Energy Density, Portion Size, and Eating Occasions: the media response

At the end of June, PLoS Medicine published an obesity-related paper by Kiyah Duffey and Barry Popkin, which caused a big media stir. The authors reported that, over a 30-year period, average daily energy intake in US adults rose by 570 kcal, and that increases in eating and drinking occasions and in portion size account for most of this change. Since publication, the article has picked up over 7000 views, and its findings have been widely reported by the international media. Much of the coverage focuses on how the increase in snacking relates to the US obesity epidemic, with headlines such as “Snack Attack! Americans Are Eating More Between Meals” in TIME and “Snacking, not portion size, largely driving U.S. overeating” from CNN. While some reports are based on the PLoS Medicine press release, others, such as an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association, draw from a release by the authors’ institution, the University of North Carolina.

Given that the study focused on US adults, unsurprisingly journalists in the States showed the greatest interest in its outcome. Katie Moisse at ABC News delves into the possible causes of the rise in frequency of snacking, such as people’s reluctance to sit down and take time to eat, through interviews with author Barry Popkin and other experts. Meredith Melnick at TIME also analyses the reasons Americans are munching more often, referencing her own working environment as an example of the constant presence of food in US daily life: “I could easily consume 800 calories in five minutes just by taking a lap around the office”.

A report on RedOrbit collates experts’ quotes from other articles to present a detailed discussion of the issues surrounding the study, while an in-depth article on Health.com discusses the research’s limitations as well as its findings, citing Stanford University’s Director of Nutrition Studies, Christopher Gardner. He points out that the surveys examined by the authors didn’t follow the same individuals over time, and relied on the participants to accurately recall their food intake over the previous 24 hours. (The potential for participants to over or under-report the food they consumed was stressed in the study and the press release; in the discussion Duffy and Popkin note that “Scholars have shown that adults tend to underestimate TE intake, particularly from “junk foods” and other foods that are considered to have negative health connotations”)

Outside the States, the study also made headlines. In their coverage, non-US-based journalists often attempt to relate Duffey and Popkin’s findings to their own national obesity situation. Reporting for the BBC, Helen Briggs quotes British Nutrition Foundation scientist Áine O’Connor: “Many of the factors causing the obesity epidemic [in the US] are mirrored in the UK”. An article from Canadian broadcaster CTV compares statistics on obesity for the US (where one third of adults are classified as obese) and Canada (where just under a quarter of the population are affected). David Stone at the Australian publication Food Magazine writes that “Australia is no stranger to obesity” and goes on to question whether responsibility for this increase in snacking lies at an individual or at an organisational level.

The paper concludes by suggesting that obesity prevention efforts should focus on reducing the number of meals and snacks people consume. Similarly, many journalists, such as Drucilla Dyess at HealthNews, sign off with nuggets of practical advice for their readers on how to avoid becoming a part of the obesity statistics. Samantha Bonar, blogging for LA Weekly, is particularly direct: “Stop eating so much! Jeez!” If only it were that simple…

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