Research and Common Sense

December 11, 2018 in Foodland Chronicles, Nutrition, Psychology of Food by Joyce Bunderson

This morning I turned to my bookshelf and took down my copy of Mindless Eating; Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink PhD. The book, a 2007 paperback edition, is dog-eared and has at least a dozen little sticky notes popping from its pages. I’m not going to read it today; but caress it, I might. I remember when I first heard of Dr. Wansink, it was because the first things I read about his work, were consistent with my decades-long observations and ideas of about the great importance of controlling the environment. He did research; extremely creative research, which confirmed my personal experience about controlling the environment as related to weight management and optimally nourishing our bodies. It felt good to have scientific support for my personal observations.

Also, I fondly remember a year when I was at the annual meeting of The American Dietetics Association (before it changed its name to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) and I was one of the nameless people who were lucky to shake Dr. Wansink’s hand after his presentation. I was impressed by him; and still am. If you want a glimpse of what’s to be impressed by, check out the posted curriculum vitae for Wansink. Holy cow!!! One thing that I’m especially astonished by is his formal education; note that he studied business administration first; journalism and mass communication second; and then marketing and consumer behaviors (psychology). No wonder that he seems to be such a renaissance man – a clear and persuasive writer, a creative thinker, a business man, and a person who understands what motivates the food processors.

If you haven’t been keeping up with the myriad of nutrition-related articles in the news (and I don’t think any of us can), you may not have noticed that Brian Wansink, PhD, a well-known and respected Cornell professor and researcher of consumer behaviors has been in the news countless times during this past year. In September, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) retracted six of Wansink’s studies because of questions about their “scientific validity.” Seven of his other papers had been previously retracted for similar reasons. Let me just mention that you may want to look at that resume again. I didn’t count them; but there must be about forty something pages of articles that he was one of the researchers of a published study. Wansink says that there were “typos, transposition errors and some statistical mistakes;” but that none of his mistakes “changed the substantive conclusion” of his work. Dr. Wansank added that, “I’m very proud of all of these papers, and I’m confident they will be replicated by other groups.” The climax of the preceding year was on September 20, 2018 when he tendered his resignation to Cornell University where he founded the Food and Brand Lab; and where he showed that small behavioral changes could influence eating patterns.

Let’s face it. The least scientific reader realizes that one week you may read that the latest research proves that coffee is the elixir of life and the next day/week you read that it’s a death sentence. The point is that a single study, really doesn’t mean much. We often consider the results of a single study as a head’s up – “this is something that we should keep our eye on/or do more research on – validate the work, that is. An example noticed in the body of scientific research, in 2012, John Ioannidis, the chairman of disease prevention at Stanford, published a study titled “Is Everything We Eat Associated With Cancer?” As a result of this type of problem, some people throw up their hands and say, “The study of nutrition is completely invalid.”

Having spent the majority of my life studying nutrition, I’d love to tell you there is not a huge body of faulty and bogus “nutrition” research; but, unfortunately the facts belie the truth – nutrition research is notorious for wacky outcome studies. There are plenty of errors made in high-quality scientific studies; that’s why a common tenet of research is that it must be replicated. If you frequently read the weekly-posted articles here, you know that I fairly regularly refer to the preponderance of evidence and replicated studies. The flip side of this approach is why there are some things that are so hard to argue with. For example, do you think that it’s easy to say that vegetables are not good for humans? No. Why? Because there is such an enormous body of evidence that says, vegetables support health. There are plenty of errors made in scientific studies; that’s why a common tenet of research is that it must be replicated.

It’s not just mistakes; some researchers are biased. One of the many reasons for being biased is that the researchers themselves believe something is true and have embarked on the pathway to prove their hypothesis. In addition, those who benefit from the sale of a specific product may fund studies; two quick examples are: The Sugar Association (formerly called the Sugar Research Foundation); and The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association). The point is that we know that biases exist. Knowing that leads us back to the preceding paragraph; we realize that we must have a preponderance of evidence and non-biased researchers must replicate it.

Of course, we do not condone any kind of careless research; but many of Wansink’s practical conclusions involving familiar situations to us can be replicated by us as individuals. We can confirm or reject, to our own satisfaction whether his conclusions were basically correct. I invite you to sit down to watch TV with a large bag of chips, a can of your favorite nuts or a 3-gallon bowl of buttered popcorn next to you during your favorite movie or TV show. That is, if you dare to risk extra calories that you’ve not really planning on consuming. Look at Wansink’s studies. Maybe he heard long time nutrition counselors who spoke of “see food” and thought about designing a study that would show whether we are more likely to eat food we easily see. The point is that much of his work is really logical and self-validating from our own observations. I believe that his statement about others validating the work will happen. Again, you can try it yourself; to relieve your discomfort. Take a juicy pear out of the fruit bin in your fridge and put it in clear sight on the kitchen counter. Did it vanish? My guess is that it greatly increases the likelihood. That’s the type of work that Wansink did.

It is so tragic to read articles that say we can now forget about large bowls or keeping tempting foods out of easy access because Wansink has been discredited – as if every study he did was wrong, or even the retracted ones were wrong because Wansink could not locate the original data for the faculty reviewers at Cornel to check his statistics. Wansink warned us about mindless eating. I am warning you about mindless overgeneralization of what retracting a number of articles does, and does not mean scientifically to useful research whose conclusions can be self-validated, or scientifically replicated.

Each year there are approximately 1,400 scientific papers that are retracted out of the two to three million that are published. What was the big deal with Wansink’s studies? My guess is that part of it is Wansink’s popularity, his success. Most researchers are not so well recognized in the public and in the media. Where’s the outcry over the sham research? Last June, I wrote A New Food Fad – In a Fog of Misinformation about a cardiologist, Steven Gundry, who decided to make his fortune in the lucrative supplement sales arena. He claims to have “research” that proves that lectins in beans and other vegetables is at the base of our weight and nutrition problems. Voila! a supplement that he sells will fix the problem. I used the fact that the Blue Zones – the Longevity Hot Spots to say: “Really? That just doesn’t make sense.” The longest living and healthiest people on earth are eating a diet filled with lectins. The point I want to make today is, no one is making much of a deal about a quack and his “research.” It’s just that a treasured and widely accepted researcher of the nutritional community was at the center of an investigation.

I feel quite confident that there are departments all over the world who are sitting nervously wondering if the research that comes out of their university would pass the same scrutiny. One outcome that we may expect from this Wansink fiasco is that universities may become more careful with the research that is stamped with their name. Maybe they will be more careful that there are no transpositions, typos, and biased work; nor will they allow research data to be prematurely thrown out.

I’ve placed my copy of Mindless Eating back on the shelf; with a little melancholy in my heart. I realize that we must be vigilant toward the scientific standards to have a valuable body of evidence upon which to base our decisions; but I believe we must also, be sure to keep our common sense and balance in a proper perspective. I hope that Dr. Wansink will somehow continue with his creative work that will continue to benefit those of us who are struggling to help people be better nourished.