Whole Foods Market is a relentlessly hip American supermarket chain which prides itself on organic fruits and vegetables, gluten-free just-about-everything, and high-end touches like wine bars and exotic take out items (roasted yucca, anyone?). The health products aisle is stocked with Bach Flower and homeopathic remedies. For example, in-house brand Flu Ease: “an established homeopathic formula that should be taken at the first sign of flu for temporary relief of symptoms including fever chills and body aches.”
Selling Flu Ease and like products certainly exhibits a lack of appreciation for scientific evidence, not to mention basic science. But I recently saw a product in the checkout line that was so filled with over-the-top quackery and so shocking in its disregard for the public’s health that I haven’t been back to Whole Foods since. And I won’t be going back.
The product? A glossy, slickly-produced magazine with the conspiracy-minded title What Doctors Don’t Tell You. The April 2014 issue promises, in banner-headline font size, a “New Light on Cancer.” It features the well-known symbol of fighting breast cancer, a loop of pink ribbon, but with a tear in the middle of the loop. We’ll look into this “new light” in a bit.
For those who dismiss advocates of the “natural” as ignorant of science and deluded by the logical fallacy that natural = best, Nathanael Johnson’s new book is an eye-opener: All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier. If nothing else, it is a testament to the ability of the human mind to overcome childhood indoctrination in a belief system, to think independently, and to embrace science and reason.
Nathanael Johnson was brought up by hippie parents who subscribed to every “natural” belief and fad. His mother nearly died of a postpartum hemorrhage when he was born at home (he weighed 11 pounds!). His parents didn’t report his birth, and he didn’t have a birth certificate. He co-slept with his parents, never wore diapers (imagine the clean-up!), was allowed to play in the dirt and chew on the snails he found there, was fed a Paleolithic diet, was never allowed any form of sugar, didn’t know there was such a thing as an Oreo cookie, was home-schooled, and did not know that public nudity was taboo until he and his brother shocked the folks at a church picnic by stripping naked to go swimming in the lake. Nudity was customary in his home, and he was encouraged to “let his balls breathe.”
As he grew up, he started to question some of the dogmas he had learned from his parents. He had been taught that good health resulted from forming connections with nature, but he found that nature “generally wanted to eat me.” Now an adult and a journalist, he understands science and how to do research. He tried to read the scientific literature with an unbiased mindset, asking questions about the subjects in his book’s title rather than looking for evidence to support any prior beliefs, and he arrived at pretty much the same conclusions we science-based medicine folks did. But he still appreciates that a natural approach has value, and he seeks to reconcile nature with technology. He calls his book a comfortable refuge from people who are driven to extremes. (more…)
Diets fail. Not just often, but almost always—90% of the time. If diets worked we wouldn’t have a worldwide obesity problem. And obesity is a problem that needs to be solved. The prevalence of obesity has doubled since 1980. As a public health issue, there are few determinants of illness that are more destructive, as obesity contributes to the growing rates of diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. There’s no “one true cause” of all illness, but obesity comes pretty close. When people ask me for the single most important thing they can do for their health, my advice (after quitting smoking) is to (1) ensure you keep your weight under control and (2) exercise in any way possible.
Despite its tremendous impact on health, I’ve only blogged about obesity in an indirect way—by pointing out what doesn’t work. Dr. Oz is my perpetual source of bad health information with his regular promotion of bogus “weight loss” supplements like the green coffee bean “miracle”. I’ve also criticized eating programs like the fads of “Eating Clean”, gluten “intolerance”, or harmful diet delusions like “detox”. It’s the typical skeptical science blogger approach—spot pseudoscience, debunk it, and hope you did something good. But none of my posts have focused on what one should do—just what you shouldn’t. Weekly SBM contributor Dr. Mark Crislip recently commented that what we (SBM) support manifests in what we oppose. He’s right, because that’s the easy approach. Using the principles of science-based medicine, there’s an awful lot to oppose in the current writing and popular opinion on how to treat obesity. And my professional advice in the role of a pharmacist has been limited to steering people away from supplements, and then giving some basic advice about dietary planning. Anecdotes and platitudes. I admit that I’ve told patients to “eat less and exercise more”.
I am excited to tell you about a wonderful new endeavor that is helping to promote critical thinking about science and medicine. It’s a free online course on “Food for Thought” that offers a scientific framework for understanding food and its impact on health and society from past to present.
The “Food for Thought” course is a product of EdX, which offers online college courses from Harvard, MIT, and other prestigious universities. They provide videos with interactive features and access to online student communities. Students can audit a course and get full access to all the materials including tests, assignments, and discussion forums with no commitment, and can choose what and how much they want to do. (more…)
We (the authors and editors) at SBM get accused of many nefarious things. Because we deliberately engage with the public over controversial medical questions, we expect nothing less. It goes with the territory. In fact, if there were a lack of critical pushback we would worry that we were not doing our job.
Still, it is disconcerting to see the frequently-repeated ideological accusations in response to simply evaluating and reporting the evidence. That is what we do here – follow the science and evidence. When that trail leads to a conclusion that some people do not like (usually for ideological reasons) a common response is to accuse us of ideology, malfeasance, being part of a conspiracy, or having conflicts of interest or ulterior motives. That is easier, I suppose, than engaging with us on the science.
One common accusation is that we are shills for the pharmaceutical industry, and downplay or ignore the benefits of diet and “natural” treatments. A search through the SBM archives demonstrates that this accusation is false – we criticize bad science and poor-quality control, regardless of who is committing it. Sometimes pseudoscience is used to promote a drug, sometimes a nutritional supplement, and sometimes pure magic. (more…)
This will be a departure from my usual posts. Several announcements in the news and medical journals have caught my attention recently, and as I delved into the details, I thought I would share them with our SBM readers. Topics include AIDS cures, the continuing danger of polio, eating nuts for longevity, racial differences in vitamin D, and the use of pharmacogenetic testing to guide the dosage of anticoagulant drugs. They are all examples of science-based medicine in action.
Have patients been cured of AIDS?
I read that the HIV virus had returned in patients thought to have been cured by bone marrow transplants, and I mistakenly thought they were referring to the original claim of cure I had read about. Nope, that one still stands. (more…)
Suffer the lab rats
Elsevier has announced that they are retracting the infamous Seralini study which claimed to show that GMO corn causes cancer in laboratory rats. The retraction comes one year after the paper was published, and seems to be a response to the avalanche of criticism the study has faced. This retraction is to the anti-GMO world what the retraction of the infamous Wakefield Lancet paper was to the anti-vaccine world.
The Seralini paper was published in November 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology. It was immediately embraced by anti-GMO activists, and continues to be often cited as evidence that GMO foods are unhealthy. It was also immediately skewered by skeptics and more objective scientists as a fatally flawed study.
The study looked at male and female rats of the Sprague-Dawley strain of rat – a strain with a known high baseline incidence of tumors. These rats were fed regular corn mixed with various percentages of GMO corn: zero (the control groups), 11, 22, and 33%. Another group was fed GMO corn plus glyphosate (Round-Up) in their water, and a third was given just glyphosate. The authors concluded: (more…)
It is a triumph of marketing over evidence that millions take supplements every day. There is no question we need vitamins in our diet to live. But do we need vitamin supplements? It’s not so clear. There is evidence that our diets, even in developed countries, can be deficient in some micronutrients. But there’s also a lack of evidence to demonstrate that routine supplementation is beneficial. And there’s no convincing evidence that supplementing vitamins in the absence of deficiency is beneficial. Studies of supplements suggest that most vitamins are useless at best and harmful at worst. Yet the sales of vitamins seem completely immune to negative publicity. One negative clinical trial can kill a drug, but vitamins retain an aura of wellness, even as the evidence accumulates that they may not offer any meaningful health benefits. So why do so many buy supplements? As I’ve said before, vitamins are magic. Or more accurately, we believe this to be the case.
There can be many reasons for taking vitamins but one of the most popular I hear is “insurance” which is effectively primary prevention – taking a supplement in the absence of a confirmed deficiency or medical need with the belief we’re better off for taking it. A survey backs this up – 48% reported “to improve overall health” as the primary reason for taking vitamins. Yes, there is some vitamin and supplement use that is appropriate and science-based: Vitamin D deficiencies can occur, particularly in northern climates. Folic acid supplements during pregnancy can reduce the risk of neural tube defects. Vitamin B12 supplementation is often justified in the elderly. But what about in the absence of any clear medical need? (more…)
I’m sure I’m not the only health professional that bites their tongue whenever a patient starts a question with “I heard on Dr. Oz that…” More often than not, I have expectations to realign, and some assumptions to correct. I could easily devote all my posts to simply correcting information presented on the Dr. Oz show. But given I’m blogging here biweekly, and Dr. Oz has a daily television show, I’ll never be able to catch up. So while my first choice in topics isn’t to add a post to our extensive Dr. Oz archives, I often end up, like many other health professionals, needing to respond to his shows shortly after they air.
Should you happen to be someone that has never seen the Dr. Oz show, Dr. Mehmet Oz is an Oprah protégé who has gone on to build a health media empire that is possibly the biggest vehicle for health pseudoscience and medical quackery on television. Whether it’s promoting homeopathy, recommending unproven supplements, or advocating ridiculous diet plans, there seems to be no health subject too dubious to endorse. Oz has established an impressive track record of providing highly questionable health advice. A few months ago I examined his absurd endorsement of green coffee beans, followed by his dubious “clinical trial” of green coffee beans that likely didn’t meet minimal research ethics standards. Then there was the weight loss “miracle” (his words), red palm oil, which followed the same episodic formula of breathless hyperbole backed by questionable evidence. One of the meta-trends of the Dr. Oz show are weight loss secrets – typically gimmicky interventions, supplements and therapies that he promotes as panaceas for obesity. (more…)
It’s likely you know someone who has bought into the notion that nutrition is everything, the source of all health and the cause of all illness. Nutrition is very important, to be sure, but it is only one of many possible causes of disease, and if you live in a Western industrialized nation you probably have adequate nutrition. The notion, however, that food can heal is powerfully alluring, and it makes great headlines. The result is that people who read the headlines for the latest food to avoid, or the latest ingredient that will make them live longer or stave off disease, seem to have an association for everything. Eating around them is to be constantly told that food X is good for you and will prevent Y, or that some other food should be avoided because it causes Z.
Red peppers will help prevent cancer and help you lose weight. Garlic will help prevent heart disease and aids in iron metabolism. Cayenne pepper prevents strokes. Peaches prevent heart disease and cancer. In fact- think of any food at random and type “random food health benefits” into Google and chances are you will be rewarded with a list of the amazing health benefits of whatever food you wish.
My usual response when offered such advice is – you know, food is healthy for you. I recommend you eat food every day. Food is full of nutrition, essential vitamins and minerals, and will give you energy. If you don’t eat food, your health with dramatically suffer. But don’t eat too much food – that’s not healthful.