I just finished reading a fascinating book published by Beacon Press entitled: The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness, And Happiness. It is authored by Timothy Caulfield, a health law and policy researcher who holds appointments at the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, and challenges and invalidates many of the “myths” of health crazes. I wholeheartedly recommend picking up a copy of this very worthwhile read that I found to be educational, engaging, entertaining and confirmatory of many of my own thoughts and feelings.
The following words are verbatim from pages 185-188 of the book, essentially a summary of his concluding remarks:
The results of my research point to a disheartening conclusion, which is, basically, that nothing works. Despite the immense diet, fitness, and remedy industries, very little actually does what it promises to do. A scan of your genes will not tell you what will happen in your future; for most of us, it’s no more useful than the numbers we get from a scale or blood pressure cuff. It is nearly impossible to transform your body through exercise alone. You cannot get sexy abs instantly or even after weeks of intense work. There is no such thing as toning, and virtually every fitness gimmick is just that: a gimmick. To lose weight you have to eat fewer calories than you burn. Sadly, we don’t need many calories. There is no shortcut to weight loss. And even if you can take off the pounds, keeping them off is the real challenge. The failure rate is so high that some experts I interviewed thought that sustained weight loss is… sigh… impossible.
Finally, most of the remedies offered by alternative practitioners work no better than a placebo, and the pharmaceutical industry has such a tight grip on the production of the relevant science that is difficult to trust any available information about any drug, when it comes from an advertisement, your physician, or even a respected medical journal.
In short, there are no magical answers. This should not come as a surprise, of course. If it were easy, we would all be healthy. If alternative therapies worked, we would have verifiable data demonstrating their efficacy. If losing weight and getting fit could be attained by utilizing a metabolism-enhancing, colon–cleansing yoga move, we would all be slim, cut, and have pristine innards. Alas, this is not the world we live in.
On the other hand, there’s another way to look at the results of this inquiry. This is the glass half full view. If you want to optimize your health, the steps are, in fact, surprisingly simple. The steps are not easy – real effort is required – but they are straightforward. It isn’t complicated.
This is a liberating realization. It means you can shut out most of the noise. Ignore the advertisements. Ignore the miracle–cure promises made by alternative practitioners. Ignore any marketing message that includes the word detoxify, cleanse, metabolism, enhance, boost, energized, vitalize, or revitalize. Ignore the twist! Don’t get fooled by the sexy abs images that are such a huge part of Western culture. Don’t worry about the genetic predispositions that have been handed to you in the biological lottery of life. Unless you have one of the rare single gene disorders, like cystic fibrosis, or one of the relatively uncommon highly predictive mutations, genetic information is simply not that valuable. Don’t get suckered into buying useless potions and practices that are wrapped inside an ideologically fuzzy and truth–obscuring blanket. It will only empty your wallet. And don’t get too excited when the media reports some big health breakthrough, especially if the story is based on a single study. True breakthroughs are rare. Think of science as a slow and iterative process. As geneticist Jim Evans told us, science is a slog. Two steps forward, one and a half steps back.
What, then, are the straightforward steps to maximum health? First, exercise often and with intensity (intervals work best) and include some resistance training. Second, eat small portion sizes, no junk food, and make sure 50% of what goes in your mouth are real fruits and vegetables. Third, try your best to maintain a healthy weight – yes this is insanely tough, but we should at least try. Fourth, do not smoke, and drink only moderate amounts of alcohol. And fifth, take all the well-known and simple injury-prevention measures, such as wearing a seatbelt in the car and a bicycle helmet when you go riding.
Once you cut through the twisted messages that saturate our world, you find out all the available evidence tells us that these five steps are by far the most important elements of a healthy lifestyle. One expert I corresponded with for the diet chapter, Walter Willett from Harvard, figures that healthy food choices, physical activity, and not smoking could prevent over 80% of coronary artery disease, 70% of stroke, and 90% of type II diabetes.
There are other measures, such as getting a good night’s sleep, that are important, and future research might compel me to add them to the list. And we should be conscious about eating certain other foods in addition to fruits and vegetables, like fish, berries, and whole grains. Also, there are things that should probably be avoided, such as sodium and trans fats. But, in the big picture, these five actions remain essential. All the other stuff
– such as the alleged importance of various supplements and the craze for organic foods – will likely have only a marginal impact on individual health. If you’re not doing all the big five, worrying about the details – such as a slightly increased genetic predisposition to some common disease or the cleanliness of your colon– is ridiculous.
There are no magical cures or programs. But the simplicity of the untwisted truth has an almost magical quality.
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food: www.promiscuouseating.com
Available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle edition
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