Second Opinion: A dietary dust-up over saturated fat story

Second Opinion is our round-up of the week’s interesting and eclectic news in health and medical science from reporters Kelly Crowe and Darryl Hol at CBC Health.

And should the Prime Minister be 'cupping'?

An editorial dismissing the health risks of saturated fat sparked a dietary dust-up among nutrition scientists. (Shutterstock )

​​Second Opinion is our round-up of the week's interesting and eclectic news in health and medical science from reporters Kelly Crowe and Darryl Hol at CBC Health.

Simplifying science — A cautionary tale

The pitch from the British Journal of Sports Medicine was irresistible. The press release announced: "Popular belief that saturated fats clog up arteries 'plain wrong' say experts."

It was an editorial, not a new study. Still the CBC and other news media picked up the story because the authors claimed to be saying once and for all that saturated fat is heart-safe. One of the authors told the CBC, "When you look at the totality of the evidence, saturated fat does not clog the heart arteries."   

Let this be a lesson for anyone who attempts to simplify science.

The howls went up almost immediately from critics who claimed the editorial was cherry picking data and exaggerating the evidence. Here at the CBC we heard: "This whole article … is an oversimplification of the issue," and, "You are doing a serious disservice to people."

In the U.K., a group of heart experts weighed in, waving a 2015 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evidence. But even that study added to the confusion, by only showing a modest reduction in the risk of heart disease and stroke when people reduced animal fat in their diets. There was no change in their risk of death.

So despite the attempt to clarify the saturated fat issue, the editorial reminded us that it's as complicated as ever.

One thing is clear. If there is a link between eating saturated fat and heart disease, it's hard to see in research studies. That could be because the studies are not large enough or long enough, there are too many confounding factors, people don't stick to their diets, or don't tell the truth when they fill out the research questionnaires.

Human health is complicated. When you change one thing, you trigger a cascade of other changes. Eating more of one thing means eating less of something else, putting us on a dietary merry-go-round, as we add foods and eliminate them in the futile search for a magical combination that eliminates disease. And then there are the things that are harder to change — poverty, genetics, geography, and other social factors that exert a powerful effect on human health.

The feuding experts did agree on one thing in this week's dietary dust-up, though. They all applauded the editorial for advising people to eat a balanced diet based on fresh food, to get exercise and to reduce stress.

The bottom line? As nutritional scientists continue to debate the health risks of dietary fats, the rest of us can get on with doing what we already know we should be doing.

There, that was simple.

Trudeau tries cupping

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rolled up his sleeves for a casual interview on Monday, he shared more than he might have intended.

A series of large, round welts on his forearm revealed that he practices a form of alternative health known as "cupping." The unproven therapy involves sticking suction cups on the skin and pulling, creating the tell-tale welts made famous by celebrities like Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

It was discouraging news for Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor who does research debunking procedures like cupping. "It was just days after the March on Science, by the leader of a government that has declared it is a strong supporter of science. For me that was very disappointing in a symbolic way."

Trudeau's office would only confirm that, yes, he gets cupping therapy. They refused to say why.

The idea is that the suction from cupping will draw blood into an injured area and this will somehow provide relief and speed healing. "There is no good science to back up the many claims of benefit associated with cupping," Caulfield said.  "It's just a big hickey, let's face it."

"Justin Trudeau can do whatever he wants with his body. But it creates a tolerance for pseudo-science. Just the mere exposure to this in popular culture helps to legitimize it and keep it alive."

Caulfield has tried cupping himself. He said it hurt a little bit. And it left a mark.

"One thing I find interesting is that people who get cupping done love to show their cupping marks," Caulfield said, sending us a photo of his cupping marks.

University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield shows the marks that were left after he underwent an unproven therapy called 'cupping.' (Timothy Caulfield)

Getting outside the comfort zone

Summer's just around the corner, and soon the A/C will be pumping in office buildings across the country. But what if carefully controlled temperatures are making us too comfortable?

That's exactly what a group of Dutch researchers is suggesting in a paper called "Healthy excursions outside the thermal comfort zone," published this week. They summarize the science suggesting being a bit too cold or too warm has health benefits for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular health. And they advocate that more research be done to see if changing building temperatures might be the way to go.

The study's lead author, Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, told us current office temperatures — set to 21 or 22 C — are based on studies done decades ago on the average male office worker. That's led to a battle of the sexes over the thermostat. And that temperature has been adopted as the standard in buildings around the world and throughout the year.

"We shouldn't keep building very expensive buildings with tightly controlled indoor temperatures because there's now too much evidence that we need variation," he told us.

Instead, he suggests buildings of the future could use "drifting temperatures," changing slightly as the temperature changes outside, and changing to reflect individual and geographic differences. Advances in technology could even result in each of us controlling the microclimate around our desk.

But will people put up with being even slightly less comfortable?

Gregory Steinberg, a Canada Research Chair in metabolism and obesity at McMaster University, doesn't think so. "To avoid the discomfort of cold the first thing people will do will be to put on additional layers of clothing," he says, negating the health benefits of a lower temperature.

Van Marken Lichtenbelt acknowledges there's no way to ensure people stick to the varied temperatures, but he says people might find they actually enjoy it. There's even a term – thermal alliesthesia – for the pleasure that humans experience from changes in temperature.

Of course, temperature variation alone won't solve our health woes, and he's quick to point out that diet and exercise will always play an instrumental role. "We're not going to save the world only with temperatures."

Cracking down on cancer claims

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on companies illegally touting the health benefits of unapproved products. They've fired off warning letters to 14 companies selling more than 65 products that "fraudulently claim to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure cancer."

The products boast statements like, "miraculously kills cancer cells and tumours," "more effective than chemotherapy," and "treats all forms of cancer." Most are sold on websites and social media platforms, according to the FDA. But they haven't been tested for safety or effectiveness.

Now the regulatory body says if the companies don't respond, they will face possible product seizures and legal action.

Health Canada is responsible for policing illegal sales here at home. Last year, regulators showed up at a health fair in Ontario to ensure unapproved products weren't being sold there. That was after a CBC investigation revealed that a controversial nutritionist was selling unlicensed supplements claiming all sorts of unproven benefits.