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‘Small Plates Help You Eat Less’ and Other Nutrition Lies Were Based on Bogus Research

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One popular health researcher skewed a ton of data

Based on advice from one Cornell researcher’s studies, millions of Americans have considered changing their eating habits with the promise they’ll lose weight.

“Small plates help you eat less,” the results read, and people shrunk their dishware.

“People who display fruit on kitchen counters have lower BMIs,” they read and loaded up their fruit bowls.

Kids love vegetables when you make them sound cool,” the data announced, and “x-ray vision carrots” made their way into school cafeterias.

These results, along with dozens of others, were recently outed as falsified research — all from the lab of Brian Wansink, a Cornell scientist and professor who runs the school’s Food & Brand Lab. He’s been consulted by many as an expert counsel, appearing on nationwide television such as the Rachel Ray Show and in big media outlets like Buzzfeed and USA Today.

Then, Buzzfeed editor Stephanie Lee did a little digging and discovered some troubling news: “The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, a $22 million federally funded program that pushes healthy eating strategies in almost 30,000 schools, is partly based on studies that contained flawed — or even missing — data.”

School lunch programs have implemented elaborate strategies based on Wansink’s data, promoting healthy options with kid-friendly personas and “cool” slogans. However, JAMA Pediatrics recently retracted Wansink’s study “Can Branding Improve School Lunches?” due to serious problems revealed in the statistical analysis and conclusions.

This was just the latest in a series of retractions of and corrections to Wansink’s published research. A study which had claimed that men eat more when people are watching (and women eat less) came under scrutiny when Wansink made his methods public in a blog post. Essentially, the results didn’t align with his original hypothesis, so he repeatedly manipulated the data until it supported his original conclusion. This abuse of statistics is known as p-hacking or HARKing (hypothesizing after results are known), and it’s fiercely looked down upon in the field.

“Brian Wansink refuses to let failure be an option,” said statistician Andrew Gelman. “If he has cool data, he keeps going at it until he finds something, then he publishes, publishes, publishes.”

The widespread criticism of his methodology has spurned a deeper dive into Wansink’s publications. As of now, 14 of his papers have been highlighted by Retraction Watch either because they were retracted or offer cause for concern, and a research publication found problems with 45 of his papers. Hundreds of his research studies on health, obesity, and food marketing can be found on Google Scholar — and we all have reason to read them skeptically. We may now have to rethink many of the tips we’ve been told for tricking ourselves into portion control.

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