More fool's gold for the public health lobby

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The Telegraph published a feature yesterday on a father and son who decided to take on a new area of research in “gut microbiodiversity” – by seeing what a McDonalds-only diet would do to gut bacterial species. Spoiler alert: your prediction is correct.

Quite openly adapted from the film ‘Super Size Me”, Tom Spector follows a strict diet of McDonald meals, beer, and crisps for 10 days straight, measuring the diversity of bacterial species in his gut at the end. Tom spends most of the article detailing his 10 day adventure:

At first it was really quite easy. I always went to the same branch of McDonald’s. I got quite friendly with them at the drive-through. “Oh, it’s you again,” they would say. I had to explain to them that it was part of my dissertation, I didn’t just have a twice-a-day McDonald’s habit.

Shockingly, things take a dive for the worse:

By about day three or four it started to get harder, with the tedium of the same food. But around the sixth to the seventh day I started to have some real problems. I was feeling really tired and lethargic, and I had trouble sleeping. I like to think I have a good metabolism, but I felt my body was having a hard time processing all the sugar and fat.

Phew, a happy ending:

Straight after the experiment, I drove to the supermarket and got two big bags of salad. I ate them all. I was over the moon. And the test results were fascinating. I’d lost 1,400 bacterial species in my gut in just 10 days, which was extraordinary. After a week back on my normal student diet I’d recovered a bit but not completely. I still don’t know if I’ve completely restored the diversity of species to my gut.

I realise this isn’t a particularly interesting or hard-hitting story. (Is it worth an ASI blog? Only tweets will tell.) But it thoroughly annoys me that these stories, clothed as ‘human interest pieces’, will inevitably be dubbed as a contribution to the ‘exposé' of fatty foods – also known as the fool’s gold mine tapped by the public health lobby.

For example, the article has three separate-but-related articles planted in the middle of the piece. Apparently this article should be linked to:

‘Junk food may not be dangerous for a quarter of the people, says scientists’ ‘Junk food kills bacteria that protect against obesity, heart disease and cancer’ ‘Health diet costs three times that of junk food’

Putting aside the third article for now, as there’s evidence that such claims are misleading, this fluffy human interest piece shouldn’t be linked-in with any kind of article that’s actually making claims about health. Extreme scenarios like Tom’s experiment don’t tell us anything about the real impact of fatty foods on our everyday lives – and they certainly don’t tell us anything about the effects of moderation.

No one thinks only eating McDonalds and intentionally not eating anything else for days on end is good for you. That’s just lunacy. What some of us do think is that Tom and his dad should be able to conduct any kind of gut microbiology experiment they want.

And if you’re the kind of person who enjoys reading about these wacky experiments, by all means, read on. I don’t get it – but I suppose the appeal of articles like these taps into whatever inspires people to watch extreme-scenario reality TV – where their diets spur just as much, if not more, controversy. Just whatever you do, don’t translate this into any kind of scientific analysis, or worse, evidence for public policy.