Slim Chance Awards and the joys of skepticism.

So, while I’m still on hiatus (I know, it’s the most internet-ey internet hiatus in modern history), I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what I’ve come to call “diet apocrypha.” Apocrypha includes scammy fad diets, folk remedies, superstitious beliefs about food/eating, old wives’ tales, and that mysterious “American Heart Association Diet” that was faxed to your office from god-knows-where.

In that vein, every year Frances M. Berg (a licensed nutritionist and author from North Dakota who founded the Healthy Weight Journal and wrote books like Women Afraid to Eat, which was one of the first HAES books I ever read and has an incredible list of peer-reviewed references for each chapter) publishes the Slim Chance Awards, which are sort of like the Razzies for terrible diet products.

Cited for “Worst Gimmick” in the Slim Chance Awards is one of my favourite (and by “favourite,” I mean “so ridiculous that I can’t help but laugh”) desperate late-night informercial products:

Worst Gimmick: Kinoki Foot Pads. FTC is suing the marketers of Kinoki Foot Pads with deceptive advertising for their claims that applying the pads to the soles of feet at night will remove heavy metals, metabolic wastes, toxins, parasites, chemicals and cellulite from people’s bodies. The ads also claim that the foot pads can treat depression, fatigue, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. All this is based on the quack theory of reflexology, which holds that specific areas of the feet affect specifid organs and glands. Since the foot pads darken, this is claimed as evidence that toxins are being drawn out of the body, but investigators show the darkening is caused by moisture and has nothing to do with “toxins.”

I may as well out myself here as a skeptic. My education is science-based. I believe in the scientific method. And while I’d never discount the joys of the placebo effect, or of fun things that you do purely for entertainment or to gain some kind of spiritual/psychological/symbolic satisfaction, I do have a problem with placebos being marketed as actual cures. Or making claims that are patently false and easily disproved.

Two of my favourite skepty (yeah I just made that word up) blogs are Bad Science and Skepchick.

Tangentially, some people have wondered why, if this is the case, I choose to call myself a “nutritionist,” since that term has such scammy undertones, especially in the U.K. (Just to toot my own horn a little — I actually wrote a pretty scathing piece on Gillian McKeith back in March 2006, before I discovered Ben Goldacre and fell in love. I’ll dig it out of the archives one of these days.)

The short answer for now is: I’m reclaiming the word for people who, you know, actually understand science but who may not be Registered Dietitians (and, yes, there are respectable nutrition practitioners out there who aren’t RDs.) The long answer will come in its own post, later, along with more on Diet Apocrypha.

For now, just enjoy the humourous side of skepticism.

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18 Comments

  1. Kate
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I have had several reflexology massages in my time and I just love them. Would I throw out my meds and rely on the massages instead to treat me medically, heck no, but they do feel good and have at least temporarily made me feel better, though as medical treatment, it is quackery.

    • Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      See, yeah, and that’s precisely the thing — market a massage as a massage, as something that’ll feel good. Not as some super-scientific toxin-removing thingy.

      If it can’t stand on its own merits as a good thing, marketing it as a cure-all is pointless. Stick to what it actually does, not what you wish it did.

      I have no doubt that getting a reflexology massage would be awesome. But it wouldn’t, you know, cure cancer or anything.

  2. Colleen
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to see you’re trying to reclaim the word “nutritionist”. My past experiences with nutritionists and dieticians has been neutral to negative. I knew more than they did, and I was often irritated by the quack science to which they seemed to adhere. Your blog impresses me because you’re so sensible.

  3. Posted January 21, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    As one skeptic to another, AWESOME POST!

    I’m such a lurker on Skepchick. It’s one of my daily links but I never participate in the coments.

    • Posted January 21, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Same here. Someday I will wade in there.

  4. Posted January 21, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    My mom does reflexology. She used to practice new techniques on me (“OW THAT HURTS” is negative feedback. “ZzzzZzzzZzzz” is positive feedback). It feels nice, and I actually had headaches relieved by it, but that’s a tension release. Removing toxins? Pfft.

  5. Carolyn
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Reflexology = foot rub. Call it what it is. I happen to enjoy a good foot rub, and suspect there are probably some health benefits that comes with the relaxation it brings. As far as my organs being connected to my feet? Seriously? I walk on those things ALL day long! Perhaps if everyone just levitated we’d have no health problems what so ever!

    WAIT! Nobody steal that! I am totally going to market that as the next weight loss / uber health cure!! THE LEVITATION SOLUTION! :) I’ll be rich!

  6. Jerome
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Michelle, you are really serving a need with this website. I have NEVER had a good experience with a nutritionist before. When I emailed you my question, I knew I would get an answer that wouldn’t come with a bunch of weight-loss-related bullshit attached to it and that was written by someone who is interested in answering the question from a purely health perspective, which I truly appreciated.

  7. Posted January 21, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Michelle, this has officially made you my favourite FA blogger (sorry Lesley). I got into skepticism and FA at around the same time, and was surprised at how little overlap there was between the spheres, considering what a natural fit they really are, rethinking conventional wisdoms and all. Have you found there’s any kind of clash? Occasionally the Skepchicks (and other skeptics such as Steven Novella on the SGU) have said/published things about weight and health where they make assumptions that have made me a bit uncomfortable (‘calories in, calories out’ kind of stuff – I can’t find anything to link to right now). Have you come across this kind of thing in the skeptosphere?

    • Posted January 21, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I have…a few years ago on the Gene Expression blog I managed to shut down a really insulting thread about “obesity” or something similar. I mean, it went okay, but I tend to not get involved in those discussions anymore because people are way too bigoted, even when they’re speaking from a “purely scientific” perspective.

      The thing I find is that, while I believe wholeheartedly in science, I have much less faith in humanity’s interpretation of science. Because humans are, by nature, biased (myself included, naturally.)

      But I am now thinking about getting more involved in comments on those kinds of sites. We’ll see! And thank you.

  8. Joanne
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    My church is doing a Daniel Fast..you know for God, not just because it’s January after the holidays. Insert roll eyes here.
    My pastor is going on and on about how our food choices bring us closer to God, that we should be ashamed of eating cookies because of Haiti.
    Basically we should all feel guilty for eating.

    • deeleigh
      Posted January 22, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but are you Catholic? ‘Cause my entire extended family is Catholic, and they’re always looking for new things to feel guilty about. Yay, guilt! What would life be without it?

    • Jen
      Posted January 22, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Joanne, you should remind your pastor of Jesus’s words in Mark 7:18-20. One of my favorite verses of all time and very helpful in setting me free from any sort of food/eating/holiness guilt thing. I wish more people in churches could get ahold of this and stop preaching the weird food-morality thing that Jesus certainly never did.

    • Posted January 22, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      This is really interesting to me. If my church did this, I would be so annoyed. I don’t belong to a church, but if I did…yeah. It would get on my nerves, because I don’t think there’s actually a religious or spiritual or even moral motive behind it, as much as they’d like to believe there is.

      • jaed
        Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:19 am | Permalink

        Wholly unfocused comment: There’s a definite urge for purity in a lot of food talk – not just this business about “you should be ashamed to eat cookies because of Haiti” stuff, although that’s an aspect of it.

        A lot of the discussion about organic and other fashionable foods has purity ideation attached: your food reflects your spiritual status, and eating “impure” foods makes you impure. There’s a lot of anxiety in there about being caught eating something non-organic, or failing to check labels.

        Kate Harding once mentioned how a friend told her that putting butter on her carrots removed the value of the carrots. Impurity again: the “bad” food interferes with the spiritual value of the “good” food, rendering it valueless. (Ridiculous in the immediate context, too, since we get vitamin A from carrots and vitamin A is fat-soluble. But this isn’t really a nutrition issue, although it’s camoflaged as one. It’s a feeling that one really shouldn’t be eating that.)

        The idea that food choices bring us closer to God strikes me as more of the same. Eating (or not eating) in the prescribed ways is a means of self-purification.

        Anorexics also talk about food in ways that bring to mind themes of purification and spiritual struggle. Purity is not-eating. Eating feels like introducing an impurity, like marring one’s spiritual perfection. I sometimes think much, much more of our thinking about food is eating-disordered than we realize. The human longing for spiritual purity, for self-control, for control over one’s environment, for immortality (“if you just eat right, you’ll never get cancer or a heart attack or ever have to die!”), all this loaded onto a little buttered carrot or a cookie….

        • Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:47 am | Permalink

          As unfocused as you think it was, I think this is totally beautiful as an explanation and exploration of what else goes on when we talk about food. So much of that is still totally in the dark and needs to be uncovered.

          Urges toward purity, control, and immortality (one might even say inhumanness) all seem to be at work here. Thanks for naming it.

  9. Posted January 27, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    BTW, I checked out your skeptics links, found that PZ Myers was speaking at Cal Friday, heard him talk, it was awesome. There’s a bit of resentment around these parts, especially with Prop 8 trial, about how the Catholics and Mormons, who seem to hate each other, joined forces to take away peoples rights, and that was discussed a bunch. I like PZ Myers, smart, reasonable guy.

    As for food purity, my mom is into this (publicly). I am noticing more and more people who are trying to eat a certain way, give me a hard time for the bacon on my bagel, the butter in my whatever, sugar in my coffee, etc., because they’re eating so “light”, but then they eat a donut, or ice cream. I don’t care if people eat donuts and ice cream, but I resent that I am given a hard time because I choose to eat sugar and fat in my meals, intentionally and willfully, rather than as a “slip-up”, or accident. It makes me seethe. I have a friend (who could stand to gain some weight, both muscle/fat) who is trying to do pure eating. I won’t even concede that it’s even healthy. I cook at his house occasionally, as long as he keeps butter and sugar and salt, I’m okay, but I refuse to call my diet unhealthy, and I won’t call his healthy.

    I’d say it seemed more religious in nature, though he’s an atheist, along the theme of your last comment. He’s about to start a cleanse, veggies and brown rice only, 30 pills a day, weird stuff like clay, etc. I will avoid him, as he has a headache and is grouchy, feels weak, all month (that means the toxins are leaving, duh!). Um, okay, seems counter-intuitive to me, but he swears by it. He’s a sickly man, and I am absurdly healthy. Genetic, lifestyle, who knows? Some of both, likely. He says I’m welcome to bring my own food up, and if I really wanted to be a bitch, I’d bring up a pizza, eat that while he eats his brown rice and veggies with no soy sauce, butter, salt, or spice. I wouldn’t have the heart for this, it would be just too mean.

    • Posted January 27, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      The purity stuff reminds me a lot of “clean eating.” Which reminds me a lot of orthorexia.

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