Whitehead starts ‘Deans for Wellness’ lecture series with talk on quackery and fraud in health trends
UND's Jim Whitehead advocates for the tried and true adage that "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
This is especially the case with product claims made by the dietary supplement industry and other more shady outfits for rapid weight loss, muscle growth, increased energy and all around better health through pills.
Whitehead, professor of physical education, exercise science and wellness, in the College of Education & Human Development, pulled no punches Wednesday, Jan. 23, in a lecture titled "Fitness and Health: Quackery and Fraud" – part of the "Deans for Wellness" Lecture Series sponsored by the College.
The "Deans for Wellness Initiative" is part of a Universitywide Healthy UND effort headed up by the Kim Ruliffson, coordinator of the Work Well program for UND Health and Wellness. Deans for Wellness is sponsored by the deans of UND's colleges and schools to promote healthy living among their staff and faculty.
For its part, the College of Education& Human Development, under the direction of Interim Dean Dennis Caine, is holding a lecture series throughout the spring semester. Whitehead's talk was the first of the series.
Not even acupuncture or the chiropractic profession escaped Whitehead's skepticism, which is based on years of study and others' research on the veracity of health claims versus actual outcomes.
"It's an interesting topic and one that sometimes gets me into trouble," Whitehead said jokingly about his research.
He says his goal has been to give consumers the knowledge to discern the credible from the more "dodgy stuff," as it pertains to science.
Whitehead, a 25-year faculty member at UND, pointed out that, though some substances such as ephedrine, basically, a form of "speed" used in many rapid weight-loss products, have been banned from the market; legislation was passed in 1994 makes it harder for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the pharmaceutical industry. The new rules put the onus on the FDA to "prove harm" before it can ban substances.
And there's still no real oversight for the industry despite ongoing reports of false claims and evidence of adulterants being found in many health store products.
"It basically still comes down to 'buyer beware,'" Whitehead said. "It's all very questionable in my opinion."
Whitehead has seen bald-faced claims in magazines that suggest a person can lose 25 pounds of fat in a week. He says simple math and knowing the physiology of the human body shoots that promise down in a hurry. He says that a person can lose a lot of weight in a short period of time – mostly from water – but actual fat doesn't typically shed that quickly.
Then there are the products for people who want to beef up quickly without much effort. Whitehead says despite the claim, his research has found that a person won't improve their fitness without the training needed to go along with it.
"Products containing pharmaceuticals can make you feel more energized, but they also can come with various sorts of side effects," he said.
He also took on the so-called "Muscle & Fiction" industry, which has been pushing protein supplements as a way to build more muscle. But research suggests that 1.7 x the recommended daily allowance of protein is about as much as the body can use to build muscle. The rest escapes as burnt up energy.
Whitehead said that many people claim that it is necessary to take vitamin supplements because the food of today has fewer nutrients than in the past as a result of modern farming practices. Again, Whitehead says there is no real proof this is true.
"(Growers of today) have a vested interest in making sure their crops get the proper nutrients they need so that they can pass healthy, quality products, containing those nutrients, on to consumers," he said.
Finally, when it comes to acupuncture, Whitehead says studies have been conducted that show pain relief resulting from the practice may be more attributable to the power of the mind than anything else.
"There is little or no evidence that it has any success in reducing pain or having any other beneficial effect," he said. "Really, it's an expensive placebo."
Whitehead didn't leave his audience hanging as far as places they could get solid, factual health information. He touted websites from the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, as well as Quackwatch, and edzardernst.com as quackery watchdogs and reputable sources.
He added that web sources ending in .gov or .edu should be equally safe.
Here is a rundown of upcoming lectures in UND College of Education & Human Development's "Deans for Wellness" Lecture Series (all lectures are at noon in Room 113 of the Education Building):
Feb. 20 Sandra Short, Ph.D., Physical Education, Exercise Science and Wellness Couponing: A Contribution to Financial Wellness
March 20 Tanis Hastmann, Ph.D., MPH, Physical Education, Exercise Science and Wellness Obesity Prevention: Individual to Community, and Beyond
April 10 Sarah Edwards, Ph.D., Counseling Psychology and Community Services Lifelong Mental Well-Being
May 1 Lars Helgeson, Ph.D., Teaching and Learning The Effects of Stress and Stress Reduction
University Relations writer
James Whitehead, UND Professor of Physical Education, Exercise Science and Wellness