What’s the harm?

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One day last week, I found myself talking to a small group of friends about this blog and why I felt it was important to explore some of science and pseudoscience in the health and fitness industry. The conversation took an interesting turn when someone asked me if there was any real potential for harm in allowing unsupported claims about health and fitness to persist….

To illustrate some of the misinformation prevalent today, I used the example of the “alkaline diet”. For those who may be unfamiliar with this concept, proponents claim that certain foods can affect your body pH (acidity level), and can thus be used to treat or prevent disease, including cancer. To be very clear, these claims are NOT supported by scientific evidence, and they make grossly inaccurate assumptions that are in complete disagreement with the modern understanding of human physiology.

Rather, basic biology tells us that while the pH of the stomach is highly acidic with a pH value between 2 and 3.5 (which is necessary to break down food), human blood is always slightly alkaline with a pH between 7.35 and 7.45. This narrow pH range of the blood is critical for human health, and is very tightly controlled by normal processes in the lungs and kidneys. In the absence of any pathology or disease, it is virtually impossible to significantly change your blood pH through consumption of food. In fact, nothing you eat or drink can significantly change the acidity of your body, with the exception of urine. That’s because any extra acid or base that you eat is simply removed by the kidneys and excreted in urine, while the pH of the blood and most other tissues in the body remain essentially unchanged.

Consider this fact: Any significant deviation outside of the normal pH range of the blood can lead to death. So, if it were that easy to manipulate our body pH through the inclusion or exclusion of certain foods, we would either not have survived as a species or we would have drastically different body chemistry!

No doubt there are some people who do feel better on an alkaline diet. Any improvements in health, however, are likely due to an increase in consumption of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and a decrease in consumption of processed foods and sugar, both of which could help normalize blood sugar and insulin levels and help improve hormone regulation. One thing is certain, though–these benefits are not from a change in body pH.

Back to the conversation with some friends…

After mentioning the alkaline diet myth, someone asked, “What’s the harm? So what, if someone wants to drink a lot of alkaline water and it makes them feel good about themselves?”

I paused and thought about her question for a moment…what IS the harm? Am I just bothered by the pseudoscience aspect, or is there a real potential for negative consequences from following an alkaline diet? Good question, right?! It is true that I’m very fact-driven, and pseudoscience is a pet peeve of mine. But is there an actual potential for harm? I would argue, yes, for several reasons.

  1. Believing that alkaline diets can be used to treat disease could delay individuals from seeking proper medical treatment.
  2. An alkaline diet promotes excluding certain families of foods, and thus, could result in a less-balanced diet and nutritional deficiencies.
  3. Finally, the belief that body pH is so easily changed by eating or avoiding specific foods could lead to unnecessary and excessive fear and anxiety about one’s health.

None of these possible effects are desirable and certainly do not improve one’s health, physical or mental. Unfortunately, I regularly read about individuals promoting the need to “alkalize” your body….not only by celebrities, bloggers, and fitness professionals with no scientific or medical training, but even from some registered dietitians and respected clinicians!

People are constantly being swamped with misinformation and half truths about health and fitness, and led to believe that they must be increasingly concerned about the “fragility” of their body.

“Our health becomes something we have to protect with a never failing, always higher reaching diligence.” – Mark Sisson

In reality, this is simply not true! The human body is remarkably resilient. No doubt that most of us would be better served by making a greater effort to make better choices with regard to our health. But the human body is not so frail as you are sometimes led to believe. You deserve better. You deserve accurate information that will aid you in your journey to better health and fitness, not hinder it.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Cheryl Keller Capone

Are you open to evidence?

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When I think about bias, I’m often reminded of the story of the blind men and elephant. If you are not familiar with the parable, it goes something like this: A group of blind men touched an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one felt a different part of the elephant….but only one part (eg. trunk, leg, ear, etc)….and afterwards, they compared notes. The one who touched the trunk described it as a snake, the one who felt the leg thought it was a tree, the one who touched the ear said it was a fan, and so forth.

The men then began arguing among themselves. Each blind man insisted that their description was correct and that everyone else was wrong. Only when they paused, and took the time to listen to each other and combine their knowledge, were they able to develop a more complete picture of the elephant.

There are several lessons to be learned from this story, but the one most relevant to this discussion is “confirmation bias”. In other words, we only see what we want or expect to see, and we tend to disregard evidence that does not support our own opinion or preconceived notions. We are all biased to some extent. It is part of being human. But it often prevents us from growing and making positive changes in our lives.

“The most dangerous phrase in the human language is “We’ve always done it this way.” – Rear admiral Grace Hopper

If you are not seeing the long-term progress that you desire, it is time to examine your own biases and evaluate how they might be affecting your path to better health and fitness or improved athletic performance.

One example that comes to mind from my own past involves strength training. I started running back in the mid-1980s,  when runners were advised to avoid strength training, or at the very least avoid training with heavy weights, especially with any exercises involving the lower body. At the time, it was thought that strength training would impede performance by tiring the legs and causing runners to “bulk up”. Like many runners, I followed this advice diligently, and avoided strength training like the plague! And, although I did go on to run at the collegiate level, my training was routinely derailed by injury after injury.

Today, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that strength training can lead to improved running performance in the form of faster running times, reduction of injury risk, and even enhanced enjoyment of the sport. Despite this evidence, however, many runners continue to shun strength training out of fear that it will negatively impact performance and take time away from running.

In my situation, it was not until early 2014, after experiencing several years of chronic pain, and facing the possibility of never being able to run again, did I finally set aside my biases against strength training, and embark on a path that has completely changed my life for the better. Not only am I running again, but I’m feeling stronger now at age 45 than I did at age 20!

“As soon as you declare something to be an absolute certainty someone will find evidence to the contrary. I think it’s important to be relaxed in your opinions and open to the ideas of others.” – Tom Goom, a.k.a. The RunningPhysio

As a scientist, I’d like to believe that I’m not biased, that I’m open to evidence. However, the evidence from my past suggests that this is not always the case! It was a good lesson for me….one that I’ve carried forward into other aspects of my life.

Humans often make decisions based on emotion rather than facts. It is yet another element of the human condition. But if you want to make changes in your life, there is a real need to develop sufficient self-awareness to examine your own biases, be open to evidence and have the courage and fortitude to be willing to make a change.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Cheryl Keller Capone

What does your path to better health and fitness look like?

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If you are human, you may perceive that it looks something vaguely like the path in the above photo…rocky, with obstacles, and you’re not entirely sure if it’s going to lead you to where you want to go. And truth be told, this analogy is not too far from reality. Very often, the path is not clear, the footing is uneven, and sometimes we run into barriers (eg. injury, illness) that require us to backtrack and find an alternate route to move forward. This approach can often be frustrating to the point where many people just give up.

Why is it so easy for some people to lose weight, gain strength, improve their body composition or increase athletic performance, while many others struggle their entire lives with seemingly little to no progress, and instead plateau? Or worse yet, experience declining health and the onset of chronic disease like obesity, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, etc.?

One of the reasons that everyone’s path looks a little different is due to normal biological differences, or genetic variation, between humans. (More on this in a future post.)

However, another reason many people struggle is due to the vast amount of seemingly conflicting information available at the touch of a button. After an hour of searching the internet, you wind up with a few snippets of quality information buried beneath unsupported claims, pseudoscience, and myths that are factually inaccurate, at best, if not potentially dangerous.

“I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of achievement in an area and those with none at all.” – Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise

That’s right! You don’t need to be an expert in anything to have website and offer advice about various topics such as how to lose weight, gain strength, improve your nutrition, enhance your athletic performance or on some other controversial health topic. Further, much of the information that’s available at your fingertips is not backed by science, but rather is based on someone’s personal experience of what’s worked for them. (Remember, everyone’s path is a little different!) In other situations, the limited science that IS available on a particular topic may be adulterated to the point that it is now meaningless or just plain wrong. And typically, the biggest explanation for this problem is that someone is trying to make money by taking advantage of those who are desperate to see change in their lives.

I do not proclaim to be an expert in all things health and fitness. I am, however, a full-time scientist with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Penn State University, and have over 22 years of research experience in muscle development, neuroscience and gene regulation. Further, I am also a former collegiate level runner and a current certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Through this blog, I aim to explore some of the science and psuedoscience in the health and fitness industry, with the goal of helping people to think more critically about these claims and making the science more relatable to those seeking a healthy lifestyle.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Cheryl Keller Capone

Follow me on Twitter @KellerCaponePhD