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Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food? The obsessive worship of “medicinal foods”

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food? The obsessive worship of “medicinal foods”

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

– attributed to Hippocrates

Who said anything about medicine? Let’s eat!

– attributed to one of Hippocrates forgotten (and skeptical) students

 

Who hasn’t seen or heard Hippocrates’ famous quote about letting food be your medicine and your medicine your food? If you have Facebook friends who are the least bit into “natural” medicine or living, you’ve almost certainly come across it in your feed, and if you’re a skeptic who pays the least bit of attention to what’s going on in the quackosphere you will almost certainly have seen it plastered on a picture as a meme, either using a picture of Hippocrates or pictures of plates of green, leafy vegetables, or both. I like to view the fetishization of “food as medicine,” to cite Hippocrates, as one of the best examples out there of the logical fallacy known as the appeal to antiquity; in other words, the claim that if something is ancient and still around it must be correct (or at least there must be something to it worth considering).

Of course, just because an idea is old doesn’t mean it’s good, any more than just because Hippocrates said it means it must be true. Hippocrates was an important figure in the history of medicine because he was among the earliest to assert that diseases were caused by natural processes rather than the gods and because of his emphasis on the careful observation and documentation of patient history and physical findings, which led to the discovery of physical signs associated with diseases of specific organs. However, let’s not also forget that Hippocrates and his followers also believed in humoral theory, the idea that all disease results from an imbalance of the “four humors.” It’s also amusing to note that this quote by Hippocrates is thought to be a misquote, as it is nowhere to be found in the more than 60 texts known as The Hippocratic Corpus (Corpus Hippocraticum).

As Diana Cardenes argues:

But Hippocratic doctors clearly saw a difference between food and medicines. In fact, food was considered as a material that could be assimilated after digestion (e.g. the air was also food) and converted into the substance of the body. For example, food was converted into the different parts of the body such as muscles, nerves, etc. By contrast, the concept of medicines at the time was a product which was able to change the body’s own nature (in terms of humor quality or quantity) but not be converted into the body’s own substance. Thus a food wasn’t considered a medicine. A possible root of the food-medicine confusion is the following cryptic phrase found in the work On Aliment: “In food excellent medication, in food bad medication, bad and good relatively”.3 This text is nowadays attributed to the Hellenistic period, but was considered to be Hippocratic in Antiquity by Galenus in particular.

Now, it is certainly true that Hippocrates and his followers used diet to treat many illnesses, it’s not really clear what sort of success they had. However, this ancient idea that virtually all disease could be treated with diet, however much or little it was embraced by Hippocrates, has become an idée fixe in alternative medicine, so much so that it leads its proponents twist new science (like epigenetics) to try to fit it into a framework where diet rules all, often coupled with the idea that doctors don’t understand or care about nutrition and it’s big pharma that’s preventing the acceptance of dietary interventions. That thinking also permeates popular culture, fitting in very nicely with an equally ancient phenomenon, the moralization of food choices (discussed ably by Dr. Jones a month ago).
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition

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The Food Babe’s war on “chemicals” heats up again

The Food Babe

[Note: This is an extra bonus post. Because The Food Babe has been in the news and I couldn’t wait until today, I discussed it at a certain not-so-super-secret blog. If you’ve read it before, it’s only somewhat modified and updated. If you haven’t, it’s new to you. Either way, feel free to comment. Completely new material by me will appear here in a scant few hours.]

It’s been a while since I’ve taken notice of Vani Hari, a.k.a. The Food Babe, the misguided “food safety” activist who sees chemicals, chemicals, chemicals everywhere and raises fears about them all, especially the ones that she can’t pronounce. The first time I took any significant notice of her was about a year ago, when she was making news for lobbying Subway to remove the “yoga mat chemical” azodicarbonamide from its bread, although I didn’t write about her here for a few months after that. As I explained at the time, azodicarbonamide is a chemical used in small amounts to mature bread dough, improve its handling properties, and produce a drier, more cohesive, and more pliable dough that holds together better during kneading by hand or machine. It is safe, breaks down during baking into small amounts of safe substances, and is only a hazard if you inhale it in powder form, where it can be a pulmonary irritant. Then, she made some astonishingly ignorant statements about beer, where she pulled the same routine, to the point where I labeled her tactics as the “appeal to yuckiness.” Basically, if something sounds yucky to her (such as isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladders of fish and is used in some beers to remove haziness and yeast byproducts), then it must be bad, either for you or just bad because it’s gross. It also turns out that The Food Babe makes quite a pretty penny spreading her ignorance and has become sought after to feature in various media appearances, such as magazine covers.

For the last few months I’ve been somewhat dreading February, because I knew Hari was poised to release her first book. As I described before, she has more than a fair amount of social media savvy and business acumen, which have allowed her to build the Food Babe brand rapidly and explains (to me at least) why she seemed to come out of nowhere on a trajectory to become as influential as Dr. Mehmet Oz. Her book, released this week, is called The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days! (Talk about ridiculously long subtitles!) You see, I knew that when it came time for Hari’s book to come out we’d be seeing a lot more of her, and unfortunately that’s what happened. As part of that publicity, Hari was featured in a fairly long feature article in The Atlantic by James Hamblin, The Food Babe: Enemy of Chemicals. It’s a relatively amusing title, to be sure, and there’s a lot that’s good about the article. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot that’s downright infuriating about it as well, the more so given that Hamblin is a physician and really should know better, but unfortunately in this piece he shows himself far more respectful of pseudoscience of the sort promoted by The Food Babe than a physician should be.
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Posted in: Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Naturopathy vs. Science: Infertility Edition

This is another post in the naturopathy versus science series, where a naturopath’s advice is assessed against the scientific literature.

It’s Naturopathic Medicine Week in the United States, so it’s time for another look at the alternative medicine practice that a friend of the blog likes to call the One Quackery to Rule them All. Naturopathy is an oddity among alternative medicine, because it’s a hodgepodge of other practices linked by an underlying belief in vitalism: the pre-scientific notion that living things have a “life force”. Vitalism disappeared from medicine when Wöhler synthesized urea in 1828, yet the belief in vitalism is a central tenet of naturopathic philosophy. Naturopaths liken themselves to primary care providers comparable to family physicians (general practitioners) but their practices are quite different: rather than making decisions based on scientific evidence, naturopaths pick and choose based on what they feel is congruent with their vitalistic philosophy, sometimes despite good scientific evidence that shows they are wrong. For example, homeopathy is an alternative medicine practice that is very popular with naturopaths. It is an elaborate placebo system where “remedies” contain no medicinal ingredients: they are literally sugar pills. There is no demonstrable medical effect from homeopathy, and so it isn’t part of science-based medicine. Yet homeopathy is a “core clinical science” for naturopaths, and the practice of homeopathy is part of their licensing exam.

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Posted in: Naturopathy

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Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe): The Jenny McCarthy of food

NOTE ADDENDUM – Ed.

I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a beer snob. I make no bones about it, I like my beer, but I also like it to be good beer, and, let’s face it, beer brewed by large industrial breweries seldom fits the bill. To me, most of the beer out being sold in the U.S., particularly beer made by Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors can easily be likened to cold piss from horses with kidney disease (you need protein to get beer foam, you know), only without the taste. I have to be mighty desperate and thirsty before I will partake of such swill. I will admit that there is one exception, namely Blue Moon, which is manufactured by a division of MillerCoors, but that’s the only exception I can think of. Ever since I discovered Bell’s Oberon, a nice local (well, statewide, anyway) wheat ale, I can do without Blue Moon. Sadly, Oberon is only brewed during the spring and summer months; so when I want a similar bit of brew during the winter months sometimes I’m tempted by Blue Moon. Otherwise, I’m generally happy with one of the many craft and microbrews made by local brewers such as Short’s Brewing Company (whose brewpub I had the pleasure of visiting about a month ago) and Bells Brewery.

Despite my general hostility to Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors products as examples of everything that is wrong with American beer, I have to say that I almost feel sorry for the people running those corporations right now. Unfortunately, they’ve fallen victim to the latest quack making a name for herself on the Internet by peddling pseudoscience. As is my wont, I’ll go into my usual excruciating detail shortly. But first, to whom am I referring?

FBhari

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Posted in: Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Food for Thought

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…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Nutrition

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A closer look at Dr. Oz’s 15 Superfoods

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…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Should you be “Eating Clean”?

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 was “clean” food, 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…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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Everything we eat causes cancer…sort of

Read meat causes cancer. No, processed meat causes cancer. OK, it’s both read meat and processed meat. Wait, genetically modified grain causes cancer (well, not really). No, aspartame causes cancer. No, this food coloring or that one causes cancer.

Clearly, everything you eat causes cancer!

That means you can avoid cancer by avoiding processed meats, red meat, GMO-associated food (no, probably not), aspartame, food colorings, or anything “unnatural.” Or so it would seem from reading the popular literature and sometimes even the scientific literature. As I like to say to my medical students, life is a sexually transmitted fatal disease that gets us all eventually, but most of us would like to delay the inevitable as long as possible and remain as healthy as possible for as long as possible. One of the most obvious ways to do accomplish these twin aims is through diet. While the parameters of what constitutes a reasonably healthy diet have been known for decades, diet still ranks high on the risk of concerns regarding actions we take on a daily basis that can increase our risk of various diseases. Since cancer is disease (or, I should say, cancers are diseases) that many, if not most, people consider to be the scariest, naturally we worry about whether certain foods or food ingredients increase our risk of cancer.

Thus was born the field of nutritional epidemiology, a prolific field with thousands of publications annually. Seemingly, each and every one of these thousands of publications gets a news story associated with it, because the media love a good “food X causes cancer” or “food Y causes heart disease” story, particularly before the holidays. As a consequence, consumers are bombarded with what I like to call the latest health risk of the week, in which, in turn, various foods, food ingredients, or environmental “toxins” are blamed and exonerated for a panoply of health problems, ranging from the minor to the big three, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. It’s no wonder that consumers are confused, reacting either with serial alarm at each new “revelatory” study or with a shrug of the shoulders as each new alarm joins other alarms to produce a tinnitus-like background drone. Unfortunately, this cacophony of alarm also provides lots of ammunition to quacks, cranks, and crackpots to tout their many and varied diets that, they promise, will cut your risk of diseases like cancer and heart disease to near zero—but only if adhered to with monk-like determination and self-denial. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Dean Ornish, among others.)

All of this is why I really wanted to write about an article I saw popping up in the queue of articles published online ahead of print about a month ago. Somehow, other topics intervened, as did my vacation and then the holidays, and somehow I missed it last week, even though a link to the study sits in my folder named “Blog fodder.” Fortunately, it just saw print this week in its final version, giving me an excuse to make up for my oversight. It’s a study by one of our heroes (despite his occasional misstep) here on the SBM blog, John Ioannidis. It comes in the form of a study by Jonathan D. Schoenfeld and John Ioannidis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition entitled, brilliantly, Is everything we eat associated with cancer? A systematic cookbook review.
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition

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Steven Fowkes (Part 2 of 2): Nutrients for Better Mental Performance

Last week, in part 1, I covered Steven Fowkes’ “cures” for Alzheimer’s and herpes. In part 2, I will cover a video where he goes further afield. It is titled “Nutrients for Better Mental Performance,” but he also discusses sleep, depression, hangovers, and a lot of other topics.

Some of what he says are simple truisms: mental performance is affected by everything related to health such as sleep, food, vitamins, minerals, detoxification, nutrients, amino acids, hormone replacement, pharmaceuticals and herbs. Metabolism is the key to brain function: 3% of the body uses 20% of the energy. Macronutrients, micronutrients, exercise, water, and breathing are important too.

We knew that.

Which nutrients promote optimal brain function? All of them: any deficiency will affect the brain. Fowkes goes beyond the evidence to claim that some nutrients are needed at super-physiological levels; Mother Nature is not optimal. Some supplements appear to work but the effects are not sustainable. It’s not about parts, but about how things work together. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Nutrition

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TIME Magazine, Dr. Oz, What to Eat, and Supplements

Here on SBM we have frequently had cause to criticize the media for poor science reporting and for spreading misinformation. Among many other individual offenders, we have criticized Dr. Oz for promoting alternative medicine on his TV show and gullibly promoting guests who pretend to talk to the dead and pretend to heal people with carnival sideshow tricks. We tend to be negative and critical because somebody has to do it, but it’s not pleasant.  For once, I have some good things to say.

The September 12 issue of TIME magazine was a Special Nutrition Issue. The cover featured pictures of food and the title “What to Eat Now: Uncovering the Myths about Food by Dr. Oz.” It devotes 7 pages to an article by him entitled “The Oz Diet: No more myths. No more fads. What you should eat — and why.” This is followed by a 5 page article by John Cloud “Nutrition in a Pill? I took 3000 supplements over five months. Here’s what happened.” Both articles have a rational, science-based perspective without any intrusions of woo-woo. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Science and the Media

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