Magic diet? Not so much

Alternative medicine practitioners love to coin magic words, but really, how can you blame them? Real medicine has a Clarkeian quality to it*; it’s so successful, it seems like magic. But real doctors know that there is nothing magic about it. The “magic” is based on hard work, sound scientific principles, and years of study.

Magic words are great. Terms like mindfulness, functional medicine, or endocrine disruptors take a complicated problem and create a simple but false answer with no real data to back it up. More often than not, the magic word is the invention of a single person who had a really interesting idea, but lacked the intellectual capacity or honesty to flesh it out. Magic is, ultimately, a lie of sorts. As TAM 7 demonstrates, many magicians are skeptics, and vice versa. In interviews, magicians will often say that they came to skepticism when the learned just how easy it is to deceive people. Magic words in alternative medicine aren’t sleight-of-hand, but sleight-of-mind, playing on people’s hopes and fears.

A reader has turned me on to another magic word I hadn’t known about. It’s called the “Inflammation Factor”, and is the invention of a nutritionist named Monica Reinagel. Like most good lies, this one builds on a nidus of truth.

Inflammation is a medical term that refers to a host of complex physiologic processes mediated by the immune system. Inflammation gets its ancient name from the obvious physical signs of inflammation: rubor, calor, dolor, tumor, or redness, heat, pain, and swelling. As the vitalistic ancient medical beliefs bowed to modern science, inflammation was recognized to be far more complex than just these four external characteristics. In addition to being a response to injury and disease, the cellular and chemical responses of inflammation can cause disease. For example, in asthma and food allergies, a type of immune reaction called type I hypersensitivity elicits a harmful type of inflammation. Coronary heart disease, the biggest killer of Americans, is believed to have a significant inflammatory component.

But nothing in medicine is perfectly simple. For example, corticosteroids, which can be used effectively to treat the inflammation in asthma are not effective against the inflammation in cororary heart disease. It’s just not that simple.

But while inflammation may not be that simple, people can be. People want easy answers, and quacks are happy to step in to provide them.

So Ms Reinagel has invented a diet, available for sale in a book called The Inflammation Free Diet Plan. Her premise is that inflammation is at the root of all major diseases, and that your diet can affect inflammation, thereby improving your health.

While the hypothesis is intriguing, each step of the argument has problems, leading to an invalid conclusion.

Inflammation is the root of all disease

No, it’s not. “Inflammation”, which is actually refers to a lot of different processes, plays an important role in many diseases. But not all inflammation is the same.

The most important factor in fighting inflammation is the food you eat every day.

Um, no. If you have a staph infection on your arm, your eating habits will not change the amount of heat, pain, swelling, or redness. The kernel of truth here is that diet can affect various measures of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (here is one of many examples). There’s a long leap between this fact and the conclusion that diet can “stop inflammation”.

The benefits of reducing inflammation are immediate as well as long term. You’ll notice that your skin looks younger, your joints feel better, and your allergy symptoms improve. At the same time, when you reduce inflammation, you also reduce your risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, and other complications of aging.

It’s a very long walk from the claim that reducing inflammation is “a good thing” to proving that your particular diet reduces inflammation and thereby improves health . A hypothesis is not true simply because it sounds pretty.

Who wouldn’t love a magic book that would prevent and cure all illness? Perhaps you’ve noticed that these books come along every few months. None of them ever has the one true answer. Life is much more complicated and beautiful than any magic book. It may be a lot more difficult to commit science than to commit quackery, but in the end it’s a lot more satisfying and a lot more useful.

*”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law

Posted in: Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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10 thoughts on “Magic diet? Not so much

  1. bolese22 says:

    Ms. Reinagel sounds a lot like those “doctors”, “nutritionists”, and “healers” that OPRAH has on her shows. Do not be surprised if you see her on the show in the near future, if she has not already done so (cannot say for sure, do not watch). Like all of her ILK, she plays to the ignorance and need of the American public.

  2. superdave says:

    what happens when you pit two people who are fond of their own personal theory of the cause of all disease against each other?

  3. Mark P says:

    Superdave — they disagree politely, but no more.

    Their enemy is real medicine. They can do business alongside contradictory woo.

    There motto is “anyone opposed to my enemy is my friend”.

    It won’t be other woo that does them in, only skepticism and real medicine.

  4. what happens when you pit two people who are fond of their own personal theory of the cause of all disease against each other?

    One of my favorite quotations from Robert Park’s Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud:

    Perhaps the strangest part of the press conference consisted of brief statements by individual members of the editorial review board of what they saw as the most important issues for the Office of Alternative Medicine. One insisted that the number-one health problem in the United States is magnesium deficiency; another was convinced that the expanded use of acupuncture could revolutionize medicine; and so it went around the table, with each touting his or her preferred therapy. But there was no sense of conflict or rivalry. As each spoke, the others would nod in agreement. The purpose of the OAM, I began to realize, was to demonstrate that these disparate therapies all work. It was my first glimpse of what holds alternative medicine together: there is no internal dissent in a community that feels itself besieged from the outside.

  5. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

    Words to live by. Thank you Ben Goldacre.

  6. kongstad says:

    On a separate note but related to “Magic diets”. I just happened to see a British program featuring a “nutritionist” advising people. Faced with a man who had a fungal infection in his skin, she said he should stop eating mushrooms since they were also fungal!

    How can one be so stupid?

  7. clgood says:

    Speaking of magic diets, I tried searching SBM for a mention of these new “Blood-Type Diets” but found nothing. Apparently the guy pitching the idea is one A quick web search shows he’s a “naturopath”.

    His site has all the usual red flags. I’d love to see SBM to a take-down.


  8. clgood says:

    I guess html doesn’t work in comments here the way I thought. His name is Dr. Peter J. D’Adamo.

  9. durvit says:

    LATimes has a disappointingly credulous article: Battling inflammation, disease through food: “Though it’s an emerging field, proponents of anti-inflammatory diets point to growing evidence that foods like vegetables and fish can ease an overactive immune system”.

  10. Harriet Hall says:

    D’Adamo and his blood type diets have been critiqued on Quackwatch'adamo.html
    and in the Skeptic’s Dictionary

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