The story provided the important viewpoint that it may make sense to manage a chronic health condition such as obesity in a holistic setting that goes beyond consideration of just caloric intake and energy expenditure. However, the insight that those obese individuals who are able to sleep better may be better able to lose weight does not translate into a recommendation that obtaining more sleep will result in weight loss as was suggested by one of the authors of the study. The story should have challenged that call to action and explained the limitations of drawing conclusions from observational studies, but it didn’t.
Results of an observational study should not be confused as – or communicated as – strategies for obtaining an outcome. The research is important. But it has limitations that were not adequately explained.
The story presented the outcome of 472 obese individuals and examined in more detail those who were able, on average, to loss 14 pounds over a period of 26 weeks. The story did not provide any insight as to whether this amount of weight loss resulted in any health improvement in the obese individuals who were studied. So the true benefit – the true significance of the potential benefit – was not explained.
Further – while the study found that those who got an adequate amount of sleep were among the cohort of individuals who were found to lose the most weight, the story did not explicitly point out that the study does not inform us about whether enforced hours of sleep would impact weight loss and weight loss management. So, again, the headline, the story’s first sentence, and the call to action by the researcher were not balanced.
The story was reporting on the impact of getting adequate amounts of sleep on weight loss. While there was no overt discussion of the harm of obtaining adequate amounts of sleep, there doesn’t appear to be any harm involved in adequate sleep.
Similar to the LA Times story we reviewed on the same study, this story did not challenge researchers’ comments that went too far in promoting a call to action based on one observational study – a study that can’t prove cause and effect.
Its opening sentence is an example of that flaw: “If you’re looking to lose those extra pounds, you should probably add reducing stress and getting the right amount of sleep to the list…”
Later, it didn’t challenge a researcher when he said, “If you want to lose weight, things that will help you include reducing stress and getting the right amount of sleep.” That’s pushing the limits of what one can conclude based on one observational study and the story should have explained that limitation.
Toward the end, in describing another study, it started in a good direction by explaining that conclusions “should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.” Actually, they should be considered preliminary because they were based on analysis of just 26 people. They should be considered to have evaded full scrutiny by expert colleagues until published in a peer-reviewed journal. Just because work has not been peer-reviewed does not make it preliminary. The intent, we think, was correct. But the explanation – the limitation – was not defined appropriately.
The story did not engage in overt disease mongering.
This story included expert quotes and also some insight from the results of a recently presented study.
One of the strengths of this story in comparison with its shorter LA Times competition is the context it provided, much of it from an independent expert who said:
“People who are healthy and vital tend to be healthy and vital not because of any one factor, but because of many. And the factors that promote health — eating well, being active, not smoking, sleeping enough, controlling stress, to name a few –promote all aspects of health. …The important message is that weight loss should not be looked at with tunnel vision. … This study encourages weight loss in a more holistic context.”
The story was framed as taking a broader perspective when contemplating weight loss and including other lifestyle factors which can affect food intake and exercise. Better than its LA Times competition, at least this story nodded in the direction of one other recent study on sleep and weight, thereby conveying that the newer study is not the only research on this topic.
It’s clear that the story did not rely solely on a news release.