Food nannies rocked — 40 years of federal obesity research fatally flawed, says study — JunkScience vindicated again!

“These results suggest that without valid population-level data, speculations regarding the role of energy intake in the rise in the prevalence of obesity are without empirical support.” pointed out the flaws inherent to self-reported obesity data 12 years ago in this February 2, 2001 column.

The media release for the study is below.


40 years of federal nutrition research fatally flawed

University of South Carolina study shows flaws in NHANES data

Four decades of nutrition research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be invalid because the method used to collect the data was seriously flawed, according to a new study by the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina.

The study, led by Arnold School exercise scientist and epidemiologist Edward Archer, has demonstrated significant limitations in the measurement protocols used in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The findings, published in PLOS ONE (The Public Library of Science), reveal that a majority of the nutrition data collected by the NHANES are not “physiologically credible,” Archer said.

These results suggest that without valid population-level data, speculations regarding the role of energy intake in the rise in the prevalence of obesity are without empirical support, he said.

The NHANES is the most comprehensive compilation of data on the health of children and adults in the United States. The survey combines interviews of self-reported food and beverage consumption over 24 hours and physical examinations to assess the health and nutritional status of the US population. Conducted by the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the NHANES is the primary source of data used by researchers studying the impact of nutrition and diet on health.

The study examined data from 28,993 men and 34,369 women, 20 to 74 years old, from NHANES I (1971 – 1974) through NHANES (2009 – 2010), and looked at the caloric intake of the participants and their energy expenditure, predicted by height, weight, age and sex. The results show that — based on the self-reported recall of food and beverages — the vast majority of the NHANES data “are physiologically implausible, and therefore invalid,” Archer said.

In other words, the “calories in” reported by participants and the “calories out,” don’t add up and it would be impossible to survive on most of the reported energy intakes. This misreporting of energy intake varied among participants, and was greatest in obese men and women who underreported their intake by an average 25 percent and 41 percent (i.e., 716 and 856 Calories per-day respectively).

“Throughout its history, the NHANES survey has failed to provide accurate estimates of the habitual caloric consumption of the U.S. population,” Archer said. “Although improvements were made to the NHANES measurement protocol after 1980, there was little improvement to the validity of U.S. nutritional surveillance.”

These limitations “suggest that the ability to estimate population trends in caloric intake and generate public policy relevant to diet-health relationships is extremely limited,” said Archer, who conducted the study with colleagues at the Arnold School.

“The nation’s major surveillance tool for studying the relationships between nutrition and health is not valid. It is time to stop spending tens of millions of health research dollars collecting invalid data and find more accurate measures,” he said.

To access the current study, please visit:


14 responses to “Food nannies rocked — 40 years of federal obesity research fatally flawed, says study — JunkScience vindicated again!

  1. “Everyone” knows that obesity and weight gain come from eating more calories than you use, but apparently weight and body composition are far more complicated than diet and exercise. We don’t really understand how obesity occurs.
    Heck, we can’t even really define obesity medically. A very few people with high BMI are muscular rather than carrying a lot of fat — Hulk Hogan and Ahnuld in their days, Dwayne Johnson now. But that isn’t always “healthy” — in addition to trauma, football players seem to have a lot of other orthopedic issues related to their weight and stress on the bones and joints.
    The correlation between BMI and physiological problems like diabetes, heart disease or stroke is much weaker than the press would have you think. Many people with layered adipose — the ones we would all call overweight or fat — have cardiac health comparable to people we’d call skinny. Some slender people have the health problems we are told go with obesity — diabetes type II, atherosclerosis and similar problems. I have in mind a fellow I knew almost 30 years ago, 25 at the time and neither skinny nor fat, who ran a fasting cholesterol over 400.
    If we can’t really define obesity as a medical problem, except for the most outlier cases, and we can’t define its cause with any rigor, , maybe we’re focused on the wrong kind of thing. Maybe shaming people over their body shapes and composition is a cruel and futile activity. I say this as one who, from a personal point of view, prefers the slender figure to the heavy figure.

  2. Nanny Doomberg and Moochelle Obama could not be reached for comment.

  3. Just look at the photographs of our ancestors. We exist because of the strength of our ancestors. Check out the pictures and films of workers on the Empire State Building project. Any fat there?

    • I see your construction workers ans Raise you Catherine the Great, Buddha, and the majority of kings, lords, and emperors over time.

      Indeed, the standard ancient knight was relatively heavyset, similar to modern football players in muscle, but having much greater portions of fat. The thin infantry weren’t wiry, they were scrawny and malnourished.

      Furthermore, this bears no relation about whether being heavyset is unhealthy. Certainly the “lose weight or die young” meme is exaggerated at the very least.

  4. Reblogged this on Petrossa's Blog and commented:
    Me too because i wrote something similar in 2009, published here in 2010

  5. This article is full of junkscience itself, betraying its own bias (again without evidence) that fat people must by lying and underreporting what they eat because they can’t be eating like everyone else and still be fat!

    But, I agree, it’s time to get the government and politics out of our bodies, lifestyles and diets. Sadly, that’s unlikely given its vital role in today’s political agenda and the money to be made hyping obesity, diet and lifestyle myths.

    We don’t need more population epidemiological studies funded by the government. It will probably take generations before people finally even hear about the science and what researchers have known for ¾ of a century. Metabolic research on energy balance and fat shows that fat and thin eat and are metabolically alike, but some people are bigger. The heritability of obesity is greater than that of about every other condition or human feature ever studied.

  6. Is everything related to nutritional science bogus? I’m beginning to think my suspicions aren’t so far off.

  7. When I was a kid you ate three times a day. To eat at other times usually required parental permission, or you had to use your meagre pocket-money allowance to buy one candy bar a day – or you had to get the key to the biscuit tin. Seriously. And my family were neither scrawny or poor. Nowadays that situation would be seriously an issue of possible court action for child cruelty. That’s the difference. Too much food available, and especially too much food that is of poor quality. We would not put old sump oil into our Mercedes, but we put the food equivalent quality into our bodies then wonder why the motor stalls?

  8. The concept of “junk food” and “empty calories” has been debated for a long time. If we all had the same metabolism and nutritional needs such concepts would be useful. Alas, we are all individuals, and every one of us has different needs and requirements, depending on age, metabolism and functional biological problems. A food that is useful for one person can be nearly a poison for another. One size does not fit all when it comes to nutrition and thriving.

  9. The responses to this article and the article itself are classic examples of junk science. The childish concept of eating fat makes you fat is false. Grain makes you fat while animal fat makes you normal. Animal fat cuts your hunger to zero. Some dimbulb announces that fat makes you fat and all of you jump onto this bandwagon without question. Obesity epidemic began in 1985 when the childlike fat theory appeared. With the low fat diet craze, no wonder most are fatties. Plus, these pathetic females whn eat low fat have patches of hair missing. Most females cant grow their hair and wear hair extensions.

  10. Too much food intake is the cause of obesity. There were no obese concentration camp survivors in 1945.

    Yes, it is not simply a gluttony and sloth and you can be also diabetic, old, asthmatic, arthritic and hypothiroid and depressed and whatever. Yes, when you eat less your body could ramp up the hunger and make you cold and lethargic to spare fat deposits but ultimately you will lose weight.

    Eating less can be done with little personal struggle by combining approaches such as:

    1. Acute hunger is not normal. Unless you are a diabetic ignore it by applying good old fashioned willpower and/or distracting yourself. It is most likely due to low blood sugar caused by overexcreting insulin because of the huge meal you ate 1.5 hours ago and if you do not feed the beast your body will churn out adrenaline and break down liver glycogen to bring the sugar up to normal in a few minutes.
    2. Lessen hunger by eating less insulinogenic foods ( Atkins is the king but any variation of lower than 70 g a day carb would do nicely)
    3. Lessen hunger by eating less total food ( smaller portions even if on Atkins). It will not feel enough at first but an appetite will adjust after stomach slowly shrinks back to normal. Distented stomach is a signal for insulin release so we are looking to not overstretch it.
    4. Lessen hunger by eating less frequently. Eating breakfast in the late afternoon after work would do nicely. Longer fasting periods bring the baseline insulin down and reduce hunger.

    To that add INTENSE and DAILY 30 min morning cardio exercise first thing in the morning. Nonintense exercise will stimulate appretite and skipping days will lessen hormonal signalling that this exercise generates. You want to generate hormonal signals which will help you to want to eat less and use less overall willpower throughout the day.
    30 min is not long enough to psychologically justify skipping it yet long enough to send out hormonal signals.
    Intense short cardio will half empty the liver of glycogen and carbs you eat later will be used to refill it but most importantly only short intense exercise will reduce insulin WITHOUT reducing leptin. You can bring insulin and leptin down more if your exercise longer than 60 min or 800 calories but it will not feel good over time. You want the leptin up to not feel cold, anemic, hungry and lose hair, sleep and libido.
    Also, creating a habit is easiest when you do that every single day and first thing in the morning. Anyone can find extra 30 minutes in the morning.
    If joints jurt walk slowly on a maximum incline treadmill or use an elliptical with high resistance. You will still ramp up a heartbeat but spare the joints and ligaments. If you do not have a machine or access to the gym get the machine. Byke machines take up small space and are cheap.

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