Eureka! I’ve found an argument that justifies my ambivalence about superfoods and the multitude of other nuggets of dietary advice I’ve been bombarded with since my diagnosis, and supports what I want to support: the varied diet.
Tim Minchin argues eloquently in Storm (it’s a treat: do take ten minutes to revel in it),
alternative medicine is medicine that has not been proved to work, or has been proved not to work. Do you know what they call alternative medicine that has been proved to work? Medicine.
But that is not as damning as it might look for alternative medicine. The method by which medicines are proved to work is long, laborious and expensive. The only groups rich enough to undertake it are usually drug companies, and they will only undertake it if they see a potential for profit at the end. So most superfoods and other alternative health prospects stand in the antechamber to the squeaky-clean category of ‘medicine’: ‘not tested yet’.
Testing is very long and laborious. First we need double-blind tests to see whether there is a consistent, desirable main effect. Even that stage presents great challenges for many alternative therapies since ‘double-blind’ means the patient should not know whether they are taking the treatment or a placebo: hard to set up, where the treatment cannot be put into pill form, like yoga, or psychotherapy.
Where that step is passed, there need to be trials to see how the treatment works with young people, old people, pregnant women, people with asthma, or diabetes or a number of other common conditions. Then, does the treatment interact badly with other common drugs? There is a long, long list of conditions to deliver on, before the fabled FDA (US Food and Drugs Administration) approval is achieved.
My cancer bible (as already mentioned in another post) is David Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-cancer. He speaks highly of labs at the University of Montreal and elsewhere that are testing the anti-cancer properties of regular foods, where there is some evidence in favour, but no prospects of pharmaceutical companies taking up testing because there are no prospects of big profits: you can’t patent the tomato.
So, for all those superfoods and other nuggets, there is evidence that they work – but not conclusive evidence. Even if there is good evidence that they work well in most cases, how am I to know whether they will work well in my case?
To act rationally, in the face of this imperfect knowledge, we work with probabilities. We hedge our bets. We are happy to try all and sundry superfoods and other treatments – but won’t commit fully to any.
So that brings me back to my childhood, in 1960s and 70s UK, where official dietary advice was thin on the ground and, to the best of my recollection, amounted to: a varied diet is a Good Thing.
That suits me. Everything in moderation. The Epicurean ideal. It sanctions me in eating everything I like to eat. And I’ve now squared it, applying highest scientific principles, with a little gentle scepticism (so I even dare use the word ‘fad’ in my title) about alternative treatments and superfoods, eating the ones I like and ignoring the rest.