Thursday, July 2, 2009

Distracting Headline

Here's how it works: the title of the AFP article on Yahoo! is "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones.'" Will meat eaters now latch onto this new finding, giving a "ha ha, tsk tsk" to vegetarians? Only if they stop at the headline. The first line of the article:

"People who live on vegetarian diets have slightly weaker bones than their meat-eating counterparts, Australian researchers said Thursday."

"Slightly weaker"? Should this be a concern? Maybe not. What does lead researcher Tuan Nguyen say?

"There was 'practically no difference' between the bones of meat-eaters and ovolactovegetarians, who excluded meat and seafood but ate eggs and dairy products, he said."

Interesting: an article titled "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones'" includes a sentence claiming there is "'practically no difference' between the bones of meat-eaters and ovolactovegetarians." Is the headline a lie, then, or just an exaggeration?

The researcher finds, then, "that vegetarian diets, particularly vegan diets, are associated with lower bone mineral density." Vegetarians apparently have 5% less dense bones, vegans 6% less dense.

How meaningful is this difference? Or rather, how strong is the association between vegan/vegetarian diets and weaker bone density? Actually, not at all:

"'But the magnitude of the association is clinically insignificant,' he added."

Clinically insignificant!

So, the headline reads "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones.'" At no point does the article suggest a vegetarian (or vegan) diet weakens bones to the point of unhealthiness. Though Nguyen attempts a Michele-Bachmann-like association at the end of the article ("Given the rising number of vegetarians, roughly five percent (of people) in western countries, and the widespread incidence of osteoporosis, the issue is worth resolving"), there is no evidence provided that a vegetarian or vegan diet leads to greater bone health problems. And actually, the article featured by this headline claims there is practically no difference between the bones of meat eaters and vegetarians, and includes a quote from the researcher calling it "clinically insignificant."

Scientific research may be objective; what we do with the results, however, is subjective. A headline reporting these very same results could focus on the "clinically insignificant" part, or it could focus on the "practically no difference" part. But of course that doesn't happen. The headline instead gives fodder to meat eaters who want to believe/claim they are healthier than vegetarians and vegans, or that vegetarians and vegans are "weak."

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