It’s no secret that people gravitate towards attention-grabbing headlines around nutrition, and the media fully knows this. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how messages can easily be manipulated for the sake of a story.
Imagine this: you’re a nutrition expert who’s being interviewed for a news story and need to provide a few quick quotes like you typically do for the media. You’re asked to share science-based information on the importance of balanced eating which typically includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as specific nutrition facts related to the story.
In this case, you’re asked which vegetables people may consider being more mindful around because of their higher caloric and carb content. Then, imagine your surprise when the story goes live and suddenly, you’re quoted as saying that eating too many carrots will make you gain weight.
That’s precisely what happened to me when an article was published on Reader’s Digest titled, “10 Vegetables That Are Secretly Making You Gain Weight.”
So what was actually being said, as the interviewer asks,
“Which vegetables, if eaten too much of, can make people gain weight?”
To which I replied:
“It is very hard to eat as many vegetables as it would take to gain weight. Vegetables are high in fiber, which helps to slow down sugar absorption. The only vegetables that are higher in calories are root vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, beets. But even these are unlikely to make us gain weight, if we don’t eat excessive amounts.”
Unfortunately, the only snippet that made it into the article was the sentence that fit their narrative of vegetables causing weight gain, which was the following:
“The only vegetables that are higher in calories are root vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, beets.”
In retrospect, I should have been more cautious in my answers. I had no idea what angle the story would take, and I had wrongly assumed my preceding statement of “it’s unlikely that eating fruits and vegetables will make you gain weight” would be included.
My quote in the article was taken out of context in order to create a more sensational story.
The article has since been taken down (after I, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, complained) and completely repackaged, but the message had already gotten out.
An important lesson learned for me as a nutrition professional: to be more cautious during media interviews by considering how a snippet of your statement may sound when taken out of context, and ensuring the writer understands the importance of including your full quote. Also, ask to see your quotes before they are published, particularly if you are unsure of the angle the story may take. But even more than any of this, it emphasized an even bigger problem to the general population who rely on headlines to inform what they believe:
How food myths are created and propagated.
Let’s be honest here: the media loves clickbait. The more sensationalistic a story, the more clicks and views it gets, and the more money the website makes. It’s really that simple.
People also love to make things black-and-white, especially in the world of nutrition. But the fact is, there are many nuances and complexities between individuals for that to ever be the case. However, evidence from the highest quality, well-designed studies have shown us time and again that there are certain lifestyle patterns that consistently promote the best health outcomes. While it’s not sexy clickbait, these patterns are as follows:
Eat more vegetables and fruits, consume plenty of whole grains (yes, carbs and gluten included), be mindful of red meat and saturated fat consumption, and incorporate lots of legumes, nuts, and seeds.
While establishing these eating patterns can be difficult for many people, especially those following the SAD (Standard American Diet) diet, they do in fact work. Unfortunately, they are not the magic bullet that people naturally want and seek. That’s where the clickbait comes in. Every media story that dangles a magic bullet to solve your nutrition woes is tantalizing.
And that’s exactly how food myths are created and spread like wildfire.
After the article was published, some of my fellow health professional colleagues turned on me, with a few even going as far as public shaming. There’s really never a need to publicly shame a fellow professional – that only hurts the person doing the shaming and diminishes an entire profession’s credibility in the eyes of the public.
What’s most important is to remember that everyone has their own unique perspective shaped by educational backgrounds, life experiences, and training.
Even when there is disagreement or doubt, seek to understand the full story first.
Despite it all, there was a positive experience – colleagues who were extremely supportive and encouraged me to right the wrong that had happened.
Ultimately, we should be hyper aware (and use a critical eye) towards the way our current media culture invents far-out, attention-grabbing headlines – even if it means misquoting the interviewees or twisting information. And, if words are taken out of context – which is almost inevitable if you spend any time in the public eye – immediately do everything you can to ameliorate the error, respond to readers, and have the quote retracted by the media outlet.
As health professionals with the goal of educating the public, it is our duty to do so.
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Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN is a nationally-recognized media spokesperson and private practice dietitian based in Los Angeles, who shares her love of health and wellness through a unique global perspective. From world-class U.S. medical centers to rural villages in Africa, Mascha has dedicated herself to traveling the world, spreading her love of healthy living through both her humanitarian work and private practice. Learn more at Nomadista Nutrition.