Thursday, April 30, 2009

How To Be Well

I can't be the only one who is skeptical whenever I read, hear, or see something about what's good or bad for me to eat. Chocolate is really good for you? Honey Nut Cheerios is good for your cholesterol. Something about walnuts. Am I supposed to eat no carbs at all, or some carbs as long as it's been at least an hour since I've had protein, or am I supposed to avoid meats and fats instead of carbs? I honestly don't know what to eat anymore. And has anyone else noticed how often they make a scientific advance that has to do with toothpaste? I mean, where are these guys who can crank out three discoveries a year and why aren't they curing disease and solving the oil crisis?

The Healthy Skeptic is a book by a science writer who is sick of all the junk science that is passed off on the public. I'd say "these days," but you have no idea the kind of bunk that Messrs Kellogg and Graham (of the crackers) believed in. The point of this book is that pretty much anything about your health that you see on TV--commercials, the news, anything--or read in a magazine is biased and oversimplified, biased, and inadequately supported by the research.

It was a really great book for the first half. He talked a lot about how "independent" research groups are funded, and how news shows often use video press releases from interested parties like drug companies without editing or even investigating them. He gave some examples of respected news organizations like 60 Minutes buying into the hype and tearing companies apart over "problems" that sound scary but don't mean anything. He made some great poionts about paranoia, and how, with health, it's possible for too much information to be a bad thing; demanding screenings for ailments you have low risk for results not only in wasted time and money, but sometimes in greater risks associated with screening and preventative treatment than with the ailment itself. (If you're 80 and your cholesterol is high, there's almost no chance that's going to cause heart disease or kill you. You don't need low cholesterol--or meds for it--if you're 80.)

But he lost me at sunscreen. I can't argue with his science--sunscreen protects against common, highly treatable forms of skin cancer, but not against the somewhat more rare and much more dangerous melanoma. And I can't argue with his assertions that the universal "wear sunscreen" message has been introduced into public consciousness by nonprofit organizations that are funded by sunscreen manufacturers. But I have to balk at his assertion that wearing sunscreen is pretty stupid--we should just none of us ever go outdoors. Seriously, that's pretty much his arguments--long sleeves, stay inside. Not that I'm lying on the beach with a reflector under my chin, but isn't he the one railing against oversimplification?

Speaking of which, I think the point where I really started to disagree with him is the point where he derided even impartial groups for oversimplifying public health messages. On the one hand, I know that's true and that it can result in wasted time, money, and worry. On the other hand, I'm sorry, but you DO need to dumb these things down for us. I'm not going to research, care about, or remember every piece of advice that I get. If I should be wearing sunscreen, you're going to need to drill it into my head. You need to make it something that I know deep down--meaning it has to be simple. And repeated. And then I won't remember why I know it, I'll just know it.

In the end, his suggestions for how to approach health information are pretty useless. Whenever someone says something is good for you, find out who's behind the message and what research their claim is based on. So, when I see a commercial about how Cheerios are good for my cholesterol, I know who's telling me that, but I should go look up the study they're citing that proves it and read it myself to decide. And if it's based on ten studies, I should read the literature. If the news tells me that I might be at risk for getting cooties because I live next door to a cat owner, I should figure out who gave that info to the news and what they based the assertion on.

Seriously? Never gonna happen. Eat right, get exercise, don't smoke. And apparently stay out of the sun. I don't even really do these things. You want me to add to my health regimen, I'm sorry but you're going to have to provide me with a catchy slogan. Maybe rhyming. A cute mascot would be nice. Then we'll talk.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I love the title of this post!