Looking for a Magic Bullet?

February 24, 2015 in Foodland Chronicles, Health Claims, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

Last week I wrote a piece about the public’s confusion regarding cancer risk. I read an article from the Washington Post that made me think that I should add a few additional thoughts, most especially about so-called super foods.

One of the reasons that I wanted to address super foods is that I’ve even observed qualified health professionals fall into the naming of “Food ‘X’ as a super food.” I think much of the public think of foods like green tea; acai berry; blueberries; kale and other cruciferous vegetables; quinoa; wild caught salmon; and yes even cocoa as super foods. I’ve wondered what the criteria are for a food to be designated a super food. I suspect the use of the term is directly connected to its potential to make a lot of money by hyping a profitable way to use a particular food. In other words, designating a food as “super” has very little to do – I would say almost nothing to do – with science or evidence of extraordinarily unusual nutritional value. Have you ever seen the term used to reflect anything but the fact that the term is found a lot in ads and PR publications? They do not hesitate to claim scientific backing for the food’s nutritional value. Frequently they use testimonials with super-exaggerated claims. But we can check for ourselves if the difference from available alternatives is really enough to be called “super” by anyone but a marketer.

An interesting observation from a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) is that only about half of the recommendations on two internationally syndicated TV medical talk shows were supported by scientific evidence. I did a little Google search on super foods and stumbled upon Dr. Oz’s list. I admit that I do not watch his TV program, but a list of Dr. Oz’s Favorite Superfoods includes coconut oil. Good gravy! After reading the hyped two paragraphs on coconut oil, I found an excellent review of coconut oil published by the Spark People. In essence, the Spark People advise us to wait for the valid research to guide us in use of coconut oil. I definitely agree that we should not go “cuckoo for coconut oil yet.” It’s loaded with saturated fat, and in previous decades coconut oil had been discredited by that day’s science and its usage fell.  But that made it relatively inexpensive, so advertisers and marketers assumed the public would have forgotten, and sensed pay dirt.  Create a coconut oil bandwagon – don’t bother to tell them about it’s high content of saturated fat. So be careful if you’re considering following Dr. Oz’s advice to use one or two tablespoons a day (117-234 calories). Please realize that adding, but not replacing the calories by eliminating something else, adds the potential for gaining or maintaining an extra 10 or 20 pounds. Ouch!

One other super food on Dr. Oz’s and others’ lists of super foods is chocolate. Seriously, do I need a license from a supposed health expert to pound down extra chocolate because it’s designated a super food?  I enjoy chocolate; but I try to keep in mind that sugar and fat are the biggest components in my chocolate treats – chocolate confections are not without calories. In addition, saturated fat and wax are often added to chocolate candy. Consider thinking of chocolate as a treat to be eaten sparingly – a treat, not a magic health supplement.

The concept of super foods is closely related to the concept of nutritionism. It’s reductionist thinking. That is, it tries to rely on a single player instead of utilizing the entire team. Of course, so many of the foods in the hundreds of lists of super foods posted on the Internet are good for us, healthy and delicious. But I’ll return to my previous query, how did they qualify over some other food? Certainly, it seems to me that we should think a little more broadly. We should stop the reductionist thinking of embracing a single food or nutrient! We should realize that our entire lifestyle, including our varied diet, weight control and exercise are vital to reducing cancer risk. We should be cautious about overreacting to a single study – which so often sets up the next food fad. Nancy Potischman, a nutritional epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute, has said that, “Only if the same results come up in multiple studies across multiple populations, “then you might think that, yes, this food might be important.”  She does not imply that a single food could become super-important on the basis of even multiple successful studies.

If like me, you’re convinced that your diet is a very important part of general health; then you may want to strive for a diet that emphasizes plants. Marian Neuhouser, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle said “What we eat on any one day is not going to change our cancer risk, but it’s the pattern over the long term.” She cited the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, that found that diets that emphasized fruit, vegetables, whole grains and plants or plant-based proteins were associated with lower death rates from chronic diseases including cancer.

One of the issues I most dislike about the concept of super foods is that it so often leaves out those who cannot afford the price of expensive ingredients – think acai berry and quinoa. Foods like beans, eggs, peanuts, sardines, canned salmon, frozen berries, oatmeal and the myriad of fruits and vegetables available in season (which, of course is extended now days) are not comparatively expensive; but certainly, they are super choices to include in the overall diet. Ordinary spinach, for example, is less costly than say Swiss chard but is a very nutritious food. A variety of foods that are not highly processed (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains) can provide the foundation of a super-balanced, super-cost beneficial and wise, healthy diet. Remember, it’s the whole team, not in one or two high-salaried stars.

When considering lowering risk for cancer, let’s not lose the big picture by focusing on a single food or nutrient being the magic bullet. It’s more promising to embrace change that will support overall healthy lifestyle habits – that’s where the payoff is likely residing.