There is an old adage in news reporting, which goes something like: a dog biting a man is not news; a man biting a dog, that’s news. It’s a way of explaining how, sometimes, something won’t make the headlines, even though it’s just as objectively important as something which does. The heart of it is: there needs to be something surprising to make a story newsworthy.
But sometimes even ‘dog bites man’ can be turned into a news story if you can pretend that the man has bitten the dog. For instance, the Daily Mail recently ran a story which revealed — shock! — that fat people are more likely to have food out on the surfaces in their kitchen. Imagine! ‘Overeaters more likely to keep food close to hand’ is about as dog-bites-man as it is possible for a story to get.
That isn’t, however, how the story was reported. The headline was ‘Leaving food on the worktop can make you nearly 2st heavier’. You can lose two stone, the newspaper is airily telling you, simply by putting your box of Alpen in a cupboard rather than leaving it on the kitchen table. They based this claim on a study published in the journal Health Education and Behaviour.
Of course, that’s not what the study said. It’s not even close. The authors photographed 200 kitchens, marked which ones had food visible, and then found out how much the owners of all the kitchens weighed. They discovered that on average, people who left cereal boxes out were about 20lb heavier than those who didn’t, and people who left soft drinks out were about 26lb heavier. That is a dramatic difference — and, perhaps, even newsworthy (when a dog bites a man badly enough, it can be news). But it’s one small study, not repeated, and, most importantly, it in no way says that visible food causes you to get fat.
In limited defence of the Mail, they admit (in the 10th paragraph) that this is a ‘correlational’ study, ie it can’t show cause and effect at all. But the headline, and much of the first few paragraphs, pretty explicitly say this will help you lose weight. The author of the study gives some perfectly sensible advice about removing temptation, and it certainly can’t do any harm to put sweets out of sight. But pretending that all you need to do to lose those troublesome pounds is make room in your cupboards is nonsense. As always, the best advice for losing weight is to eat less food and do more exercise. But sadly, that’s the most dog-bites-man story of all.