The end of obesity, sort of

On the heels of a White House media blitz, two contrasting press releases reveal a misleading story

Last week’s health headlines were punctuated by a conveniently timed bit of news: On the heels of the White House’s media blitz celebrating the four-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to end childhood obesity, word that progress had been made hit the news cycle, which began widely reporting study results that obesity dropped 43 percent in the past decade in children ages two to five.

Sounds good, right? But the statistics, based on a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, paint a bleaker picture. “Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth or adults,” reads the conclusion of the paper. “Obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance.” A bit different than the major win in the obesity epidemic the press trumpeted in their headlines. Moreover, though the study describes the decrease in obesity in the 2- to 5-year-old age range as “significant,” it also discloses the sample size. Only 871 of the people in the survey were in that age range, meaning that staggering drop in obesity was reflected in about 70 kids.

But that didn’t stop newspapers from plucking the bright bit of news out of an overall grim report. “Obesity Rate for Young Children Plummets 43% in a Decade” reported The New York Times, further explaining that the drop offered “the first clear evidence that America’s youngest children have turned a corner in the obesity epidemic.” The Washington Post reported that the data provided “another encouraging sign in the fight against one of the country’s leading public health problems,” but didn’t mention the sample size. And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted the New York Times’ coverage, calling the decline “stunning.” The Philadelphia Inquirer trumpeted the drop with a misleading headline: “Obesity Rate Shows Signs of Leveling Off,” though the body of the article read much more pessimistically, quoting the study’s author in the third graf, saying her data showed “no change in youth or adults.” So much for leveling off.

The press releases for the study make it a bit clearer how one small statistic came to dominate the story of the newly released data. The JAMA press release (find it here) gives a thorough summary of the findings, titled “Obesity Prevalance Remains High in U.S.; No Significant Change in Recent Years.” But a press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provided the data for the study, has a more uplifting message—starting with its title: “New CDC data show encouraging development in obesity rates among 2 to 5 year olds.” (Read the whole thing here.)

Though the CDC release says that the “precise reasons” for the drop in obesity “are not clear,” it follows up the statement with some encouraging quotes about government-run obesity prevention programs. “We’ve also seen signs from communities around the country with obesity prevention programs,” CDC Director Tom Frieden says in the release. “This confirms that at least for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic.” The release continues with a quote from Michelle Obama, celebrating the Let’s Move anniversary: “Healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm.”

“CDC’s press releases include the data and also provide perspective on broader issues,” wrote Karen Hunter, a senior press officer with the CDC, when I emailed her asking about the difference in the releases. She also wrote that the JAMA release focused solely on the science. The connection to Let’s Move wasn’t an accident; the news “tied in well with the First Lady’s events this week marking the 4th anniversary of Let’s Move,” wrote Hunter.

Though news outlets didn’t explicitly tie the drop to the First Lady’s programs, they were quick to pick up on the CDC’s tie-in. The Philadelphia Inquirer ended its piece with a link to Let’s Move, while the Times offered the following quote:

Another possible explanation is that some combination of state, local and federal policies aimed at reducing obesity is starting to make a difference. Michelle Obama, the first lady, has led a push to change young children’s eating and exercise habits and 10,000 child care centers across the country have signed on.

But one outlet didn’t buy into the hype. In USA Today, health reporter Liz Szabo took on the poor coverage from the get-go, quoting experts who added balance to the too-good-to-be-true stats, calling the drop in obesity an “encouraging preliminary finding.” The title of her piece acts as a critique of the other coverage: “Child obesity rates drop 43% in past decade, but some experts caution the figures may be somewhat misleading.”

Szabo said that she tried to add balance to optimistic statistics in a particularly rigorous way, anticipating after receiving the press release that the media would jump on the happy story. “Given that this was going to get so much coverage, it felt like it would be important to do the story, if only to add caveats that others might not,” said Szabo in an email.

“I’m sure the White House would like to promote how much progress we’re making in this targeted group,” said Szabo. “But we still need to be careful that we’re not caught up in anyone’s PR agenda.”

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , , ,