Superfoods, Fads and the Varied Diet

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.

Published by

Adam Kilgarriff

I'm a scientist who has set up and runs a small company. I'm married (to Gill Lamden) with three children, Boris (22), Maddie (18) and Raffie (9) (as at today, 28 January 2015, in case I forget to update!) We live in Brighton, UK. Last November (2014) I found I had bowel cancer (stage 5; not curable; only 'manageable'). We've been adjusting to that since (and it is what provoked me to start the blog) My scientific area is linguistics, with my specialisms being corpus linguistics, computational linguistics, and lexicography - or, best of all, the intersection of all three. Since 2004, my company, Lexical Computing Ltd., has been providing a web service, the Sketch Engine, to linguists and lexicographers wanting to find out about words, using corpus-driven methods. Customers include Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Collins, Macmillan, Le Robert, Dictionary.com and around a hundred universities worldwide.

7 thoughts on “Superfoods, Fads and the Varied Diet”

  1. I’m allegedly a type 2 diabetic
    So I have been reading for a while now about what one should and should not eat
    To call the advice on offer confusing is a considerable understatement
    It looks to me as if much of the ‘advice’ is based on opinions rather than facts
    This sort of reminds me of Mary Whitehouse – know what I mean ?

  2. Dear Adam,

    The quote on alternative medicine reminds me of another, by Brian Cox. In the 9th minute, he mentions the concept of homeopathic aircraft and more, but you might want to listen from the beginning — he makes a few interesting and concise points there.

    All the best,
    Piotr

    1. Hi Piotr,
      thanks for the Brian Cox link – though I didn’t altogether agree with him. I’m never much convinced by the argument “it doesn’t fit our theory so it must be wrong” which is what he was saying about homeopathy: physics says, after so much dilution, there are no molecules of the agent left, so there cannot be any impact. But that is consistent with there being other ways in which homeopathy works, which we don’t understand. Also when he gets onto the political part of his speech – how much more money the government should be throwing into physics education – he starts throwing around extremely dodgy figures to support his case: figures about “how much X will contribute to the economy” which strike me as rather more fanciful than homeopathy
      Adam

  3. I completely agree with what you have concluded. My sister who had breast cancer for 10 years came to the same conclusions, and the “cancer diet” can be so grim it can ruin one’s quality of life. However, healthy superfoods can make one feel good so its important to find that balance, and eat what you fancy.

    1. If I were starting off instead of tilting at 70, I would study food science. Some universities are doing significant research in analysing the elements in different foods. It is an enjoyable hobby to read some of those findings …. and make little changes to my diet!

Comments are closed.