Lately I've been wondering when the next completely inaccurate health news story was going to break, and today it's finally here. You see, it's been a while since the popular news media reported that chocolate is good for you, or coffee has wonder-drug potential, or that smoking pot really isn't so bad. Today, being overweight can actually be good for you!
To be fair, many of the studies that lead to these headlines are sound science. The conclusions they draw have a good scientific basis, and have some interesting implications for health science. This particular study claims that being slightly overweight can reduce your risk of a few diseases, but that same weight can increase your risk from others. Other studies, such as the chocolate one, found a chemical in chocolate that can be beneficial (but you need to eat 14 lbs. of it to get the benefit). Reading the articles, the takeaway is that "everything you knew is wrong!", "see, just because you're overweight you don't have to worry!", and "don't feel so guilty over your guilty pleasures!"
The problem is the reporting. Typically the media picks up on the story, grossly misunderstands the findings, and then creates a misleading headline to grab people's attention. Unfortunately most people read the headline and not the whole story, and then become even more misinformed than they were before. Even if they do read the story, the paragraphs with full disclosure are buried at the bottom of the piece, if they read that far.
Science and health news reporters often have no science training at all, and for a reporter, being stuck at the science desk is even worse than being on out-in-the-storm-during-a-hurricane duty. The result is complete and utter garbage, a public that has no idea what to think, and an even deeper distrust of science in general.
The only remedy that will work is to get people better educated in science, and as a result both reporters and the public will have a better grasp of the science issues that seriously effect our lives. My health advice is to not hold your breath until that happens.
Until then, view all health news reports as if they are wrong. You'll be right most of the time.
For good science journalism, take a look at these sites: