Saturday, September 14, 2013

Nutrition Media Fail: Obesity and Fatty Liver Disease

On my way home from work this week I came across yet another pretty bad nutrition "media fail."

The headline read, "Obesity Causing Fatty Liver Disease in Children."

I have certainly read about the rise in fatty liver disease among children. I have also read that many times the presence of fatty liver is in conjunction with overweight or obesity among children. But, "causes?" That's a pretty strong statement.

But, of course, when you read through the article there is absolutely zero mention of any study that shows this causal link. Instead, the article rightly points out the very high prevalence of obesity among children. It also rightly points out that children are presenting with fatty liver at younger and younger ages. Nothing on causality, though.

There are two things I find ironic about this article.

First, not too far into the article, the author quotes a pediatric gastroenterologist from Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh as saying, "...we don't really know or have good ways to predict which kids will go on to develop major liver problems, and which kids aren't." Basically, the doctor recognizes there are still a lot of unknowns.

Second, the article later makes the following consolation, "And while it's [fatty liver] seen more rarely in normal weight children, the numbers are climbing even for them." With this statement, the author is essentially recognizing that a child can be of normal weight and still have fatty liver. Might something else, other than weight, then be the primary driver of fatty liver? If you can have metabolic diseases, such as fatty liver (but also including so-called metabolic syndrome), and be of normal weight, how can obesity be causing it?

The unfortunate reality is that causality gets thrown around a lot when discussing obesity but hardly ever is it supported by research or evidence that actually supports the claim. This is especially the case in the media. We all need to exercise a bit more causation in not conflating associations with causality.

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