Sense about Science ? equipping people to make sense of science and evidence
New Year's Dissolutions
In 2011 young scientists and medics decided it was time to stand up to the pseudoscience promoted each January in support of New Year’s resolutions to get fit and healthy.
Early career researchers from the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network joined together to debunk the science myths of many New Year’s resolutions. The ways in which they wouldn’t be changing their lifestyles included superfoods, detox, supplements, and fitness gadgets.
Claire Marriott, a research scientist working on Diabetes, said, “we need to publicise the misconceptions these resolutions are based on rather than just moaning about how frustrating it is.”
“January is a good time to question the evidence behind claims” said VoYS member Rosie Olliver. “The best resolution is to employ our critical questioning more than ever at this time of year.”
VoYS Coordinator Julia Wilson, said, “New Year’s resolutions create such a huge market for pseudoscientific claims and products, we’re probably better off without them."
Here, some members of VoYS give their opinions on the resolutions they’d be happy to adopt, and those that would make them think twice!
Physicist Bekky Kennedy doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions: “if I want to do something, why wait when I can do it now? It’s equivalent to saying you’re going to start a diet but waiting a month before doing it – or eating a chocolate cake while you wait!”
Tamlyn Peel is doing a PhD in immunology and says he won’t be buying any dietary supplements this year: “I wouldn’t bother ‘boosting’ my immune system – the concept is meaningless. Our bodies have evolved to give a response to infections that’s perfectly balanced – and like overfilling a car with petrol, having more nutrients than I need achieves nothing, and is a waste of my money.”
Dr Robert Hagan, a microbiologist in Scotland, agrees: “As I eat a balanced diet, I’m already getting all the vitamins I need without taking any supplements. The evidence suggests that antioxidant supplements can actually be harmful to people, like me, who are already healthy. Free radicals (which can be damaging and are removed by antioxidants) are also used by my body to fight bacteria and viruses.”
Dr Harriet Ball, a medical student, won’t be following any fancy ‘detox’ regimes this new year: “I think the only possible way that detox regimes could have a beneficial effect would be that they help people stick to a healthy balanced diet and reduce alcohol, fat and sugar – but you don’t need a ‘detox diet’ to do that.”
Dr Oliver Fenwick, a physicist from London, shows that you don’t need a medical degree to question the concepts behind ‘detox’ diets: “I get fed up with all the promotions for detox products in the New Year especially as they’re based on misunderstandings of how our bodies work. Our kidneys and liver remove toxins very well without costly products and regimes. ”
Junior doctor Juliet Stevens thinks ‘detox’ as a resolution is meaningless: “As a doctor, the only time I use the term ‘detox’ is when discussing the chemical treatment for drug addiction.”
Dr Blanka Sengerova, a protein biochemist who works on the biochemistry of large molecules says: “It really frustrates me when I see adverts for anti-wrinkle creams containing collagen. Although collagen is structurally important for the integrity of our skin, the protein molecule is far too large to pass through the barrier posed by the skin.”
Dr Inga Deakin, who has a PhD in neuroscience, says exercise is the best way to shift the pounds in the new year: “I wouldn’t take on a fad diet as I’d risk losing muscle as well as fat. Sadly, there is no magic potion for weight loss on the shelves, but the good news is that exercise, which costs me nothing, IS effective.”
Dr Jaime Earnest says “All of the proclamations of, ‘BEST YOU YET!! 30 days to a new life’ seem appealing on some level. Who wouldn’t want to eat better, be nicer, thinner, happier, and more productive in a mere 30 days? But lifestyle change doesn’t happen in a week, a month, or even a year. Change takes a while, and failures along the way are inevitable, and even okay.”
Medic Dr Harriet Ball, doesn’t follow faddy diets either: “I find it amusing to hear about all the wacky diet regimes at this time of year: the blood type diet, the caveman diet, the maple syrup and lemon diet and even the fat-burning cabbage soup diet. There is little evidence to suggest that any of these actually work and the soup diet is a complete myth – no food can burn fat.”
Dr Sophia Docherty, a behavioural genetics researcher, says her New Year’s resolution would be to follow evidence-based advice: “Many people are more than willing to hand out dietary advice, and I often find it difficult to separate the facts from the fiction. A helpful thing I remember is that the term dietitian is legally protected, so as registered dietitians must be trained and qualified, they are a reliable source of evidence-based health advice.”
Duncan Casey, a researcher in the field of membrane biophysics, finds it amusing to hear the lengths people will go to with new exercise regimes: “aside from shoe-horning themselves into a lycra outfit which fits like a jelly-mould and has all the sex appeal of a bin-bag full of yoghurt, the next thing folks tend to do is invest heavily in protein shakes and creatine supplements. In most cases, eating a couple of bananas will do you just as much good.”
Dr Emma Ross, a Sport and Exercise Physiologist, doesn’t believe in gadgets to improve health and fitness: “I certainly wouldn’t spend my money on a ‘power balance bracelet’ (a silicone bracelet embedded with a hologram which claims to improve strength, energy and flexibility) as there is no physiological reason why wearing a hologram on the wrist would affect my performance or well being in any way. There is no research supporting the claims of these bracelets. Thus there is no evidence to suggest they are anything but a waste of money (without the research we don’t even know if they have a placebo effect or not!)”
Dr Mark Brook, currently studying for a masters in medical statistics, doesn’t go in for gadgets and miracle products: “When I see phrases like ‘some scientists say’, ‘scientifically tested’ and ‘may help with’ in relation to a product, they actually tell me very little about what research has been done. I stick with the notion that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!”
James Lush, who has a background in anatomy, says: “I don’t really pay any attention to resolutions. People don’t really expect to keep them and it’s the time of year when people actually need their comforts most”
Dr Claire Marriott is a research scientist working on Diabetes: “the reality is that the answer to losing weight or staying healthy in January is quite dull, there’s no quick fix – it’s easier if you make small changes over a longer time.”
Jamie McClelland is a postdoctoral researcher in medical image computing: ‘if I do see anything on super foods or fad diets I just ignore it, as I know it’s all rubbish’.
And if you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, VoYS member Rosie Olliver has a suggestion: “this year my New Year’s Resolution is to read more about debunking pseudoscience like the Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst book ‘Trick or Treatment”.
Top tip 1: Ask for Evidence. If you’re being sold a product or asked to believe a claim then you deserve to know whether it’s based on evidence – or imagination.
Top tip 2: Detox. It’s a marketing myth – our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets.
Top tip 3: Superfood. There is no such thing, just foods that are high in some nutrients.
Top tip 4: Cleansing. You shouldn’t be trying to cleanse anything other than your skin or hair.
Top tip 5: If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is.