Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘nutrition

Problems With Health Journalism

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I’ve been accumulating personal and secondhand data for some sort of story on gendered mental disorder diagnoses, so it’s with particular annoyance that I come across this PsychCentral article, “Prevalence of Mental Disorders Vary by Gender.’ The authors note, in the second paragraph, that “researchers discovered women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, while men tend toward substance abuse or antisocial disorders.” Yet if the authors realize that the prevalence of this disorder or another is not the same as those “diagnosed with” said disorder, they fail to make the distinction in the headline or the rest of the article.

The ways adult hyperactive-type ADHD manifests itself are remarkably similar, at least by the diagnostic criteria and the way they are written about, to the symptoms of bipolar II (a less intense combination of highs and lows than bipolar I). Women are said to rarely possess hyperactive type ADHD (as opposed to the inattentive type), but they swell the ranks of bipolar II diagnoses—which is allegedly much, much less prevalent in men. And it’s sort of funny that Miami Dolphin’s Brandon Marshall wants to be the ‘face’ of borderline personality disorder, because for years it was said just to be a girl disease (symptoms include promiscuity and neediness). This sort of stuff both fascinates me and pisses me off; if anyone has any good research on these things to point me to, please do.

The more I cover health and nutrition for Blisstree (where I post at least four times daily, these days), the more frustrated I get with some health research and a lot of health reporting. It’s remarkable how little is done, in a lot of cases, beyond looking at the press release. I’m guilty of this sometimes (though if at all possible, I skim the study itself), but I write for a rapid-fire blog; you would think folks at websites for major publications/TV stations/etc. would go beyond that. [I’m not necessarily faulting the writers; for all I know, they all have to write a whole bunch of articles per day, too, and are only being asked for brief, neutral coverage]. But what’s worse is a) the veneer of objectivity, and b) the packaging/marketing. Some studies are crap. Reporters or editors have to know these are crap, at least most of the time, but they need things to write about and maybe everybody else is reporting it or maybe their paycheck/job/whatever is dependent on pageviews and so even if they report the truth of the stories, the headlines and deks or the blurbs scream out the most sensational aspect of the story, even if it’s not necessarily correct. Sometimes the articles will mention some fact that completely changes the meaning of the content as they’ve packaged it, and then just go on with the chosen narrative, contradictory fact notwithstanding.

The most egregious example of this in recent memory is this study reporting that it would cost a single American $380 more per year to eat healthy; for a family of four, this shot to $1,520. Headlines trumpeted things like “Is Eating Healthy a Luxury?” and “Most Americans Can’t Afford to Follow Dietary Guidelines.” What most glossed over was that the 1,000 adults surveyed were only from one affluent county in Washington, and researchers looked not at how families could add potassium, fiber, and other nutrients to their diets most cheaply, but based calculations on what these wealthy participants tended to already buy that contained those nutrients, or said they’d like to buy.

Even when what’s left out isn’t so extreme, there’s very little questioning of a study’s methods or conclusions in health reporting, as if the fact that it’s academic research alone makes it sacrosanct. I wonder if it’s more market factors of sociology/conventions of journalism that’s most at work here? Or is it impossible to distinguish? It is things like these that make me wish I were in grad school again, and could devote time to wonky media things like this. And then everyone could report on my research findings unquestionably …

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Written by ENB

August 19, 2011 at 9:21 am

On Families and Food

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Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s story about food in the New York Times’ magazine’s food edition—well, the beginning part, about his grandma and her relationship to food—I suddenly feel compelled to share some of my own family history about food. As I may or may not have mentioned here many times before, I grew up eating the quintessential turn-of-the-millennium American processed foods diet: Poptarts and lucky charms for breakfast. Lunchables, dunkaroos and doritos for lunch. Chicken patties and canned green beans for dinner. The only vegetables we ever ate fresh (not from a can) were broccoli and potatoes. The legendary story my college friends like to tell is when I bit into the skin of an orange freshman year. I didn’t know that wasn’t how you ate it. I’d never had an orange that wasn’t canned, or that my mother hadn’t already peeled and put in fruit salad.

Learning to change my eating habits has been an ongoing process over the past 4 or 5 years, one that’s mostly been enjoyable—and one that’s also been fraught with complications. Like, for instance, disordered eating. I’ve spent various years of my life consumed with what would be, medically termed, ED-NOS (eating disorder, not-otherwise-specified)—a mix of anorexic and bulimic tendencies that never quite reached a dangerous level but was nevertheless, um, not healthy (if, most of all, mentally). I’ve always been a bit weird about food: my mom says from the time I was about 5, I’d refuse to eat more than three separate things per meal. Why 3? I don’t know. But if we had chicken, green beans, bread and rice, one of those would have to be left out.

There are a billion reasons why a person develops disordered eating habits, and I’ll spare you a dissertation on my own. But the reason I bring all this up is: my parents visited last weekend. My parents are both average for middle-aged midwestern parents, which is to say, once very thin and athletic but now chubby but not fat. They are constantly trying to lose weight, but have little idea how to go about it (one of my mom’s favorite diet lines is, “But all I had all day is tea and girl scout cookies!”). Most of my friends now are quite into food: food politics, food preparation, cooking, growing and eating food. And Brooklyn is full of amazing restaurants—the kind of places with interesting, locally grown, elaborately and lovingly prepared dishes. I took my parents to a few. Along the way, my boyfriend and roommate talked quite a bit about food.

And what did my dad have to say? Boy, your friends sure are obsessed with food. Or, by weekend’s end, “I’m a bit tired of all this food talk.” It made me feel weird, uncomfortable. Was their something unsavory, gluttonous about it?

And, I realized: food, in my family, in my culture growing up, is something to be enjoyed, but not too much. My dad (and, by consequence, me) likes meat, but doesn’t like preparing it, or eating it when it feels too much like an actual animal. He likes to be eat, sure, but he doesn’t like to spend too much time thinking about where it came from, how to make it, its effects, etc. I always thought that was healthy. But as I’m encountering new ways of thinking about eating, about food, I realize that may be just the problem. We should think about our food. We shouldn’t just guiltily enjoy whatever crap happens to taste good, and then try to exercise or rationalize it off. We should concentrate more on only putting things in our bodies that we don’t feel guilty about. And, if that means having to talk about food, to obsess about it: so be it.

I’m saying all this just as my roommates and I are embarking on a modified raw food diet. We’re on day 3. The main goal is to cut out anything processed, plus dairy, meat, pasta, soda, etc. Maybe I should say it’s more a ‘natural foods’ diet than a raw foods, as we’re not averse to cooking our veggies and such. It’s requiring a lot of thinking about food. A lot. And I think it’s good for me—thinking about food extensively is a hell of a lot better than not thinking and ordering a dominos pizza or jaunting down the street for a corner store sandwich every day.

Of course, there is a link—a link between thinking about food for health reasons, and about thinking about food like an anorexic person. I’m drawing all sorts of parallels these past few days. It feels like similar behavior to me. But maybe that’s only because thinking about food, to me, has always been thinking about restricting food. If not restricting, I wasn’t thinking about it. Thinking about food in order to enjoy it more, and to get the maximum health benefits from it, seems like an okay change, and one I’m welcome (and, falteringly, trying) to make.

Written by ENB

October 13, 2009 at 8:02 pm