Like many of you I’m interested in the science of good nutrition. In general, I’ve come to be pretty skeptical of the nutritional literature, as so many studies seem to follow the same trajectory that we see with drug studies: Trivial changes in non-relevant outcomes, a failure to consider the results in the context of the accumulated scientific evidence and often, significant conflicts of interest. What’s worse, “real world” nutritional studies aren’t blinded and they’re rarely prospective. So we’re left to dig through observational studies and try to sort out correlation from causation. It’s little wonder that so many consumers are confused about the basics of healthy eating. Many believe that vitamins supplements are both beneficial and routinely necessary (they are not) and that the latest “superfood” is all that’s standing between themselves and immortality. But nutritional science is important, and I’m always pleased when patients initiate discussions about weight loss, or just improving their dietary habits. After all, obesity is a significant risk factor for an array of chronic illnesses. Improving our dietary patterns should pay off with improved health. A regular challenge I face is that my patient that has already decided to use a highly restrictive weight loss plan in order to achieve a specific weight loss goal. I always caution them to take a long-term view. Weight loss is easy. Maintaining that loss is the challenge. Most “diets” fail. So I’m critical of useless interventions (like food intolerance blood tests) or faddy diets (like going gluten-free) with the hope of easy weight loss. At its core, weight loss and weight maintenance comes down to caloric balance. Permanent weight loss requires permanent dietary changes, and how we “spend” our calories matters.
Over the past few months I’ve seen a few friends and colleagues announce that they’ve decided to transform their diet, lose weight, and “eat clean”. When I asked what “clean” food was, no-one seems to have a consistent answer. The most common response was that “eating clean” meant cutting out processed foods. But to others, eating clean meant avoiding meat, anything with GMOs, wheat, and sometimes milk. It seemed to mean something different to everyone. It reminds me a bit of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:
When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
Is “eating clean” just a faddish buzzword? There are a number of personalities competing in the “eating clean” dietary space. The pioneer seems to be Tosca Reno, who has the Eat-Clean Diet and about a dozen related books based on the same idea. But she’s not alone, as there are several other books with related names, including Terry Walters with her “Clean Food” books. Success breeds competition, it seems. Given Reno’s book appears to be the most popular, I’ll take her plan as the template. She outlines the principles of how she defines eating clean in her 2007 book. I’ve added my comments after each principle. (more…)
“Medicine is a very religious experience. I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean. You find the arguments that support your data, and it’s my fact versus your fact.”
– Mehmet Oz
The above quote is from a recent article for the New Yorker by Michael Specter about Dr. Oz, the most currently popular TV doctor. Specter described this sentiment as “chilling.” To me it sounds like a manifesto – a postmodernist attack on the scientific basic of modern medicine.
In my experience, this sentiment is often at the core of belief in so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In order to seem respectable and infiltrate the institutions of medical academia, proponents of CAM will say that their treatments are evidence-based and that they are scientific. They have a serious problem, however – their treatments are not evidence-based and are often grossly unscientific. Whenever someone bothers to look at their evidence and examine their science, therefore, they start to backtrack, eventually arriving at their true position, a postmodernist dismissal of science resembling Oz’s statement above. I have heard a hundred versions of the Oz manifesto from CAM supporters.
Whipworms in the intestine. Click to enlarge.
Humans evolved in an environment where they were exposed to animals, dirt, and a variety of pathogens and parasites. Our immune systems evolved to cope with that environment. Now most of us live in a different environment, with safe drinking water, flush toilets, food inspection, immunizations, and public sanitation. This means that we are far less likely than our ancestors to die of infectious diseases or to harbor intestinal worms. But it seems that the cleaner we get, the more likely we are to suffer from allergies and autoimmune diseases. One hypothesis is that our immune systems evolved to require early challenges by parasites and pathogens in order to develop properly. A hygienic environment fails to give our immune system the exercise it needs, resulting in imbalances and malfunctions.
The hygiene hypothesis was first proposed to explain observations like these:
- Hay fever and allergies were less common in large families where children were presumably exposed to more infections through their siblings.
- Polio attack rates were higher in high socioeconomic groups than in lower ones.
- Allergies and many other diseases were less common in the developing world.
Investigation of these and other phenomena is contributing to a better understanding of the immune system, which is a good thing. At the same time, it has led some people to deliberately infect themselves with intestinal worms in an attempt to cure their allergies and autoimmune diseases, which may not be such a good thing. These treatments are far from ready for prime time, are risky, and they have a high yuck factor. The very idea of deliberately infecting yourself with worms is unpalatable, and finding wiggly live creatures in your stool or passing a 20 foot tapeworm are not generally considered to be pleasant experiences. (more…)
I don’t much like Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), and, I daresay, neither do any of my fellow bloggers here.
The reason should be painfully obvious. Arguably, no single elected official currently serving today (or ever) has done more over a longer period of time to promote quackery in the United States. I make this harsh assessment because Senator Harkin was the legislator who created the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and has been its most powerful patron, promoter, and protector. It’s a center in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of which we at this blog have regularly been quite critical, right from the very beginning, when I pointed out how our taxpayer dollars were being wasted on pseudoscience and quackery, while Wally Sampson provided some perspective on how this situation came to be and I gave a bit of history of NCCAM. Since then, we’ve been hammering away at NCCAM as a blight on the the science of the NIH, whether intramural or extramural.
Three years ago, we even managed to attract the notice of Josephine Briggs, the current director of NCCAM, who invited us to Bethesda for a meeting. It was a very cordial meeting, as described by Steve Novella and myself. Unfortunately, in the name of “balance,” Dr. Briggs turned right around and met with a bunch of homeopaths and then drew a false equivalency between us “skeptics” and proponents of quackery as represented by the homeopaths. Clearly, she didn’t get it, or, if she did get it, her position was such that she couldn’t bite the hand that feeds NCCAM. A year after that, NCCAM published a five year strategic plan, which I characterized as “let’s do some rigorous science for a change,” given that that’s about all it said. It’s a nice sentiment. We’ll see if it actually happens, although I doubt that it will. Although studying herbs is nothing but a form of pharmacognosy (natural products pharmacology) and studying lifestyle interventions is science-based medicine, neither of them are actually “CAM” per se, because there is nothing “alternative” about them other than their having been co-opted as a “foot in the door” grafted onto the more serious woo. Like a stray limb grafted onto Frankenstein’s monster, they don’t belong and don’t fit.
But I digress. NCCAM has that effect on me.
A Congressional champion of quackery decides to quack no more (after 2014, anyway)
It turns out that over the weekend, Senator Harkin announced that he will not seek a sixth term as a Senator:
This is the second blog post about a recent PLOS One review claiming that alternative therapies such as acupuncture are as effective as antidepressants and psychotherapy for depression. The article gives a message to depressed consumers that they should consider alternative therapies as a treatment option because they are just as effective as conventional treatments. It gives promoters of alternative therapies a boost with apparent evidence from a peer-reviewed journal that can be used to advertise their treatment and to persuade third-party payers that alternative treatments are just as effective as antidepressants and should be reimbursed.
In my first post, I could not reconcile what was said in this article with the citations that it provided. The authors also failed to cite some of their own recent work where it would have been embarrassing to arguments they made in the review. Most importantly, other meta-analyses and systematic reviews had raised such serious concerns about the quality of the acupuncture literature that they concluded that any evaluation of its effectiveness for depression would be premature (more…)
It can be frustrating, and sometimes even a little depressing, to be a skeptic. Promoting reason and science-based medicine often feels like a Sisyphean effort that garners lots of hostility and ad hominem attacks from proponents of pseudoscience and few concrete victories. But once in a while, something happens to give a little hope and inspiration.
In 2010, for example, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy came out, clearly unmasking homeopathy for the vitalist 18th century relic it is (though, sadly, politics is complicated and often unmoved by mere scientific truth, and the government didn’t eagerly embrace the findings or recommendations of the committee). About the same time, the British Medical Association called homeopathy “witchcraft,” and recommended it no longer be supported by the National Health Service. More recently, the Chief Medical Officer in Britain openly acknowledged homeopathy is “rubbish.” Perhaps there has been a shift in the winds? Maybe there is hope that the institutions of government and organized mainstream medicine here in the U.S. might be willing to start taking a stand against pseudoscience in the way they used to in the days before Wilk vs American Medical Association?
As a veterinarian, I was particularly delighted and inspired in March, 2012 when the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) joined in this movement and took a firm and public stand on unscientific therapies, in particular washing its hands of homeopathy:
Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) resources will not be used to promote therapies that, in the Board’s opinion, are not compatible with current understanding of physiology and pathophysiology and have been demonstrated to be ineffective by the current accumulated body of knowledge.
That the Board agreed that the veterinary therapies of homeopathy and homotoxicology are considered ineffective therapies in accordance with the AVA promotion of ineffective therapies Board resolution.
This echoed the policies of the British Veterinary Association, and other national veterinary groups in Sweden, Denmark, and elsewhere in Europe. The idea that the central player in organized veterinary medicine in the U.S., the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which has as members more than 80% of the licensed veterinarians in the country, could be moved to take a similar stand started to seem like a realistic possibility.
“I don’t seem able to get it straight in my mind….”
― Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Influenza is going gangbusters at the moment. I like going to Google Flu trends as well as the CDC flu site to see what flu is doing. Using Google searches as a surrogate for infections is an interesting technique that public health officials have tried with less success in other illnesses but is not without utility. Behaviors of populations can presage a problem, my favorite example is the first hint of the 1993 massive Cryptosporidia diarrhea outbreak in Milwaukee was a sudden shortage of Kaopectate and Peptobismol. It appears there are more patients with flu like symptoms this year than at the height of the H1N1 epidemic of 2009. We have lots of flu like illness, and per the CDC there are buckets of confirmed influenzaflu, but so far the season, while probably having more cases than 2009, the outbreak is clinically not the same.
Compare and contrast, the two words that defined undergraduate liberal arts essay assignments. Get out your blue books and compare and contrast influenza outbreaks from 2009 and 2013. You have one hour. (more…)
Chiropractors are trying to rebrand themselves as primary care physicians, a topic both Harriet Hall and I have addressed (here and here) on SBM. Toward this end, they are seeking the expansion of their scope of practice, via the magic of legislative alchemy, to include the prescription and administration of drugs. Not drugs that any self-respecting M.D. would use, but drugs nonetheless. That effort succeeded to an extent in New Mexico. Recently Colorado got into the act. Other states have followed suit.
Chiropractors have claimed from the very beginning they are primary care physicians. Chiropractic was born in 1895 with the notion that virtually all diseases could be resolved with chiropractic treatment. This was Daniel David Palmer’s original contention, that the interruption of “nerve flow” by “subluxations” caused disease which could be remedied by spinal adjustment to restore the flow, thereby allowing the body to heal itself.
State chiropractic practice acts have always given chiropractors a broad scope of practice which allows them to diagnose and treat virtually any condition as long as they can squeeze the treatment into the “chiropractic paradigm.” If they can pretend the condition is amenable to chiropractic treatment via the detection and correction of subluxations, they can diagnose and treat it legally. This is how they are able to claim, falsely, that asthma, allergies, colic, and many other health problems can be resolved by chiropractic care. This is how “straight” chiropractors still practice.
In 2010, following the H1N1 pandemic and the vaccination campaign to reduce its impact, researchers noted a significant increase in a rare neurological disorder, narcolepsy, in Sweden and Finland. Since then researchers have been studying a possible association between a specific H1N1 flu vaccine, Pandemrix by Glaxo-Smith-Kline (GSK) and a sudden onset of the sleep disorder narcolepsy. In those two countries the association seems strong, but the full story is still complicated with many unknowns.
Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder marked by excessive sleepiness, cataplexy (sudden loss of muscle tone, usually triggered by emotions) and disordered sleep. Almost all cases are associated with low levels of hypocretin in the hypothalamus – this is a hormone involved in sleep regulation. Further there is a strong HLA (human leukocyte antigen) association – specifically DQB1*0602. HLA is a group of proteins involved in regulating immune activity. An HLA association strongly suggests that narcolepsy may be an auto-immune disease.
The current synthesis of this information is that narcolepsy occurs in genetically susceptible individuals after some environmental trigger, such as in infection, that causes the immune system to attack and destroy hypocretin cells in the brain.
A stay-at-home mom recently e-mailed me. She is a former CAM user who once treated her infant’s colic with homeopathy but has since seen the light and is now thinking skeptically. She asked that I look into the dōTERRA company, seller of essential oils: concentrated extracts distilled from plants, containing the “essence” or distinctive odor of the plant. She said:
…moms, well educated and seemingly rational moms, will believe anything. This isn’t a big deal if we are talking about sugar pills trying to cure crying that has no cause. However, I recently attended a dōTERRA “talk” (aka pressure to buy) about how essential oils can cure everything and anything, including one woman’s mother’s skin cancer. I didn’t want to offend this mom by calling her a quack, so I walked away spending 60 bucks on oils to be polite (this was the least amount I could spend and I used these oils to make my home smell nice, even though they were intended to solve all sorts of skin and digestive problems. I didn’t want to use them without knowing if they actually worked).
Instead of stressing the aromas, the focus was on the need to spend hundreds of dollars on these products to keep your family healthy. A handout showed how you could replace everything in your medicine cabinet with an essential oil alternative. She said:
The reps talked about how conventional medicine failed them and how they never go to the doctor anymore because the oils are a better cure.