Science Catch-up. Why Are Placebos Getting More Effective?

by The Health Sciences Academy — Get free science updates here.

Welcome to our Thursday’s Science Catch-up: curated links by The Health Sciences Academy. Get our email updates every other Thursday here (it’s free).

Let’s catch you up with studies and news that recently made the headlines!

Click on your favourite topics to read our summary:

1. Why are placebos getting more effective?

2. What’s the best way to stay motivated?

3. How to improve willpower? Feed it.

4. Pear-shaped vs. apple trumps body mass index as a measure of risk

5. ‘Everything in moderation’ advice is as flawed as low-fat and sugar-free

6. Mindfulness training helps patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD)

7. Is your job making you fat?

8. Porridge a potential prebiotic?

9. Low-fat diet not most effective in long-term weight loss

10. Is fat stigma making you miserable?


Why are placebos getting more effective?

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Fascinating. People seem to be getting better merely by taking part in scientific studies these days, regardless of whether they have been given real drugs… or a fake pill (placebo).


What’s the best way to stay motivated?

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Behavioural economists found that it’s a sense of progress that makes us stay motivated at work. Progress seems to give work meaning. And meaning is why we work.


How to improve willpower? Feed it.

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One of the best ways to manage that self-control resource is to set yourself up so that you don’t have to use it. Choice architecture is one way to do it, so you let your environment make those choices for you; no willpower needed. Think foods/drinks on your kitchen counter, fridge, cabinets… More about circumventing willpower here.


Pear-shaped vs. apple trumps body mass index as a measure of risk

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Body fat distribution matters, even in those who qualify as “normal weight”. Excess visceral fat around vital organs puts you at a higher risk of disease. Waist-to-hip ratio is one way to measure this risk.


‘Everything in moderation’ advice is as flawed as low-fat and sugar-free

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An unexpected finding! Researchers found that those who consume “greater food variety” (even if in moderation) have worse diet quality: they tend to eat less healthy foods (like vegetables) but more unhealthy foods (like processed meats and desserts), and show more central weight gain (an indicator of central fat and metabolic issues). On the other hand, those with the healthiest diets appear to eat a relatively small range of healthy foods, but in larger amounts.


Mindfulness training helps patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD)

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Did you know that psychological distress may lead to increased IBD symptoms and flare-ups? In this study, IBD patients who received guided meditations, mindfulness exercises, and group discussions of challenges or experiences, had greater reductions in anxiety and depression scores, and improvement in physical and psychological quality of life, compared to the patients who did not receive them. So, why not try?


Is your job making you fat?

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It seems that the type of responsibility we have at work might affect our chances of becoming obese… probably due to overwhelming demands, conflict, loss of control, or stress. Conversely, having the freedom to use your skills and feeling in control is linked to lower body mass index (BMI) and a smaller waist size. Something to keep in mind!


Porridge a potential prebiotic?

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Norwegian and Swedish researchers believe that oats should be added to the “prebiotics” category. They found that eating a bowl of porridge oats a day could alter gut microbial functions.


Low-fat diet not most effective in long-term weight loss

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An old dilemma: do low-fat diets result in any greater weight loss, compared to other diets?

This new systematic review showed they didn’t. Most diets worked, but the low-fat ones weren’t particularly better than the rest.

A little caveat: these are general findings, so they don’t take into account individual variability. We’re in the era of personalised nutrition, which means that there isn’t one single universal diet that’s equally effective for everyone. That’s why it’s crucial to find out what works (and what doesn’t work) for you or your clients. We help our students with that in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner course.

Here’s the study abstract: Effect of low-fat diet interventions versus other diet interventions on long-term weight change in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Tobias et al., 2015. The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology.


Is fat stigma making you miserable?

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Messages or attitudes that shame, blame and denounce you about your weight have a terrible impact. Feeling judged for being overweight can undermine your self-control, give you feelings of incompetence, compromise your psychological health, and rise your cortisol levels. This might also increase your motivation to avoid “shaming” domains (e.g. the gym, or exercising in public), and escape the humiliation by engaging in unhealthy self-sabotaging behaviours… What do I say to that? The more you care about what others think, the less freedom you have. Stop caring about them. Get out and be proud! Watch this, I love it:



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What has inspired you this week? What are your thoughts on some of these topics? Leave a comment and let us know!

The-Health-Sciences-Academy-Alejandra-Ruani-small1-right Alex Ruani, Doctoral Researcher, leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where her team of accomplished scientists and PhDs are training a new breed of over 100,000 highly-specialised nutrition professionals who are leveraging the latest personalisation strategies to help their clients. She is a Harvard-trained scientist and UCL Doctoral Researcher who is fanatical about equipping health professionals with the latest science-based tools so they can succeed in their practices – from identifying the unique nutrient needs to building highly personalised nutrition programs. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition biochemistry, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free email updates.

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  • Tracey

    Reply Reply November 25, 2015

    I just wanted to comment on your blog about the study about low fat diets not being effective for weight loss. Dr Popper from the Wellness Forum has also analysed the research and has some interesting points about the inadequate study design and misinterpretation of the results. There is a preponderance of scientific evidence that low fat diets are the most effective for sustained weight loss, and this is also verified by the US National Weight Control Registry (the Director has recently stated that their analysis of all dietary records consistently shows that those who followed a low fat diet lost weight and kept it off long term.

    The problem with the study that you cite, is that the diets compared were not even low fat (15% or less of calories is low fat, not 30% or more!!). Dr Popper also points out some concluding statements made by the researchers that contradicts what is being said about the study, that low fat diets are not effective for weight loss.

    Dr Poppers analysis is here if you are interested


    • Thanks for sharing, Tracey! Yes, science isn’t black and white. Beyond study design, lower fat may work for some and lower carb for others. We actually dive into this dilemma a lot deeper in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Course. At the end of the day, general findings don’t take into account inter-individual variability… so it’s crucial to move towards a personalised approach where an individual’s unique biochemistry is taken into account, which we teach in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Course. Here’s the full curriculum if you want to check it out: Thanks again! Maria (THSA) P.S. Our spam filter might remove the external links so thanks for explaining (!)

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