You've seen them—and the reason you see them so often is, well, because they reach out and grab your attention. I'm talking about sensational health headlines. They show up in your newsfeed, in your mailbox, on social media, and sometimes they're even printed right on the front page of the newspaper. More and more news outlets are using the topic of health—and sensational headlines about what can potentially help you, harm you, save you, and (yikes!) kill you—in order to attract your attention so that you read their news, click through their website, and (the goldmine of viral journalism) share it with your friends to cast an even wider net.
But who suffers? We do. In the end, we—as readers—don't become more informed when we read these hyped-up health headlines. Whether you believe them or not, everyone just gets more confused. And whether you have time to read beyond the headline or dig into the research they're based off is yet another issue altogether.
I know this firsthand because I, as a journalist and registered dietitian, have had to deal with the aftermath of scary health headlines. In an exciting time when we are learning more about health, nutrition, and our bodies than ever before, we also have more people jumping into the health game—people who are not skilled at interpreting research or putting health studies into perspective in order to deliver sound advice to readers. Superficial reporting creates confusion and, even worse, a spiral of skepticism about the health industry.
We asked Ashley Koff, R.D., registered dietitian and nutrition consultant, to weigh in on the state of health headlines and her advice on how to interpret the latest scary health headlines that link the use of supplements to cancer—if you haven't seen them yet, you will soon. The topic is circulating its way through newsfeeds based off of an article by ScienceDaily.
Delicious Living: How can readers differentiate between a trustworthy news headline and one which has been complicated or oversimplified? How can readers use and interpret the information in health articles to better their own health?
Ashley Koff, RD: Tough question. First: Use your common sense – if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Second: Nutrition information is rarely black or white, so avoid recommendations that categorize things that way. Third: Recognize that mass outlets (ie the media) don’t provide personalized information or prescriptions. To that end, always follow up on something you hear or read with a source that can help you personalize that information. That’s what I do for patients, so your doctor, your dietitian, or your healthcare practitioner is a good resource for you. (Note the use of “your” in that last sentence—it's not wise to take the advice that someone else’s practitioner gave them, specifically.)
DL: What does better nutrition have to do with supplements and cancer risk?
AK: Everything. When we hold our supplements to the same standards we hold (or should hold) our food, we help people make the right choices. Better choices lead to improved health. While we don’t know how to cure cancer, we do have a good understanding of many things that increase the risk of cancer. Those risks should be limited or avoided as much as possible. Additionally, a real risk for cancer is the body not being healthy enough to withstand treatments and to heal itself, so better nutrition can play a major role here. Supplements, on the other hand, can be tricky in general, but even more so when cancer and cancer treatment(s) are involved. It’s critical that you inform your practitioner of what you’re taking—and that you adhere to their recommendations because, ultimately, it can impact the success of your treatment as well as your long-term healing.
DL: What do you believe is the biggest problem in the supplements industry?
AK: The junk food-ification of supplements is not just unhealthy, it's extremely dangerous. Unlike food, where the greatest risk is typically getting too many calories and insufficient nutrients, the risk with supplements is excessive nutrient intake. Excessive nutrient intake can turn a helpful nutrient into a harmful substance as well as create conditional deficiencies of other nutrients when one is overemphasized in relation to another. I do advise my patients that they are better off investing in quality food rather than taking a poor quality supplement, BUT I also see the healing power of quality supplements on a daily basis. As a nutrition professional, it's my job to educate on both.
DL: What are the proper uses for supplements?
AK: There are four proper and healthful uses for supplements:
1. To help fill nutritional gaps that can occur when life happens. In such a situation, despite a person's best efforts to eat a nutrient-dense diet, he/she doesn’t get enough of the important nutrients required, so supplements can help get them back to where they need to be.
2. When a person's age, life stage, or dietary choices increase their need for certain nutrients
3. When, for health reasons or choices, a person's dietary intake excludes key nutrients they need for better health
4. For therapeutic use, as advised by a knowledgeable practitioner, who has assessed a person's diet, as well as their medical needs, and then suggested supplemental nutrition as part of that individual's better health prescription.
NOTE: There are many other poor reasons people take supplements: because of something you read in an non-professionally sourced book or article, or because an uneducated salesperson, friend, or celebrity makes it seem like your life and health will be better if you pop a certain pill or drink some powder.
DL: The article by ScienceDaily points to excessive nutrient intake as having a link to cancer. How can people implement this information to help them use supplements for their health advantage?
AK: The first thing to note is that more is not always—and almost never—better when it comes to ingredients in a supplement. Rarely do you need to supplement with 100 percent of the daily amount of a nutrient, and even less frequently is there a need to supplement in excess of 100 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of a nutrient. We get our nutrients primarily from food, then we supplement. Ideally, you’ll work with someone who can help you navigate the best choices for you, personally. One key area to review is your current food and beverage intake—on average—to reveal where nutritional gaps may be improved with supplemental food. If a supplement’s advertisement claims that it contains ten times as much of a nutrient than a comparable whole food does, then (hint, hint) that’s considered excessive. Also, when a nutrient is available in a highly absorbable form it can provide greater efficacy (the maximum response achievable) than a less well-absorbed nutrient in much higher amounts. Remember that the milligrams or weight on the package just means that’s the amount the product contains by weight, NOT its efficacy.
DL: Is it just as risky to be deficient in nutrients as it is to take too much?
AK: Absolutely. But the body is going to give you a lot of signs when you’re deficient in a nutrient(s), which isn’t often the case when you’re getting excess of a nutrient(s). We can ignore those signs, of course, but most of us will listen up if they persist.
Bottom line: When you read a dramatic health headline, remember that there is always more to the story—and there are many qualified health professionals available to help you read between the lines and interpret that information so you can make your best health choices.
What questions do you have about supplements in light of recent headlines?