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That’s What They Say


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Feb 22, 2006 - Mark R. Vogel - - Archive

Have you ever heard someone justify an alleged nutritional fact with the response “That’s what they say”?  For example, your friend mentions that she is trying to curtail her salt intake.  You ask why and she replies:  “It’s supposed to be bad for your blood pressure.  That’s what they say.”  Or the person initiates a health recommendation by referring to “they”, e.g., “You know, they say that eating hot peppers reduces the chances of stomach cancer.” 

     I want to know who “they” are.  Actually I’m being extremely rhetorical.  I already know who “they” are.  Sometimes “they” are honest researchers but all too often “they” are the supermarket check-out magazines, the afternoon talk shows, the marketing managers of a new diet product, the publishers of the latest health fad book, and a sundry list of other semi-professionals and sometimes outright quacks looking to make a buck. 

     Very often new dietary advice is reported by a singular source.  Then, other individuals and institutions jump on the bandwagon, parroting the original findings.  Now the information is emanating from multiple avenues.  This creates the impression that it has notable validity when in reality the barrage of agreement is only an echo of the initial news and not additional independent sources of substantiation.  Nevertheless, armed with this “evidence” Joe Average American sets forth on a path of low carbohydrates, organic chicken, fiber-mania or whatever other prescription “they” say will enable you to live forever and jump over hospitals in a single bound.

     This can all be very frustrating for the average person who would like to take care of their health.  There is no shortage of pundits out there and we are incessantly flooded with contradictory, erroneous, capricious or limited information.  Even if we remove the charlatans and opportunistic entrepreneurs from the equation, trying to get to the scientific truth is quite a challenge. 

     The problem is that human nutrition is extremely complex.  Our bodies are walking chemistry labs and trying to uncover which substances cause which effect is a gargantuan task. 


Even if you identify a relationship between food X and condition Y, how do you know it’s not due to any of a multitude of other intervening variables such as the person’s unique genetic makeup, other medical conditions, the interactive effect of other nutrients and/or substances, placebo effects, etc.  Maybe food X’s effect is dependent on the amount and duration of its consumption.  Maybe the effect is only significant for a certain age group or sex.  Maybe there’s no effect at all and the findings were coincidental.  Maybe the study was shoddy and flawed.  Maybe there were other unknown biological variables that played a role.  The list goes on and on.

The point I’m endeavoring to highlight is it takes a significant amount of research over an extended period of time to even begin to draw some sound conclusions.  There are countless nutritional claims out there with contradictory or inconsistent findings.  In essence, the jury is still out on a number of fronts.  And sometimes when the jury comes in it overturns a previous verdict.  Take salt for example.  Not too long ago everyone and their mother were preaching the dangers of sodium and how it increased blood pressure.  Practically overnight half the country became anti-salt fanatics because “they” said it caused high blood pressure.  Now it appears that this is true only for a small subgroup of individuals prone to hypertension and sodium sensitivity.  The vast majority of us without hypertension and normally functioning kidneys, who drink ample amounts of water needn’t concern ourselves.  (Please check with your own physician though before you have a stroke and sue me).  In any event, “they” reconfigured part of an entire country’s dietary landscape.

     So where does all this leave us?  Always consider the source of the nutritional information.  Is it a professional publication or a mass market rag hitching a ride on the latest fad?  Likewise, is it being reported on the 11:00 news or the daytime talk show because it’s a hot topic and will boost ratings?  Does the person or people expressing the opinion have something to sell you?  This is always a red flag.  Billions of dollars a year is spent in this country on exercise gizmos, weight reduction pills and programs, and all kinds of vitamin and herbal supplements that “they” say will do this or that.  Finally, does the dispenser of the dietary advice site actual scientific studies with references that you can check?  And even if they do, are they offering only the studies that support their claim and not the ones which refute it? 

     Do yourself a favor.  Consult a REAL expert.  Ask your medical doctor, a registered dietitian, or someone who actually has a degree in nutrition or biochemistry, not just the trainer at the gym with the big arms.  Sporting defined biceps doesn’t guarantee an understanding of the nuances of biochemistry.  Be informed, be skeptical, and be reluctant to dive head first into the latest craze.  There are a lot of ulterior motives out there.  At least that’s what they say.

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