Medical Tests…Are You Overdiagnosed?

February 2nd, 2014 by Tonya Zavasta

DiagnosisRecently I came across an article on the internet that contained this letter from a health-conscious woman:

Imagine my shock at my last physical, when my doctor told me I had hypothyroidism, common in women over 40. When I got home I looked [it up] on the Internet and found a list of foods to avoid. Kale, which I juiced every morning, tops the list, followed by broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts and collard greens—the cruciferous vegetables I consumed in large quantities because they are thought to prevent cancer…

There are experts who say raw cruciferous vegetables can lead to medical trouble for some people. If you’re one of such people, do take precautions. For the rest of us, a good rule to abide by is: don’t eat anything in “large quantities.”  But today my issue is not with cruciferous vegetables. I suggest we look at this matter from an entirely different angle.

Consider this line from the letter: Imagine my shock at my last physical, when my doctor told me I had hypothyroidism, common in women over 40.

Once, doctors largely treated symptoms of existing medical problems. Now, in the spirit of preventive medicine, they’re treating people who may develop problems in the future. Good motive, but not always with favorable results.

Visit a doctor’s office nowadays, and they’ll be chasing numbers, via medical tests. The blood sugar number defines diabetes. A number for cholesterol defines hyperlipidemia. And osteoporosis is defined by a number—the ‘T score’—for bone density. Each number range has cutoffs, established by boards of physicians. They will have the final say on who has developed diabetes, and who hasn’t. Skilled and knowledgeable as they might be, the expert members of these panels bring biases with them—mostly of an intellectual nature, though sometimes members are influenced by monetary incentives, courtesy of Big Pharma.

In recent decades, many target levels and cutoff points have been modified by such panels, sharply increasing the numbers of people classified as having a particular condition. Once upon a time, if you had a fasting blood sugar over 140, only then were you diabetic, but since a 1997 rules change, the threshold has become 126. This rule change created an instant 1.6 million more patients. In 1998, the “normal” cholesterol mark of 228 was lowered to 184. Virtually overnight, it produced 42 million new high-cholesterol patients, since 200 is about average for the lion’s share of the U.S. population. Blood pressure of 160 (systolic) to 100 (diastolic) used to be normal. But the year 1991 saw a lowering to 140 / 90. You guessed it: 13 million more patients. Similarly, some 6.7 million women became osteoporosis patients overnight when standards for T-scores were altered.

What about those CT scans so popular now? One study of over 1,000 symptom-free people that underwent total-body CT screens found 86% had at least one detected abnormality.  Practical implication: If you’re 40, 50 or older, and go in for a CT scan, chances are they’ll find something abnormal. Of course, we can say that it’s better to be ahead of the disease and prevent serious complications later. But there is another side to this issue as well.

The main point of the book, Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health, is to challenge the current conventional wisdom that more diagnosis, especially early on, means better medical care. Author Dr. Gilbert Welch paints an entirely different picture. More diagnosis, he says, leads to excessive treatment that can actually harm patients, creating real health issues as a side effect of medications. Such over-treatment makes healthy people feel less so, causes depression, and greatly increases medical costs.

What drives this over-diagnosis? At the most basic level, it’s driven by doctors’ interest in making diagnoses. Once, people never took medications without symptoms. Now it’s the norm—by their 50’s, many swallow handfuls of pills on a daily basis “just in case” and “just to be sure.” Some can be helped with early diagnosis. But many more can be hurt.

So what to do? It’s up to you!

Let me add this: If you are eating a lot of raw whole foods, you are an entirely different specimen. There’s hardly been any research on people who’ve eaten high raw, or mostly raw diet. (Why? Because we’re still relatively rare. It’s hard to get a stadium’s worth—gosh, even a big room’s worth—of us in one place to do double-blind tests on.) Doctors have no tests to fall back on in determining what’s “normal” for a raw food person.

I’m not a doctor. And my knowledge of hypothyroidism is limited. From what I’ve learned, it’s a serious condition with nasty symptoms. But from our friend’s letter we read she was “shocked,” meaning she had no symptoms and she was diagnosed with what is “common” for women over 40. In light of what we know about overdiagnosis, and in light of the fact—and it is a fact—that we raw foodists aren’t “normal,” statistically, I offer one possible consolation to our friend: You, too, might just not be normal.  If you eat a lot of raw foods you present a real challenge to the medical community, and are more likely to find yourself among the over-diagnozed. To learn more about how your test results might be over the doctor’s “normal” charts check out my book, Quantum Eating.

5 Responses to “Medical Tests…Are You Overdiagnosed?”

  1. Olga Fischer Says:

    Hi Tonya, I agree entirely. By ‘catching’ some issue early, we may in fact create a state of ‘having an illness’ in a person, which may undermine their natural self-healing ability and make them feel too disempowered to allow their body to deal with it (this approach requires a different thinking, which is too scary for most). When we are ‘diagnosed’ with something, the message we send to ourselves often is – my body failed to do its job, I need to give the reins over to the doctors, rather than – I have failed to provide my body with adequate nutrition, movement or rest, I need to correct that.

  2. Raw Vegan Says:

    Hello Tonya, one test that I had said that I have low pepsin levels. Of course I knew that this reading isn’t reliable because I’m vegan and have been high-raw for almost 8 years now. So how much pepsin does my body need to make, really? Only carnivores have high pepsin levels because of all the dead carcasses that they eat. I also practice IF and don’t eat for at least 16 hours everyday. I only eat 1-2x a day (3 times if I need a snack), so again, why would my body need to make lots of pepsin?

  3. Cathleen Deitz Quiroga Says:

    Hello, Tonya!
    I just found your website and I have enjoyed learning about your journey. Yesterday was my 64th birthday, and I have been a nutritional consultant for 18 years. A year ago I added essential oils and my life changed just in time to help me combat shingles, stopping them cold, and kidney stones.

    Since my birthday was yesterday, it was the beginning of the Winter Olympics and Russia gave me the best b-day present ever with the beautiful opening ceremonies! I loved all the creativity that went into the program and also the risk-taking! I was so impressed! I love the Olympics and how they bring the world together, and that this year it was Russia’s turn to shine.

    I see that same creativity on your website and in your life story. I couldn’t resist letting you know. Here’s to more international friendships!

  4. Tonya Zavasta Says:

    Wow! Thank you for your heartfelt message! I’m also all for international friendship. Best wishes!

  5. Wendy Raebeck Says:

    Aloha Tonya, I’m glad someone is finally addressing this. I’m just a bystander, since I haven’t been to a doctor in 15 years (except for one broken bone). Nor do I intend to go. I’m not going to do what they say anyway. My body lets me know when I’m out of balance, and it’s up to me to improve my diet, exercise, and stress levels. I’ve never taken pills in my life, don’t even have aspirin around. When I have to fill out a form that requests the name of my physician, I write “self.” I’m almost 64, look and feel fine, and when my time comes, hopefully in 40+ years, I pray it’s easier to avoid medical treatment than it is now for old folks. (I learned about raw food when my dear mother died in 1969 of medical treatment —conventional cancer protocols — and my father went holistic. He’s now 92.) Thanks for all you do, Tonya, it’s so important!

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