Epidemiologist Edward Archer from the University of South Carolina has published a study that refutes more than 40 years of U.S. nutritional data obtained through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES.

NHANES is a survey that asks Americans about disease and health risk factors including whether or not they’ve been sick lately and—most important for these purposes—what they ate.

Archer and his team have analyzed this data, which the government began collecting in 1971, and his study claims that the data is “fatally flawed” and that it is “physiologically implausible” for the numbers to be correct.  Bold statements, to be sure, but the study offers some pretty common sense science to back it up.

Because the NHANES is a completely self-administered survey, participants divulge what they ate in the past 24 hours, but no one is recording them or following them around to double check. And, it turns out, people lie about what they eat—even to the government on an anonymous survey.

Archer’s study flagged participants whose physical check up and calories consumed don’t add up.  For example, a clinically obese woman who indicates that she consumed 1500 calories in the past 24 hours was flagged with a “high disparity” value in Archer’s report. While it’s possible for that person to survive on 1500 calories a day, she wouldn’t remain obese for very long, and therefore there’s a high likelihood that she isn’t reporting everything she ate.

Archer’s study concludes that the majority of the data in the government’s survey can’t possibly be accurate. Obese people, for example, underreported their calorie intake by 25 and 41 percent in men and women, respectively.

This discovery is troubling for two reasons: not only is the data wrong, but the U.S. government has been basing research and policy on this wildly inaccurate data for the past 40 years, perhaps grossly under-reporting the obesity problem in the U.S.

“The nation’s major surveillance tool for studying the relationships between nutrition and health is not valid. It is time to stop spending tens of millions of health research dollars collecting invalid data and find more accurate measures,” Archer is quoted as saying in Popular Science.

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