Health and the Media

This article is courtesy of Jenny Hadley, naturopathic nutritionist, SMN

"I often get asked to comment on reports in the tabloid health pages and on TV programmes.

Surely, if it's in the media, it must be true and the answers we are all looking for?

With the media giving us a continuous flow of the latest so-called ‘change your life’ remedies, it is hard to determine what is worth trying, what is advertising tosh and what may actually do us harm. Spectacular breakthroughs, based on scientific evidence, are rare - so the information we receive, heralded with massive media attention, gives a false impression.

Basic research findings often show promise for a future therapeutic hope but somewhere along the line, the vast majority of the research produces unclear or conflicting results. Such problems have been experienced in many research trials for nutrition and supplementation.

Randomised controlled trials are the key methods to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of new treatments. Treatments are called experimental until they are evidently proven to be viable. However, perhaps the viability of these trials is questionable and it is important to mention that a large number of trials for drugs and beauty products are funded by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies who are developing the product being tested. Natural resources, such as the basics of a balanced diet, can often be a small voice in an industry where these powerful corporate giants use public relations experts to manage public perception.

Natural resources and therapies that should be considered valid in the treatment of disorder and disease have very little research and scientific evidence in comparison. There is little funding available for carrying out trials since there is little financial reward in return. According to the Oxford quality scoring system (Jadad) alternative/herbal remedy clinical trials had similar Jadad scores to pharmaceutical scores but the trials were significantly smaller and of shorter duration. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies quash natural agent/alternative therapy research, by finding systematic errors in the conduct, analysis and reporting of the clinical trial. Natural treatments will always be called into question by those who would be financially affected if a natural health revolution took off. They will find a loop-hole to disregard the evidence found and the agent or therapy under trial is effectively written off.

Arguably, if every ‘body’ is individual, can scientific research ever be really accurate? There are different factors in people, such as the severity of disease or disorder, other unknown diseases or disorders, lifestyle, diet and if the patient followed their trial instructions correctly. It may be worth mentioning genetic factors may also differ between people, for example in the metabolism and transport of dietary components in the body. Perhaps other factors like bias on patient selection should be taken into account. In addition, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) will always say that anything from nature is unproven because it can be variable. Therefore, it is unlikely that adequate studies into natural medicine will be abundant.

Food intake and nutritional research trials are difficult to control and many studies are too small. The pros and cons of supplementation debate should not detract us from the needs for a good healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables. The benefits of natural nutrition are becoming more well known, but we still have a long way to go. We have known for years that poor diet has an impact on long term health because our food, particularly fruits and vegetables, contain antioxidants that help protect the body. It seems logical that eating foods rich in antioxidants has to be a good thing.

People should all learn fundamental life skills about managing a balanced diet, and - given today's economy - about the financial planning for such a diet. Many of the clients I see wish they had known the things that I have taught them about nutrition from childhood. Many believe that if they had eaten the way they do now, they probably wouldn’t have developed their health issues in the first place. My thoughts on the education of diet and home economics will need a whole new chapter!

What we discover in the media is not always a wasted resource but articles should be interpreted with caution unless they have been proven reliable by peer groups and journals. I, or another health advisor, may have a better understanding of claims, how to check their viability and how they will personally affect you. So always check the a qualified professional before you jump in and turn yourself into a guinea pig!"