Exaggeration is ultimately counterproductive

When I teach stats, we discuss a bit how numbers can be used to deliver alarmist messages. Using a generic Compound X that shows no toxic effects up to 100 units with single digit baseline levels, we discuss how varying increases in X might be reported.  So let's say baseline levels of X are 2 units.  Something is done, and levels of X rise to 3 units and this change reaches the level of statistical significance.  The alarmist reporting that gives the greatest impact would probably be to state something like:  "levels of X increased by 50%".  This is true, and it sounds daunting taken out of context.  Alternately you might see something like "levels of X were 1.5 times baseline", though I think the 50% number has more impact.  For anything less than 10X increase, the alarmist reporting almost always uses the percents, because over 100% has emotional intuitive impact.  So for example if X values rose to 4 units, "X values doubled" has impact, but "increased by 100%" or even "were 200% of baseline" sound worse.  And let's' say the levels of X increased to 10 units.  Yeah "five times" sounds less dramatic than "500% of baseline" or "increased 400%", and definitely more dramatic than just presenting it as an "8 unit increase".   The reporter of such information trying to exaggerate the impact to drive an agenda does not tell the consumer of the information about X's safety threshold.  And chances this is not common knowledge this information consumer possesses.   But I contend that reporting data in this way is misleading.  If it's just some detergent manufacturer boasting stain removal or something like that, who really cares ... but if it's a scientist looking to influence public policy and regulation?  

So this landed in the old Inbox yesterday.    For the slightly vision impaired, the text reads:  
Portion sizes have been growing.  So have we.  The average restaurant meal today is more than four times larger than in the 1950s.  And adults are, on average, 26 pounds heavier.  If we want to eat healthy, there are things we can do for ourselves and our community.  Order the smaller meals on the menu, split a meal with a friend, or, eat half and take the rest home.  We can also ask the managers at our favorite restaurants to offer smaller meals.

CDC The New (Ab)normal

This is put out by, as you can see, the CDC.  Now, no doubt we are eating more, but the "NOW" values reflecting "the average restaurant meal" are exaggerated -- apparently for effect and to drive an agenda.  The reason this landed in the Inbox was that the person who sent it to me said that those sizes seemed out of whack.  Perhaps indicative of large-sized meal, but average?  I concur!  They are so ridiculous as to render this "infographic" a "DISinfographic".  Let's use McD's to illustrate, a PDF of nutritional info for popular items can be found here.  
  • The Burger:  Burger weights include the bun, but the only burger on the menu approaching 12 oz. is the Angus Deluxe at 11.2 oz.  Your Big Mac is only 7.5 oz, Quarterpounder w/cheese 7 oz, and the double QP w/cheese comes in under 10 at 9.8 oz (so a quarter pound uncooked patty weighs at most 2.3 oz).  Burger is blatant exaggeration to the point of deceit.  
  • Fries:  A large fries is 5.4 oz.   Therefore representing the "average" portion of fries as 6.9 oz is a blatant exaggeration to the point of deceit.
  • Soda:  McD's sodas are the following sizes:  Small = 16 oz, Medium = 21 oz, Large = 32 oz  (Child = 12 oz).  Now, you can argue that these are too large and you won't get any argument from me, but representing the "average" soda portion as 42 oz is over-the-top blatant exaggeration to the point of deceit.
I don't know how many of you need the CDC to simplify your health information for you  -- I note they didn't mention just preparing meals at home as an option -- but I found the last line of the disinfographic to be most absurd: Ask the managers to serve smaller portions?  Only in America folks, do we encourage consumers to get less of anything and inevitably pay more per unit for it.  But let's see.  Is there anything stopping anyone from replicating that 1950's meal there?   The only item you can't get in the small size is the soda, but most of the time you're not even paying for the soda.  By that I mean that combo meals usually come with a small or medium soda for pennies more than the burger and fries.  There is NOTHING forcing anyone to get the sugary soda vs. just water, and there's nothing forcing you to fill the cup to the brim at the fountain or drink the whole thing if it's been dispensed for you!   As for the rest of the meal, a regular hamburger or cheeseburger is right there on the menu, and small fries (at 2.4 oz) too.

The exaggeration, however, is the focus of my rant today.  The CDC loses it's credibility for making whatever point it is they're trying to make to effect lifestyle changes in the public.   They've just wasted countless taxpayer dollars to create something so ridiculously exaggerated as to be a laughing stock.

Now ... from what other sources of dietary information are we treated to similar behavior?  I could give examples.  I'm sure you don't need me too.  :D


Karen said…
I thought the same when I read "ask managers to offer smaller meals" they already do for crying out loud. If one gets the puny burger instead of the big Mac it seems such a waste to spend what you have to for the smaller burger when you could have a big juicy one. They do seem to make the smaller burger not as tasty. Or maybe its us that doesnt like the non-jazzed up burger. This is a great post. (If there was a chart or pic it didnt show on my side)
Karen said…
Chart showed when comment was published! Sorry
bentleyj74 said…
"Ask the managers to serve smaller portions? Only in America folks, do we encourage consumers to get less of anything and inevitably pay more per unit for it. But let's see. Is there anything stopping anyone from replicating that 1950's meal there? The only item you can't get in the small size is the soda, but most of the time you're not even paying for the soda. By that I mean that combo meals usually come with a small or medium soda for pennies more than the burger and fries."

You can have it both ways if you take a friend and split the meal :) Same value, half the calories. When I take my H I ask them to cut it into 1/3-2/3 portions. People generally cooperate with reasonable requests.
Anonymous said…
I saw that the nutrition information is on the side of the box that contains the McD's filet of fish. It's fewer calories than in the past. Why? I believe because the size is smaller. More expensive? Hmmm. Well, they have had some 2-for-1 sales that make that a little more bearable.
Zbig said…
is there something wrong with soda?
CarbSane said…
This is why I prefer Wendy's. Their value meal bacon cheesburgers are tasty perfect sized meals with lettuce and tomato on top and on the 99 cents menu last time I checked. And their burgers have some flavor on their own where as Mickey D's are just gross plain ... or is that plain gross? ;-) Oh ... and that's also why I like the Whopper Jr at BK.
CarbSane said…
Unless we're at a fancy restaurant (once a year?), hubs and I always share food. Even when we were both around 300 lbs we would still split an entree and maybe an appetizer too. When we go to a fast food place, fries are always shared if we get them. Now in high school I did used to be able to down a bacon double cheeseburger, large fries and a hot apple pie (diet soda of course!) that contributed to me "ballooning" to 139 lbs ... but those were different days, and stupid ones at that!
CarbSane said…
Probably succumbing to calorie pressure and/or economic pressures or both. A can of tuna is down to 5.5 and sometimes even 5 oz now.
Lesley Scott said…
@evelyn speaking of "just gross plain" and "plain gross" both, I recently had the misfortune of eating an Arby's "roast beef" sandwich. I do remember eating one, like, 20 years ago & it tasting really good. I'm not sure what happened in the mean time. This sandwich I received (the smallest one, I think it's called the "classic) was not only vile tasting, but something really weird happened after I ate it. Generally when I feel low bloodsugar'ish, I eat, I feel better, however after eating this thing, my blood sugar felt like it was continuing to crash. the hubs had one and suddenly became really aggressive. We started arguing extremely violently (with words not fisticuffs) - it actually freaked both of us out, as did the frankencreation from Arbys. The calories aren't so much the problem with that "classic" as whatever it's made of which I'm unsure now if it's safe for people to even be consuming.
Sanjeev said…
I once vomited for a day then retched for 2 more after eating a donut. And had a somewhat lighter incident with KFC.

Have eaten no donuts in the last ~18 years or fried chicken (KFC, Popeye's or anything similar) in ~12 years, so I'm kind of glad those happened.

Wish my immune system had reacted similarly to Taubes/Atkins.

If I had kids I'd consider engineering similar incidents.
garymar said…
Bicarbonate of soda, no.
Lesley Scott said…
@Sanjeev "Wish my immune system had reacted similarly to Taubes/Atkins." *snort* :)
Sanjeev said…
> something wrong with soda?

when I laugh & it bubbles out of my nose it burns. Must be the HFCS.

Should I file a report with the CDC?

Other than that, nothing I can see ... in moderation.
Sanjeev said…
They multiply the height by 6 to go from 7 to 42


They multiply the width by 5 (eyeballing).

The numbers say intake increased sixfold, and the graphic indicates intake was multiplied by at least 30.
Nigel Kinbrum said…
[Nerd]If the diameter of a container increases by a factor of 5, its cross-sectional area increases by a factor of 25 (a = pi * r^2).

If the height also increases by a factor of 6, the container's volume actually increases by a factor of 150.[/n] :-D
CarbSane said…
@Lesley -- Remind me never to eat at Arby's ;-) Seriously, tho, I notice my own husband reacts to some fast food meat -- I suspect MSG.

@Sanjeev -- I await your diet book: The HURL diet -- Harness Utter Revulsion for Life. :D
CarbSane said…
Perhaps one glass/can per day? As Sanjeev says, nothing. But soda for nutrition? You're not getting anything but calories, and sugar + carbonation can do a number on your teeth too.

Welcome to the Asylum Zbig!
CarbSane said…
No nerds allowed here! ;p
Nigel Kinbrum said…
You're not allowed here, then! ;-p
Thomas said…
The first thing that came to my mind after reading this is, when you read something from the CDC, you tend not to think about having to be skeptical because of possible agenda issues. What else, put out by supposedly trusted organizations (like the CDC), should we question? Everything! It's a bit disheartening to think that you really can't trust anything you hear these days without some level of skepticism. Too many people put too much trust, making decisions that have major consequences, in sources they feel they should be able to trust (like their doctor-don't get me started).
bentleyj74 said…
I had immediate revulsion from a roast beef sandwich from Arbys's. Couldn't take more than a couple of forced bites. I was mad 'cause it was relatively expensive and I was hungry but something was just wrong with that flavor.

I learned from my Mom that the BK whopper junior kids meal is just about perfect and is generally my first choice if they happen to be around. I can't think of anything that compares off the top of my head.
Rad Warrier said…
I am an engineer by training and by profession. My knowledge of biology at the molecular level is very poor. In fact, my knowledge of life sciences in general is nothing to be proud of. So, although at the gut level I know that there is something really wrong in the science and logic that the poster is basing his arguments on in this post (http://www.diabetesdaily.com/forum/type-2-diabetes/64300-root-cause-commonality-between-type-1-diabetic-type-2-diabetic-methylglyoxal-revisited) in an e-forum for diabetes support, I am unable to come up with a brief, scientific, and to-the-point debunking of his arguments. Is this a case of exaggeration -- of the quantities and the biochemical effects of Methylglyoxal (MG)?

Sanjeev said…
I started looking into it but did not pursue it far, I forget the specific details. It's part of the story, may eventually be a big part but it's not the monocausal "it" that some portray it to be based on that USask study.

If I find my notes I'll post an update ... for now :

1. it's a new avenue of exploration, not well documented yet; the probable outcome is in 5 years people will wonder what happened, like all the "cure for cancer" news reports that never pan out.

2. that was a pilot study (the glucose pump University of Saskatchewan study), nothing to base any current actions on and not yet replicated AFAIK.

3. it was a pilot study in rodents, so point 2 squared

I also get that funny sensation of an old mistake being repeated: the 20 year love affair with antioxidants, initially based on over exaggerated in vitro and pilot studies, an affair which in the end did not pan out.


A point of interest for me: for all the massive research that's gone into glucose metabolism, all the scientists that have studied it at the minutest levels, new information on this is still coming out.

Compare the number of researchers that have studied high fat, very low carb diets in detail - at the molecular/cellular level or higher (fat loss) levels. Yet the Hahn/Feinman crowd are guaranteeing rosy outcomes for everyone - diabetics and others, as if they've DONE ALL the required research, at the very minutest level, tracing out all possible outcomes (not just pathways, clinical outcomes). They're quite accomplished ain't they?
Sanjeev said…
> @Sanjeev -- I await your diet book: The HURL diet -- Harness Utter Revulsion for Life. :D

LOL ... Jack kind of beat me to it ... but I promise I won't use resistant bacteria.

Chemical toxins with more predictable outcomes would be be better than the live.
Sanjeev said…
> I forget the specific details

on why I didn't pursue it further, after spending a couple of good research sessions.
Sanjeev said…
It's a good point

I didn't put that calculation in my comment because they didn't go out of their way to put in 3 dimensionality - no shadows or other similar tricks

Maybe I gave them too much benefit of the doubt.
Galina L. said…
I strongly suspect not everywhere in a Western World you will have so huge portions as in US and Canada and endless refills of coke (in Moscow I couldn't get a glass of plain water in any restaurant for free, and I was told in MacDonalds in Russia there were no free soft drinks refills), while the obesity epidemic is pretty much everywhere. How portions are in the UK, Nigel?
KD said…
I think the thinner countries are those that have held onto their food culture better than we have in the US. The 'scientific' approach just doesn't work for the vast majority of people, but eating the way your great-grandmother would have makes keeping at a relatively normal weight pretty easy.

For example Korea is the thinnest developed country in the world. Google Bibimbap to see their traditional version of fast food. It's available relatively cheaply everywhere and typically comes with a small assortment of fermented veggies and some tea. If you're overweight, try eating that for lunch every day and see if it doesn't move you in the right direction. Science helps, but having culture on your side probably helps more.

BTW- Seoul has a dunkin doughnuts and McDonalds on every street corner so it's not like they couldn't mimic our diet easily. It's just that there's value attached to eating Korean food so that's the default. There's nothing magic about Korea food that isn't also true of virtually any tradition cuisine. My point is that they still eat the traditional stuff regularly.