January 28, 2008

Health In The Media

I’m normally often irritated by news coverage of medical studies. Medical studies suggest all sorts of things, most of them contradictory, and they are just studies. They constitute part of the massive project of assembling data used to evaluate various hypotheses, and it is my considered opinion that laypeople are by definition not properly equipped, intellectually, to understand the true significant of most of these reports. But the media, particularly broadcast media anxious to appeal to its ever-aging demographic, seizes upon each new medical study published by not just any credible doctor but a lot of quacks,* too, as if these were pronouncements of holy writ.

The sum total of all of this Delphic wisdom is a mass of contradictions.

You should both abstain from alcohol completely, to take it easy on your liver, and at the same time drink alcohol in moderation, so that your heart stays healthy. When you do drink alcohol (that is, when you aren’t also abstaining) you should drink red wine to reduce cholesterol. Except when you can drink white wine, too, because it is high in antioxidants. But always in moderation. Except when you should allow yourself to become a little bit intoxicated. This is especially true if you are pregnant – in which case you should abstain because it can lead to certain kinds of birth defects. Except when you should have a half a glass of wine every once in a while, because that reduces the risk of certain kinds of mental retardation in your baby. Or except when you should have a full glass of red wine, because that will keep your blood pressure low during your pregnancy.

You also should avoid red meat, because it increases your risk of heart disease. Except when you should eat it, because it helps flush your liver. In fact, you should avoid meats of all sorts, altogether, because it’s bad for your kidneys. Especially fish, because of the mercury. Except that fish is good for you because of the fatty omega acis. And meat, in general, is also good for you, because it’s rich in amino acids that improve brain functioning. You shouldn’t eat carbohydrates, either, because you’ll gain weight and induce heart arrhythmia. Except you should, because not eating carbohydrates is bad for your kidneys again. Your vegetable garden is a veritable minefield of dietary hazards found in the same salad bowl as astonishing health benefits, too.

Exercise is good. You should exercise as much as you can. Except when you exercise too much. Then you should exercise less. There are no substitutes for exercise, except when there are, like drinking alcohol or reading books. You should lift weights, except when you shouldn’t. You should also run, job, or otherwise engage in intensive cardiovascular exercise. But then again, you shouldn’t do that; you should engage in moderate cardiovascular exercise. And also, the amount of cardiovascular exercise you do actually doesn’t matter a bit. You should also, or alternatively, do yoga and other isometrics, except, again, when you shouldn’t.

You should take nutritional supplements. Except when you should take herbal supplements. Or except when you should take multivitamins. But, if you take any of these, you’re taking your life into your own hands, because any or all of these things can kill you, too.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Here’s the thing, and you know it to be true as much as I do. If you want to lose weight, then you need to figure out a different ratio in your life of eating to exercising, with more exercise and less eating. Period. Full stop. If you want to live longer, or better, you need to find the right ratio of eating to exercising. Period. Full stop. These things take willpower. Even surgical intervention intended to deny the ability to choose to eat more than you ought to winds up failing for quite a few people.

Stuff like reports that a glass of wine or two per week is a substitute for exercise is sure pleasant to hear, just like it's scary to hear that something you just ate last night can kill you.

Of course it can kill you. Everything you eat is hazardous to your health. Exercise, of all sorts, will kill you. The very drugs your doctor prescribes can and will kill you. They’re also all essential, because without them, you’re going to die. And sometimes, people just get cancer and die, no matter how many risks they avoid, and there’s no apparent cause. Cosmic rays and sunlight contain radiation that causes cancer, so you can never avoid all risk factors. Even if you don’t get cancer, you are going to get old, and sometimes old people just plain die.

Just like me and everyone else who is capable of reading this message, you are going to die. Something is is going to kill you. That's not a threat, it's a simple, inevitable fact. It's not a choice you get to make. It's not within your ability or anyone else's to change that fact. What, then, will you do with the time you have? Obsessing about prolonging that time is stupid -- you'll get more value out of the time you have actually living your life than you will acting from fear of death. Eating yourself to death (Charles Hapsburg, the fifth Holy Roman Emperor, did this after his abdication) is a decent way to go, I suppose, but that's more than a bit excessive and that isn't living, either.

Aristotle, as so frequently is the case, is the one who got it right. Happiness lies at the golden mean -- in this case, the consumption of a sensible, balanced diet, and the participation in a balanced, sensible amount and kind of exercise. So go ahead and eat the bacon -- understand that there is a point beyond which you've eaten "too much" bacon, and eat less of it than that. Same thing with the wine, with the weight-lifting, and all the rest of it. You're going to die anyway, so live well in the meantime because you're not getting a do-over.

And for crying out loud, ignore the damn ignoramuses on in the press who don't know the difference between the contents of a science textbook and bullshit in a press release that some idiot pulled out of his ass just to get on TV.

* I think that the public in general, and in particular the media, can be educated enough to distinguish between quacks and doctors engaged in scientific medicine. This is not the present circumstance, because for some reason people don’t use their bullshit detectors, but the tools are available to tell us when we’re being sold a bill of goods. The media, in particular, could and should filter out junk science from its reporting, but often fails to do so. Bullshit detectors are saddeningly underutilized in the mass media.

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