Hardly a day passes when we’re alerted to a new dietary fad, and many people often slavishly latch on to the latest one, expecting great achievements ranging from weight reduction, better health and perhaps even immortality! But don’t get seduced—here are some diets and their related claims to strenuously avoid:

Claim: Wheat is making you Fat

Recent books are claiming that not only is wheat making you fat, but fat is accumulating around the midsection, which is the worst kind of fat! Since belly fat itself puts you at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, we can supposedly cut our weight and health risks way down by cutting wheat out of our diet. Since the 1970s Americans have been pushed to eat more “whole grains” in order to be healthy. But since the 1970s, Americans have gotten steadily fatter on this supposedly healthy diet. So can we blame wheat for ruining our health?

The Facts Speak Otherwise: Correlation between wheat and weight gain doesn’t necessarily mean causation. Even through the nation has been gaining weight at a sorry clip, increased caloric intake from any source is the real culprit, leaving wheat in only a secondary role. Belly fat is certainly unhealthier than regular fat, for abdominal fat cells tend to boost the production of certain hormones which aren’t healthy. How fat accumulates in the body is related more to caloric intake combined with heredity and gender; males are more apt than females to fatten in this way. If you want to lose belly fat, you might want to look at saturated fats. In one study, men who ate muffins made with saturated fats gained more abdominal fat than men who ate muffins made with unsaturated fat. There is even one carefully-done study that suggests carbohydrates might lower a person’s amount of belly fat. Men with a daily diet that contained 10 grams of soluble fiber such as oats, barley and beans lost more visceral fat over 5 years than men who didn’t eat the soluble fiber. However, there are no miracle diets that will simply take away your belly. Nor, really, do there need to be.

Claim: Get Thin and Healthy by Controlling Your Body’s pH Balance

There are a lot of “alkaline diet” books that caution people to stay away from acidic foods, claiming that our acidic diet makes us sluggish, destroys our bones, and makes us prone to disease. Most of these books make uncontroversial health recommendations, asking people to drink water with lemon instead of coffee, cut out the alcohol, eat more vegetables, and eat goat cheese instead of cow’s cheese. Adhering to alkaline-diet-approved foods supposedly will make the body alkaline, reducing the chances for cancer and for bone loss.

The Facts: Although a steady diet of alkaline foods is meant to make the body more alkaline, blood pH is regulated by the kidney, and diet has virtually to effect on the pH. There is no substantial evidence that this diet improves bone health or protects from osteoporosis or any other diseases. There is also no evidence that an acidic diet can cause cancer.

Claim: Probiotics Will Keep Our Insides Ecologically Balanced

Fermented foods have become very trendy. Why drink tea when you can drink kombucha? Why drink milk when you can eat yogurt? Probiotic foods help keep us full of “good” bacteria. These bacteria help us with digestion, treat irritable bowel syndrome, calm inflammation, and thin us down by stopping our carb cravings.

The Facts: Foods might not need to actually be fermented to be helpful. One study of irritable bowel syndrome sufferers had them drink either milk or yogurt. The subjects found relief not just with yogurt, but with plain nonfermented milk. And probiotic or not, the relief was described as merely “adequate.” Fermentation is not a wonder cure. Even if probiotics were wonder cures, they wouldn’t be present in any pot of yogurt – even if it is labelled as “probiotic.” Laboratory studies on the effects of bacteria maintain strict quality control, so scientists are sure that people are getting an effective amount of a certain kind of bacteria. Companies, and home fermenters, do not have the same quality control systems. A survey of probiotic products found that most companies don’t really make any effort to measure how much of this “good” bacteria goes into the product. They also don’t make any real effort to keep it alive when it’s in there. Unfortunately, probiotic foods are often just foods full of a small amount of dead bacteria. For more information, see previous post: http://www.mortontavel.com/2015/09/17/887/

Claim: Raw Foods Will Cleanse You

Cooked foods are alleged to allow toxins to build up in your body, causing you to be sluggish and increasing your risk of cancer. Raw foods supposedly cleanse you of these toxins. Cooking also destroys key nutrients and denatures important enzymes that make your body healthier. Finally, certain foods are not meant to be combined with other foods. For example, if you want to get all the nutrition to be harvested from them, fruits are not to be mixed with vegetables

The Facts: First of all, the liver and kidneys “detox” the body already. If they aren’t working, a raw carrot isn’t going to help. Only an organ transplant will help. Cooking can destroy nutrients, but substances like lycopene in tomatoes can be more completely absorbed into the body if they are cooked. As for enzymes, their existence is dependent on a lot of factors. Heat is one, and pH is another. Considering that is no way to digest anything without giving it an acid bath in your stomach, few enzymes get “absorbed” into the body whether they’ve been heated or not. Finally, there is no evidence to support that certain combinations of common fruits and vegetables — or any other food — need to be avoided.

Claim: Sugar Consumption is a Drug Habit You Have to Kick

Sugar is claimed to be not just a bad food; it’s an addictive drug. Studies done on lab mice show that brain response to sugar addiction is similar to brain response to cocaine and heroin.

The Facts: Everyone agrees that sugar is not very healthy, but it’s not heroin. In some cases, we can use rat behavior as an analog for human behavior, but this is not automatic Lab rats love sugar. Multiple studies show that lab rats go through an addiction cycle of eating, withdrawal, and craving sugar — sometimes even more than they do cocaine. Sugar also lights up reward pathways in their brains. However, studies done on humans give us a different picture, and there is no evidence that physical addiction is present. People eat too much sugar, and some may crave it, but sugar is not a physically addictive substance for humans.

Claim: Superfoods Will Save You from Everything

It is alleged that you should shift your staple diet to “superfoods.” These foods have special antioxidants that will prevent cancer. They’ll boost your immune system. They’ll speed up your metabolism to help you lose weight, too! Anything is possible if you live on green tea, blueberries, and kale.

The Facts: It’s possible—but controversial—that antioxidants do, at least in the laboratory, protect cells from cancer. The antioxidants pair with free radicals – molecules with unpaired electrons. These molecules might otherwise pair with our DNA. Free radicals damage the body. Free radicals damage other things as well, including microorganisms like viruses and bacteria which have invaded our bodies. The problem is that these microorganisms are part of the immune system, so it’s not a good idea to wipe them out, even in theory. And while some studies show that antioxidants prevent cancer, others show that they keep cancer cells alive and decrease the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Cells alone on a plate in a lab respond consistently well to antioxidants, but cells in the body are far more complicated.  Food is more complicated as well. There is no question that superfoods are good for you, but they can’t be used as cancer-preventing drugs. The best plan is to incorporate these foods into a well balanced diet as often as possible.

Claim: Juices Will Cleanse You and Shrink Your Waistline like Magic

It is maintained that juices help you cleanse yourself and detox! They’re healthier than whole fruits, and give you more nutrients!

The Facts: As noted above, the body has kidneys and a liver to detox and cleanse itself. There is no cup of anything that will work the way these organs do. Nor is there any evidence that making something into juice allows you to get more nutrients out of it. Moreover, fruits are full of sugar, and so people on juice cleanses can consume too much sugar without noticing. The sugar in fruit can do a number on your teeth, as well. Juicing isn’t terrible, but it’s an extreme change in diet—more extreme than any other diet on this list—and should be avoided.

Claim: Paleo Diets Make Us as Healthy as Cave People

Human beings supposedly evolved to eat the diet they ate during the Stone Age—no milk, or wheat, or processed foods. No cultivated foods at all. If we want to be like lean, ruthless, healthy hunter-gatherers, we need to eat seeds and nuts, roots and berries, fish and meat. The food of today is making us fat while depriving us of nutrition. We need to eat only the food we evolved to eat if we’re going to be healthy.

The Facts: As I noted in a previous post (http://www.mortontavel.com/2015/09/05), this is pure nonsense. We’re still evolving. A surprising amount of evolution happened in the past few thousand years. Scientific evidence supports none of the claims.

Claim: Go Vegan and Go Ultra-Low-Fat

This claim arose from a constellation of media, including a book, a cookbook, and a documentary about the diet formulated by Dr Caldwell Esselstyn. The centerpiece of all this is The China Study that showed that rural villagers in China, who ate a mostly-vegan diet had extremely low rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease. As the prosperity and westernization of their area increased, and the population ate more meat and more fat, the disease rate increased. In the documentary, one woman on the Esselstyn diet seems to have fought off breast cancer with the diet. Other dieters halt or reverse coronary artery disease with the diet. Their success is presented as the result of giving up all meat, meat products, and added fat. Not only are all animal products off the table, but vegetable oils, nuts, and avocados are as well. Dieters “fry” their food in broth or water.

The Facts: The documentary never actually claims that a low-fat vegan diet stops cancer, which is good, because it does not. There is some evidence that people on vegetarian diets have a better survival rate once they already have colon cancer, but most of the studies done on a vegetarian diet note that vegetarians already tend to be more health-conscious than the rest of the population. Another study comparing vegetarians and meat-eaters noted that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, but tend not to have a lower mortality rate for other diseases. As for the reversal of symptoms of coronary artery disease, a group of people on a carbohydrate-rich diet created by Dean Ornish also reversed their symptoms. Though also low-fat, the Ornish diet allows for egg whites and cheeses.

Although experts agree that The China Study shows very strong correlation between an increase of fat and meat in diet and an increase in cancer and heart disease, the study has some problems. Critics point out that many factors, including the intake of plant protein, increased the rate of cancer. They believe that the data have been selectively picked over, and deliberately interpreted in a way that overemphasizes the negative effects of animal proteins. Even Dr. Colin Campbell, the author of the survey, openly admitted that there are no data showing that going 100 percent animal-free is better than going 95 percent animal-free. The China Study is but one of several studies that evaluated diet and population health. Studies of the Inuit and Masai people show they consume a lot of animal protein while maintaining good overall and cardiovascular health. The French, meanwhile, eat a lot of saturated fat and have a low rate of cardiovascular disease. Although an incredibly low-fat vegan diet is (generally) good for you, it’s not a miracle cure, and you can get similar effects without going vegan.

Claim: Grains Are Killing Your Brain

It is alleged that grains cause inflammation, causes neurodegenerative diseases. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ADHD — they can all be avoided if we just stopped overloading on carbohydrates (even whole grains) and ate more fat. A high fat diet might even help us grow more brain cells.

The Facts: Interestingly, recent the books on this topic Forks Over Knives and Grain Brain seem to be directly opposed to each other. In fact, the Forks Over Knives website has a page full of links rebutting the arguments made in Grain Brain.

Scientists have long pointed out that the evidence that seems to advocate a low-carb, high-fat lifestyle, is inconclusive at best. One study linking diet and Alzheimer’s makes it clear that, although obesity and diseases like Alzheimer’s are related, obesity hasn’t been proven to cause Alzheimer’s. Another study was meant to show a correlation between gluten and cognitive decline, but it involved only 13 patients with the uncommon condition, celiac disease, accepting preliminary studies as definitive proof, which in science, is unacceptable. Thus there’s no definitive evidence that avoiding gluten will save anyone’s brain, or, for that matter, virtually anything else.

In Conclusion

I do not claim that most of these diets aren’t beneficial in any way. With the possible exception of juicing, choosing a random diet on this list and adopting it would probably improve the health of most of us. These dietary fad guidelines also point out that most people aren’t aware of how much fat, sugar, processed food, and refined carbohydrates they eat or how bad those things are for their health. To get really healthy, however, most of us need to radically change our diet, not just add a couple of salads a week. Sadly, there is no diet that can make you younger, cure or prevent cancer, magically give you limitless energy, or fix your brain. There are also no foods that are equivalent to meth or toxic waste. And, finally, there was no golden age when everyone was “natural” and “healthy.” Humans have always had diet problems; what’s changed is that now we have scientific investigations that can help us understand them.



Probiotics and Human Health: Updated Information

Most people are aware of the allegedly new health “miracles” called probiotics. Promoters claim that they help with a variety of health problems, ranging from constipation to diarrhea, preventing and fighting colds, the strengthening of the immune system, improvement of the skin’s function, the strengthening of the resistance to cedar pollen allergens, the protection of DNA, and the combating of many other maladies. As a result, probiotics are showing up widely in foods, beverages, and supplements.

So what are probiotics? The root of the word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning “promoting” and biotic, meaning “life.” Many experts define probiotics as live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, potentially confer a health benefit to the host. Most of these microorganisms are bacteria, but in this case they are “good” bacteria, not the ones that may cause infections.

Our digestive system normally contains a combination of billions of. bacteria, both “good” and “bad” varieties, representing many different species of microorganisms, overall referred to as intestinal flora. When the normal balance of these bacteria is disturbed by illness or antibiotic treatment, the most common effect is diarrhea. Probiotics were originally thought to work by re-colonizing the small intestine and crowding out disease-causing bacteria, thereby restoring balance to the intestinal flora. However, research also shows that probiotics might act in other ways, such as producing substances that inhibit disease-causing bacteria, competing for nutrients with them, and stimulating the body’s own immune system. For example, one study using one type of good bacteria,  Lactobacillus GG, showed that giving healthy older individuals a capsule with 10 billion cells twice a day for 28 days caused no apparent change in the composition of the intestinal flora but appeared to modulate bacterial activity in ways which appeared to promote interactions with the gut lining with anti-inflammatory effects, at least temporarily.

In recent years, certain intestinal infections are increasing, especially among people who are receiving antibiotics or who spend time in health care settings. Caused by the bacterium (germ) Clostridium difficile, often called “C. diff,” this infection causes chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, and intestinal inflammation, which, if very severe, can be fatal. Although it may occasionally infect those in the general population, it is especially prone to occur in individuals receiving antibiotics, which kill off large numbers of those beneficial bacteria residing in the intestines that are normally responsible for protecting us against these evil doers that are resistant to conventional antibiotics. Growing evidence indicates that preserving the trillions of good microorganisms in our intestines can defend us from this disease. Thus if we could provide these good bacteria in the form of probiotics, we may be able to combat at least this one serious intestinal infection. These bacteria can be found in many foods and supplements, and manufacturers are adding probiotics to all sorts of products, from trail mix to chocolate bars. More targeted products such as DanActive dairy drink, and pills and packets of powder with brand names such as BioK Plus, Culturelle, Florastor, and VSL#3. Culturelle, a supplement containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG), is gushingly claimed “to promote digestion, maintain regularity, support your immune system, and help you return to optimal health.” Unlike a lot of probiotics, a Culturelle spokeswoman notes that LGG survives past the stomach and into the intestines, where it “balances out bad bacteria.” Each capsule is guaranteed to contain 10 billion cells of LGG. Because probiotics are considered a dietary supplement rather than a medicine, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t verify their claims. But many strains of probiotic bacteria have been studied extensively for their effect on irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, and diarrhea. Although no studies have been very large and are inconclusive, some hold promise for travelers, people taking antibiotics, or kids with diarrhea.

But let’s evaluate some recent studies on probiotics:

Irritable bowel syndrome(IBS) and abdominal pain

Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 (used in Proctor & Gamble’s Align) was found to improve symptoms (e.g., bloating, straining, gas) of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in women, although it did not change the frequency of stools. An eight-strain combination of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus (known as VSL#3) reduced abdominal bloating in patients with diarrhea-predominant IBS but had no effect on other symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas and urgency. A multi-strain probiotic drink was found, in a 12-week study, to modestly reduce IBS symptoms in adult women and men. The decline with the probiotic was largely due to decreases in pain and improvement in bowel habit satisfaction. There was, however, no significant improvement in bloating or with overall quality of life. Capsules of a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (commonly known as Brewer’s yeast) were shown, in an 8-week, placebo-controlled trial in adults with IBS, to modestly improve abdominal pain/discomfort during the last 4 weeks of treatment. People in the study took a single capsule each day with water at breakfast: one capsule contained 4 billion cells of Saccharomyces cerevisiae..

For the treatment of antibiotic-related diarrhea
Although it has been recommended to start taking probiotic supplements as soon as symptoms appear, more recent studies show that probiotics can be taken starting the first day of oral antibiotic treatment and continued for 1 to 2 weeks after the completion of antibiotic therapy. It may be advisable to take probiotics and antibiotics at least 2 hours apart to reduce the possibility of the antibiotic killing the probiotic organisms. Ten to 20 billion cells of Lactobacillus GG (Culturelle) daily, and 50 to 100 billion cells of a combination of Lactobacillus acidophilus CL1285 and Lactobacillus casei LBC80R have been shown to be reduce the incidence of antibiotic-related diarrhea, as have 17 billion cells daily of a combination of L. acidophilus NCFM, L. paracasei Lpc-37, B. lactis Bi-07 and B. lactis Bl-04 in equal parts (sold as Active D’Lites). A combination of Lactobacillus GG (5.2 billion cells daily) with Bifidobacterium lactis (Bb-12) (5.9 billion cells), and Lactobacillus acidophilus (La-5) (8.3 billion cells), in a yogurt has been effective in children. Products containing multiple species of organisms may be somewhat more effective than those with a single species. If diarrhea symptoms persist for several days, see a physician.

For traveler’s diarrhea
Two billion viable cells of Lactobacillus GG taken by mouth daily starting 2 days before travel and continuing throughout the trip may reduce the likelihood of traveler’s diarrhea. Saccharomyces boulardii 250 mg (as in FloraStor and FloraStor Kids) to 1 gram by mouth daily begun 5 days before travel and continued for the duration may reduce traveler’s diarrhea, with the larger dose possibly more effective

Additional Possibilities worth Considering.

Some studies have suggested possible use of probiotics for simple constipation,diverticular disease, for vaginal bacterial infections (given orally or through vaginal suppositories), treating periodontitis and throat infections.

Certain natural foods such as yogurt contain probiotic lactobacilli and others, and they possess similar potential advantages for the digestive disorders noted above. Our knowledge is limited, however, about which yogurt brands, if any, might be most effective for this purpose. Interestingly, recent research has also disclosed that fatty fish such as salmon promote the growth of favorable bacteria in the gut and may aid weight and blood sugar control. By contrast, bacteria tied to obesity-related inflammation thrive when consumption of animal fats is increased. Below we list a few general comments:

Know the dose and type: Large numbers of viable organisms are likely best suited to achieve benefits. Colony forming units, or CFUs, represents the measure of viable microorganisms in a probiotic. The level of CFUs likely to yield benefit differs by probiotic, ranging from 50 million to more than 500 billion per day. In general, yogurts are the most power packed products, containing from 90 billion to 500 billion CFUs per serving. Various dietary supplements contain less, ranging from under 1 billion to 20 billion per capsule. Certain snack foods such as chocolate bars and trail mixes also are said to contain varying numbers, but are generally fewer in quantity and also tend to possess more calories than desirable for the possible gains. To reduce the risk of diarrhea caused by C. diff, the most effective dose is believed to be more than 10 billion CFUs per day. When considering yogurt brands, look for the National Yogurt Associations Live and Active Cultures seal that tells you that the given product contains at least 100 million live cultures per gram at the time of manufacture.

Research suggests that the most effective probiotics are combinations of L. acidophilus, L. casei, L. rhaminosus, and S boulardii.

Beware of expiration dates. Probiotics contain live microorganisms and may lose their effectiveness after a certain date. Some probiotics require refrigeration to preserve the active ingredients. Dairy products, specifically, tend to have a short shelf life. One should follow handling and storage instructions on the package.

Make sure it’s from a trusted source. Check the product website to determine if the manufacturer is reputable and review the evidence base for a given product.

Keep in mind that continued administration is necessary for probiotics to be beneficial in the gastrointestinal tract. Also look for labels that say “live active cultures,” as many prepackaged and processed foods, including even some yogurt brands, contain few to no viable bacteria.

More research may help clarify the proper dosage and strains for different conditions. Meanwhile, probiotics aren’t useful to everyone. Basically, if you are a healthy person and maintain a healthy way of life and healthy diet, you don’t need probiotics to help you get healthier.

Research also shows that the need for probiotics may depend on the person’s situation. It may be advisable for those that are prone to antibiotic associated diarrhea to try probiotics, at least during and a few days after taking the antibiotic. However, further study clearly is needed to determine which specific probiotics should be tried and who precisely should try them.

Unfortunately, the entire subject is incredibly complex and speculative because the number of variables involved, including the differing species of probiotic microorganisms. At present, although many avenues are being explored, research extends to possible links between probiotics and heart attacks and effects on elevated blood pressure, but substantive results likely lie far in the future.

In summary then, although much research has yet to be done, if you are suffering from any of the conditions listed above, these products may be worth a try. Perhaps the best initial choice, however, is probiotic yogurt, because it is inexpensive, nutritious, and consuming it periodically certainly won’t hurt.

Several sources of accurate information on probiotics are the American Gastroenterological Association, the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics and the FDA’s website on dietary supplements.





    Although for most of us, eating spicy food may feel like a fatality waiting to happen, some research suggests quite the contrary! A large prospective population study[1] in China (512,891 persons) examined this subject in detail, exploring a possible association between the regular consumption of spicy foods and total mortality. Chinese between the ages of 30 and 79 were followed for an average of 7.2 years, and surprisingly, spicy food intake (mainly chili peppers) was clearly associated with a lower total mortality in both men and women. The consumption of these foods 6 or 7 days per week was associated with a 14% reduction in total mortality in comparison with consumption less than once per week. Interestingly, this high consumption was associated with reduced death rates across an important disease spectrum, i.e. cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease.

These types of studies, although showing statistical relationships, do not clearly establish a beneficial role specific for chili peppers, because other unaccounted factors could have been responsible, such as other healthy—but unidentified—dietary components or other spices ingested by those people consuming such fiery foods. The study did suggest, however, that fresh chili peppers were more protective than dried ones, an intriguing finding that lacks explanation. Further research will be required to sort this all out.

But, assuming that the chili peppers per se do explain the beneficial effects, how could this have come about? Capsaicin, a substance that is found in these peppers, has a number of potentially positive health benefits, including actions that work against blood clotting, inflammation, pain, some cancers, obesity, and it also provides some protection against radiation. Capsaicin is a potent inhibitor of substance P, a promoter of inflammatory processes. The hotter the chili pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. The hottest varieties include habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers. Jalapenos are next in their capsaicin content, followed by the milder varieties, including Spanish pimentos, and Anaheim and Hungarian cherry peppers. Capsaicin is being studied as an effective treatment for sensory nerve fiber disorders, including pain associated with arthritis, psoriasis, and diabetic neuropathy. When animals injected with a substance that causes inflammatory arthritis were fed a diet that contained capsaicin, they had delayed onset of arthritis, and also significantly reduced paw inflammation. Adding to their appeal, chili peppers contain liberal amounts of vitamins E, A, B2, B3, B6, and K, fiber, copper, iron, manganese, and potassium. All this adds up to an appealing health package.

So, in conclusion, until more definitive data become available, if you can tolerate the “fire”, try adding fresh chili peppers to your diet on a regular basis. They may save everything but your tongue!


[1] Lv J, Qi L, Yu C, et al. Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study. BMJ 2015;351:h3942. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h3942