As a health journalist, I rely a great deal on expert opinions and authoritative resources. But I’ve also learned to get second and third opinions, to do my own research, to follow the money and to consult my own common sense and experience.
Basically, I’ve learned to question authority (which is No. 50 of the 101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy). Because what I’ve discovered is that experts and authorities of all kinds are often mistaken — sometimes about important stuff. And in my experience, they are wrong more often than they will admit to being in doubt.
This is particularly true in the domain of health. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten lousy health advice from “beyond-reproach” sources like the American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration (to say nothing of the media outlets and health experts that rely on them for information and insight), I’d be a wealthy woman indeed.
But all those dollars would not be worth it — not by far — because if I had followed their advice, I suspect I’d also be sick, overweight and unhappy. I’d be worried about all the wrong things (saturated fats, calories, dietary cholesterol), and I’d be fairly clueless about the things with the greatest chance of slowly killing me (refined flours, undiagnosed gluten and dairy intolerances, sugars, toxic industrial fats, chemical additives and prescription drugs).
I’d be vigilantly counting calories instead of thoughtfully evaluating the quality, character and origin of my food. So I’d be poorly nourished and hungry all the time. I’d be struggling to exercise — and doing it joylessly, mostly to burn calories, instead of challenging my body to build strength, energy, resilience and vitality. And I’d be frustrated that no matter how hard I tried to follow all that dreadful advice, my health and fitness would continue to worsen.
Nutritionally deficient, inflamed and imbalanced, I’d go to the doctor looking for relief. I’d probably be prescribed a slew of medications — for my cholesterol, my stomach acid, my blood pressure, my back pain and my depression — all of which would cost me a fortune and have side effects of their own.
Before long, I’d no longer be the rich woman I’d become by accepting all those dollar bills in exchange for my gullibility. Instead, I’d be a bankrupt, prematurely aged, chronically ill, foggy-brained woman trying to figure out what in the heck went wrong.
I realize this may all sound a little dramatic, but it is precisely what is happening to millions of Americans each and every day. Why? Because a lot of the advice we are getting from the voices of authority is bad, corrupted, half-baked, outdated — and a lot of what we most need to hear (about what really works) just isn’t getting through.
Check out the dietary and lifestyle recommendations at the American Heart Association’s website. Or the American Dietetic Association’s site, or in the literature of any one of a dozen other official-sounding organizations. You’ll see a big emphasis on counting and burning calories, avoiding saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, reducing salt, eating a lot of low-fat or fat-free dairy and eating more so-called whole grains (mostly in the guise of whole-wheat flour products, which are not whole at all).
You’ll see comparatively little emphasis, meanwhile, on reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates (like flours, starches and sugars), industrial vegetable oils and artificial ingredients — the primary ingredients in processed foods.
In other words, you’ll get totally backward advice. And when you do get decent advice (like “eat more vegetables”), you’ll get it wrapped in a fat-free, whole-wheat tortilla and served with three side dishes of low-fat dairy.
There are many reasons for this, and plenty of blame for the ag-food-pharma industry, policymakers and the media to share. But the most pernicious dynamic is this: The food industry heavily influences the ADA’s nutritional recommendations. (For more on this dynamic, read Justin Stoneman’s excellent rant). They contribute vast sums of money to the ADA. They sponsor a lot of research, and they determine how and if the results of that research get reported. Then they leverage their preferred study results (along with a whole lot of lobbying money and power) to convince experts and policymakers to support official positions and recommendations that just happen to be advantageous (or at least not damaging) to their most profitable product lines.
By the time those official recommendations and guidelines come out, they often make no sense at all. Still, they get reported en mass by conventional media outlets — many of which have those same industry research-funders and lobbying interests as major advertisers. All this undermined, incomplete advice gets rolled out to the newsstand and airwaves, to public-health resources and to doctors’ offices. And suddenly, that’s “the truth” that everybody knows is true and right. Even if it’s not.
We recently did a piece in Experience Life magazine called “Digesting the New USDA Dietary Guidelines” (September 2011) that offers a nice overview of just how confused and undermined official recommendations like these often are.
We’ve done many other pieces over the years– on saturated fats (“A Big Fat Mistake“); on low-fat dairy (“Skimming the Truth“); on cholesterol (“Cholesterol Myths“); on artificial sweeteners (“Poor Substitutes“); on pharmaceuticals (“The Other Drug Problem“); and on weight loss (“Weight Loss Rules to Rethink“) — that illustrate why failing to question authoritative truths can be so dangerous to your health.
Whenever we are doing the background research for articles like these, I’m amazed at how much decent information is actually out there, but just not breaking through to major media outlets.
Why on earth, I wonder? And then I remember: Follow the money.
A couple of weeks ago I had a really great heart-to-heart conversation with a fellow journalist, an editor at a major lifestyle publication. Over drinks, this editor told me in hushed tones that their editorial staff couldn’t even use the phrase “processed food” in their copy. Their advertisers (processed-food companies) would go nuts. It makes you wonder what else our “authoritative” major media outlets can’t comfortably write or talk about.
So my advice is this: Don’t assume that the “authoritative” sources are necessarily the best sources — particularly when it comes to healthy lifestyle advice. Look for second and third opinions. And be willing to thumb your nose at authority now and then, particularly when your health is at stake. Which it is.