The Nutrition Reporter™

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Religion of Nutrition

I’ve been writing about nutrition for 30-some years. As I listen to people, I often hear less science and more of what could best be described as a variety of belief systems.

There are the vegetarian, vegan, and macrobiotic sects. There’s the church of low-fat eating. And there’s the pervasive belief that everything boils down to calories in and calories out, with exercise being the penance for overeating.

But the fact is, there’s very little science to support many common nutrition beliefs. They’re just beliefs. And having millions of adherents or thousands of experts repeat the same mantras doesn’t make these beliefs truer.

I know this sounds like heresy to many of you. And I’m not trying to offend anyone’s nutritional or religious sensibilities. But the only food we definitely know we were meant to consume is breast milk, in infancy.

In anthropology, the term “belief system” is usually used to describe a religion. And when it comes to nutrition, many scientists and consumers are so wedded to their beliefs that they’re not interested in adjusting their beliefs in response to new scientific findings.

I’ll give you three examples.

Saturated Fat. Millions of people believe that low-saturated fat diets will prevent heart disease. But the research now shows the opposite to be true. Saturated fat is either neutral or protective, according to an impressive body of research. It’s the refined carbs and sugars and the trans fats that seem to be the real problem in cardiovascular risk.

Why do so many people still believe that saturated fat is bad? It’s a matter of belief — shaped by studies that failed to factor in the effects of carbs, sugars, and trans fats, as well as publication bias favoring the sat-fat-is-bad belief.

Calories. Nearly everyone believes that, to lose weight, you have to either eat less or exercise more. But different types of calories prompt different biological responses. Nutrients that trigger insulin — think carbs and sugars — are more likely to result in weight gain, compared with protein. Protein has little effect on insulin.

The calorie idea was based on energy transfer in steam engines and the 1st Law of Thermodynamics. Biological systems — you are a biological system — are far less efficient and are governed by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

Vegetarian diets. If you look at the history of human cultures, as anthropologists and other scientists have done, you’ll realize that there have been no completely vegetarian cultures. People simply didn’t have the luxury to be so picky about food until relatively recently. Yes, veggies are good for health, but so is unadulterated animal protein. Biologically, we’re designed as omnivores.

Vegetarianisms and its many forms are a belief system. Understand that I have no issue with any sensible vegetarian. However, I’ve met many vegetarians who don’t eat vegetables and prefer sugary soft drinks, bagels, and muffins. Should any of us be surprised that they are often overweight and have a lot of health problems?

Again, I’m not trying to offend anyone or their beliefs. Rather, I’d like to encourage people to gain a better understanding of what shapes their nutritional beliefs and to remain open to where the scientific evidence leads.

Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, H FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010;91:535-545.

Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, H FB, Krauss RM. Saturated fat, carbohydrate, and cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010;91:502-509.

Feinman RD, Fine EJ. “A calorie is a calorie” violates the second law of thermodynamics. Nutrition Journal 2004;3:9-13.

Feinman RD, Fine EJ. Nonequilibrium thermodynamics and energy efficiency in weight loss diets. Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, 2007;4:27 doi:10.1186/1742-4682-4-27.

Eaton SB, Eaton SB III, Konner MJ, et al. An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements. Journal of Nutrition, June 1996;126:1732-40.

O'Keefe JH Jr, Cordain L. Cardiovascular disease resulting from a diet and lifestyle at odds with our Paleolithic genome: how to become a 21st-century hunter-gatherer. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2004;79:101-108.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stepping Back from Political Fanaticism

I live in Tucson, Arizona, just a few miles from where Congresswoman Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords was shot in the head at a public meet and greet on January 8. Six people were killed, including a nine-year-old girl, and 12 (including Giffords) were wounded. Giffords is one of the sweetest people imaginable, someone who somehow remained untainted by the vicious tone of American politics. A democrat, she always worked with the republican party to get things done. This is the way politics should operate in achieving something for the common good.

The gunman was obviously nuts - would a sane person praise both "Mein Kampf" and "The Communist Manifesto" and then shoot 20 people? Our county sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, summed things up accurately when he stated that Arizona had become a "mecca for prejudice and bigotry." This was the latest event that put Arizona's nuttiness on the national stage. Too many people here in Arizona and around the country now feel it's socially acceptable to be totally unhinged and scream and shove, call elected representatives names, and, in this case, shoot away. Arizona suffers from a serious case of hardening of the attitudes, and Sheriff Dupnik is a sane voice in an insane state.

My own politics are left of center on most issues. (If you disagree, simply respect my views.) I am, however, a gun owner - but I'm not a hothead or wacko or paranoid. (My guns are strictly for self-defense, something suggested decades about by the two most liberal people I knew back then.) However, I am critical of many gun owners and the gun-owner community, where paranoia runs deep. Arizona has always been on the fringe and has had more than it's share of wacky politicians.

Thanks to a right-wing dominated legislature, and a right-wing governor, it is now legal for anyone over 18 to carry guns openly or concealed in Arizona; no training is required. This means it's more difficult to get a driver's license or a bottle of beer than to buy a gun and carry it under your shirt. (I've opted to go through gun training twice.) Now, the republican state government wants to allow teachers and students to be able to carry guns on college campuses. It's totally insane. Welcome to the modern day Tombstone and the OK Corral.

In response, some local talk radio hosts ranted about how inappropriate Sheriff Dupnik's comments about hatred and bigotry were, and call-ins spouted their own vitriol about the Sheriff. Sadly, they were too dumb to realize they were proving Dupnik's point about hatred and intolerance.

The local paper related comments that were posted on, and "So, Congresswoman Giffords, how's that Obamacare working out for you?" and "Too bad it wasn't Howard Dean or Al Gore." Sarah Palin, who targeted democrats on her website, including gunscope crosshairs on Giffords' district, now claims those weren't gun crosshairs but those of a surveyor's scope. And Glenn Beck posted a statement on his website that he's against violence, next to a photo of him holding a gun. These people are out of touch and delusional.

If there will be any good that comes out of this tragedy, it will be that people and politicians will learn to turn down the level of vitriol and viciousness and political jingoism. After all, it could just as easily have been a republican who was shot. It's time to turn down the volume and look at the things we have in common, even when our political views differ. It's about respecting our differences the way you would want other people to respect your differences.

Turn down the volume folks. Listen with respect. Seek to understand rather than to persuade.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Vitamin E and Stroke Risk

A recent article in the British Medical Journal, a news release from the publisher, and news stories published around the world was nothing less than misleading and alarming. The article, based on an analysis of nine previously published studies, reported that vitamin E supplements increased the risk of stroke.

Wait a minute! The study and all the negative publicity were deeply flawed.

First, none of the individual studies had found an increased risk of stroke. Second, the dosages varied from 300 IU to 800 IU of vitamin E daily, some using natural and others using synthetic vitamin E. The studies ranged from about a year and one-half to 10 years, the subjects varied from middle-age to seniors, and some were healthy while others were at high risk of cardiovascular disease (and whom were likely to be taking several medications). With this disparate data, the researchers concluded that one additional person in every 1,250 taking vitamin E would suffer a hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke, whereas about 2.6 additional people in 1,250 would be less likely to suffer an ischemic (clotting) stroke.

You would think that the significantly greater reduction in ischemic stroke would be the subject of headlines. But it wasn’t. The researchers downplayed the benefits, and headlines warned that vitamin E increased the risk of stroke.

Here’s what else you need to know: you are far more likely to suffer an ischemic stroke. That’s because 90 percent of all strokes are related to blood clots. You are far less likely to suffer a hemorrhagic stroke; they account for only 10 percent of all strokes.
Even though this study was poorly designed, it showed that vitamin E supplements significantly reduced the risk of the most common type of stroke, whereas it slightly increased the risk of the least common stroke. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist – or a statistician – to figure out that the benefits:risk ratio of vitamin E supplements is strongly in your favor.

Mixed Messages for Health Care

Two recent newswire stories caught my attention. One article noted that there will be a significant shortage of doctors as “baby boomers” hit their 60s and 70s. The other story noted that too much health care is unnecessary and harmful.
Am I the only one who saw a contradiction here?

The second story, sent to newspapers by the Associated Press, noted that “More medical care won’t necessarily make you healthier—it may make you sicker.” The article went on to report that as many as one in three medical tests and treatments aren’t needed.

Fewer medical tests might not be a popular idea among people who keep asking their doctors to identify the cause and then to treat their aches and pains and other health problems. But I would agree, at least to an extent – conventional medical tests and treatments are overused, while nutritional assessments and treatments are sorely underutilized.

In the United States, medicine is a “for profit” business, and most doctors earn a living through some sort of intervention, such as by prescribing a drug or doing surgery. When a patient asks for help, his expectation is that the doctor will do something. Of course, doctors are trained to intervene, and income is related to ordering more tests and doing more interventions. Sometimes the result is iatrogenic disease – physician-caused illness.

Although I believe most doctors are sincere and do want to help their patients, they also know the economic realities of medicine. But not everyone is so sincere. Some years back, I happened to be meeting with a hospital administrator on the morning the government announced that it was reducing Medicare payments to doctors. The administrator was livid. “Do you know what the doctors are going to do?” she asked rhetorically. “They’ve got big mortgages and boats and kids in college. They’re just going to wheel in more patients so they (the docs) don’t have to take a cut in income.”

So, do we really need more doctors? Or unnecessary tests and treatments? Or do we need more doctors who think in terms of more efficient and lower cost nutritional therapies?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Vitamin D: The "Safe" Official Recommendation May Be Dangerous to Your Health

In a report issued today by the Institute of Medicine, a committee of physicians and researchers cautioned against taking large amounts of supplemental vitamin D and calcium because they are unnecessary and potentially harmful. However, the committee did recommend slight increases in the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for calcium (1,000 to 1,300 mg/d) and vitamin D (600 IU/d).

If you follow the advice of the Institute of Medicine, you'll increase your long-term risk of disease.

It’s always safer for researchers and physicians to take the more conservative approach when recommending supplements—except that it reveals a naiveté about clinical nutrition and can lead to chronic nutritional deficiencies and harm to patients. That is the case with this cautious increase in the RDA for vitamin D, combined with a warning about high-dose vitamin D supplementation. Maintaining the status quo by saying “no” to higher dose supplements carries relatively little risk, at least for doctors. It's a very different story for the average person, though.

The truth is that three of every four Americans are deficient or marginally deficient in vitamin D, a number that most likely gets even worse during the winter months when people huddle indoors. (Ginde AA. Arch Intern Med, 2009;169:626-632.) By refusing to acknowledge the scale of vitamin D deficiency, and the easy and inexpensive means of treating it, the committee from the National Institute of Medicine is guilty of malpractice. The committee members have reversed the Hippocratic Oath, from “first do no harm” to “first do harm.” Their action, or lack of action, is simply unconscionable.

The situation was made even worse by incredibly sloppy reporting in newspapers, particularly by Gina Kolata of the New York Times. In her article in today's NYT, she simply related a summary of the Institute of Medicine’s report without critical comment by any expert on vitamin D, such as Michael Holick, M.D., Reinhold Veith, Ph.D., or Robert Heaney, M.D. No mainstream reporter would be so uncritical in echoing a self-serving news release from politicians or corporations. But then, the committee did not even include a recognized expert on vitamin D, so the cautious nature of report may have reflected the fact that the committee members were out of their depth.

The cost of ongoing vitamin D deficiencies will mount with susceptibility to infectious diseases and a greater risk of cancer, heart disease, and depression. But then, there is much more money to be made on treating these diseases than on preventing them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Too Much to Do ... and Only One Jack

Has it really been months since my last post?

Apologies. I've been very busy writing and traveling and lecturing about nutrition and health. And reviewing the edited manuscript of my next book, on fatigue and energy, to be published in March 2011.

Enjoy the blogs posted below.


Attacks on Multivitamins

I like to read what other newsletters and magazines write about vitamin supplements. The Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, Reader’s Digest, and even Prevention recently published long articles attacking multivitamins. These rabid attacks cited widely criticized scientific articles, and by repeating misinformation, they may have misguided and harmed millions of people.

As one example, the Tufts newsletter claimed to investigate the “top 20” multivitamin supplements (apparently those sold in drug stores) and warned that they don’t contain enough calcium and vitamin D for bone health, not enough antioxidants for eye health, not enough DHA (one of the omega-3s), not enough ginkgo, not enough bilberry, and not enough probiotics.

First, I could quibble about ingredients in multivitamins, but these formulas have never been intended as the end all of
supplements. They’re basically a form of nutritional insurance, one that’s needed more than ever given the disastrous state of malnutrition in the United States and other Western nations. It’s physically impossible to pack ideal amounts of every nutrient into a capsule or tablet.

Second, in its diatribe against multivitamins, the nutritionally conservative Tufts newsletter indirectly suggested that, if people wanted higher potencies of some nutrients or herbs, they should go buy standalone supplements of calcium and D, lutein, antioxidants, DHA, ginkgo, bilberry, and probiotics. After all, if you can’t get enough of these nutrients in a multivitamin, it only makes sense to make up the difference with whatever individual supplements are important to your health.

There is so much good research supporting the benefits of taking a high-potency multivitamin. Taking a daily multi reduces inflammation and your risk of heart disease, cancer, mood problems and many other health problems.

I have long recommended that people take at least a high-potency multivitamin, and I continue making this recommendation. Given the millions of Americans (and others) who do not get adequate nutrition, it only makes sense.