April 24

Truth and Obfuscation in Nutritional Headlines

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One of the News Headline article links that Mike put up the other day caught my eye (as they often do) and made me click to see what was up. The headline or title of the article was

Study links obesity to protein in infant formula

Now to me, that title implies that there is a mysterious protein in infant formulas that might be a cause of obesity. In actuality, when you read the article, it’s nothing like that; it’s not a particular protein that’s the culprit, but the amount of protein. Despite its misleading title, the article claims findings in a study purport to show that the protein-content of infant formulas has been linked to obesity.

Would that have been your take from just the headline alone? I’ll wager that it would not.

The truth appears to be that getting the right amount of protein (and enough fat and not too much carb, although the article doesn’t mention the latter two) in your diet is as crucial for keeping infants at normal weight, normal fat, and healthy as it is for the rest of us. In fact, it’s probably more critical, since protein needs in the very young and the very old are purportedly higher pound for pound than in the middle of life! A good rule of thumb for what’s adequate would be the protein content of human breast milk, which is what the lower of the two contents in the formula turned out to be.
A more truthful and illuminating title would have been:

Study links excess protein content in infant formula with obesity later in life.

Of course, it would be nice to have the information about what the total content of the baby formula was–ie how much carb, what carb, what fats, etc. to determine whether or not the protein content high or low was even a factor. Maybe a better title would turn out to be (once we knew the total nutritonal breakdown) something like

High everything infant formula linked to obesity later in life.

Just serves to remind us all that headlines can deceive and that reading the full article may be the only way to learn the truth!


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  1. “In addition to a body growth rate similar to that of breast-fed babies, those in the low protein group were seen to have metabolic and endocrinal benefits too”.

    This sounds to me like low protein content is better than high. And protein content in breastmilk is reported between 1.2-1.8g/100ml (just quick google search) so this supports the lower content, too. But the study was not published yet so no way to dig deeper inside.

    COMMENT from MD EADES:  You’re right and I have to admit to misreading the paragraph.  However, I stand by the basic premise that a low protein diet wouldn’t be a good formula for babies.  I would suspect that when (if) the paper gets published, we will find out that it’s not just that they added protein to the formula, but added protein and added carb and possibly bad fats–ie the high everything diet that does us in throughout life that they somewhat vaguely report resulted in adverse metabolic effects in the higher protein group.  It’s our contention that getting adequate protein, by which breast milk should probably be the gold standard of what’s adequate for babies, is what’s important.  An amount equal to the amount found naturally in breast milk isn’t, to my way of thinking anyway, something one would categorize as ‘low protein’.  That’s misleading in and of itself.  Adding more might or might not hurt, depending on the quality and source of the protein, as long as it doesn’t mean adding things that aren’t in breast milk, such as high fructose corn syrup, starches, and a preponderance of vegetable fats versus healthier fats normally found in breast milk along with it.  You correctly point out that we don’t have a lot to go on from what’s in this short article and we’ll have to wait to see what it really means.

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