Are Supplements Nutrition Quackery? How to Evaluate

Are Supplements Nutrition Quackery?  How to Evaluate

We are in a news-hungry world where nutrition quackery becomes a hot topic.  Nutrition headlines are no exception to information overload with news channels looking for stories 24 hours a day.  This means that nutrition topics can fall to the trap of click bait.  Their are SO many sensationalized topics with little basis in true health.

People are more confused than ever!  This post is written to help you understand nutrition headlines, what is nutrition quackery, and how functional nutrition may be your best navigation tool for health.

I approach health headlines and evaluate them from a functional nutrition perspective.

What is Nutrition Quackery?

Nutrition quackery is the concept that is based on Dutch concepts of healing with salves. Quacken means “to boast.”  When it comes to nutrition, this means that quackery is to boast that a food or supplement has healing power.

Nutrition quackery indeed does exist.  Some products or companies make lots of claims that aren’t necessarily based in fact, including:

  • Quick and effective cures.
  • Work for many health issues.
  • Easy weight loss promises.
  • Guarantee all results about a health product.

Nutrition quackery is most common in the world of diet and weight loss products.  They often make unsupported health claims.

Quackery in Reverse

As a clinical dietitian over 20 years, I have read thousands of research papers and nutrition articles, and also realize that quackery occurs on the opposite side.  This is where doctors or headlines “boast” that nutrition and supplements don’t do anything. They tend to make these claims without much training or use of research references.

I even read these reverse quackery claims in posts about nutrition quackery.

Why Functional Nutrition?

Not all nutrition professionals are the same.  As a functional nutritionist and registered dietitian, I approach things from the single most important lens of healthcare:  improving an individual’s vitality.  Functional nutrition is a supportive form of functional medicine that focuses on food and nutrients to help the person heal and become functional again.

You can think of functional nutrition like a science-based holistic health care.

It is the food is medicine approach.

I also help people evaluate headlines based on their quackery claims.

Balanced nutrition and sound advice often doesn’t grab the eyes of the viewer.  Its competition is outlandish politics and constant bombardment of the lifestyles of famous people.

How to Spot Nutrition Quackery in Reverse

When headlines talk about nutrition quackery, or anything for that matter, and imply a one-size-fits-all approach, I recommend that you toss that headline.

Many posts claim that ALL supplements are basically quackery.  How can this be?

  • We have thousands of clinical research studies using supplements for so many things. Even major health sites today, including Medical News Today and Healthline understand this and report it well.
  • Refer to my post about how one man highhandedly snuffed out plants as medicine; and he wasn’t even a doctor. He shaped the way medical schools today think about nutrition and plants.

The functional nutrition approach considers an individuals biochemical individuality. With healing in mind, we create a unique and feasible health plan and put it to action.

Nutrition Quackery: How to Decide

When it comes to health, nutrition headlines can do more harm than good.

Headlines seem to have no qualms at making big claims such as “throw your vitamins away” and Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements [R].

I see this as quackery in reverse.

This is because the authors are giving a very single-lens view of the topic.

Is this form of journalism accurate?  And more importantly, does it do more harm than good? Let’s take a look at what these particular headlines are really presenting.

Functional Nutrition Perspective on Nutrition Headlines

This particular piece of nutrition news mentioned above was the Physician’s Health Study.  This long-term study was splashed on every news page a couple years ago.

The Physician’s Health study  was evaluating a research study indicating that multivitamins don’t help people.

What did the research really look at? They looked at relationships between memory and cognitive function in doctors who take vitamin products.

Diet and lifestyle can really throw numbers off!  The people who were examined in this headline already had a very high nutrient intake anyway.  They were looking at doctors after all.  If anyone can afford to eat well, it’s them.

People with high nutrient intake don’t benefit from a multivitamin, at least for their memory.

Huh.

And they didn’t have many health issues either.  What a weird study, first and foremost, and even weirder, it grabbed national headlines. People were supposed to throw away their supplements based on this study that focused ONLY on memory.

This headline even had some “nutrition experts” and doctors convinced.  I know because I dealt with the fall-out of it.

Even the publishing researcher stated that the vitamin doses may have been too low or that the doctors had too high of nutrient intake.

Same study, years later

However, the exact same Physician’s Health Study, published more recently with updated data, found that multivitamin and mineral use:

  • Reduced chances of fatal heart attacks and requirements for additional heart stents.  Where was the news when THIS study got published?  Crickets.

The key was in the duration of study.  The one with positive results of vitamins looked at a lot longer-term data.

Makes a functional nutrition specialist like me a little disheartened. People deserve to know that there is reverse quackery in research and nutrition headlines.

Can Supplement Quackery Headlines Do More Harm than Good?

When we start seeing food as medicine and nutrients as medicine, we start to understand the bigger picture. Nutrition quackery does exist, but it isn’t always in the ways you might think.

Here are some common sense things to think about every time you read the nutrition headlines.

There are lots of people who benefit from a vitamins, minerals, and other supplements.

Who are these people?

  • The average American eating the Standard American diet-they don’t get enough nutrients.
  • Elderly people who no longer eat well.
  • People with heart disease and heart-related complications [R].
  • People on medications that rob the body of nutrients.  The list is long, including:
      • Mood stabilizers (anti-consultants)
      • Cholesterol medications
      • Stomach medications
      • Blood pressure medicines
      • Corticosteroids
      • Statins
      • Antibiotics
      • Water pills
      • Antidepressants
      • Many more

Other Reasons People Need Supplements

  • Obesity:  one pound of fat may require an extra MILE of blood vessel supply and accordingly, more nutrients.
        • No wonder patients who are overweight and obese get tired.  They are getting robbed of the nutrients their bodies need in order to be in Build Mode and then Maintain Mode. They often don’t stand a fighting chance of wellness and energy without supplements!
  • Alcohol intake: even casual, but routine alcoholic beverages deplete you of nutrients.
  • Soils are increasingly deprived of minerals that we need to thrive.
  • Lack of sun and use of sunscreen and epidemic vitamin D deficiency rates (vitamin D3 is good for so many things).

Image demonstrating that a pound of extra body fat requires an extra mile of blood vessels to be formed, a nutrient-intensive process by The Healthy RD

From a functional nutrition standpoint, the right supplements may help any of the  people I listed above.

Why are the nutrition quackery headlines partially right?

  • Artificial vitamins, such as folic acid and synthetic vitamin E at high doses indeed may long-term be bad for you.
  • The synthetic vitamins also often have artificial food dyes and questionable add-ins like preservatives and binders. Read my folate versus folic acid post for more information.
  • Even brands with the name “nature” or “natural” in the title may not  be good quality.

Verdict: These supplement quackery headlines definitely do more harm than good.  ALWAYS aim to get natural supplements when possible.

Functional nutritionists, like me, can help guide you through making good decisions about supplements.

Problems of Current Nutrition Research Models

Unfortunately, the modern research model is based exclusively on drugs and the bias of this form of research is daunting.

We are supposed to design all trials of nutrients to look like drugs. This shapes the flawed nutrition quackery posts you see all of the time.

Uh oh- this doesn’t work.

This is what makes functional nutrition research so difficult.

Imagine this.  Research projects try to answer one simple question and answer it the most straightforward way possible.

  • To do this, researchers “cherry pick” the people (or animals or cells) to look as close to identical to each other as possible.
  • Then, researchers often isolate out ONE teeny tiny compound, drug, nutrient, or otherwise.
  • They then measure ONE teeny tiny variable.  What if they pick the wrong variable?  They often do.
  • They then try to apply this very reductionist formula to the whole population.  Put it all together and its VERY easy to manipulate this research in a way that may look the way their bias prefers it to look.

Nutrition is Complex, Research is Not

Guess what?  This doesn’t work out very well very often for food or nutrients.

Why?  Nutrients and food compounds are complex and symbiotic with other nutrients. A single meal can have 1000 different compounds in it!

After many years of clinical practice and research and even self-experimentation I have learned this:

I would much rather take a single patient experience and listen to the patient with good follow up.  I will then build on that clinical knowledge to help others.

The basis of functional nutrition is meeting an individual’s needs to get to the root cause of their illness.

 

Where is the individual assessment in research?

Research focuses on the average, or the mean.  What if you fall outside that mean?  The odds are, you do.

 

Even the best of research is minimally applicable to you, the individual.

Important Nutrition Quackery Headline Considerations

The topics that really matter in research are these:

  • Did the research focus on making people feel better?
  • Did the research look at a topic that is globally applicable? Or did they falsely talk about it this way?
  • Were the people being researched the right group of focus?

Research projects often get reported in the news and show massively over-interpreted statements.

Many research projects are highly flawed: nutrition, pharmaceutical, and otherwise.  Often the ones making the biggest splash in the headlines are some of the most flawed.

Many doctors, who conduct nutrition research, were never trained in nutrition.

How to Evaluate the Nutrition Headlines

Image of newspapers by The Healthy RD

When reading the headlines, here are a many things I like to think about:

  1. Are the authors looking only at death rates? Spoiler alert:  almost nothing changes death rate. This is inherently biased.
  2.  Are they making broad, sweeping claims?
  3. What were they measuring?
  4. Who were they measuring it in? Do they even mention this?
  5. Did this thing they measured make sense to measure in this particular group?
  6. Is someone gaining money by manipulating making quackery-type statements and research projects?
    • Big Pharma?
    • Big Food?
    • Big Supplements?
  7. Is there money to lose by big companies if someone would take these vitamins or supplements?
    • this is often true
  8. Is the research based on associations rather than clinical trials?
    • How I tell:  if they say “related to or increased risk” this does not mean cause and effect.
      • It is like saying that “white houses are more likely to catch fire”, which might be an incidental finding.
  9. What are the odds that vitamins pose a risk? for real?
  10. Were they using a high quality supplement in their analysis? Did they even mention this?

If the headlines fail to answer any of the above questions and concerns, or seem to make vast claims, I usually recommend that you dig deeper.  You can click the link to the research they are citing and you can often find these details.

What are direct risks of vitamin and mineral supplements?

The headlines made it seem big: 23,000 Emergency Room visits due to supplements.  Why was this not very accurate? They included diet aids, weight loss aids, supplements, and detox supplements, which made up the vast majority of supplement ER admissions (35% of these 23,000 were diet and energy pills).

They included laxatives and all forms of supplements in this 23,000.

Around 3500 ER visits a year for total vitamins and minerals, and most of these ER visits were:

  •  Because vitamins got “stuck” in the esophagus by elderly.
    •  This largely is preventable by taking a smaller dose, easier to swallow gelcap.

In comparison, accidental intake of opiate drugs, even by young children, far exceeds this amount and opiate intake ER admissions for adults is epidemic!

  • Over 22,000 accidental intake of opiates by children.
  • This is where most ER deaths occur due to pills, not vitamins.
  • Most admissions related to supplements are related to weight loss and exercise enhancement supplements, not vitamins and minerals.
  • Rarely do the nutrition posts look at quality of the supplement or form when they are being lambasted in the headlines.

 

Do Supplements Reduce Healthcare Costs?

Headlines also fail to look at how many ER visits good quality supplements may have prevented. Where were the headlines when THESE research studies got published?

  • Omega 3 supplements reduced fatal heart attacks very significantly (52 fewer deaths per 100,000 heart attacks).  This translated to $16,340 healthcare savings per heart attack case [R].
  • If every woman with osteoporosis supplemented the appropriate amount and type of magnesium, $1 billion dollars per year would be saved in avoidable hospital costs [R].
  • An additional $2 billion per year would be saved if these same women took calcium and vitamin D3.

Think magnesium might be right for you?  Consider this:

Conservative research states that half of Americans don’t eat enough magnesium [R].

Where to buy high-quality supplements?

I’m here to help.  Rather than generic responses you might get in your 5 minute visit with your practitioner, find a well-educated dietitian that is well-versed in supplements, drug-nutrient interactions and more (not all are specialists in this).

Natural matters.  Form matters.  There are thousands of supplements on the market, so find the right one for you. If you feel bad when taking it, odds are, it’s not the right one for you.

My marker of a good supplement is it’s magnesium tolerability.  We almost all need more, yet magnesium can be very difficult to take.

Your standard multiple vitamin available at retail stores have magnesium (magnesium oxide) that has about a 4% absorption rate.

You guessed it:  the rest get pooped out, and may cause diarrhea. Most likely, you will stop taking them because of undesired side effects.

 

Important Supplement Considerations

  • Take supplements with food for improved absorption.
  • Make sure they are food-derived.
  • You will absorb supplements better if you take them three times daily in low doses rather than once daily all at once.
  • Supplemental vitamins should have lower doses per gelcap for better absorption and to be easy on the stomach.
  • Try to find ones that contain enzymes that enhance absorption.

Summary

Nutrition headlines can be full of quackery, even in reverse.  They can be challenging to navigate, even for healthcare professionals.  While foods should be the biggest source of your nutrition, many people are taking medications that rob the body of nutrients. Soils have less nutrients than ever, so your foods also suffer.

You can use supplements to enhance your health if you use them properly. Seek out a functional nutritionist to get someone who is very well trained in supplements and functional medicine approaches for best supplement advice.

The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only.  This is not medical advice. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.

13 Comments
  1. So important for folks to think critically next time they read a headline :). Great, thorough post.

  2. Thanks for sharing!! It can be difficult to navigate nutrition headlines in our content-crazed society. Love these useful tips!

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