#FakeNews in nutrition
The plague of false information in nutrition.
In my research area of nutrition, there are vast amounts of misleading information constantly being disseminated. This is just one of the many so-called “fake news” topics we hear about these days. The amount of misinformation out there about COVID-19, for example, is something with which most people are quite familiar. But, in reality, there is nothing new about this problem.
In Victorian times a common belief was that masturbation was a major cause of blindness and insanity. We see much the same problem everywhere today; discussions on such issues as climate change and the conflicts in the Middle East are plagued by false information. Creative minds continually dream up new forms of false information; some do it because they are deluded, some because they love the publicity, and others because of greed.
The problem with supplements
One area where we see this is with the marketing of dietary supplements. This is a multi-billion dollar industry in North America despite the fact that very few of the supplements sold have any real value. Indeed, many can be harmful.
Supplements are marketed in diverse ways. One popular method is through health food stores. The staff in these stores seldom have any proper scientific knowledge regarding the topics on which they freely dispense advice—but what they do have is a strong economic incentive to sell products. As a result, a request for advice will typically be responded to by a recommendation to take a particular supplement. This advice usually suffers from a serious lack of credible supporting evidence.
I demonstrated the extent of this problem in a study. As an assignment for one of the courses I teach, I sent students to 260 health food stores across Canada where they asked for advice on supplements. On 90 per cent of visits the recommendations made were highly inaccurate. Not surprisingly, when the same questions were asked in pharmacies the responses were far more accurate.
“Many of the book titles offer 'quick and easy weight loss' or promise to help get rid of 'belly fat'. Alas, few of these books have anything useful to say. If diet books worked, then the obesity epidemic would have been vanquished years ago.”– Dr. Norman Temple
TV, books, and magazines
Dr. Oz is a highly accomplished heart surgeon whose TV show is watched by millions of people. But he dispenses advice on many topics in the general area of health, and this advice isn’t always backed by science. Researchers from the University of Alberta made a careful analysis of the accuracy of his claims, many of which are in the area of diet. About half of the recommendations lacked supporting scientific evidence.
The book industry publishes thousands of diet books every year. Many of the book titles offer “quick and easy weight loss” or promise to help get rid of “belly fat”. Alas, few of these books have anything useful to say. If diet books worked, then the obesity epidemic would have been vanquished years ago.
This problem extends to magazines. Woman’s World is a supermarket tabloid sold across North America. It regularly features the latest “lose a pound per day” diet on its front cover.
Many books claim that a person’s blood type is the basis for treating a wide range of health problems. These books advise people to select their diet based on their blood type. A recent review on this subject concluded that: “No evidence currently exists to validate the purported health benefits of blood type diets.”
Another example is the concept of detoxification, which is a common idea circulating right now. It is based on the notion that the accumulation of toxins in the body is involved in much sickness and that disease can be cured by using treatments to eliminate these toxins. A popular treatment is fasting, often accompanied with juices. Many naturopaths employ detoxification therapies. Many herbal supplements are sold with the claim that they enhance health by speeding detoxification. There is very little credible evidence that detoxification treatments can remove toxins from the body or that they improve health.
Knowing where to get good advice
What can be done to stop those who dispense this false information?
Educate yourself and seek out credible sources of information. It is up to us as consumers to determine the veracity of these claims and act accordingly.
The first thing to ask yourself is whether the person giving you advice is qualified to give you that advice and whether that advice should be trusted. The staff in health-food stores are almost invariably unqualified and far more interested in trying to sell you something rather than giving accurate information. Similarly, authors of books on health who lack legitimate credentials should not be trusted. Many practitioners of different types of alternative medicine promise much but deliver little. It is best to trust the advice of medical experts like doctors and pharmacists rather than listen to unqualified sources.
You can also learn more about these topics yourself, with AU courses such as Health Studies (HLST) 301—Complementary and Alternative Therapies and Nutrition (NUTR) 331—Nutrition for Health.