Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Moderation in Health Trends

Talking about more dietary and health stuff today. I wanted to blubber and blather in the context of dietary trends and scientific discoveries.

I've read that women in the Victorian era would eat arsenic mixtures to improve their complexions. They would also rub it into their faces and arms. Then scientists found out that arsenic was bad for you. Similar things happened with mercury, although mercury was arguably worse, since it was actually prescribed as medicine. Various mercury compounds were subscribed as disinfectants, diuretics, laxatives, antidepressants, and for child bearing. Nowadays, we know better, and try to avoid mercury. Lots of people are cautious of the fish they consume, because of fears of mercury accumulation in predatory fish.

In the early days of the 20th century, people thought radioactive materials could be beneficial to health. Companies would sell radium water and radium enemas (ack). People marketed radium-laced toothpaste because it was purported to make your teeth whiter. We look back and scoff, "Ha, those fools."

I might be a bit too young to recall anything about the purported health benefits of margarine, but I read that it was marketed as basically the healthier and cheaper alternative to butter, because it didn't have any cholesterol and had much less saturated fat. Again, I might be mistaken because I'm too young to remember, but didn't margarine catch on with a lot of people in the era of "All fat is bad for you?" However, margarine has (had?) much higher levels of trans fat. It is now said that only artificial trans fats have absolutely no dietary value, and that *both* saturated and unsaturated fats are necessary components of a daily diet.

What's the point of all this? You probably knew it anyways. The point is that we ought to be cautious whenever new research comes along saying this-or-that is the new culinary savior and that you should consume it whenever possible. Case in point are the much hyped and lauded omega 3 fatty acids. Lots of research seems to support that they are quite beneficial to your health. At this point, I must disappoint all of you and reveal that I am not going to present new research on how omega 3's are actually horrible for you. They're probably not; they probably are really good for you. I'm just saying that we should be wary, because science has been incomplete or wrong in the past, as I have illustrated.

Plant/food chemistry is still so complicated that we're not exactly sure what in certain food items is actually the good culprit. For instance, take flaxseeds. A UC Berkeley site on dietary supplements (informative site, BTW) says that at some point, high intake levels of flaxseeds could promote cancer. Personally, these days I don't often take fish or flaxseed oil supplements. I try to get them into my diet in their natural forms (or ground up, in the case of flaxseeds). I don't necessarily even take a multi-vitamin every day either. Never know when one of those many minerals could end up actually being bad for you. (I still do take them though, to cover for any deficiencies) This does, of course, put more responsibility on Harmony to try to cook up a variety of food in order to make up for any dietary deficiencies we might have.

I guess the bottom line is to eat the latest health craze in moderation, because you never know when new research will come out proving that the latest in-item is actually really bad for you (like margarine). Eating natural, whole foods is very healthy, but just because it comes naturally from earth or animal doesn't mean that it's good for you (mercury, atropa belladonna, oleander, cow brains). Science has been proven wrong in the past, and enlightened as we might think we are, don't be arrogant as to think we are immune from being wrong again (or slightly misguided).

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  • Laura

    Good reminder to not get carried away with the health trends. My husband and I have been getting that springtime desire to clean up the way we eat. Usually we try to focus on just two or three items to change at a time, or else we get overwhelmed and toss it all out the window. And then go to the store for Cheez-its and Oreos.

  • CappuccinoLife

    Isn't it funny how each generation thinks we've got it all figured out?

  • La

    I think that's why you hear that it's good to have a "well-balanced" diet or to "eat a variety of foods." You never know which one of those "health foods" is actually healthy, but most of them probably won't do much harm in small amounts even if they turn out to be terrible for you. And the ones that are actually good may make up for the ones that are not. :-)

    I like the idea of going back to nothing but whole foods and eating like our farmer ancestors did... except that they didn't end up living as long as we do. I have a hard time balancing the "everything in moderation" with the "eat lots of Healthy Food X" advice, because despite the margarines of the past, something about what the more recent generations did was apparently healthier than what people were doing 200 years ago.

    On top of all of this, I have this complex where I expect the Internet to have the difinitive answer to every question, so even when the research on some subject is not out yet, I tend to feel like if I could just come up with the right search terms, I could find the Right Answer on whether a food is healthy or not. I don't like making decisions without being properly educated, and with food, sometimes I have to.

  • Laura

    One of the reasons why our life expectancies are higher than those of the pioneers and settlers of this country is because we have much technology aimed at prolonging life. Two hundred years ago, a person did not have the option of going on kidney dialysis or getting a heart transplant. We also have made great advances in lowering infant mortality, which raises our average.

    A google search on 'american life expectancy' shows only 77 years and a few months. That is quite a bit better than the average 40 years or so from before 1800, but I would hesitate to put all the credit on food choices. What we use for fuel for our bodies is certainly important, however, I wonder if this may be more of an issue of moving forward in the areas of medicine and technology, not to mention a deeper respect for basic hygiene/sanitation.

    I agree that we don't have a good track record on determining which foods are really healthy and which ones are just really hyped. Sometimes it pays to sit back for a while when a 'new' product starts getting a lot of press. How many times do you see the basic items that are undeniably healthy (fruits, veggies, minimally processed whole grains) being touted with a higher advertising budget than a lot of people make as a year's income? If they have to work so hard and spend so much to convince me that I should buy a certain food, I am actually far from convinced that it would add anything worthwhile to my health.

    Sorry for the long post, maybe I will add a little more and post it on my own blog instead of taking over this one. ;-)

  • Harmony


    No need to apologize for leaving long replies. We like getting comments.

    I wonder how much longer our collective life expectancy would be if most people ate healthy. Although we have much better medicine and hygiene, it's probably lots of the contemporary unhealthy foods that is keeping us from getting that expectancy as high as it could go. Or maybe not, who knows.

  • JunkMale

    The above post from Harmony is actually from me, BTW. (she'd been signed in and I didn't check the user name)