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Free Yourself From the Soft Tyranny of Nutrition Studies

Chances are, you already know what you need to do to be healthier.

Fish oil: Is it good for you? Who cares? Credit: Charlotte Ball/ZUMA Press/NewscomFish oil: Is it good for you? Who cares? Credit: Charlotte Ball/ZUMA Press/Newscom"Fish oil or omega-3 supplements won't help people with heart disease," writes nutritionist Alice Callahan in Lifehacker. Her source is a recent JAMA Cardiology meta-study that looked at 10 trials with a total of 77, 917 participants and found that "supplementation with marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids for a mean of 4.4 years had no significant association with reductions in fatal or nonfatal coronary heart disease or any major vascular events."

American consumers were told to supplement with omega-3 (and to eat more fish) based on studies of Inuit people in Greenland who eat a lot of omega-3-rich animals and have exceptionally healthy hearts. You should read Callahan's piece at Lifehacker for the full story (turns out, Inuit genes may be different than yours and mine), then check out the JAMA Cardiology paper if you want more.

The post you're reading right now, however, is about nutrition studies and why you shouldn't think about them too much.

Nutrition studies are confusing and mostly useless for regular people. I do not say that just because a leading nutrition researcher has been exposed for manipulating data for years and years. I say it because most nutrition studies test the validity of small claims that just don't matter in the larger scheme of living a life you love, and because the problems that ail us at the population level cannot be fixed with a bandolier of colloidal silver bullets. There is no "supplement" that can cure heart disease, or melt away obesity, or reverse the effects of inhaling a carcinogen all day, every day, for decades.

Take curcumin. For years and years, people have sworn by the yellowing agent in turmeric as an exceptionally potent natural remedy for almost everything. But as Derek Lowe noted last year, "no curcumin trial has ever reported any convincing positive results." Turmeric is a great ingredient. Put it on everything if you like—but because it tastes good, not because it'll change your genetic predisposition to disease or undo the decades you spent treating yourself like garbage. And if you live up north or are worried about bone health, there's no harm in taking the daily recommended amount of vitamin D in supplement form. Just don't expect it to cure your cancer.

Our desire for incontestable and universally true claims about nutrition reflects our fear of death and our inability to navigate the Age of Abundance, which I posit began in 1863 with the publication of William Banting's Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, and extends through today, when you can choose from 13 different types of Cheerios.

A wealth of options and of competing health claims, coupled with our ability to consume media everywhere, all the time, seems to have given many of us the impression that living a good life requires reviewing all of that information, deciding whether to believe it, and integrating new products into our lives on a revolving basis. Never mind that most of us aren't capable of critically reviewing the studies that produce these claims (nor are most journalists), or, that many such products are forgettable fads. Remember the pomegranate craze? How about the insanity over echinacea in the late 1990s and early 2000s? We'll probably be talking about coconut oil the same way a few years from now.

There is a simpler method for stocking your medicine cabinet and your fridge, and that is to opt out of the micro-efficacy debate entirely. Enjoy things you like in moderation, eat more things you generally resisted as a child (broccoli; I'm talking about broccoli), and don't throw money at the next big thing. Even if it is mildly carcinogenic, bacon alone probably will not kill you, any more than curcumin alone will allow you to live forever, even if is revealed to be mildly anti-inflammatory. For most Americans, there are bigger and more important questions to tackle: Am I getting enough sleep? How can I eat more perishable (read: fresh) foods? Should I be drinking less alcohol? What's a good way to quit smoking cigarettes? How do I work regular exercise into my schedule?

If you're in the 90th percentile, go nuts on the nootropics and BCAAs; maybe you'll get some marginal improvement. But if you live a sedentary life, sleep four hours a night, chain smoke, and/or eat garbage at every meal, it does not matter what vitamins you take or whether you eat garbage in small quantities five times a day or in larger quantities three times a day. Pursuing optimization strategies as a means to achieving a baseline level of health is like hanging a Kandinsky in a crackhouse.

None of this is to insult nutrition researchers or the general assignment journalist who cover their work. I think they sow confusion mostly by accident, and that many researchers of all stripes wish people read less into their (generally) narrow findings. But you don't need ever to read another nutrition paper or health trend story to live a relatively healthy life. Just sleep and exercise more; consume less alcohol and processed sugar; and for God's sake, quit smoking cigarettes.

You won't live forever, but you'll probably save a few bucks.

Photo Credit: Charlotte Ball/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Just sleep and exercise more; consume less alcohol and processed sugar; and for God's sake, quit smoking cigarettes.

    I have two words for everyone: Fiber. The only thing about which you should concern yourself, nutritionally speaking, is that you are getting enough fiber in your diet.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Yep, fiber is very important.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Especially for avoiding soft tyranny in your bowels.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Fist's BMs are an iron hand in a velvet glove.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Fist's BMs are so perfect and self-contained that he doesn't even have to wipe. He does anyway, though, because he owns stock in Charmin.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Every shit is a different Daniel Clowes graphic novel.

  • Hugh Akston||

    You don't want to use the bathroom for days after he passes the Death-Ray

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong wrong.

    Only consume protein. Protein is all you need.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    If you're losing as much protein on a daily basis as I do, you would just know you need to consume a ton.

  • Chumby||

    Track your fiber using the Bristol Stool Scale.

  • arm||

    be careful on this one if you are a male... Our guts are purposely much slower than a woman's to exact every single gram of protein, too much fiber speeds the whole process up and high fiber diets lead to very low testosterone levels which in turn leads to all sorts of health issues. Also with too much fiber your small intestines will not release bcaas into your system and instead will hoard them in a closed loop between itself and your liver, this is a bad deal, you will not repair and build tissue. Eat whole foods with lots of animal based protein and eat the whole animal, bone broth, chicken neck soup, pigs feet soup, use the organs and skin. Eat it all, in the right ratio, with real vegetables, you will be as good as you can get.

  • cgr2727||

    "Chances are, you already know what you need to do to be healthier."
    1. Get lazy ass out of chair and stop reading Reason comments
    2. ???
    3. Profit!

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Or, you can do pushups and/or air squats in between commenting.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I do Kegels while commenting.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    My body automatically does Kegels when I read another nutpunch article on Reason.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Randomization to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation (eicosapentaenoic acid dose range, 226-1800 mg/d) had no significant associations with coronary heart disease death

    That's a huge range, and only the top of the range is into clinical doses, and only for smaller people. Did they even normalize for body weight?

    Also, the lifehacker article is wrong about the origins of omega 3 supplementation. It goes way back to Johanna Ludwig in Germany, who was treating cancer patients with fish oil and supposedly having good results.

    I thought most people take fish oil because it reduces systemic inflammation. What actual effect that has on the chances of a CV event in a particular person is anyone's guess, though.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Did they even normalize for body weight?"

    hahahahahaha

  • albo||

    Avoid stress. Your body puts you in fight or flight mode and that will kill you quick.

    Make peace with your limitations and don't stress yourself out so much. A dead rich man doesn't turn into better dust than anyone else.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Make peace with your limitations and don't stress yourself out so much

    I am an fan of over-masturbation, too!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    +9 straight hours of gentle self-edging

  • Rich||

    Well, different strokes for different folks.

  • Bartleby||

    I personally avoid stress by only getting out of bed to visit the kitchen and bathroom. No stress.

  • ipsquire||

    "None of this is to insult nutrition researchers or the general assignment journalist who cover their work." I'll point out the conflict of interest in your feeble excusing of general assignment journalists, and suggest that they deserve endless insult for their poor reading comprehension skills.

    One doesn't have to be a scientist to know that a study of small group in a narrow demographic had a "statistically significant" improvement in some biomarker should be reported as "Exercise helps seniors avoid repeat heart attacks" rather than "SCIENTISTS SAY JOG NOW OR DIE".

  • Bubba Jones||

    I work in pharma and take fish oil supplements.

    While investigating whether to take these supplements and what dosage, the first thing I noticed is that pharma conflates "fish oil" with "omega 3 fatty acids." At least here they specify "marine derived."

    But highly purified fatty acids are not the same as "fish oil" and the first thing I noticed in reviewing the literature was that the positive results were all generated with "fish oil" not with "highly purified EPA/DHA."

    So, I take "fish oil" and not the mega pure supplement my doc got from the hot blonde who brings him bagels every other Tuesday.

    Reviewing the article, I couldn't easily find which studies used what form and I didn't feel like digging through the references. The fact that they didn't provide a clean table of this information tells me they didn't seriously consider it.

  • Bubba Jones||

    That said. Today's pubmed search turns up a number of recent case reports and review articles showing that DHA can increase LDL-C, and arguing for the use of EPA without DHA.

    Fascinating.

  • Headache||

    JAMA Cardiology - 10 Trials? Whoop! They tell you to take statins, beta-blocker, channel blockers, reduce salt and fat. Yet heart disease has increase year over year since the Framingham study.

    There is no "supplement" that can cure heart disease - nor pharmaceutical.

    And if you live up north or are worried about bone health, there's no harm in taking the daily recommended amount of vitamin D in supplement form. Just don't expect it to cure your cancer. - Mike never looked up the meaning of the word "prevention". Plus it's D3 with vitamin K2 for bone health.

    Never mind that most of us aren't capable of critically reviewing the studies that produce these claims (nor are most journalists), - Mike is must not be a journalist. Maybe a propagandist for big pharma?

  • Tony||

    I've decided that the last couple decades of a very long life aren't worth much anyway if it means I have to abstain from a rock-and-roll lifestyle forever.

  • Chumby||

    Based on the content of your comments your earlier years aren't worth much either. And hey, with socialized healthcare let someone else pick up the tab for the pills, visits to the specialists, and your motorized Little Rascal.

  • hamilton||

    Less alcohol? Fuck you, Riggs.

  • CE||

    Less alcohol? The only thing in a bottle that will make you live longer is beer or red wine.

  • No Longer Amused||

    Virtually 100% of all dietary advice that has been endorsed by any government agency has been proven to be bogus over the decades.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Worse than bogus. Usually a recipe for death.

    The nutritional pyramid created Diabetes Nation.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "had no significant association with"

    Here's what you need to know about medical studies:

    Failure to reject the null hypothesis does not establish the null hypothesis
    Failure to reject the null hypothesis does not establish the null hypothesis
    Failure to reject the null hypothesis does not establish the null hypothesis
    Failure to reject the null hypothesis does not establish the null hypothesis
    Failure to reject the null hypothesis does not establish the null hypothesis
    Failure to reject the null hypothesis does not establish the null hypothesis

    Yet every medical layman's article you see jumps to the second claim from the first.

    Case in point:
    "Fish oil or omega-3 supplements won't help people with heart disease,"

    "significant association"

    Arbitrary significance requirements are not how grownups who know decision theory makes decisions.

  • Kivlor||

    I keep mentioning this, but the CDC-Kaiser "ACEs" Studies pretty well demonstrated that people know what is healthy and what is not. They don't need to be told what to do. What most people who are morbidly obese need is therapy for underlying traumatic experiences for which they self medicate via smoking, alcohol and poor eating habits.

    Maybe some fish oil could add a little to your lifespan / quality of life. But it's going to be negligible for those who need therapy and the results they will see from it.

  • Kivlor||

    It's been a while, but as I recall, there has been mounting evidence that regular spankings, neglect and emotional abuse in children causes certain parts of the brain to fail to develop and function properly. Smoking actually causes the parts that aren't working right to start to fire, which is why some people have such a hard time quitting. Their brain is getting something it needs, just with a very bad cost added. It makes the addiction that much harder to kick.

  • Paloma||

    What morbidly obese people need is to lose enough weight so they can get their stomach stapled. That takes care of the rest, and they don't become morbidly obese again.

  • Bartleby||

    Food Fight!!!

  • Iheartskeet||

    Its sounds like 40% of the time, it works every time.

  • JakeJ||

    This is the same kind of chicanery that goes on all the time in climate "science."

  • David45||

    Nutrition studies now a days just be part of daily life routine I have gathered some good information on nutrition study at Assignment Help

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