Identifying a quack

There is a continued expansion of “alternative medical” initiatives that purport to treat anything under the sun, with less side effects and greater healing rates.

Let me set my stall early o’clock. I do not believe in alternative medicine, I understand and appreciate complementary medicine.

I tend to agree with the statement by Arnold Relman, M.D. former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, who stated:

There are not two kinds of medicine, one conventional and the other unconventional that can be practiced jointly in a new kind of “integrative medicine.” Nor, as Andrew Weil and his friends also would have us believe, are there two kinds of thinking, or two ways to find out which treatments work and which do not. In the best kind of medical practice, all proposed treatments must be tested objectively. In the end, there will only be treatments that pass that test and those that do not, those that are proven worthwhile and those that are not.

As a pharmacist, I know that many drugs have been derived from plant sources, but I also know that natural medicines can have side effects and can be dangerous in the wrong hands or when incorrectly combined with medicines. But the article today is less about the herbal treatments and more about the quacks that abound. There are people who will use our natural tendency to be well, to enrich themselves, especially if we unfortunately are stricken with a terminal illness. What I hope to do today (no pun intended) is to leave you with some tell tale signs you are dealing with a quack.

1. When Talking about Nutrients, They Tell Only Part of the Story.

Quacks tell you all the wonderful things that vitamins and minerals do in your body and/or all the horrible things that can happen if you don’t get enough. Many claim that their products or programs offer “optimal nutritional support.” But they conveniently neglect to tell you that a balanced diet provides the nutrients most people need and that government supplied guidelines make balancing your diet simple.

2. They Claim That Most People Are Poorly Nourished.

This is an appeal to fear that is not only untrue, but ignores the fact that the main form of bad nourishment in the developed countries is obesity in the population at large, particularly the poor, and undernourishment among the poverty-stricken. Poor people can ill afford to waste money on unnecessary vitamin pills. Their food money should be spent on nourishing food.

3. They Recommend “Nutrition Insurance” for Everyone.

Most vitamin pushers suggest that everyone is in danger of deficiency and should therefore take supplements as “insurance.” Some suggest that it is difficult to get what you need from food, while others claim that it is impossible. Their pitch resembles that of the slick TV ads which states that your perfectly good phone is in danger of blowing up unless you replace it with a new one. Vitamin pushers will never tell you who doesn’t need their products. Their “be wary of deficiency” claims may not be limited to essential nutrients. It can also include nonessential chemicals that nobody needs to worry about because the body makes its own supply.

4. They Say That Most Diseases Are Due to Faulty Diet and Can Be Treated with “Nutritional” Methods.

This simply isn’t so. Consult your doctor or any recognised textbook of medicine. They will tell you that although diet is a factor in some diseases (most notably coronary heart disease), most diseases have little or nothing to do with diet. Common symptoms like malaise (feeling poorly), fatigue, lack of pep, aches (including headaches) or pains, insomnia, and similar complaints are usually the body’s reaction to emotional stress. The persistence of such symptoms is a signal to see a doctor to be evaluated for possible physical illness. It is not a reason to take vitamin pills.

5. They Allege That Modern Processing Methods and Storage remove all Nutritive Value from Our Food.

It is true that food processing can change the nutrient content of foods. But the changes are not as drastic as the quack, who wants you to buy supplements, would like you to believe. While some processing methods destroy some nutrients, others add them. A balanced variety of foods will provide all the nourishment you need.

Quacks distort and oversimplify. When they say that milling removes B-vitamins, they don’t bother to tell you that enrichment puts them back. When they tell you that cooking destroys vitamins, they omit the fact that only a few vitamins are sensitive to heat. Nor do they tell you that these vitamins are easily obtained by consuming a portion of fresh uncooked fruit, vegetable, or fresh or frozen fruit juice each day. Any claims that minerals are destroyed by processing or cooking are pure lies. Heat does not destroy minerals.

6. They Claim That Diet Is a Major Factor in Behaviour.

Food quacks relate diet not only to disease but to behaviour. Some claim that adverse reactions to additives and/or common foods cause hyperactivity in children and even criminal behaviour in adolescents and adults. These claims are based on a combination of delusions, anecdotal evidence, and poorly designed research.

*Continued next week.

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