The alarm shrills at seven o’clock. That means I had seven hours of sleep—was that right, or was it supposed to be eight? Eight glasses of water is no longer a magic number, I read; for some, it might even be too much. Shrugging off the question, I head for breakfast, the most important meal of the day. Eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, a pauper—oh, wait. The new thing is intermittent fasting, so I cannot eat until eleven. Four hours. But the body goes into starvation mode and makes more fat cells when you let yourself get that hungry, right? I think that might just be women’s bodies, though, conserving energy to nurse babies. And most medical research has been done with men, because their bodies are less complicated.
All of this is complicated. I need a cup of coffee. Coffee has antioxidants, I think brightly. Those fight cancer. Of course, coffee is also acidic and a stimulant. But decaf has some kind of chemical processing I think we are supposed to avoid. And one study found that coffee drinkers had a lower risk of death than people who did not drink coffee.
But maybe that just means coffee drinkers have jobs that require them to be alert—and pay for a higher quality of life. Observational studies are always dicey. Just because variables coincide does not mean one is caused by the other.
I could scramble some eggs. Eggs are back in fashion. They slip a fried one on top of a healthy ancient grain bowl to seduce us… Louis Black has a great skit about medical research: Eat eggs. Don’t eat eggs. But I ate all the eggs! You could do the same skit with carbs, diet soda, red wine, meat, calcium…
Would I put cheese in the eggs? Depends on which study you read. Butter in the skillet would either be protective or suicidal. Sighing, I fix a bowl of oatmeal, glopping it from a container because I read that steel-cut is good and instant is bad, so now I make it ahead of time and it has the consistency of mortar. Yay. A sprinkle of brown sugar and a splash of cream, which I am sure will kill me—although the French live long happy lives, and they eat a lot more butter and cream than we do.
They just forget to worry about it.
Bacon is of course out of the question, although I make it every weekend anyway. Fake bacon is probably even higher in sodium and chemical additives. Once a friend made it a goal to have a totally chemical weekend. We suggested an ice cream novelty, and he recoiled in horror: “It might have real milk solids!” Fake anything appalls me; I knew that vile yellow Oleo could not be good when my poor grandpa smeared it on his heart-healthy toast, and my five-year-old’s instincts were proven right. Yet I am loving these plant-based “meats”…until we find out some ingredient that makes them tasty is even more terrible for us than meat was.
Forget the coffee. I opt for tea, also potentially toxic because of all the insecticides and herbicides used in the few regions where most of the world’s tea grows. Living on the edge here. I will make up for it by walking the famous ten thousand steps today. Ever hear that backstory? A Japanese pedometer manufacturer noticed that the Japanese symbol for 10,000 looked like someone walking. The magic number has never been verified.
Do I pop a calcium and Vitamin D pill? Not anymore; supplements do not appear to prevent bone fractures in people over fifty—says one study at least. What I will do is relax with a glass of red wine tonight, even though the studies praising its health effects have since been countered by studies warning of ill effects for even slight alcohol consumption.
It is possible, I suppose, that people who drink red wine every day also have enough money to ease stress and afford excellent health care. Somehow I doubt researchers are testing the guys who glug Red Ripple on the curb. But surely there is still some health benefit in relaxation and the anticipation thereof? Especially when it has the benediction of medical science?
My husband really perked up when he heard of the red-meat study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, led by Dr. Bradley Johnston, then (but no longer) an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada. His team found no strong scientific evidence linking meat consumption to heart disease and cancer. Alas, Johnston was swiftly excoriated. A previous, equally exciting and controversial study three years earlier, also in the Annals, had tried to discredit warnings about sugar consumption. It was paid for by a trade group founded by a Coca-Cola executive and supported in part by agribusiness, food, and pharmaceutical companies. The trade group had not only paid for the study but had reviewed and approved its protocol. The meat study was not industry-funded, but like the sugar study, it used a tool mainly designed to rate clinical drug trials, not dietary studies.
Too bad, since high-protein diets are all the rage, touted for helping people lose weight and build muscle. On the other hand, a Washington University School of Medicine study just found that high-protein diets, at least for lab mice, led to more plaque in the arteries.
Personally, I like the Lancet Public Health study that said a diet of fifty percent carbs was healthier than either high-carb or low-carb diets. Moderation—has that been studied? I can understand the difficulty of drawing conclusions about diet: Data can be bent in many directions; our bodies and lives are all very different; self-report cannot always be trusted; and how something is sourced and prepared might matter, too…as might someone’s stress level and immune system…
Yet consumers want black-and-white guidelines. Universities demand publications in return for tenure. The media insist on strong, sensationalistic conclusions. Social media ups the ante by rewarding what goes viral. And food producers put a thumb on the scale whenever possible, because they need us to love their product.
The real question is what has made us so eager for these bulletins. Is it that we no longer trust our food supply, so we worry away at the edges we can control? We are in the awkward position of knowing just enough to be scared, but not enough to chart our own path. And food is primal: The habits are strong, and so are the consequences in our lives.
But all this back-and-forth is making us neurotic.
In a study titled “Is Everything We Eat Associated With Cancer?” Dr. John Ionnidis, who chairs disease prevention at Stanford University, plucked fifty recipes from a cookbook. Eighty percent of the ingredients had been linked, repeatedly, to either an increased or a decreased risk of cancer.
In the end, I suspect it makes a great deal more difference in the length and quality of our life if we take the time we spend fretting over the latest report and use it for a walk in the woods.
Just as I finish writing that, a news flash hits my inbox: “Meat Increases Heart Risks, Latest Study Concludes.” This time, the finding was that people who had the highest intakes of red meat, processed meat, and poultry over three decades had a small but increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and high intakes of red meat and processed meat were associated with higher mortality. People who regularly ate fish did not see an increased cardiovascular risk.
I zap the article to my husband as a cautionary tale. But even as I hit Send, I am wondering: Did people agree to the study because they knew they were already at cardiovascular risk? And what does this sentence mean: “The association between unprocessed red meat intake and incident CVD was stronger in participants who consumed a higher-quality diet compared with those who did not.” So if you eat really well but add an extra strip of bacon, you’ll do more cardiovascular damage than somebody with a lousy diet overall who adds a strip of bacon?
I am not critiquing the results, mind you. Clearly, the upshot is to prioritize fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts, and seeds, and nobody seems to be arguing with that.