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Placebo and Parlor Tricks

medical-placebo-placebo_effect-drugs_trials-drug_trials-medical_trials-dcr0323l

I got to hear a great lecture by Dr. Michael Klaper about a year ago at TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, CA. In part of the lecture Dr.Klaper was talking about the insanity of “gallstone cleanses”. If you haven’t heard of them, they are the very dangerous idea that you can somehow dissolve and “pass” gallstones if you drink this concoction that someone convinced someone else was a good idea. The only problem is, not only is it dangerous (it uses oil which can cause further issues with gallstones) but it was nothing more than a parlor trick. What was actually “passed” was basically soap. That’s right, soap. The mixture of things caused a reaction and it looked like what gallstones might look like, if you are not a doctor, and if you’ve never seen gallstones up close and personal.

What shocked me the most about this was not the amount of people who actually tried it, but the amount of pseudo-science sites that promoted it. This was something that could actually hurt someone, and yet people were touting it as a natural way to remove gallstones.

If you take a look around though, you will see it everywhere. We live in a world of quick fixes, lofty promises and people who want to make a lot of money off of your desire to get healthy, faster, and by any means. Just take a walk down any supplement section of a store. It’s overwhelming what you will find, and I’m not just talking about pharmacies, have you been to natural food stores lately? It’s the same, if not worse. There are powders, pills, lotions to cure just about anything you might have. The scary thing is often these things are not regulated, when they should be treated just like any other thing you might take to cure something.

The truth though is that most of what is offered is nothing more than parlor tricks or placebos. If you start to really dive into the studies that claim that ONE nutrient, food, superfood, food you’ve never heard of, or extract you will quickly find numerous flaws.

You will find studies conducted by the people trying to sell you that particular product, studies that had very small amounts of data, studies that showed a multitude of findings, but because it might have happened to include some strange fruit extract, someone decides to make money off of a line in a poorly conducted study.

In my pursuit of a degree in nutritional science I started to read old nutrition text books. What I found out was that nothing much has changed in the past century as far as what we need and what is recommended. Our evolution has not changed as such that we all of a sudden need green coffee extract and acai powder.

We live in a world of over-abundance. Not just in food but in finding miracle cures and potions.

And it’s not your fault. You care about your health and your well-being and you want what is best for you. There is so much noise it is often hard to drown out fact from fiction. The healthiest diet still is the most simple diet. That really hasn’t changed. What has changed is a marketing machine that tells us we need more and more and more. And an unhealthy obsession with reductionist thinking in science.

Early on in my T2 diabetes diagnosis I read a magazine article that cinnamon was very important for T2 diabetics. It went on to say you should use more cinnamon and you should take cinnamon pills. I believed this for MANY years. Funny thing, it doesn’t help much when you are still eating a poor diet. Sprinkling cinnamon on your greek yogurt after you’ve had your egg, cheese and ham omelet is not going to do you any favors. Not to mention, it was for this reason I was pretty sure that Cinnamon Toast Crunch was a pretty healthy alternative for dessert.

The more interesting part of that story? It took me until going to my very first Engine 2 Immersion to realize I didn’t need to take it. There I was having a lot of success, I had completely changed my diet, and I hate to admit this, but I thought it was in part due to the cinnamon. I had been taking cinnamon for years and nothing had changed. You would think that I would know better than to think it was my cinnamon consumption that was causing better blood sugar numbers, rather than the food I was now eating.

I was afraid to stop taking it. I was afraid that all of a sudden my blood sugar would go up.

Guess what? Nothing happened. My blood sugar still kept getting better, post dropping my cinnamon supplements.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cinnamon. But cinnamon is not the answer to T2 diabetes, it is the answer to tastier oatmeal though :)

When you start looking at the studies you will start to see that there were a whole lot of variables that people selling you cinnamon leave out. Like what other lifestyle behaviors the participants had or if they had changed their diet because they thought they were doing something healthier.

It can all be a pretty great placebo effect.

The problem is that there are many things we don’t know enough about to know if they could actually hurt you. I don’t think excess cinnamon will hurt anyone (maybe their wallets over time), but there are plenty of powders and pills that we just don’t know enough about.

Often these things become crutches. I had a lot of them when I first started. As I continued I realized that it was the food that was the medicine.

If you are worried about deficiencies, go to the doctor, get tested and find out how you are doing. If all is well, continue eating your fabulous plant-strong diet filled with all the right things, in their whole form. Don’t waste your time with reductionism science, keep it simple, keep it whole and keep it healthy.

For more on the dangers of over supplementing and other important information regarding this topic, check out Dr.McDougall’s articles on supplements, vitamins and minerals.  

About the author

NatalaE2
Natala is the director of communications for Engine 2 Diet, she is also one of our coaches on our support site, Engine 2 Extra. A few years ago, Natala was at the end of her rope. She was on almost 15 medications daily, had out of control Type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, issues with nerve damage, and was morbidly obese. She was just over 30 years old. She decided to take her life back by becoming plant-strong. She has lost over 200 pounds, got off of all of her medications and now has great health numbers. Natala plays the violin and studied music therapy. She became passionate about plant-strong nutrition, received her Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition through Cornell University, a certificate in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and is currently pursuing a degree in nutritional sciences. Natala is also a featured speaker at our Engine 2 Retreats she talks about the reality of our nations obesity epidemic as well as providing practical steps to becoming a healthier person.

31 Responses to “Placebo and Parlor Tricks”

  1. Deb says:

    ha! love this article natala! i have fallen victim to green coffee extract and raspberry ketones after seeing them on Dr. Oz! Of course nothing happened.

  2. Ellen says:

    I laughed out loud over the cereal. I’ve done the same with a few things I’m embarrased to say. Interesting about the gallstones, do you know if that talk is anywhere online?

  3. Leah says:

    Very good, informative article. Thanks!

  4. nibor2 says:

    The European Union enforces an upper limit on how much cinnamon can be used in commercial bakery goods. Apparently too much cinnamon is bad for you. The culprit is coumarin, a naturally occurring substance found in Cassia cinnamon, the most common variety of spice sold in Europe and the U.S. Coumarin can cause liver damage in large-enough doses, in sensitive adults.

  5. Kathy G says:

    I like that. Keep it simple, keep it whole and keep it healthy. ‘Nuff said. :-)

  6. Kari says:

    I have come across the “gallstone cleanse” in my late-night internet travels while suffering from gallbladder attacks…thankfully, I haven’t had a bad one in a long time now, which I am sure is due to the much healthier plant-based diet I eat now. I never did it, because when I am in that much pain from eating too much fat, the thought of chugging a glass of olive oil is not very appealing. A shot of apple cider vinegar does work though — that one I figured, what can it hurt?

    • Kari says:

      The ACV helps relieve the pain, that is.

      • Plant-Strong MD says:

        I’m not your doctor, but I know that Klaper recommends gal bladder removal, you should talk to your doctor before something very serious happens.

    • Plant-Strong MD says:

      Just as long as you realize that you cannot actually cleanse yourself of the stones. Not sure what the cider would do, but it definitely will not dissolve anything.

  7. brec says:

    “The scary thing is often these things are not regulated, when they
    should be treated just like any other thing you might take to cure
    something.”

    Is this the official position of E2, or only the author’s personal opinion — that government permission should be required for anything I might want to “take to cure something”?

    • Engine2Team says:

      I’d encourage you to read every link in the section of Dr.McDougalls page I posted above about the dangers that can arise. His stance is in line with ours, and he does a great job in outlining it in all of the articles he has written about it.
      I’m not saying that the government should give you permission to do whatever you want with your health, what I am saying is that regulation of companies selling supplements in stores to consumers, making claims should have some accountability for the sake of consumer safety.

      • brec says:

        Thanks for confirming that the call for regulation is E2′s official position.

        No need to adduce Dr. McD.’s position on the question; it’s the position of almost everyone. It’s not mine, though.

        I’m a fan of Dr. McD. because he’s an articulate provider of medical and nutritional information, and in spite of (some of) his political views. To conclude from my questioning the statement that unregulated supplement sales are “scary” that I’d disagree with his (or your!) position on the health value of (most?) supplements would be to engage in a non sequitur.

  8. brec says:

    My first comment has disappeared, so I’ll try again. If this one disappears I’ll just shrug and wave goodbye to my new annual E2 Extra membership.

    “The scary thing is often these things are not regulated, when they
    should be treated just like any other thing you might take to cure
    something.”

    Anyone who advocates or implements a view of health requirements that is not aligned with convention or with majority opinion should be careful in advocating that health decisions should be regulated — i.e., that government committees have the power to veto your own decisions.

    • brec says:

      My first comment has re-appeared — its claimed disappearance could well be due to some perceptual error on my part. So, for now, I got to say the same thing a somewhat different way.

    • Jennifer Price says:

      I think you missed the point of the article Bret. Of course supplements should be regulated, like anything else. There is a lot of danger in not having them regulated. Just like food safety, why would anyone want no regulations? That is just scary. Of course you can make your own choices, I doubt Engine 2 is saying otherwise, but having anyone be able to sell anything without any regulation gets into some dicey territory.
      As an aside, I can see your comments just fine, it is mean of you to threaten the author like you did.

      • brec says:

        If you think my position is “scary” I doubt we can have a constructive dialog on the question. The question is not really central to this site’s role anyway. But Natala did call for regulation.

        Advocacy of regulation and “of course you can make your own choices” seems contradictory to me. Being able to make choices among those allowed by those appointed to protect me seems a rather limited freedom.

        Uh, “threaten the author”?! Bit of hyperbole there, methinks.

        • James says:

          Wow, this is why comments should be closed. I totally understood the article, I don’t think there is much to argue with, and I’m for very limited government. Lots of things are regulated, take building codes for instance and prescriptions, regulations are not always a bad thing. No reason to get sarcastic, if you didn’t understand the article or its intent even after it was explained, maybe just agree to disagree and move on.

          • brec says:

            Until my errors induce closure of comments, perhaps you might do me the favor of (1) summarizing — a sentence should do — how I failed to understand the article; and (2) citing an instance of sarcasm in my previous comments?

        • Mike B. says:

          So lets just let the supplement industry do whatever they want with absolutely no regulation. This is how people die from crazy procedures and treatments done in other countries, is that what you are advocating? A free for all? How about let any person with a beaker and a garage create some medicine and sell it and make all kinds of promises. There are a lot of desperate people that can and will be taken advantage of in that scenario. It would be great if we lived in that kind of utopia where we could just trust everyone to do the right thing all the time, but that is not the reality we live in.

  9. Tammy Greene says:

    You’re conflating a few things here. Your past poor diet choices, outright quackery, and legitimate natural remedies. Cinnamon, used as a good quality extract, has built up quite a decent body of legitimate scientific evidence regarding its use in regulating blood glucose levels. The fact that you were eating poorly or some quack was selling cinnamon capsules does not negate the fact that there are natural substances that do have healing properties, and furthermore, have the evidence (from legitimate, peer-reviewed scholarly journals) to back them up. If you can admit that food is medicine, then why not a spice or a cactus that has been used hundreds of years? Sure, quacks will attempt to cash in on everything, but if one is smart enough to read the research, this can be avoided quite easily.

    • Engine2Team says:

      I continued using cinnamon well AFTER I went plant-strong as well. When I stopped nothing happened at all (as noted above) my blood sugar still improved just fine. The point of this is that the diet is enough, a diet of whole plant-based foods. We don’t need extras to get the job done, it just doesn’t have to be very complicated at all. People in the healthiest parts of the world are not supplementing or finding specific super foods either, it is about the whole of the diet. For more on this I’d encourage you to read the book “Whole” by Dr. Campbell, it is really great and helped me figure a lot of this out, and not get caught up in reductionist science.

      • Sharon says:

        Right on Engine 2 Team! Kind of reminds me of the Mediterranean diet thing and olive oil, people were healthy DESPITE using olive oil not because they used it.

  10. Marcia says:

    My plant-based endocrinologist told me that the cinnamon thing was completely bogus. She said that she has 100′s of patients, not one has come to her and said that the cinnamon really made the difference! She told me that the only thing that will make a difference is switching to a plant-based diet and she encourages a 20 minute walk everyday. I’ve never taken anything and my blood sugar has gone from 201 fasting to 108 fasting!

  11. Kelly says:

    Thanks for this great post! It is a good reminder to keep it about eh food. For me, I want to see what my body does without anything else added in like pills or medications. I’ve been amazed so far, I’m just focusing on simple food right now.

  12. Engine2Team says:

    Because some of the comments are getting personal between users, I’m closing this thread :) We like to keep things positive here. The point of this article was simply to point out that the food is most likely the answer and that there are a lot of people who want to take advantage of your well meaning health concerns. We want you to be healthy, and focus on the food. For more about supplements, regulations, and really way more than I could post about please read every article in the link above to Dr.McDougalls page, it will do a lot more good in explaining things than I can, and I also encourage everyone to read the book “Whole” by Dr. Campbell for an even deeper look into this issue.

  13. Norah says:

    Thanks for sharing. I too took cinnamon caps for years for my T2 Diabetes. Just recently I chucked all the supplements and started eating healthy. In just a few weeks my blood sugar has become normal without any medication. My blood pressure is dropping along with my meds. In fact I am off everything except 1/2 blood pressure pill and my statin… hoping these will be gone after I have my labs done next month. I’m amazed at how quickly my numbers are becoming normal. Not loosing a lot of weight yet, but it will happen…

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