There’s been a debate in my local paper in the last week about the health effects of dairy products. A column urges us to follow a dairy-free diet. A letter to the editor takes issue, citing studies of the health benefits of milk and cheese.
Both writers are scientists, one in public health at UNC, one in food science at N.C. State. I can’t really tell who is right here. How do I sort out these expert opinions that contradict each other?
This is just one example of a common dilemma. We have information overload. "Expert" opinions sometimes conflict. Health reports in the media are sometimes polluted with hidden agendas. Indeed, scientific consensus sometimes evolves over time to contradict itself. (Witness the strange fate of the planet Pluto and the dinosaur Brontosaurus...)
What’s more, experts often have little to say about how implement their conclusions in a way that real people can sustain. In the example of Dairy Products: Pro or Con, if I were to come to believe that the dairy-free diet is the way to go, how would I factor in my love of cream in my coffee and a slice of cheese on my sandwich?
We’ll always struggle with this dilemma. The best resolution we can hope for may be to discern the ways that reasonably sound science can inform a wellness routine that we can actually follow, without requiring a level of willpower that will be self-defeating in the end.
Via a tip from our colleague Robin Swift: The blog Cranky Fitness offers some common-sense advice on how to use our intuition to integrate expert opinion with our personal style and diet and exercise preferences.
When sifting among competing health opinions, Cranky Fitness advises that we become at least somewhat aware of which views represent scientific consensus and which are controversial. The blog also suggests keeping your own well-being at the center of your decision-making: "Become your own lab rat... [M]ainstream scientific advice often is about averages. And human beings are not statistics."
Regarding intuition, Cranky Fitness counsels that a counter-intuitive approach may be best, at least in the early stages of attempting to improving one’s health:
I didn’t arrive at the point where I actually enjoy and crave healthy foods and vigorous exercise by following my intuition. My intuition is pretty darned happy with cheeseburgers and cokes and brownies. Instead, I ignored my deep-felt preferences and inclinations and forced myself, over years and years, to try a lot of healthy, unappealing foods until I got used to most of them and even started to like them. And I made myself cut way back on yummy, delectable treats that I love, until I got out of the habit of expecting them very frequently. Exercise? Same thing. I sweated out a lot of classes and workouts that were sometimes no fun at all to get to the place where I’ve discovered enough fitness options I don’t hate to keep me in reasonable shape.
These are not all easy principles to follow, but they sound wise to me.
Cranky Fitness is rated PG-13 for adult language, mature situations, and irreverent attitude.
John James, M.A.
Clergy Health Initiative