bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Herbalife part 2


I received quite the response to my Herbalife post last week (thanks guys!). A number of comments on both the post and facebook made me think that I should do a brief follow-up. I got so caught-up in exploring the sketchy dynamic of the company itself that I spent very little time looking at the products they’re peddling.

Naturally, it’s always best to get your nutrition from whole foods. While many supplements and protein snacks are generally benign, there are some supplements that can actually cause considerable harm. We know that the supplement industry is not well regulated and there have been a number of exposes in the past few years of supplements containing ingredients other than those listed in the package. Well, it turns out that Herbalife supplements may also warrant closer scrutiny.

A reader was kind enough to send me the titles to some articles in the Journal of Hepatology to read. One of these, from 2007 was entitled: Slimming at all costs : Herbalife-induced liver injury. This article shares a number of cases in which severe liver injury was determined to have resulted from the use of Herbalife products. Unfortunately, because the users were taking anywhere from 3 to 17 different Herbalife products, investigators were unable to attribute the injury to a particular product. While a paper “revisiting” these claims against Herbalife was published in the World Journal of Hepatology in 2011, it’s hard not to be suspicious of their conclusion that the Herbalife products could not be linked to the cases of liver toxicity as the authors were all affiliated with Herbalife.

It’s difficult for me to properly assess the ingredients in Heralife products as their website lacks nutrition and ingredient information and I lack a lab to analyze the composition of the supplements (and the desire to use my money to purchase them). However, just looking at some of them from the website raises some questions. There’s a “herbal tea concentrate” listed under weight management. Yet, the description states “A delicious tea blend of green tea and orange pekoe…”. Green tea and orange pekoe tea are not herbal teas. Green tea supplements have also been linked to liver failure so I find this product concerning. There’s also a mysterious product called “Total Control”, “Liftoff” which is essentially Redbull in effervescent tablet form, “Herbalife24” which supposedly restores through antioxidants (which research is showing may cause more harm than good in supplement form) and vitamin A (which can be toxic in high supplemental doses).

These are just a few Herbalife products. They may be perfectly harmless, although it’s extremely unlikely that they’re actually beneficial. However, without knowing what’s actually in them I would never take the risk of purchasing and ingesting them. Save your money and your health and don’t buy risky supplements.


The science behind Herbalife


A while ago I received a request to blog about supplements, in particular Herbalife. I’ve procrastinated on it for a little while because I figure you’ve read about one weight loss supplement scam, you’ve read about them all. Plus, I wasn’t all that familiar with Herbalife and the products they sell and I knew it would take me a little time to look at all of them.

The product lines include: core products, weight management, targeted nutrition, energy and fitness, and outer nutrition. They include everything from soy nuts to protein shakes to canola oil capsule. Yep, canola oil in a capsule. Why anyone would ever want to pay for capsules when you can buy a lovely jug of canola oil at the grocery store for what I’m sure is a much more reasonable price (prices aren’t listed on the Herbalife site) and can actually use to cook with is beyond me. It takes all kinds I suppose.

Herbalife even has a little tab at the top of their website entitled “science“. Which would be awesome if it actually linked to science to support the use of the products their selling. Sadly, no, this is what you get:

“Herbalife products are made from beneficial ingredients and developed using world-class scientific technology and research. Our protein shakes and snacks, vitamins and dietary supplements, energy and fitness drinks, and skin and hair care products, combined with healthy eating and exercise, can help you enjoy a lifetime of good health.”

They then provide a link to a PDF where you can “learn more”. This is a one pager, with plenty of images, that says:

“Herbalife products are formulated by our team of scientists and Ph.D.s for consumer benefits. They also ensure that the science behind our products is substantiated through scientific literature and clinical trials. We share knowledge and best practices through our key partnerships with the most advanced and established ingredient suppliers in the world.”

They name their chairman of the board, David Heber MD, PhD. Naturally, I looked him up. At first glance he appears quite reputable (aside from his willingness to peddle questionable nutritional supplements). He’s a professor at the UCLA school of medicine, an endocrinologist, nutrition specialist… But wait, if you just add “quack” after his name in google you get some much more interesting results; such as, this blog post about his authorship of several questionable diet books, his promotional video for pistachio nuts, and his research (funded by POM Wonderful) you guessed it, extolling the wonders of pomegranate juice. One blog not enough for you? How about a listing on Quack Watch linking to the article Herbalife Cozies Up With UCLA? Which outlines the financial benefits Heber receives from Herbalife in exchange for his promotion of their products? Or this post on Science-Based Medicine detailing the tangled web of Heber’s nutritional genomics research, funding, and chairmanship of the Herbalife board?

This is their credible scientist. A man who is receiving substantial profit from the sale of Herbalife supplements as well as funding for his research. No conflict of interest there. Nope.

Making Herbalife an even more questionable business is the fact that it appears to be a pyramid scheme. You can become an Herbalife distributor and make money selling Herbalife products to others. Despite this sales technique, a judge dismissed a case accusing Herbalife of being a pyramid scheme in July of this year.

The Herbalife website entices you to “get your Herbalife Coach today”. This coach will help you with your goals, product selection, and provide you with solutions and support during your journey to health. Who are these wellness coaches? People who sign-up to be Herbalife distributors through people who signed-up to be Herbalife distributors through people who signed-up to be Herbalife distributors. You get the idea. Apparently there’s some online training that you can take. I’m sure that’s pretty much like being a dietitian. I was hoping to find a disgruntled former Herbalife coach online who would reveal what the coach “training” entailed, but all I turned-up was this article about a woman who lost a large sum of money as a Herbalife distributor. And this blog post by a woman who was angered by her experience with an Herbalife Health and Wellness Coach. Essentially, as a Herbalife coach you’re a glorified sales person.

So, to sum it all up: Herbalife is a company with a dubious sales model, selling questionable products (I’m being generous here) that’s run by a doctor with a clear lack of integrity. If you want soy nuts, go to the Bulk Barn. Don’t waste your money supporting a despicable company like Herbalife.


5 ways fish oil supplements (probably won’t) help fat loss


A friend recently suggested that I blog about this post touting the five ways that fish oil supplements help fat loss. Of course, the post contains no references for any of the claims so I had to do a little digging and guess at what the existing research supporting them might be. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. “They stimulate secretion of leptin, one of the hormones that decreases our appetite and promotes fat burning.”

The majority of studies I can find regarding fish oil and leptin involve mice, rats, or patients suffering from pancreatic cancer cachexia. Not exactly the general population. Off to where they reviewed two studies involving fish oil supplementation for women who were over weight. Neither study showed a significant influence of supplementation on serum leptin.

2. “They help us burn fat by activating the fat burning metabolic pathways in our liver.”

Back to (why do the work of slogging through google scholar when they’ve done it for me?). They found one study that showed no effect on metabolic rate as a result of fish oil metabolism.

3. “Fish oils encourage storage of carbs as glycogen (an energy source in our liver and muscles) rather than fat.” found one study that showed a very slight increase in fat oxidation with fish oil supplementation. Before you get too excited though, the study (the same as was noted in the response to “reason” number two above) participants were six lean and healthy young men. Probably not the population who is interested in taking fish oil for weight loss.

4. “They are natural anti-inflammatory agents. Inflammation causes weight gain and can prevent fat loss by interfering with our fat burning pathways in the liver and muscle cells.”

There were a lot more studies (17 to be precise) looking at this topic that were reviewed on The results were a mixed bag. A few found a very small reduction in inflammatory markers in subjects taking fish oil supplements. However, most of the studies found no effect on inflammatory cytokines and it’s important to note that even if fish oil supplements do reduce inflammation in some individuals, we can’t be certain that this will lead to weight loss.

5. “They possess documented insulin-sensitizing effects.” looked at 12 studies and stated that the scientific consensus is 100% that fish oil supplementation has no effect on insulin sensitivity. There are, however, a few studies that have shown an increase in insulin sensitivity but also a few that have shown a decrease in insulin sensitivity.

Overall, there is no evidence to support the use of fish oil supplementation to lose weight. Of course, Dr. Natasha would want you to believe otherwise as the purchase of her fish oil supplements is an “essential component” of her “Hormone Diet”. Remember, it’s a red flag when someone is trying to sell you a quick fix.

Don’t forget, the best way you can get fish oil is to eat fish.


Everything you want to know (and probably more) about vitamin K


No ranting today. No raving either. A little while ago, a friend asked me to write a post about vitamin K-rich foods. So, this post is just straight-up info for those who are interested in learning more about vitamin K.

You may be wondering, “What is vitamin K?” (if you’re not, feel free to skip on ahead to the next paragraph). Vitamin K is a family of compounds including phylloquinone (vitamin K1) which is found in plants, and menaquinones (vitamin K2) which are found in fish oils and meats (thanks old nutrition textbook: Perspectives in Nutrition by Wardlaw and Hampl).

Vitamin K is essential for blood clotting. Fun fact: the Danish researcher who discovered the relationship between vitamin K and blood clotting named it for the word “koagulation” (which, in case you couldn’t guess, translates to “coagulation” in English). The adequate intake for women is 90 mcg a day, for men, 120 mcg, based on typical adult intakes. In addition to food sources of vitamin K, microorganisms in our intestines also produce vitamin K.

Although, vitamin K is a fat soluble vitamin, there is no upper limit set for consumption as it tends to disappear from the body within a few days of consumption. However, high dose supplements are not recommended as the synthetic form of vitamin K is far more potent than the naturally occurring forms as has been found to cause hemolytic anemia in rats and severe jaundice in infants. Vitamin K deficiency is also relatively uncommon. It’s most likely to be seen in people who have fat malabsorption (e.g. celiac disease or some types of bariatric surgery), long-term antibiotic use, or seniors with little consumption of leafy green vegetables. Newborn infants are routinely given vitamin K injections within 6 hours of delivery as they are at risk of defective blood clotting and hemorrhaging as a result of vitamin K deficiency. It’s important for people taking blood thinners, and some other medications, to consume consistent (or limit) amounts of vitamin K containing foods to ensure efficacy of the medications.

As alluded to above, leafy greens are the primary dietary source of vitamin K. Kale tops the list at 530 mcg per 1/2 cup (cooked), followed by turnip greens (520 mcg per cup), spinach (480 mcg/cup), brussels sprouts (150 mcg per 1/2 cup), raw spinach or cooked asparagus (144 mcg/cup), cooked broccoli (110 mcg for 1/2 cup), and looseleaf lettuce (97 mcg/cup). Other good sources of vitamin K include: cooked green beans (48 mcg per 1/2 cup), raw cabbage (42 mcg/cup), sauerkraut (30 mcg per 1/2 cup), green peas (26 mcg per 1/2 cup), soybean oil (25 mcg/tbsp), and cooked cauliflower (20 mcg/cup).


What you need to know about magnesium


Photo “nuts!” by Adam Wyles on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

I recently read an article about magnesium that someone shared on facebook. Shockingly, for FB, it wasn’t nearly as inaccurate as I had expected. However, there were a couple of things in it that I wanted to address. The premise of the article was that most of us are magnesium deficient. This is untrue. Most of us don’t consume enough magnesium but there’s a world of difference between that, and being truly deficient. Magnesium deficiency manifests as an irregular heartbeat which may be accompanied by weakness, muscle spasms, disorientation, nausea, vomiting, and seizures. People who are at greatest risk of magnesium deficiency include: users of some diuretics, those with diabetes, people with alcoholism, as well as those who live in climates where they experience frequent heavy perspiration or those who have long bouts of vomiting or diarrhea.

So, how much magnesium should you be consuming? If you’re a man between 19 and 30 years of age, you should be consuming about 400 mg a day. Women in this age group should be consuming about 310 mg a day. Needs increase beyond this age by about 20 mg/d for men and 10 mg/d for women, and for those experiencing the conditions listed above. For more information of magnesium recommendations, click here. According to one of my old nutrition textbooks (Perspectives in Nutrition by Wardlaw and Hampl), assuming things haven’t changed that much in the past eight years, men consume 325 mg, women 225 mg, on average each day.

It’s not that terribly difficult to reach the recommended intakes of magnesium. One cup of spinach contains 157 mg, one cup of squash `105 mg, 1/4 cup of wheat germ 90 mg, 1/2 cup of navy beans 54 mg, 1 cup of plain yoghurt 43 mg… Nuts and seeds are also good sources of magnesium; as is dark chocolate and raw cacao (nibs, powder). Other leafy greens, beans, and legumes are also good sources of magnesium.

If you do decide to take a magnesium supplement, you should be aware that they are not all the same. Magnesium oxide tends to be the most common and inexpensive form of supplemental magnesium. However, it is also the most poorly absorbed form of magnesium. Liquid magnesium supplements will be best absorbed; the quantity of magnesium listed on the label is not as important as the form. As far as tablets and capsules go, Magnesium lactate, magnesium gluconate, and magnesium citrate are the most absorbable. However, magnesium citrate may have laxative effects, and magnesium hydroxide and magnesium sulfate are forms commonly used as laxatives. Zinc supplementation may interfere with magnesium absorption, while vitamin D supplementation may enhance magnesium absorption. Some medications may also affect magnesium absorption. As with any supplement, you should always check with your pharmacist to ensure that there will be no interactions with any other medications you’re taking. As with any nutrient, it’s best to try to get it from your food rather than from a supplement.