You might have noticed that there are a lot of health trends and fads around, a lot of gurus and people with new books. It is claimed that this new way-of-life/diet/gadget/exercise will revolutionise your health and make you feel great!
The existence of these trends doesn’t seem so strange; they aren’t so new; there have been many different diets and curious health methods around for a long time. Remember the watercress soup diet? Pilates craze? The electrical abdominal contractor? What about blood-letting (a slightly older craze)? I am sure you can come up with many more. These fads, trends, fashions (as we may want to call them) develop and disappear much like fashion within the clothing industry. But why do follow fads or trends when thinking about health?
Health trends and fads may be a way of managing the vast amount of decisions that we need to make. We need effective ways of making health decisions, we can’t analyse every aspect of our lives in detail if there are other important things demanding our attention. Health trends may catch on as they reach many people with simple, memorable central messages deliberately designed to spread easily. It is tempting to absorb a simple answer to a complex question through a message that seems logically sound than to interpret the complex array of scientific evidence available. Simplistic health thinking may follow such patterns as I want to lose weight so I will starve two days a week. This seems to make sense, eat less and lose weight. Or it may follow the lines of I want to be healthier so I will try to be as “natural” as possible by avoiding “unnatural” things. The argument goes; we have evolved in a certain way so if we act in this way it must be the healthiest. So by going back to evolutionary beginnings, i.e. “natural”, we may improve health. For example by avoiding bread or gluten, just eating berries, nuts and fruit and occasionally gorging on a dead zebra. The same thinking can be extended to barefoot running. Makes sense right? It is an appealing argument. But if this indeed was healthiest why don’t we revert to acting like apes to boost our health? They are the beginnings of our evolutionary process and as thus an extension of this logic. Clearly this logic is flawed in many ways. We might have evolved to cope with starving a number of days in the week, but what if this actually generates a great stress reaction in the body? What if consuming bread is a very effective way of obtaining calories which in turn reduces the stress on the body and enhances health? The same people that believe that they are improving their health through training and adjusting their diets to a neurotic degree may also live in the centre of large cities where pollution has been shown to cause negative health effects. Negative health effects that may even more than counteract the positive effects of exercise or stringent diets. This could be seen as chasing health on one hand, but ignoring it on the other. Is the diet instead merely a show of health or even simply a fashion perhaps? One might argue antibiotics and vaccinations are unnatural. They are manmade and have only existed a very short period of time. But vaccinations stop people from getting life threatening diseases, or can even eradicate them. Antibiotics stop people dying from infections, one that a relatively simple injury or illness could have led to in the past. Many fewer mothers and children die in the process of child birth, partly through the highly “unnatural” C-sections. Ultimately, people now live considerably longer on average than when people lived more “naturally”. Unnatural therefore bad doesn’t work. One of the reasons science and empirical studies exist is to get to the bottom of situations that don’t merely follow simple logic. In some cases logic can be right, in others it is partially misleading and in yet further situations it can be simply wrong.
But fads endure, maybe because we humans are good at believing strongly in something. The problem is beliefs are often built on social influences rather than empirical observations. To avoid the fads a deeper understanding is required, simple logical messages are tempting, but lacking. Beware the simple logic.