Recently there have been new trends in food fashion which encourage people to buy products which have fancy labels on them claiming how healthy they are. Alongside “Fair Trade”, “Vegan” and “Gluten free”, there have popped up labels such as “Organic”, “Rich in Omega 3” and “superfood”. There has also been a new trend for celebrity nutritionists such as Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford who have set themselves up as the nation’s health food gurus. How can we sort through the flood of claimed health benefits and is there any truth in the claims of food gurus?
First things first, we have to make it clear that anyone who promotes a healthy lifestyle (eating more vegetables and fruit, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption and getting more exercise) does an enormous amount of help to people’s helath. However, we must also understand that nutritionists often have their own ranges of pills and products to sell and the simplistic, black-and-white way that they often talk about the body can be extremely misleading and sometimes actually damaging.
What is the difference between a ‘dietician’ and a ‘nutritionist’? Well a dietician is a qualified professional who through qualification has gained an in-depth knowledge of the body and the signs of certain deficiencies. A nutritionist, on the other hand, is a self-styled guru interested mostly in media and celebrity status. Anybody can take the title of nuturitionist, but the title dietician is a medical one conferred by recognised universities. There are several key things that we have to remember:
1. What qualified doctors and dieticians often say often goes directly against the information of nutritionists.
2. Doctors and dieticians are not perfect, they cannot know about everything. What’s more they may often jump on the nutritionist bandwagon in order to benefit from the latter’s celebrity. 3. Nutritionsits often mix lies with truth in order to give themselves credibility.
4. Our main (and sometimes only) source of information about diet comes from the media who care about shock stories, miracle cures and advertising revenue rather than the truth. Another source is old husband’s tales and urban myths.
5. Doctors and dieticians often do not have the resources to battle against the lies spread either deliberately or unwittingly by nutritionists. 6. There is a way of finding out the truth about nutrition directly from the doctors and experts who carry out repeatable, falsifiable and peer-reviewed trials. With a little bit of knowledge can thwart the power of the media to mislead us.
Now, what I’m about to say may sound like I’m criticising doctors, but it is not (doctors are qualified professionals who know more about the body than either us or any self-styled health guru). The statement that might shock you is this: people often rely too much on individual doctors for their knowledge about health and diet. Many doctors are even themselves victims of urban myths and assumptions about the benefit or harm of certain substances. Doctors often vehemently disagree with each other on the smallest of points which shows that a doctor as an individual is not a perfect entity. This does NOT mean that you must not trust your doctor, it merely means that you may need a second or third opinion to make certain information more objective… but the best way, the most objective way is by getting millions of professional opinions, and that is possible through a system known as Cochrane Collaborations.
The Cochrane Collaboration reviews are meta-analyses of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials which basically means that they take the results of fair trials conducted all over the world and put them together on a giant chart. If your doctor tells you anything about the supposed benefit or risk of a certain supplement, you can look it up in the Cochrane Collaboration reviews to confirm what she has said. I would even recommend bringing a copy of the reviews to your medic as it might be something she has never seen (the body is immensely complex and even 10 years of study and medical practice doesn’t mean you know everything and cannot prepare you for every eventuality). However, this might embarrass your doctor because they have to maintain a façade of infinite knowledge in order to maintain a level of authority and save face in front of their patients. This is much like how a teacher may find it difficult to say “I don’t know” when asked a question that pushes the limits of their knowledge. Doctors and dieticians are to be trusted to make the right decisions for your health, but nutritionists along with the media ‘cherry-pick’ results from trials sometimes believing the results of a single positive trial over as many as 10 or 20 neutral or negative trials in order to sell their products.
I’ve looked in the records of the Cochrane Collaborations and found some results of some trials of common supplements that most people believe to cure or help against different diseases and problems… These are all the results of scientifically testing common old husband’s tales and urban myths surrounding the food that you buy and the supplements that you eat. They have been divided into positive trials (where the supplement worked), neutral trials (where the supplement was not better than a placebo) and negative trials (which showed the supplement was actually damaging to the body). You’ll definitely be surprised at how few positive trials there have been and how many negative ones there are:
Positive trials:Fish-oil = is good for joints Vitamin C = helps cure already-contracted cold in extremely high doses (but cannot stop you contracting a cold) Folic acid = taken during pregnency leads to a decrease in birth defects
Neutral Trials:Fish oil = no effect on concentration, on Asperger’s or any other forms of autism Turmeric = no effect on prostate cancer or other forms of cancer Vitamin A = no effect on autism Beta-carotene = no effect on eye-sight Vitamin C = no effect on contracting the common cold (but can help treat a contracted cold in extremely high doses) Vitamin C = kills cancer cells in a Petri dish (actually kills all cells in a Petri dish) but no effect on cancer in the body Vitamin C = no effect on the HIV virus, not effective as an alternative to AZT Antioxidants = zero effect on longevity, aging, or skin texture (and in fact antioxidants in supplement form have been shown to harm the immune system) Homeopathy = no benefits at all beyond the placebo effect Detox / detox diets = there is no such thing as detox foods, your body gets rid of waste through its normal channels and there’s nothing you can do to speed up the process. Drinking more water (especially mineral water rich in calcium and magnesium) can though help “flush out” the kidneys and bladder and prevent the formation of salt or mineral stones. Evening primrose oil & fish oil = no effect on eczema (the corporation that made this claim lost its licence to practise medecine, yet we still have this urban myth floating around because there is really nobody out there to inform us of this; the media don’t care about that kind of failure, they’re looking for an elixir).
Negative trails:Turmeric = mildly carcinogenic Beta-carotene = increased risk of lung cancer, strokes and heart attacks Vitamin A = increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease Antioxidants = found to be harmful in supplement form in a plethora of studies carried out about 10 years ago. (Antioxidant supplements have an adverse effect on your immune system. They do destroy harmful free-radicals but your body actually uses free-radicals to fight invading microorganisms. Eliminating free-radicals weakens your body’s ability to fight disease. The myth of antioxidant supplements has survived and flourished and has even made a very visible come back in recent years. It is recommended to consume moderate amounts of antioxidants from food sources only.)
Many of these myths were started by pharmaceutical companies and multi-millionaire nutritionists wanting to make money.
The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial was one of the largest medical research projects ever undertaken in the history of mankind involving 12,866 men at risk of cardiovascular problems. It found that the only things that definitively changed your risk of heart disease were smoking, exercise and stress reduction. Every other factor that they measured, including vitamin pills and dietary supplements had a neutral effect and in rare cases a negative effect on health).
We have a tendency as humans to ‘medicalise’ our problems, believing that a supplement will cure everything, however, the body is far more complex than that and buying supplements only serves to make the huge corporations rich. The advice of any doctor is to give up smoking and alcohol, get more excerise and eat a healthy balanced diet (including sugars for energy and fats (which are essential because without them we couldn’t digest a lot of the nutrients in our food)… but no, we are not satisfied with a simple thing as that, we want more. So the doctor, in order to get rid of us, prescribes something unnecessary to make us feel that we’re being treated and get us out of their hair.
As a society we need to stop medicalising our problems, stop going on fad-diets (which often have been proven to increase risk of disease) and stop putting faith in self-appointed health gurus. You don’t need a guru to tell you to stop eating fast-food, eat more vegetables and get more exercise.
Cochrane Collaboration: http://www.cochrane.org/
Bad Science: http://www.badscience.net/