Thursday, June 3, 2010

Health/Medical Fads

Last week, my mother was on the phone with a nurse from her HMO, trying to describe lights she was seeing in one eye. About every forty-five seconds, I’d hear her sigh and say, “No, my eyes are not dry.” The nurse seemed to be eager to recommend drops for Chronic Dry Eye. You’ve undoubtedly seen commercials for these miracle drops, featuring the optometrist with the body of a Bond girl. While the nurse’s stubbornness was annoying, she’s not alone. The tendency to succumb to the latest health/medical fad is hardly a new phenomenon.

Typically, when we talk about fads, we’re talking about fashion, music, movies, books, TV, or the culinary realm. However, medical history is heavily peppered with fads which have dominated the “medical wisdom” of a particular era. I, of course, can’t name them all, but there are a choice few which stick out like sign posts along a desert road.

In the late nineteenth century, companies, such as Bayer, were pumping out concoctions of opium, cocaine, and alcohol to treat pain, sleeplessness, consumption, PMS, menopause, and other ailments of the body. In fact, ladies of means had their daily tonic to help get them through the day. Of course, they needed it to get through the day, they were addicted without realizing it.

The nineteen sixties came along, and overweight people were told that a motorized belt could shake the fat from their bodies. These machines were more silly than harmful, merely jiggling skin and fat around.

Before we pat ourselves on the back for not giving in to such nonsense, we must sadly acknowledge that while this device has disappeared from the market, it's been replaced by two other products. The first is a belt which shocks abdominal muscles in sequence, forcing them to contract. I’m sure that once it’s no longer marketed as a health product, this puppy will have future within the S&M community. The second gem is The Shake Weight, which users are supposed to hold as it vibrates to reduce upper arm flab.

In 1976, the President of Tuft University, Jean Mayer, vilified salt by calling it, “the most dangerous food additive of all.” Doctors made money, for thirty years, by telling people to reduce salt intake in order to avoid high blood pressure and heart attack. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon, marketing low-sodium this and salt free that.

We know now that salt isn’t harmful, unless a person is already hypertensive. In fact, doctors today, even recommend iodized salt be part of one’s diet in order to combat iodine deficiencies resulting in thyroid problems, and to promote circulatory health.

Then came oat bran, which was supposed to lower cholesterol. Food companies were tripping over each other to come up with new oat bran products, add oat bran to existing products, and hype products which already contained oat bran, “Cheerios is the only leading cold cereal clinically proven to lower cholesterol.”

Most of this hype died down once The New England Journal of Medicine funded its own clinical trials and concluded, “oat bran has no special cholesterol lowering benefit.” Yes, if you eat Cheerios/oatmeal and fruit for breakfast instead of bacon and eggs, your cholesterol will, most likely, drop, but it has nothing to do with the properties of the oat bran.

There are way too many fad diets to talk about. It seems like just about anyone can publish a diet book these days. The one that most sticks out as a pop cultural milestone in my mind though, is the low carb craze of early this decade. Everyone was talking about The Atkins Diet and necessity of minimizing dietary carbohydrates in order to lose weight. Low carb products filled grocery stores and restaurants developed Atkins approved menus. Low carb was the weight loss catch phrase of the day.

People found themselves slightly disillusioned however, when Dr. Atkins was purported to be obese (6ft, 258lbs) at the time of his death. Making matters worse, George Stella, host of Food Network’s “Low Carb and Lovin’ It,” kept gaining visible weight from episode to episode, until the show was finally canceled.

Most recently, we’ve been in the midst of a slightly different kind of fad, which isn't a product or lifestyle recommendation, but a marketing strategy. In 1999, the FDA made it legal for pharmaceutical companies to advertise prescription medications directly to consumers. We’ve all seen Bob, the perpetually smiling Enzyte guy, and the aforementioned sexy optometrist peddling Restasis. They’re part of pop culture, along side Tony the Tiger and Ronald McDonald.

Information’s empowering, right? Thanks to these ads, those of us suffering from hair loss, chronic dry eye, incontinence, irritable bowel syndrome, and erectile dysfunction know there’s hope, and that one day we can watch the sunset with our lover from the bathtub on the beach, if only we can get our doctors to prescribe the right drug.

Ah, there’s the rub. These commercials are designed to create consumer desire for particular medications. Thus, patients are going to their doctor, asking for specific prescriptions, based on what they’ve seen on TV. The really scary part comes when a doctor refuses to prescribe a particular drug, for solid medical reasons, so the patient begins “doctor shopping” in order to fill their, commercially created, desire. If we’ve learned anything from the deaths of Elvis and Michael Jackson, it’s the sad fact that eventually anyone, with enough money, can find a doctor who’s willing to prescribe anything a patient wants.

I don’t want people thinking that every recommendation coming from the health/medical community is necessarily a passing fad, which will one day be disproved as goofy. This anti-smoking kick, doctors are on, seems pretty solid, as does the roughage thing, the sun block thing, etc… Lots of good solid pieces of advice and procedures result from medical research. The trick is to remember that the health/medical industry is driven by money, just like any other market. If advice is coming from someone who’s trying to sell a book or product, you may want to take it with a grain of salt.


  1. Wisdom is knowing what to take with or without a grain of salt. That my friend comes with age or the awareness of our mortality.

  2. I totally agree with your article. As you providing lot of good solid pieces of knowledge.