Is Poor Nutrition the Cause of All Your Health Problems?
It is a very old claim: Most diseases, health conditions, or just symptoms, are caused by a lack of proper nutrition. There are hundreds and hundreds of nutrition “experts,” some of which have grown to celebrity status, who tell their audience that just about anything that ails them can be cured by eating a certain food, adhering to a certain diet, or taking a certain vitamin, mineral, or supplement. This advice, which borders on the medical rather than the nutritional, has its origins in the early 1900’s but is more popular today than ever before. The question is, are there any scientific reasons to believe this? To many, the answer seems obvious.
See also: Nutrition Junk Science
Are there health conditions that can be caused by nutritional deficiencies? Yes. These are the direct physiological effects of a deficiency in a certain nutrient, and they can be recognized by a constellation of symptoms. What all of these deficiencies have in common is that the “cure” is to achieve the proper intake of the nutrient that is deficient. Many times, a dietary supplement, such as a vitamin, will work very quickly. Some of these deficiency syndromes have specific names that sound like exotic diseases:
- Pellagra: Niacin deficiency
- Beriberi: Thiamin deficiency
- Rickets: Vitamin D deficiency
- Scurvy: Vitamin C deficiency
Not all deficiencies have specific condition names for their symptoms, however. Sometimes there are major symptoms or results of deficiencies that are reported as if they are the only possible manifestation. For example:
- Vitamin A deficiency: Night blindness
- Iodine deficiency: goiter
- Vitamin B12: pernicious anemia
- Vitamin B6, A, and Folic Acid deficiency: anemias
- Iron and Copper deficiency: anemia related to these deficiencies
- EFA: skin conditions
Is a deficiency considered a disease? When it is a clinical deficiency that results in a devastating condition, yes. In fact, it was recognition of these disease states that led to the modern practice of nutrition science. There was a time, however, when frequent discoveries of severe diseases caused by chronic nutrition shortages led physicians, scientists, and patent-medicine makers to imagine that there should be a corresponding nutrient, or other chemical, at the root of most health conditions. Much of what was “quack” medicine, was centered on this belief. Not much has changed, although the language used to describe these various beliefs is perhaps more sophisticated and convincing. For instance, a common explanation is that poor nutrition causes certain chemical imbalances in the body and that these imbalances are the cause of disease. A proper diet (as described by the claimant) will cure these imbalances and so prevent or cure the disease. This is not supported by evidence.
Adding to the confusion for consumers is the fact that physicians or dietitians might prescribe specific diet therapies for some diseases. However, this is for supportive means and is in no way thought to be a stand-alone cure or treatment. Many diseases, such as parasites, viruses, or bacterial infections, can easily be seen to have no relationship to diet, but this does not stop nutrition huxters from claiming that specific dietary practices or dietary supplements will prevent these. Certainly, malnutrition can alter the effectiveness of the body’s immune system, but this does support the claim that a specific diet can prevent all such conditions.
Much of today’s nutrition fraud, then, is based on taking vitamins or minerals as preventative steps to prevent disease, or in taking them while adhering to specific dietary recommendations to cure diseases or health conditions.
However, besides the aforementioned specific deficiency syndromes, there is little to no evidence that most diseases, or even daily symptoms or discomfort unrelated to chronic disease, are related to diet. Diet may be an important component in many diseases or health conditions, including heart disease and even cancer, but there is no supporting the contention that these conditions are caused solely by dietary choices. A host of other factors play a role in whether or not a person will develop a certain health condition, and rarely will dietary interventions alone lead to remediation of the condition.
There are many general complaints that are often treated as if they are a specific condition that can be said to be caused by diet. Chronic fatigue is often blamed on the diet, but it just as well may be a symptom of stress or some other disease state. Nutrition huxters often claim that taking supplemental B vitamins will resolve fatigue complaints and lead immediately to more energy, but this would only happen should it be shown there were deficiencies, and even then, it should not be expected that anyone would feel an immediate surge of energy should they take vitamin B complex.
A frequent claim is that daily but minor aches and pains always relate to poor diet. This is absolutely untrue and, in fact, minor aches and pains may be a normal part of life, signaling no chronic health condition. As well, the common claim that insomnia is always caused by diet is false.
No other disease has diet and nutrition claims attached to it as much as cancer, many of them centering on claims that avoiding specific types of foods, such as sugar foods or acidic foods, will either prevent or cure cancer. All nutrition-related claims of cancer cure or prevention are fraudulent. See 10 Cancer Myths Debunked from Cancer Research UK for an overview and debunking of 10 common cancer myths.
Nutrition health fraudsters often claim to diagnose rare or nonexistent “fad” diseases, such as systemic candidiasis. Food allergies are another target, and there are various home tests that are sold, based on hair analyses or cytotoxicity, that claim to diagnose food allergy or hypersensitivity. These tests have absolutely no diagnostic value for this purpose. The FDA and other organizations have sent out numerous warnings about these fraudulent tests or claims.
Unless you have been diagnosed, by a physician, with a specific nutrient deficiency (I recently was diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency), any claims that a certain diet, food, or supplement will cure or prevent a disease should be ignored. Pay special attention to claims that might cause you to self-diagnose yourself with a disease, which may not even exist, before telling you how to cure it with diet or supplements. There are certain types of statements that could be considered nutrition red flags, in regards to these types of disease claims. Let’s look at a few, in closing:
Food is Medicine
There are two ways to define the word medicine. One way is that medicine is the science, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. The other is that medicine is a certain compound or preparation used for the treatment or prevention of disease, especially a drug or drugs taken by mouth. This second definition is obviously what is being referred to by those who claim that “food is medicine.” This is synonymous with saying that ‘food is drugs,’ when this definition is considered. Food is not medicine as it is not specifically taken to cure or prevent disease. Instead, it provides the biological fuel or compounds needed to maintain biological functions in the body. This statement is an example of “begging the question” because it presupposes that all disease is caused by diet and that diet can cure or prevent all disease, which has not been demonstrated.
There is ONE Miracle Diet that Will Prevent and Cure Most Disease
This claim centers not on the diagnoses and targeting of specific diseases or conditions which are then treated by specific diets, foods, or supplements, but on the opposite, the conception that since most all diseases are caused by poor diet, there must be one best way to eat that will cure or prevent most disease, and that it does not matter what disease(s) you think you have, as long as you know what diet to eat. This is often accompanied by the claim that the diagnosis of specific disease states is backward thinking. What you will notice, in most of these claims, is that when “symptoms” are named, they are almost always the general symptoms I mentioned above, such as chronic fatigue, minor aches and pains, insomnia, allergies (imagined instead of real), and various other that could be related to hundreds of different diseases. Curiously, though these claims of miracle diets rely on another miracle: They make chronic, debilitating, and life-threatening symptoms or manifestations of real diseases disappear!
The miracle diet claims tend to target certain bad “toxic” chemicals that, if eliminated from the diet, will ‘succeed where the doctors failed.” High fructose corn syrup, MSG, trans fats, and artificial sweeteners. Also referred to, and to be avoided are certain “inflammatory foods.”
There are Healing, or Detoxifying, or Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Since there are certain foods or diets that make the body sick, then there must be other foods that heal the body. This is, of course, related to the idea that food is medicine, but here there are some foods that are good medicine and others that are bad medicine. The claimants here don’t seem to notice that their logic is breaking down, since if a medicine were “bad” it would not properly be considered a medicine, but in fact, a poison, or toxin (there is overlap, here). And, of course, certain foods are labeled toxins, while other foods will rid the body of the toxins these bad foods put inside it. Still, other foods cause inflammation in the body because they are ‘pro-inflammatory,’ while others prevent or cure this inflammation because they are anti-inflammatory. The idea that all diseases of the body are caused by inflammation has its own category in the quack medicine panoply.
Many of the general statements found in the “food as medicine” claims are similar to the red flags of nutrition junk science that I wrote about previously.
Diseases are Caused by Your ‘Acid/Base Balance’ So Choose and Alkaline Diet
Claims which say must somehow balance your intake of “acid” and “alkaline” foods to ensure good health are completely false. I’ve explored alkaline diets in depth.
Can Your Diet Influence Whether You Get Sick or Stay Healthy?
The answer to this question is, yes, of course, it can. As we’ve already seen, malnutrition can result in serious illness for no other reason than the body not having the nutrients it needs to perform certain biological functions. Your nutrition also affects your body’s ability to fight off invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and other parasites, as well as its ability to correct its own malfunctions. As well, the diet can have small cumulative effects over time that can significantly impact your health. The development of heart disease, for example, can be related to lifetime nutritional habits. Other conditions, though not directly caused by diet alone, are certainly affected by diet.
To say that a disease state or condition is affected by or related to nutrition is not the same as saying it is caused by nutrition or lack thereof. As well, many diseases that have no relation to nutrition are routinely claimed to be not only related to diet but caused by improper intake. Be aware that there are likely many factors that affect whether you will develop a certain health condition, nutrition being only one of them. Nutrition may have a strong effect on some diseases but barely affect others.
Choosing a condition at random, think of sickle-cell anemia. Sickle-cell is a hereditary condition. The anemia caused by it is related to a person’s genetics. What you eat has absolutely no bearing on whether you have it and nothing you eat can make the slightest bit of difference to the anemia caused by it. Yet, you can rest assured that somewhere out there is information claiming otherwise!