The Fake Chocolate Study

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Health Current Events

How To Game The Peer Review Process

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

fake chocolate studyPeer review is supposed to assure that clinical studies are well designed, well executed, and correctly interpreted before they are accepted for publication. That is why I frequently advise you, my readers, to look for clinical studies on their nutritional products that are published in peer reviewed scientific journals as a criteria for choosing a supplement company that you can trust.

But, can the system be gamed? Sadly, the answer is yes. There are journals that only pay lip service to the peer review process. Earlier this year an investigative reporter set out to prove just how easy it is to game the peer review process. It is a fascinating story of how a journalist created the fake chocolate study.

Creating The Fake Chocolate Study Hoax

chocolateThe fake chocolate study was a hoax put together by John Bohannon, an investigative journalist and correspondent to Science (a very well respected scientific journal) to test the peer review system. The study was real, but it was seriously flawed. For example, it had only 16 subjects, there was no effort made to determine what the subjects were eating other than chocolate, and the conclusions were not supported by the data. In short, it was a very bad study—one that would have been rejected by any reputable journal.

For the purposes of the test he called himself Dr. Johannes Bohannon from the “Institute of Diet and Health”, a nonexistent entity that consisted of nothing more than a fake website he set up. He then wrote up the study and titled it “Chocolate with High Cocoa Content as a Weight Loss Accelerator” with the conclusion (not supported by the data) that “Long-term weight loss, however, seems to occur easier and more successfully by adding chocolate. The effect of chocolate, the so-called ‘weight loss turbo’, seems to go hand in hand with personal well-being, which was significantly higher than in the control groups.”

Journals Take The Bait

baitIn March 2015 he submitted the article to 20 online journals. Several accepted it within 24 hours. He chose to publish it in the “International Archives of Medicine.” His paper was published online without any revisions a mere two weeks later. [Note: You should not assume the fact that several out of just 20 journals accepted his paper as in indication that a significant percentage of journals accept sub-standard papers without serious peer review. He had, in fact, done previous research for Science magazine identifying those journals most likely to accept flawed studies. It was those types of journals he sent his study to.]

John Bohannon was later quoted as saying “Editors of reputable journals reject [these kinds of studies] out of hand without even sending them to peer reviewers. But there are plenty of journals that care more about money than reputation.” [It costs $650 to have an article published in the International Archives of Medicine.]

The Media Fans The Flames

flamesIf this study had just been published in an obscure journal and had been ignored, that would have been bad enough. But the story gets even worse.  He then created a press release that he sent to news outlets. The press release made some pretty outrageous statements and even contained a link to an unrelated music video. However, the study made news headlines in more than 20 countries in half a dozen languages. For example, headlines from the Daily Express in England blared: “Chocolate Accelerates Weight Loss: Research Claims it Lowers Cholesterol and Aids Sleep.”

John Bohannon’s take was: “The key is to exploit journalist’s incredible laziness. If you lay out the information just right, you can shape the story that emerges in the media almost like you were writing those stories yourself. In fact, that’s literally what you are doing, since many reporters just copied and pasted our text.”

For the complete story of how John Bohannon pulled off this hoax, read his blog post about the “fake study.

 

The Bottom Line

  • An investigative reporter for Science magazine demonstrated recently just how easy it is to get a fake study published in a peer-reviewed journal.
  • He created a completely bogus study about chocolate aiding weight loss.
  • He submitted it to several journals that he had previously identified as having substandard peer review processes.
  • Several journals accepted it within 24 hours without any peer review process. One published it two weeks later without any revisions.
  • The story of a new “study” showing that chocolate aids weight loss was picked up by the new media and made the headlines in more than 20 countries in half a dozen languages.
  • The vast majority of journals have a very exacting peer review process, which means that most published clinical studies have been thoroughly reviewed and edited prior to publication. For the most part the peer review process works exactly as it is supposed to.
  • However, this hoax shows just how easy it would be for an unethical supplement company to subvert the peer review process and publish bogus studies to support their product claims. That is why when you are choosing a supplement company it is important to choose one with a reputation for scientific integrity.
  • This hoax also shows just how easy it is for bogus information to be picked up by the media and make it into the headlines. You simply cannot believe everything you read in the press, see on the TV and view online. That is why I created “Health Tips From The Professor.”  I wanted to create a place where you can go for accurate information.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Opal Hernandez

    |

    Wow, great article. thanks for all your info. I really appreciate it.
    Opal

    Reply

  • Mimi Vollum

    |

    It’s almost a full-time job trying to keep up with all the many forms of fake news these days! Thanks for your always-helpful information.

    Reply

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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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