Scientific studies behind Michelle Obama school lunch program retracted

We all know that the nutrition industry has more than its share of fakes, charlatans, and snake oil salesmen.  But it was thought that scientific studies published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) had the advantage of being peer-reviewed and critiqued by objective experts.

That may be so.  But the scandal involving one of the most popular – and most published – nutrition researchers in the world should make us question everything we've been told about how to eat healthy.

JAMA announced that it is retracting (removing from publication) six studies on nutrition by Cornell University food scientist Brian Wansink.  That brings the total number of studies by Wansink that have been pulled to 13.  And there are 15 other studies by the good doctor that are under review.

Cornell announced that Wansink is resigning his post at the end of the term.  But the damage he has done to the credibility of the nutrition industry – and the social sciences in general – is only beginning to be understood.

Ars Technica:

As Ars has reported before, the retractions, corrections, and today's resignation all stem from Wansink's own admission of statistical scavenging to find meaningful conclusions in otherwise messy dieting data.  The result is that many common dieting tips – such as using smaller plates to trick yourself into shoveling in less food and stashing unhealthy snacks in hard-to-reach places – are now on the cutting board and possibly destined for the garbage bin.

Prior to the scandal, Wansink made a name for himself publishing studies indicating, generally, that such subtle environmental changes could lead to distinct eating and health benefits.  He helped cook up the idea for the now ubiquitous 100-calorie snack packs, for instance.  And he served up the suggestion to have fruit bowls placed prominently on our kitchen counters.

"There are lies, damn lies, and statistics," Mark Twain said.  For Wansink, we might add "and fantasies" to that adage.

It isn't so much that Wansink's conclusions are wildly off base.  It's that he fudged the stats to achieve the result he wanted.

Thus, JAMA editors retracted the six articles.

One had appeared in JAMA in 2005.  The study claimed to find that large serving bowl sizes at a Super Bowl party were linked to more snack eating.

Three had been published in JAMA Internal Medicine.  A 2012 study claimed that hungry people go for starchy foods first over vegetables.  Another study in 2013 claimed similarly that hungry grocery shoppers go for more calories but not necessarily more food.  And a study from 2014 was reported as finding that the more distracting a TV show, the less viewers watched how much they ate and thus ate more.

The last two retracted studies were from JAMA Pediatrics.  One from 2008 suggested that kids who are told to clean their plates by their moms were statistically more likely to request more food.  The other, published in 2013, claimed that kids made healthier school lunch choices if they pre-ordered their meals rather than made decisions in the lunch line, where they can smell less-healthy entrees.

Some of these studies were used to justify the reasoning behind the Obama school lunch programs.


The sham data behind the Smarter Lunchrooms program was exposed last year by PhD student Nicholas Brown and by University of Liverpool profressor [sic] Eric Robinson.  From there, more of Wansink's work started being called into question. ...

A response from Cornell stated that "because we do not have access to the original data, we cannot assure you that the results of the studies are valid."

Over the years, the basis for many myths about nutrition and what is and what isn't healthy has been created by government itself.  Here are 18 myths that have been pushed by government dieticians:

Cancer-causing substances that don't cause cancer, food additives that are bad for you except when they aren't, and false claims about the effect of certain foods like salt and red meat on the body make government guidelines regarding our diets suspect.

Confused about how to eat healthy?  You shouldn't be.  The key word is "moderation" for eating everything.  It's hard to go wrong when you don't overeat.

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