I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However, after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a book that contains science-based nutrition information I decided to agree to the review. This is how the book was described to me in an email:
In their provocative new book, Eat to Save Your Life, best-selling authors Dr. Jerre Paquette and Gloria Askew, RRN, sort through the piles of information and misinformation about nutrition to reveal the true connection between food and health. Fed up with the advertising hype and conflicting nutritional advice, the duo provides common sense explanations for consumers everywhere who are looking to make smart nutritional choices.
Unfortunately, I was sold (quite predictably) a bill of goods. And rather than ignore the book and simply not do a review, I figured that maybe a negative review would reduce the number of incoming PR requests for future tomes of pseudoscience. In the end, I’ll probably just become the focus of personal attacks by dedicated proponents of various snake oils.
That being said, I thought it might be somewhat instructive to remind Better Health readers of certain basic “warning signs of pseudoscience” that I accidentally overlooked in agreeing to review the book. For a more complete review of similar “signs” I highly recommend Dr. David Gorski’s 2007 classic, humorous take on predictable arguments and behaviors of alternative medicine proponents (written in the style of comedian Jeff Foxworthy). As for me, I tend to think of much of the world of integrative medicine as a militant group of bakers eager to add odd, inert and occasionally toxic substances to cake recipes.
And so, without further ado, here is a small sample of what authors Askew and Paquette have added to their half-true diet book recipe:
- The “one true cause” fallacy: The book opens with an interesting review of vitamin C deficiency, noting that it (apparently) took the British Royal Navy 40 years before they accepted that the treatment for scurvy was citrus extract (rather than flogging). Citing this incident as an example of nutritional deficiency leading to life-threatening illness, it’s a short ride to the “one true cause” fallacy whereby the authors postulate that there are untold numbers of modern diseases caused by unrecognized nutritional deficiency syndromes. Nutritional deficiency may be the one true cause of most diseases, you see.
- The appeal to research without references. Countless appeals are made to “mounting evidence” of this and that (arthritis being caused primarily by food-related inflammation for example), either without reference footnotes, or with mentions of sources of dubious credibility (such as the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors).
- The appeal to supplements in lieu of vaccines. No diet advice would be complete without a gratuitous attack on vaccines, right? The authors suggest that flu vaccines (for example) only provide immunity for 2 months “and only for certain individuals.” Meanwhile, they assert that a combination of Echinacea, garlic, and vitamin C support the immune system to successfully fight of viruses. These claims are simply unproven and multiple studies have already found no benefit (over placebo) of these supplements at preventing and treating the common cold.
- Over-diagnosis. If you think that the world of medicine is predisposed to seeing disease where there is none, try the alternative medicine world. The authors assert that everything from zits, to rashes, to “brain fog” are potential signs of grave underlying immune compromise – caused by, you guessed it, dietary deficiencies.
- Over-supplementation. The authors argue that “supplementation is a necessity in our nutrient-robbed world.” However, new evidence doesn’t support supplementation for the general population, though it had beentraditionally felt that multi-vitamins might be valuable. In addition, new studies are finding that food sources are preferable to supplements for daily nutritional requirements (such as calcium) and that anti-oxidants such as vitamin E may do more harm than good.
- The “organic is more nutritious” argument. Although a recent systematic review of the scientific literature found no support for the notion that organic foods contain more nutrients than those grown with traditional methods, the authors attribute Americans’ supposed vitamin deficiencies to poor soil quality caused by non-organic farming methods.
- Nutrigenomics and DNA hype. The authors do not take a sufficiently skeptical view of the emerging field of nutrigenomics (whereby certain foods and supplements are recommended to individuals based on their genetic profiles). They even suggest that nutrigenomic testing is so much fun, it’s “almost like being part of a CSI television show.” Who cares if it’s no more accurate than fortune telling?
So what’s the half true part? Well, obesity is certainly a driver of many modern illnesses, and obesity is caused by (in no small part) nutritional choices. The authors cite statistics on the ravages of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes on the U.S. population which are all quite true. (How this supports the “deficiency” argument is somewhat lost on me – because it would seem more logical that a possible excess of nutrients could be the “one true cause” of a lot of these diseases, but I digress).
There are real nutritional deficiencies that cause medical problems, such as iron-deficiency anemia, neural tube defects related to folic acid deficiency, vitamin D deficiency and rickets, and osteoporosis contributed to by low calcium levels. These conditions underscore the importance of healthy eating habits, but do not support the idea that the entire population is deficient in these nutrients. In fact, a large population study analyzed by the CDC, suggests that most Americans are not deficient in any major nutrient even with their current sub-optimal and obesogenic eating habits.
In general, fair-minded individuals will find Eat To Save Your Life to be yet another example of a half-true, hysteria-peddling, micro-nutrient-obsessed diet advice book. Ironically, the book’s title itself states the opposite of what we really need to be doing to reduce obesity-related diseases: stop eating (so much) to save our lives.
This book may be purchased (against my medical advice) at Amazon.com.
This post originally appeared at the Science Based Medicine blog.
I hate scientific studies that don’t investigate the assumptions on which they’re based. They do harm. The findings slither around and get into the heads of people who treat people for the issues the research purports to understand. And the misconceptions become protocol. Here’s one example:
The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health published an article declaring a connection between childlessness and increased risk of death and mental illness.
Among the findings:
- Having a child cut the risk of early death, particularly among women.
- The early death rate from circulatory disease, cancers, and accidents among childless women was four times as high as that among those who gave birth to their own child, and 50% lower among women who adopted.
- Similarly, rates of death were around twice as high among men who did not become parents, either biologically or through adoption.
- The prevalence of mental illness in couples who adopted kids was around half that of other parents.
What the study states but doesn’t investigate is that for their research they used: ”population-based health and social registers, we conducted a follow-up study of 21 276 childless couples in in vitro fertility treatment.”
Do you hear the sound of “WHAT!??!” beginning to reverberate?
Might it be that couples who have been living in the infertility system for months, maybe years and have had their original life script expectations erased, have had doctors and drugs and timetables invade their intimate time, have spent gobs of money, and have had repeated cycles of devastating disappointment may be in a very different state than couples who have CHOSEN not to have children?
And let me state my assumption up front. Choosing not to have children is not dysfunctional. It’s not a psychological condition. It’s not an ethical/moral lapse. It’s not a sign of immaturity or selfishness. It’s a legitimate choice.
It may be that the researchers’ findings do apply to couples who undergo infertility treatment in order to have a child.
But there is harm in assuming that all couples who don’t have children are at higher risk for death and mental illness.
This post originally appeared at Barbara’s blog, In Sickness As In Health.
This year’s finalists for the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Fit Family Challenge are about to be announced. I’ve had the privilege of acting as nutrition coach for the semi-finalist families, and have had fantastic interactions with them about common nutrition questions. In my continuing Q&A series, I thought I’d share some of our email conversations:
Q: How many calories do I need per day, and how many should I eat to lose weight?
I like to use this Mayo Clinic calculator to get a rough estimate of daily caloric needs. If you enter your height, weight, age, and activity level it will tell you approximately how many calories/day you need to maintain your weight. To lose one pound a week, you need to subtract 500 calories/day from that number. So, for example if the calculator suggests that you need 2000 calories/day – you should follow a 1500 calorie/day diet to lose 1 pound a week. Studies have shown that people who drop more than 500 calories below their daily maintenance needs have a hard time sticking to their diet. You may feel weak, trembly, and irritable if you cut down too low too fast. You will have to play with the amount a little bit since the calculator is not exact – if you don’t see the scale moving when you cut out 500/day, then you have to wonder if you’re counting calories correctly or perhaps if you have to go a little bit lower still. Unfortunately, the “reward” for losing weight is that you have to permanently eat less when you are at your desired goal because there is less of you to feed!
Q: What do you think about sports drinks? Do my kids need them when running races?
As far as sports drinks are concerned, their benefits are often over-hyped and exaggerated. That being said, I believe they do have a role in hydration during endurance sports like long distance running. When you do strenuous exercise for long periods of time (over 1 hour of effort) you lose a lot of body salt and minerals (electrolytes) in your sweat. It’s important to replace certain key electrolytes so your body doesn’t become depleted and begin to cramp. This is more likely to happen to folks running very long distances, such as marathons and triathlons. However, if it’s hot during your race, you could be at risk for dehydration and electrolyte loss as well.
Regular Gatorade (made by Pepsi Co.) has water, sugar, sodium, and potassium in it. Powerade (made by Coca Cola) has water, sugar, sodium, potassium and B vitamins. Powerade has a little bit higher sugar concentration, which could be an advantage on a long run. Both are reasonable choices for hydration during a race.
The rough rule of thumb is to take in 6-12 oz of fluid for every 20 minutes of running. Water is sufficient for runs that last less than an hour. Sports drinks (or adding electrolyte gels/chomps to water) are helpful if your run will last longer than an hour. It’s better to sip the water slowly at regular intervals than to dry to gulp it all down at one time. You may feel nauseated or have a “sloshy stomach” feeling if you don’t spread out your hydration.
Sports drinks can be quite expensive – and you can easily create your own at home. The World Health Organization has a simple recipe for rehydration fluids, and I found this (probably slightly tastier) version on a blog site.
Outside of endurance sports, I don’t see a physiologic need for sports drinks (with the exception of extreme sweating in hot weather or during illness with vomiting and diarrhea) – they can add unnecessary calories to your diet.
Q: Should I cut down the amount of salt in my diet?
Not necessarily. Too little salt, as well as too much salt, have both been shown to be unhealthy. If you’re eating a lot of fast food, you’re probably getting too much salt. If you cook for yourself and focus on fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein you may not need to cut back. Unless you have a kidney problem or very high blood pressure, salt is generally not dangerous for you. About 2.5g of salt/day (roughly a teaspoon full) is optimal, but for most people up to 4g/day probably won’t hurt (and at least one study suggests that heart disease risk doesn’t increase until the daily intake of salt exceeds 7g/day).
Miracles are pretty rare events. Except on television’s “Dr. Oz Show,” where they appear with astonishing frequency. Oz of course doesn’t claim to raise the dead or part the Red Sea, but he does raise people’s hopes of parting with their flab. And he’s certainly not shy about flinging the word “miracle” about. But it seems miracles fade as quickly as they appear. Raspberry ketones, acai berries and African mango, once hyped as amazing “fat busters,” have already given way to newer wonders.
Granted, Dr. Oz, or more likely his producers, do not pull miracles out of an empty hat. They generally manage to toss in a smattering of stunted facts that they then nurture into some pretty tall tales. Like the ones about chlorogenic acid or Garcinia cambogia causing effortless weight loss. The former piqued the public’s interest when the great Oz introduced green coffee bean extract as the next diet sensation. Actually “chlorogenic acid” is not a single compound, but rather a family of closely related compounds found in green plants, which perhaps surprisingly, contain no chlorine atoms. The name derives from the Greek “chloro” for pale green and “genic” means “give rise to.” (The element chlorine is a pale green gas, hence its name.)
An “unprecedented” breakthrough, Dr, Oz curiously announced, apparently having forgotten all about his previous weight-control miracles. This time the “staggering” results originate from a study of green coffee bean extract by Dr. Joe Vinson, a respected chemist at the University of Scranton who has a long-standing interest in antioxidants, such as chlorogenic acid. Aware of the fact that chlorogenic acid had been shown to influence glucose and fat metabolism in mice, Vinson speculated that it might have some effect on humans as well. Since chlorogenic acid content is reduced by roasting, a green bean extracts was chosen for the study.
In cooperation with colleagues in India who had access to volunteers, Dr. Vinson designed a trial whereby overweight subjects were given, in random order, for periods of six weeks each, either a daily dose of 1,050 mg of green coffee bean extract, a lower dosage of 700 mg, or a placebo. Between each six-week phase there was a two-week “washout” period during which the participants took no supplements. There was no dietary intervention; the average daily calorie intake was about 2,400. Participants burned roughly 400 calories a day with exercise. On average there was a loss of about a third of a kilogram per week. Interesting, but hardly “staggering.” And there are caveats galore.
The study involved only eight men and eight women, which amounts to a statistically weak sample. Diet was self-reported, a notoriously unreliable method. The subjects were not really blinded since the high dose regimen involved three pills, the lower dose only two. A perusal of the results also shows some curious features. For example, in the group that took placebo for the first six weeks, there was an 8 kilogram weight loss during the placebo and washout phase, but almost no further loss during the high dose and low dose phases. By the time, though, that critics reacted to Oz’s glowing account, overweight people were already panting their way to the health food store to pick up some green coffee bean extract that might or might not contain the amount of chlorogenic acid declared on the label. As for Dr. Oz, he had already moved on to his next “revolutionary” product, Garcinia cambogia, unabashedly describing it as the “Holy Grail” of weight loss.
We were actually treated to the Grail in action. Sort of. Dr. Oz, with guest Dr. Julie Chen, performed a demonstration using a plastic contraption with a balloon inside that was supposed to represent the liver. A white liquid, supposedly a sugar solution, was poured in, causing the balloon, representing a fat cell, to swell. Then a valve was closed, and as more liquid was introduced, it went into a different chamber, marked “energy.” The message was that the valve represents Garcinia extract, which prevents the buildup of fat in fat cells. While playing with balloons and a plastic liver may make for entertaining television, it makes for pretty skimpy science.
Contrary to Dr. Oz’s introduction that “you are hearing it here first,” there is nothing new about Garcinia. There’s no breakthrough, no fresh research, no “revolutionary” discovery. In the weight control field, Garcinia cambogia is old hat. Extracts of the rind of this small pumpkin-shaped Asian fruit have long been used in “natural weight loss supplements” Why? Because in theory, they could have an effect.
The rind of the fruit, sometimes called a tamarind, is rich in hydroxycitric acid (HCA), a substance with biological activity that can be related to weight loss. Laboratory experiments indicate that HCA can interfere with an enzyme that plays a role in converting excess sugar into fat, as well as with enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates to simple sugars that are readily absorbed. Furthermore, there are suggestions that Garcinia extract stimulates serotonin release which can lead to appetite suppression.
Laboratory results that point toward possible weight loss don’t mean much until they are confirmed by proper human trials. And there have been some. Fifteen years ago a randomized trial involving 135 subjects who took either a placebo or a Garcinia extract equivalent to 1500 mg of HCA a day for three months, showed no difference in weight loss between the groups. A more recent trial involving 86 overweight people taking either two grams of extract or placebo for ten weeks echoed those results. In-between these two major studies there were several others, some of which did show a weight loss of about one kilogram over a couple of months, but these either had few subjects or lacked a control group. Basically, it is clear that if there is any weight loss attributed to Garcinia cambogia, it is virtually insignificant. But there may be something else attributed to the supplement, namely kidney problems. Although incidence is rare, even one is an excess when the chance of a benefit is so small. So Garcinia cambogia, like green coffee bean extract, can hardly be called a miracle. But it seems Dr. Oz puts his facts on a diet when it comes to fattening up his television ratings.
Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.
I’ve continued to have terrific email questions and answers with the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Fit Family Challenge participants. I thought I’d publish some of our conversations so that you can participate as well. The Lang family shared this image of their son eating dinner next to the latest USDA dietary recommendations “MyPlate” materials. A picture’s worth 1000 words, isn’t it?
This cute fella is a healthy weight, he is very athletic, and he’s also wondering where chicken nuggets, french fries, and pizza fit in to the MyPlate dinner plans… His mom asked me how to make more “kid friendly” healthy meals. Perhaps some folks reading this have some success stories that they’d like to share? Here’s what I had to say to the Langs and others…
1. My son doesn’t think the MyPlate suggested meals are kid friendly. What can we do?
I wonder if your son would be open to trying healthier variations of the foods he likes? You could make a pretty tasty pizza with whole wheat crust, grilled veggies, a little pesto or tomato sauce and some ham cubes (ham is much lower in fat than sausage or pepperoni) and low fat shredded mozzarella. You can get a pizza stone to help crisp the crust in a regular oven. The pizza would probably reheat well so you could make it in advance too.You can bread chicken strips and bake them (instead of frying them) to simulate healthy chicken “nuggets.” Same for fish sticks. You can try sweet potato fries for a healthier fry option – bake them in the oven with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. More nutritious, kid-friendly recipes may be found at KidsHealth.org
2. Do my kids need 8 cups of water a day?
As far as water is concerned, the amount you need really depends on how much liquid you’re getting from other sources (food, beverages) as well as how much you’re sweating (exercise), how hot/dry the environment is and how much you weigh. Eight cups/day is a very rough rule of thumb. Some people need more or less depending on the day. Unless you are doing extreme exercise (in the heat) that requires fluid replacement before you notice that you’re thirsty, thirst is a good indicator of whether or not you need to drink. Also, I’ll tell you a doctor secret – all you need to know about hydration is in your urine color. Urine becomes very concentrated (dark yellow) when you are dehydrated. If you drink enough water to keep your urine a nice light yellow, then that’s all you need.
3. What are the best vegan protein substitutes for meat?
Concentrated vegetable protein is primarily derived from soy (tofu and tempeh) and wheat (seitan). Nuts and seeds also contain some degree of protein, as well as beans, lentils, and rice. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan can be molded into burger and hotdog shapes and may be prepared to mimic meat flavors. Keep in mind that concentrated soy or wheat proteins may not agree with your intestinal tract (some complain of excessive gas and bloating). So if you have those reactions, at least you’ll know that it’s quite common.
4. Is it healthy to be a vegetarian? Is there such a thing as too much fruit and veggies?
Vegetarianism can be healthy, though it takes some effort to ensure that adequate amounts of nutrients are received – especially if you’re vegan (no dairy, no eggs). The most common deficiencies for vegans are iron, B12, calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and Vitamin D. (You can read more about how vegetarians can overcome these deficiencies here.) I guess my main concern with veganism is the low omega-3s. It is basically impossible to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources (certain seeds, you may have heard, have a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids but what they won’t tell you is that plant omega-3′s aren’t processed by the body so they remain inactive and don’t provide much benefit.) Omega 3 fatty acids form a protective layer on the outside of cell membranes by reducing inflammation. This is particularly helpful in the reduction of plaque build up in heart arteries, and reducing the risk of various dementias (such as Alzheimer’s) that have an inflammatory cause.
Excellent sources of omega 3 fatty acids are oily fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel, sea bass). This is why the American Heart Association (and MyPlate.gov) recommend 2 servings of oily fish/week for optimal health. Vegetarians are missing out on this important benefit.
As far as eating too many fruits/veggies is concerned – I can’t think of too many potential harms from eating large amounts of fruits/veggies (other than weight gain if you really eat a lot of fruit – they have quite a bit of natural sugar). The real harm comes from excluding vital nutrients by eating plants exclusively (without a careful strategy to get the right plant sources of vitamins and minerals, along with omega-3 supplements).