It’s a sad fact that many people look for quick fixes in various aspects of their lives. Acknowledging that a host of issues require nuanced responses, that simple black-or-white answers are often insufficient, seems tedious to some. So we look for easy solutions: if a little of this nutrient is good for me, a lot must be great; soda pop is not the healthiest thing I can drink, therefore I can never be in the same room as a can of soda pop.
The issue of “extreme” thinking in the health/nutrition realm was addressed beautifully by Dr. Aaron Carroll, a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Indiana, in a recent NY Times article entitledDash of Salt Does No Harm; Extremes are the Enemy. In the article, Dr. Carroll points out various examples of health and government agencies, and likely many health-informed individuals as well, taking data gleaned from research studies to extremes, possibly to the public’s detriment. He cites a recent study indicating that data from folks in 18 countries suggest those who consume more than 7 grams of salt per day have a greater risk of dying that those who consume 3-4 grams per day. Findings of this nature have prompted groups like the American Heart Association to suggest we cut our daily salt intake down to no more than 1.5 grams. Interestingly, however, another recent study using the same data set suggests that folks who consume less than 3 grams of salt per day have an even greater risk of dying than those who consume more than 7 grams per day!
Dr. Carroll points to other nutrition-related dogma as examples of “extreme” thinking as well: the long held belief that cholesterol must be removed from the diet because various studies indicate that elevated serum cholesterol may promote heart disease, despite that fact that for most folks, dietary cholesterol intake does not move the needle on serum cholesterol much at all; or the practice of consuming very high doses of some vitamins because it is known that vitamin deficiencies can cause serious health issues. At best, practices such as these may cost us a little extra money; at worst, they can promote side effects and illness due to unnecessary use of drugs and other therapies designed to treat conditions that don’t warrant treatment.
There are no easy solutions to the ongoing problem of “extreme” thinking. To an extent, it’s a natural condition to believe that more is better than less, and that some is worse than none. And, realistically, guidance from renowned health agencies indicating that we shun or embrace certain foods or nutrients only adds to the public’s dilemma on how to think or act. As health professionals, the best we can do is become as versed on an issue as possible; to read studies and assess data on both sides of an issue; to not be swayed by headlines or, for that matter, the dogmatic recommendations of various health organizations and agencies; and of course, as Dr. Carroll points out, to practice moderation in our health and eating habits. When it comes to diet in particular, it’s important to remember that there is a lot of gray area and not as much black-or-white as we often like to think. Critical thought seems a key component to healthy eating.