What’s good for me? New studies can cloud old advice
In Woody Allen’s futuristic farce “Sleeper,” the comic wakes up after a long cryogenic sleep and is advised to take a drag on a cigarette.
“It’s one of the healthiest things for your body,” the futuristic doctor says in the 1973 comedy.
For health consumers, the line between what’s healthy and what isn’t is no laughing matter.
Potatoes and eggs are a healthy part of one’s diet one year, then, years later, researchers say they should be consumed in moderation. The same holds true for caffeine intake, hormone-replacement therapy and stretching before a workout.
Being a healthy consumer means wading through reams of material, some of which contradicts itself over time.
Linda Yerardi, a dietitian and nutrition educator with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, says part of the blame can be pinned on when research began on what people eat and how it affects them.
“Nutrition is such a young field,” Ms. Yerardi says. “Most vitamins were discovered only 50 or 60 years ago. Even the folks who discovered them didn’t know much about them.”
A culture starved for blanket statements doesn’t help.
“Our society tends to take certain pieces of information and idolize them,” Ms. Yerardi says.
Sometimes the press will pounce on a particular study, like one linking red wine to longevity, and draw some inaccurate conclusions.
“We can’t take one or two studies, especially from other countries, and apply them to ourselves,” Ms. Yerardi says.
The latest findings also can tell only part of the nutritional story.
Green tea is a healthier option than soda, but it, too, has caffeine and could be problematic for someone who should avoid that stimulant.
So if a future headline slams green tea as “bad for us,” that could be why, even though that only tells a part of the overall health impact.
Bethesda, Md.-based Dr. Pamela Peeke, author of “Body for Life for Women” and the Discovery Health Channel’s chief medical correspondent, recently flipped through an old magazine and saw an advertisement inviting readers to swallow a teaspoon of sugar for an energy burst.
No advertisement, or doctor, for that matter, would suggest such a spoonful today.
Yet even something as innocent, and old-fashioned, as the “three squares a day” eating plan isn’t the healthiest way to live, Dr. Peeke says.
Eating every three or four hours is a better plan, Dr. Peeke says, mixing full but healthy meals with nutritious snacks such as fruits and vegetables.
“That way you don’t walk around starving, and you don’t overeat at meals,” she says.
Dr. Peeke understands that consumers can be flustered by conflicting health reports, but she says that sticking with credible sources will provide a solid foundation for overall health matters.
Turn to the National Institutes of Health and large associations such as the American Heart Association for the latest, gimmick-free information on staying hearty and healthy, she says.
“It’s the job of big associations to stay on the cutting edge,” she says, adding that the newsletters of Berkeley Wellness (www.wellnessletter.com/) and Harvard’s Women’s Health (www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Wo mens_Health_Watch.htm) can supplement whatever computer users find on these major Web sites.
If Web surfing isn’t enough, she advises contacting one’s doctor or, if he or she is busy, the office’s nurse.
“They’re right on top of [the information],” she says.
Exerciseregimensaren’timmune to the ebb and flow of health advice.
Pat McCloskey, director of training at Washington, D.C.-areabased One Fitness, says conventional wisdom dictated that people stretch before starting a workout.
Then the approach shifted, and instructors told clients that stretching a cold body could do more harm than good.
Today, One to One instructors are telling some clients to stretch before hitting the weight room or treadmill.
Not all stretches are created equal, nor are all exercisers, Mr. McCloskey says.
“One person might need to stretch their hamstrings,” he says, but another person may not need that kind of preparation before working out.
In the exercise field, instructors 30 years ago sought out bodybuilders for the most up-to-date advice on weight training.
As a result, “everyone trained the same way,” Mr. McCloskey says.
Then instructors began listening to rehabilitation experts for advice along with bodybuilders and experts in the sports-performance field.
Now information flows from all of the above, but often at a snail’s pace.
The Greeks may have excelled at athletics, but exercise as a science “is still in its infancy,” Mr. McCloskey says.
Dr. Sylvia Medley, a physician of internal medicine with D.C.-based Capital Medical Associates, admits it can be frustrating to see the evolution of health advice doled out by the latest studies.
“It’s an art and a science,” Dr. Medley says. “Medicine is constantly in flux.”
Too often, what’s good health news for one person may not be beneficial to another.
Take hormone-replacement therapy, a process that has undergone the ebb and flow of health opinions.
“Some people have a lot of relief from symptoms with HRT,” Dr. Medley says of a treatment plan meant to help older women undergoing menopause. “The issue becomes weighing the risks.”
Sometimes people misuse the information put on their plate.
The protein found in an egg might be overshadowed if the egg is fried in bacon grease, she says.
Health trends may come and go, so Dr. Medley sticks with the basics — a good diet, moderate exercise and considering one’s family history to scout for potential chronic conditions.
Dr. Andre Michalak, with Providence Hospital’s internal medicine division, says that in his nearly 20 years in practice he has found a dramatic difference between patients then and now.
“The older generation is much stronger than us because they eat better foods than we’re eating,” Dr. Michalak says, blaming foods grown with pesticides and other modern additives that can hurt nutritional content.
Two steps forward, one step back.