January 15, 2008

UnScientific American

[By Crabby]

Cranky Fitness, as a health and fitness blog (albeit a half-assed one), would love to tell you exactly what to do to live a long, happy, healthy life. After all, we all have questions don't we? Questions like:
  • Will drinking milk help me lose weight?
  • Is it better to get seven or eight hours of sleep a night?
  • Is it ok to use sweeteners like Splenda and Equal?
  • Which fruits have the most antioxidants?
  • Should I take glucosamine to help with joint pain?
  • Could putting milk in your tea interfere with antioxidant absorption?
  • Is it better to exercise in the morning or the evening?
So what are the answers to these questions? Strangely enough, it's the same for every single one:

It depends on which f*cking study you read.

Sorry. Each one of those questions has authoritative, research-based, contradictory answers. So our answer is: who the hell knows?

This issue came up when we were talking recently about boiling and steaming vegetables. Some of you expressed frustration that first we heard eating vegetables raw was better; now we're supposed to boil or steam them--but not fry them. Whatever! Isn't enough that we eat vegetables at all when ice cream tastes so much better? And how come the answers keep changing?

We hear about "superfoods" that turn out not to deliver. We read about supplements that are supposed to help us and then find out they do just the opposite. We freak out about possible health hazards and then never hear much more about them again. (What ever happened to toxic shock? Acrylamides? Killer bees?) Post-menopausal women were urged to take hormones, now they're not supposed to. The list goes on and on.

Part of the problem, of course, is that health reporters and blogs like Cranky Fitness jump all over stories that are weird and counter-intuitive. They make great headlines or post titles. I should drink a beer right after my workout, really? And often, the kind of analysis that might be helpful to a careful thoughtful reader is kind of boring to a more casual reader-- so we decide to just leave it out. But it's not just the reporting of studies that sucks. The studies themselves really are all over the map.

I used to get completely excited when some new study came out saying "take this or do that or eat this, it's REALLY good for you." So unless it was something totally obnoxious or disgusting, I'd actually run out and do whatever the study said. Jogging, melatonin, glucosamine, calcium supplements, step aerobics, blueberries, counting fat grams, strength training, chromium, meditation, interval training, fish oil...

Some of those turned out to be really smart. Others--well, not so much.

Likewise, when a study would come out with a dire warning about something I was doing or eating, I'd quit it immediately. At times I've given up or cut way back on: coffee, healthy as well as unhealthy fats, plastic beverage containers, anything with acrylamide, white flour, salt, sugar, eggs, Cokes and other sodas, antiperspirants... the list goes on. And again, some of these were good things to give up, and others were totally stupid moves (in retrospect) that amounted to pointless deprivation.

So now, when a new study comes out? I say, "hmm, that's interesting. Keep me posted, will ya?" I only bother to change my behavior under one of the following conditions:
  • The study tells me to do/eat more of something I already like;
  • It tells me to avoid something I don't care for much anyway;
  • It's an easy change that involves no hardship whatsoever;
  • There have already been a bunch of other studies saying I should be doing/not doing the same thing--and then even then, if the change is too depressing to contemplate I'll just continue to ignore them all.
But here's the thing: as much as I sometimes just want to say "screw these studies, I'll believe what I want to believe," I still think the scientific method beats the alternatives. Through the years, some helpful information as indeed emerged despite all the noise. Some results keep coming up over and over. For example, I feel pretty confident that:
  • It's good to eat natural whole foods, especially vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein.
  • It's bad to eat lots of sugar, white flour, processed foods, saturated fats and transfats.
  • Exercise is good.
  • Sitting on your ass all the time is bad.
  • Stress and smoking are bad.
  • Relaxation and sex and companionship and a good night's sleep are all good.
  • And you really should floss your teeth and wear a seatbelt.
These things may seem obvious now, but 40 years ago this stuff wasn't at all clear. So, despite being wrong and annoying sometimes, yay science!

And even with all my grousing, I still intend to pay more attention to a large study conducted by a reputable research institution, with control groups and all the bells and whistles, than what my next door neighbor tells me he just read in some book. (Especially since my next door neighbor is eighty years old, slightly crazy, and is quite fond of talking about his prostate).

So Cranky Fitness will keep reporting the research as it comes out, especially if a study says good things about chocolate, wine, pet ownership, naps, avocados, massages, coffee, goofing off, or cupcakes. But you may want to take it all with a grain of salt--which may or may not be hazardous to your health.


  1. Well, at least the Bag Lady got the flossing and wearing of seatbelts right...

  2. Uh, yeah. Sometimes (often?), you just don't know what to believe anymore. Some things that don't make sense at first sight are actually very sensible, others that make sense are just weird stuff...

    I like having information, but sometimes, too much is just too much.

  3. Not only is it hard to believe what you read these days, honestly, who thinks up some of these studies??

  4. I second your approach, Crabby. If it's easy to do and doesn't interfere with my life and it doesn't deprive me of something I like, then I'll do it.

  5. Excellent post! I do think a lot of it should be common sense. I mean, isn't it more important that I eat my veggies rather than stand there in the kitchen trying to figure out how to prepare them until I finally give up and walk away in despair?

  6. When people ask me which is the best ab exercise, I answer: the one you like the best. If you like the exercise, you will do it more often!

  7. Good plan. I make it a point to let everyone else be the guinea pigs, if it seems to work out for them, then I might jump on the bandwagon.

    If it's not broke, don't fix it!

  8. Great post, Crabby. I so hear you on giving up foods or products you read were not good for you only to find out years later it was pointless deprivation. I still wonder about drinking from plastic containers. I still try to use glass, but it's not always possible. Now I'm wondering if they changed their minds about that, too? And remember when the reports came out that eating anything canned could cause Alzheimer's? Ugh!

  9. I don't like the list of things you should and shouldn't do (although I know it's true.) There just aren't enough things for me to check off that I'm doing right : )

  10. excellent post-it's definitely good to be reminded every once in a while that those studies are not the be all end all of health knowledge that we sometimes take them as.

    I read everything, and then mostly ignore it. except the whole dairy makes you lose more weight. because I've tried that and it really works!


  11. Amen! This is why I think it's so important (and helpful! and interesting! and if you're a total dork like me, fun!) to be well-versed in science. It helps you understand more science. And that's what all of this is.

    I just read Good Calories, Bad Calories, which got me thinking about a lot of things, and was very interesting and informative, but it was heavy on the science! That was a lot of furrowed-brow reading on the subway. And I was able to follow it all because I have a strong lay-person's background in science. And I was able to catch when some shady scientific logic was being employed, and to pay attention when what was being discussed was solidly researched and trustable.

    Once you have a background in basic biology, and have worked the science-understanding muscles of your brain, you can start to parse things yourself - you can detect good science (big, double-blind studies) versus bad science (confusing correlation and causation), and not be fearmongered or brainwashed (or just jerked around) by every news report on every study that comes along.

    And this is why high school is important. Even if you grow up to work in theatre (hi!), you *do* need science. Still no practical daily use for trigonometry, though.

  12. It drives me crazy that there are still people who don't wear seatbelts. :\

    The studies are insane, too - it seems like it's possible to find a study in support of ANYTHING you want these days. I'm trying to take Michael Pollan's "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." to heart, and paying less attention to the studies that are YAY!this and then BOO!that.

  13. Jaime, I hear ya! It was only when I was working on my masters in theater (yes, I went there,lol!) and met my scientist brother-in-law that I realized i should have paid more attention in high school!

    I'm still waiting for the study that says cheeseburgers and twinkies are health food.

  14. Great post Crabby! Your body sleeps in 90 minute cycles though so it is either 6, 7.5 or 9 hours that you need and it depends on you. You can nap for 20 minutes, but if it is longer than that 90 minutes or three hours will let you wake without feeling groggy.
    That is one study I read, tried and it works.

  15. From a scientist and theatre nerd, I find it easier to just be healthy and do what is good for you...Each study has factors that they don't tell us about, and while it is good to keep abreast of the information, no one can tell you how to live your life...

    Now...Anyone up for a musical or a lecture??

  16. Yay for a scientist/theatre nerd. That's like my alter-ego. Sort of.

  17. amen, sister! as a scientist, i think you pegged it! :)

  18. Hi Crabby,

    I think that studies are okay if you take them with a grain of salt. (Unless a study requires you to be sodium free.)

    I've been through too many medical issues and health issues. Take this. Don't take it. It's good for you. It's bad for you. Ultimately you have to decide for yourself.

    Nice post. Terrie

  19. Great post and wonderful list of your own dos and don'ts. I feel bad for anyone starting out in motherhood these days - trying to keep up with all of the new scientific trends.

    Breastfeed.. for how long. Place the baby on its back for sleeping.. in my kidlets' time it was the belly... etc.

    There's "new" advice everywhere. The best advice I've ever followed was to "trust your instincts."

  20. My mother tells me that when she was my age, common knowledge was that olive oil was bad for you because of the fats in it. They didn't realize it had good fats. Now it's fairly standardly recognized that it's healthy and good fat (has anyone else besides me heard that it's actually bad to heat olive oil?).

    I was raised with the gospel that coconut was really bad for you, but now the tide's turning on that too. So who knows how things'll change. I'm all for the "common sense" method.

  21. Just want to add my thanks for a great post! Very well-written, and my feelings exactly. Especially the list about when you change... :)

    Where is the study that says two flavors of Tasti D-Lite daily is part of a balanced diet?

  22. This is another excellent post, and so timely given today's news that two of the big cholestorol lowering drugs may be ineffective and even harmful. Apparently they lower cholestorol, but increase the plaque in the blood. I'd be so frustrated if I were someone who takes one of those. I'll leave it to Crabby, Mary, and their brilliant readers to let me know whether to worry about this latest news.

  23. In only read studies that promote drinking wine. So there.

  24. Thanks everyone--extremely amusing comments today. And I'm glad I'm not the only one who's confused and frustrated about all this stuff.

    And I love that we have a whole theater/science geek camp at cranky fitness--this will come in handy for staging "Cranky Fitness, The Muscial" which will no doubt take Broadway by storm someday.

    And crap, I hadn't heard that about the cholesterol lowering drugs! I know so many people who are on those--hope in another two days some studiy comes out with the opposite result.

  25. Yeah. I know what you mean. I remember watching a Graham Kerr episode in the 90s. He was fixing a low fat meal and was talking about how trends changed. He then showed a clip from the late 80s where he had created a menu full of red meat and/or cream based dishes. He ended the show by saying "And here we have a wonderfully healthy meal with nary a piece of bread to make you gain weight".

    BTW - Thanks for the support

  26. I'm like you. I pretty much tune out the study results now because there is just too much conflicting info. I like Jack LaLane's philosophy which has helped him be healthy and almost 100, "If man made it, I don't eat it." So simple huh!

  27. Another good half-a**ed post. I love looking for health related resources, but sometimes there should be a limit.

  28. Maybe you should start writing and conducting the studies, Crabby! (or even just making them up would be fine with me) I'd rather take my advice from you. :)

  29. LOL! Yup, and to make things worse some of those big pronouncements come out before researchers are remotely ready, before there's even been so much as one peer-reviewed study of the results. Reporters jump on the results and think it's set in stone when in reality there's plenty more research to do before a conclusion can be drawn. Drives scientists nuts.

    But your list of sure-fire healthy things like eating veggies and whole grains, sleeping good, not smoking and not sitting on your ass all the time are, I believe, more or less set in stone! :-D

  30. "Cranky Fitness, The Muscial" which will no doubt take Broadway by storm someday.

    Great Post. I always have a healthy dose of skepticism when I read any new studies. But I agree with Cara, It's way more fun to learn about them through the Cranky "filter."

    (and I loved jaime's comment!)

  31. OOH! OOH! Can I audition for a part in the musical?!?!?! Please!PLEASE!!!

    I just saw Michael Pollan give a speech on TV and I think I need just about um, two minutes of investigation and he may be my new hero! He had some really sensible things to say.

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  33. Good post. God gave us a brain for a reason -- we're supposed to use it! :) I'm thankful for those who spend the time and money to study some of this stuff but I can't put my brain in neutral just because somebody with "Ph.D." following their name or "Dr." before their name says I should do this, that, or the other.


  34. Great work! keep the stories coming. Looking forward to it.

  35. There is so much crap in studies. I've been reading for years about how you should limit the amount of eggs you eat. Now they are saying you can eat as many as you want. I like eggs though so I'm not complaining


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