention grabbing and accurate.  "Cake for Breakfast? Study says go for it" does captivate interest, but is inaccurate.

A recent article from the Health section of the Today show programming published through MSNBC encourages readers to add cake to their breakfast routines with a rousing cheer of "go for it."  The text of the article includes interviews with nutritionists who counter that encouragement, advising instead to eat a balanced breakfast as part of a balanced diet, but that opinion is not voiced until the fourth paragraph.

The MSNBC article refers to a primary research paper published in Steroids with a title that makes no mention of cake, just "meal composition".  The researchers assigned overweight and obese non-diabetic adults to two groups.  One group ate 600 calorie breakfasts that included a desert item and low calorie dinners.  The other group ate 300 calorie breakfasts with no sweets and higher calorie dinners.  The lunch meals of both groups were similar.  After four moths of the diet, both groups had lost a similar amount of weight.  The participants were allowed to eat meals of their own choosing again for the next four months.  After the eight month study was completed, members of the 600 calorie group were slimmer than members of the 300 calorie group.

The authors attribute the greater weight loss of the 600 calorie group their lower levels of ghrelin, a hormone related to feelings of hunger.  What is disappointing is that there was no group that ate a 600 calorie breakfast without sweets.  Such a group would allow analysis of the weight-loss consequences of the presence or absence of sweets specifically at breakfast.

Deceptive headlines are dangerous for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that a news article is no substitute for the consultation with a medical professional that should precede any change to an individual's nutrition plan.  In an era of non-stop news, a headline may be the only part of a story a reader sees.  Thus, advertising the supposed scientific validity of adding a serving of highly processed and refined carbohydrates in a headline is out of character for a "Health" section.  My suggestion to the editor would be to consider an alternative title, perhaps "Study suggests for weight loss, first meal should be the largest and sweetest of the day."

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