Drugs, Deception & Diets: Falsehoods of the Health Industry

Cafe-Scientifique_Tim-Caulfield and Steven Hoffman_students_2013-01-21

The following are key insights from a Cafe Scientifique funded by CIHR on ‘Drugs, Deception & Diets: Falsehoods of the Health Industry’ hosted by the McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee and featuring guests Tim Caulfield and Steven Hoffman.

In today’s society, it seems as though we are bombarded with the latest news on diets, weight-loss pills, exercise equipment and workout routines. As students, it can be difficult to balance a healthy lifestyle with schoolwork and other commitments, so how reliable are these “quick fix” solutions currently saturating the market? These issues were explored on January 21, as Tim Caulfield and Steven Hoffman led an in-depth discussion on living a healthy life and the truth behind health myths prevalent in our society.

One of the fundamental issues tackled in the discussion was the hype created around healthy living by the media. Understanding how the health information we receive is distorted, and how the inaccuracy is influenced by market forces and our own preconceived notions, is key for uncovering the truth concerning our health. Rather than focusing on the “breakthroughs” publicized by the media, such as the slimming effects of dark chocolate, Caulfield emphasizes that a truly healthy lifestyle can be achieved by following five simple rules: Don’t smoke, exercise with intensity, eat real foods, eat less, and take basic precautions to prevent injury. Rather than focusing on the latest supplements, organic foods and vitamins hype, by concentrating on the five listed guidelines, students can work towards improving their personal health.

There is a huge market around fast and easy ways to improve one’s health. However, a very small proportion of the Western population actually takes the necessary measures to live a balanced life. The science behind healthy living is constantly evolving as we update our way of thinking. Yet if we were to live by the headlines, we would be continually changing our eating and exercise habits as new studies are published concerning this universal issue. Thus it is important to question not only the sources of this information, but also the quality of the provided evidence. As Hoffman highlighted, looking at new findings through a critical lens is key when making decisions regarding our healthy living choices.

A common example of science being misconstrued in the media is through celebrity endorsements. Although not all advocacies are detrimental, such as Magic Johnson’s instrumental role in HIV/AIDS awareness, celebrities sometimes exploit the high demand on healthy living solutions. An example of a high-profile figure promoting health information that isn’t based on good science is Dr. Oz, a celebrity doctor whose natural charisma and charm resonates with millions of viewers worldwide. His claims about the merits of supplements such as raspberry ketones and green coffee bean extracts construe these supposed fat-burning products as miracle drugs. Yet the quality of the studies done to support his endorsements is surprisingly low. For instance, studies on raspberry ketones only involved rodents, and only 17 human participants took part in the investigation of the green coffee bean pill. Dr. Oz is one of many influential advocates of weight loss products, an expanding market due to society’s current fixation with aesthetic appearances.

However, this problem is just one segment of a system-wide issue. The notion of quick scientific progress is raising the public’s expectations of what science can achieve, leading to the abuse of research in this area. Individuals seek to distort findings and package them in a way that seems exciting to the public. Moreover, the compelling nature of celebrity spokespeople such as Dr. Oz is cause for concern, since some members of the public claim to feel a stronger connection with him than their personal family physicians. This points to an issue in our health system and a challenge faced by public health officials, as many individuals seek alternative forms of medicine such as naturopathy.

Ultimately, it is important to note that we can all be a part of the solution by holding people accountable for their claims and exposing health fallacies, and approaching each new piece of health information through a critical lens while keeping an open mind.

By Asha Behdinan, Finance Coordinator and Co-chair 2013-2014, McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee

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