Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Let’s deactivate the activated charcoal detox trend

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Photo by Ken Fager on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A friend recently alerted me to the latest detox trend: charcoal infused beverages. What?? I haven’t seen any around here (thankfully), it tends to take a little while for trends to make their way to Nova Scotia. All of my fingers are crossed that this will fizzle out before it can catch on here.

The argument for these activated charcoal containing beverages, made by beauty bloggers, good old vagina steaming Gwyneth, and the purveyors of these burnt beverages, is that the charcoal will bind any toxins in your body and remove them. Supposedly they’re great for avoiding hangovers and blessing you with glowing skin. Sandwiched in between these arguments in the article linked above is the sensible advice put forth by a registered dietitian:

She notes that adding charcoal to vegetable juice doesn’t make sense because the charcoal — not the drinker’s body — will absorb the juice’s nutrients.

“I don’t really see a purpose,” she says. “I think it’s going on the fad of ‘detox, detox, detox.’ ”

It’s important to be aware that the human body is designed to filter toxins using the liver and kidneys. Most of these detox beverages are a waste of money at best, some are dangerous at worst. Regular consumption of charcoal beverages could actually leave you nutrient deficient, not so great for your skin and other organs. It also won’t remove bacteria, as mentioned by one proponent.

Activated charcoal has been used for years in hospitals (and prior to that by indigenous populations) to help treat drug overdoses and poisonings. The activated charcoal binds to these substances, removing them from the body. Extremely useful in the case of an overdose. Not so useful on a regular basis. If you’re consuming any medication the charcoal will happily bind to that and remove it from your body. The charcoal will also only remove toxins and drugs that have not already been absorbed from the digestive system. Drinking one of these the morning after over-indulging will not cure your hangover. In fact, activated charcoal is not useful in treating alcohol poisoning, nor a number of other poisonings. There are also some medications that activated charcoal can interact with and cause electrolyte imbalances.

While this trend is quite new, it’s hard to say what many of the long-term effects of charcoal ingestion might be. As we know that burnt food, and foods cooked at high temperatures may increase the risk of some cancers, it’s quite possible that charcoal ingestion could pose a similar risk.

Novel idea: How about instead of trying to rid our bodies of toxins, we put nutritious nourishing foods into them in the first place.


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Sugar: Natures deadliest drug?

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Researchers (aka Robert Lustig) have been pointing to sugar as the root of many modern diseases in recent years. The CBC recently wrote this article about the toxicity of sugar as well as devoting an episode of the Fifth Estate to the subject.

While I do think that there may be some merit to the research, particularly in regard to fructose, I am reluctant to wholeheartedly support the stance that sugar is toxic. I’m not convinced that, in and of itself, it is in fact a poison. Think about all of the nutritious fruits and vegetables that contain sugar. Should we purge them from our diets because we’re eating too many cookies? It’s a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water, I think.

Any time that one specific nutrient is vilified (or exalted) it always tends to lead to us making things even worse. We decided that butter was bad for us so we replaced it with block margarine. We decided that fat was bad for us so we loaded our foods with sugar and salt instead. We decided that salt was bad for us and are only just now starting to learn that, in some cases, restricting our sodium intake may actually be more damaging than not. And then look at antioxidants like vitamin E which we thought were so wonderful and then turned out to increase the risk of prostate cancer in men when taken as a synthetic supplement.

Yes, it’s quite likely that the majority of us are consuming excessive amounts of sugar. Too much of anything is bad for you. Instead of cutting out all sources of sugar, try to consume fewer packaged and highly processed foods. Eat fewer baked goods, don’t drink pop or juice, and avoid adding sugar to your coffee, tea, and cereal. No need to toss that juicy honeycrisp.


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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.