Nutrition Quackery

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 1:33pm

"New endurance performance breakthrough! Makes more oxygen available to your muscles. Increases your aerobic capacity without additional training. Our unique supplement is an oxygen-releasing substance extracted from natural foods by a secret process. Send $49.95 for your starter capsules now!"

Sounds too good to be true? It is.

If you read a typical fitness magazine, you know that there is no shortage of nutrition supplements which supposedly increase speed, enhance endurance, relieve muscle soreness, improve muscle mass or reduce body fat. Some advertisements even claim their wonder product does all of the above.

Athletes seek that "secret ingredient" which will enhance their workout and give them the edge over their competitors. As a result, they are susceptible to nutrition quackery.

Nutrition quacks promote false and/or unproven nutrition products or services for a profit. Quacks can be sincere and misguided individuals, as well as charlatans and frauds. Quackery is successful because we want to believe in something "magical" that can improve performance more than hard training or a prudent diet.

You can avoid being a victim of a nutrition rip-off by learning to recognize the techniques used by nutrition quacks to manipulate consumers. When you observe any of the followingstop, take a deep breath, and keep your hand on your wallet. 

Warning signs: quack alert

The claims sound too good to be true, but they are what people want to hear. Nutrition quackery is successful because quacks play on emotions and misinformation. Most of us want to believe that there are "magical" alternatives to the hard training and sound diet that promote improved performance. However, we are rarely told of possible side-effects or other harm that might result from the promoted product or dietary regimen.

Quacks also encourage distrust of reputable health professionals such as medical doctors, registered dietitians, and other nutrition scientists. They ridicule the nutrient content of our food supply and claim that the foods we need to meet nutritional requirements can't be purchased in grocery stores. They refer to their unproven treatments as "alternatives" to reputable medical care. While choices do exist among current legitimate treatments, the alternatives promoted by quacks are usually ineffective and/or unsafe.

Quacks often use case histories, testimonials, and subjective evidence to justify their exaggerated claims. Quacks try to appear trustworthy by having well-known athletes promote their product. Testimonials evidence is by definition biased and unreliable. Scientists report their studies in reputable journals, where their work is reviewed and evaluated by other scientists prior to publication. Controlled experiments that can be confirmed by repeating the study are the best way to document the truth of the information. 

Evaluating nutrition claims

You need to be discriminating about the nutrition information you read and hear. Most victims of nutrition fraud aren't gullible, only unsuspecting. Magazines, books, and the media overflow with medical advice -- some reliable, some inaccurate.

Here are some guidelines you can use to evaluate nutrition claims:

1.   Qualifications for recommending the product or diet

A reputable person usually has a background or current affiliation with an accredited university or medical school offering programs in the fields of nutrition or medicine. Beware the title "nutritionist". It can be used by anyone, regardless of training. Even "Ph.D." is no guarantee. Sad to say, a quack can purchase the credential from a diploma mill (an unaccredited institution) to appear legitimate.

2.   Evidence supporting the claims made

The claims should be supported with references to the scientific journals that published the original research. Is the information factual and specific, or vague and highly emotional? Are the recommendations based on published scientific evidence, or on personal testimonials?

3.   Purpose of the article

If the information is written, why was it published?Is someone trying to sell you something? Does the material encourage gradual changes in your lifestyle, or does it promise to dramatically enhance performance or guarantee fast results? Does the author recommend eating a variety of foods, or are certain foods eliminated? Are expensive supplements recommended as the only way to ensure nutritional adequacy?

4.   Agreement with professional recommendations

Do the suggestions appear to agree with most recommendations of medical and sports science professionals? Professional journals and newsletters review articles in a wide range of lay publications and judge their credibility. If you don't have access to these -- and most athlete's don't -- you can seek the advice of a registered dietitian (R.D.) or other qualified nutrition professional at a local university, health department, or hospital. If you're considering big changes in eating habits that have kept you healthy and performing well until now, this extra digging is worthwhile. 

Other Strategies Quacks Use

Quacks are very clever at imitating actual health professionals and scientists. When quacks assess a person's nutritional status, they use various "tests" to diagnose nutritional deficiencies and food allergies. They use these tests to appear scientific, convince people to buy nutrition supplements, or even to profit directly from the cost of the test.

The tests used by quacks include applied kinesiology, live cell analysis, iridology, hair analysis and cytotoxic testing.

Using fake tests, these fake nutritionists always find something wrong. Their typical "diagnoses" include: food allergies, hypoglycemia, malabsorption, glandular disturbances, adrenal insufficiency, trace vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and the build-up of various toxins in the body. These are all problems that sound ominous and are difficult to prove or disprove.

Quacks may claim they are doing a nutrition assessmentbut what makes up a valid nutrition assessment? A nutrition assessment may be part of a general health examination and requires the combined expertise of a medical doctor and registered dietitian. It generally includes a medical history, dietary history, and clinical evaluations. If neither a registered dietitian or physician is involved, you should be suspicious.

Quackery is very subtle. Fitness oriented people want to believe in something that is magical which can improve performance more than hard training or a prudent diet. In many events the difference between winning and losing is in divisions of seconds, so it is not surprising that athletes are susceptible to claims for magical foods or nutrients.

The placebo effect by itself is powerful enough to produce beneficial results. When athletes are convinced that certain products improve performance, their belief may enable them to perform better, even though there is nothing useful in the product as such. Just because a friend may ride the placebo effect to a better performance, it doesn't mean you will.

Most of the time, quacks only do injury to our wallets and hopes, promising benefits they can't deliver. However, they can cause real harm when necessary medical treatment is delayed at a time when it could be most effective in treating an illness or injury. 

Best protection - an informed consumer

New dietary supplements are constantly emerging. These products are often marketed without any supportive scientific research to indicate the potential benefits or possible harmful side effects. Prosecutions or other legal actions take years, and the promoter can reap huge profits during the delay.

Under our consumer protection laws, a substance is considered a drug if a medical claim is made for it, even though it is a food or dietary supplement. However, just about anything can be sold as long as it is called a dietary supplement. Since the Food and Drug Administration treats dietary supplements as foods, these products are not evaluated for safety and effectiveness.

Although claims on the label cannot be false or misleading, supplement manufacturers often use advertising techniques such as testimonials and pamphlets that are protected by the first amendment to the constitution (freedom of speech). People often believe that magazine, radio, and television ads and testimonials are proof of effectiveness.

The supplement manufacturers currently have the advantage -- their products don't have to be safe or effective. People tend to believe that the products on the market have been researched, tested, and inspected. Avoid buying products with bogus claims like "fat burner," "fat metabolizer," "energy enhancer," "performance booster," "strength booster," "ergogenic aid," "anabolic optimizer," and "genetic optimizer."

Your best protection against nutrition fraud is to be an informed consumer.

Reprinted with permission from Ellen Coleman, RD, MA, MPH

Ms. Coleman is a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist in Riverside, California. She is the nutrition consultant for The Sport Clinic. She is the author of two books (Bull Publishing): The Ultimate Sports Nutrition Handbook (1996) and Eating for Endurance, 3rd ed. (1997).