It must be tough out there, being an intelligent person trying to keep track of what’s good for you and what’s not. Virtually every time I open a newspaper or see the news on TV or online, someone, somewhere, is issuing a new health warning. But really, how “dangerous” are these warnings and just how reliable are they?
Health warnings are similar to the Whack-A-Mole game at carnivals. Up pops one warning and you mutter “Omigod! This too?” And quickly there’s another. “New Research Links Processed Meat to Early Death” seems to ensure you’ll never be able to enjoy another pastrami sandwich. Not that a stack of pastrami is all that great without the rye bread, and some of you, now that gluten is the latest health villain, will have to make due with a glob of yellow mustard and fond memories.
Biographically speaking, my very first health warning occurred when I was seven years old and the “authorities” reported that cranberries were linked to cancer. This, of course, managed to occur just a week before Thanksgiving and I was really looking forward to that yummy cylinder of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce that you oozed carefully from the can and sliced into discs. I clearly remember my mother balancing her cigarette and martini in one hand (she was straight out of Mad Men) while grabbing our can of Ocean Spray with the other, using a pair of kitchen tongs as if it were radioactive. Warning us all to “Get out of the way!” she held it at arm’s length, walked to the alley, and dropped it into the garbage can.
Of course the link between cranberries and cancer proved spurious, as have innumerable “may cause” connections that would terrify us over the next decades, only to vanish for awhile, reappear, and then vanish again.
Back in the 19th century, doctors warned everybody about the dangers of masturbation. A hundred years later psychiatrists said it was good for you and now they’ve backpedalled again, affirming that internet porn is our latest addiction. In the early 20th century, alcohol’s “threat” replaced masturbation. Then, with cheers all around, studies showed moderate imbibers were healthier than teetotalers. But nothing ever lasts and now the American Journal of Public Health reports even small amounts of alcohol increase cancer risks and early deaths. Perhaps just like in the 1960s, when coffee was linked to pancreatic cancer but then quickly disproven (maybe because doctors like their coffee).
The tsunami of health warnings represent several apparently unrelated factors
First, like it or not, the authority figures in our lives use fear to control us. Around the world, politicians are especially skilled at this, revealing “enemies” where there are none, “threats” that are non-threats. Corporate heads, the military, educational systems, attorneys, and physicians are also, in their own unique ways, fearmongers. I’m sure psychologists would have a field day with their motivations, conscious or unconscious. I personally think most authority figures capitalize on fear to maintain positions of power, and in the process we’ve become more susceptible to fear. We’ve surrendered our skepticism, accepting far too many warnings and caveats at face value. We’ve lost our ability to question authority. We should be snarling tetchily: “Cured meats? My pastrami?! Listen, Bud, do your statistics come from one sandwich per month or one per day? Don’t you threaten me with your facts until you get the details down cold!”
Second, many “facts” that frighten us simply don’t hold up well under a few minutes of sunshine and intelligent thought. For example, perhaps–just perhaps–the idea that people who eat all that expensive organic food are healthier less because of the pesticides they’re avoiding and more because those with higher incomes are simply healthier in this country than those from lower-income groups. If you shop at Whole Foods aren’t you more likely to have health insurance and a health club membership?
All warnings (with the exception of cigarettes and anaphylactic allergic reactions, like peanut allergies) are a matter of degree. At $15 a pound, I wouldn’t toss the pastrami as mom did the Ocean Spray, but neither would I eat a daily pastrami sandwich. One of my patients confided that her teenager daughter, recently diagnosed with celiac disease, was told by a nutritionist that not only could she never taste beer (not true–there’s gluten-free beer), but that she could never kiss someone who may have had a sip of brew beforehand (emphatically untrue—gluten sensitivity is not like peanut anaphylaxis).
Are you getting the drift here? Authority figures seem to enjoy frightening people. Scientists love to appear on CNN “explaining” the latest bad news. Careers advance when articles get published and it’s a lot easier to publish and get a TV appearance from an eye-catching article with a new “warning.”
You, too, can learn skepticism. Here are two operative words to look for when scanning the latest warning:
1. May, that little nothing of a verbal auxiliary that keeps the speaker from making a commitment, as in the recent “Salt May Play Role In Autoimmune Disease.” Always remember “may” also implies “may not.” By the time enough research comes out that converts the wimpy “may” to the more committed “does,” scientists will have changed their minds a dozen times, driving you crazy in the process.
2. Linked to is another phrase that should raise your skeptical hackles. As in the recently published “Energy Drink Consumption Linked To Increased Blood Pressure” or “Calcium Supplements Linked To Heart Disease” and “Processed Meat Linked To Cardiovascular Disease and Early Death.” “Linked to” asks us to pay attention to future news on these issues, but it’s not an order to press the panic button.
The list that follows needs to be taken with a grain of salt (linked, by the way, not only to heart disease and high blood pressure, but recently to autoimmune diseases as well). Of course, and this is so typical of “the linked-to effect,” a previous study linked low salt intake to insulin resistance and susceptibility to diabetes. It’s enough to make you crazy!
My logic in providing this list is that if I swamp you with all these dire health warnings that have appeared during the past few years, they might act like an allergy shot and desensitize you. Once you’ve scanned the list, I’ll explain how I myself deal with them. I thank the very amusing Encyclopedia Paranoiaca, which has amassed documented information on each of these alleged dangers. Remember, keep your perspective and hold your tongue carefully in your cheek. For example, yes, unwashed celery has pesticide residues, but who would eat unwashed celery? Get the drift?
Aluminum–Unproven link to Alzheimer’s disease.
Apple juice–Dr. Oz reported an unproven link to arsenic.
Apples–High sugars, pesticide residues.
Aspartame–Dr. Weil links it to multiple sclerosis, lupus, and fibromyalgia. But this is his opinion and not fact.
Beta carotene–Increased cancer risks (theoretical, unconfirmed).
Brown rice–Arsenic, yet again
Calcium supplements–Heart disease (unconfirmed).
Chicken–Linked to everything.
Cosmetics–Toxic heavy metal absorption.
Dairy products–A major battleground between financially interested parties, the American Dairy Association recently reporting college students risk developing metabolic syndrome unless they drink three glasses of milk every day. At the other end, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine links dairy to heart disease and several cancers.
Deodorant sprays—Oh that evil aluminum, again.
Diet soda–Stroke, heart attack.
Doughnuts—“Only the hole is healthy.”
Farmer’s markets—As reported on NBC News, an investigation of small pesticide-free farms found them to be, in fact, often using pesticides.
French fries–Loaded with trans fats, high in cancer causing acrylamide.
Granola bars—High-calorie, high-fat cookies (you might as well eat a Milky Way).
Grapes–Pesticides and, if you’re really fearful, a major cause of slip-and-fall injuries at grocery stores.
High fructose corn syrup–You knew this.
Hot dogs—High in fat, high in sodium, and the #1 cause of childhood asphyxiations.
Leafy green vegetables–Pathogen contamination (remember all the recalls?).
Meat eating–Oh, those hormones.
Mussels–Do you know where they live?!
Oranges–Even more pesticides.
Pears–Extremely high sugar content (yum).
Spinach, sprouts–Salmonella contamination.
Sugar–Every illness you don’t want now seems linked to sugar.
Sushi–Bacteria, parasites, and mercury.
Tomato sauces–High fructose corn syrup.
Vitamin A–Excess weakens bones (inconsistent research).
Vitamin C–Excess causes kidney stones (ditto).
Vitamin D–Low levels are common, but too much can trigger hypercalcemia and kidney stones.
Vitamin E–Endless bickering among scientists here. On the good side, less cancer. On the bad, blood coagulation issues.
Water, any source–If the pollutants in it don’t kill you, the plastic containers will.
Feeling overwhelmed? Here’s what you do: remember the first teaching of the Buddha and his doctrine of the Middle Way, the path of moderation, halfway between sensual indulgence and self-mortification. Live the Middle Way. Enjoy yourself a little. Stop by Manny’s or Belden Deli for a pastrami sandwich on rye, but now, on your path of moderation, insist they hold the potato pancake and sour cream.
David Edelberg, MD