How to be a Nutrition Detective: A Lesson in Critical Thinking
Stephen Cherniske, M.S.
In pursuit of a healthy body, the most valuable possession is an open mind. A cynical attitude is an obstacle to learning, but blind acceptance is just as bad. It leads ultimately to confusion, error and disappointment. The purpose of this course is to give you the information and tools you need to reap the rewards of optimum nutrition without being taken for a ride or endangering your health.
This requires, first and foremost, a balanced, healthy skepticism. It takes practice to evaluate the claims of aggressive advertisers and misinformed salespeople, but the exercise is necessary, and can be a great deal of fun. In this course, you will learn how to distill the truth from the potpourri of nutrition information that you encounter everyday. The ability to discriminate between science and nonsense also prevents you from “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” as there is much to be gained when you know what you’re looking for.
The ideal solution, of course, is to go back to school and take anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. But for most people, that’s neither possible nor desirable. It then comes down to finding health professionals who have taken all those courses, and who have a perspective you can trust. Ah, there’s the rub. Ask a conventional physician about nutrition and you’re likely to hear, “just eat a well-balanced diet.” By now, most everyone knows that even a well-balanced diet (whatever that is) is no guarantee of optimal nutrition. It might provide adequate nutrition, but that would only support adequate health, which as far as I’m concerned is completely unacceptable. The adequately nourished American male, for example, currently has a 50% chance of keeling over with a heart attack at some point between his 50th and 65th birthday. No thanks. Millions of Americans are looking for optimum health, and that endeavor leads directly to the arena of natural products.
Today, the internet is the leading source for nutrition information, but here again, we are faced with a daunting task. A review of internet health information by MIT scientists reveals that only about 50% is accurate. What about health food stores, the second leading information source? When FDA agents were sent to health food stores to inquire about natural remedies for a common illness, employees at 120 out of 129 stores surveyed made improper recommendations. In some cases the recommended “remedy” would have led to serious harm.[i]
So, until you find that well-trained, open-minded health professional, you’re on your own. But that’s not so bad. You can become a nutrition detective.
Exaggerated “miracle” claims like “Australian Mugwort cures cancer” are easy to see through, but what about the subtle, more rational arguments you’ll encounter on so many packages, articles, blogs and ads? Most promotional literature appears quite logical, but often employs unscientific reasoning. Once you understand this, I think you’ll enjoy finding and “disarming” the consumer traps described in the following pages.
1. Thomas P. FDA moves to limit marketing claims about vitamins, minerals and herbs. The Wall Street Journal,
December 15, 1993.