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Op-Ed: A bar of chocolate a day helps you lose weight. Really?

One sure way to pile on the pounds is through a regular consumption of chocolate, coupled with an exercise regime that involves nothing more strenuous than typing a way at a keyboard. This well established scientific concept that large quantities of dairy fat lead to weight gain (simple arithmetic that eating more calories than you use leads to fat build-up.) Chocolate is very high in calories, as SF Gate points out. As an example, one-third of a cup of milk chocolate comes to around 297 calories.

This hasn’t stopped some people, however, peddling alternative viewpoints. A website called Mother Nature Network draws on a study that argues “Consuming a small amount of chocolate each of five days during a week was linked to a lower BMI.” Where BMI is “body mass index.” What this study says, I’m not sure. The link on the Mother Nature website links to another Mother Nature article; in turn this links to a Live Science webpage, and this doesn’t link to the original research article (readers will note that Digital Journal always aims to link to original research papers.) I gave up at this point.

This brings us neatly to John Bohannon. Bohannon put out spoof research that concluded German scientists had discovered that people on a low-carbohydrate diet lost weight 10 percent faster when they consumed a chocolate bar each day, compared with those who do not. Writing on io9, Bohannon said that his study concluded: “Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being.” He quoted himself as lead researcher and made up the fictitious Institute of Diet and Health as the place where the research was conducted. Now Bohannon did actually recruit some people and pile them with chocolate; the issue was the results showed, as expected, no weight loss and, in some cases, the munching of chocolate led to weight gain. To see how the media would react, Bohannon put out a research note that suggested chocolate can help someone to lose weight.

The spoof story was picked up by a major newspaper, called Bild, and then it went viral across cyeberspace and in mass-market publications like Shape magazine. This was followed by the British Daily Mail (an example of one of the more reactionary right-of-center tabloids). At no point, it seems, did any of these media outlets pause to question the scientific facts. It was the scientific equivalent of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Had journalists headed over to the website that detailed the research review, they would have read: “Long-term weight loss, however, seems to occur easier and more successfully by adding chocolate. The effect of the chocolate, the so-called “weight loss turbo,” seems to go hand in hand with personal well-being.”

Had more intrepid journalists then attempted to view the source paper, they were directed to the so-termed International Archives of Medicine. A quick search around here would soon have shown that no such research study existed and a few clicks would have revealed that the website was not legit.

The lessons here, for the public, is to be skeptical and to check where the results of a study came from. The message for journalists is to critical assess sources, and not to become swept away by the exponential momentum that ‘viral news’ sometimes generates. Meanwhile, Bohannon’s detailed account of how he created his media spin is well-worth reading.

The point of the exercise appeals to me as a science journalist and one who is often skeptical about some research claims. I get especially worried about studies conducted in animals where the headlines infer that if a mouse reacts one-way, then the same will apply to a human being (often it doesn’t). I also get twitchy on studies run with a handful of participants and where the results are extrapolated so to apply to the wider population.

However, while the spoof is funny, and it makes a point, a little care is always required with such pranks. Some people are not as well read as others and care must be taken to ensure that public health is not put at risk.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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