Phony health claims and deeply-rooted beliefs difficult to debunk
Tony Nickonchuk was a Grade 11 student when he picked up a bottle of cayenne powder capsules in his local pharmacy. Self-conscious about his weight, the 17-year-old was exploring the herbal section of the pharmacy looking for “a magic bullet.” He took the cayenne powder capsules for a month, but he didn’t lose any weight. In fact, the pills had only one noticeable effect—a terrible case of heartburn!
Nickonchuk, now a pharmacist practicing in Peace River, no longer seeks miracle cures. But he knows that many intelligent people fall for health claims on a wide spectrum of health matters with no scientific backing. From ways to treat lice to the efficacy of homeopathic medicine, false information pervades advertising.
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Once relegated to theatrical headlines on the fronts of magazines, dramatic health claims are everywhere. Dr. Oz peddles raspberry ketones for weight loss, while actress-turned-entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow sells water bottles with crystals inside claiming that they will increase one’s positive energy. Social media is awash with articles pointing to studies that bolster spurious health claims:
Apple cider vinegar cures throat cancer.
Detoxify your liver with coconut oil.
Get flat abs in three days with these five easy exercises.
Purple cabbage improves cognitive decline.
Nickonchuk is concerned about the implications of what he calls a “mistrust or misunderstanding of scientific evidence,” especially when it comes to skepticism about vaccines.
We’ve seen diseases that were a thing of the past for a very long time reappear due to beliefs based on fraudulent claims that have been extensively disproven,” he says, but, “once ingrained, these mistaken notions are difficult to refute.”
“Research shows that merely pointing out to parents that the science behind vaccines is sound and [that] there is no concrete link with autism does not change their position,” he says. “In fact, sometimes it strengthens it.”
And Nickonchuk has plenty of scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of vaccines. Since the introduction of a routine vaccination for diphtheria, only one case per 10 million people per year has occurred. Prevaccine statistics indicate there were 85 annual cases per 100,000 people. The incidence of tetanus was reduced from 21 cases per 10 million people to one case per 10 million people and mumps declined to one case per 100,000 people from a previous high of 250 per 100,000 people.
“These diseases are not minor,” Nickonchuk points out, adding that “diphtheria has a fatality rate of up to 20 per cent in young children and older adults. The tetanus mortality rate is a little more than 10 per cent and while mumps is not often fatal, it can cause long-term problems like deafness and, if contracted in early pregnancy, miscarriage.”
“These are serious diseases, with serious consequences. But because we live in an age where you can find information to support any position imaginable, it is very hard to fight the misperception that vaccines are dangerous,” Nickonchuk says.
Lessons In Food
Devon Guy is a diabetes educator and community health promoter practicing on Tsuu T’ina Nation, a First Nations community southwest of Calgary. Guy has been working closely with Tsuu T’ina elementary and middle schools to develop the Guja Nutrition Program (“guja” is Tsuu T’ina for “good”), a food literacy initiative for students and teachers.
The Guja Nutrition Program employs a holistic approach that places more emphasis on the students’ relationship with food than their physical size. The health promotion team keeps it culturally relevant, focusing on balance and self-sufficiency. Depending on their age, the students might have discussions about where food comes from or take hands-on cooking classes.
One of the lessons in the Guja Nutrition Program discusses everyday foods versus “sometimes foods” which are okay in moderation. Teachers and students talk about popular food and where it comes from, whether it’s nature, farm or factory. “As students get older, we can discuss what happens to food when it goes to a factory, what gets added to it and what gets taken away,” Guy says.
One of the most prevalent myths is that going gluten free is a good choice for nonceliacs. “There can be a lot of healthy options that contain gluten,” Guy says, “and if we try to replace all the gluten-containing food with gluten-free food, sometimes we get more sugar and fat.”
A prevailing misconception is that the nutrition content claims on processed food mean the food is healthy. Yes, the cereal is called Chocolately Chocolate, but there’s a label right on the front of the package that states the sugary food is made with whole grains. And that yogurt with the low-fat label is a healthy choice, right? But it’s actually higher in sugar than its fuller-fat predecessor. Flip over the package to read the ingredients and you are met with a string of multisyllabic words that seem to bear little resemblance to the actual food it is claiming to be.
“Labelling can be a very effective marketing tool,” she says.
One of the most important elements of the Tsuu T’ina program is inspiring teachers to use nonedible rewards for classroom incentives and, beyond that, to understand that teachers are important role models. Guy encourages teachers to eat together and to keep an eye on their own meal choices.
“Kids are really perceptive about what adults are doing,” Guy says.
What else can teachers do to encourage students to think critically? Nickonchuk says it starts with teaching students how to find reliable health information.
“Health stories in the news are done poorly just as often as they are done well,” he says. It’s also valuable for students to see teachers walk through the process of finding answers using reliable sources.
“It is okay to not know things; that is how we learn. The most valuable lesson teachers can teach, and no less so in science and medicine, is how to learn something you don’t know on your own.”
Made To Measure
The weight loss industry loves measurements—waist circumference, weight loss and muscle-to-fat ratios are common standards of success. But the changes Guy is looking for lie in behaviour and how people think about food. It’s not the kind of change that will dramatically shift waistline size in the short-term but, she says, changing relationships with food will have far-reaching implications for boosting long-term health and preventing disease.
In her three years at Tsuu T’ina, Guy is seeing signs of progress. Two years ago, the school cafeterias stopped serving sweetened drinks at lunch. The only beverage option? Water.
“That was huge,” she says. School cafeterias also offer a vegetable with every lunch meal.
“We see a lot of kids being open to trying new things, we see a big increase in their level of self-confidence when it comes to working in the kitchen. That was really impactful for us—seeing the kids so proud of what they had made and so excited to go home and show their family what they had learned in cooking class.”
If Nickonchuk could go back in time to visit that self-conscious 17-year-old browsing the herbal section of the pharmacy, he would remind young Tony that there are no magic bullets.
“If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he says. “Weight loss has not been and likely never will be solved by pills, and the only weight herbal remedies make you lose is the weight in your wallet.”
Jen Janzen is a news writer and public relations officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.