09/26/2012 09:28 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Eat Less, Live More? Science, the Media and Health Behavior

A new study was released today that puts a question into the public's mind about previous, but popular, research on calorie restriction and longevity. Since the 1930s many leading researchers have hypothesized that a calorie-restricted diet may extend longevity. Simply put, eat less, live more. The work is based primarily on laboratory experiments that have used primates, worms, mice and yeast as test subjects.

The new study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and published in the recent issue of Nature, suggests that while calorie restriction may provide health benefits, it may not produce the human longevity benefits once thought. Don't reach for the cheese Danish yet, the research findings still support that healthy aging requires eating smart and choosing your parents well. These findings will spur a lengthy and complicated discussion in symposium halls and laboratories -- but it is the discussion it may spark in our living rooms that is important.

A steady stream and churn of new findings and interpretation -- often refuted later by different or better methods, analyses or insights -- characterizes the scientific process. Conflict, consensus, conflict and a new consensus again is the norm. Scientists who research and publish their findings know they are both standing on the shoulders of and criticizing those researchers that have conducted work before them. That may be how knowledge is developed and processed by scientists, but it is not how the public perceives science.

Science is steeped in fact, but surrounded by myth. In the public's mind, highly educated lab-coated scientists armed with objective reason and method produce irrefutable knowledge. This knowledge is truth. An incorrect or incomplete perception, perhaps, but this stream of knowledge and the way we believe it was created build public trust and influence public behavior. Science and scientists are no longer just in the laboratory, for as public trust in sports heroes, business and political leaders crashes and burns, scientists and techies have become the new rock stars. Yet once they are in the news, scientists are subject to the rules of public discourse, not just the scientific method.

Science, in the media and in public discussion, means that anything that runs counter to the dominant myth of how science is done and how knowledge is generated is subject to public question at best, and more often harsh criticism or humor. Unlike peer-reviewed papers or conferences where criticism is levied based upon things such as method, sample size, data analysis, etc., public review is based upon how well a report conforms with popular "wisdom," whether it is easy to understand, and whether it can be explained with engaging images in one minute or under 450 words. With all the personal and public issues competing for the public's attention, this limited attention is not wrong, it just is.

Whether the current study casts lasting doubt on the human longevity benefits of calorie-restricted diets is not a question I can answer today or even tomorrow; however, it is one of a series of "new findings" about many health issues that run counter to current public understanding. For example, just when we got the food pyramid down, we must now learn the food plate. Some chocolate is good... Some is bad? Red wine is good for you, is rosé not as good but better than white? Is your blood pressure or cholesterol high or low? Depends upon when you checked and what the methods for measuring it were then. Are you obese? You may not be able to tell from your weight or BMI, research on "internal obesity" suggests that now even thin people can be fat. Think about it -- you could be feeling better and getting worse with just a change in standard metrics or new findings.

The danger of the popular media's coverage of constant knowledge generation and conflict (the essence of scientific research) is not public confusion but public apathy. If what the public believes to be true continues to change, then what do you trust, who do you believe and which information do you use to guide your behaviors? When confronted by a continuous new flow of conflicting information, many people are likely to simply disengage and not follow any guidance -- waiting for the scientists and the doctors to get the research "right." This does not mean that science should remain in the laboratory; in fact, it means that a greater investment must be made by educators, researchers, clinicians and journalists to teach and translate new knowledge into informed public health behaviors. Here is a start:

  • Educators must invest more in science, technology, engineering and math education in primary and high school for more than national competiveness alone but as a crucial element of national scientific literacy;
  • Researchers whose work goes public beyond scientific journals must learn how to translate complexity into cautious public guidance so that people do not wildly change behaviors because of information drawn from a "recent study," or "shut off" altogether when confronted with too much competing, complex information.
  • Clinicians have always been educators, but they may have to take more of their already very limited time with patients to discuss recent studies in the news that may be of interest to both patient and family, or to facilitate a new generation of health education coaches.
  • Journalists (and their editors) must find space and time to provide the many caveats that all research comes with as well as provide guidance that before you change one health behavior to another, you should check with your physician.