Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Paranormal" Nutrition: A Veterinarians Experience

Nutrition on the Fringe - Introduction

The last decade has seen a veritable explosion of animal nutritional products of all kinds as innumerable food and supplement companies ply their wares to a largely eager public. A simple stroll through many pet stores illustrates this fact as evidenced by the quantity of options readily available to a consumer already accustomed to variety and choice.

There is an endless array of different colored and sized bags ranging from economy priced to “designer” categories of foods featuring premium grade ingredients. There is no end to the list of “special” additives such as nutraceuticals, herbs, and anti oxidants featured on many pet food bags claiming improved joint function, shinier hair coat, or increased intelligence. There are a variety of general movements within the mainstream pet food industry as well as along its margins that promote specific diets such as the “archetypal” dog food or raw food diets . There are even companies that enthusiastically support the concept of breed specific and gender based diets .

This is only the tip of the ice berg where the world has seemingly gone mad churning out a mind boggling array of all types of nutritional supplements, vitamin mixtures, herbal concoctions that include liquids, powders, pills, or capsules. There is sensory overload of images that can blunt any rational consideration of what to buy.

Through the years, there were occasions along the way when I got caught up in the latest furor regarding a nutritional concept or whole heartedly supported a fictional or unsubstantiated food paradigm because "it made sense". I was sometimes swept away by attractive jargon or beautiful ideas that later proved far too simplistic. This experience has helped me sort out that the basics; moderation and balance are the keys to solid nutrition. I know-boring, but true!

Michael Shermer in “Why People Believe Weird Things" describes his experience with alternative nutritional and medical practices during his career as a cyclist. With the attitude “it can’t hurt and maybe it will help” Mr Shermer experimented with a plethora of strange medical practices such as colonic therapy, metabolic supplementation, and a form of live blood cell analysis to mention a few. Realizing over time that these approaches had no obvious effect and sometimes even seemed to have a negative impact, he eventually became deeply skeptical. Hence his fascination as to why do even smart people support dubious and questionable practices?

Its a no brainer many very intelligent people readily get caught up in odd concepts and fuzzy intellectual ideas. Without the right tools to probe the reality of ones surroundings it is extremely easy to stray. Add to this the confounding factors of human emotion and ego and it becomes a wonder we can ever get things even close to how they really are!

What does this have to do with nutrition? By creating a set of basic foundational concepts, whether they are based on fact or not, one can create a skewed view if reality and construct vast, complex worlds that may have a tenuous hold on the truth and little to do with the way things actually are. By making false assumptions or establishing weak relations as fact it is not difficult to explain any idea. The hard part is deconstructing a false model one has worked so hard to put together, especially if it becomes deeply ingrained in your psyche or begins to mesh intimately with your beliefs.

This is the genesis of extraordinary paradigms and, on the surface, apparently solid ideas. In the case of religiosity, they might be survival mechanisms, they might be by-products or something else. In nutrition these paradigms are clearly delusional and can be described as “Paranormal” constructs of nutrition.

If these “Paranormal” nutritional concepts are expanded upon and sprinkled with half truths and occasional facts, the "big picture" of animal and human nutrition can become just a pretty mirage. Add to this the alluring siren call of major monetary income and you have a hell of a mess.

If one looks over the panorama of food and supplement companies in this country (USA) you are literally inundated with information supporting this or that claim for whatever product is being peddled as the consumer is presented with an array of effective communication techniques. How can anybody differentiate the chaff from the wheat amongst the glossy brochures, posters, radio and TV adds, expert opinions, and exuberant testimonials ?

The many tenants and facts permeating "paranormal" nutrition are based more on belief and opinion than reality. After coming across too many contradictions and unsupported facts, as a one time "believer", I finally humbly returned to being a cautious “hopeful” skeptic.

Many nutritional ideas might have a solid factual basis and convey intriguing possibilities in preventing or improving disease. Generally though, proponents tend to jump the gun, often skipping fundamental limitations, while highlighting convenient facts over contradictory ones to reach tenuous conclusions.

In coming posts, I will touch on specific examples of how nutritional ideas can take unusual paths and discuss how some food and supplement companies bypass label claim limitations using "nutritional seminars", alternative medicine providers, and even science based veterinarians and physicians.

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