Thursday, May 21, 2015

You're Damned If You Diet and Damned If You Don't: Detangling Contradictory Health Headlines




image burger on diet
Burger on diet
This week we have Salon telling us that fad dieting is “destroying us” and the Washington Post saying we should take off the Fitbit because too much food is killing people.

Can they both be right? Unlikely – but they can both be wrong.

In both cases, what’s true isn’t new and what’s new isn’t true. Salon’s headline reads: Diet fads are destroying us: Paleo, gluten-free and the lies we tell ourselves. Behind all that hyperbole is an interview with a religious scholar who, for some reason, has written a book called The Gluten Lie. And part of his message is correct: There’s no scientific evidence that gluten is bad for most people. But how is the gluten-free fad destroying us? It’s not, of course, but Salon loves headlines that say various things are killing us or destroying us. If Salon’s editors knew what they were talking about, we’d all be dead by now.

In the story, the Gluten Lie author expresses disappointment – even disgust – that people are obsessed with health and diet rather than religious spiritual matters. Fitness technology such as “Fitbit” came in for a bashing:

And the sad thing is, it’s really easy to judge people on the basis of what they look like. We have this problem with race. In the same way, it’s really easy to look at someone who’s obese and say, “Oh look at that person, they’re not living as good a life as I am. They’re not as good on the inside because I can tell their outside isn’t good either.” Honestly, it’s disgusting to me that we’ve taken the great rituals of religious traditions and swapped them out for Fitbits and weird prohibition diets, and we think that that’s the best way to figure out how to be good and how to get back to a time when humans were better.
It’s not disgusting – it’s progress. The world would be a better place if the more judgmental and extreme members of “great religious traditions” get off their holy high horses about sex, cut back on their hatred of women and gay people, and instead focused on their own flab. If religious people are starting to replace homophobia with gluten phobia, they should be encouraged.

And if kind-hearted people of faith decide to diet and exercise and it helps them get healthier, they will be able to do more good works. It’s a no lose situation.

That is, as long the dieting and exercise does indeed make people healthier.


image diet and exercise
Diet + Exercise

Unfortunately, other media outlets are serving up more misleading headlines, such as the Washington Post’s Take off that Fitbit. Exercise alone won’t make you lose weight.

The piece itself, by cardiologist Aseem Maholtra, is mostly about the benefits of dieting – in the sense of not eating the standard American diet. He emphasizes the prevalence of obesity and blames overeating. In particular, he blames sugar, which is one of the main things people give up on those faddish paleo diets that Salon says are destroying us.

Still, obesity has continued to surge around the world. Nearly one in three people alive today is overweight or obese — two out of three adults in the United States — and no country has lowered its obesity rate since 1980.
It’s calorie intake that is really fueling the obesity epidemic. But it’s not just the number of calories we’re eating as how we’re getting them. The sugar calories are particularly bad. Stanford University researcher Sanjay Basu recently led an analysis of 175 countries that evaluated the amount of sugar in each nation’s food supply.
It’s sensible, but these days, sensible headlines don’t sell. For whatever reason, the Post went with a headline that was sexier but wrong. Even if exercise alone won’t melt away pounds, it certainly doesn’t follow that exercise is no good at all and you should take off the Fitbit. The author even states later in the story that exercise can improve the health of both obese and non-obese people. So you should not “take off the Fitbit” if using it is helping you get more exercise. Getting a colonoscopy won’t make you thin either, but if your doctor orders it, you should follow through.

There’s some evidence to suggest that it may be doctors’ obsession with their scales that distracts from the health benefits of exercise and the ill effects of excessive sitting, which studies show can harm people whether they are overweight or not. If fitness apps remind you to get up and move once in a while, that’s good. If you don’t like trendy fitness technology, that’s fine too. Either way it’s possible to resolve to eat less sugar and be kind to other people.

forbes.com

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