Blog | Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ignorance can make you sick

In the 8 years I’ve been writing about medicine, I’ve chased down hundreds of articles presenting bad science as truth. Usually, I find bad medical information in alternative health websites, the Dr. Oz show, and other outlets that shouldn’t surprise most readers.

I recently stumbled on an OpEd piece in the New York Times that is so stuffed with medical misinformation it would be better published under “fiction.”

In it, Jennifer Berman, who freely admits to ignoring the science behind health, bemoans the consequences of her veganism. I have no problem with the vegan diet. Done properly, it’s very healthy and rarely leads to vitamin deficiencies. It probably helps prevent diabetes and heart disease. But it does not cause hypothyroidism or cavities as Berman writes.

Berman says that she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a common disorder in which the thyroid gland stops making enough thyroid hormone. She was apparently told that this was due to her ingestion of large amounts of kale and other cruciferous vegetables. While there is some scientific plausibility to the biochemistry of this, it’s not a thing. There is no medical literature to support kale, broccoli and other healthy vegetables as a cause for thyroid disease. A common cause would be an immune system attack on her thyroid, but one consideration would be poor dietary choices.

The element iodine is needed to make thyroid hormone, and can only come from diet. That’s why most table salt is “iodized”. It only takes small amounts to keep the thyroid going. People on limited diets who don’t use table salt can easily develop an iodine deficiency.

She blames her dental cavities on “juicing.” It is certainly possible for excessive citrus consumption to erode tooth enamel, but a better explanation came from her dentist: her avoidance of fluoride. Fluoride in water and toothpaste can help prevent cavities. While she may be getting excessive sugars in her diet, the fluoride would help protect her, but she was hesitant to follow her dentist’s advice.

I found Berman’s narrative an interesting read, but not for the reasons she likely intended. It shows how we as human beings make our health choices irrationally, relying on our friends and our guts rather than on science and doctors. If, as she humorously implied, she decides to go back to Twinkies and milk, it would be unfortunate. She can remain a vegan if she simply follows the science..

Peter A. Lipson, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. After graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago, he completed his internal medicine residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. This post first appeared at his blog at Forbes. His blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers "musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture." His writing focuses on the difference between science-based medicine and "everything else," but also speaks to the day-to-day practice of medicine, fatherhood, and whatever else migrates from his head to his keyboard.