It seems like every week, there's a new article praising the life-extending benefits of red wine, warning against the dangers fried eggs, or touting the magical superfood nature of Tibetan field mushrooms (or something). But here's why revolving your life around these studies is a fool's errand.
Literally. Every. Week. Just yesterday, we posted about "muscle building supplements" — the latest could-be grim reaper. But this black-and-white approach to food isn't helpful at all. Instead, it just leads to a common but pointless game called "life maximisation". Coined by evidence-based advocate, Dr Bryan Chung, the game rules go something like this:
- If something has any risk of killing you (through obesity, cancer, spontaneous combustion, and so on), avoid that thing.
- ...actually there's no other rule.
Now all you need to do is wait and hope the game made you live longer. Of course, much like that overpriced herbal supplement featured on yesterday's episode of Dr Oz, you'll never really know if it actually worked.
But this is a really dangerous game to play. Not only does it prevent you from living a happy fulfilling life, it might actually kill you in the long run, because some of the best for your health are in direct contradiction to the aforementioned studies.
These Studies Aren't Actionable: Correlation Isn't Causation
Studies that take a large amount of data and try to draw an association between their variables are known as epidemiological studies. They examine correlation, a relationship between two variables that may not have a cut-and-dry explanation.
Using a few silly examples, such as the correlations between margarine consumption and divorce or between sour cream and motorcycle accidents, you can see that pure correlation doesn't necessarily tell you anything about cause and effect. That's not to say that correlations couldn't be potentially meaningful. They simply warrant follow-up studies that further examine causation.
Let's say you may hear that eating an abundance of fruit and veggies prolongs your lifespan based on some observational study on a sample of the population. Indeed, they contain a number of important vitamins and minerals, but there are other factors in play.
Perhaps those who actively try to eat the mandated servings are likely to be people who are health-conscious in general — they exercise, sleep well, drink less — all of which may have an effect on longevity. Or maybe the more affluent portion of society can afford to eat well much easier, while also being able to afford better education, healthcare, employment and living conditions. Again, these are significant factors when it comes to determining lifespan.
Often these studies make it to the mainstream. Whether it's the media intentionally sensationalising studies to gain viewership, or just bad science, many fall prey to whatever is reported without properly understanding the difference between correlation and causation. A great example of this is a study that found people who eat chocolate tend to be thinner. Weighty Matters did a pretty good analysis of that here.
The result is a confused set of consumers eager to categorise foods into "superfood" and "cancer-causing killers".
Your Body Is a Complex System
Studies like epidemiological studies or animal studies are merely stepping stones to better human insight and not necessarily meant to be actionable. Unfortunately, when the public hears about them, they will often incorporate them into the health decision making process.
Let's say that a person is experiencing health issues, and their doctor tells them that it's primarily due to their weight. I can't tell you how many times I've had the conversation below with a client:
Me: How much soda do you drink?
Client: I drink about 5 sodas per day, but I really like soda.
Me: Could you switch to diet soda? That would save you about 600 calories a day and you'd lose one pound per week.
Client: Not really… I'm really worried about the health effects of aspartame and diet soda in general.
Failure to lose weight may very well kill this person. But instead of making a simple substitution that could help them achieve life-changing results, they're too busy worrying about the unverified and oft-debated effects of the sweetener. They're focused on the second order problem and not the first order one.
Similarly, perhaps you're trying to avoid dairy, something you love. Unfortunately, you heard somewhere that "drinking cow's milk is unnatural". But it also provides a bunch of important nutrients and minerals, not to mention the emotional satisfaction you receive from drinking a carton of chocolate milk. Sure, smart advertising may present certain foods as a one-dimensional, good or bad thing. But it never is.
Playing this game of "life maximisation" creates a dangerous fallacy: every little thing adds up. The issue is we make all these decisions assuming their ramifications occur in isolation.
But health doesn't work that way, because it's a complex system — one where every decision impacts another. "Health points" can't simply be collected like Pokemon. Doing so will prevent you from finding your way out of the first forest, because you're overwhelmed by the trees.
It's important to differentiate between actual risks, such as smoking, and potential risks like aspartame. We're not telling you to keep smoking, of course. Rather, you're better off not thinking that "everything is going to kill you, because you can focus on a few big decisions, rather than waste your mental resources on a million little ones.
Instead, learn that healthfulness is completely contextual to you as an individual and every action has a health return on investment.
These Studies Cannot Truly Predict Your Death
Dr Bryan Chung has a brilliant article called "You Are Going to Die" in which he talk about the issues with long-term correlational mortality studies. In it, he says:
If we accept the tenets that each of us has finite willpower to accomplish our goals, that our bodies do not differentiate between physical and non-physical forms of stress, and that death is inevitable and individually unpredictable, then we should all stop paying attention to long-term correlational mortality studies, because the very construct of all-cause mortality and its reduction is ridiculous.
Ignoring studies suggesting that a potential health risk seems counterintuitive at first, but logically it makes sense. You're taking a gamble on a correlation that could be mere illusion, not to mention completely out of context for your needs. In fact, "constantly preventing death" might prevent you from using your energy to live our lives and obtain better health. Dr Chung elaborates:
Any energy spent on following through on eliminating or adding said food item or intervention is energy taken away from that finite pool of willpower that could be used to live your life as opposed to attempting to circumvent death. Any stress caused by trying to keep said food item or intervention in or out of our lives is stress that is grounded on a faulty construct that death is avoidable and somehow controllable (or at least somehow predictable), and therefore, also ridiculous.
Of course, no one wants to be killed off as early as your favourite character in Game of Thrones. We all want to live long, healthy lives. But spending all of your energy avoiding conjectured risks, not only prevents a fulfilling life, but also prevents us from differentiating the battle from the war when it comes to achieving better health.