Fish oil at Whole Foods, University Heights, Ohio. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Last week’s reports calling into question the benefits of fish oil pills pissed me off because they remind me yet again how utterly credulous (i.e., stupid) the general public seems to be about what is good for them and what is bad for them. I suppose it’s not their fault given all the confusing messages media spreads through our culture. Just last night ABC Nightly News reported a new staggering health threat for our children. Watch the story here—click “New Major Health Issue.” Diane Sawyer intones ominously, “The threatiiis … salt.” Reporter Sharon Alfonsi then goes on to cite the damning evidence: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Ragu Tomato Sauce, and Captain Crunch. NOT ONCE DO THEY SAY THE THREAT IS PROCESSED FOOD!

NOT ONCE DO THEY SAY PARENTS ARE ADDING TOO MUCH KOSHER SALT TO THE WATER THEY’RE BOILING GREEN BEANS IN! OR, WHOA, EASY ON THE SALT IN THAT RATATOUILLE YOU’RE WHIPPING UP!

DIANE! SHARON! IS THERE ANYONE IN THERE?!

But fish oil is for adults—ostensibly affluent (willing to afford fish pills), well-educated adults who spend $731 million on fish oil pills alone and thinking they’re staving off heart attacks and a premature death. Many companies, for purely altruistic reasons, surely, make them and sell them for good money, so they must be good for you. In fact, there is no proof of anything. This should be a wake-up call to be skeptical about all health claims, good and bad. Everything is individual, so I urge people to use their individual taste and common sense: pay attention to how your body responds to foods, and to eat real food that you or someone who loves cooks. That bag of Cheese Puffs tastes really, really good, but do you feel really, really good when the bag is empty and your mouth is ringed with orange slime? (I love Cheese Puffs, by the way.)

Do you feel good when you’ve had 6 ounces of beautifully grilled steak, baked potato with real butter, and a Caesar salad? I know I do. Yes, I’ve started splitting the potato with Donna so I don’t get too tubbo, but I feel good, and this is how I decide what to eat. Seared halibut with just-picked broiled tomatoes is fabulous, and you feel good afterward. Surprise!

I eat oats and nuts and yogurt for breakfast, occasionally a hard-cooked egg and a piece of cheddar cheese. I eat a wedge of raw cabbage and four carrots for lunch and a bit of whatever is left over from the night before (a fried chicken wing, a few bites of pasta). Last night for dinner, I had grilled chicken with half a baked potato and green beans with lemon zest and garlic; tonight, since we’re bursting with tomatoes, it’ll be pasta with tomato, basil, and garlic.

That’s my probiotic diet.  And I can have each of those meals for less than the cost of a bottle of pills, which are not nearly so much fun to eat.

Americans spend $1 billion on this shit. Photo taken by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Probiotics. What the hell does that even mean? Latin for Pro-Life (part of the GOP strategy, perhaps?). I know what antibiotics are, and they were supposed to be uniformly beneficial, too, until we realized they were helping to create really scary bacteria that kill people.

I make my own yogurt, which I know has beneficial bacteria or it wouldn’t be yogurt. And I don’t suspect they’re bad for me and may indeed be beneficial (the definition of probiotic). But I don’t believe I’m going to live to be a 120 like those people in the Dannon commercial. I eat it because I feel good afterward and it keeps me from being hungry all morning.

Many will claim some sort of level of this or that in their blood went down when they started taking fish oil pills, but I’ll bet anyone spending 15 to 20 bucks on a bottle of fish oil pills is also watching their diet and eating well. And that’s why their numbers improved.

We’ve become so obsessed with health we’re going to start making ourselves sick. In fact, we already have.

Me, I’m going to stick to my probiotic diet, which includes homemade yogurt, salami, pickles, fish sauce, cheese, coffee, chocolate, martinis, and lots of fatty pork belly and duck confit just because. Cook your own food! That’s truly a pro-life diet.

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© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

 

 

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75 Wonderful responses to “Snake Oil Pills Proven to Prolong Life! (AND Ensure You’re Ready Whenever the Moment’s Right)”

  • Les Proctor

    Great rant Michael! But you lost me at “Probiotics”. To be fair, there are some ingredients that are better than others… for example: no-one would dispute the beneficial effects of oleic acid! Much better than hydrogenated anything. But I think that’s your point. Anything natural cooked in a real kitchen, even the stuff that is allegedly bad for you, is better than the stuff the mad scientists are concocting in the food labs these days.

  • Sasha Martin | Global Table Adventure

    As a mother of a toddler, I find the problem with processed food is the “it’s just a treat” mentality. Every time I turn around someone is offering my daughter “just a treat” … pizza day at school, pizza day at parent’s night out, candy during the last gymnastics class of summer (!!!!), birthday parties at school, birthday parties out of school, Easter Egg Hunts at school, two sets of grandparents, and our own church. I see kids eating pizza, chips, and soda after their soccer games at the park. It. never. ends. “Just a treat” becomes “never ending” if we aren’t vigilant. I’d rather be strict now, than training my daughter that blinking is a good enough reason to overload on goodies.

    • Andrew

      I’m replying to you Sasha because as a father of two young daughters, I share your sentiment 100%. At younger ages, we have to police everything and communicate with teachers and other adults to make sure our 3 year old doesn’t get fed garbage, since she’s too young to make those decisions herself. It is exhausting. We did the same thing with our six year old, but we have taught her all along. As she got older, she was able to make those decisions for herself. Now if she’s in a situation where junk food is offered to her, she knows how to say no, and even how to decide whether something is junk or not (for instance, if there’s a spread of store bought cookies and fruit, she knows it’s okay to eat the fruit but stay away from the cookies). And if she’s not sure, she errs on the side of saying no and discussing it with us later. We used to try to fight all the sweets in schools and social events tooth and nail. It’s sad that people, even otherwise intelligent people, do this to children, filling them with unhealthy food for no reason or occasion at all. It’s mostly been a frustrating, losing battle. Now we view it as training for adulthood. We still see people bringing cake to the workplace at 9 AM, and people gobble it down. Every day we have to say no ourselves to this stuff. All this crap is given to our children because of all the adults who could care less. Someday our daughters won’t be living with us and they will be ready for these everyday situations because we’ve used these events as opportunities to teach them how to make good decisions about what they eats. And even now, at six years old, our oldest makes better decisions than most adult Americans.

    • Lori Hogenkamp

      My daughter needed to go on a strict diet when she was younger and had to turn down a teacher who repeatedly offered candy and treats as reward. The teacher never had a child refuse before. This idea that a child would do extremely well without her rewards altered the way the teacher thought and she stopped the practice. We didn’t say anything directly to her, it a conceptual alteration. Recently, I was very frustrated reading the olympics nutrition and they too said it’s ok (they’re not suffering on these healthy diets)… they are still allowed “treats” aka fast food. ugh. Treats during training should be things like fresh berries and cream or from scratch (with butter, lard, coconut) pastries, not fake foods. It will take some major perceptual shifts, but I think it can happen. Reintroducing health foods as tasty treat foods is a start. :)

  • Wilma de Soto

    Agreed. I am going the home made route for the reasons you mentioned above such as cost, but primarily for the control I have for what goes into the food I eat. Chain restaurants in which so many Americans dine, (Cheesecake Factory™, Applebee’s™, etc.), can take a simple dish like a salad to 2,000 calories, 1,200mg of sodium and 45g of fat. HOW is that humanly possible?

  • Maureen Sanchez

    can I get an A-Men brother? We aren’t afraid to use salt at our table — because our kids don’t get salt any other way, other than what we feed them, which we have made. The salt, fat, and corn products are in those chicken parts and bits better known as nuggets. WTF is actually in a chicken nugget? Is it a boy part? a girl part? A naughty bit? (and, *shockingly* if you’ve ever read one of my replies to any of your blog posts … I am one of those people who uses fish oil pills– and my kids eat yogurt by the pail full when they are on antibiotics). Victory gardens. I swear. It sounds so freakin’ old fashioned. But maybe, just maybe, if more kids see what vegetables are supposed to look like, more of them will eat them regularly.

  • Chris Musser

    Michael, you had me nodding in agreement with your point about reporters (and researchers, apparently) not noting the “problem” with kids & salt is really about processed foods, but sadly, your comments about supplements, in particular fish oil and probiotics are uninformed.

    You are clearly blessed with good health. You have been able to attend cooking school, write about the experience, continue to have an active life, full of good food. That’s awesome for you.

    Not all of us share your blessings. I have struggled mightily to reverse my Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition, in which the immune system creates antibodies to the thyroid, which becomes under-active, effecting the entire metabolism.

    I also live with what’s called gut dysbiosis–the imbalance of the microbiology in the digestive tract. I have too much yeast, too little of the “good” bacteria.

    For many years, I simply followed my doctor’s advice and took a pill to replace the thyroid hormone mine wasn’t producing. I kept getting sicker–I gained weight, lost my energy, lived with chronic pain, and became mentally confused and forgetful.

    I finally began to turn things around with diet. I quit gluten, a big trigger for me and apparently a lot of other people. Within a week, brain fog began to lift, the reflux I suffered with nightly suddenly disappeared, and I noticed I was no longer bloated. Bigger changes after going grain-free and focusing on eating more homemade kimchi, yogurt, and liverwurst. Some of my pain began to dissipate. But I was still tired all the time, still less mentally sharp than I used to be (I’m only 45 now), still had a lot of pain issues.

    During all this time, and for many years before, I’d been an avid home cook, baker, gardener, and food preservationist. I took your BLT challenge a few summers ago…using one of my husband’s early batches of bacon…though for me making my own bread, mayo, lettuce, and tomatoes was old hat. In fact, I taught cooking classes for folks who wanted to cook at home more. I ate what I understood to be a healthy diet, with whole grain, home baked bread, pasture-raised meat from local farms, lots of vegetables from my own garden.

    While it’s not clear which came first, my thyroid condition or my gut imbalance, but just eating home made food wasn’t enough for me to get better. My attitude was not unlike yours–I had convinced myself that I would heal just by keeping my diet clean and nutrient-rich. Despite two years of following a gluten-free, minimal grain diet rich in homemade fermented foods, raw & cooked vegetables, and the best meat money can buy, my thyroid condition was only a little better–antibody levels remained the same, my vitamin D levels (very important for healing and proper digestion) were still low, and my inflammation markers were high. In the spring, I sought care with a naturopath and finally bit the bullet and started taking massive amounts of vitamin D, cod liver oil, a therapeutic probiotic, and some other supplements to support my immune and digestive systems.

    Six months later, for the first time ever, my thyroid antibody levels went down, by HALF! My vitamin D levels are within normal range. Inflammation markers have gone down. My chronic pain is so diminished that I am able to exercise everyday (whereas before, just walking so wore me out that I could only do it infrequently).

    (By the way, during the same six months, I also got my daughter, who had been diagnosed with epilepsy in 2011, seizure-free and off anti-convulsant medication, using a high-fat/low-carb diet. I personally prepared every speck of food that crossed her lips during this time as there is virtually NO processed foods that are rich in health fats and low in carbs. No school lunch for her, or her brother.)

    It is easy to mock what you don’t understand. I am sure that many people out there take supplements just because they read about some miracle cure on a web site or because their friends take it or whatever, but there are some of us who are experiencing TRUE healing thanks to appropriate supplementation.

    • ruhlman

      That’s why I stressed everything should be addressed on an individual basis, not a rote salt is bad, low fat is good mantra. and good for you for turning things around through smart choices that your body responded to.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Here is a good summary … people who most always cook with family and/or friends and then eat what they’ve cooked with family and/or friends are happier and healthier than those who do not. It is OK to consume the occasional cookie or chip or fish oil pill … although with the latter, why not just add anchovies to what you are cooking?

  • Darcie

    Amen! I used to be an avid label reader until it dawned on me that if food had to have an ingredient list, maybe it wasn’t really food! Now I try to buy only fresh produce, unprocessed grains/legumes, with unadulterated meats & dairy in moderation. It is amazing how crap is in the food that most people eat. I do enjoy a tasty cocktail in moderation and will occasionally eat a cheesy poof, but overall my diet is markedly improved, and as you say, I feel good after I eat. It’s hardly any more work to make real food, and so much more satisfying in the end.

    • Mantonat

      Where do you live? I live smack in the middle of the country and the fish, when fresh, is even more expensive than the pills. Plus, how are we supposed to know which fish are OK to eat? Farm-raised fish are contaminated with antibiotics and corn and soy bi-products, fatty ocean fish are contaminated with heavy metals, everything is either endangered or over-fished, can fish nestle up against carcinogenic products, freshwater fish are exposed to industrial runoff, etc., etc. Some say flax or other vegetable sources are the answer to getting enough omega-3s, but the ALA form of omega-3 found in, for example flax seed, is far less bio-available than the DHA and EPA in fish oil.

      The funny thing is that if we were talking about olive oil, everyone would agree that we should use more olive oil because of the health benefits. But you really wouldn’t want to cook with fish oil or pour it on your salad, so hence the pills. Yes, eating more fish is without doubt the best thing to do, but it’s just not always possible.

    • Drago

      Because I loathe the flavor of most oily fish, like salmon, char, and mackerel. (Trout is right on the line.) (Though, oddly, I like salmon raw in sushi, who knows…)

      I generally agree with Ruhlman, especially on the salt thing, but I have to disagree with his remarks on fish oil and probiotics. My wife and I eat the same diets, generally healthy and homemade. I have high triglycerides, which the fish oil helped a lot. (Though they did nothing for joint pain.)

      My wife has had chronic digestive problems for 5+ years since a bout of food poisoning put her in the hospital – problems which were markedly reduced by probiotics.

      Supplement pills are not a cure-all, but they can certainly help when a reasonable diet is not getting you to where you want to be.

  • allen

    Snake oil is Friday cocktail post goddamit. Cure all. We aint all meant to be skinny beutiful fish oil eatn geniuses. Jus gimme that gin n juice.

  • allen

    Most of my friends are micro organisms; sour dough- beer vinegar, Kim chee…you may be popular, but I’ve got billions of friends! Put that in your probiotic pipe ‘n smoke it.

  • Hugh Anderson

    From your recent tofu article, you said “We live at a time when for both health and ecological reasons, we ought to rely less on meat, eat less of it.”

    I’m not saying this to be rude, but perhaps you should take your own advice and stop making health claims.

  • Carly

    But damn if my reaction to this wasn’t to kick myself for not getting any cheese puffs when I went shopping last night.

  • Phillip

    I have had good experiences and results while taking fish oil pills, Lovazza specifically. While I have been exercising, cutting down on portions etc, and seeing a drop in unhealthy cholesterol, those last few points (and pounds) were a real bugger to lose. Once I added Lovazza to the mix, my cholesterol dropped to excellent levels.

    But I do agree with the underlying theme of the post which is: there is no magic bullet. Cook actual food, and eat less. 6oz of grilled beef is way better for you than a 6oz fast food burger.

      • Carolyn Z

        Lovaza is a fish oil ester product sold by prescription only. It is supposed to lower the cholesterol and tri-glyceride blood levels. I take two grams after dinner. It lowers my cholesterol somewhat and really lowers my high tri-glycerides, which is hereditary. This is better for my heart. I do eat fish sometimes as well. Since I probably couldn’t tolerate the side effects of statin medications, this is the best option for me. Sometimes we eat a lot of poultry like chicken and turkey also.

      • Phillip

        Yes, what Carolyn Z said, thanks Carolyn! The pitch my doctor gave me is that with regular fish oil pills you don’t know where the fish is coming from to process the oils…so it’s higher quality, safer, purer etc. My doctor was happy to give me Lovazza because he didn’t see the sense in putting me (a 29 year old who exercises regularly) on pharmaceuticals for cholesterol. No matter how much excess post-college football weight I still have on me, ha.

  • Mantonat

    It’s not so much the pills as it is the people. If you eat an unhealthy diet and lead a sedentary lifestyle, no amount of pills – no matter how good they are, will save you. The results of the study underline this fact – and also say nothing about the efficacy of increasing omega-3 fatty acids in an otherwise healthy diet.

    I don’t think there’s any doubt from a clinical perspective that omega-3s from animal fats are beneficial to the human body. But it’s not some miracle cure. Here’s one of the problems with the modern American diet: we get way too many omega-6 fatty acids in comparison to omega-3s, even in people who think they are eating healthfully (with the result being oxidation, inflammation, and eventual plaque buildup in the arteries). Almost all conventional meats are raised on corn and soy product; this is not healthy or natural for the animals and results in higher levels of unhealthy fat, which we in turn eat. Farm-raised fish fare no better: wild-caught salmon have a considerably higher amount of omega-3s than farm-raised fish. Butter and milk from grass-fed cows and eggs from pastured chickens all have higher levels of omega-3s than their grain-fed counterparts. Couple this with the standard recommendations of using canola, corn, safflower, soy, and peanut oil (all of which are high in omega-6) and the result is an extreme imbalance of the types of fatty acids being consumed (even in an otherwise healthy, home-cooked, whole-food diet.) Several answers immediately present themselves: eat more wild-caught fish, eat grass-fed meats and dairy; buy free-range chickens and eggs, use more olive oil for cooking and less industrially-processed oils. These are all great suggestions, but these things are also very expensive. Yes a bottle of fish oil pills can run in the range of $20-40 per month, but that’s less than the net cost of all the other things.

    I try to eat lots of fish, but it’s expensive and the quality of fish can really vary in a land-locked state. I also try to buy as much locally produced meat and dairy from real farms as possible. But I also take fish oil pills to help push the balance of fatty acids toward a balance that our bodies are built for.

    I don’t feel the same way about probiotics, mainly because there are enough good foods with abundant microflora (whole milk plain yogurt, fermented veggies, naturally cured meats, unfiltered beer, vinegars, etc.) that supplements seem unnecessary and because I’ve been blessed with a gut of steel.

  • Ed

    Michael, does that mean you won’t be providing a recipe for fish oil cookies? :-)

    It would be interesting to see a list of all the foods/ingredients/drugs that have initially been declared good or bad for you and whose status has changed (some multiple times). The consumer can get whiplash from all this “good advice”.

  • Faith

    I strongly agree with Hugh Anderson, ” perhaps you should take your own advice and stop making health claims.” There are many things that can be incredibly beneficial for some, but not all, individuals. I don’t see you attacking aspirin, despite the fact that it causes stomach bleeding in some individuals. It must be because you are also aware that it saves lives.

    To those asking why people don’t just eat fish, among other reasons the amount of fish that you would have to consume on a daily basis would be too expensive for some, and I suspect not to most peoples general preferences.

    On the whole, and this applies to a lot of people on here, don’t mock something just because you don’t understand it. That’s ignorant.

    • Randy Martinez

      Faith, you should stop spouting things that your chiropractor told you. Aspirin only causes stomach bleeding in EXCESS. And if you stop taking it, the bleeding goes away. The simple fact of life is that most Americans, myself included, ate crap food when they were young and single, and now are paying for it. Eating fish oil isn’t going to fix a damn thing. I will tell you how I fixed myself. Chronic pain sufferer, early arthritis. Got off my fat ass, made my own food, went to a therapist (not one of those who attributed everything to my bad parents) who made me see that my problems in life were due to me being a wimp and not standing up for myself and found a good woman. That is how you will be healthy, not taking enemas, bee pollen and all that nonsense. If a medical profession says you are anemic or something like that, than of course, but vitamins are mostly nonsense and you should spend the money on the lottery!

      • Faith

        I study lipids. As in, by profession I research how lipids and the varying ratios that are consumed in diet affect specific body systems.

        I’m glad that you have made the life decisions to improve your health. And I agree that most people need to clean up their habits. In fact, I don’t see anything in my original post that states otherwise. What I did state, and stand behind, is that just because something doesn’t help everyone does not mean that it will help no one. Even in the case of aspirin people have varying sensitivities, so there are a number of individuals who will have stomach bleeding from the standard dosages.

        As to the rest of your comment, well you seem to assume that I supported a number of unrelated things which I never mentioned, let alone endorsed. I guess you were inspired by Michael’s rant and decided to have one of your own. However, you too should hold back from making claims in fields you aren’t an expert in.

  • Chuck Shaw

    Great rant Michael. First butter is bad for you, then salt, then animal fat. The list is exhausting. If Americans would understand portion control, we would be a healthier nation. No one needs a 16 oz. Porterhouse steak, period! Hear that American Restauranteurs? I’m digusted by the portion sizes doled out by establishsments. Somehow americans feel ripped off if they can see their plate. Hell…I can barely eat an eight oz. portion of meat at a sitting and I’m not tiny. Anita and I will split a 12 oz. grass fed rib eye, one baked potato and green beans for sunday dinner. Completely satisfying. Keep up the good fight and see you next time your in the Bay Area.

  • Nancy

    So what, we’re supposed to change our ways and eat more consciously instead of just popping a pill (or 6)? Jeez, man, you’ve really gone off the deep end, haven’t you?

  • Anthony Geller

    “Reporter Sharon Alfonsi then goes on to cite the damning evidence: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Ragu Tomato Sauce, and Captain Crunch. NOT ONCE DO THEY SAY THE THREAT IS PROCESSED FOOD!”

    I saw a similar report on NBC last night, and they did a much better job of reporting the problem as excess salt. They went on to stress processed and fast food was the main cause of high salt intake. They also interviewed a mother and her 13 year old daughter about the value of preparing meals from basic ingredients. The daughter commented that after eating that way, she didn’t like the taste of processed or fast food.

  • Tasha Jaeger

    Totally agree that a good home cooked diet is the first defense (and that processed foods are indeed crap)… but I took fish oil pills (and prenatal vitamins) while I was pregnant to make sure I got enough of the best stuff for my growing baby. I love fish, but finding enough that were low in mercury was tough.

    I also had to take probiotics once upon a time because antibiotics gave me a raging case of c-diff (trust me, you don’t ever, ever, ever want c-diff). There are reasons to take supplements, but not everyone needs to all the time – especially if you’re eating good homemade food.

  • Dave Nadal

    So we’re clear, Michael…while I agree that nutrients should be derived primarily from whole foods, the rant was somewhat facetious: fish oil et al. are dietary supplements, not a substitute for the real thing…they should be used to bridge the gap between the RDA—or whatever nutty allowance people have decided to apply to their own diet and lifestyle—and what we’re able to consume in the way of whole foods.

  • Dean

    Bravo! One of your best rants (it’s best because I agree with it, of course). I think Michael Pollan’s suggestion of “eat real food, not too much, mostly plants” will lead to a very healthy diet. Of course, some people with serious medical conditions may need supplements to balance the effects of what may be ailing them; but, for most of the rest of us, eating moderate amounts of home-cooked, non-processed food will work fine.

    As a side note, “snake oil” type remedies as you refer to them used to require FDA approval to keep the real detrimental crap off the shelves. In a wave of deregulation, it became legal to sell almost anything as a remedy provided the seller said somewhere, usually in very fine print, that the product wasn’t intended to treat, diagnose, or cure anything. Ever since then, the store shelves have been filled with a bizarre collection of bottled BS, all asserting to be good for you. Too much regulation is a bad thing, too little is also bad. As with food, a balanced approach focusing on what’s really good is the way to go.

  • Spencer K

    [Reposted from Facebook]
    It can be fair to make a generalization that most people don’t need fish oil, and it’s fair to make a generalization that most homeopathic remedies are bunk because the studies can show that they are. However, to make the generalization that people who spend money on Fish Oil must be making their diet better at the same time is nothing more than speculation and a rant.

    Responsible doctors do not over-prescribe *anything*. They will let a fever ride out a few days before determining it’s bacterial, and they will prescribe exercise and dietary changes *before* supplements particularly in the cases of high blood pressure and cholesterol.

    Anecdotally, my cholesterol is actually good aside for my triglycerides which are through the roof. Coupled with my moderately high blood pressure, my doctor diagnosed me with atherosclerosis, and asked me to change my diet (less white processed foods, more fish), and exercise for a few months to see if it would help. It didn’t do much. I unfortunately now have to take medication for the HBP and he later recommended the Fish Oil to see if it would help. Surprisingly, my triglycerides dropped by over a third.

    I felt great before the fish oil, does that mean I wasn’t do for a stroke or heart attack in my later years? Not sure. But if HBP and high triglycerides are strong indicators to a condition leading to early occurrences of Heart Attack or Stroke, you better believe I’m not leaving it to chance and just cause “I feel good”.

    Now you can call it snake oil, and everyone’s physiology is different, so diet can result in better effects for some, but to draw specious arguments does the rest of your argument about eating fresh and healthy a disservice.

  • Jamie

    Michael, I am rarely motivated to respond to a blog post, but I couldn’t let this pass. I’m usually a fan of everything Ruhlman: I’ve read your blog nearly since its inception, I’ve bought your books, I’ve been inspired to cure my own bacon and pancetta, I make my own yogurt, my family eats much better as a result of your body of work. But today’s post is way off the mark.

    I assume the intention of today’s post is to highlight that cooking & eating real food leads to a high quality of life that can’t be achieved by taking pills. I couldn’t agree more. However, you have clearly stepped outside your field of expertise today–there is a wealth of credible, peer-reviewed studies showing that there are clear health benefits associated with consumption of specific components of food. Clearly you have not done any investigation before venting your opinion. Even a simple google search for probiotics gives a basic definition as well as arguments both for and against. Your text is on this is just disappointing.

    Are there people/companies exploiting this legitimate research by hawking snake oil pills? YES. But are there also individuals leveraging their culinary credentials to push over-priced/superfluous “basting spoons”, “hot dog bun pans” and wooden utensils on a gullible, foodie-obsessed culture? Ahem.

    I’d suggest that you stick to writing about what you know, what you do best–but I’m not sure I will continue to follow your work.

    • Randy Martinez

      Jamie, I read your post and I got nothing from it…what specifically are you upset about?

    • ruhlman

      I was not making any real health claims personally, only that we should cook our own food and pay attention to how our bodies respond to it.

      Working on those spoons, very hard to get the costs down given the quantities we make them in and how we must sell them.

  • Witloof

    Some autistic children and children who demonstrate attentional deficits do not manufacture the correct long chain fats that they need to support brain development and function. They sometimes do very well when fish oil, which supplies the crucial missing elements, is added to their diets. I occasionally refer families to a nutritionist who specializes in diets for autistic spectrum children. The oils and supplements that work for these children are not available over the counter and require an expert to prescribe a correct dosage.

    Conversely, a diet high in processed food can actually retard brain development and impair cognitive functioning and behavior. The fats used for preparing fast food and in shelf stable shacks are so denatured that the brain can’t utilize them {nerve and brain cells consist mostly of fat}.
    In general, I do not think that healthy adults should be ingesting quantities of supplements and vitamins. They can be very hard on the liver and kidneys, which have to work overtime to process them, and their nutritional value is often questionable.

    • Pam

      Please cite the specific study that this “information” came from. Was it in a credible medical journal? Was it peer reviewed?

    • Randy Martinez

      Witloof, I have a brother who is autistic and a son with ADHD. You can call me all the names in the book, but you are wasting your money. Herbs and all of that nonsense has NEVER been demonstrated to have any causitive relief in any symptomology. You would have better relieft standing outside on your head in the rain. You have fallen for the claptrap of the psuedoscience of the chiropractic community. Sorry if you don’t like what I say, but its the truth!

      • Chris Musser

        Personally, I find the “if it’s not published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, it’s bunk” line of reasoning offensive and ahistorical. How long have peer-reviewed medical journals been around? How in the world did people achieve health without them? Oh, wait…they tried stuff. They observed the stuff’s effects. They tried again…they weren’t scientist or trained researchers. They were people, just like you and me, just not dumbed-down by a culture that meekly follows the advice of those who are basically in the pocket of Big Pharma and Big Food.

        Fats are necessary for proper brain function. Kids with autism, ADD, epilepsy all have brains that need *something* and if you are a parent of one of those kids and you want them BACK, you are not going to wait for the peer-reviewed blah blah blah. You are going to listen to other moms who are getting their kids back, using all sorts of non-FDA-approved means. I personally got my kid off anti-convulsants with a diet that has actually been proven effective by researchers (working with epileptic children, not mice) for years at Johns Hopkins, but was pooh-poohed by our neurologist as “too hard” and is still not the first-line of treatment for most kids with epilepsy, though it’s far safer than any of the anti-convulsant drugs. Making fat-rich meals for my kids was hard, but not nearly as hard as watching her having seizures. I have a two dear friends whose autistic sons are no longer autistic, thanks to diet and supplementation. You can stand on your head chanting about peer-reviewed blah blah blah, waiting for the doctors to tell you what to do to save your kid (“here, try this pharmacopia”), accept that they have an “incurable” condition, or forge on and find your own way.

  • Randy Martinez

    Hi Michael, I think you hit it right on the head when you said that people that take supplements are ones that already pay attention to health. Someone who eats crap food is just not going to go pay outrageous money to get fish oil supplements. To me, if people want to pay for expensive urine, god bless. It is a placebo, no more, no less.
    I also wanted to tell you that my wife and I share dinner plates sometimes. She had gastric surgery and cannot eat a full dinner plate. So, sometimes we will share a plate and amazingly it works. You are right…it does help with weight control.

  • Randy Martinez

    Also, one last thing…I do take some one tablet of iron, some calcium (i am lactose intolerant) and some vitamin C as I am getting a little older and citrus gives me a little stomach issues sometimes, but that is it. But Mike, you got big wontons…trying to convince the pro vitamins of anything is like farting in the wind!

    • Mantonat

      So you can deride one type of supplement while taking others? Is there any evidence to suggest that vitamin C in pill form does any good whatsoever? There are tons of foods out there with high vitamin C (kale, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach, watermelon, cantaloupe, bell peppers) and calcium (beans, canned salmon, those dark green veggies again, oatmeal, almonds) content that are neither citrus nor dairy. Also the most readily absorbed form of dietary iron is from meat (beef, chicken, fish, pork, turkey).

      Your argument for taking those supplements (hard to get enough based on your dietary restrictions) is pretty much the same as mine (hard to get enough based on cost/availability of fish). I agree with your comments above about wild claims as a cure-all (ADHD & autism), but I think there are enough valid studies of the benefits of omega-3s from animal sources to throw doubt upon the one study Ruhlman links to that has no control factors whatsoever – just a bunch of people who took fish oil pills.

  • Patrick Hollinger

    Sadly you attack one of the few things in the probiotic/supplement world that HAS some legitimate scientific data behind it… interesting.

  • LizS

    Great rant! I sympathize with the parents trying to keep their kids away from processed food. My kids ate crap sometimes … cheese puffs, potato chips, cupcakes. It’s so hard to avoid. But we didn’t buy Kraft Mac and Cheese or frozen dinners. We sat down to dinner together almost every night to a meal cooked at home with fresh food. Now they’re in their 20s and I’m sure they still eat some crap, but they also both cook their own meals having learned how easy it is to roast a chicken, throw a fish filet in the oven or a steak on the grill. I agree that supplements and such are a waste of money. Eat a variety of good fresh food and the occasional Cheeto won’t kill you.

  • karen downie makley

    i take vitamins, sometimes…but mostly i forget. i eat really healthy, mostly…but sometimes i stray. but whether i am a virtuous eater or not (or a dutiful vitamin-taker or not) i am quite sure that my overall wellness has a lot to do with things totally out of my control–things like luck and genetics and evading contagions. it doesn’t bother me if someone follows a rigorous, weird, or highly suspect dietary regimen, but it DOES bother me when they get self-righteous about it. i want to have a bag-burning hootenanny for all the grocery sacks that read: “good health starts here” which, of course, presupposes that anyone who is NOT shopping there is just a self-induced-disease-ridden rube. SO obnoxious.

  • La_Choune

    Nice work Ruhlman, you get it! Woo~~woos fail to appreciate the difference between existential truth and propositional truth, which renders them susceptible to a rank marketing scam by a crank vitamin salesperson. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad!

  • Velops

    Setting aside the claims about the health benefits of fish oil, I worry about the environmental impact of this industry. We need more research about whether or not these corporations operate in a safe and sustainable manner.

  • Kevin

    Tonight’s dinner was a 1/2 pound of True Cod grilled outside and topped with some homemade tomato sauce from last weeks pasta meal (frozen, not sitting in the Frid a week), beans picked from the garden and large pot blanched in salt water, then reheated with some brown butter and garlic, and smashed red potatoes with a little butter and cream, seasoned to taste, and a little flat leaf parsley also from the garden. Took about 20 minutes to make. My wife didn’t leave anything on her plate – and she doesn’t like fish. I make yogurt weekly after tasting some of the most wonderful stuff in Normandy about six years ago. A scoop of marionberry jam – you’ll never eat store bought again. Aint life grand?

  • charityjill

    Went to the doctor for yearly checkup a few weeks ago. For my slightly high blood pressure? “Take fish oil every day and see me in a year.” Yeah, I didn’t do that. #sweetvindication

  • Otto

    There are different grades of fish oil.

    The fish oil pills they sell in shops are about a tenth of the strength of the fish oil the research with positive results is based on.

    Take scientific journalism with a, er, huge pinch of salt.

  • Debbie Q

    Amen! Around Chez Knit, once we started to eat as close to homemade on most things as it is possible to do it was amazing how much better we felt. I make my own yoghurt and bread. We eat….GASP…..butter and use olive oil and salt when needed and as little processed stuff as possible.

    And yesterday I “indulged” in a Wendy’s Jr. hamburger because I had a bad day. I hadn’t had one of those in a LONG time. And I feel terrible today…and last night…and I was hungry. Never again.

  • Lori Hogenkamp

    It seems some would like more science, so I’ll do my best…

    I think often the hysterical lists of flip/flopping good to bad back to good, comes from the logical basis in which we approach problems. If you look at specific things and associations or actions within the body with the assumption that there IS good and bad, then they can be either depending on the system and the state of the system or which action we’re looking at (is inflammation good or bad?). When you look at thing from an adaptive perspective then good CAN be bad and vice versa. A fever is useful so is a depressed state, so is stress. So once you change your confines and expectations then the labels disappear and we look for adaptive cooperative and balanced outcomes and appropriate reactions to our environment. This can come from outside sources overwhelming or internal activation systems over-reacting. So when we look at things adaptively we have to first look at the genomic variability reactiveness (sexual dimorphic variables come into play here), the neuroadaptive impacts that having a lack of these available resources may have (like early life stress adaptation) and then myriads of ways to upregulate immune-stress activation etc. So a deficiency in Omega 3 early in life because the body/brain has already made adjustments (most probably to other stressors present in the face of inadequate resources, whatever they may be), so their may not be a deficiency later in life per se, but the excess (from pill form) may be used as an immunomodulatory response. Of course sometimes the addition of resources directly after the insult can make a difference (as it “tells” the body it’ll be ok, just like a reassuring hug can do, they actually run similar pathways)… Can pills be useful? Yes. But it would have been more useful had these constituents never been missing in the first place and may be more useful, in some circumstance to have the food sources along with the acute actions of fats on inflammatory measures (polyphenols, antioxidants, other fats, fiber, neuromodulatory effects of exercise etc). As far as prevention and treatment for heart issues or autism or any variety of disorders, it again, depends on the system, the state of the system and the immunomodulatory impacts you are trying to control, regulate or tweak (Autism is spectrum and/or dimensional situation many different factors can impact the level of comfort and functionality, depending on the subtype and state and needs, but nutritional combination or diet does have scientific merit sometimes in conjuction with pharma and social interventions).

    This is why the list shifts so much, because the environment in which we put them in shifts so much and the factors we look for to tell us good/bad don’t always mean what we think they mean. And our “logical paradigm” of our current scientific structure, and the sound-bite seeking media, seeks “singular mechanisms” and direct cause-effect, soso headlines on what “one thing” does….this typically make better stories than the complications of ecosystem dynamics.

    Short term effects of different omega-3 fatty acid formulation on lipid metabolism in mice fed high or low fat diet.
    Tang X, Li ZJ, Xu J, Xue Y, Li JZ, Wang JF, Yanagita T, Xue CH, Wang YM. Lipids Health Dis. 2012 Jul 10;11:70.

    Immunomodulatory effect of fibres, probiotics and synbiotics in different life-stages.Romeo J, Nova E, Wärnberg J, Gómez-Martínez S, Díaz Ligia LE, Marcos A. Nutr Hosp. 2010 May-Jun;25(3):341-9.

    Immunonutrition in the surgical patient.
    Marik PE, Flemmer M. Minerva Anestesiol. 2012 Mar;78(3):336-42.
    There is now increasing evidence that immunomodulating enteral formulas supplemented with arginine and omega-3 fatty acids can reverse many of the immune mediated changes and decrease the number of adverse outcomes after major surgery and trauma. These immunomodulating enteral formulas should be strongly considered in surgical patients undergoing major surgery and following severe trauma.

    Programmed Hyperleptinemia and Hypertension by Postnatal Dietary ω-3 Fatty Acids. Endocrinology January 1, 2006 vol. 147 no. 1 599-606
    http://endo.endojournals.org/content/147/1/599.full

    Bioecological and nutritional control of disease: prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics. Bengmark S, Gil A.Nutr Hosp. 2006 May;21 Suppl 2:72-84, 73-86.

    Perinatal stress, brain inflammation and risk of autism-Review and proposal. Angelidou A, Asadi S, Alysandratos KD, Karagkouni A, Kourembanas S, Theoharides TC. BMC Pediatr. 2012 Jul 2;12(1):89.

    Contrasting effects of different maternal diets on sexually dimorphic gene expression in the murine placenta.PNAS March 23, 2010 vol. 107 no. 12 5557-5562

    Sex-dimorphism in cardiac nutrigenomics: effect of trans fat and/or monosodium glutamate consumption.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22078008

    • Lori Hogenkamp

      I feel the media and single-logic science will continue to pick one of the “sugar-fat-salt” combo, isolate, and blame one of them at any given time…. until we first view that they work together to give us our best calorically and nutrient dense resources (from natural sources) and they also represent the most addictive forms from fake sources : hfcs or artificial sweetners, pure sodium instead of real salt, msg, trans-fats— and how these COMBINATIONS impose issues not only because they pull the rug of resources out from under us, which alters our ability to handle stress, but they also tweak our brain mechanisms so regulating energy intake becomes impaired. Unfortunately the more stress we are under the more we seek extreme resources and we self-medicate with these items. It will take a system approach, and using whole real foods and the most delicious and dense of our food sources in balance with the nutrient qualities, to solve and prevent many of these issues… otherwise we will always be playing catch up with pills and constant stress-immune mediating counterbalances instead of thriving. :(… In my view anyway.

  • MJC

    The fish oil study (I admit, I have not read the entire report, though I doubt many of you have either…. American’s: We can’t be bothered with facts!) concentrated on determining if the use of fish oil supplements over a period of time affected the rate at which people experienced heart related issues.

    The study was inconclusive – which reads this way: The regular intake of fish oil likely does not affect a person’s health when it comes to heart health.

    The study, so far as I know, did not issue definitive findings on the effects that fish oil may have in other areas, such as the anti inflammatory properties that fish oil seems to have when taken in moderate dosages. (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16531187)

    So, If you take fish oil supplements, are comfortable buying fish oil supplements, and you think they help you…. take fish oil supplements.

    Please do not think that one can take fish oil supplements and eat a bag of cheese flavored puffed corn bits while NEVER exercising and be OK. It doesn’t work that way.

    News has become entertainment. Broadcasters rely on holding your eyes to the screen. To do so they purposefully find issues that attract a certain section of our populous and push them to outrage – real or imagined. The Fish Oil Study falls in that category. So does this recent story:

    Yesterday my wife told me that her favorite fluffy morning show was harping about the dangers of rice. Apparently there is some level of arsenic on some rice (mostly US grown – though the major network neglected to mention this).

    Arsenic levels are ill defined in the United States. We really aren’t aware of what is a safe level of arsenic and what isn’t. Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical element. It likely is in the rice because of the water supply the rice is grown and harvested in. So should we stop eating rice simply because of this non-governmental report? Rice is a staple of many diets, it’s cheap and easy to prepare. In my humble opinion, it also tastes better if it is grown nearly anywhere else in the world other then the United States.

    Mr. Ruhlman is exactly right on the processed foods. We shouldn’t just be aware of this. We should be pissed as hell.

    Several years ago cigarette companies were sued by most of the States Attorney Generals. In court the cigarette manufacturers admitted that not only did they know that the ingredients they added to cigarettes made the cigarettes taste better, those ingredients also made the cigarettes more addictive… and much more dangerous for humans to use. They were killing their customers.. and they knew it. They looked for ways to do it faster.

    Food companies do exactly the same thing. Those cheese puffs – (or my favorite, Oreos) are a scientifically concoction of sweet and salt to make you want to eat more and more. It’s why you could only eat one potato as a real potato – but if turned into a wafer thin dried chip, fried and seasoned, you could eat two or three potatoes by volume.

    We should be outraged about this and we should encourage others to be so as well. Thanks to Michael Ruhlman and others for continuing to try and push the issue to the fore front.

    Enough ranting and raving.

    Eat good food. Take supplements if you think they might help, only eat cheese puffs and oreos as often as you might foie gras or offal….. and ride your bike to work now and then.

  • mehdi

    Michael,

    Unfortunately I find your rants extremely unscientific. As an example with which i’m rather familiar i’ll explain calcium supplements. Unless you drink litres af milk and yoghurt everyday, you wont get enough calcium to prevent osteoporosis (800–1200 IU/day), as with aging our youth-accumulated calcium reservoirs start depleting (we weren’t evolved to live this long, so like alzheimer, its a natural consequence of aging). That doesnt mean you should avoid cheese and milk; you consume them for pleasure, taste and nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D; they’re just not enough to prevent osteoporosis.

    Just because its in a pill doesnt mean its useful or useless. That is measurable, and can be done only by double-blind randomised clinical trials, studies and more studies and more controls and investigations (not chefs’ gut feelings). That is called science, something that foodies seem not to be interested in.

    PS: Dont tell me you’re also against vaccination, Hormone Replacement Therapy (for menopause)… because they’re all “unnatural”, and dont come from “mother earth”

    • Sobieck00

      Mehdi, you seem pretty sure of the scientific evidence associated with calcium supplementation. However, the benefits are not entirely clear as I understand it.

      It seems that calcium supplementation does increase the bone density of post-menopausal women which is good. But what we are really after is making sure that those women don’t experience fractures. The evidence is less convincing on that front. And there seems to be an increase in the rate of heart related conditions when calcium pills are taken. On balance, we still don’t know if taking calcium in a pill form is really beneficial due to the heart related side effects and the relatedly minor effects on preventing fractures.

      Source: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/do-calcium-supplements-cause-heart-attacks/

      Do you have any sources backing up your claims of the unambiguously amazing benefits of calcium supplementation? I would love to look at them, especially if they refute that nearly two year old source I provided.

  • Brian Vo

    Hear hear! Cook your own food is the best advice that I give to so many friends and family. Unfortunately it seems a real plague on people’s schedules and psyches to make the time to actually prepare meals these days, though I do volunteer to help them out now and again provided they provide the kitchen, the cleanup and the crud.

  • Carly

    It’s funny–whenever this or a similar topic comes up, a lot of people will say “I totally agree! EXCEPT on the probiotics thing,” because, surprise, they don’t like yogurt. Or whatever. One’s thoughts on whether or not “flavorless, odorless” fish oil pills are good or not seem to line up suspiciously closely with people’s feelings on whether or not oily fish tastes good.

    Also, even if you do have an extreme health situation that has necessitated taking supplements, you should be able to acknowledge that that’s not the norm and that things like fish oil pills and probiotics are being marketing at an alarming rate at enormous cost as a cure-all for everything wrong in our lives. I took your point as being directed more to the general populace that’s being fed that message.

    I’m not a hard-liner either way on this point, but I don’t take supplements because I’m generally healthy to the best of my knowledge, they’re expensive, and I am forever seeing studies crop up saying that pretty much every nutritional supplement known to man is not as beneficial as the same thing when it occurs naturally in food. I don’t love eating the kind of sardines that I can afford and have available to me on a daily basis, but I still think in the long run it’s better for me to try to learn to live with them then to take a pill instead.

  • Michelle

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned this op-ed from Paul Greenberg yet. Fish Oil is one of many things caught up in “nutritionalism” or the latest fad(goji berries, acai berries, chia seed!, etc). But, where does this fish oil come from and what are we doing to our environment in order to feed the fad?

    Apparently we’re destroying the population of “the most important fish in the sea”. Just something else to consider.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/16/opinion/16greenberg.html?_r=0