Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Super Immunity - Not!

When I hear the word "Super," my thoughts race back to my childhood and my dalliance with  Superman, the DC Comics superhero from the planet Krypton who gains super powers from exposure to our sun. We all know the old rephrase that he's "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive." We also all know that he's a fictional character and such powers simply do not exist. Yet, like my older brothers, I could not get enough of the comic books and TV shows featuring the super fellow and other super heroes.  Everyone loves the idea of something super.

During my residency, the word "super" took on new meaning. Whenever I needed a lab result right away, I would write that I needed it STAT. However, I found that since every resident would write STAT on every blood work request, the lab began to dismiss the qualification. It then became necessary to write "SUPER STAT" to try to differentiate my request from the others. Soon, all my fellow residents were equally connoting "SUPER STAT" on each request and that too lost significance. It then became a game of how many "SUPERs" you could add before STAT. It wasn't uncommon to see "SUPER SUPER SUPER SUPER SUPER SUPER STAT" on a lab slip. The lab techs, I am sure, got a good chuckle, from our efforts of one-upmanship.

Today, "super" seems to have a new affixation. People love to attach it to all sorts of concepts related to health and nutrition. Case in point is a new book just featured on The Dr. Oz Show (yes, he's back for a new season) titled Super Immunity by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. In general, I think Fuhrman is a highly reputable doctor who fully understands the value of healthy eating. Notwithstanding, I have to take exception to his, or anyone's, concept of super-immunity or super foods or super anything for that matter. The reason is that I can find no evidence whatsoever to support the concept of super immunity or super foods. From my perspective, a food is either health promoting or it is not. It either supports a healthy immune system or it does not. You get the drift.  I don't know about you, but I don't want my body to do anything but function properly and that includes my immune system. In fact, I love wild Salmon, but I would never call it a super food (because it's not--it's just a healthy source of protein, fatty acids, etc.).

You may think this is a question of semantics, but I think there is much more at stake here. Dr. Fuhrman would be the first to tell you that eating properly is not a question of adding healthy foods to your diet; rather, it is a matter of building a foundation of healthy foods. Yet, when you suggest to the public any suggestions of quick fixes, eg. super foods, you run the risk of people thinking that they can balance unhealthy foods with such super-foods. This is how people are confused into believing the popular adage that eating healthy means "eating in moderation." Bad foods will often neutralize the benefits of healthy foods, super or otherwise.  Moderation simply doesn't apply to certain foods like trans-fats, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, etc.

A writer, speaker, or doctor must choose his or her words carefully as to not mislead the reader, listener, or patient. I know this from first-hand experience. Through my lecturing, I have learned the importance of choosing the right words so as to not lead listeners to wrong or invalid conclusions. For example, I can't make a general statement that medications are bad (although not a fan of many due to indiscriminate use, many medications serve useful purposes) for fear that someone may stop all their medications inappropriately. I know because this has happened. Nevertheless, I heard Dr. Fuhrman make such a statement on the Oz show. I also can't say that a little bit of neurosis about one's health can contribute to longevity because someone may take that as a reason to start obsessing about every facet of their health. I know that because unfortunately that also happened.

Some doctors may feel it is appropriate to take liberties with superlatives like "Super" to grab attention with the good intention to deliver important information. (Isn't the road to hell  paved with good intentions?) I feel it strains credibility and undermines the ultimate message.  Let's leave "Super" to Superheroes and let's stick to science instead of science-fiction when it comes to dispensing health advice. Otherwise, it won't be long before you see a book with the title SUPER SUPER SUPER SUPER SUPER IMMUNITY trying to grab your attention.

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