False Claims from an Obesity Study?

Junk Food Infographic
Junk Food Infographic

A Cornell University study concludes, "consumption of fast food, soft drinks, or candy was not positively correlated with measures of BMI," meaning (excluding those very under- and overweight), people consumed these foods at about the same rate. But a Forbes writer criticizes the "false claim" reflected in Cornell's press release (and similarly reported elsewhere): "Candy, soda and fast food are not driving the rising obesity trend in the U.S."

Other headlines, such as, "Is junk food making us fat? Why cutting candy, soda may not be enough," in USA Today have little connection to the findings at all. The study says nothing about restricting certain foods. It merely reports that people of different weights consume similar amounts of these particularly foods.

I also don't think the study distinguished between diet and regular soda. People at the lowest BMIs consumed the most soda.

One of the study's authors, David Just, responded to the Forbes writer's concerns:

"I clarified this with the study's lead author, David Just, a professor of economics at Cornell University, who said his aim was to consider the potential impact of public policies that banned certain foods. 'There's been a lot of diet advice given that narrowly focuses on eliminating soda and fast food and a rash of policies that are targeting these specific foods and promising to address the obesity crisis,' he said. 'I felt these policies were overpromising.'

"He said he did not intend people to leave with the message that sugary sodas and junk food have nothing to do with their weight, or that it's useless to try to lose weight by cutting back on sugar."

An infographic summarizes the study's findings, and Just describes the results in a video.

Discussion Starters:

  • How would you explain the Forbes writer's concerns? What are the potential consequences of how the findings are reported?
  • What conclusions are safe to draw from the study? How could the results be useful to policymakers and individuals?