It’s great that you are trying to look after your health. Maybe you have some recommendations from your friend, have seen what the news is telling you or have seen a few articles online about how to lose a few kilos in a month. The blessing of the age that we live in is that we have so much information available to optimise our health. The curse of the age that we live in is that we have so much information available to optimise our health. With so much information available, there is an inevitable rise in conflicting health advice and contradictory headlines about your favourite foods.
It’s not uncommon to feel paralysed. I know I do, and you might do too. According to one study, 72% of US adults report medium to high exposure to conflicting health advice, so we certainly aren’t alone.
You may have heard that red meat is really bad for you, whereas other people have seen many ailments disappear after following a ‘carnivore diet’. You might hear people calling veganism an evolutionary-untried, cult-like movement, whereas you might have a friend who says that they have never felt more energetic and happy after going vegan.
So what can we do about all of this conflicting health advice? Whilst the following steps aren’t perfect, they can definitely help to navigate the complex world of nutrition and health information a little better…
Test, Test, Test
This is perhaps the most important point of them all as it is the only one that is strictly under our control. There really is no better way of navigating all of the conflicting stories than trying each recommendation for yourself and seeing how your body and health react to it.
Whether it’s adding meat or taking it away, adding vegetables or taking them away, adding upside-down push-ups or taking them away, we all have extremely unique metabolisms, microbiomes, sensitivity to food types, natural vitamin/mineral deficiencies and on and on.
Most articles in mainstream publications are ‘blanket articles’, suggesting what works for most people most of the time. One person’s testimony highlights what has worked for them in their specific circumstances. This doesn’t mean that helpful and useful advice can’t be found in these sources, it just means that what works for someone else might not work for you. Or conversely, what doesn’t work for most people might actually work really well for you.
The key to finding out is to keeping testing until you find your own unique sweet spot.
Get information from established sources in that field
I initially had this second point titled ‘Get information from sources that you trust’ but then I realised that if you trust The Onion or the Herbal Life seller down the road for all of your sources of information, they will never provide you with anything of much use.
In an ideal world, we would be able to read every study, publication, article and understand the underlying biological, chemical, physiological processes that make X seem to cause Y. Except we don’t live in an ideal world. Of course, we can get better at understanding these things through practice and can take extra time to read the literature in the field, but it is impossible to cover every single base.
This is why it is important to choose your established sources of information in a certain field and choose them wisely. In a similar fashion to choosing mentors for different areas of life, it is worth finding out who/what are the best sources on nutrition, sleep, exercise etc and use their expertise to guide your own actions.
It would be foolish, however, to pick your mentor/publication and to take every word they say as gospel, as everyone makes mistakes and previously ‘true’ information gets disproven and updated all of the time. However, if an established source’s information does change due to these circumstances, it would be silly to dismiss all of their other work too as unreliable and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Isaac Newton was a master of physics, but also believed in strange things such as alchemy and the impotency of women. It’s important to move on a case-by-case basis as much as possible.
Learn how to think scientifically
Here’s a bit of a depressing fact: we think that we are rational thinkers, always making judgements based on a variety of evidence, probability and reason, but that is all a lie. We can do this sometimes, but much more rarely than we would like to admit.
Why is this you say? Simply put, we just aren’t wired for it.
Peter Attia M.D. highlights this point in his article ‘Why we’re not wired to think scientifically (and what can be done about it)‘:
The arrival of logic was a major tool. So, too, was the arrival of the scientific method, clinical trials, and statistical analyses. Yet for the first 99.98% of our existence on this planet as humans—literally—we had to rely on other options—other tools, if you will — for solving problems and making decisions.
Some, if not most, of those tools involved copying what other seemingly healthy people were doing and hoping for the best. This idea of copying is why we are so inclined to jump onto the latest health crazes or fall for a health study that only included a sample size of 2 people – it simply doesn’t come naturally to us to question these things.
Learning how to think scientifically (Peter also has an excellent series on this) helps to discern real evidence from bogus and misleading statistics. It helps us to differentiate fact from fiction, causation from correlation and ultimately be able to understand which of the conflicting health advice is worth listening to.
Re-assess and re-evaluate as often as possible
Just as consistently testing is an important aspect of understanding what health or any other advice works for you, it is also essential to re-evaluate your position as often as possible.
I’m not going to lie, this point sucks. It involves humility that we were wrong in the past, might be wrong right now and are now moving to a position that we believe to be a little less wrong. We spend a long time trying to establish a health routine, eating the foods that we read were good for us and then BAM! There’s an article from one of your mentors explaining that Skittles are only good for you in the morning hours, never after lunch. Then you have to change your whole Skittles-eating routine or simply ignore the evidence and keep going. Both options aren’t that much fun.
Just like people used to think arsenic was an effective medicine and that smoking was good for you (or at least not harmful), times change, new evidence emerges and you can either get on-board and change or stubbornly stick to using crocodile dung as contraception. The choice is yours.
Be aware of your own biases (and the biases of others)
Just as we have been given the mental tools to think and act as unscientifically as possible, we have always been installed hardware with a lot of other ‘quirks’ that can often cause contradictory information to surface when it isn’t really there.
Take for example your availability heuristic. This is a cognitive bias that we have whereby we believe something to happen more often or to be more common based on the number of times we see it or the availability of memories that we can pick from. People remember aeroplane crashes on the news much more than they remember car crashes, even though aeroplanes are overwhelmingly safer than cars. People are far more squeamish over the prospect of nuclear energy because of events like Chernobyl, whereas the overuse of fossil fuels is much less dramatic but much more likely to cause catastrophe. The same is true for our foods, where we might remember a lot of hype about cholesterol being bad for us and so stick with what we remember, not what has since been researched and updated.
It isn’t just us that have biases but (shock) the seemingly-reliable media too. Take the classic psychology textbook example of the tragic Murder of Kitty Genovese. It was initially reported by the New York Times that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack on Kitty but either walked past her or simply ignored her cries for help. After the New York Times had reported it, newspapers from all over the world began reporting the same story about the apathy towards crime that New Yorkers have and the supposed ‘Bystander Effect’. However, the 1964 article about the witnesses was later debunked, with the story apparently being fabricated by the police to divert attention from their slow response time to the incident. It was too late though, with the story already going viral around the world and the image of a standard ‘New Yorker’ being stained for decades. Because the New York Times is reputable, other newspapers didn’t bother fact-checking and they (and New Yorkers) ultimately paid the price.
So what is the overall message here with respect to conflicting health advice? It is to realise that just because a story about some health craze is appearing everywhere, even from reputable sources, doesn’t mean it’s true. It is also to recognise some of our own biases of placing high-value on stories that we remember, rather than what the actual data says. If you can implement some of these points into your life, hopefully all of that conflicting health advice that you see will start to unravel.
Have you ever had issues with conflicting health advice? What are some of the tactics that you use to sift through the rubbish and find the truly valuable information?