Don't Believe Everything You Read or Hear

Promises, promises. Whether it be the latest fitness machine, weight loss pill, muscle gaining powder, all-purpose herbal cure, diet book, etc., what the companies behind these products are selling is hope. However, you can't believe everything you hear or read. For that matter, you can't believe everything you see on TV either.

A reader asked me about, in her words, "all the confusing "junk" touted around with such impunity in health stores that claim to increase your muscle mass, metabolism and reduce fat." She wanted to know, "just how much of this is hype and hogwash, and, how much is truth?"

You need to understand how health products "use" scientific research, endorsements, and etc. to back up their claims. The more you understand the background behind these claims, the more you will be able to differentiate between the credible and the incredible. To protect yourself and your loved ones, here is a caveat emptor or "buyer beware" guide on health and fitness product claims.

This is the most common type of "scientific" evidence provided by many health and fitness products. It is neither good nor bad just not very scientific. A testimonial is simply an individual stating how they think the use of a product affected them.

There are several things to remember about testimonials. It may or may not have been the product alone that caused the change. There may have been other factors involved.

A flight attendant told me that she believed the use of a "diet patch with fat burners" made her lose weight. At the same time, she also told me that she had consciously lessened the amount of food she was eating. Under the circumstances, it would be difficult to attribute all the weight loss to the diet patch.

The "placebo effect" can also be the cause of a product's effectiveness. A placebo is any substance that, in reality, has no curative powers but because of a person's belief that they are taking the real thing produces the desired effect. An example, would be a person's headache disappearing after they have been given a sugar pill that they think is actually a strong painkiller. PAnother point to remember about testimonials is the possibility that the individual has been financially rewarded to testify about the product. Lastly, just because a product works for one person doesn't always mean it will have the same effect on all kinds of people.

Anecdotal evidence.
Anecdotal evidence is the same as testimonial evidence except that it refers to what groups of people have to say about a product rather than just one individual. Many studies on pregnancy rely on anecdotal evidence because of the dearth of experiments on pregnant women. After all, how ethical would it be to experiment on pregnant women? What woman, in her right mind, would consent to be part of such an experiment?

An example of misrepresentation is when a product claims to be "university tested". All it may mean is that someone inside a university was involved, with no evidence of whether the study had any merit at all.

Implied endorsement by experts may mean that the company sent the expert samples that were not sent back. I saw this type of misrepresentation in action when a distributor for an herbal weight loss formula claimed that a prominent Metro Manila nutritionist endorsed their product. I was surprised because I had a professional relationship with the nutritionist and knew that she would never endorse this type of a product. I found out later that the company had sent her samples and this was the whole basis for their claim of her endorsement.

A patent says nothing about the effectiveness of a product. It only means that the company has patented their product so no one else can copy it. It is not the job of the patent registering office to prove whether the product actually works or not. It is only responsible for making sure that no one else imitates the product that was patented.

Research claims.
Many health, fitness and nutritional products couch their ads in scientific jargon and claim to have the backing of scientific research. They may or may not be doing this responsibly.

Research can be used inappropriately when it is taken out of context, or exaggerated conclusions are made. The company capitalizes on a small half-truth about the research and applies it big-time to their product.

Research that is poorly controlled, outdated, and not peer reviewed cannot be relied upon. "Poorly controlled" means that the research may have been done on too few people, on too small a segment of society (for example, only on elite Olympic swimmers), for too short a time, or the scientists did not control other factors that may have affected the outcome.

The scientific process is a slow one which has been compared to cross-stitch. You don't see the whole picture until many studies (stitches) have been done. Outdated research may not apply anymore in the light of newer findings.

"Peer reviewed" means that the research has been thoroughly investigated by many experts in the same field and only then is it published in a reputable scientific journal. When a scientist refuses to be peer-reviewed, he/she becomes a "rogue scientist". There are no longer checks and balances.

One such person was the late Adelle Davis, a biochemist in the Seventies with some "revolutionary" nutritional ideas. Some of her theories have now been proven true (the importance of taking extra folic acid during pregnancy, for example) but many others were downright dangerous.

For instance, she recommended that pregnant women take 25,000 units daily of Vitamin A. Scientists now know that birth defects can occur if a pregnant woman takes even just 10,000 units.

I am an example of a misinformed individual blindly following an "expert's" advice. Years ago I took these supplements during both of my pregnancies. It is only through the grace of God and plain-dumb-stupid-luck that my children were born normal. Every time I think about it, it still sends chills down my spine.

Funding behind the research.
Research is expensive. The money may come from governmental agencies, private corporations, nonprofit organizations and private foundations. These groups might profit politically or economically from certain outcomes. For example, if a company that manufactures "fat burners" funds the research that they use to back up their claims, it would be very suspicious, to say the least.

Personal bias.
We all have a hidden agenda in wanting to believe the claims of a new health or fitness product. Dieters are drawn to research claims that promise the easy way out in weight loss. Sick individuals tend to believe every new product that comes out promising to cure their ailment. Athletes are at special risk too because of their overwhelming desire for the gold medal. We are our own worst enemies because we so desperately want the product to work.

Scientists can be biased too. Their positions in the universities where they work or their ease at getting future financial grants may depend on whether they are published or not. Sometimes quality is sacrificed for quantity. They are also not immune to the lure of financial reward.

Many health and fitness professionals throw caution to the wind in endorsing products that don't really work because of money. It saddens me when I see such people on TV infomercials hawking products that they know darn-good-and-well don't work or are shoddily made. That enthusiastic audience you see in the background? They have most likely been paid and rehearsed.

"Natural" doesn't automatically mean it is safe or effective.
Many companies love to use the word "natural" because they know the public has the misconception that anything from natural sources is automatically safe and effective. Not so. To curb yourself of this myth, remember that nicotine and cocaine are as natural as you'll get. Nicotine comes from the tobacco plant and cocaine from coca leaves. Are nicotine and cocaine safe for your health? Definitely not! Are they effective? Yes, if lung cancer and drug addictions are your goals! You get the picture. Don't assume a product is safe or effective just because it is "natural".

Dubious educational degrees.
Many companies like to use experts to endorse their products. The public is not always aware that the "expert" with an impressive Ph.D. or M.D. behind his or her name may have dubious credentials. The initials Ph.D. or M.D. only carry a lot of weight when they have been obtained from reputable educational institutions.

Many people have heard about the best seller "Fit for Life" written by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond. However, very few people are aware that Harvey Diamond who claimed to have a Ph.D. in Nutrition obtained his degree from a mail-order school that was ordered closed down by the Texas Board of Education for being a diploma mill.

Even if experts graduate from excellent universities, if they refuse to be peer-reviewed or are not associated with responsible professional associations, the consumer should be suspicious. An individual may have a medical degree but if they do not belong to any reputable medical associations, then they are outside the jurisdiction of such associations. This means that no one is checking up on their work or what they are doing with their patients.

Celebrity endorsements.
When all else fails, manufacturers get a celebrity to endorse their product. If the celebrity is also an expert on the type of product, for example, a champion tennis player endorsing a particular type of racket, well and good. They may really believe in the product and the product may actually be effective. However, when the celebrity's only claim to fame is being beautiful/handsome and famous, be very skeptical.

Consider this quote from The Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program in which Ms Welch claims that "certain kinds of muscle pumping will only firm existing fat into a hard mass - solidifying all the bumps and bulges, almost as if preserving them in stone!" Heaven help us all if this is the type of "scientific" advice that the public is relying upon to help them decide whether or not to buy a product. Be aware that celebrities of this type generally endorse exercise videos, books or machines.

News reports.
Many times, a newspaper or magazine headline sends people running to buy the newest health and fitness product offered in the market. How can you tell whether what is being reported is accurate or exaggerated? Keep in mind that media doesn't always portray an accurate picture when the story is based upon one single study.

There are organizations that sponsor committees of scientists who meet, examine all the available studies and evidence, and come up with educated guesses about what it all means. When the media reports on such health recommendations you can count on its reliability.

The Food and Nutrition Science Alliance which represents 100,000 plus food, nutrition and medical scientists has developed a list of what the public should watch out for when evaluating news reports on nutrition and health issues. Beware of:

  1. Headlines that promise a quick fix.
  2. Dire warnings of danger that arise from using a single product or regimen.
  3. Claims that sound too good to be true.
  4. Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study.
  5. Recommendations based on a single study.
  6. Dramatic statements that go against conventional wisdom and findings of reputable scientific organizations.
  7. Lists of "good" and "bad" food.
  8. Results that help sell a product.
  9. Advice based on unpublished studies.
  10. Blanket recommendations that ignore difficulties among individuals or groups.

If it's too good to be true…
There is such a thing as "common sense". It's free and everyone has an unlimited supply. Use your head. If a product or news report sounds "too good to be true", it probably is!

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