Snake Oil (or “I really just want to rant about health for a minute”)


One health food fad that really irked me when it was at it peak was chia seeds. My literal reaction when my coworkers told me about this was, “Wait, you mean the seeds from those Chia pet things? That’s what you’re eating?” because it struck me as a pretty weird coincidence. Think about it. Suddenly the company stops showing chia pet ads (like seriously who bought those anyway?) which I remember being on all the time and starts selling the seeds as a “superfood”. Also, nobody could really give me a straight answer on what exactly the seeds were supposed to do.

Fiber and antioxidants, apparently. Oookay. This is where I do that thing that irritates my coworkers to no end. The thing where I say, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” meaning sources. After spending years having to defend my opinion I basically have Google Scholar as my homepage. I might suck at making friends, but I keep some smart acquaintances in the form of Master’s and Doctorate students. “Oh, you read that on facebook? Well I got five webpages including the Washington Post that says that click-bait post is a load of bull.” And then I wonder why I don’t have any friends.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Anywho, fiber isn’t my issue. My issue is with the magic word “antioxidants”. You keep using that word; I don’t think you know what it means. That’s okay, I hated chemistry too. There’s the mentality that an antioxidant rich diet is going to protect you from cancer which is not true. There is NO SUCH THING as a cancer prevention diet. Advertisers just like to make you think there is.

There is a significant deficient in nutrition research and there is nothing that’s been published that has promising results for a “cancer prevention diet”. All we have is the “don’t eat this thing that’s everywhere, shoved in your face, greasy, sugary, over processed goodness that makes up 90% of what’s in your local grocery store” diet. When I’m walking past the shelves at my work (I work at a grocery store) I’m mentally going (salt, sugar, sugar, sugar, salt, sugar) because US food really only comes in two flavors.

So, what exactly are antioxidants? Well, hopefully you remember from your high school biology and chemistry classes that the human body is a complex organism, but one of the main important processes is “making” energy. Since energy can’t be created out of nothing, the body uses chemistry to convert “fuel” (food) into an energy the body can use. Since there’s no such thing as a “perfect” conversion, the chemistry process is always going to have byproducts. Heat is usually always a byproduct, a few other things we don’t care at the moment, oh, and “Free radicals”. (Cues dramatic music)

Free radicals is another one of those terms that everyone’s heard of, but they don’t really know what that means.

Free radicals are unstable elements that come spinning off any oxygen-using chemical reaction in the body. They are unstable because they are missing an electron and, in a bid to restabilise themselves, they steal an electron from elsewhere. This could be from the fats in cell membranes or from your DNA. The damage they do when bullying other elements into handing over an electron is called oxidative stress, and this can be associated with heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
The Guardian, Feb 2015

Sounds awful right? Except free radicals also play a small part in the immune system by helping against invading bacteria and viruses which also happen to have electrons too. To prevent any real serious damage to cells body makes it’s own antioxidants. The antioxidants found in chia seeds and other plants are different than the ones we make for ourselves so they might not even work the way advertisers are telling use they do. Nutrition studies are very hard to conduct and find funding for so actual scientists aren’t saying chia seeds are magical. The best I’ve been able to find is “Well, it’s probably not going to hurt you.” three emails later. (Yeah, I know the dissertation’s not going to write itself, but my sanity is important too!)

A good nutrition study will last for years. This study had 10,000 participants who were studied for 4 years. I can’t even even follow a diet for a week without breaking down and buying a donut and that’s one study. Think about how many fad diets have come and gone since then.

So anytime somebody tells me about this “amazing” superfood I won’t believe. Well, guess what. I don’t believe it. I know there was no ten year study to back up that claim. I know the FDA can’t do a damn thing about it unless somebody dies. No, seriously. People can literately sell poison in a bottle without putting all the “nutrition facts” on the label and the FDA can’t force it off the market until somebody dies from it first. Those daily vitamins you take everyday? A) They do nothing because you get most of your nutritional needs from your food anyway. B) I sure hope as hell they were honest on that label because C) You won’t know it’s bad for you until it’s too late.

This is not the same paranoia that prevents parents from vaccinating their kids because that HAS been thoroughly researched and nobody wants a measles outbreak. No, my paranoia about the health market is that it’s a market. People are there to make money and they’re gambling with people’s health to do it. If you really want a cancer-free diet, maybe you should hold off on the snake oil.



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