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 into the trap of clickbait. There are SO many sensationalized topics with little basis in true health.
People are more confused than ever! So 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.
What is nutrition quackery?
Nutrition quackery is a 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.
And nutrition quackery indeed does exist. Some products or companies make lots of claims that aren’t necessarily based on 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.
Nutrition quackery in reverse
As a clinical dietitian for over 20 years, I have read thousands of research papers and nutrition articles, and also realize that quackery occurs on the opposite side.
This reverse quackery occurs when doctors or headlines “boast” that nutrition and supplements don’t do anything. Headlines like these tend to make these claims and are sourced from people without much training or neglect to use solid research references.
I even read these reverse quackery claims in posts about nutrition quackery.
Why consider a different perspective on nutrition quackery headlines
Not all nutrients are the same. And no two people are the same. So why would headlines be so quick to tell you to throw your vitamins away? This is probably the worst form of nutrition quackery.
What if clinicians and headlines focused on the one thing people really care about: improving their functional status and vitality, or functional nutrition?
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 as science-based holistic health care.
It is the food is medicine approach.
But balanced nutrition and healing often don’t grab the eyes of the viewer.
The competition in headlines is outlandish politics and constant bombardment of the lifestyles of famous people. So nutrition headlines often are equally as outlandish, unfortunately. And they happen in reverse. Here is how.
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 health posts claim that ALL supplements are basically quackery. How can this be? Here is what research actually supports.
- There are thousands of clinical research studies using supplements for so many things. But you usually need to drill down and get specific in what you are looking for.
- For example, a review paper that evaluated 14 clinical trial concluded that use of L-carnitine, a safe dietary supplement, reduced painful peripheral neuropathy.
- Even major health sites today, including Medical News Today and Healthline understand accurate reporting of supplements and usually represent the research 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, supplements, and plants.
The functional nutrition approach considers an individual’s biochemical individuality. With healing in mind, we create a unique and feasible health plan and put it into action.
Nutrition quackery: how to decide
Not surprisingly, 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 some of these particular headlines are really presenting.
The Physician’s Health Study: Gross Misinterpretation
Remember the posts that told us all to throw our vitamins away?
This particular piece of nutrition news was based on the Physician’s Health Study. This long-term study was splashed on every news page a few 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.
And they didn’t have many health issues either. What a weird study, first and foremost, and even weirder, it grabbed national headlines.
In the 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.
The same Physicians’ Health study, years later
However, the exact same Physician’s Health Study, published more recently with updated data, found that multivitamin and mineral use stated that vitamins:
“Reduced chances of fatal heart attacks and requirements for additional heart stents.”
Where was the news when THIS study got published? Crickets.
The key to the benefits of vitamins here was in the duration of the study. The one with positive results of vitamins looked at a lot of 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 nutrition 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.
Remember, there are lots of people who benefit from vitamins, minerals, and other supplements.
Nutrition quackery debunked: people who benefit from supplements
- 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 who are on medications that rob the body of nutrients. The list is long, including:
- Mood stabilizers (anti-consultants)
- Cholesterol medications
- Stomach medications
- Blood pressure medicines
- Water pills
- 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 pandemic vitamin D deficiency rates (vitamin D3 is good for so many things).
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 of good quality.
Verdict: These supplement quackery headlines definitely do more harm than good.
But, always aim to get natural supplements when possible.
Functional nutritionists can help guide you through making good decisions about supplements.
Why nutrition quackery thrives: current nutrition research models
Research often gets it wrong when it comes to nutrition.
This is because the modern research model is based exclusively on drugs and how they are tested. 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.
Vitamins and minerals aren’t drugs. they are essential for health and this is what makes functional nutrition research so difficult.
Imagine this: Research projects try to answer one simple question and answer it in 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 it’s 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
Nutrients and food compounds are complex and symbiotic with other nutrients. A single meal can have 1000 different compounds in it!
When it comes to research, this doesn’t work out very well very often for food or nutrients.
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
If you are wondering if your headlines contain nutrition quackery, consider the quality of research they are discussing. The topics that really matter in nutrition research are these:
- Did the research focus on making people feel better?
- Was the topic that is globally applicable? Or did they falsely talk about it this way?
- Were the people being researched the right group of focus on for that nutrient?
Research projects often get reported in the news and show massively over-interpreted statements because research fails to look at these points well.
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.
Also, many doctors who conduct nutrition research were never trained in nutrition.
How to evaluate the nutrition headlines
When reading the headlines, here are the many things I like to think about:
- Are the authors looking only at death rates? Spoiler alert: almost nothing changes the death rate. This is inherently biased.
- Do they make broad, sweeping claims?
- What were they measuring?
- Who were they measuring it in? Do they even mention this?
- Did this thing they measured make sense to measure in this particular group?
- Is someone gaining money by manipulating and making quackery-type statements and research projects?
- Big Pharma?
- Big Food?
- Big Supplements?
- Is there money to lose by big companies if someone would take these vitamins or supplements?
- this is often true
- Was 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.
- How I tell: if they say “related to or increased risk” this does not mean cause and effect.
- Are the odds high that vitamins pose a risk? for real?
- 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 the direct risks of vitamin and mineral supplements?
The headlines made it seem big: 23,000 Emergency Room visits due to supplements.
Even these headlines were inaccurate.
Research that they quoted 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.
Only around 3500 ER visits a year occurred for total vitamins and minerals, and most of these ER visits were because vitamins got “stuck” in the esophagus by the elderly. Almost no nutrient toxicity occurred for these visits.
And vitamins that get stuck in the esophagus are 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.
- Opiates are 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 the 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?
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 that can help you find high-quality supplements.
Keep in mind, that not all dietitians 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 its magnesium tolerability. We almost all need more, yet magnesium can be very difficult to take.
Your standard multiple vitamins 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.
Related post: The Best Natural Vitamins + How to Buy
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.
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 fewer 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 the 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.
16 thoughts on “Are Supplements Nutrition Quackery? How to Evaluate”
So important for people to know how to read beyond the headlines! Great article.
Thanks so much for reading my post, Kara! I’m glad you like it.
THANK YOU for breaking this down – will share with my clients and students as well.
Thank you, Ginger, that is such an honor! Kind regards, Heidi
So important for folks to think critically next time they read a headline :). Great, thorough post.
Thank you, Amy! I really appreciate it. Kind regards, Heidi
Wow, this is such a thorough article! So much good information here!
This is such a great article! Great job.
Thank you so much, Brynn! I’m honored to have your input. Regards, Heidi
Critical thinking seems to be lacking these days with the advent of “fake news”. This is a great post!
Thank you so much, Sarah!! I totally agree. Regards, Heidi
Thanks for sharing!! It can be difficult to navigate nutrition headlines in our content-crazed society. Love these useful tips!
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With the growing body of knowledge supporting the connection between diet and overall health, many consumers are taking personal health and nutrition decisions into their own hands. Individuals are becoming more reliant on nutrition information from sources such as websites, television, radio, newspapers, advertisements, friends, and family, thereby creating opportunities for nutrition misinformation and health fraud. Health fraud is defined as misrepresentation of health claims, and can range from a self-proclaimed medical expert who has discovered a so-called “miracle cure,” to a food supplement or drug that is promoted with unsubstantiated health claims. Accurate nutrition information is science-based, peer reviewed, and replicable. Nutrition misinformation is not supported by science and may be misleading and incomplete. It can be challenging for consumers to tease out reputable versus fraudulent nutrition information and claims.
Well said, John! Thanks for reading my post.