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/

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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!

 

Shoulder dystocia page now online!

Shoulder dystocia is a popular reason given for restricting the choices in how and where we give birth as bigger women.

But is this fair?

The potential consequences aren’t great, and as bigger mums we’re told that we have a 3 or 4 times greater risk. But a look at the evidence, as usual, is not that clear cut.

More information here.

What hope if even UNICEF repeat flawed research conclusions?

Doing some research for this site, I chanced across the Baby Friendly Initiative page at UNICEF.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all about the breastfeeding. It’s great in so many ways.

But UNICEF, in its clear desire to extol the virtues of breastfeeding, have saddened me with their keenness to repeat lazy research conclusions which state that breastfeeding reduces BMI, clearly made by people who are unable to distinguish between correlation and causation…

Update 2017 – (http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/News-and-Research/Research/Obesity/Breastfeeding-reduces-obesity-in-middle-aged-mothers/ – link no longer works as Unicef seems to have withdrawn the article – a good thing, in my opinion.)

Let’s read the title again; ‘Breastfeeding reduces obesity in middle-aged mothers’. The authors of the particular study UNICEF is reporting on concluded that while having more children is associated with higher BMI, ‘this increase would be offset if women breastfed’.

What the authors of the study actually discovered, was that women who breastfed had lower BMIs, that’s all. This is not new information. In fact, UNICEF reports it here, in a study two years prior to the one above, which makes no such unfounded claims.

Update 2017 – (http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/News-and-Research/Research/Obesity/Does-maternal-obesity-impact-on-breastfeeding-outcomes/ also appears to have been wihdrawn)

…obese women plan to breastfeed for a shorter period than normal weight women and are less likely to initiate breastfeeding… studies found that obese women breastfed for a shorter duration than normal weight women…

How the authors of the first study concluded that this meant that breastfeeding reduced womens’ BMIs, I do not know, but I’m very disappointed that UNICEF would then publish such an unfounded conclusion as fact, and even more disappointed to find they’ve done it TWICE:

http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/News-and-Research/Research/Obesity/Persistent-effects-of-womens-parity-and-breastfeeding-patterns-on-their-BMI/ (edit Sept 2015 UNICEF seem to have withdrawn this from their site)

Another article by the same authors, with similar conclusions:

The reduction in BMI associated with just 6 months breastfeeding in UK women could importantly reduce their risk of obesity-related disease and their costs as they age.

Now, perhaps it is true. It’s often reported that breastfeeding uses up to 500 calories a day:

http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/Pages/why-breastfeed.aspx#close

But let’s be clear about this, until there is evidence of a causal link between increased breastfeeding duration reducing BMIs, rather than a correlative link of women with higher BMIs breastfeeding for shorter durations, I’d really expect UNICEF to understand the difference.