Knowing the real deal

Today I return to the issue of alternative medicine, which as I said last week I do not believe in.

So here are some more indications to help you determine if the person with whom you are dealing is a quack, to follow up on the six pointers from last week.

7. They Claim That Soil Depletion and the Use of Pesticides and “Chemical” Fertilizers Result in Food That Is Less Safe and Less Nourishing.

These claims are used to promote the sale of so-called “organically grown” foods. If an essential nutrient is missing from the soil, a plant simply doesn’t grow. Chemical fertilisers counteract the effects of soil depletion.

Quacks also lie when they claim that plants grown with natural fertilisers (such as manure) are nutritionally superior to those grown with synthetic fertilisers. Before they can use them, plants convert natural fertilisers into the same chemicals that synthetic fertilisers supply. The vitamin content of a food is determined by its genetic makeup. Fertilisers can influence the levels of certain minerals in plants, but this is not a significant factor in the American diet.

The pesticide residue of our food supply is extremely small and poses no health threat to the consumer. Foods “certified” as “organic” are not safer or more nutritious than other foods. In fact, except for their high price, they are not significantly different.

8. They Claim You Are in Danger of Being “Poisoned” by Ordinary Food Additives and Preservatives.

This is another scare tactic designed to undermine your confidence in food scientists and government protection agencies as well as our food supply itself. Quacks want you to think they are out to protect you. They hope that if you trust them, you will buy their “natural” food products. The fact is that the tiny amounts of additives used in food pose no threat to human health. Some actually protect our health by preventing spoilage, rancidity, and mold growth.

9. They Charge That the Recommended Dietary Allowances Have Been Set Too Low.

The RDAs have been published by the National Research Council approximately every five years since 1943. They are defined as “the levels of intake of essential nutrients that, on the basis of scientific knowledge, are judged by the Food and Nutrition Board to be adequate to meet the known nutrient needs of practically all healthy persons”. Neither the RDAs nor the daily values listed on food labels are “minimums” or “requirements”. They are deliberately set higher than most people need. The reason quacks charge that the RDAs are too low is obvious: if you believe you need more than can be obtained from food, you are more likely to buy supplements.

10. They Claim That under Everyday Stress, and in Certain Diseases, Your Need for Nutrients Is Increased.

Many vitamin manufacturers have advertised that “stress robs the body of vitamins”. One company has asserted that: “If you smoke, diet, or happen to be sick, you may be robbing your body of vitamins”. Another has warned that “stress can deplete your body of water-soluble vitamins … and daily replacement is necessary”. Other products are touted to fill the “special needs of athletes”.

While it is true that the need for vitamins may rise slightly under physical stress and in certain diseases, this type of advertising is fraudulent. The average person — stressed or not — is not in danger of vitamin deficiency. The increased needs to which the ads refer are not higher than the amounts obtainable by proper eating.

Someone who is really in danger of deficiency due to an illness would be very sick and would need medical care, probably in a hospital. But these promotions are aimed at average persons who certainly don’t need vitamin supplements to survive the common cold, a round of golf, or a jog around the neighbourhood! Athletes get more than enough vitamins when they eat the food needed to meet their caloric requirements.

Many vitamin pushers suggest that smokers need vitamin C supplements. Although it is true that smokers in North America have somewhat lower blood levels of this vitamin, these levels are still far above deficiency levels.

In America, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of death preventable by self-discipline. Rather than seeking false comfort by taking vitamin C, smokers who are concerned about their health should stop smoking. Suggestions that “stress vitamins” are helpful against emotional stress are also fraudulent.

11. They Recommend “Supplements” and “Health Foods” for Everyone.

Food quacks belittle normal foods and ridicule the food-group systems of good nutrition. They may not tell you they earn their living from such pronouncements — via public appearance fees, product endorsements, sale of publications, or financial interests in vitamin companies, health-food stores, or organic farms.

The very term “health food” is a deceptive slogan. Judgments about individual foods should take into account how they contribute to an individual’s overall diet. All food is health food in moderation; any food is junk food in excess. Did you ever stop to think that your corner grocery, fruit market, meat market, and supermarket are also health-food stores? They are — and they generally charge less than stores that use the slogan.

By the way, have you ever wondered why people who eat lots of “health foods” still feel they must load themselves up with vitamin supplements? Or why so many “health food” shoppers complain about ill health?

12. They Claim That “Natural” Vitamins are Better than “Synthetic” Ones.

This claim is a flat lie. Each vitamin is a chain of atoms strung together as a molecule. With minor exception, molecules made in the “factories” of nature are identical to those made in the factories of chemical companies. Does it make sense to pay extra for vitamins extracted from foods when you can get all you need from the foods themselves?

13. They Suggest That a Questionnaire Can Be Used to Indicate Whether You Need Dietary Supplements.

No questionnaire can do this. A few entrepreneurs have devised lengthy computer-scored questionnaires with questions about symptoms that could be present if a vitamin deficiency exists. But such symptoms occur much more frequently in conditions unrelated to nutrition.

Even when a deficiency actually exists, the tests don’t provide enough information to discover the cause so that suitable treatment can be recommended. That requires a physical examination and appropriate laboratory tests. Many responsible nutritionists use a computer to help evaluate their clients’ diet.

But this is done to make dietary recommendations, such as reducing fat content or increasing fibre content. Supplements are seldom necessary unless the person is unable (or unwilling) to consume an adequate diet.

Be wary, too, of questionnaires purported to determine whether supplements are needed to correct “nutrient deficiencies” or “dietary inadequacies” or to design “customised” supplements. These questionnaires are scored so that everyone who takes the test is advised to take supplements.

Responsible dietary analyses compare the individual’s average daily food consumption with the recommended numbers of servings from each food group. The safest and best way to get nutrients is generally from food, not pills. So even if a diet is deficient, the most prudent action is usually diet modification rather than supplementation with pills.

14. They Say It Is Easy to Lose Weight.

Diet quacks would like you to believe that special pills or food combinations can cause “effortless” weight loss. But the only way to lose weight is to burn off more calories than you eat. This requires self-discipline: eating less, exercising more, or preferably doing both.

There are about 3,500 calories in a pound of body weight. To lose one pound a week (a safe amount that is not just water), you must eat about 500 fewer calories per day than you burn up.

The most sensible diet for losing weight is one that is nutritionally balanced in carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Most fad diets “work” by producing temporary weight loss — as a result of calorie restriction. But they are invariably too monotonous and are often too dangerous for long-term use. Unless a dieter develops and maintains better eating and exercise habits, weight lost on a diet will soon return.

* We will return to this topic next week.

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