Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Weight loss in the media... lies and misunderstanding

Over the last few weeks, it has struck me just how much BS is written in the newspapers and magazines about health, fitness and fat loss which is either misleading or just plain wrong.

Here are a couple of examples:

The health benefits of sailing

sailing health benefits

And here is the quote...

"No wonder sailing burns 200 calories an hour. I can vouch its a great arm- and tummy-toner too, but so much fun it doesn't feel like exercise"

I'm staggered by the naivete of this particular reporter. She proudly exclaims the benefits of sailing for fat loss - after all it burns a massive 200 calories per hour!! Does she not realise how little that is? Does she not realise that the pre-made sandwich she may eat for lunch would still not have been burned off after 2 or 3 hours of sailing? The other thing to annoy me about the article is actually nothing to do with fat loss but about sailing. I used to sail a lot as a teenager, was an active competitor and for six months was a professional instructor, so I know what I'm talking about when I say that sailing truly rocks! The fact that she didn't get this, or ar least didn't write about the magic of sailing, was disappointing...

Orlistat (or Alli or Xenical) test in Men's Health

On to the second publication which will get a thumbs-down - and that publication is Men's Health. The author of the piece decided to test a fat loss drug marketed in the UK as Alli (and in other places as Xenical). Its real name is Orlistat and it has been available on prescription in the UK for a while and has just been released as an over the counter product which does not require a prescription. I'm sure that in other countries it has been freely available for some time.

The way it works is to bind with fat in the stomach so that some of the fat can't be metabolised and therefore can't find its way onto your waistline. Anyway the author put himself on a one month course of the drug. The end result - he actually weighed a little more than when he started, but his body fat percentage had decreased by 4%. He also took daily photos which showed virtually no change in his body shape.

What would you infer from these stats? Especially if I told you the following:

  1. He said he didn't change his gym routine

  2. He said he didn't eat differently, although he did admit to devouring a whole block of cheese at one sitting (over 400g calories and 35g of fat per 100g - and it sounded like he ate way more than 100g) to test out whether the product was working

  3. He didn't think his bodyshape changed over the period of the trial (although his girlfriend encouraged him that it had)

  4. And as I've said before, the daily photos he took over the month show no change in body composition (at least to my eyes) whatsoever

So, what do the stats tell you? Personally, to me it would just show the vast margin of error which exists in body fat percentage readings done using the typical bio-impedance scales.

He, however, had a different interpretation - he used them to say he had lost 3kg of fat, despite eating blocks of cheese, not working out any more, and crucially no change in weight. The only way he could be right would be if he had put on a stack of muscle or for some reason was holding way more water in the second weighing. But I think my explanation is far more likely to be correct, particularly given my experience with fat measuring scales!

These journalists should know better! Especially the reporter from Men's Health! I'm cancelling my subscription...

Image attribution: Passing dinghys by garryknight


Rafi Bar-Lev said...

Yeah, as someone who also used to sail I could sympathize with what you said about leaving out the "magic of sailing." Good post!