5 Reasons You Can’t Trust Nutrition Research, Part I
If I had a nickel for every time a patient had told me that they cannot have certain foods, because of an article they saw or their MD told them, I would be a rich man.
A case in point is salt. For years, I have been telling my patients with high blood pressure that salt is the least of their concerns, particularly when they have been scared off of it from their MD. I’ve had patients eating foods that were terrible for their hearts, because their cardiologist had put them on a salt-free diet, and as a result, worsening their condition instead of improving it.
Just last week, “new” research has been reported on which now shows that salt is not an important risk factor for high blood pressure.
The fact of the matter is that physicians such as myself who specialize in nutrition have known for years that only a very small part of the population with high blood pressure is sensitive to dietary salt. That research was done a long time ago.
But the news really never caught on with the popular press, and it clearly didn’t reach the ears of most medical doctors, who have been pressing the no-salt diet for years.
As I read the news online last week, I noted in the comments that several other readers were saying that the research on nutrition is so flighty that they no longer trust any of it, and will just eat whatever they want to.
I have noted before that much of the mainstream medical research cannot be trusted. The majority of it has been tainted by big money from the pharmaceutical industry which has the money to hire its own research organizations and produce “scientific research” that, unsurprisingly, perfectly supports drug marketing plans.
Nutritional research becomes similarly warped, although on a smaller scale and for slightly different reasons.
One of the key problems with nutritional research is funding. Unlike drugs, which have a phenomenal return on investment, herbs and nutrients cannot be patented. So nobody is likely to get rich from, say, a paper which demonstrates that Vitamin C effectively combats the common cold. The return on investment on non-patentable health solutions is pretty low, so research investors are few and far between.
Nonetheless, the research is influenced by greed in a different way. While it is hard to find the money to prove a nutritional intervention is positively therapeutic, there is a tremendous amount of money available for research which will demonstrate that certain nutritional interventions are useless and/or dangerous.
And there is also a tremendous amount of political pressure which can be brought to bear on nutritional therapies, if they are thought to be a threat to pharmaceuticals.
Not but not least in the financial parade are the people which can make money directly by distorting the research. This is the group I am the most familiar with, so they get to be number one in our list:
1. The media: Not getting it right on a daily basis.
It is a poorly-kept secret that, prior to becoming a physician, I was a journalist. In fact, I was a science and technical journalist. My background in the sciences gave me the ability to explain complex technical topics in easily-accessible ways to non-geeks. So I’m familiar with the ways in which reporters, editors and publishers will, both consciously and unconsciously, bend their coverage to suit their needs.
The major problem with the reporting of nutritional research is that the findings of any study are sensationalized to increase the page hits. A relatively minor study of salt and hypertension, for example, becomes the health section’s page 1 news — and then, for the next 25 years, both diet and medical recommendations are misdirected.
Another problem with nutritional research reporting stems from the reporter’s inability to understand the science itself, or unfamiliarity with the field. It can be difficult to explain scientific-y stuff to a general audience, and to do so well, you must thoroughly understand the science yourself. Too few reporters have more than a basic grasp of the life sciences, much less a basic understanding of nutritional physiology, and fundamentally important data in a study gets flattened, misreported or simply ignored because of the reporter’s ignorance.
Finally, there are a few reporters who have been reported to consciously misconstrue the results of studies on alternative medicine in general.
New York Times health and medicine reporter Gina Kolata is a case in point. The author of hundreds of articles for the Times, Kolata has been uncovered by The Nation and others as using her articles to press her own agenda — a profitable one, at that. On one occasion, Kolata published an article which strongly hyped a couple of cancer drugs (an article which turned out to be erroneous, to boot) and within hours was floating a book proposal based on buzz generated by her own hype. While this is an ingenious feedback loop for a reporter hungry for a book contract, it is hardly impartial reporting.
Imagine how nutritional research is reported by a writer with the reputation of Kolata, with one hand on the keyboard and the other reaching for the pocket of the pharmacuetical company. It won’t be the unbiased story that many would imagine it to be.
2. Oops, we used the wrong vitamin.
For some reason I’ve never been able to fathom, the world of mainstream medicine has always been very faddish about vitamins and minerals. One vitamin or another is always “hot” with MDs. When I started practice a couple of decades ago, Vitamin C was the one being recommended by every MD and his brother. I suspect this was based largely on the later work of Linus Pauling, who already had accredited status with the mainstream medical community for his groundbreaking work in molecular biology.
Vitamin C has since cooled considerably since its days as the go-to vitamin for almost everything. Today, that role is fulfilled by Vitamin D. which is currently being touted by the medical community as a second-class cure-all for everything from fatigue to fibromyalgia to heart disease to depression to joint pain (it remains a second-class cure because in mainstream medicine, nothing is better than a pharmaceutical, natch).
Interestingly enough, 10 years ago, before D got big, it was being maligned on many fronts as being a near-useless nutrient which was only being touted by quacks as a remedy for fatigue and fibromyalgia and depression…you get the idea.
Many of these studies suffered from one very significant, very undisclosed flaw: The researchers were using the wrong form of Vitamin D.
The legal definition of Vitamin D includes 2 forms: Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3. Both are equally useful in preventing rickets in children, which is what all Vitamin D was once thought to be good for. However, when it comes to its effects on the cardiovascular, immune and other systems, the D3 form is much more potent than D2, which often has little to no effect at all in these systems.
However, researchers investigating Vitamin D often neglected to note the difference. Thus, studies would report that Vitamin D was ineffective at treating a certain disorder — when actually, it was the ineffectual form of Vitamin D that was being used.
A variation on the “wrong vitamin” error is the “lousy vitamin” error. As most people know, there is a great deal of variability among vitamin products. Much of that variability results from how the vitamin is packaged in the tablet — particularly how well that tablet survives the gastrointestinal tract to dissolve at the right time. Many vitamins just are not digested well, and I have seen on x-rays, vitamin tablets residing unmolested in the large intestine, waiting to be moved out of the body without having given up the slightest amount of the nutrient they were supposed to disseminate. “Pharmaceutical-grade” nutrients tend to be no better in this regard than what you may pick up over the counter at a chain pharmacy store.
So if you are testing the efficacy of a certain nutrient, and not monitoring whether that nutrient is actually getting into the patient’s bloodstream, your results are going to reflect more the failure of the nutrient packaging than of the nutrient itself. It has happened more often than you would like to believe.