Why That Atlantic Story About Junk Food and Obesity Is Hypocritical

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 17 2013 6:13 PM

War on Foodies

The hypocrisy behind the Atlantic’s call for better junk food.

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Freedman neglects to take this process into consideration, claiming that the foodie fascinations of today won’t ever go mainstream, or that they’ll impede other “healthy” ways of eating by making junk-food engineering seem pointless. But we’ve seen the trickle-down at work in just the last few years: An upscale fascination with “natural” products has lately dribbled into industrial food labs, where scientists now work hard to reconfigure chips and sodas for the mass consumer without synthetic additives. (Never mind that no one in the business really thinks synthetics are unsafe, or that natural versions would be any better for your health. They’re just following the trends.) Freedman cites this work, in fact, on formulating stevia—a natural, zero-calorie sweetener that started out at stores like Whole Foods—as an example of the “high-tech, anti-obesity food engineering” that could maybe save the world. (Let’s hope those hateful foodies don’t get in the way!)

In this respect, I believe that Freedman’s piece is wrong—or, to use one of his favorite phrases—“utterly wrong.” There are greater crimes than this, a thesis that doesn’t quite make sense, but what makes his wrongness annoying is the fact that in the past few years Freedman has become a leading expert on the subject of when and why everyone else is wrong.

In 2010, he published Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them, a disquisition on what he sees as an epidemic of imprecision and loose facts. There he worries over bogus experts on obesity (and other topics), who mislead us when they “try to force various simple answers onto a complex question—no wonder we just end up being misled.” He’s fond of pointing out that (according to medical researcher John Ioannidis) at least two-thirds of all the facts we find in medical journals are most likely incorrect, and so it follows that any argument or policy—no matter how vapid or absurd—can be backed up with at least one published study from the literature.*

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So how does Freedman think we might escape this morass of misinformation? An appendix to his book offers tips for sussing out degrees of wrong. Here’s one hallmark of an opinion that you shouldn’t trust: “It’s provocative. … We’re tickled by the surprise, and at the same time it may ring true because we’re so used to finding out that what we’ve all been led to believe is right is actually wrong.” Got that, Atlantic readers? Maybe you shouldn’t trust a piece that gives a simple answer to the problem of obesity—especially if it seems surprising or provocative.

Health journalists are taking advantage of the wrongness problem,” Freedman went on to say, in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year. “Presented with a range of conflicting findings for almost any interesting question, reporters are free to pick those that back up their preferred thesis—typically the exciting, controversial idea that their editors are counting on.” As exemplars of this dodgy mode he cited Tara Parker-Pope and Gary Taubes, two other thoughtful journalists who have written long articles on obesity with provocative and surprising arguments. Parker-Pope suggested that long-term weight loss is nearly impossible, and Taubes wondered whether sugar might be the biggest problem with our diet. “This reporting has been focused on catchy, simplistic—and utterly wrong—ideas,” Freedman said.

It’s almost like he hadn’t penned his own catchy and simplistic take on obesity two years before, in a 2011 cover story for Scientific American. (The headline to that piece, “How to Fix the Obesity Crisis,” might remind you of the wording on the front of this month’s Atlantic: “The Cure for Obesity.”) Back then he thought the fix for fatness would be one that’s based on behavioral psychology (thus the title of his blog, Fat & Skinner). That means traditional interventions such as calorie-counting and weight-loss counseling, modeled on the Weight Watchers program and spruced up with recent findings in the field. What we need most, he argued, is a government-subsidized “experiment in mass behavior change,” a grand project that “would be our best shot at fixing obesity.”

To support this provocative, surprising idea, Freedman cited three studies showing modest, long-term effects of joining Weight Watchers: on the order of a 3-percent shift of body weight, or about 5 pounds for a 165-pound man. (More recent work has found that adding “behavioral weight loss” techniques to the standard Weight Watchers program, as Freedman proposed, offers no additional benefits.) He also endorsed Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, subsidies of fruits and vegetables, soda taxes, and several other progressive policies that he now, according to his Atlantic story, considers unlikely to succeed.

I don’t mean to say that Freedman’s ideas are inconsistent—we may as well have healthy junk food and Weight Watchers, too. But there’s something off about the way he calls out others for the tricks he pulls himself. He’ll dole out catchy, simplistic, and counterintuitive ideas, back them up (or not) with cherry-picked studies, and then attack his peers for doing the same. The foodies can be hypocrites, sure, but so can the people who write about them.

Correction, July 18, 2013: This article originally misspelled the surname of medical researcher John Ioannidis. (Return to the corrected sentence.)