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The controversies of health: Why do they keep changing the rules?

Posted Jul 30 2012 1:22am

It’s a complaint I hear frequently: “Why do they keep changing the rules about what’s healthy? It’s confusing!” I can only agree: It’s irritating to be told emphatically not to eat a particular food, because it’s ‘bad for you’, then several years later to be told to eat more of that same food instead, because new research has found its ‘good for you’ after all. This is especially irritating if the food you stopped eating (so you would stay healthy) was one you really enjoyed. What creates these changes in policy, and what can you do about it? If you know how to assess the information that’s presented, you will be more empowered to make the right decisions for you.

There’s an important point to remember about nutritional research: It’s not perfect. Not all the research is well designed. Not all of the results of that research are assessed accurately. A lot of follow up research is carried out as a result, with sometimes conflicting outcomes. Only the most topical information (like weight loss and the benefits of chocolate and red wine) are likely to make the news, as there are oceans of new research to choose from.

Every week a small tsunami of original research and its analysis is released, filling the email in-boxes and in-trays of practitioners. Since the advent of the internet the volume has increased, as we no longer have to flip through mountains of paper journals and ponder paper catalogues after travelling to the library to locate research.  For the untrained, it can easily feel overwhelming and confusing. But there are ways to assess the information you come across to see whether it’s valid, and whether it’s right for you.

First, look at who wrote the article. Are they qualified? If the article describes a problem (especially weight loss) and also sells a product to solve that problem, be wary of the motivation of the writer. If you’re reading original research, check for details of who paid for the research to be carried out. Finally, be alert to emotional language in the article. It’s more enjoyable to read, but think about why the writer is trying to convince you to take action.

After all that, remember the most important thing is to do what’s right for you. Everyone’s genes are different, so everyone’s nutritional needs are different. Some people do better on high protein diets, others do better on low protein, vegetarian or vegan diets (but you will find research promoting the benefits of one over the other, plus more research saying the opposite). This is why you will always come across success stories and disaster stories for every nutrition ‘system’. One of the best things you can do is take the research with you to your next health consultation, and talk with your practitioner about what’s right for you. ‘Lots of variety, more unprocessed foods, with everything in moderation’ is a good nutrition mantra in the meantime.



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