This story did a pretty good job of explaining what happened in a study comparing a low-carb diet to a low-fat diet plus the weight loss medication orlistat. Although the coverage had some holes, HealthDay earns points for not simply reprinting the Duke University press release on this study, which is what WebMD seems largely to have done. The extra effort paid off in the form of more balanced quotes from one of the study researchers and some important context-setting perspective from an independent source.
The diet wars have been going on for decades, if not centuries, and don’t seem to be going away any time soon. This issue particularly important because modest weight loss can improve hypertension, a major risk factor for cardiovacular disease, the number one cause of death in both men & women in the US.
The story does not mention the costs of the medication used in the low-fat diet group. Including this information would have helped readers make a more informed comparison of the two approaches.
The story gives a reasonable overview of the effects of the two interventions on a variety of different markers associated with health. Although it earns points for noting the absolute reduction in blood pressures and not just providing them as a percentage, it should have provided the weight loss in similar terms of actual pounds or kilograms lost instead of as a percentage of bodyweight.
The story does not mention any of the known adverse effects of orlistat, which include gastrointestinal upset that can limit the drug’s tolerability. It could also have mentioned some of the concerns (such as potential for nutrient deficiencies) that many health professionals have about diets that are high in meat and protein and very low in carbohydrate.
The story does a pretty good job of explaining the basic study design and what changes the researchers observed in the two groups. However, it could have done more to tell us about the diets that produced these changes. The major problem with most diet plans is that people can’t stick with them over time. The story provides no information regarding how many people dropped out of the study in each group, which would be an important measure of how easy these diets are to follow for the typical consumer. In addition, the story states that participants were "assigned" to a low-carb or low-fat diet, but says next to nothing about what participants actually ate during the study.
The story does not exaggerate the prevalence of obesity or its consequences.
The story did not mention that two of the researchers on the study have received funding from the Robert C. Atkins Foundation, which promotes research on low-carb diets and is associated with the Atkins diet books and products. The story did include comments from an independent dietitian, which is a strength, but this isn’t enough to overcome the omission.
Given the story’s focus on blood pressure, it should have mentioned how the results of this study might compare to treatment with blood pressure medication.
The story states that orlistat is available via prescription as Xenical and over the counter as Alli. The availability of the low-carb and low-fat diet options is not in question.
Neither the diets nor the medication discussed in the story are new, and the story does not suggest that they are.
The story quotes two sources, including one of the researchers on the study and an independent expert. The content of the story does not appear to be lifted from the press release put out by Duke University about the study.