A Heaping Serving of Baked Kolata, Hold the Caveats

The New York Times played up a story about research on low-fat diets, but the Wall Street Journal realized there was less to the study than met the eye of the Gray Lady.

Yesterday the New York Times led the front page with a splashy display of a story by Gina Kolata on a recently completed federal study that looked at the long-term impacts of a low-fat diet for postmenopausal women. “The largest study ever to ask whether a low-fat diet reduces the risk of getting cancer or heart disease has found that the diet has no effect,” wrote Kolata.

A few sentences later, Kolata quoted a local physician and diet-expert summing up the importance of the study. “These studies are revolutionary,” said Dr. Jules Hirsch of Rockefeller University.

So revolutionary, in fact, that over at the Wall Street Journal, editors found the perfect spot to highlight their story on the same study — deep, deep, deep inside the paper. Specifically, under a one-column headline on page D5. And even though the Journal’s article about the federal study was less than half as long as the Times’ piece, it managed to bring to the topic twice the skepticism.

“The women in the study, aged 50 to 79, were enrolled starting in 1993,” explained the Journal. “About 40 percent of the women in the study were assigned to a low-fat diet and about 60 percent were in the so-called control group, where they ate a normal diet. The low-fat diet group was instructed to eat no more than about 20 percent of their total calories daily in fat and to strive for five servings of fruits and vegetables and six servings of grains daily.”

The problem with the study, the Journal went on to point out, was that it did not distinguish between so-called “good” fats, like omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, and “bad” fats, such as the saturated and trans fats found in fried and processed foods. Also, the Journal noted, the women on the low-fat diet didn’t do a great job of sticking with it. As a result, the overall difference between the two diets ended up being fairly minimal. That the resulting health differences were also fairly minimal, therefore, was not exactly big news. Rather, it was news worthy of a story on D5.

Apparently nobody told that to the editors at the Times.

Eventually, Kolata did get around to writing about some of the same caveats noted by the Journal. But the warnings about the potential shortcomings of the study were surrounded by quotes from doctors pumping up the study’s “Holy Geez!” index. One doctor, for example, referred to it as the “Rolls Royce of studies.”

Coverage by other news outlets including Time, CNN, USA Today and Newsweek trended more toward the Wall Street Journal approach than the New York Times approach. Which is to say, they treated the study less like a Rolls Royce and more like, say, a Ford Explorer. After all, like Ford Explorers, generic low-fat diets that don’t distinguish between good fats and bad fats were all the rage about a decade or so ago. And in recent years, dieticians and carmakers alike have moved on to newer models.

Perhaps the best article of the bunch was penned by one of the skeptics quoted in Kolata’s story. Writing on Newsweek’s Web site, in his debut health column, Dr. Dean Ornish provided a clear and nuanced take on the study.

“With a large number of women in a randomized controlled trial in a major peer-reviewed journal, these findings must be true. Right?” wrote Ornish, who is a proponent of an exceeding low-fat diet. “Well, no — not exactly … The real lesson of the Women’s Health Initiative study is this: if you don’t change much, you don’t improve much. Small changes in diet don’t have much effect on preventing heart disease and cancer in those at high risk.”

“Fat is only part of the story,” added Ornish. “What we include in our diets is at least as important as what we exclude.”

Ditto for good journalism — what a paper such as the Times chooses to include on its front page is at least as important as what it excludes. On this one, we recommend a little less Kolata in the diet, and a few more caveats.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.