Bygone health fads are easy to mock. Oxygen bars? Cabbage soup diets? Vibrating belt machines that jiggle away your fat? Puh-lease.
By now, most of us know that healthy eating and exercise are the best defence against chronic disease, along with moderate drinking and a smoke-free lifestyle. But sensible advice – “eat your greens” – gets old. We’re hardwired for novelty. We love shortcuts. And sometimes it’s tough to distinguish a new craze from an important breakthrough. What if gluten really is making us sick?
Early adopters get a psychological payoff, noted Caleb Lack, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of Critical Thinking, Science, and Pseudoscience: Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains, to be published later this month. Products marketed as “groundbreaking science” or “ancient medicine” from the Amazon rain forest “make you feel like you’re part of something special, ahead of the curve,” he said.
Often, Lack added, people search for alternative cures after modern medicine has failed them. They may suffer from chronic pain or excess weight that they can’t seem to shed.
When lifestyle changes don’t work fast enough, some put blind faith in Gwyneth Paltrow, Dr. Oz and other high prophets of unproven remedies. “We as humans naturally like authority figures telling us what to believe,” Lack said. “Early education in critical thinking is the best inoculation against this.”
And so, with that in mind, here is The Globe and Mail’s take on the promise and pitfalls of the latest wacky health trends.
Cricket products are taking North America by swarm. They’re lean, green and relatively palatable once you forget you’re eating pulverized bugs. The biggest brands include a line of power bars called Exo (for “exoskeleton”) and Cricket Flours, featured last month in Oprah magazine as an alternative baking product, available in Peruvian chocolate and peanut butter flavours. Companies are doing their best to make cricket protein hip. Exo boasts “40 crickets in every bar” and sells T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Crickets are the new kale.”
The claim: Cricket flour is gluten-free and nearly as high in protein as red meat, without the increased cancer risk. What’s more, cricket production results in 100 times less greenhouse gases per pound than cattle raising.
What do we really know? Bug protein, including crickets, got a thumbs-up in 2013 when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security.
Ick factor: low (unless you have a bug phobia)
Risk level: low
Health nuts are pumping up to a litre of black java up their rectums in hopes of “detoxifying” their bowels. Talk about an anal fixation. The trend took off after a couple said they were “hooked” on coffee enemas (at least four a day) on a 2013 episode of TLC’s My Strange Addiction. Copycats can get a coffee enema fix from naturopathic clinics in Toronto or Vancouver, or mail away for a range of coffee enema kits. The oddball treatment dates back to the Gerson Therapy, developed in the 1930s to fight cancer and other diseases. But it’s one of those things you shouldn’t try at home – or anywhere else. The risks include anal ulcers and an inflamed colon. That’s enough to kill anyone’s buzz.
The claim: Coffee enemas supposedly improve digestion and liver function, “detoxify” the colon and help fight cancer.
What do we really know? There is little information on coffee enemas as a stand-alone treatment. But in a 2010 study funded by the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers pitted chemotherapy against a treatment that included megadoses of supplements and coffee enemas twice a day. Patients who received standard chemotherapy lived an average of 14 more months, while those on the alternative protocol survived an average of only four more months – and reported significantly more pain.
Ick factor: high
Risk level: high
THE SNAIL FACIAL
In the latest skin-care craze, spa patrons lie back while half a dozen snails slither all over their faces. Gooey trails of snail mucus are said to be rich in nutrients and antioxidants. In ancient Greece, the physician Hippocrates supposedly mixed crushed snails with sour milk to treat skin inflammation. In 2013, the snail cure came out of its shell in a Tokyo salon, and has since spread to China, Thailand and Britain. Since not everyone can afford to travel overseas to get that escargot glow, chains such as Sephora now sell snail mucus products such as the Tony Moly Age-Defying Snail Hydro-Gel Face Mask Sheet. If you try it, don’t blame your friends for saying, “You’ve been slimed.”
The claim: Snail mucus boosts collagen and repairs and softens skin.
What do we really know? There is no solid research on the benefits of snail mucus. But certain freshwater snails can carry parasitic worms that cause the tropical disease schistosomiasis, which may cause abdominal pains or bloody stools.
Ick factor: medium
Risk level: low to high (depending on the type of snails involved)
WEIGHT LOSS SOAP
Why eat less when you can just lather your fat away? Aoqili “defat” soap, made with a “mysterious species of seaweed,” has given Chinese and Japanese women false hope for years. In China, some young women take up to 10 showers a day in a desperate attempt to shed pounds, the Daily Mail reported in 2010. The soap bubble has yet to burst in North America, where numerous websites shill the product using the pseudo-credential “as seen on The Wall Street Journal,” although the media outlet has never reported on the soap. A 10-bar package of Aoqili soap sells for $145.95 on Amazon.com, which would be a bargain for a weight-loss miracle. Fat chance of that.
The claim: Aoqili seaweed has special “defatting agents” that penetrate down to the subcutaneous layers and eliminate fat.
What do we really know? Zilch – except that if this soap really did what it says, everyone and their dog would be using it.
Ick factor: low
Risk level: low
Yep, swishing edible oil in your mouth – and then spitting it out – is a thing. The idea is to “pull out” toxins from deep within the oral cavity, according to the ancient ayurvedic traditions of India. Oil pulling got celebrity cachet when Gwyneth Paltrow raved about adding the 20-minute ritual to her daily regimen. “Apparently it really pulls toxins out of your skin,” she told People magazine in 2014. “It’s amazing!” The question is, who other than Paltrow has 20 minutes to devote to oil pulling every day? People with a sensitive gag reflex run the risk of throwing up.
The claim: Oil pulling improves dry mouth, known to increase bacteria growth, and reduces toxins linked to health conditions including asthma and Type 2 diabetes.
What do we really know? Coconut oil, sesame oil and sunflower oil have antibacterial properties. But according to several small studies, oil pulling is no more effective than rinsing with antibacterial mouthwash – and much less convenient. There is no solid evidence that the practice offers any other health benefits.
Ick factor: medium
Risk level: low
The hottest fitness accessory is not a high-tech pedometer or heart rate monitor. It’s a corset. Known as “waist trainers” or “trimmers,” they come in sporty colours and sizes for men as well as women. We can thank sisters Kim and Khloe Kardashian and actress Amber Rose for dragging us back to the Victorian era. In recent months, all three have posted snapshots of themselves wearing their cinching accessories at the gym. “I am obsessed with my new waist shaper,” Khloe Kardashian gushed on Instagram. But make no mistake. The modern-day corset has the same bone-constricting properties as the original torture device. Medically, it makes no sense that wearing a compression device would make the waist permanently smaller, according to Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine. “Once you take the garment off, your body will return to its usual shape,” she told Women’s Health magazine, “and if you wear it really tight, it can even make it difficult to breathe and theoretically could cause rib damage.” Who wants a wasp waist anyway?
The claim: Cinching garments can “train” your waist into staying slim. WhatAWaist.com goes so far as to say its latex waist trainer “attacks unwanted fat and impurities” through “thermogenisis” (sic), a fancy way of saying you can sweat your toxins away.
What do we really know? X-rays published in 1908 clearly illustrate damaged upper ribs and displaced internal organs in women after extended corset use.
Ick factor: low
Risk level: medium-high
Powdered beef liver in a gelatin capsule is a hit with Paleos on the lookout for new ways to hack a “caveman diet.” Websites are marketing the capsules like uppers (pop a few for that “little boost”) or manna from heaven (“one of the world’s most sacred foods with no additives!”). There’s no doubt that liver is high in nutrients. A four-ounce portion of calf’s liver offers more than 1,600 per cent of the daily recommended value of vitamin A, and ample vitamins B12 and B2, iron, zinc and folate. But beef liver may also contain heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury, depending on where the cattle are raised. And eating too much liver can lead to vitamin A toxicity. A 2003 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vitamin A (retinol) in dry, solid preparations may be 10 times more toxic than retinol delivered in oil-based preparations. With this in mind, forcing yourself to chew a slab of beef liver bite by bite may be the best way to eat liver in moderation.
The claim: Liver pills revitalize the body, increase mental and physical energy and enhance fertility.
What do we really know? Fresh liver is nutritious in moderation, but little research has been done on the health effects of desiccated-liver pills. Some evidence suggests that they may be more toxic than fresh unprocessed liver.
Ick factor: low (depending on how you feel about organ meats)
Risk level: low-medium
BREAST MILK AS A SPORTS DRINK
You heard that right. Bodybuilders are drinking breast milk in hopes of bulking up on the same hormones that help babies grow. Increasingly, muscle men have been hitting up breast-milk banks and posting ads on Craigslist to buy mother’s milk online, according to Men’s Health magazine and the Telegraph in Britain. Here’s the fuzzy logic: Breast milk is superfood for babies, so it must be liquid gold for athletes too. Nuh-uh. While breast milk is rich in calories, vitamins and minerals, it’s only as good as the source. In 101 breast-milk samples purchased online, researchers in a study published in 2013 in the journal Pediatrics found high levels of contamination from staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria. Viruses such as HIV can be transmitted through breast milk too. Breast milk is sterilized at milk banks, of course, but babies need it more than grown men do.
Mammals wean themselves – bodybuilders should too. Or at the very least, switch from breast milk to bovine colostrum, the nutrient-dense first milk that cows produce right after giving birth. It’s considered safe. And in a 2006 study, elite cyclists who took 10 grams per day of bovine colostrum protein concentrate for five weeks showed a 2-per-cent improvement in their baseline performance in 40-kilometre time trial, compared with cyclists assigned a placebo.
The claim: Breast milk builds muscle and is chock full of nutritious calories and (legal) growth hormones.
What do we really know? No one has studied the effects of breast milk on adult athletes. But fitness experts note that basic sports nutrition and training principles should be enough to improve athletic performance without resorting to buying breast milk online.
Ick factor: low-medium
Risk level: medium
Follow Adriana Barton on Twitter: