Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Is there poison in your water?

You know, I get why people are sucked in by alarmist quackery. It’s just so damn convincing. A link on twitter recently led me to this article on the horrors of fluoride. As soon as I clicked the link and saw the author, world-renowned quack Dr. Joseph Mercola I groaned inwardly. Despite my instinct to automatically disregard the article on the basis of its author I decided to give it a read.

The headline: Harvard study confirms fluoride reduces children’s IQ does little to indicate the true depth of the anti-fluoride message of the article. To sum it all up: fluoride is pretty much the most toxic element known to man (okay, I may be exaggerating slightly) and the root cause of most modern-day ailments; everything from brain damage to ADHD to cancer, arthritis, and infertility.

Considering that fluoride has been added to many municipal water supplies for over half a century now, what prompted this anti-fluoride resurgence? Apparently a recent meta-analysis (which, despite sounding like the ultimate source of all scientific knowledge, can have numerous drawbacks) found that “children who live in areas with highly fluorinated water have “significantly lower” IQ scores than those who live in low fluoride areas”. If you want to read the 32-page-long report, it’s available here. The researchers used epidemiological studies. The upside of this is that they actually involved humans, rather than lab animals. The downside of this is that epidemiological studies can never prove causation. There could be many other reasons, completely unrelated to fluoride, why lower IQ scores were observed in these locations.

I would like to draw attention to one of the introductory statements in the report:

Opportunities for epidemiological studies depend on the existence of comparable population groups exposed to different levels of fluoride from drinking water. Such circumstances are difficult to find in many industrialized countries, because fluoride concentrations in community water are usually no higher than 1 mg/L, even when fluoride is added to water supplies as a public health measure to reduce tooth decay.

Maybe I’m missing something here but isn’t this statement essentially saying that most communities don’t put high enough levels of fluoride in their water to cause any detrimental neurological effects? Basically, the authors were looking for extreme circumstances, levels of fluoridation of public water that we don’t see in North America. That fact alone, even if fluoride may reduce IQ (and I’m not saying that it does) indicates to me that the entire study is essentially meaningless.

One last point: the report serving as the catalyst for Mercola’s article only looked at the relationship between fluoride and IQ in children. There was no mention of the myriad other ailments that Mercola mentioned in his article. Fluoridation of drinking water is a contentious issue; I don’t purport to have a definitive answer regarding its benefits versus its risks and I am all for continuous unbiased research on the topic. However, I believe that the risks of this sort of alarmist article definitely outweigh the benefits.

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Can you increase IQ through diet?

Recent research out of Australia has found that childhood IQ is linked to dietary patterns according to an article in Science Daily. The study looked at the eating habits of a group of children at6 months, 15 months, and two years of age and then looked at their IQs at 8 years of age. Apparently the children who consumed healthier diets had higher IQs than the children who consumed more “junk” food. While I think this is great, of course it’s good to see that there are positive benefits to eating a healthy diet, I was also a little curious about how they controlled for other factors which may have contributed to IQ levels. I read the full article and was pleased to see that they controlled for things such as maternal education and socioeconomic factors. The one thing that I had expected them to control for was parental IQ. Surprisingly, to me, they didn’t. Now, it’s been a long time since my psych degree but I’m pretty sure that the strongest predictor of IQ is parental, especially maternal, IQ. Why wouldn’t the researchers have controlled for this factor? I hate to disparage a study that is showing benefits to healthy eating but I also think that it’s important to be objective. Please, continue to feed your children a healthy diet.

Besides the fact that the researchers failed to control for the most important contributing factor to IQ, I don’t really think that IQ is all that meaningful a measurement of intelligence, nor is it a predictor of success. A high IQ doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than other people it just means that you’re better at the type of test they’re administering. It’s kind of like a mental BMI. Most people know that it’s not a great measure but we don’t really have anything better.