If there is anything worse than a bad study, it’s a good study that gets botched in reporting. In this case, I’m referring to this headline you might have seen roll through your Facebook feed: “Female Brain Not Wired for Weight Loss.”
These sites aren’t isolated cases, either. Over a dozen news sources have picked up this headline… and few get it right. Depending on how diligent the author was when writing the story, you might have come away from the reading with the idea that scientists have ‘proven’ why women have a harder time losing weight than men (an interesting assertion to begin with that I might get into in another post). Since this is a perfect example of how the news often gets health and fitness reporting completely wrong, let’s take a look.
What Did the Study Actually Say?
The original study was published in the journal Molecular Metabolism. It was released open access, so you can find it here for free.
In short, the researchers were trying to isolate the cells in the brain responsible for producing a particular hormone, POMC (pro-opiomelanocortin). When POMC production is out of whack in humans, we see obesity and metabolism problems related to poor adrenaline management. Not good.
To do this, researchers took a group of mice and programmed them to be fat, lazy, hungry, diabetic (‘hyperinsulinemic,’ technically), and brown-fat compromised (brown fat in mice helps regulate metabolism). Basically, they turned these mice into Dr. Sullivan’s nightmare patient. They also genetically engineered them to only produce POMC in special cells (5-HT2CR, but I’ll just call them “special cells”). That way, the researchers could specifically identify the effects of POMC by using a particular obesity medication- lorcaserin- which works by activating these special cells.
After giving these special, engineered-to-be-fat mice the medication, the researchers then studied how it affected their activity levels, food consumption, and brain chemistry/POMC activation. The male and female mice both ate less while on the drugs, but the bro mice improved almost across the board. The female mice remained fat and diabetic with lower resting metabolic rate and activity levels compared to the male treatment mice and the ‘wild’ female controls.
This study has several pretty obvious limitations before we can apply its conclusions to you and me.
- The subjects are mice, not people, and however close the model is, it may not play out in human studies.
- The mice were genetically engineered to generate POMC in certain cells for ease of research. The results are more likely to apply to those who have genetic issues with POMC production and may have no application to genetically ‘normal’ people.
- The study was a medication intervention, not a lifestyle one, so it’s specific to the use of lorcaserin and similar drugs.
- The female mice showed greater production of POMC in response to the medication just like the male mice- it just didn’t have the same effect on their behavior. Since the female control mice were perfectly healthy, this indicates that our understanding of POMC, 5-HT2CR receptor cells, and their effect on obesity is still incomplete.
Still, it’s cool for a couple of reasons:
- It draws more attention to a significant problem in medicine: the differences between men, women, and individuals in their physiology and response to medical treatment (and our failure to account for this difference). Too many women get inadequate treatment because of these differences, and many treatments simply don’t work in populations with certain genetic traits but are still prescribed because we don’t know better.
- It might lead to an expansion of our understanding of the neural and chemical components of obesity.
- They took obese, diabetic, and lazy bro mice and turned them into gym bros… that has to mean something, right?
As with any good study, there are applications, there are limitations, and the field of science advances one small step forward.
So what happened between the study and my newsfeed?
Any time a big study is published, the university responsible will submit a press release to announce it. Invariably, it will include a brief summary and some quotes from the research team to explain the results. It is definitely possible to mess this step up, but that doesn’t seem to be the case this time: the press release is clear, concise, and accurate.
The next step is in this process is probably where the first breakdown happened. Journalist A (JA) is assigned to write an article about the study. If you look at the study itself, about half of it is a wall of gobbledygook and argy bargle that only a molecular biologist or geneticist would understand.
Hm… so what’s JA supposed to do? First, snag a catchy/provocative headline from the study first. Did you notice that almost every article specifically using the phrase ‘women are wired differently’? That’s from the study.
Once that’s done, JA needs to make a word count… so why not just copy the text outright? Well over half of this article from the Telegraph is straight up copied from the introduction and results segment of the study and the press release. This isn’t so bad (the author can’t be too far off when they’re just quoting the study), but it sometimes leads to some interesting contradictions that come from taking quotes out of context… like these two:
Currently around 66 per cent of men are overweight or obese and 57 per cent of women. However 74 per cent of men will be overweight or obese by 2030 and 64 per cent of women.
“The World Health Organisation reports higher rates of obesity in women worldwide, reaching twice the prevalence of men in some parts of the world.
Now, what happens when a journalist who doesn’t actually understand the study feels compelled to generate original material? You end up with articles like this one from inquisitr. This is when it just gets… ugly. Brace yourself:
A research journal published in Molecular Metabolism has discovered that weight loss is more challenging for females than males.
Gross oversimplification of the study? Certainly. But it doesn’t stop there.
The research concludes that losing weight in females is difficult, despite the same amount of dieting and exercise as compared to males. Hormones that are responsible for regulating physical activities, energy expenditure and appetite work completely different in sexes, and females are the ones whose brains are not wired for weight loss.
Except… the study wasn’t in people… it was in mice. And it wasn’t about lifestyle interventions, it was about medicine… and the female mice didn’t exercise as much as the male mice after the medication… that was the problem!!! And POMC did have many similarities…. it just *brain exploding*
A proper nutritious diet including foods like broccoli, cabbage… are considered best to eat in order to lose weight, according to Health.com. Acidic liquids including Apple Cider Vinegar for weight loss have also been scientifically studied and practically experienced by people.
Grammatically incorrect fluff with blatant product placement (the Apple Cider Vinegar was a link) and a meaningless tag: “It’s been scientifically studied.” Well… what did the study say? Did it work?!!
Higher rate [sic] of obesity in women can be linked to factors like financial income and access to healthy food options. Though the research is marked [sic] sexist in some way, the the [sic] news [sic] findings obtained from the research now offers [sic] a new approach to battle the obesity crisis.
… believe it or not, someone got paid to write this.
So… what’s the takeaway?
If you read a bad version of this headline and you’re a woman, it’s okay! Science has not condemned you to dietary failure!
For everyone, if a news source is reporting on a health/fitness study, instantly be skeptical. Here are a few tips:
- Get past the headline. Even if the article itself is solid, the author will do anything possible to bait you into clicking that headline, and the headline often doesn’t agree with the article in any way. Reader beware.
- If the article doesn’t include a link to the study, abstract, or press release, that’s a big warning flag right off the bat. If the author actually read it, why don’t they want you to?
- If you have the time, read the abstract/press release yourself. If they provide a link at the beginning of the article, click through to the abstract and skip the article entirely-cut out the middleman.
- Be skeptical of headlines that agree with your preexisting opinions. Social media sites are better at giving us articles we’ll like than ones that give us a complete picture of the situation.
I’m actually optimistic about the state of the exercise and nutrition science fields in general- new studies and practices are coming out every month that expand our knowledge of how the body works! Still, it’s up to us to make sure that what we read and share really says what it says and can actually better our day-to-day lives.
Fare forward, voyagers!