Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Food Myth - the Reader's Digest Version

In April 2010, Readers Digest Canada published an article titled “6 Myths and Facts about Vitamin Supplements.” How many did they get right?  Read on and test your knowledge.

In Europe in the late 1600s, it was a well known fact that 'swans are white', and it could be stated as fact that 'black swans do not exist'. In 1697, a black swan was discovered in Australia - and that fact became myth.

The 'black swans do not exist' theory was destined to fail.

Statements like 'all swans are white', and 'there are no black swans' are logically flawed - they cannot be proven true - and they are proven false by a single example. Moral: watch out for 'black swan theories' pretending to be facts.  There are many black swan theories in health.

The article title is ‘6 myths and facts’, it actually finishes with a 7th, as a fact: “Truth: the best way to get your vitamins is by eating them” – of course they mean ‘in food as opposed to supplements’. Note, this 7th item has been removed from the online version is now titled "5 Vitamin Truths and Lies", but there are still 6 on the list.  My guess is that the editor simply removed 1, and then assumed that the original title was correct - and also removed one from the title without counting.  I have copies of the original online version as well as the current online version. Are you confused yet?

The statement 'the best way to get your vitamins is through food’ is a black swan theory. It is a common misconception, often supported by well meaning doctors, nutritionists and writers who view health through a medical veil.

In fact, it has been proven false over and over again. Supplements have scientifically proven to be better than food in specific cases, over and over again.  Food may be better 'in general', but it is not 'the best way' in all cases. Many of these research results have been well publicized, even in Readers Digest. Still the Food Myth ‘the best way to get your vitamins is through food’ persists. The best way to get your vitamins is with a combination of foods and supplements.  Unfortunately - we don't know the best combination, and it depends on the food, and the supplements available.

To clarify, We can try to define food. And supplements. No easy task. Is an apple food, or an orange? No problem. Food. How about chicken? Sure, food - usually.

For the moment, let's ignore the fact that grocery store apples, oranges and chickens are highly 'produced' for large quantity, low price and extended shelf life - and are very different from naturally occurring apples, oranges and chickens.

Orange Juice? Sure, well maybe - food. Today's 100 percent orange juice is highly processed to extend shelf life, and we don't know the effects of that processing on the food value. Tang? Hmmm... Is Tang a food, or a supplement. Or both? Tang contains sugar (a non-food?), as well as supplemental Vitamin C, Calcium, Vitamin E, Riboflavin, Niacin and Vitamin B6. The sugar free version contains aspartame. Tang sounds like a ‘supplement’ to me. Of course ‘Kraft Foods’, who sell Tang, refer to it as a ‘food product’. But, I believe, if I sold Tang, or the ingredients in Tang in a tablet, it would be called a ‘multi-vitamin'.

Now picking on Tang is perhaps a but unfair. But Tang is just one shade of a large grey between the black and white of food vs supplements.

How about eggs.  Are your eggs factory eggs?  Or grain fed eggs?  Or omega eggs?  Or farm eggs? What were the hens fed?  Were they given antibiotics?  Hormones to increase production? Were they allowed outdoors?  Did they get sunshine? Which eggs are natural?  Which are supplemented?

First on the article's list: ‘Myth: A multi-vitamin can make up for a bad diet’ is supported by the statement ‘many packaged foods are vitamin-enriched’. So.... It’s good for packaged foods to contain supplements – but not for me to choose my supplements? Sounds like the old saw "do what I say, not what I do....' Do I know the composition, quality and amounts of supplements in supplemented foods? Do I have control of the composition, quality and amounts?

Of course the article is talking about ‘tablets’. But even on tablets there are serious errors and omissions.

The next ‘Myth: Vitamin C is a cold fighter’ is supported by statements like ‘kids might go from 28 days of runny noses to 24 per year’. So, Vitamin C decreases the time that children have symptoms, but it's not a cold fighter.  According to the article, both are true at the same time. Note: Research reported in Reader's Digest in July 2009 - concluded that Vitamin E is a cold and flu fighter. Not mentioned in this article.

Number 3 “Vitamin Pills can prevent heart disease” is presented as a Myth. Here we have a clear ‘black swan statement’. It cannot be proven true. It can only be proven false. A few trials have been done, with a few isolated vitamins, to measure their effect on heart disease. So far, haven’t found a vitamin, or a vitamin combination that prevents heart disease in clinical trials. People believed there were ‘no black swans’, because none had been discovered. If, or when we learn what vitamins do prevent heart disease – this myth will be forgotten. Until then, it is simply an unproven theory. There is no scientific evidence to support the theory that ‘Vitamin pills do not prevent heart disease’. Vitamin pills range from simple - single vitamins to complex mixture of vitamins, minerals, herbs, etc.  Before you can state that Vitamin Pills can prevent heart disease is a MYTH, you must test every past, present and future formulation.

And can heart disease be prevented by any food or supplement?  Until we know the cause of heart disease, attempts to 'prevent' heart disease are just guesses.  We might as well test eye of newt and tongue of frog to see if they prevent heart disease.

I prefer a health view, not a medical view. I believe we need to know what foods and what supplements ENABLE and IMPROVE HEART HEALTH.

Number 4: “Myth: Taking vitamins can protect against cancer’. Do you detect a pattern here? Another general statement, made without scientific evidence. There is some scientific evidence that some vitamins in some situations did not protect against cancer. But to generalize those results to all vitamins, all cancers and create a ‘myth’ is not just unscientific, it is ridiculous.

How are we doing so far? Of four (or is it five) ‘myths and facts’ out of six (or is it seven?), Reader’s Digest has delivered incorrect conclusions based on faulty logic, missing facts and by presenting misleading information.

Myth number 5 is “Hey, it cant’ hurt” hmmm... It looks like they’ve actually found a real fact, or two or three. We think that taking supplements can’t hurt – and the author provides a few (three) examples where they can ‘increase your risk’. Of course two of the three apply only to ‘high doses of’ – not normal supplemental amounts. And the third example? Be afraid, very afraid. If you are a smoker, and you think taking beta-carotene will decrease your risk of lung cancer – it will actually increase your risk. So, keep smoking, but don’t take supplements - is that what Reader’s Digest is advising?  The truth is, any food, and any supplement CAN HURT, taken at the wrong time, or in incorrect amounts.  You  might as well say 'drinking lots of water can't hurt' is a myth.  It's a useless statement.

It should be clear by now that the Reader's Digest article is not trying to present facts, not trying to present science, and not trying to improve your health.  The mission is simple - to dissuade you from taking multi-vitamins.  Or is it just to catch your eye with a fancy list - so you buy the magazine?

Number 6: ‘Truth: Vitamin D is worth taking’. Mythed by a mile. Yes, Vitamin D is sometimes worth taking. But the way it is presented - as if the only vitamin worth taking as a supplement is Vitamin D - is certainly not true.  One need only look back, and forward, in Reader's Digest's - to find many examples of supplements 'worth taking'.

Nor does the section on Vitamin D attempt to present the facts in a scientific, or honest journalistic manner. What are the facts on Vitamin D?  The truth about the best source of Vitamin D?  The jury is out.

In fact, most of the studies that encourage use of Vitamin D are not actually Vitamin D studies.  They are sunshine studies. Sunshine is worth taking.  We don't know all of the effects that sunshine has on our bodies - we do know that it increases our Vitamin D levels, and that it has other effects.  It increases our health in many ways. But the leap of faith that gives credit to Vitamin D, and not to sunshine - is an example of our medical paradigm in action.  Vitamin D gets credit because it is simple, because you can sell it.  We need a health paradigm, not a medical paradigm. 

The natural source of Vitamin D is sunlight.  But there are people, including those who sell hats, umbrellas and sunscreen - who would like you to avoid sunlight.  No-one is selling 'walks in the park' - so few people are actively marketing sunlight for health. There is no marketing incentive to find the truth on this question. Vitamin D is found in some foods and Vitamin D supplements are also inserted into many foods in Canada. Are you getting confused yet?

The article does not mention essential minerals, nor essential oils. There are over 100 nutrients essential to health - and it is extremely difficult, to get the right amounts of each of them in a 'healthy diet'. Johns Hopkins Health says Calcium Supplements Still Count.  I see the link, which previously sent me to the report, now sends me to their bookstore.  This information is valuable enough for Johns Hopkins to charge for it.

The biggest error, in my opinion, is their support for ‘The Food Myth’. The next time anyone, or some article says ‘the best way to meet all of your nutritional needs is thru food’ – just ask

“Which scientific study came to that conclusion?”

And wait...  And wait... Because there is no way to prove the statement.  The best way is to do your own research and make your own decisions.   And to take responsibility for your own health.

I’ll continue to take (and recommend) my personal supplement choice, twice a day.

I believe in Personal Health Freedom. I believe that the best way to get your vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients is through personal choice.

I believe that "The best way to get  all of your nutrient needs is through a combination of foods and supplements".

The article does NOT speak about health, only about illness. The article is presented as facts and myths about vitamin supplements. There is no discussion of health, nor how to improve your health.  There are some suggestions about avoiding illness.  But if you read my blog, you know that I see a large difference between illness and health.

There is NO definitive evidence on how to best improve your health. It's up to you to decide what actions to take.  It's up to your governments and reporters to ensure that you have the freedom to choose, and the best knowledge available at the time to aid your decisions.  We need full disclosure of food and supplement ingredients so we can each make the best decisions for ourselves.

Yours in health, and health freedom, tracy
Tracy is the author of two book about healthicine:

I have published two previous blogs on The Food Myth and the Food Myth - Clarification