Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Don’t go with the Flow

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The above promoted tweet showed-up in my feed recently. Ugh. Can we get any more ridiculous? We don’t need special alkaline water and the benefits spouted by Flow are unsubstantiated.

In case you were wondering, the normal pH value of “raw” water ranges from 6.5-9.5. It’s generally somewhere in the middle of this range. According to the WHO, while there’s no health-based guideline proposed for pH, at values higher than 11 eye irritation and exacerbation of skin disorders may occur. At values under 4 redness and irritation of the eyes may occur, and at values less than 2.5 severe and irreversible damage to the skin occurs.

The pH of tap water has to be controlled to avoid damaging the pipes through which it travels. It also needs to be less than 8 for disinfection with chlorine to be effective. Hence, tap water usually has a pH between 7.1 and 8.0, neutral-slightly alkaline.

Despite it’s pH being its claim to fame, Flow doesn’t list the pH value of its water on the website. However, according to an article in the National Post, the founder of the company says it’s “about 8.1”. Essentially, a touch more alkaline than tap water. At slightly over $2 for a 500 ml bottle, it’s considerably more expensive than tap water though.

As I’ve discussed before, your body does an excellent job of “balancing acidity levels” all on its own. You don’t need to spend money on overpriced water to maintain a healthy pH.


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The science behind Herbalife

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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.


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

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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 examine.com 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 examine.com (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.”

Examine.com 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 examine.com. 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.”

Examine.com 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.


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The skinny on teatox

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Photo by Iyad Tibi on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

last week a friend tweeted this “Skinny Teatox” cleanse telling everyone to eat real food and cc’ed me. I figured it was worth a blog post because so many people think that tea is innocuous, and of course, when it’s being marketed as innocent “natural” herbs, who can blame them? The thing is, natural is not alway superior, nor is it always safe. There are plenty of deadly toxins of natural origin. This tea, while not in the deadly toxin category, is certainly not the healthiest choice, nor is it likely to help you lose weight.

Before I get started dissecting the ingredients though can I just make a brief comment on the price? $35 for SEVEN days! That’s $5 a day! That’s insanity! You can buy many lovely herbal, green, and black teas for a fraction of that price.

They claim that the tea is“Made with 100% natural ingredients that promote good health and weight loss.” The teas also contain no “chemicals” lol. They may however, contain: “Our products may contain all or some of the following: gluten, malva verticellata, cassia angustifolia (senna leaf), cascara sagrada, arctostaphylos uva ursi, ginseng, liquorice, chrysanthemum, orange peel, cinnamon bark, cloves, rhubarb and ginger. Skinny Teatox produces a laxative effect and can be toxic in high doses. Do not consume more than once every two days.” 

Gluten – safe for anyone who doesn’t have celiac disease or a gluten allergy (a protein found in grains)

malva verticillata – (I assume they just misspelled this one, gives you great confidence doesn’t it?) also known as “Chinese mallow” or “Cluter mallow” it’s commonly used as a laxative. Not much is known about side effects but it may affect blood sugar so those with diabetes should probably avoid it (1).

senna leaf – is a common over-the-counter laxative and should not be used regularly because it can be habit forming (i.e. you may come to rely on it to poop).

cascara sagrada – is bark from a shrub, again, used to treat constipation. It can’t be purchased as a drug because questions were raised regarding its safety but manufacturers didn’t want to comply with the FDA testing (not alarming whatsoever) (2). Most side effects are associated with long-term use.

arctostaphylos uva ursi – the leaves of a plant, generally used to treat urinary disorders, and (you guessed it!) constipation! (3). Short term side effects can include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and greenish urine. Long-term side effects can include liver damage, eye problems, breathing problems, convulsions, and death.

ginseng – may lower blood sugar, may act as a stimulant (4).

liquorice – a plant used to treat various digestive issues. May cause issues in people with certain health conditions and is not safe for long-term use (5).

chrysanthemum – used to treat, high blood pressure, chest pain, type 2 diabetes… It’s also a popular summertime tea in China. May cause an allergic reaction in some people as it’s in the same family as ragweed (6).

orange peel – I think we’re getting down into the flavourings now so I’m not going to continue. You get the idea. The vast majority of the ingredients in these natural herbal teas are laxatives. They’re not going to “detox” you or make you “skinny”. And if you need help pooping might I suggest that you save your money and go for some cheaper, safer, healthier natural remedies such as: increasing your fibre and water intake, prunes, coffee, exercise. If you suffer from chronic constipation please speak with your primary health care provider. Disclaimer: This is just a blog, I don’t know your personal medical information and can’t possibly provide you with medical advice in this forum.


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Supplements: Should I take truBrain drinks?

I guess promoted tweets do come in handy every now and again. Blog fodder. This tweet appeared in my feed last week:

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Naturally, my response was: that sounds like complete and utter bullshit.

I went to their website to look for the science to back-up their claims; i.e. an increase in productivity. Naturally, the truBrain research team conducted the study. Surely no bias there. The study itself? Seven. Yep, seven, participants were examined for changes in EEG results following one week of truBrain consumption. The EEG was used to measure brain activity. There was no control group and no blinding (read: high likelihood of bias). Even with the deck so well stacked in their favour, the “researchers” found no significant results at a group level. This pilot study is the only research cited on their website.

Okay, so there’s no real science to support the claim that truBrain can increase productivity. Perhaps a look at the ingredients can provide more illumination:

375 mg of CDP-Choline – The lovely folks at examine.com indicate that there is some minor evidence to support the use of CDP-Choline to support memory and attention, and decreased cognitive decline in older adults. If there is a benefit conferred by CDP-Choline, this might be an effective dose.

200 mg of DHA – This is an omega-3 fatty acid. There may be benefits seen at this dose, although there is no scientific consensus. Also, benefits are most likely seen in individuals who do not regularly consume fatty fish.

375 mg of L-carnitine – This is quite a low dose. While there is some limited research to support the use of L-carnitine to increase cognition in the elderly, there is no research to support its use in the young.

300 mg of L-theanine – This is an amino acid that may promote relaxation. There is no research supporting its use to improve cognition.

375 mg of L-tyrosine – Another amino acid. As a supplement, it may reduce stress and memory in the presence of an acute stressor.

120 mg of magnesium- Many of us don’t consume enough magnesium in our diets so it’s hard for me to knock the inclusion of this mineral in their beverage. However, this is a rather low dose. Some forms of magnesium can cause gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea. It’s also important to note that magnesium supplementation is unlikely to have any effect on cognitive performance.

800 mg of oxiracetam – This is a mild stimulant that may improve memory but there aren’t currently human studies to support this.

In addition to the “medicinal” ingredients, truBrain drinks also contain the following “natural” sweeteners: pomegranate, stevia, blue agave, cranberry, sugar cane, and monk fruit. Six sweeteners. Sweet enough for ya? Not mentioned in any of the ingredient lists is caffeine. The website shows an option for purchasing “non-caffeine drinks” but at the moment they have not yet developed any.

At the low end of the scale you can purchase 15 drinks for a one time fee of $60 or $50 per month. That’s $4 per packet. Unfortunately, the website doesn’t clearly state the size of each drink packet nor the full ingredient list or nutrition information. Without complete information, I can’t completely rip these truBrain supplements to shreds.

Apparently these supplements were developed by neuroscientists. While this might seem to lend an air of believability to their claims, it truly only shows that no profession is exempt from quackery and the desire to turn a profit.