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The Best Foods for Thought, Literally


2 Star

The Best Foods for Thought, Literally

Our Review Summary

And the body of the story didn’t do enough to establish how the principal finding – a change in brain imaging – may not be tied to the diet at all.


Why This Matters

We need to do a better job of educating readers that what shows up on an imaging test sometimes has no connection to symptoms or health status.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Not applicable.  The cost of a Mediterranean diet is not in question.

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

Not Satisfactory

When you find this story online on, it carries the banner:  “The Diet That Saves The Brain.”

The Diet That Saves the Brain –

There isn’t any discussion in the body of the story to back up that bold claim.

We don’t blame the reporter for this but someone at WSJ has to take responsibility for this hype.

We’ll also add this to our wish list: an explanation that higher “white-matter volume burden” is a surrogate measure of health — i.e. it does not necessarily translate to more brain damage. These white spots are often found in normal people and might not mean anything. The differences the researchers found were statistically significant, but there’s no attempt to sort out whether the changes observed are clinically meaningful.


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

Not Applicable

Not applicable.  No discussion of harms and we’re not sure what they would be.

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

Not Satisfactory

The researchers actually published a long paragraph of potential limitations, which we include here to show that a simple line at the end of the story – cautioning “that the study doesn’t prove that a Mediterranean-style diet causes less brain damage and said more study is needed” – doesn’t really get at an independent evaluation of the evidence – something an independent expert could have provided as well.

The researchers wrote:

A MeDi (Mediterranean Diet) was associated with a lower WMHV (brain magnetic resonance imaging white matter hyperintensity volume) burden, a marker of small vessel damage in the brain. However, white matter hyperintensities are etiologically heterogenous and can include neurodegeneration.

However, our study has several limitations. We only measured food frequency at baseline, which was on average 7 years before the time of MRI WMH assessment (range, 2-14 years), and thus participants could have changed their diet before the MRI was performed. However, dietary patterns appear to be stable in other population-based studies. In addition, despite the use of a valid and reliable food frequency questionnaire to calculate MeDi scores, a potential for both random and systematic misclassification of dietary habits persists, although any misclassification is most likely to be random and thus tending to minimize an association between a MeDi and WMHV. Most studies depend on similar methods, and they are a practical approach, albeit subjective in nature. In addition, we used the traditional MeDi score method to quantify adherence, but this too has limitations because the score is based on the cohort- and sex-specific median values across 9 food categories, which does not readily allow for an examination of dose-dependent associations. However, most population-based studies have used this approach. Although the potential for confounding always exists, the persistence of associations after adjustment for many potential confounders suggests that this form of bias does not account for the associations observed. The MRI study population represents a subcohort of the overall NOMAS cohort and was younger and generally healthier than the full cohort. However, as mentioned previously, we did not observe diet differences between those who were included and excluded, again suggesting that selection into the study cohort did not bias our results. Last, MRIs to measure WMHV were only conducted once, so we are unable to infer the temporal association between the MeDi and development of WMHs.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


One might argue that the story inflated the potential role of white matter hyperintensities, but we’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt on this one.

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

Not Satisfactory

No independent perspective provided and – if the journalist isn’t going to do a critical analysis of the evidence – then an independent perspective is sorely needed in such stories.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story didn’t even include a line about other stroke prevention research – dietary or otherwise.

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

Not Applicable

Not applicable.  The availability of components of the Mediterranean diet is not in question.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story reported:

It’s the first study to specifically examine the effects of the diet centered around vegetables, fruits, fish, whole grains, nuts, olive oil and a moderate amount of alcohol, with limited consumption of red meat, sweets and refined grains like white bread or white rice—on the brain’s small blood vessels.

Previous studies have suggested adhering to a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

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

Not Applicable

We can’t be sure of the extent to which the story may have been influenced by a news release. We do know that it included no direct quotes, no independent perspectives.

Total Score: 2 of 6 Satisfactory

Comments (3)

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David K

February 20, 2012 at 10:23 am

Your questions are formed in such a way as to require “YES”/”NO” answers, yet you answer them “Satisfactory” and “Unsatisfactory.” Please change the answers or the questions. It irritates me, as a reader with a modicum of education, and you “sound” ridiculous. You might consider a Yes——–No continuum, if “yes” and “no” seem too abrupt to your editors.