How to Spot Quacks

What is quackery? The late Dr. Morris Fishbein, who edited the Journal of the American Medical Association for 26 years, defines it as "the practi…

What is quackery? The late Dr. Morris Fishbein, who edited the Journal of the American Medical Association for 26 years, defines it as “the practice of medicine by unlicensed persons or the application of treatments which are not generally recognized as appropriate by the profession.”

You don’t have to be gullible to be victimized by quacks. All it takes is for you to be misinformed since many misleading health claims are based on shreds of scientific evidence.

To avoid being fooled, here are some guidelines from Dr. Stephen Barret, editor of the respected Nutrition Forum newsletter and one of America’s famous quackbusters. Barret says you should be wary of:

Anyone who uses anecdotes to support his or her claims. You take a drug, you feel better. It could be cause and effect. It could also be coincidence. Most diseases go away by themselves, and chronic problems have ups and downs that are unrelated to treatment. Testimonials don’t prove a treatment works. Look for controlled studies.

Anyone who claims to be persecuted by the medical establishment for his or her controversial beliefs. It takes time to conduct scientific studies, so it can take a few years for a new treatment to be accepted. Most doctors have no interest in suppressing good medicine. Anyone who plays by the rules of good research will be taken seriously.

Any person or organization that crusades for a particular treatment. Useful treatments don’t need political lobbies. But many unscientific practitioners put political endorsement above scientific acceptance. Despite lack of evidence that a treatment works, practitioners may lobby to legalize the treatment and force insurance companies to pay for it.

Anyone who promises to “detoxify your body,” “release your energy,” “boost your immune system,” or “balance your chemistry.” These terms sound impressively scientific, but they don’t correspond to any known bodily processes.

Anyone who says that everyone should take supplements to be sure they get enough vitamins and minerals. A balanced diet provides all the vitamins and minerals most people need. And supplements can’t replace a good diet.

Anyone who suggests that all or most diseases are caused by faulty nutrition and can be treated with supplements. Some diseases can be affected by diet: heart disease and cancer are obvious examples. But that’s not a reason to take supplements; it’s a reason to eat well and avoid saturated fat. Very few diseases have a dietary cause.

Anyone who uses a computer-scored health questionnaire for diagnosing “nutrient deficiencies.” Computer analysis of your diet can be useful – if it leads to counseling to improve your eating habits. But beware of questionnaires that ask about symptoms instead of what you eat. Computers used to interpret such tests are programmed to recommend supplements for virtually everyone.

Any practitioner – licensed or not – who sells vitamins in his or her office. Scientific nutritionists do not sell vitamins. Unscientific practitioners often do – at two to three times their cost.

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