Why Health Headlines Seem Unbalanced

scaleAn article on U.S. News plays on a prurient movie and some fairly common sense dietary advice to fill a writer’s assignment. The author, Janet Helm, doesn’t give us the full fifty shades of grey when it comes to nutrition but stops (mercifully perhaps) at five. The basic premise is this:

People frequently speak about food in absolutes – this food is bad, or this diet is best. Well, it’s not that simple: Nutrition is not always so black or white.

I probably sound a bit dismissive of Ms. Helm’s comments, but that really isn’t the case. She is, after all a well trained dietician, a credential that inclines me to consider her innocent until proven guilty.

Why is she able to write an article that basically says “moderation in everything” and have it seem worthy of publication? I’d suggest that there are three reasons for that, and they get to the heart of our intelligent handling of health advice.

1. Extremes scream.

Which article are you more apt to read? Which TV news teaser are you more apt to wait through the commercials to watch? “Nutritionists say a balanced diet is important” or “If you eat Fettuccine Alfredo, make sure your cardiologist is on call.” This last pronouncement was perhaps the most absurd statement ever made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In a communications environment cluttered with all sorts of noise and competing stimuli, it’s understandable that people feel the need to scream. Unfortunately, that screaming sometimes means sending the wrong message.

2. You can’t sell moderation.

Everybody has a message to sell, but many have a product. Frankly, unless you are the American Produce Aisle Trade Group, you’re almost certainly not selling moderation and good sense. Instead, you’re selling this supplement or that diet pill. You’re declaring beef as “what’s for dinner” or pronouncing pork as “the other white meat.” “Got milk?”

Everybody is selling something, and most of them cannot make money by suggesting that the potential sales be split up among half a dozen providers. There’s just no money in moderation.

3. Health writers just don’t get it.

Finally we have to recognize that health writers, especially journalists knocking out stories on deadline, often got to the health beat not because of their high level of interest in nutrition or their scientific acumen but because they drew the short straw. “Gee, boss, I can choose between the White House, covering the war, or doing the health news? Give me the veggies!”

Many journalists do not understand science well enough. Some of them simply cannot read a scientific study well enough to actually understand what it says. They’ll read that consuming butter leads to an increased chance of developing cuticle cancer and not recognize that a small increase of a tiny probability is not nearly as significant as breathless statements make it sound.

I can’t say much good about the other shades of grey, but I have to applaud Janet Helms’ willingness to recognize that moderation in eating is something we need more.