No matter how you felt about our last election, or which candidate you supported, you probably noticed how the two sides seemed able to look at the exact same set of facts and yet arrive at wildly different conclusions.
Well, nutrition has a lot more in common with politics than you might imagine.
In both nutrition and politics, we now have so many facts available to us that anyone who wants to build a case (for Paleo, raw foods, veganism, high-fat diets, low-fat diets) can carefully select which research findings to emphasize and which to ignore.
Remember, facts are just neutral, bloodless data points. It’s we who organize them and give them emphasis and meaning.
You can find “facts” to support almost any argument you want to make, as observers of our most recent election know very well. Just choose the facts you like, or create some of your own.
I actually saw a serious journal article the other day that claimed that diet soda was “better” than water for weight loss (a study that was funded by the American Beverage Association). The sugar industry itself funded multiple studies that were used to bolster the claim that sugar did no harm.
And if you want to make the case that vitamin and mineral supplements are useless, all you need to do is read the New York Times, which has consistently, over the years, continued to ignore data favorable to supplements while emphasizing data that isn’t. Their main health and nutrition reporter—Jane Brody—has been litigating the case in favor of high-carb diets, the food pyramid, fat-free milk, and just about every other cockamamie idea that the “establishment” has fostered on us for decades, while ignoring or downplaying the mounting evidence against them.
Let’s take a look at this latest piece, published in November of 2016, entitled,
Which Supplements, If Any, Are Worthwhile?, (I’ll save her previous piece, Studies Show Little Benefit in Supplements for another time.)
Brody touts her credentials as a “scientifically trained journalist” who is obliged to “help others to make rational decisions”.
“I’ll start with the bottom line on the most popular of (supplements), the daily multivitamin/mineral combo: If you are a healthy adult with no known nutritional deficiencies, save your money.”
First of all, a “healthy adult with no known nutritional deficiencies” is a unicorn. Millions of people have vanishingly low levels of at least one (and usually more) of the essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. And while they may not have deficiencies that rise to the level of a full-blown nutritional deficiency disease like scurvy, beri-beri or rickets, they have levels that are—to put it kindly– sub-optimal.
Apparently, the Harvard faculty agrees with me. Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health strongly recommends a daily multivitamin-multimineral pill for everyone.
“I have succumbed to several popular suggestions, including melatonin and magnesium to improve my sleep, glucosamine-chondrotin to counter arthritic pain, and fish oil to protect my brain and heart. I take these even knowing that irrefutable, scientifically established evidence for such benefits is lacking.”
Personally, I know a lot of researchers, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single one of them use the term “irrefutable”. Even DNA evidence in a courtroom trial isn’t 100% irrefutable—the term itself is a totally unrealistic bar. Science deals with probabilities and likelihoods and associations, all calculated from cumulative data from lots of different research studies. So yes, there may not be “irrefutable” proof when it comes to the supplements Brody distains, but there’s a hell of a lot of strong suggestive evidence.
Melatonin—which people take for jet lag and sleep—is a hormone that’s a powerful stimulator of the immune system with significant implications for healthy aging and hormonal health. It’s a strong antioxidant that has anti-cancer activity. And, oh yes, Jane, it has also been shown to shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, and to increase sleep efficiency.
Magnesium is the most powerfully relaxing mineral on the planet; it’s needed for over 300 biochemical processes, and shown in double-blind placebo-controlled trials to have a positive effect on insomnia. (It also lowers blood pressure, opens up the arteries and relaxes the brain, but I don’t have room to cite the dozens of studies that demonstrate those actions.)
Glucosamine and chondroitin don’t work for everybody, that’s true. But, as usual, Brody leaves out the qualifier, which is that they work quite well for some people.
A number of studies have consistently shown significant improvement for a sub-group of patients with moderate-to-severe pain.
That fact doesn’t fit Brody’s narrative of supplements being worthless, so, like the good “scientifically trained journalist” she is, she just ignores it6.
Brody also tells us, amazingly, that she “began taking fish oil supplements many years ago hoping to counter the effects of a rising cholesterol level” and proceeds to tell us how disappointing it was. No one ever claimed that fish oil lowers cholesterol. Fish oil also doesn’t lower the divorce rate. But that hardly means it’s useless.
Fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 on the planet. Dr. Joseph Maroon—a renowned neurosurgeon and vice chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center—indexed hundreds of published peer-reviewed studies that definitively demonstrate the value of fish oil for just about any inflammatory condition, in his book, Fish Oil: The Natural Anti-Inflammatory.
Omega-3s have rightly been termed “wellness molecules” partly because of their anti-inflammatory effect. Remember, inflammation is a promoter of every degenerative disease including Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis, cancer, and osteoarthritis.
The fact that omega-3s play a profoundly important role in the cell membranes and specifically in the brain is as “irrefutable” as “irrefutable” gets. A recent study even showed that those who had higher amounts of omega-3 fats in their blood cells had larger brains!
Brody tells us of the mainstream establishment organizations which “found no role for a one-a-day supplement to prevent cancer”, ignoring a large study out of Harvard (Multivitamins in the Prevention of Cancer in Men) which found that men taking a daily multivitamin had a statistically significant reduction in the incidence of total cancer.
I could go on.. really I could… but the point isn’t to list a hundred studies that refute Brody’s arguments. (They exist.) The point is to show how easy it is to build a case for just about any position—including the one that supplements are worthless—- by selectively choosing some research findings while ignoring others.
Whatever you think of the term “fair and balanced”, this certainly ain’t it.
Yet this kind of reporting on health and nutrition is done all the time.
It’s worse than fake news, because reporters like Brody aren’t lying about the facts at all.
They’re just leaving out the ones that don’t support their beliefs, subtly leading you to conclusions that are very far from justified.