Dr Caroline Leaf and the organic foods fallacy

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Organic foods. They are amazingly popular. More than a million Australians buy organic foods regularly, and several million more buy it occasionally. The retail value of the organic market is estimated to be more than $1 billion annually. The assumption made by most people is that because it’s so popular, organic foods must be good for you, or at least have something going for them to make them worth all the hype.

Of course, just because something’s immensely popular and has a billion-dollar turnover doesn’t necessarily mean it’s beneficial (One Direction is a case-in-point).

In fact, despite organic foods being touted by their supporters as healthier, safer, and better for the environment than normal foods, actual scientific evidence fails to show any significant difference. I wrote about this earlier in the year (see: Borderline Narcissism and Organic Food). Since then, another large prospective trial deflated organic food’s bubble, with a British study showing no change in the incidence of cancer in women who always ate organic foods versus those who never ate organic foods [1].

The dearth of benefit from organic foods wouldn’t be so bad if they were just another guy in the line-up, something neutral and inert. Unfortunately, not only can organic produce be contaminated if farmed incorrectly [2, 3], but they come at an extraordinary premium, sometimes costing four times more than their conventional counterparts (Borderline Narcissism and Organic Food).

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. A couple of months ago, she let slip her intention to publish a book in 2015 about food. Who knows what she’ll actually say, but if today’s social media meme is anything to go by, it will likely follow the same pattern of her other teachings.

Today, she wrote, “Research shows that dark organic CHOCOLATE lowers blood pressure, improves circulation, increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, and increases insulin … and … recent research has even suggest it may prevent weight gain!”

As I discussed recently, Dr Leaf does herself a disservice by not citing her sources. It’s very brave to write in a public forum that dark chocolate reduces the heart attack and stroke, since this could be interpreted as medical advice, which she is not qualified to give. As for the actual effects of dark chocolate, there is not a lot of quality evidence on dark chocolate on its own. A 2011 meta-analysis of general chocolate consumption on cardiovascular risk did indeed show a relative risk reduction of 37% [4]. But before you prescribe yourself two dark chocolate Lindt balls twice a day, consider that a relative risk reduction of 37% isn’t a big effect. Plus, the recommended 50 grams of 85% organic dark chocolate to attain the small benefit for your cardiovascular health contains just over 300 calories/1280 kJ (the average can of Coke contains 146 calories/ 600 kJ), and is 30% saturated fat (http://caloriecount.about.com/calories-green-blacks-organic-dark-chocolate-i110689). So any health benefit that may be associated with the poly-phenol content is likely nullified by the high saturated fat and calorie count.

What concerns me about Dr Leaf’s future foray into dietetics is that little word sitting quietly in her opening sentence: “organic”. Dr Leaf is an organic convert. But rather than act like a scientist that she claims to be, she preaches from her biases, ignoring the evidence that organic food is all hype and no substance, encouraging Christians everywhere to pay excessive amounts of money for something that’s of absolutely no benefit. Dr Leaf is welcome to eat whatever she chooses, but encouraging organic eating without clear benefit is more hindrance than help for most of her followers.

References

  1. Bradbury, K.E., et al., Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br J Cancer, 2014. 110(9): 2321-6 doi: 10.1038/bjc.2014.148
  2. Mukherjee, A., et al., Association of farm management practices with risk of Escherichia coli contamination in pre-harvest produce grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Int J Food Microbiol, 2007. 120(3): 296-302 doi: 10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2007.09.007
  3. Sample, I., E coli outbreak: German organic farm officially identified. The Guardian, London, UK, 11 June 2011 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/10/e-coli-bean-sprouts-blamed
  4. Buitrago-Lopez, A., et al., Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 2011. 343: d4488 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4488
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The end of the sugar obsession?

I was flicking through Facebook this evening as I usually do, hoping to vicariously share someone else’s joy in life, when I came across this little tidbit, “You know what? Don’t quit sugar.”

The link was to a blog on mamamia.com.au (http://www.mamamia.com.au/health-wellbeing/you-know-what-dont-quit-sugar/) which asked if the tide of the quit sugar obsession was starting to recede.  It discussed the recent post of Sarah Wilson, a journalist for Fairfax and the author of several books on quitting sugar, which have become immensely popular by tagging on the coat-tails of David Gillespie’s “Sweet Poison” books.

In her blog, Wilson confessed to a barely forgivable sin of giving in to peer pressure and eating two chocolate croissants, then emotionally self-flagellating for the rest of the day.  That the symptoms that she described fitted nicely into the category of an anxiety neurosis didn’t seem to register with Wilson, who carried on like she had ingested a large goblet of hemlock.

Credit to the mammamia team who published some of the comments of real nutritionists like Cassie Platt, and eating-disorder counsellors like Paula Kotowitz, who said,

“Being harsh on ourselves, not only does not help, but makes us feel so much worse in the long run because it deconstructs our sense of self and causes us to beat up on ourselves. Isn’t it possible that there is a happy medium in there somewhere? It’s not crack. Just food.”

Platt, who is about to release a book titled, “Don’t Quit Sugar”, says,

“Your food choices should be based on biological and metabolic needs. What we eat should fuel our cells, facilitate growth, repair and reproduction and, most importantly, enable your body to function at its very best.”

Platt said that she has previously tried removing sugar from her diet and that she had to “claw” her way back to health.

The mamamia writing team summed up by saying,

“The benefits of reducing sugar intake are widely accepted in the scientific community but the idea of avoiding it altogether remains an issue of serious contention. And the possibility that these sorts of diet programs can mask dangerous eating disorders, is particularly worrying.”

They asked the question, “Has the sugar-quitting backlash begun?”  For the love of all things sacred, I seriously hope so.

About a month ago I wrote a piece about the quit sugar fad, and posted evidence that eating an extremely low carbohydrate diet is no better than eating a low fat diet, because it’s calories, not sugar, that makes all the difference to weight gain or loss.

A balanced, low calorie diet has been pushed by nutritionists and doctors ad nauseum for decades, but consistently neglecting to use words like “poison”, “toxin” or “death” has meant that the message is nowhere near as stimulating as the current whim.

Is it possible to have your cake and eat it too?  Absolutely.  My hero of nutritional science, Dr Rosemary Stanton, spoke at a Brisbane conference a couple of years ago and succinctly debunked Gillespie, Wilson and their ilk.  She also explained the concept of feasting, the long forgotten art form of having exceptionally good food once in a while, and enjoy it with friends, rather than eating substandard food every day by yourself, which is the modern trend.

Rather than gorging on sugar every day to compensate for your loneliness and despair, Dr Stanton advocated a diet high in vegetables and little or no processed food on a daily basis.  But then once a month or two, she advised to enjoy your favourite food, no matter what it might happen to be – cheesecake, ice cream, chocolate croissants – anything you like.  The only rules were to make sure that it is really good quality, the best that you can afford, so that it is worth savouring and looking forward to next time, and enjoy it with friends, since the social aspects of the food we eat are as important as the nutritional value.  Sage advice from someone who has been researching nutrition for longer than I’ve been alive.

I’m sure that by now, Sarah Wilson will have got over her sugar intoxication.  She may not have enjoyed it, but I hope that ends up being a pivotal moment in correcting the imbalance in our relationship to sugar, and living by the facts, not the latest fad.

Sweet Poison, Another Fad

According to the esteemed medical journal “The Daily Telegraph”, sugar has been exposed as a poison which is slowly killing us[1].

“FORGET fat, salt and carbohydrates – sugar has been branded more addictive than heroin. It is slowly killing us. // While foods high in fat were once accused of increasing our waistlines, experts said it was foods high in sugar, such as cereals and yoghurts, that are making us fatter and more prone to long-term illness.”

The article is right.  Fat was once touted as foods hidden assassin.  Then it became carbs when the Atkins craze hit.  Now its sugar.

Then pretty soon, people will get bored with this fad, and some other “expert” will publish some book that find a new health demon to exorcise.

The problem is that these fads are narrow minded and overly sensationalist.  Everything is bad for us in some degree.  Change the article slightly and you see how ridiculous this fad reporting becomes.

Oxygen is exposed as a deadly addiction that turns us to rust. // Forget fat, salt and carbohydrates – oxygen has been branded more addictive than sugar. It is slowly killing us.

While foods high in fat were once accused of increasing our waistlines, experts said it was breathing oxygen in the air that is causing free radicals to form in our cells.  Free radicals cause oxidative damage, just like rust on iron.

Oxidative damage leads to increased rates of aging of our cells, experts say.  The faster we age, the sooner we die.  Experts say that reducing oxygen intake can add years to our lives, if we can just break our oxygen addiction.

Ahbig Stoog said breaking the oxygen addiction wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.  “I’ve never felt healthier”, said Mr Stoog.

Sorry, but sugar is just one of a long line of fads to come and go.  The Sweet Poison book was written by a lawyer, David Gillespie.  I like lawyers, but understanding law doesn’t give you a degree in biochemistry.  I was at a conference where Professor Rosemary Stanton (nutritionist and biochemist) and Mr Gillespie both spoke.  Stanton tore him apart.

But it’s not just my opinion.  This has been tested scientifically by a group in Adelaide, their work published in 2009[2].  They compared the weight loss effects of two diets over a year, an extremely low carbohydrate diet (like that espoused in the Sweet Poison Quit Plan) and a standard low-fat diet.  The extreme low carbs diet contained 4% of the energy intake as carbs compared to 46% as carbs for the low fat diet.  Importantly, both diets were equal in the calories consumed.

If the sweet poison hypothesis is correct, and sugar alone is responsible for weight gain/loss then the extreme low carbs diet would show significant weight loss to the low fat diet.  If, on the other hand, weight loss is moderated by total calories consumed, no matter what the make up of the diet, then the weight loss for the two diets would be about the same.

The result of the study is bad for Mr Gillespie’s credibility, because both groups lost approximately the same amount of weight (Low Carbs: 14.5 +/- 1.7 kg; Low Fat: 11.5 +/-1.2 kg; P = 0.14).**  The results mirror those of an earlier study by the same authors, using slightly different diets, but again showing that diets of a similar calorie intake result in the same amount of weight loss[3].

The point is, fad diets come and go.  The diet that works is one that is calorie controlled.  People on zero-sugar diets lose weight because they consume less calories.  Any diet that works is because people consume less calories.

A balanced, low calorie diet has been pushed by nutritionists and doctors ad nauseum for decades, but consistently neglecting words like “poison”, “toxin” or “death” has meant that the message is nowhere near as stimulating as the current whim.

If you feel compelled to cut every ounce of sugar from your diet then fantastic.  You will lose lots of weight, and I commend that.  But don’t kid yourself.  Sugar isn’t a poison.  It’s just another fad.

References:

  1. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/sugar-is-exposed-as-a-deadly-addiction-that-turns-sweet-life-sour/story-fni0cx12-1226686558161
  2. Brinkworth, G.D., et al., Long-term effects of a very-low-carbohydrate weight loss diet compared with an isocaloric low-fat diet after 12 mo. Am J Clin Nutr, 2009. 90(1): 23-32.
  3. Noakes, M., et al., Effect of an energy-restricted, high-protein, low-fat diet relative to a conventional high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet on weight loss, body composition, nutritional status, and markers of cardiovascular health in obese women. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005. 81(6): 1298-306.

** Some people may wonder why I stated that the results of the study showed a similar weight loss, yet the numbers I quoted showed that the low carb diet had a weight loss of 14.5kg compared to 11.5kg for the low fat group.  How can weight loss of 3kg be “the same”?  The answer lies in the P value, a statistical measure of the strength of the evidence.  A p-value of greater than 0.05 shows that the difference in the groups could have been the result of chance.  For more explanation on the P value: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/what-a-pvalue-tells-you-about-statistical-data.html

Dieting. Is it really worth it?

In an opinion column on the Brisbane Times news site, Kasey Edwards wrote about the recent struggles that weight loss company Jenny Craig have had finding celebrities to endorse their product.

Edwards cited Australian actor Magda Szubanski, and Kirstie Alley before her, as typifying the difficulties that dieters have. She also stated that over the last 50 years of research, dieting has a typical success rate of only 5%.

Her source was unstated, but if it’s correct, then it’s somewhat disheartening. She said, “With such damning rates it is extraordinary that we still blame individuals for ”failing” at weight loss programs rather than accusing the diet companies of selling snake oil. Can you imagine buying any other product with a 95 per cent failure rate and then blaming yourself when it didn’t deliver on its promise?”

The question is then, “Do all diets suffer from the same failure rate, or are there one or two really successful diets who’s success is diluted by the failure of others?” The answer, not really. It depends on how long you measure for.

From the eMedicine article on obesity, “The results of most weight-loss programs are dismal. On average, participants in the best programs lose approximately 10% of their body weight, but people generally regain two thirds of the weight lost within a year. When defined as sustained weight loss over a 5-year follow-up period, the success of even the best medical weight-loss programs is next to nil. Most available data indicate that, irrespective of the method of medical intervention, 90-95% of the weight lost is regained in 5 years.” (Reference)

So, you can invest thousands of hours, and hundreds of dollars into a program, and the end result is most likely the same, nothing.

That sounds depressing. So what’s the point? Perhaps we should just quit while we’re ahead.

You could, but I think there is a solution. Dieting is not the answer, but I think making healthy lifestyle choices is.

That’s for another post.