Refuting dietary myths

As human beings we have come a long, long way. We no longer wear animal skins, worship fire or use garlic cloves to keep away werewolves. But have humans in this brave New Millennium of ours progressed very much further when it comes to the strange, weird and often potentially dangerous ideas relating to food, diet, health and disease that are doing the rounds?

Dangerous ideas

One of the most dangerous ideas that has taken root in modern life, is the firm, unshakeable belief in the beneficial and curative properties of diet aids, supplements and herbal mixtures obtained from plants. As long as it says: “Natural or Herbal”, the public automatically add: “Then it must be good for me!”

Plant products are beneficial

Of course, plant remedies can be beneficial. Of course we can obtain great healing power from eating fresh foods, especially fruit, vegetables, grains, cereals, legumes and nuts, all of which are derived from the plant world.

Plant products can also be harmful

But we need to keep in mind that some plant products can be just as harmful as anything produced in a laboratory, if not more so. Remember that human beings used plant extracts for hundreds and thousands of years as medicines and that some of these extracts from roots, shoots, bark, seeds and nuts, were highly toxic. A good example is Belladonna: Extracts of Belladonna contain an alkaloid which is highly toxic, hence the alternative name for Belladonna, which is Deadly Nightshade. When Belladonna is used in minute amounts, it relaxes smooth muscles and can be used to treat biliary and renal colic. If used in large amounts it acts as an anaesthetic, and if taken in excess it can really be deadly, as its name implies.

Faulty thinking

Modern humans seem to be disenchanted with the products of Pharmacology and Medicine and have turned back to ancient remedies, some of which can be extremely harmful. The logic generally goes like this:

“I am overweight. I have tried dieting and have taken a few slimming pills produced by big Pharmaceutical Companies. I have not lost weight. I read an ad or an article in the popular press about a herbal slimming pill or drink and because the ad states that this slimming product ‘is natural and herbal’, I am totally convinced that it is 100% safe, that it won’t have any side-effects and that it will furthermore help me to achieve effortless weight-loss. Because the magic words ‘natural and herbal’ have been uttered, I expect a miracle and am prepared to spend lots of money on this product and will carry on taking it, even when I notice that it is not having the desired effect or that I am developing strange and unpleasant signs and symptoms.”

Why are plant products not 100% safe?

Plant products used in slimming pills and supplements to cure everything from baldness to bunions and work miracles, are often not safe for the following important reasons:

  • Many of these herbal products contain the same chemicals as pharmaceutical products, e.g. Chinese Green Tea has been hailed as a cure-all for many different conditions, but it is primarily used to treat atopic patients who suffer from serious skin ailments. Researchers analysed Green Tea extract and found that it contains corticosteroids, just like the pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories that have been used in the West to treat these conditions for many years. Anyone taking Chinese Green Tea is therefore consuming corticosteroids on a regular basis, which may, or may not be a good thing.
  • The medicinal content of many of these herbal products is not uniform. It stands to reason that a product made in a pharmaceutical factory where stringent quality control is enforced will contain the same amount of a compound such as cortisone in every pill. In contrast, the medicinal content of herbal medicines can vary alarmingly from batch to batch and even from pill to pill. Let’s say you are taking Chinese Green Tea for arthritis and the present packet of tea contains 10% of the healing corticosteroid, and the next packet you buy contains 50% corticosteroid, then your treatment will be anything but uniform and the results will also be erratic.
  • The microbiological and hygiene standards used for some herbal products leave much to be desired. Don’t get me wrong - there are excellent manufacturers of herbal products and remedies in this country, who apply the highest levels of quality control and hygiene during production. But in recent years, South Africa is being flooded with hundreds, if not thousands, of new and exotic plant and herbal products from all over the world. There is no guarantee that when you buy these products from the East or those which are manufactured in someone’s backyard, the products are clean, sterile and not contaminated with microbes, bacteria, fungi or yeasts which will make you ill.
  • Often too little research is done on a new herbal product to guarantee that it actually is going to do what it promises to do. The SA market is also currently being drowned with herbal products that contain strange and wonderful ingredients which have never been properly tested to find out if they can really reduce blood cholesterol, make you fertile, prevent hot flushes, etc, etc. An example of such disturbing incidents occurred a few years ago. Cancer patients started taking laetrile which was produced from apricot or peach pips. Because this was touted as a ‘safe, natural and herbal medicine’, people suffering from cancer bought these pills in large quantities and firmly believed that their cancer would be cured. In many cases the patients did not continue with their standard treatment and deteriorated rapidly. Investigations later showed that laetrile did not cure cancer and because of its cyanide content, was actually potentially toxic to healthy body cells instead.

What you can do

If you are considering using a herbal diet pill, supplement or supposed cure-all, then at least try to do the following:

  • Buy products from reputable manufacturers who use stringent quality and hygiene control in their factories
  • Check out the fantastic claims made in ads and popular articles by asking your doctor, dietician or pharmacist if any of these claims have been proven
  • Be sceptical and use your common sense. Any product that promises miracles is a con. Sit down and think before you buy a herbal magic potion to ‘Help you lose 10kg in a week’ or ‘Burn fat’, or ‘Detoxify the body’, or ‘Cure cancer’. Do you really believe that one extract will do all these things? If you think about it carefully, your common sense should tell you that the answer is ‘No’.
  • If you experience any strange side-effects or if the product does not have the desired effect, stop taking it!
  • Always remember that just because some ad links the words ‘Natural or herbal’ to a product, this is NOT a guarantee of safety or efficacy.

- (written by Dr IV van Heerden, registered dietician, DietDoc)

- (Health24, July 2011) 

Read more:

The dodgy ingredients in diet pills
Spot a crash diet ad
What's in that slimming pill?

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