A Skeptical Chat With…The Healthy Fellow
This is a blog series where I interview writers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. about topics relevant to science, skepticism, and critical thinking.
Today I speak with JP Fanton about his website www.HealthyFellow.com and he answers my questions regarding his approach to providing information on natural health and holistic remedies.
Hello and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about natural health consultation, research, and writing. Can you start off by introducing yourself to the readers of the Michigan Skeptics Association website, please, about who you are, your interests in natural health consulting and research, and what led you to create the HealthyFellow.com website?
Thank you for having me as a guest on your site, Chris. I’m very happy to be here. A little bit about me: My name is JP Fanton and I’m the content provider for HealthyFellow.com – a website that provides evidence-based information pertaining to natural health issues. My ultimate goal is to assist health care consumers and providers to select the best possible treatment options available. As you mentioned in your introduction, I also offer consultations to individuals and companies that may benefit from my knowledge.
How is the natural health and holistic medicine you promote, the same or different than all of the various CAM (Complementary & Alternative Medicine) modalities?
I suppose I differ from some CAM advocates in that I require scientific forms of evidence to recommend any procedure or therapeutic approach. Anecdotal reports, case histories and historical use aren’t enough to necessarily get me on board. I don’t disregard them. I just think they’re part of a larger picture.
Ultimately, I think the best possible form of medicine adopts the finest aspects of both CAM and conventional medicine. This is sometimes referred to as “integrative medicine”. I believe in using the most effective and safest options available regardless of their source.
I found your website when you starting following me on Twitter. To be honest, I nearly blocked you, thinking you were some alt-med quack that peddled woo and magic. I’m glad I didn’t because after perusing your website, I was surprised to see that your website’s articles do include numerous references to studies, trials, and general research. How do you evaluate these kinds of evidence for your natural health positions?
I spend a good portion of my days and nights rummaging through the scientific literature, various magazines and websites in the hope of finding a few hidden gems that I can share with others. When I’m really fortunate, these treasures come in the form of double blind, placebo controlled, randomized studies. However, this is the exception to the rule. More often than not, I need to work with whatever I find.
This is why a considerable amount of the research I report on is of a preliminary nature. In practical terms this means animal, epidemiological, in-vitro or open-label and pilot studies in human subjects.
On your website, you discuss holistic medicine practices. Skeptics claim that holistic medicine lacks evidence of efficacy, and it’s rooted in mystical or magical traditions – which is why it fails to hold up when applied to double-blind, controlled trials. What would you tell skeptics about your views on holistic medicine, and in what capacity holistic medicine can be helpful?
As a general rule, I think alternative and complementary therapies work best in chronic conditions and in a preventive capacity. I would not rely on garlic to address pneumonia or opt for intravenous vitamin C to rid my body of an operable malignant tumor. But I would certainly choose dietary measures, exercise and mind-body techniques if confronted with excess weight, high cholesterol or poor attention span. I’m also perfectly comfortable with combining allopathic and natural therapies when there’s evidence of efficacy and safety to support the combination. One example is the addition of fish oil to conventional antidepressant medication.
You mentioned to me in your website, that some time ago you were a part of, but eventually walked away from, the alt-med field. What were the circumstances of that event, and what brought you back to natural health consultation and research?
I made a career change several years after feeling disillusioned by some of the sales techniques that are quite prevalent in the natural health industry. Every sector of the business community and public life is subject to half-truths and spin. But, you know, it’s a very different story when use hyperbole to sell a music CD or pair of pants as compared to a dietary supplement that’s intended to impact someone’s health. Day in and day out I would attempt to steer people to the best possible information and products. However, this isn’t always the best way to generate sales. So, I took some time off and worked in a much more ethical and meaningful industry: filmmaking. Ha!
Which people or websites in the alternative and holistic medicine do you feel provide good support for their positions – and why?
These days, I tend to avoid most personality-related health sites. Having said that, I think Dr. Loren Cordain’s ThePaleoDiet site is quite good. I’m an admirer of the work being done by Dr. Richard Feinman of The Nutrition and Metabolism Society. Dr. William Davis of The Heart Scan Blog also provides some pretty compelling data. What they all share in common is a willingness to support their points of view with scientific data. In fact, all of them have authored and/or co-authored papers appearing in prestigious, peer-reviewed medical journals.
Are there people or websites in the alternative and holistic medicine field that you feel do not serve it well – and why? Can you name a few examples?
I’d rather not name anyone specifically, but I am frustrated by some of the information put forth by some of the more popular integrative physicians. As I mentioned in response to an earlier question, I’m not a big fan of heavy handed marketing. I think many celebrated health experts engage in this sort of hype. Let’s be honest, the most popular physicians are frequently the best salesmen as well.
Much of your website focuses on natural remedies that could help to minimize risks of various diseases and disorders? How do you balance these assertions, with what we know about genetic influences and causes to the same ailments?
From my perspective, I think it’s wise to play the odds. If you live your life in a manner that most epidemiological studies suggest will help reduce disease risk, it’s probably a pretty good strategy. I subscribe to the philosophy that it’s worth expending effort in noble and reasonably well informed pursuits. Taking care of my body and living by example reflects this belief. But it’s always possible that I’ll develop a terrible disease that I think I’m preventing via my lifestyle. That’s life. However, even if that turns out to be the case, I don’t think I’ll regret my earnest effort to the contrary. And then there are nutrigenomics and lifestyle choices that can impact genetic expression. This is a burgeoning field of research which will likely revolutionize healthcare in the coming decades.
Let’s focus on evidence. On occasion, we’ve had exchanges in the comments section of your website about some of the supporting studies you reference. How important is it to you for your readers to understand and interpret studies? That is, to evaluate studies based on how they’re properly controlled and blinded, include a sufficient sample size, to show statistical significance, and to put it in context with the existing literature?
My intention is for the columns to serve as a springboard for more in-depth exploration. Many readers will actually share columns with their health care providers in order to get an additional take on the topic at hand. The reality is that there are only so many details I can include before the eyes of my editor and readers start to glaze over. That’s part of the reason why I include footnotes in the form of embedded links at the end of each paragraph that describes a study. Visitors are always encouraged to trace the evidence back to the source. And, if they’re passionate enough about the topic, they can leave me a comment at the end of any given blog asking for additional information or clarification. I try to follow up on comments to the best of my ability.
You’ve recently blogged about having success in a diet strategy called the “alternate day fasting” diet. I don’t suppose this is a recommendation to eat fast food every other day? Ha! Can you tell me a bit about it, how you came to accept its plausibility, and ultimately how it’s helped you?
Sorry, Chris. No such luck. This isn’t a prescription for adopting an “Undersize Me” lifestyle. A nutrient dense diet is even more important when incorporating fasting. If you eat less, you had better make what you eat count more. Alternate day fasting (ADF) is essentially a diet plan that alternates eating normally one day with restricting yourself to only one slightly smaller meal the following day. In a recent pilot study this was calculated as 100% caloric consumption on regular feed days and 25% on fast days. Preliminary research suggests that adherence to ADF is quite good because those involved carry around the understanding that they can eat “normally” every other day – as opposed to dieting every day.
What’s also interesting is that there doesn’t appear to be any compensatory eating on the days following each mini-fast. The plausibility issue is fairly well addressed in two ways: 1) hunter-gatherers thrived eating this way throughout history and long before the adoption of the modern three, square meal concept; 2) a considerable amount of animal research and limited human interventions indicate that ADF confers numerous health benefits upon conditions ranging from cancer to cardiovascular disease. On a more personal level, it’s helped me to shed 15 lbs over a 50 day period. My blood pressure and sugar levels have also improved. At the 3 month mark I plan to have blood tests performed to see how it has influenced cholesterol, triglycerides and other health markers.
I would like your opinion on three alternative & complementary medical modalities that are prominent topics of debate amongst alt-med proponents and skeptics. What would you say is the plausibility of each, as well as what you think the evidence says about it?
Homeopathy: I generally don’t use homeopathic remedies or recommend them. There are some positive homeopathic studies presented in the medical literature. But, on the whole, I’m unimpressed by the totality of the research currently available.
Chiropractic: I endorse its use in conditions that appear to be responsive to chiropractic treatment. For instance, a Cochrane Review from April of this year concluded that chiropractic interventions provide both short-term and medium-term relief in low back pain sufferers. The authors of the review go on to add this caveat: “However, there is currently no evidence that supports or refutes that these interventions provide a clinically meaningful difference for pain or disability in people with LBP when compared to other interventions”. All things being equal, I’d rather see a reputable chiropractor than rely on pain relieving medications or surgery unless absolutely necessary.
Acupuncture: I think acupuncture will be increasingly integrated into the modern medical care system in the years to come. There are simply too many studies in humans that suggest some degree of benefit and relatively little risk. In addition, new experiments are documenting measurable changes in physiological functions that are not likely attributable to the placebo effect. For instance, a study appearing in the October issue of the journal Acta Radiologica discovered changes in glucose metabolism induced by the stimulation of select acupoints (LR3 and ST44) in specific brain regions using FDG-PET/CT.
Regarding supplements, skeptics cite a robust amount of evidence that, for normal, healthy people, conclude they are not proven to be of any benefit for prolonging and maintaining a good quality life. Other than young children, pregnant women, elderly people, and those with particular health conditions, do you feel there is any advantage for taking supplements – such as vitamins, minerals, etc.?
I like that you used the word “supplement”. I make it a point to refer to fatty acids (flax and fish oil, GLA, krill oil, etc), fruit/herbal/vegetable extracts, minerals and vitamins as supplements because I think they should primarily be used to supplement a healthy diet and lifestyle. I’m reluctant to recommend them to clients who wish to use them to compensate for other unhealthful practices. In my opinion, the topic of dietary supplements is often studied in a rather crude manner. One size simply doesn’t fit all. However, when they’re properly applied in an individualized way they can be useful for many conditions and sometimes eliminate or reduce the need for medications with a greater risk of adverse reactions.
Another feature of your website that would be favorable to even the most resolute skeptic is your recipes. What is your methodology of obtaining the recipes and determining whether they are worthy of publication? And what is your favorite recipe?
That’s kind of you to say. Thank you. It wasn’t until I embarked on a weight loss program a few years ago that I got serious about cooking. I especially enjoy converting dishes that I enjoyed in my previous life as an overweight foodie into nourishing alternatives. I do my best to emphasize ingredient quality and nutrient density when putting together each recipe. I also try to keep things as straight forward as possible. I think it’s important to offer practical suggestions and to understand the value of convenience. One of my favorite recipes is probably my Almond Pancakes. The reason I like it is because it offers delicious health benefits to so many people who need it the most – from growing children to undernourished senior citizens – while still providing a taste of a familiar comfort food.
After I post this interview, you may get new readers to your website that will read your posts with a critical, skeptical eye. How should they engage you, if they have questions or concerns about your arguments and/or evidence?
It may seem strange, but I feel honored when someone takes the time to leave a critical or skeptical comment on my site. I know very well that most of us live very busy lives and that time is of a premium. If someone is inspired to remark about my work, I’ll almost always respond in a courteous and thoughtful way in return. The only limitations have to do with time constraints and divulging too much personal information. Like most everyone, I have a fair share of personal and professional commitments. So I do have to budget my time when replying to multiple comments. And while I happily share some aspects of my life with my readers, I also reserve the right to keep some things private.
Lastly, are you personally or is your website financed by any companies or corporations that sell natural health and holistic medicine products or services?
I do use the Google Ads service which tends to select advertisements according the content found on any given site. However, I don’t tailor my content based on those ads. There are also a few paid text links on the right hand side of my homepage under the “Links” section. The top three links listed there are provided free of charge to friends of the site. Presently, there are also two supplement related links, one exercise product link, one nursing home link and one pest control link. At one point in time we even had a sponsored link from the manufacturer of a medication directed specifically at medical professionals. But it’s important to note that I’ve yet to write any column which directly or indirectly promotes any of these companies or products. If that ever changes, I’ll most certainly make that point clear to my readers. I’ve worked very hard to establish a good reputation and the trust of my audience. I have no intention of jeopardizing that in any way.
Thank you so much for the interview.
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