Junkfood Science: New! College degrees in fighting fat

March 22, 2008

New! College degrees in fighting fat

Future healthcare professionals can now get a college degree in “fighting fat.” The new program offered by the University of Guelph, collaborating with Humber College, is not to foster the science of obesity and disseminate factual information, but to teach students interested in careers capitalizing off the war on obesity “how to prescribe exercise and diet to an unhealthy population.” According to its press release, the program will focus on such things as lifestyle modification and the benefits of wholegrain foods and fiber and dangers of saturated fats, says the University.

Classes begin this fall and will award bachelor degrees in “applied science in kinesiology” from the University of Guelph, with “a diploma in fitness and health promotion” from Humber, so that students can go on “to work as personal trainers, kinesiologists, wellness consultants and fitness practitioners in both clinical and rehabilitation settings.” The career field is so lucrative, the University has already had seven times more applicants than it can accept.

“There is a crying need,” according to Terry Graham, Ph.D., the chair of the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph, which heads the bachelor degree program. “If you go to any mall or to any beach in the summertime and take a look at the people, clearly we have an epidemic of obesity.”

“Obesity is an epidemic in our population,” Elaine Popp, acting program head of the kinesiology program, told Canwest News. “Because the general population is not fit and not able to make good nutrition decisions, our students need to know how to prescribe lifestyle changes to people who aren't healthy.”

Already, obesity is falsely equated with poor health or fitness, and fat people blamed for being too stupid to know how to make “good” food choices, as they have defined them. This new degree is more correctly described as a degree in fat prejudice.

There is a dire need for training health professionals in this fight, said Dr. Arya M. Sharma, M.D., president of the Canadian Obesity Network. That quote in the newspaper was more significant than most readers probably realized.

What has not been revealed in the news this week is that the University of Guelph is the epicenter of the Canadian Obesity Network, and the academics from Guelph’s Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, Food Technology Centre, and Human Nutraceutical Research Unit have a leading role in CON and in producing papers to support the network’s initiatives. This dominant role was jointly announced by Dr. Sharma and Graham in an April 6, 2006 press release. CON, the leading lobbying organization for pharmaceutical, obesity, “health” and bariatric interests, will be familiar to JFS readers. CON’s influence over government spending and health policies has extended to the development of the clinical practice guidelines for doctors, developed by the heavily industry-sponsored members of the Obesity Canada Clinical Practice Guidelines Expert Panel.

Nutrition education

A number of medical professionals have been expressing concerns over the growing influx of alternative woo and pseudoscience into medical curriculums, but only the most outrageous woo has been highlighted. This new degree in “fighting fat” illustrates how far obesity and preventive health initiatives have crossed over into woo-ville. If what you already know about CON isn’t enough to worry you about what these young students will be taught, then some of the nutritional information stemming from research at the University of Guelph will.

The Guelph’s Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, Food Technology Centre, and Human Nutraceutical Research Unit concentrates on the study of nutrigenomics. According to the December 2005 issue of Guelph Food Technology News, this “concept of personally-geared nutrition plans based on each person’s genetic analysis” has future potential. Dr. Graham wrote that “obesity is precipitated by an energy imbalance: too much in and too little out,” but “in the future, we may develop genetic testing which can provide useful information about an individual’s particular risks for certain metabolic responses.”

Nutrigenomics believes certain foods and supplements have special health-promoting qualities and can be prescribed for specific genotypes to “optimize health” and prevent diseases of aging. The $182 billion nutrition supplement industry is rushing to grab patents and develop supplements and functional food products exploiting nutrigenomics. As Alison Stewart, Ph.D., chief officer of Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park, has noted, there is no science to support these “pie in the sky claims.” The human species is 99.9% the same genetically; with the remaining 0.1% of variation accounting for physical differences, casting doubt on any future efficacy of pharmaceutical and biomedical interventions based on genetics or race/ethnicity [such as the initiatives reported yesterday]. According to Helen Wallace, Ph.D., Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK: “For most people, tailoring your diet to your genetic make-up is about as scientific as tailoring your diet to your star sign.”

Teaching by example

Guelph research into nutrigenomics, functional and natural foods, and dietary supplements has had a controversial track record. Since we’ve already covered many “healthy” foods and antioxidant claims, we’ll look at a few examples of their nutraceutical research to consider the scientific judgments behind the information being given the public and students.

Nutraceuticals are natural foods or dietary supplements believed to provide medical benefits beyond their nutritional values, a field predominately outside of mainstream medicine or pharmacology. Julie A. Conquer, Ph.D., as director of Guelph’s Human Nutraceutical Research Unit, for example, led studies on nutraceuticals, largely for natural food and supplement companies with checkered reputations. She landed a $100,000 contract in 2001-2002 to study nutraceuticals for enhancing health and human performance for NxCare, Inc. NxCare sells supplements to help bodybuilders “attain their inherent genetic potential.” It offers fat burners and weight loss supplements, along with dietary supplements claimed to pump you up. Professor Conquer also led studies on Hydroxycut for Muscle Tech Research & Development. You may remember the lawsuits filed across the country against Muscle Tech Research & Development over problems with the safety and effectiveness of Hydroxycut, marketed as a way to “burn fat” and lose weight rapidly.

She also led University of Guelph studies for CV Technologies, Inc. on St. Johns’ Wort as an anti-depressant. CV Technologies sells supplements including CellRx, which is shark cartilage [information here]; RememberFx, phytochemicals claimed to be for “mental alertness;” ColdFx, a ginseng immune system booster and cold prevention; AdFx, a ginseng/ginkgo biloba supplement claimed to improve attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder in children [wait, here’s an example of FTC action taken against this claim as fraudulent]; and its St. John’s Wort formula called Menta-Fx, claimed to boost mood, “motivation, confidence and enthusiasm.” The FTC has also taken action against this supplement claim as fraud, as in this example.

On April 23, 2004, the University of Guelph issued a press release lauding the results of a study purportedly finding that a new nutraceutical, “Calorie-Care” made by NxCare, Inc., produced weight loss and fat loss, all without diet or exercise. The study, published in Current Therapeutic Research, was by professor Conquer and a student Derek Woodgate, MSc. According to the study’s acknowledgements, Woodgate was president and owner of NxCare, Inc., and the company also designed the study. This 6-week study tested the supplement on 11 people, compared to a control group, and concluded that it was 100% effective “in significant body weight and fat loss in obese adults.” The supplement, however, contained glucomannan, chitosan, fenugreek, gymnema sylvestre, and vitamin C — all ingredients that have been prosecuted for decades by the FTC, companies selling them have had huge fines levied against them and contempt of court citations; and had FDA warnings issued against them for fraud.

Chitosan (ground up shellfish exoskeletons) — is the ingredient in natural supplement products like Fat Blaster, Fat Magnets, TRY-Lean, Inc., and The Enforma System — claimed to block the absorption of fat and lower cholesterol and produce rapid weight loss. JFS readers will remember these supplements were part of the FTC’s crack down on fraudulent weight loss claims, “Deception in Weight-Loss Advertising.” The FDA has also repeatedly found none of the claims “supported by reliable scientific evidence” and has sent out warning letters to companies, including, for example, Genesis Nutrition for its “Super Chitosan.” The Enforma System was fined $10 million as part of an FTC settlement for deceptive advertising. Similar FDA citations have been issued for years against nutraceutical companies for selling quack weight loss supplements containing gymnema sylvestre and glucomannan.

With so much money in an “obesity epidemic” and “obesity-related” health problems, the field has become dominated by those hoping to profit by selling “health and wellness,” whether in foods, diets, lifestyles, pills, surgeries or supplements. It was only a matter of time before academic institutions would get into the business of training an army of warrriors to fight the war on obesty.

There is no money in good science, however, which isn’t about selling anything.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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