On March 13th Time Healthland tweeted “The deadly dangers of eating red meat” which linked to their blog post “Eating Red, Processed Meat Raises Your Risk of Early Death.” A paper in Wyoming ran “Red Meat Kills.” Questionable science aside, these are, in my opinion, irresponsible headlines. Sending people running from a hamburger as if a cow is going to jump up off the plate and shoot you in the head is not going to improve anyone’s health. Really, folks.
By the next day my email boxed was full with concerns from panicked patients who I had put on a high protein diet based on their own individual risk profiles and health conditions. People were frightened, and for good reason. Death is a scary prospect for most, and when we are told what we are eating is going to kill us, we panic. The truth is that there are far worse things than a bit of grass fed red meat in our diets. But that’s another post.
This kind of dramatic reporting isn’t a rare occurrence. Just off the top of my head I can think of several examples of studies throwing us the final word on what is and isn’t healthy:
- Hormone replacement therapy. 1991 Prevents heart disease. 2008 Causes heart disease. 2010 Prevents heart disease.
- Antidepressants. 2009 They don’t work. 2012 They do work.
- Antibiotics for sinus infection. 1996 They work. 2012 They don’t work.
- Caffeine. 1978 Raises blood pressure, don’t drink it. 2011 Prevents heart disease in the elderly, drink it.
The only thing everyone can really agree on is that experts never agree on anything. And truthfully, most statisticians will tell you that results of studies are often massaged to get the answer that the researcher is looking for. Not to mention that studies may never be released if what was set out to be proven, isn’t.
That leaves the average person with the media (including social media) blasting sensationalist headlines often handing us yet another reason to beat ourselves up. What we thought was healthy, isn’t. What we thought was the right thing is the wrong thing. The two most common outcomes of this sensationalism are jumping on bandwagons or throwing our hands up in the air and saying “forget it, it’s impossible to make the right choice.” Extremes. And we all know that extremes are never a good answer.
So what is there to do?
- When you’re on twitter or facebook and see the headlines that put you in a panic about your health or your life, stop, take a deep breath, and take whatever it is with an initial grain of salt.
- Wait a few days to see how the medical community responds to the information. If you’re more holistically oriented, see how the alternative medical community responds to it. If you’re oriented toward Western medicine, watch sites like WebMD.
- Have a health practitioner who you trust who can talk to you about the actual numbers in the study and how they apply to you, personally. A health practitioner who can work with you not only to treat your medical problems, but prevent problems from occurring in the future. Understand fundamentally that the specifics of what you need are specific to you.
- Put your logic on. Association is not causation. In other words, just because two things happen together (eating red meat and slightly decreased life span) doesn’t mean one caused the other. If several times in a row your mother calls when you’re in the bathroom, it doesn’t mean that going to the bathroom makes your mother call. Or that your mother calling makes you go to the bathroom.
- Put the information in context. If there were one diet that worked to keep everyone healthy, trust me, we’d know about it.
- Remember, most importantly, that we don’t know more than we do know. There’s a universe out there of information we don’t yet know how to gather. The be all and end all today may not be the be all and end all tomorrow.
Dr. Samantha is a licensed naturopathic physician and acupuncturist, health educator, writer, cook and owner of Evergreen Natural Health Center in Portland, OR. These days when she’s not seeing patients she’s either playing with the fam or hanging out on her blog, twitter, facebook or pinterest. She’d love to see you there!