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Philadelphia Inquirer reports clearly on obesity treatments but skimps on research details


3 Star


Research shows you really can lose weight — by combining diet AND exercise AND counseling

Our Review Summary

obesity treatmentsAmong the most misleading themes regularly appearing in the news cycle are features on some new way to lose weight. Reporters need something new to write about, and news releases about fad diets, exercise routines, or surgeries are in regular supply.

In this case, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports on a broad research review of obesity treatments, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The Inquirer succinctly explains that we’re talking about treatments that led to a 5% drop in body weight for about 65% of people–not a radical change, but enough to improve health markers for many people. That said, we do wish more was included on the research review: How many studies were included? What kind of studies were they? What were the limitations?


Why This Matters

Obesity is a widespread public health problem resulting in numerous chronic conditions. This review is of high interest to anyone wanting to lose weight using evidence-based methods.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No costs were discussed, but the counseling component indeed carries a price tag. It’s critical for readers to understand what that would cost, in general terms.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story quantifies the benefits by explaining that about 65 percent of patients lose 5 percent or more of their weight. That’s enough to earn a satisfactory rating, though we wondered 65% of what? How many patients are we referring to? And were they all following the three main treatment options discussed in the story (exercise, diet changes and counseling)? More details here would have been helpful to put the benefits in context.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no mention of harms in the story–although weight loss medications were discussed.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story indicates this was a published review of obesity research, meaning it looked at a grouping of studies. But more detail was needed: What kinds of studies were these? Trials? How many of them? How many people involved? Did they have any limitations?

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There was no disease mongering in the piece. Instead, there was an explanation about the state of the obesity problem in the U.S. and the resulting health consequences.

On a related note, we must say that we would prefer that news outlets not use the term “fat” in referring to people who are overweight, which this story did. It has a pejorative sting to it that is no different than referring to kids who don’t graduate from high school as “dumb” or people who suffer from alcoholism as “drunks.”

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story could have brought in some independent voices, which is why we gave it an unsatisfactory here. It did note that one of the authors had been a paid consultant for the pharmaceutical industry and for Weight Watchers, which was good to see disclosed.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story compares alternative strategies for weight loss, although not in great detail.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story makes it clear that there are a wide range of counseling activities that are available. The story also covers medications for weight loss and the fact that they are under-prescribed given the obesity epidemic.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story explains this is a recently published review of the literature on treatments and interventions for obesity, with both well-known and lesser-known takeaways.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not rely on a news release.


Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory


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