A new menopause study is out that has led to yet another round of sensationalist headlines, again raising false hopes for women hoping to get rid of menopause symptoms naturally. My favourite doozie so far is, "Vegan diet can significantly diminish hot flashes in postmenopausal women, with the potential to nearly eradicate them altogether”.
I am pretty much vegan myself, and I love a healthy lifestyle. And God knows I'd be thrilled if any of this were as exciting as it sounds. But reign in those expectations, ladies. There actually isn’t much behind this research that you don’t already know, as I'll explain.
What we do have here, however, is a perfect and shocking case study of the machinations of the million dollar menopause industry at work again, ready to cash in on us all. Let me explain.
A short summary of the new menopause study
The 'study', which lasted 12 weeks, took 84 women that had hot flashes at least twice a day, then assigned them to one of two groups. The first group was put on a low-fat vegan diet, with half a cup of cooked soybeans daily. The other, the control group, where told to make no dietary changes.
Based on the 'evidence' collected, which involved no actual bodily measurements other than the participants' weight changes, it concluded that overall hot flashes in the women on the diet protocol decreased by 79%. That moderate-to-severe hot flashes were reduced by 84% (from nearly five per day to fewer than one hot flash per day). And that nearly 60% of women on the diet became totally free of moderate-to-severe hot flashes.
Research study, or carefully plotted marketing campaign?
So your favourite health writer (that's me) took it upon herself to do some digging about how this 'study' came to be. And to her shock discovered a 'study' that isn't, breaking all sorts of protocol all set up to advertise an ageing doctor's attempt at relaunching himself as a an author and nutritionist.
The "Committee" behind the study on hot flashes and a vegan diet
Most research studies are collaborations between university laboratories. This one was rather suspiciously put out by a fancy sounding "Physician's Committee". Say what?!
So I went to their site. Oddly, this was only their second 'study'. Even more odd, they are recruiting for a third. Which is, lo and behold, really the same study as this one, but looking at how this exact diet effects endometriosis symptoms.
Which will make sense when I tell you that on this Committee's website, underneath an article summarising this study we are examining, acting as if it is all about their 'serious' research, it suddenly suggests, “Below are recipes that include soy-based foods. For hot flashes, use whole soybeans. But you’ll love these recipes, too.”
Erm. What??! Recipes?!
Then, yes, a ton of recipes are listed, but not before we see a nice picture placement of a doctor's forthcoming book where you can ‘find more information and many great recipes’. A book which has as part of its title “The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health”. Yes, seriously.
And, surprise surprise, looking at how the committee was formed it turns out that said doctor, let's all him 'Doctor X' is the self-styled 'President' of it.
Doctor X is not a nutritionist
Seems the "Committee' is a front for Dr. X's new career as a nutritionist. And I guess the good Doctor felt he needed to really go for it on the promotion and 'look professional' front, given that he is not a nutritionist. Or a biologist. Or even a research scientist. He's qualified as a psychiatrist. No, I'm not kidding I looked it up.
He paid the other 'doctors' listed on the study to be part of it
Still not sure the entire study isn't just to promote his book, avid veganism, and love of soy beans? Hidden away on the 'author information' page of the study, all in small print, I discover that, big surprise, his "Committee' funded the study. And another 'author' on the study is the 'author of the nutrition blog Veggie Quest' (who I imagine helped with the funding as it also talks about the trust in her name with all sorts of dubious corporate connections).
But it gets even better. Turns out all the other 'authors' on the study were PAID to act as part of it. I quote, "H.K., D.N.H., F.A., M.N., L.M.C., and R.H. received compensation from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine for their work on this study." So yes, if you want your study to o look professional, so you can market your new book, pay your friends, I guess.
Why poorly executed studies like this are dangerous
Why do I care? Why am I bothering to write this? Because within a week EIGHTY-EIGHT press outlets have picked up this 'study'. The internet is already awash with headlines. With flimsy conclusions they set of of an avalanche of misinformation, that, again, give many women false hopes.
A case in point. Remember that sensationalist headline I started the article with? That same website claims that:
"The study finds an impressive 95% reduction in hot flashes of varying intensities (study said 79%) , with a reduction of 96% observed in moderate to severe instances (study said 84%). And it claims that severe hot flashes were "completely eliminated” (the study said this was only true of 60% of the women). "
Yes, I can quickly spot that it's a hack site, some dude trying to make money by building an info site then loading it up with Google ads. Who even accepts payments to promote studies.
But someone else not working in the information industry, an average busy woman, might think the site is professional and believable, given that its entire focus appears to be to discuss scientific studies.
But it's still scientific research about hot flashes, no?
I have put 'study' in brackets above because the way this one was executed hardly qualifies it. The study itself admits its limitations. I mean it has to, they are glaring. The ones it refers to are:
1. Lack of diversity.
Most participants had a college education.
2. Too short.
The study was only 12 weeks long (longer would have produced more reliable results).
3. Too much info given to participants.
There was no ‘blinding’ (participants not knowing whether they were being given the ‘medicine’ or a control/placebo), as it was around a food they were eating. Meaning that the participants' assumptions about the soy beans can affect their symptoms (placebo effect).
4. Too many variables.
It used a ‘combo intervention’ which makes it very hard to know what was working out of the two interventions (diet change or soy beans, or, as will see later, weight loss).
5. It used 'self reporting' for hot flashes, etcetera.
Food intake, menopausal symptoms, and client's weight measurements were based on self-reporting which is known to entail inaccuracies.
So let's add to this list of study limitations
I’m no scientist. But this is what I noticed in addition to the above.
1. There were weekly 'group sessions'.
The participants did a weekly 1-hour group session on Zoom. This is not scientific protocol as clearly members of the group will be influenced by the progress of the other participants.
2. Hot flashes are well known for being too affected by the placebo effect to measure easily.
The placebo effect has been proven repeatedly to have a very strong effect on hot flashes, which the paper even admits to. Adding to an already raised placebo affect risk given the participants knew what the intervention was.
3. The menopause symptoms like hot flashes were not in any way measured.
The menopause symptoms were subjective, recorded by what the subject shared, not measured in any accurate way. The way one woman feels about her symptoms and describes them might be vastly different from the way someone else does.
4. There was little consistency in the body composition of each participant.
Women ranged from 40 to 65 years old, and with a.body mass index over 18.5kg/m2. A 40 year-old slim woman will likely feel less hot and sweaty than an overweight 55 year old if exerting herself. So, for example, might describe a hot flash as worse if she feels less sweaty on a daily basis.
5. They did the study in two parts, one in spring and one in fall.
They tried to bluff their way around this by claiming to have adjusted for temperatures.
6. The sample is just way too small.
It's not enough women, particularly given the huge age range and lack of any sort of parameters around their body makeup.
7. The participants were all given a vitamin B-12 supplement.
Meaning you could just as easily assume from subjective reporting that vitamin B and tofu lowered hot flashes. Just way too many variables going on.
The researchers also admit that the participants on the vegan diet lost on average of eight pounds over the 12-week study. That’s around 3.5kg, ladies. It could be as likely it was weight loss and not the diet that made a difference.
The cherry on the unprofessional cake
Mr. X took it upon himself to make a video of himself talking about his study, that he actually is uploaded to the Menopause Journal as if it's just research related.
In it, Dr. X, wearing a lab coat that he has of course emblazoned with his name and the name of his ‘committee’, briefly discusses his 'research'....then tells you how you can cook soy beans.
And then he has participants from the study talking bout the experience, going on about how they lost weight and don't have hot flashes.
Just to point out this is not scientific protocol. You don’t expose participants. And it leads me to suspect some of the participants were friends of the researchers, again against any acceptable scientific protocol. It's blatant advertising.
Dr. X has also sorted out not just hot flashes but all our other health issues too?
In a press release put out by his Committee, Dr. X declares, “This study demonstrates the effectiveness of a dietary intervention for menopausal symptoms”.
No, it doesn't. Again, it could have very well been the placebo effect or the weight loss. But he doesn't stop there, being the humble sort.
“As well, it is precisely the diet that would be expected to reduce the health concerns of many women reaching menopause: an increasing risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and memory problems,” he continues. And here I thought I needed HRT. Silly me.
Is this the point that I mention I have eaten a largely vegan diet for the last few decades? That I eat high amounts of soy, after living in Japan when younger?That indeed, when I first developed brutal perimenopause symptoms at the age of only 38 I was on a raw vegan diet?
Why this 'research study' about soy, a vegan diet, and hot flashes makes me so angry
Mr. X the psychiatrist is an 'adjunct professor' (part time, not on staff) who is 70 years old.
My guess is he is feeling he didn't make his mark in life and wanted a surefire target. I get it. I often feel I had done more with my life, too.
And I get that he is passionate about veganism, and that's great. But is it really necessary for yet another dude to cash in on our suffering as menopausal women?
We don't need mansplaining to know that a healthy lifestyle, a good diet, and losing a decent amount of kilograms if we are overweight can leave us feeling better. And that losing around 3.5 kg might leave us feeling less hot and sweaty.
I mean you don't see me asking a group of men with erectile dysfunction to eat a healthier diet including a cup of kale a day, leading to them losing weight and leading a healthier lifestyle, thereby increasing the confidence and libido, then saying kale improves penis function. Hmmm I feel a new book coming on, ladies....