Livestrong.com promotes quack medicine
Livestrong.com is a Web site brand launched by Demand Media, Inc. and cyclist Lance Armstrong in 2008. Content for Livestrong.com is produced through Demand Media Studios by freelancers and professionals and distributed via video, Web articles and smartphone applications. Livestrong.com is a licensed partner with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Lance Armstrong to help people diagnosed with cancer. While the foundation’s Web site, Livestrong.org, is non-profit, Livestrong.com is for-profit. Armstrong and the Lance Armstrong Foundation received significant equity investments in Demand Media through licensing agreements that allowed Demand Media to use the trademarked Livestrong name.1
Content from Livestrong.com has been cited by USA Today and other media outlets including Wikipedia. Some of the content is good; other content is downright abominable. Take Psyllium Husk & Bentonite Clay for Weight Loss on Livestrong.com, for example.The article is advocating an ‘alternative’ medicine practice, colon cleansing, and relies on sources that promote this type of junk science. Of the 4 sources cited, only the University of Maryland source on psyllium husk is reputable. The other 3 sources make claims that stray from the realm of science and science-based medicine. A disclaimer appears in the first paragraph, “Speak to your doctor before trying these supplements”, but then goes on to hype puffery about how psyllium husk and bentonite clay can “promote weight loss” through “detoxification”.2
Psyllium husk is soluble fiber and an ingredient in laxatives. When added to water, it swells up and becomes a gelatinous mass.3 Bentonite clay has similar properties. It’s used as a clarifying agent and also forms a gel in water.4 The article advises you to put the two together with water -- a lot of water -- and drink it down. Follow this up with more water and repeat the process 3 times a day for 3-4 days. What happens when you do this? If you don’t get cramps, you’ll almost certainly notice you’re excreting a dark, gelatinous substance which the article suggests is toxins and years of accumulated fecal matter that had been impacted in your colon. 'Mucoid plaque' is what alt-med believers call the dark, streaked substance they excrete. It’s actually the clay, psyllium and water mixed with feces that’s formed a cast of your large intestine and likely stripped your colon of its protective mucous.
There’s no scientific evidence to support the assertions in the Livestrong.com article. Michael F. Picco, M.D., a gastroenterologist with the Mayo Clinic, states your body eliminates waste without the need for colon cleansing and that colon cleansing can be dangerous to your health.5 Supplements like bentonite and psyllium aren’t regulated by the FDA, and repeated use can make you dependent on them for bowel movements. Using them 3 times a day for 3-4 days as suggested in the article could lead to weight loss, but it’s not healthy. Bulimics use laxatives to control their weight and this is what Livestrong.com is promoting.
Livestrong.com’s Fertile relationship with Demand Media Studios
An super-sized portion of Livestrong.com content is served up by Demand Media Studios. Demand Media uses an algorithm to determine the revenue potential from long-tail searches and suggests keyword search articles based on the algorithm results. Demand Media then farms the content out to its pool of 10,000 freelance writers. The articles “are run through a plagiarism check, and then are reviewed, edited, fact checked and rated by our highly qualified copy editors.” Demand Media claims their content “is the product of a rigorous editorial process that involves 14 human touch points.” 6
How demanding is Demand Media’s editorial process? On the right hand side of the Web page, Psyllium Husk & Bentonite Clay for Weight Loss, there is a “People Are Reading” section. Every article in that section promotes the same snake oil claims of “detoxification” and “cleansing” using questionable sources and every article has been reviewed by an editor at Demand Studios. The same format is used throughout the site. A stock photo on the top left of the article, an introductory paragraph followed by 4 or 5 more short paragraphs, each with a heading, references at the end and ads galore. Quality writing and credible sources aren’t in demand at Demand Studios; Quantity of articles, based on the number of keyword searches performed, is preferred.
Fact-checking the fact checkers reveals only one reputable source in the article: The University of Maryland Medical Center. UMMC makes no claim for the use of psyllium husk to lose weight or detoxify your body. The other three sources are authors claiming to be doctors but only one, Jacqueline Krohn, is an actual medical doctor. Ann Louise Gittleman claims a Ph.D. in Holistic Nutrition from the non-accredited Clayton College of Natural Health. Peter Bennett has a degree in a naturopathic medicine and did postgraduate work in homeopathy, neither of which are considered scientific disciplines. Krohn, Gittleman and Bennett make claims in their books about detoxification and weight loss that aren't supported by scientific evidence or peer review.
The Straight Dope
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a marketing phrase, not science-based medicine. It doesn't use the methods of science in researching treatments before treating people. CAM treatments can be dangerous. Some supplements advocated by CAM practitioners can be harmful.7 Recent research published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood concluded, “CAM use has the potential to cause significant morbidity and fatal adverse outcomes.” 8 CAM is an ideology, not a science.
Lance Armstrong and Demand Media profited handsomely from their dealings. The Lance Armstrong Foundation raised a significant amount of money for cancer research and cancer awareness from the sale of Demand Media stock when the stock went public. But what of the harm people may be causing themselves by engaging in CAM practices advocated by Livestrong.com?
Livestrong.com gives the appearance of authority. The site boasts Our Advisors for Food and Nutrition, Health and Fitness. Many are respected in their fields yet a lot of the advice on Livestrong.com is worthless, if not harmful.
What are the advisors roles at Livestrong.com? To give the site an imprimatur, to make it a social media authority. Gauging the site’s popularity on Alexa, that thin veil of credibility has paid off; the site is a success. But it’s a failure when it comes to exposing quackery and providing consistent, reliable, health and fitness advice.
The CAM articles on Livestrong.com are like the snake oil ads in newspapers of yesteryear; they’re a target used to generate advertising revenue for Demand Media and it’s shareholders. Caveat emptor.
- "Demand Media IPO delivers windfall to the Lance Armstrong ..." 2011. 14 Jun. 2012 <http://www.statesman.com/business/demand-media-ipo-delivers-windfall-to-the-lance-1212492.html>
- "Psyllium Husk & Bentonite Clay For Weight Loss | LIVESTRONG.COM." 2010. 14 Jun. 2012 <http://www.livestrong.com/article/343091-psyllium-husk-bentonite-clay-for-weight-loss/>
- "Psyllium." 2007. 13 Jun. 2012 <http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/psyllium-000321.htm>
- "bentonite (clay) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia." 2008. 30 Jul. 2012 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/61219/bentonite>
- "Colon cleansing: Is it helpful or harmful? - MayoClinic.com." 2005. 13 Jun. 2012 <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/colon-cleansing/AN00065>
- "Solutions for Content | Demand Media." 2010. 15 Jun. 2012 <http://www.demandmedia.com/solutions/content-channels/>
- "Liver problems: Alternative medicine - MayoClinic.com." 2009. 15 Jun. 2012 <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/liver-problems/DS01133/DSECTION=alternative-medicine>
- Lim, A. "Adverse events associated with the use of complementary and ..." 2010. <http://adc.bmj.com/content/early/2010/11/24/adc.2010.183152.abstract>