I often hear that my ambitions to inform the public and inspire critical thinking are hopeless: there are simply too many quacks trumpeting nonsense, and their collective influence is surely bigger than mine. This can be depressing, of course. And because I often feel that I am fighting an unwinnable battle, stories like this are so importand and up-lifting.
… I had gone to holistic nutrition school. I was running my own nutrition consulting business. And suddenly I didn’t believe in any of it anymore. How did this flip flop come to pass?
… As a holistic nutritionist, I was an active participant in what I now consider alternative medicine tomfoolery, specifically pushing supplements on a clientele of the “worried well” who often mistook wellness enthusiasts like me for medical experts. I want to be clear that I wasn’t knowingly deceiving anyone—I really did believe in the solutions I was offering my clients… To holistic nutrition enthusiasts and people who believe in a certain kind of alt wellness, these “natural” and “holistic” products seem more trustworthy than what mainstream medicine offers. The truth is, they often lack sufficient, peer-reviewed, reliable scientific evidence of their supposed effectiveness.
Did I have rock-solid evidence that these products would do what their labels promised they would do? Not really. Sure, I read studies here and there that found specific health benefits for some of the products. But I rarely mentioned the fine print (if I knew it at all)—that the sample sizes of many of these studies often were so small that the results couldn’t be generalized to a larger population, that the studies’ authors sometimes noted that more research was needed to support any findings on the effects they found, or that systematic reviews later found that many studies were poorly constructed or at risk for bias, making their findings even less compelling than they seemed initially. And in some cases, study authors themselves note that their findings are merely jumping off points, and that more long-term studies are needed in order to draw more solid conclusions…
Was I relying on strong, valid evidence? Nah, not really. But at the time, I thought what I had was better than strong evidence: Faith in a lifestyle and a dogmatic belief that all things traditional and mainstream were unhealthy or harmful, and therefore, that all things unconventional and alternative were curative and would bring about “wellness.”
In an effort to expand my product knowledge I researched a lot of the different supplements available. I was using all the best bias-confirming websites where other homeopathic medicine enthusiasts evangelized their favorite remedies, their enthusiasm and insistence, and anecdotal evidence standing in for what typically shows us that a product is safe and effective—clinical trials and FDA approval.
When their arguments and reasoning started to sink in, I realized that my faith in the healing powers of supplements may have been overzealous at best, unfounded at worst. My world crumbled like a piece of raw gluten-free paleo cheesecake. It started to sink in: Where there was a morsel of convincing medical information blended with enough compelling nonsense and communicated with enough conviction, I believed it, hook, line, and sinker.
When I started to notice the holes in the fabric of holistic nutrition, the fabric looked, well, pretty threadbare. I subsequently disconnected from social media and distanced myself from the entire culture. I took a good look at how I was personally and publicly communicating my relationships with food and wellness. After spending my twenties experimenting with all kinds of specialty diets, I was left feeling exhausted, anxious, underweight, overweight, and fed-up.
And so that last domino fell when I took away the thing that was propping it up for me: social media. Instagram is a playground for wellness influencers, including, at the time, me. My Instagram account was the best way to advertise my nutrition consulting business, so maintaining a certain persona there felt completely crucial to my success, and eventually, my identity. It was a world full of beautifully curated accounts of thin yogis gathering wild herbs in nature or making raw desserts with ingredients that cost more than my entire monthly food budget. I started to feel like the alternative wellness community I was part of—myself included—was an echo chamber, where we stockpiled likes and positive comments to build a wall that would keep out ideas that challenged our status quo. In fact, the more reassurance I received from my online community, the harder I believed in our gospel.
As I was disentangling my beliefs from everything I was learning by looking at the actual evidence, I realized that my education to become a holistic nutritionist hadn’t prepared me to understand health and wellness as completely and comprehensively as I’d once thought. Sure, I’d spent a some time studying the pathology of disease, and a little longer learning about how each bodily system works to get your human suit from point A to point B, but I am only slightly closer to being a medical professional than I am to becoming a professional cricket player. First of all, in total, my entire formal education as a holistic nutritionist was 10 months long. Second of all, that education was intended to complement—not replace—traditional medical treatment. But as soon as I finished the program, I could immediately start taking on clients. And lots of potential clients out there are just like the way I used to be—wishing they looked or felt different and in search of the panacea, willing (if not eager) to defer to an expert.
There may have been many people willing to look to me as an expert, but here’s the thing: in my school, there were no residency or clinical hours required to prepare us for the real world or to take on clients—unlike dietitians here in Canada, who must obtain a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional and Food Sciences, qualify to complete a rigorous post-degree internship program and register with a provincial dietetics organization, or get a master’s degree. We received a certificate, and that was that. It was a credential that wholeheartedly fell short of resembling anything close to making me an authority on the subject of health as it relates to food and diet. But most people in the general public can’t be expected to understand the ins and outs of how experts are credentialed and licensed—many of us assume that someone calling themselves something that we associate with authority is, in fact, an authority we can trust.
The brief education that I received to become a holistic nutritionist did provide me with valuable stepping stones and a general understanding of how the body works. My program discouraged students from saying “treat,” “heal,” “prevent,” or “cure.” Generally speaking holistic nutrition programs don’t provide the training and medical education that registered dietitians receive, which enables them to give sound, ethical medical nutrition advice, nor are they required by law, the way dietitian programs are, to provide it. In fact, in 2015 graduates of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition were barred from identifying as Registered Holistic Nutritionists, and since then must use the title “Holistic Nutritional Consultant.”
… With what I do have from my classroom education, I can analyze a lifestyle that needs some fine-tuning and provide guidance on how to structure a solid meal plan. That’s about it. After years of self-diagnosis and hashtagging all my fad-diet escapades (for this, I greatly apologize to all those I have alienated with my profuse self-righteousness), I can at least say I have a deep appreciation for those who are actually on the front lines in the fight against unproven medical remedies and the potential damage it may do to those who use it to the exclusion of traditional medicine.
The influence of these remedies is not harmless, and I have seen firsthand in many different examples and situations how it can lure people away from real, evidence-based help in their times of need. I am fortunate enough that within my practice I had enough foresight to turn away individuals who required more guidance than I was capable of giving. But along the way I made many embarrassing and conjectural recommendations. Like I said, I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone. I firmly held the belief that alternative medicine, no matter the cost, was an investment in a healthful future. My own medicine cabinet, an arsenal full of supplements, tincture, and powders, was a personal testament to how deeply I was devoted to holistic nutrition.
This essay is a firm farewell from a world I disconnected from long ago. The person that over years I let myself become through naiveté, not doing my own research, and a misguided desire to be different. So here I am now, officially having left the church of woo, bidding the world of alternative health adieu.
Reading Denby’s account, I was reminded of many themes we have previously discussed on this blog. One issue that perhaps needs more focus is this notion:
“I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone.”
I have not yet met a SCAM practitioner who says:
“I am in the business of deceiving my patients.”
The reasons for this are simple:
- if they knowingly deceive, they would not tell us,
- and if they don’t know that they are deciving their patients, they cannot possibly admit to it.
The way Denby repeatedly assures us that she was far from knowingly deceiving anyone sounds charmingly naive and is, in my experience, very typical for SCAM practitioners. It depicts them as honorable people. Yet, in actual fact, it is neither charming nor honorable. It merely demonstrates the fact that they were perhaps not ruthlessly dishonest but all the more dangerous.
Let me explain this with a deliberately extreme example:
- A man with a chronic condition – say type 2 diabetes – consults a SCAM practitioner who is knowingly deceiving him claiming that her SCAM effectively treats his condition. The patient follows the advice but, since he is not totally convinced (deception is rarely perfect), consults his doctor who puts him straight. This patient will therefore survive.
- The same chap consults a SCAM practitioner who is deeply convinced of the effectiveness of her SCAM and thus not knowingly deceiving her patient when she claims that it is effective for his diabetes. Her conviction is so strong that the patient blindly believes her. Thus he stops his conventional medication and hopes for the best. This patient could easily die.
In a nutshell:
‘Honest’ conviction might render a quack more socially acceptable but also more dangerous to her patients.