Archive for Nutrition

Diet and exercise versus cancer: A science-based view

Exercise time

One of the most effective spin techniques used by advocates of “integrative medicine” (also sometimes called “complementary and alternative medicine,” or CAM for short) to legitimize quackery has been to claim basically all non-pharmacologic, non-surgical interventions as “integrative,” “complementary,” or “alternative.” Thus, science-based interventions such as diet changes to treat and/or prevent disease, exercise, and other lifestyle alterations are portrayed as somehow so special that they need their own specialty, “integrative medicine,” even though they are simply part of medicine. I pointed this out a mere two weeks ago when I discussed the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) review of non-pharmacological treatments for pain. It was a systematic review that was essentially negative but spun as positive for some interventions and lacked some key analyses that a good systematic review includes, such as assessment of the quality of the studies included and evaluating them for bias.

Such were my thoughts over the weekend as I got into a Twitter exchange with an advocate of integrative medicine who was touting the benefits of diet as a cancer preventative and how a course in nutrition “opened her eyes.” That in and of itself wasn’t particularly annoying, although I strongly suspect that the nutrition course she took was not given by actual registered dietitians or other experts in science-based nutrition (she wouldn’t say when questioned). What was annoying is that she trotted out some tropes beloved by integrative medicine proponents, such as the claim that most doctors don’t do prevention because they get paid to treat. She was called out for it:

Oddly enough, on the same day a post from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) came up in e-mail lists that discussed the actual evidence for the utility of diet and exercise for cancer prevention. It’s almost as though Twitter were telling me it was time for me to discuss this issue from a science-based perspective. So I will attempt to do so.

Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Nutrition

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Sugar Industry Research

diet wars magazine cover

A recent New York Times article about how the sugar industry manipulated research starting in 1965 is getting some attention. The article is largely based on a recent JAMA Internal Medicine article that reviews historical documents revealing how the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) (based largely on revealed internal documents) put their thumb on the scale of diet research starting in 1965 in an attempt to shift the blame for heart disease from sugar onto fat.

The diet wars

I think this latest round of information can only be understood in the context of the longstanding diet wars. Heart disease has become the number one cause of death, as life expectancy has increased and we have reduced many other causes of mortality.

Overweight and obesity are also diseases of modern civilization which is characterized by abundance and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Further, the food industry is driven by market forces which favor tasty foods, which often means being high in fat and/or sugar.


Posted in: Nutrition

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Oxygen water? You can’t breathe through your stomach

Unless you have gills, this won't make you a strong, faster athlete.

Unless you have gills, this won’t make you a stronger, faster athlete.

My exercise of choice is running. Despite the heat I’ve been having a great summer, training for the Chicago marathon. I’ve followed the training schedule fanatically since June. But it all came crashing down in one run last week when I moved from the ranks of “marathoner in training” to “injured runner”.

With the sudden onset of very sharp, radiating back pain, I was struggling to walk. My marathon plans seemed to evaporate. And in that moment of weakness, I became prey. Prey to pseudoscience, and prey to anyone offering a quick fix. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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Diatomaceous Earth? No Thank You!

Would you eat this? It might look like a crunchy new breakfast cereal, but it's a close-up of diatomaceous earth, the fossilized microscopic skeletons of diatoms.

Would you eat this? It might look like a crunchy new breakfast cereal, but it’s a close-up of diatomaceous earth, the fossilized microscopic skeletons of diatoms.

Diatoms are unicellular algae, one of the two major classes of the phytoplankton that constitute the bottom of the food chain in oceans and freshwater. Diatomaceous earth is a soft, siliceous sedimentary rock containing the fossilized skeletal remains of diatoms. It has been used as a bug killer: it is hypothesized that the sharp particles physically cut up the insects and also damage their waxy protective layer, causing dehydration. It is also used as an abrasive, a filter, an anticaking agent, and in various other industrial and agricultural applications. It contains silica, mainly in the form of amorphous silicon dioxide but with some crystalline silica. Silica is dangerous when inhaled, causing lung disease in workers exposed to silica dust. Silicosis is the most common occupational disease worldwide.

Those are the indisputable facts. So far, so good. Now for the unsupported claims. Diatomaceous earth is being sold as a dietary supplement and is being promoted as “one of the cheapest and most versatile health products on the market.” One of the red flags for quack remedies is the claim that the remedy works for a long list of disparate ailments. Another is that the claims are supported only by testimonials, not by scientific studies. Another is the claim that it “detoxifies.” And most of those who claim it works just happen to have their own brand that they want to sell you. Diatomaceous earth fits the bill, on all counts. But just because it walks like a duck doesn’t mean we can summarily dismiss it. To be fair, we must examine the claims and the evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Vegan Betrayal: The Myths vs. the Realities of a Plants-Only Diet

If vegans really followed these guidelines, they could get adequate nutrition; but all to often they don't.

If vegans really followed these guidelines, they could get adequate nutrition; but all too often they don’t.


NOTE: The original version of this book review was criticized for not making it clear when I was simply reporting the book’s content and when I was expressing support for one of its arguments. I have revised it to make it more clear. The additions are marked by brackets.


Vegetarians come in several flavors. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs, ovo-lacto-vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy products. Pescatarians eat fish but no other animals. Vegans eat nothing derived from animals. Vegans have claimed that a plants-only diet offers a multitude of health benefits, is better for the environment, and is the only ethical choice. While some of them respect the dietary choices of others, some of them proselytize with religious-like fervor and are working to get their diet adopted by all of humanity. In her new book, Vegan Betrayal: Love, Lies, And Hunger In A Plants-Only World, Mara Kahn questions those beliefs, pointing out that no human population has ever endured on a plants-only diet; that while some studies have shown short-term health benefits, long-term follow-up is missing; that long-term vegans frequently experience “failure to thrive,” go off their diet, and feel better when they return to eating meat; and that veganism might actually harm the environment and might not even save animal lives overall.

The book is really three books interleaved into one:

  • The story of her own experiences as a vegan.
  • An evidence-supported analysis of veganism and vegetarianism
  • Some rather woo-woo ideas about finding a unique diet for each individual

I can highly recommend the first two, but I deplore the third. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Nutrition

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The rise and inevitable fall of Vitamin D

Is Vitamin D a panacea? The evidence says otherwise.

Is vitamin D a panacea? The evidence says otherwise.

It’s been difficult to avoid the buzz about vitamin D over the past few years. While it has a  long history of use in the medical treatment of osteoporosis, a large number of observational studies have linked low vitamin D levels to a range of illnesses. The hypothesis that there is widespread deficiency in the population has led to interest in measuring vitamin D blood levels. Demand for testing has jumped as many physicians have incorporated testing into routine care. This is not just due to alternative medicine purveyors that promote vitamin D as a panacea. Much of this demand and interest has been driven by health professionals like physicians and pharmacists who have looked at what is often weak, preliminary and sometimes inconclusive data, and concluded that the benefits of vitamin D outweigh the risks. After all, it’s a vitamin, right? How much harm can vitamin D cause? (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Health and Wellness Coaching: cautious optimism and some concerns


The National Consortium for Credentialing of Health & Wellness Coaches (NCCHWC) and the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) signed an agreement last month for the launch of a national certification for individual health and wellness coaches in the U.S. According to a joint press release, the agreement is a landmark in the efforts of a dedicated group of individuals who have been working for years to establish professional practice and educational standards for health and wellness coaching.

What is “health and wellness coaching?” According to NCCHWC’s website:

Health and Wellness Coaches partner with clients seeking self-directed, lasting changes, aligned with their values, which promote health and wellness and, thereby, enhance well-being. In the course of their work health and wellness coaches display unconditional positive regard for their clients and a belief in their capacity for change, and honoring that each client is an expert on his or her life, while ensuring that all interactions are respectful and non-judgmental.


Posted in: Nutrition, Public Health

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Supplements, Lies, and a Lengthy Transcript

Thanks, Congress, for making bull testicles available as a dietary supplement!

Thanks, Congress, for making bull testicles available as a dietary supplement!

On October 21, 1993, there was a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee for Labor and Human Resources, with the long-winded title:

Examining How the Federal Government Should Regulate the Marketing and Use of Dietary Supplements and Related Measures, Including S. 784, To Strengthen Federal Standards with Respect To Dietary Supplements.

S. 784, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, would eventually be enacted as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).

I discovered this bit of Congressional theater when doing research for my recent talk at NECSS. Scott Gavura and I joined forces to present “Natural Disaster: Dietary Supplements.” Scott focused on pharmacology, while I talked about FDA regulation of dietary supplements (or lack thereof). Thanks to him, I now have a rudimentary knowledge of pharmacokinetics, the science behind how a drug or supplement works (or doesn’t) in the body. If you haven’t read his post from last week explaining this, and more, you should.

Reading the lengthy hearing transcript (well, ok, a lot of it) confirmed my suspicions that the fix was in even before the gavel went down to begin the hearing. What I had not realized was, at least according to some proponents of DSHEA, part of the deal was that consumers would have access to accurate information backing efficacy claims made for supplements and their safety. Nor had I realized that the weaknesses of DSHEA, which have become painfully obvious in the 20-plus years since the law was passed, were anticipated from the get-go and that Congress was well-informed of what they were. Finally, I was not previously aware of the provenance (shall we say) of the “experts” asked to testify at the behest of Sen. Hatch.

First, let’s set the stage on which this drama plays out, according to two excellent books on dietary supplements, Natural Causes and Vitamania. In 1991, Congress passed the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act (NELA). Most famously, NELA, for the first time, required that all foods bear the now-familiar nutrition label. It also required that any health claims made for foods be backed by “significant scientific agreement.” Rep. Henry Waxman and others wanted the same standard applied to dietary supplement health claims. After all, if food companies had to meet a certain standard to make health claims for, say, calcium in their products, why shouldn’t claims for the health benefits of calcium in dietary supplement form be held to the same standard? But the supplement industry knew it couldn’t survive under such stringent rules and Sen. Hatch made sure it didn’t happen. All parties agreed to let the FDA decide what standard should be required of supplement health claims and left it at that. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Legal, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation

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Vaginal Seeding. Ew. That’s nuts. Hmmm, interesting.

A breakdown of bacterial species from your skin's microbiome. As a favor to

A breakdown of bacterial species from your skin’s microbiome. As a favor to pregnant women expectant fathers teenage boys on the internet everyone, this is the image I went with. Click to macrolaarggen (Ikean for embiggen).

Sometimes a headline will cause me to run through a series of reactions in rapid sequence. For example “Mothers facing C-sections look to vaginal ‘seeding’ to boost their babies’ health”:

Early studies show that swabbing a mother’s vagina and transferring it to her baby’s mouth, eyes and skin may stimulate microbiome development similarly to babies born naturally – and protect it from health issues later in life

I mean ick.

But take a step back. Not really. I tend to think of people like “Pig Pen” in Charlie Brown, shedding skin and bacteria into the environment. If we were to really think about each other’s microbiome, we might not have intimate contact with our significant other. Or any other animal. I always point out, when someone lets their dog lick them, that they (the dog) had probably just licked its rear, AKA dog-ass seeding. And no, a dog’s mouth is not cleaner than a human’s, unless your dog brushes and flosses with greater frequency than you. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Evolution, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Humor, Nutrition

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What (if anything) does “natural” mean?

"When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more, nor less." Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass"

“When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more, nor less.”
Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”

What does the term “natural” mean on a label? Does it mean anything? Should it mean anything? Good questions. And complicated ones, judging from the list of questions the FDA needs your help in answering.

The FDA has resisted defining “natural” in food product labeling, including whether foods that are genetically engineered, or contain genetically engineered ingredients, can use the term. Back in 1991, the agency set out to issue regulations but abandoned the effort and has since held to an informal policy that “natural” means

nothing artificial or synthetic (including color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The only official legal requirement for using the description “natural” on a food label is that it not be misleading or false, which is forbidden by the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act of 1938. In that appetite-suppressing way of statutory language, “food” is defined by the Act as

articles used for food or drink for man or other animals, chewing gum, and articles for used for components of any such article.

For regulatory purposes, dietary supplements are also considered foods in most cases. (more…)

Posted in: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Legal, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation

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