Diet Quackery Exposed: Don’t Be Deceived

By Mike Howard

In our quests for health, longevity, weight loss, happiness, there is no shortage of people willing to take our money. A short documentary called “Here be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking” exposes the most common tricks of the trade used by those who make questionable claims, and how to avoid the pitfalls of such tactics.

Here are some examples;Appeal to Authority: This is the use of authoritative imagery – someone in a lab coat, celebrities, certifications, academics. An appeal to an authority is an argument that attempts to establish its conclusion by citing a perceived authority who claims that the conclusion is true.

In all cases, appeals to authority are fallacious; no matter how well-respected someone is it is possible for them to make a mistake. The mere fact that someone says that something is true doesn’t prove that it is true. Of course there are also cases where the alleged authority isn’t an authority on the subject matter in question.

Ancient Wisdom: The argument usually goes something like this: Our wise ancestors used X to treat condition Y. They understood the natural world and had access to knowledge that we no longer have.

It is illogical to think that the ancient people had more knowledge than we do today. Ancient “wisdom” also brought us the flat earth theory, bloodletting, 30 year lifespan. Who cares if it was used in 11th century China… does it work?

Confirmation Bias: This is the tendency to seek out or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs. This is why many believe in psychics, who ask hundreds of questions and make hundreds of probing guesses. We remember the correct aspects of what they say and believe that they know everything about us.

Correlation/Causation: Many people confuse correlation with causation. Events that occur together do not necessarily have a cause and effect relationship. Taking a supplement around the same time as a cancer goes into remission is an example. The immediate thought is that it had to be the supplement. The Autism/Vaccine debate is similar – diagnoses are typically after receiving vaccinations. Autism symptoms happen to be diagnosed at around the same age as vaccinations. In conventional medicine, doctors used to think that hormone replacement therapy lowered the risk of CHD but when put to a trial it actually increased the risk.

Red Herrings: A distraction from following a logical line of thinking. September 11th conspiracy theorists love red herrings. Skeptic: “Who crashed the planes?” Conspiracy theorist: “Dick Cheney had special interests in the middle east”
Proof by Verbosity: Laying out huge volumes of information – giving the illusion of being thoroughly researched. It’s not about quantity of information, but rather quality. People who cite pages and pages of “evidence” don’t expect that anyone will sift through and respond.

Mystical Energy: Many promoters of quackery claim some sort of mystical energy, life force or chi runs through our bodies and can be harnessed and manipulated. This sounds plausible because it is a scientific-sounding word. Energy is a measurement of something’s ability to perform work – period.

“Energy Healing” – a popular alternative therapy received some bad news about 10 years ago. A study published in JAMA demonstrated that Therapeutic Touch (TT) practitioners couldn’t even detect the energy field they claim they can manipulate. This was a true blind test – the (TT) practitioners didn’t know if the experimenter’s hand was there or not. If they can’t even detect the energy field, how can they manipulate it to make people well?

Suppression by Authorities (conspiracy theory): We’ve all heard the 911 conspiracies, the pharmaceutical companies suppressing natural cures. Now I’m not going to pretend that big pharma doesn’t have a sizable influence on studies, but if there were a “cure” for something, drug companies would jump on it.

All Natural: Mistletoe, botulism, asbestos, bubonic plague… all “natural”. If we were so inclined to broaden the definition, then so are tsunamis. Natural does not always mean better or safer. It is a marketing ploy.

Ideological Support: Many people claim that it is moral, ethical or politically correct to accept their claims. This is to distract people from the fact that there is no scientific support for their claims/product. The best example here is veganism.

It would be great if critical thinking were part regular high school curriculum. Having an open mind is good, but there is a fine line between open-mindedness and gullibility. Good science is done in labs, not on blogs, through marches or on Oprah. Use your better judgment and remember; if it doesn’t make scientific sense or common sense…it’s nonsense.


  1. Erin

    Critical thinking is taught in schools every day. It is required by school districts and states as part of the curriculum.

  2. CeeJay

    Nope, but you can be sure the pharmaceutacals would try to appropriate, trademark, and then market the same cure. And they’d probably do pretty well selling it as an “FDA approved” “tested” version of the same cure.

  3. Heather

    Great post

  4. daisy

    You have to be kidding if you think the drug industry would jump on a cure that might get people off the daily use of their products.

  5. Kara

    “It would be great if critical thinking were part regular high school curriculum.”

    It would be fantastic, but I’m not holding my breath. All of those fallacies you described are used so often – not just by the advertisers, but by the people who defend them. They don’t even realize that their logic is flawed. It’s really frightening what people will believe or fall for in this day and age – especially when we all have the ability to research things ourselves.

  6. Steve Parker, M.D.

    Remember Kevin Trudeau’s “Weight Loss Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About”?

    Trudeau was recently fined $37 million by the Federal Trade Commission for his deceptive marketing of that book.

    Details here:


  7. Ben

    I believe the true things. For some things, I don’t know what’s true, so I reserve judgment. I make an effort not to substitute emotion or prejudice for thinking.

    Why do you think prejudice against (or in favor of) Fox News or the government is a predictor of whether something is a fact or not?

  8. Spectra

    Great post! The power of critical thinking can’t be stressed enough here. I actually kind of like to read through all those diet books to see what they claim is the “answer” to losing weight. Most of the time, what’s going on is exactly what you’d think: eating fewer calories and burning more. But the explanations are often truly hilarious to the educated reader. Diets claiming that you can burn more calories by eating foods in a certain order, diets that have you eating nothing but potatoes and cabbage soup, etc.

    Might I add that, although I don’t eat a lot of meat, I cannot stand it when vegetarians/vegans try to indoctrinate meat-eaters and flexitarians, telling them that they’re somehow immoral for eating meat. Best example of that one is the book “Skinny Bitch”, which I found pretty offensive. If you’re a vegetarian, fine. If not, that’s also fine. I know healthy vegetarians and healthy meat eaters, just like I know unhealthy vegetarians and unhealthy meat eaters. It’s more about the quality of what you’re eating, not just whether or not you eat meat or not.

  9. olivia

    A Concise Description of the processes at work that influence critical thinking. This is a subject that you can discuss at length…in circles…and still end paralyzed with indecision…or just tell yourself that a product works because thats what you want to believe. Or not believe. The power for all of this is in our mind…remember, we are in control of all of our thoughts…if we decide we are. Not trying to cross over into the metaphysical realm…we really can take charge of our own mind and make decisions…if we decide we can do that. If you can read and think, that you can decide on your own based on whatever research you choose to use to make that decision.

  10. Mitchell

    Good stuff! 2 books I would highly recommend to your followers: The Fat Loss Solution by Tom Venuto (also on audio cd). This book just came out and it’s on par with your thinking. Also, the classic book by Dr. Robert Cialdini, Ph.D called Influence:The Power of Persuasion. People really do have a need to defend what they say and do because we need to be “consistent” whether wrong or right. That’s what makes it so difficult for pros like us to teach – we spend most of our time debunking myths and “unteaching”. Continued success to you

  11. SCal

    I believe everything the government, corporations and fox news tells me. Don’t you?

  12. bill

    “Many people claim that it is moral, ethical or politically correct to accept their claims. This is to distract people from the fact that there is no scientific support for their claims/product. The best example here is veganism.”

    Care to explain this one, Mike?

  13. bijou

    “It would be great if critical thinking were part regular high school curriculum.”

    I agree! I think it would be even better if it were introduced to students at an earlier age. Encouraging young minds to probe and sift through the information they are given will serve them well in all areas of life, not just at sniffing out quackery. The world is full of so-called pundits and experts seeking to exploit the ignorance of the masses. Everyone needs to be armed with the tools to arrive at his/her own reasoned, intelligent decision.

  14. ASW

    Great post! And applicable to so much, as well – all the quick weight loss pills and potions, the herbal tablets, the teas, the faddy exercise equipment, the homeopathy pills, and lots more – even religion.

  15. Ben

    One of the common ones is “the secret answer THEY don’t want you to know”. It’s a form of conspiracy theory.

    Conspiracy theories are generally about telling yourself you’re better than everyone else. You know the secret. See how smart you are? The general population doesn’t know. You’re smarter than them.

    They also appeal to mistrust and suspicion and prejudice of others most of the time. “The drug companies are out to get you” isn’t essentially different than “the Jews are out to get you”. It’s just more socially acceptable right now.

    Believe things based on whether they’re actually true, not because you want to feel good about yourself or because you hate someone or some group and wish to add to your list of charges against them.

  16. cereal

    Good post Mike, I couldn’t have put it better myself.