Welcome to the second part of our series on spotting nutrition nonsense and avoiding wellness grifters.
This time, we’re looking at some common products and asking whether they’re worth your hard-earned cash.
If you’re interested in food and nutrition and you’ve ever used social media, you’re likely to have been bombarded by adverts for a wide range of nutrition, wellness, and diet products.
These ads can be compelling, and when they’re offering a quick fix, it can be tempting.
In this article, we’ll help you make sense of the incredible variety of products out there. We’ll ask what they do and whether they really can benefit your health.
Detoxes and cleanses
According to the hype, there’s a cleanse, detox, or cleanse detox for everything.
Ads claim that these products can stave off mental health issues and reduce anxiety. Others allegedly reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, obesity, dementia, and a range of other conditions.
Importantly, any manufacturer can call their product a “cleanse” or “detox” if they think it’ll help sales. These words have no clear definition.
They’re a varied bunch of offerings, too. Cleanses and detoxes can involve fasting, mostly consuming juice, cutting out whole food groups, restricting yourself to a particular food, and using enemas or saunas.
Although scientists have investigated some of these interventions, relevant studies are few and far between. And many were either performed on animals or small groups of humans, which makes the results harder to interpret.
According to the authors of a review on cleanses and detoxes, “To the best of our knowledge, no randomized controlled trials have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans.”
ZOE has published a detailed article on detox cleanses if you’d like to learn more.
Sometimes, doctors prescribe specific vitamin or mineral supplements. In these cases, research has shown them to be beneficial.
More generally, experts recommend that women of childbearing age take folic acid supplements. And people in colder climates might benefit from taking vitamin D during the darker months.
Plus, a generic multivitamin tablet might benefit some people in the long run, but the evidence isn’t very strong yet.
As ZOE’s Chief Scientist Dr. Sarah Berry explains: “A simple multivitamin and mineral supplement is fine. All the expensive ones for beautiful skin or hair, etc., are a waste of money.”
The vast majority of supplements are unnecessary — and in some cases, they might be dangerous.
Some vitamin supplements provide you with many times the amount that you need every day.
Although vitamins are essential for life, it’s not always a case of more being better. Megadoses of certain vitamins can cause health problems.
For instance, consuming too much vitamin D can cause mild symptoms, such as thirst and needing to urinate more frequently. But in severe cases, it can cause seizures, coma, and death.
Here's another example: According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), excess vitamin A can cause “severe headache, blurred vision, nausea, dizziness, muscle aches, and problems with coordination. In severe cases, getting too much preformed vitamin A can even lead to coma and death.”
So, if you're taking vitamins, make sure you’re not megadosing.
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Recently, parasite cleanses have become incredibly popular in the wellness world. We won’t spend too much time on this one, because it’s a lot of rubbish.
If you really do have a parasite, speak with a doctor because they’re treatable.
But if you live in the Western world, you’re unlikely to have one. And if you do, a parasite cleanse you bought on social media won’t help. They’re a scam.
The vast majority of people in the United States and United Kingdom don’t need to worry about a protein deficiency.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), you need to consume around 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
So, someone who weighs 150 pounds needs around 54 g of protein a day. And someone weighing 200 pounds needs 72 g a day.
In the U.S., people aged 19–30 years consume around 91 grams of protein every day, on average. Older adults tend to consume less, but only 7.2% to 8.6% of people in this age group get less protein than they need.
So, unless you’re hitting the gym really hard, you’re unlikely to need extra protein. And even then, you don’t necessarily need protein powder.
Dr. Kate Bermingham, one of ZOE’s nutrition scientists, explained, “A food-first approach is ideal — you can consume foods post-workout that also contain other nutrients that help the body recover, such as milk.”
Getting more protein can be helpful for some sections of society, such as people in long-term care and older adults. But most folks can skip it.
For more information, ZOE has an article on added protein and protein deficiency.
At ZOE, we know the importance of gut bacteria to overall health. And because probiotics are live “good” bacteria, it follows that probiotics are good for your health.
However, for most health conditions, there currently isn't evidence that probiotics can help.
Although some companies might claim that their probiotics can help with anything from mental health to diabetes, scientists haven’t done enough research yet to know this for sure.
So, while there’s little risk in taking probiotics, and you might see some benefits, they’re not going to change your life.
When you consume probiotics in foods, as opposed to taking probiotic supplements, you also get the benefits of the other nutrients in those foods.
If you're interested, we have an article on the best fermented foods to try.
The last word?
This, sadly, is an incomplete list of junk nutrition and wellness products. There are so many out there, and we simply don’t have enough space to cover them all.
When you're faced with an endless stream of adverts, it’s tough to know what’s worth your time and money and what isn't.
In general, try to remain skeptical. And if something sounds too good to be true, it nearly always is.
A review of the growing risk of vitamin D toxicity from inappropriate practice. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5980613/
Current protein intake in America: Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003–2004. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2008). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18469286/
Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: A critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. (2015). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jhn.12286
Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. (2002). http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/43411/WHO_TRS_935_eng.pdf?sequence=1
Vitamin A and carotenoids. (2022). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-Consumer/