Fed Up With Lazy Journalism

Another day, another article which blames obese mums and completely misrepresents the research it purports to be reporting on.

Thanks Helen McArdle ‘Health Correspondent’ for The Herald @HMcardleHT, for yet more scaremongering claptrap.

Here’s the article:

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/16071005.Foetuses_of_obese_women_develop__fatty_liver__in_the_womb/

Let’s begin with the headline:

Offspring of obese mothers prone to childhood obesity because they develop ‘fatty liver’ in womb

So, that sounds worryingly simple enough, an assertion which is reinforced in the first paragraph:

“CHILDREN whose mothers were obese during pregnancy are more likely to become overweight themselves because they develop a “fatty liver” in the womb, research has found.”

As usual, we’re to blame, and “research has found it”, so the article says, so it must be true. Surely?

Unless you read on.

But the trouble is, how many people do read on with articles like this? How many mums, glancing at this and feeling sick to the pit of their stomach at the potential harm they’re doing to their baby/have done to their children, breath deeply, and flick past to something lighter to brighten the mood? If you’re already pregnant/have had the baby there is little point in finding more things to stress over – being a parent is hard enough!

How many healthcare professionals, busy on a lunchbreak, notice the heading and possibly the first paragraph and move on, because there’s no need to read it – it’s clearly just going to tell the thing they already believe to be true; overweight women are harming their children through greed, laziness, and ignorance?

Not all health professionals think this way, certainly, but I’ve met enough to get the impression that it’s not a rarely-enough-held viewpoint. Newspaper articles like this don’t help matters.

The second paragraph kicks us again when we’re down.

“It has long been known that overweight and obese women are more likely to give birth to heavy babies and that these infants are at greater risk of childhood obesity.”

Actually, (and please correct me if you know of more recent studies to the contrary) I think
the link between big mum=big baby is only shown in studies which failed to adjust for mums with poorly controlled blood glucose levels (usually as a result of poorly managed gestational diabetes). Where this is accounted for, there is no established correlation between otherwise obese mums and heavier babies at birth.

The second claim, that ‘these infants are at greater risk of childhood obesity’ does have some grounding; there are plenty of studies that show a correlation between maternal obesity and childhood obesity. It’s very easy to find data on the mother’s BMI at her booking appointment – and so again, lazy researchers have been known to draw conclusions that pregnancy BMI is a factor in the obesity of a 10 year old, failing to account for the environment the child is growing up in after its birth! Funny how these studies are so rarely interested in paternal obesity as an indicator, isn’t it, since that data is so much less readily available?

Then we get onto the third paragraph and the headline starts to unravel…

“However, research published in the Journal of Physiology has revealed for the first time how fat accumulates in the liver and metabolic pathways are disturbed in foetuses developing in obese mothers with diets high in sugar and fat.”

Hang on a second! That additional information makes quite a bit of difference!! “Obese mothers with diets high in sugar and fat“. So not ALL obese mothers, but the ones with poor diets. Obviously much less catchy as a headline though, isn’t it?

Then comes not just the unravelling, but the full scale chopping up of the headline with the sword of Damocles… if you read further down to paragraph eleven.

“The study was carried out using obese pregnant monkeys.”

I’m sorry? What?! Obese. Pregnant. Monkeys??!?

They didn’t mention that in the title, now, did they? No, in fact, The Herald used the word ‘childhood’ in the title. Could have used the more factually correct ‘infant’; it even comprises fewer letters, but implying that this is research on humans makes this a more compelling read, doesn’t it?

Baboon hanging from its tail above water

The very first word of the article itself is ‘Children’, which we now know should read ‘Baboons’!

While I concede that humans share 91% of their DNA with baboons, there’s definitely enough of a difference between us for that distinction to be quite important.

I can’t do this, for instance. And I’m not overly fond of bananas.>>

If you google a bit, you’ll discover that Helen McArdle didn’t even write all of the article herself. Most of it, the accurate stuff, was lifted directly from this press release from the Physiological Society. The Herald’s only input was just to add confusion and a click-bait title – and bury the essential information deeper in the text. Standard journalistic fare, sadly.

My advice, always read on if you come across a news story that makes you feel uncomfortable about being a bigger mum. More often than not, the article unravels itself as you read, and your fears prove false.

Even better, find the research the article is citing and read that, if possible, (if, in this case, you’re not squeamish about reading of the the deaths by exsanguination of not-quite-to-term baby baboons…)

Primate fetal hepatic responses to maternal obesity: epigenetic signalling pathways and lipid accumulation (72.7 KiB)

This journalistic laziness is so frustrating. Research which usually took scientists months, maybe years to conduct, and several thousand words to explain, are so often twisted and misrepresented when distilled by a journalist into an attention-grabbing article. But the damage is done.

This is all I have to say about that…

A baboon's bottom
If you’d like to get involved in some citizen-led science about high-BMI pregnancy in conjunction with Parenting Science Gang, funded by the Wellcome Trust, then do join our Facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1955647771354577/

x

Big Birtha

Now For The Science Bit…

There’s a real lack of good quality research into high BMI pregnancies. There are few studies done specifically on the topic. Those that do exist are often with very small sample sizes, conflate being overweight with medical conditions, or have flawed methodology.

Yet we’re supposed to accept recommendations based on their results?

Pregnant Woman in front of windowEven given the state of some of it, I definitely prefer recommendations based on evidence! All too often we’re told we should do something while pregnant because it’s ‘policy’, yet when you start unpicking the advice, it turns out to be based on nothing more than a hunch – e.g.taking an an increased dose of Folic Acid.

And then there’s the problem with finding the evidence that applies to our circumstances when it does exist. Many Big Birthas out there, myself included, have found that it’s best not to assume that your healthcare professionals are experts in whatever course of action they’re proposing, and often have no idea of the evidence base (or lack of it) to support their advice, and so we have to do the research ourselves to ensure we’re making fully informed decisions!

Well, I can announce some exciting news.

Parenting Science Gang is a user-led citizen science project funded by Wellcome, and one of the new groups for 2018 is a Big Birthas Parenting Science Gang! This is an amazing opportunity to get involved in looking at issues faced by mothers and mothers-to-be with a high BMI.

You don’t need to be a scientist – I’m not! You just need to want more information and help us find it! We will look for evidence-based answers to the questions that us bigger mums want to know, and where we find gaps, we’ll design and run our own research studies to discover and publish our own scientific results and add to the body of knowledge available.

We’ll get advice from professional scientists along the way – but the group will be in charge of the experiments.

We’ll also have regular online Q&A sessions with experts. They will help us in designing our experiments, and maybe even point us in the direction of equipment and resources.

So far we’ve already talked about weight management in pregnancy, gestational diabetes, use of blood thinners in pregnancy, fat vaginas and more! And we’ve had Q&A sessions with yours truly and Clare Murphy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

Come along and find out more, ask your questions, and maybe even help us to find the answers! You can give as little or as much time as you choose. It’s a closed Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1955647771354577/)  and there are also some meet-ups being organised across the country for people in the different Parenting Science Gangs to get together and discuss the issues in March and April.

We’d love to have you on board!

 

Important New Info About Sleeping On Your Side

Tommy’s, the charity who fund research into miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth,
have just released some interesting new information about sleep position during pregnancy, following the publication of a large new research study.

In the third trimester, the advice is to go sleep on your side.
Research has shown that this is safer for your baby, whether at night or for daytime naps.

https://www.tommys.org/pregnancy-information/sleep-side-pregnancy-campaign

While the numbers we’re talking about are very small (fewer than 1 in 200 UK pregnancies results in stillbirth), and the researchers are not sure of the reasons sleep position may have a part to play, it does seem like this small difference in the last three months of pregnancy is significant, and is what’s known as a ‘modifiable risk factor’ – something we can do something about.

I’ve posted more information, with links to the relevant studies and a video here: Sleep Position During Pregancy

Online Q&A with Big Birtha Thurs 9th Nov 9pm!

Good Morning Britain Big Birthas Tweet

Would you like the opportunity to take part in an online Q&A with the founder of Big Birthas, Amber Marshall?

Do mums with a higher BMI get a raw deal from health professionals? Parenting Science Gang members will be asking me about the experiences that we sometimes experience, and what the research really says. Do mums with higher BMI have more problems during pregnancy and birth, or is this just a perception of some health care providers?
Parenting Science Gang is a Wellcome-funded citizen science programme where parents are looking for evidence-based answers to the parenting questions that affect their lives. You can find out more on their website: http://parentingsciencegang.org.uk
If you are a larger mum or mum-to-be, or you are just interested in the topic, you’re welcome to come along and share your experiences and hear about what research has been done.
On Thursday 9th November at 9pm, Parenting Science Gang will be chatting to me using a closed Facebook group set up expressly for the purpose, which they’ll delete afterwards. If you do not use Facebook, rest assured that setting up an account just for this session is not time consuming, and it is easy to delete your account afterwards.
This is a text-based session, so you just need to be able to read and type to get involved. Just join the event FB group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/190504264828426, and turn up on Thursday 9th November at 9pm to chat! I’ll do my best to answer as many questions as possible!