“A User’s Guide to Cheating Death” is a documentary series that casts light on increasingly controversial procedures, diets and revived ancient therapies that are being sought by people desperate to dramatically alter their bodies or radically improve their health, and the booming industries that are more than happy to accept their business.
Health law professor, writer and debunker-extraordinaire Timothy Caulfield dives deep into the science, and the social issues behind today’s cutting-edge health trends in order to separate the truly good advice from the excess of high-priced placebos.
This week (Monday, October 16 at 9pm ET/6pm PT) on “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death”: “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food,” said the famous Greek physician, Hippocrates. Unfortunately, that was spoken before most of our medical understanding. As a society, we’ve become obsessed with the concept of organic food and products, chemical free farming, healing foods, and natural remedies. People are distrusting GMOs, pharmaceuticals, and other “non-natural” solutions. Organic products fetch a premium price. Families are turning to holistic approaches to medical issues, sometimes with fatal consequences. But what is causing people to distrust modern medicine and approaches to farming? Where does this romantic notion of “natural is better” come from? And most importantly, are these stances scientifically supportable?
To get you ready for Au Natural – Turning Our Back to Modern Medicine, Tim speaks about the misconceptions of natural products and the big business element attached to them.
Q: What made the topic of natural lifestyle, health products and organic foods a topic you wanted to thoroughly dig into?
Tim: “This was a really challenging episode because the concept of ‘natural’ is so amorphous and broadly applied. It is used in so many different contexts and applied to so many different products and health ideas. So it was difficult for us to wrap our arms around the idea. But at the core, I think ‘natural’ has been increasingly viewed as ‘good’ and all things ‘unnatural’ as bad. We wanted to get a sense of what people mean by this. What has made this slippery term such an attractive idea? What do people fear and what are they trying to achieve? And is there any science there?”
Q: What was the most compelling argument you heard from a supporter of the natural lifestyle regarding why it makes more sense to live such a way? Did it sway you?
Tim: “Eating real food and avoiding processed junk does matter. There is lots of evidence to support this idea. Also, there are some chemicals – both naturally occurring and human made, by the way – that are harmful to our health. But these kinds of health truisms are stretched beyond recognition by many of those obsessed with natural. In the show, we wanted to get a sense of how that happens. And are there a few core ideas that make sense?”
Q: Some people are very scared of the ‘big business’ element of the food and pharmaceutical industries. Why should people be just as scared of the natural food and products industry?
Tim: “We heard this all the time. It goes to the concept of trust. Some people don’t trust vaccines because of Big Pharma, for example. To be honest, I understand the concern. There are many studies highlighting the adverse impact that industry can have on research. But, keeping this in mind, you can still distil what whole the body of evidence says. (And, for the record, routine vaccines are safe and effective!) Also, let’s not forget that the push for ‘natural’ has become a massive multi-billion dollar industry. Conflicts are everywhere.”
Q: Prior to investigating this subject, how much of a role did natural products have in your life? Do they continue to have a role and if so, what rules do you typically play by?
Tim: “Our family has always emphasized real food. In fact, we get most of our fruits and veggies from a local farmers’ market. We love the community and the freshness of the products. But do we think this food is inherently healthier? Not really. When it comes to food, the focus should be on the ‘real’ – that is, not significantly processed – not so much on the elusive concept of natural.”
Q: How much blowback have you personally received by questioning the authenticity and impact of natural products? What’s the worst thing someone has said to you with regards to your stance on the matter?
Tim: “Yep, I get a lot of hate mail on this topic, particularly if you lump in all the antivaxx stuff I get. Some of it is pretty darn nasty! Let me put it this way: I don’t think you could print the worst stuff! That said, I do get a lot of thoughtful comments from people who disagree with me. I appreciate these notes. It helps to hear these perspectives. People are passionate about this stuff. I’m curious to hear what is behind that passion.”