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Horizon: Sugar vs. Fat – Follow-up

This is a follow-up to this post.

There were a number of issues with this programme, but one that particularly didn’t add up was the claim that Xand had lost muscle. As I shared in the first post, I wrote to Horizon on 2nd February (2014) to ask the following:

Dear Horizon
Many thanks for doing this very interesting programe, which has generated much interest, as I’m sure you are aware.

I work in the field of obesity and have had many queries about the comments on muscle lost following the experiment. Dr Richard Mackenzie says to Xand “You’ve lost 2kg of muscle mass and that isn’t so healthy.” (Chris was also told he had lost as much muscle as fat albeit in a smaller overall mass lost).

Please can you help me understand how the statement to Xand can be made? My understanding of the BodPod is that it can measure fat mass and fat-free mass. Thus the programme can estimate (within the accuracy of the BodPod) how much fat has been lost and how much fat-free mass has been lost but the latter is not all muscle. The latter will include water and it is virtually guaranteed that water will be lost on a low carb diet, as glycogen will be depleted and water is stored at approximately four parts to every one of glycogen.

I look forward to your explanation

And then silence.

So, I re-sent the original email on 26th February with this note:

Dear Horizon
Please can you answer my query from 2 February below?
Many thanks – Zoe

And more silence.

So, on 12th March. I raised a complaint using the BBC complaints process…

The complaint repeated the original query with this note:

Full Complaint: I sent the email below to Horizon on 2 Feb & forwarded the message again on 26/2. I have received no reply (other than auto response). It is not acceptable to make a statement like this & not respond to factual challenges.

On the same day, 12th March, I also sent the original email to Dr Mackenzie (email on line) with this note:

Dear Dr Mackenzie
I sent the query below to Horizon on February 2nd and have received no reply. Someone suggested that I contact you directly and I wonder if you would be able to answer this?
Many thanks
Kind regards – Zoe

More silence – this time from two places, not just one! (Actually there was a bizarre defensive/attacking twitter rant from Mackenzie early in April, but no answer to the simple question despite many people trying to elicit an answer from him).

On 22nd April, call me tenacious, but I tried again:

Dear BBC
Please can you advise – what do I need to do to get a reply from the BBC?

I emailed Horizon on 2nd February 2014, following the programme on Sugar vs Fat, with the query noted in the complaint below. I resent the email/query to Horizon on 26th February. Neither email has been replied to (other than auto response). I then raised a complaint on 12th March and have yet to receive a reply.

I suspect that the reason for the non-response is that there is no explanation for the claim made. The programme was factually incorrect to say that Xand had lost 2kg of muscle mass and this needs to be acknowledged. Ignoring my query is not the response I expect from the BBC.

I look forward to a reply to the original query within 14 days
Thank you Zoe

Lo and behold a reply then came from BBC complaints:

With regard to your complaint, the production team has asked that I forward you their response below.

We are pleased that you thought that the Sugar v Fat Horizon was “interesting”.  It’s always encouraging to receive positive responses from scientists and researchers who are working in the field and lab.

As you are no doubt aware, scientific integrity and accuracy is crucial to Horizon and we take any it extremely seriously.  We always make sure we check and re-check for factual accuracy.

On this programme we worked with a scientific consultant, Prof Susan Jebb, one of leading researchers in the country.  She rigorously checked the scientific content before the programme was broadcast.

As far as your specific observation is concerned, we made a conscious decision to use the term muscle rather than fat-free mass. 

Both protein [who mentioned protein?!] & glycogen hold similar amounts of water in the body tissues. In addition, glycogen represents such a small amount of lean body mass  that we felt using the term muscle rather than fat-free mass would make it easier for the audience to understand what is a complex area of human biology.

Our scientific advisors agree that in the first week or two of a low carbohydrate diet a proportion of the weight lost will be from lost glycogen and its associated water.   But after an initial period water loss is usually minimal.

If someone continues to lose fat-free mass it would then be more likely to be coming from muscle.

We hope that this clarifies our position and thank you for taking the time to contact us.

So there we have it. Even though the BodPod measures air displacement and fat mass, from which fat free mass is estimated, we “made the conscious decision” to call everything that wasn’t fat “muscle”. Prof Jebb  – she of the (ir)responsibility deal; calorie theorist and friend of Weight Watchers and Rosemary Conley – “rigorously checked the scientific content” and concluded that this gross misrepresentation of weight loss was OK to make. “Easier for the audience…” kind of thing.

I will state as fact that Horizon/Mackenzie were incorrect to state that Xand had lost 2kg of muscle. This statement could not factually be made and should not have been made. I am appalled at the BBC’s response time/customer contempt and disappointed that they won’t acknowledge that this statement was factually incorrect. I would have had far more respect for a speedy response saying that this statement was an oversimplification and we are sorry for it being misleading, but then I’d also like world peace!



5 thoughts on “Horizon: Sugar vs. Fat – Follow-up

  • I’ve stopped watching Horizon these past few years as it has been so dumbed down. Well done chasing this up and sticking with it. How patronising is that?! I think if people have an IQ too low to understand the concept of muscle and non-muscle mass, they wouldn’t be watching this in the first place.

  • Well, it has to be said here are a great many stupid people out there, and the concept of what makes you put on weight escapes them. There needs to be a dumbing down on information to get people to understand that “Calories in, calories out” is just a useless phrase.

    However, all Horizon has done it to make sure that everyone who doesn’t know about weight gain are fooled into thinking that low carb is bad. After all, we don’t want to break down muscle tissue? I hate the fact that the government and the medical profession are going to get out of years of abusing their patients by slowly veering the attention onto sugar so by the time the storm breaks, they will be pointing at that instead of fat.

    There was a moment on telly which broke my heart. The “Behind closed doors” programme which showed an overweight gentleman having a consultation with his doctor. The chap told his doctor that he never ate breakfast, ate only one meal a day and was still putting on weight. Instead of considering his words, the doctor evidently assumed that he was lying and proceeded to make comments to him about changing to a healthy life style. Behind his back, to the camera, there were comments made about how people don’t want to help themselves. No wonder people look upon the obese with contempt – the medical profession certainly won’t stand up for them.

  • Many thanks for your follow-up, I too found the program interesting, and was curious about the “muscle loss”. I stopped eating what I call obvious carbs (rice, pasta, bread and potatoes) in a effort to lose weight after many years lowering calorie intake and increasing exercise without success. This effort has been successful and every two weeks I have been weighed on a machine that is supposed to differentiate between fat and and muscle in the figures it prints out. I’m unsure of it’s accuracy, it’s not as elaborate as the BodPod, but it has shown an insignificant change in my muscle mass.
    I think the problem with programs like this is that they are “dumbed down” for the general public.

  • Thank you, Zoe, for being so persistent with the BBC. I have felt that Horizon has been dumbed down for some years now, but this programme really annoyed me. Horizon has become more of an entertainment programme than science, but these are serious issues and so many people could improve their health (even avoid an early death) if they were given complete and true information.

  • First, congratulations and thanks for hanging on so persistently and forcing the BBC to reply. Their eventual reply speaks volumes about the BBC’s attitude to science, facts, and reasoning. Essentially, they are a bunch of arts graduates (and non-graduates) whose attitude to maths and science seems to be: (1) If possible, ignore; (2) Failing that, do some arm-waving and treat it as black magic.

    Thanks to your persistence, you managed to get past (1). Then you encountered (2): people at the BBC don’t understand maths or science, don’t want to understand them, and have not the slightest inkling that anyone else might want to, or be able to, understand them. Moreover, as they consider themselves several cuts above the proletarian viewers and listeners, a fortiori the latter must be even less tolerant of science. So the BBC treats all such topics as esoteric craft, which only initiates (such as Prof Jebb) can understand. You can see the same pattern over and over, for example with science (only understood by initiates such as Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox) and climate change (on which they believe there is a “consensus”, and believe that would matter).

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