A Plague of False and Misleading Information
Norman J. Temple, PhD
False and misleading information is widespread across many areas of
This chapter briefly examines some examples including Dr Oz and his TV show,
unscientific weight-loss treatments, diet and exercise programs that are based on their
blood type, and detoxification.
The chapter also looks at training programs for nutritionists that lack scientific credibility
Problems of conflict of interest in research are discussed.
Key Words: blood groups, conflict of interest, detoxification, Dr Oz, false information,
misleading information, nutritionist training program
The previous chapter discussed dietary supplements, including how they are marketed. That
chapter stressed that much of this marketing is based on delivering false and misleading
information to potential customers. This present chapter continues the subject of how the
problem of false and misleading information is widespread across many areas of nutrition. This
problem has a long history across many areas of the medical sciences. In Victorian times a
common belief was that masturbation was a major cause of blindness and insanity. In the 1970s a
great many people believed that if they were always feeling irritable and lacking in energy, this
was a sure sign of low blood sugar. This epidemic mysteriously disappeared only to be replaced
by newer epidemics such as an allergy to gluten, an overload of toxins, and a yeast infection
(Candida). The scope of the problem of false and misleading information is enormous and is
continuously changing. It is clearly impossible, therefore, to cover all aspects of this problem.
This chapter is intended only to present some illustrative examples of the problem.
Physicians and other healthcare professionals need to be cognizant of this problem. This is
because out of any random group of a dozen patients several will believe some of the false ideas
that are being continually disseminated.
2. THE CASE OF DR OZ
Dr Mehmet Oz is a highly accomplished heart surgeon whose TV show is watched by millions of
people across North America. He dispenses advice on many topics in the general area of health.
Researchers from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, recently made a careful
analysis of the accuracy of his claims (1). They estimated that 39% of his advice was in the area
of diet. The researchers were able to find evidence in support of 46% of the recommendations
while 15% were contradicted by the evidence. That left 39% of the recommendations where no
supporting evidence could be found. In other words, at least half of the recommendations made
by Dr Oz lacked supporting scientific evidence.
One of his claims landed him in hot water. Dr Oz was called before Congress to testify at a
Senate hearing about deceptive advertising for over-the-counter diet supplements after he sang
the praises of green coffee bean extract as a "miracle" weight loss pill (2). Sen. Claire McCaskill,
who chairs the Senate's Consumer Protection panel, blasted him for making such claims on his
show when "you know it's not true."
3. WEIGHT-LOSS TREATMENTS
If diet books worked, then the obesity epidemic would have been vanquished years ago. But for
the past two decades, the diet book industry has been growing at the same rate as American
waistlines. A search at Amazon shows that thousands of books are published each year on the
subject. A perusal of the titles reveals obvious indicators that false and misleading information is
a common ingredient. For example, 140 books were published in 2014 that included the words
“quick and easy weight loss" in the title (or a slight variation of these words). Similarly, the
words “belly fat” appeared in the titles of 256 books.
This problem extends to magazines. Woman’s World is a supermarket tabloid sold across North
America. It regularly features the latest “lose a pound per day” diet on its front cover.
4. BLOOD TYPES AND HEALTH
In 1991 James D'Adamo published a book with the title “The Blood Type Diet: Your
Personalized Diet and Exercise Program”. The theme of this book is that a person should select
their diet and exercise program based on their ABO blood type. Over the years several other
authors jumped on the publishing bandwagon with books making similar claims. These books
claim that a person’s blood type is the basis for treating an assortment of health problems
including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and overweight.
How much evidence is there to justify the many claims made in these books? There is, in fact,
surprisingly strong evidence that blood groups do affect health. Folks who have blood group O
have a significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, as well as of
all-cause mortality (3). This suggests that the antigens that are the basis of blood groups have
complex effects on disease etiology. Perhaps one day this information will be translated into
practical advice on reducing risks to health if your parents bequeathed you a bad blood group.
But there is no evidence to support the claims of those promoting particular diets based on a
person’s blood group. A systematic review on this subject was published in the American
Journal of Clinical Nutrition (4). The researchers concluded that: “No evidence currently exists
to validate the purported health benefits of blood type diets.”
Detoxification was discussed in the previous chapter where it was pointed out that many dietary
supplements, mainly herbal ones, are sold with the claim that they enhance health by speeding
detoxification. This claim is devoid of supporting evidence. However, the claims made in the
area of detoxification go well beyond supplements.
The American chapter of the story started a century ago. Benedict Lust emigrated to the USA
from Germany late in the nineteenth century. In 1918 he wrote the following: “The natural
system for curing disease is based on….the employment of various forces to eliminate the
poisonous products in the system…” (5) Lust later became one of the founding fathers of
naturopathy in the USA.
The concept of detoxification is based on the general claim that the accumulation of toxins in the
body is involved in much sickness and that disease can be cured using treatments to eliminate
these toxins. This concept is still the basis for various naturopathic therapies today. Indeed, a
survey of naturopaths in the USA reported that 92% reported using detoxification therapies (6).
Detoxification is often advocated to enhance weight loss. The treatment at the center of
detoxification is fasting, often accompanied with juices. As noted above and in the previous
chapter the supplement industry has also jumped on the bandwagon and promotes many products
as aids to detoxification. In recent years the concept has gained much popularity in nutritional
and health circles that clearly lie well outside the mainstream. There has also been an explosion
of books on the subject in recent years.
A variation of this approach is autotoxicity where the focus is on removing toxins from the
colon, often with the aid of an enema. A more extreme variation is colonic irrigation, a procedure
that is potentially harmful as it can hyper-extend the colon (7, 8). The irony of this treatment is
that the same effect can be achieved by a few teaspoons of wheat bran at far less risk, far less
discomfort, and far less cost!
There is very little credible evidence that detoxification treatments, such as dietary changes,
consumption of herbs and supplements, fasting, or colonic irrigation, can remove toxins from the
body (9). Moreover, there is no evidence that these treatments improve health.
6. THE VITAMIN SUMMIT
The USA has a very large number of people who are highly active in promoting the distorted
nutrition science referred to above. Sometimes they come together. Here is an example. In May
2016, a free online conference took place called the “Vitamin Summit”. In their promotion of
this conference the organizers claim that the speakers are: “The most distinguished and diverse
group of vitamin experts ever assembled for one event!” Let’s take a closer look. Here are some
of the illustrious speakers:
Andrew Saul. This person advocates megadoses of vitamins, including vitamin C. This
idea was popularized in the 1970s but has largely been abandoned by conventional
physicians and nutritionists as clinical studies rarely provide supporting evidence.
Dr Joseph Mercola. According to an article on him in Wikipedia he dismisses medical
concerns over avian influenza pandemics. He asserts that the government, big business,
and the mainstream media have conspired to promote the threat of avian flu in order to
accrue money and power. Furthermore, he has been highly critical of vaccines and
vaccination policy, and questions whether HIV is the cause of AIDS (10).
Ty Bollinger. This person promotes heavily distorted and grossly unscientific information
about medicine and cancer.
7. 7. TRAINING PROGRAMS FOR NUTRITIONISTS
The usual training program in North America for a person who wishes to be recognized as a
nutritionist is a 4-year degree in nutrition. To become a dietitian also requires an internship. But
do a Google search using the term “nutritionist training program” and many programs pop up,
most of which are seriously lacking in scientific credibility. Here is one example.
The American School of Natural Health (http://www.americanschoolofnaturalhealth.com) offers
a training course to become a “nutrition consultant”. According to the website: “[the] course
stresses the use of whole and organic foods – an integral concept in many indigenous societies.
Today we see that a return to chemical free foods along with other dietary measures is an
effective answer to many health complaints and common conditions. The course also focuses on
the importance of Detoxification & Cleansing, as only fully functioning organs are able to absorb
and utilize nutrients optimally.”
Programs of this type typically take about one or two years to complete which is considerably
less than conventional nutrition programs. But many people are in a rush to become a qualified
nutritionist. The American Fitness Professionals & Associates (www.afpafitness.com/nutrition-
certification-programs) caters to those people. They will train a person to become a “Certified
Nutrition & Wellness Consultant” in only 100 h.
Some schools offer a more in-depth program. The International College of Natural Health and
Traditional Chinese Medicine (http://www.internationalhealthcollege.com), based in Ontario,
Canada, has a 24-mo program called the “Orthomolecular Nutrition Diploma Program”. Some
indications of what students will learn during the program are indicated by a description of books
from the approved reading list:
(i) “The 4-Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan shows you how to get rid of toxins using a
simple and effective step-by-step approach.”
(ii) “Control the level of acid in your body and reclaim your health with this simple, step-by-
step program Beginning a healthier lifestyle can be as easy as starting your day sipping a
glass of water with a squeeze of lemon juice. Drinking this simple drink is only one of the
many ways, all outlined in The Ultimate pH Solution, that you can change your body's pH
and ward off disease.”
(iii) “The only Self-Help Guide to make alterative cancer therapies work for YOU. A bold
revelation of what this century's early naturopaths learned about not only the causes
of cancer, but also effective treatments and what you CAN DO NOW to save your life
with this vital knowledge.”
8. THE PROBLEM OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST IN RESEARCH
Commercial organizations have a long history of meddling in the scientific process so as to
distort the outcomes of research in ways that are favorable to the particular industry. The tobacco
industry and Big Pharma have been playing this game for decades. Here we look at how this
takes place in the area of food and nutrition.
There is an enormous amount of money tied up in the results of research studies in the area of
nutrition science. Reports have appeared that suggest that conflict of interest exists and is
distorting the findings of some research studies. An analysis was made of studies conducted
between 1999 and 2003 on soft drinks, juice, and milk (11). The findings of each study were
classified as being favorable or unfavorable to the industry that sponsored the study. For
interventional studies none of the studies with industry financing reported a finding that was
unfavorable whereas 37% of studies with no industry funding did so. For all types of study,
including observational studies and reviews, those with industry financing were 7.6 times more
likely to report a finding favorable to industry than studies with no industry financing. Much the
same has been reported concerning research on olestra, a fat substitute (12). By contrast, an
analysis of papers in the area of obesity or nutrition saw no evidence of a relationship between
the source of funding and the results (13); however, that study focused only on studies published
in four of the leading medical journals. Those journals may have higher standards and may
therefore routinely reject papers where the results may not be kosher.
These findings, taken as a whole, do not necessarily indicate that actual fraud has taken place.
Rather, they raise suspicion that the research process has been corrupted. This can occur in
various ways such as by designing randomized trials in such a way that the results desired by the
funders are more likely to be observed, by analyzing the data so as to make the conclusions as
close as possible to what the paymasters wants to hear (“if you torture the data long enough, it
will eventually confess”), and by only allowing the findings of studies to be published if they
report the “right” results.
Journals are well aware of this problem, especially in the area of drug research. As a result most
journals now insist that all authors of papers state whether there is any potential conflict of
interest. But that is only a partial solution to the problem as the following example illustrates. A
paper was recently published in a nutrition journal that reviewed the value of vitamin
supplements (14). The paper strongly argued the case that such supplements are of much value. A
note at the end of the paper stated that funding for the work came from Pfizer but failed to
mention that Pfizer is the manufacturer of Centrum multivitamins, which is the leading brand of
multivitamins sold in North America.
Much of what has been written in this chapter will doubtless be out of date within a few years.
But creative minds will dream up many new forms of false and misleading information. Some
will do it because they are deluded, some because they love the publicity, and others because of
greed. There is little that can be done to stop these people. A society that values free speech
allows people to say that HIV does not cause AIDS and that megadoses of vitamin C cure cancer.
The public generally has no formal training and no ability to discriminate between nutritional
facts, fancies, and fantasies. This places the onus is on health professionals to be aware of this
never-ending problem. They also have a responsibility to explain the problem to their clients and
to provide sound information.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
Food and Drug Administration. Health fraud scams.
MedlinePlus. Health fraud.
Nestle M. Corporate Funding of Food and Nutrition Research: Science or Marketing?
JAMA Intern Med 2016;176:13-4.
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