Defining health and the danger of health advice

Автор: Никола Томов

29 Nov 2015

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In the face of the global obesity epidemic (and all the pathologies that are associated with being overweight), people all around the globe are becoming increasingly more aware of their personal health.

On one hand, that's absolutely amazing – living healthy is now a global trend! Living an active and healthy lifestyle has become hip and cool. Especially among the younger demographic.

A perfect example of this is the growing popularity of bikes as a method of transportation. Or all the smart bands that have flooded the market.

The main driver of this trend, at least in my opinion, is the advancement of IT. Just 15 years ago no one knew what a superfood is. The only available resources were books and magazines.

But, nowadays information is more accessible than ever. All you need is a connection to the internet and google. We’re getting bombarded with information from each direction.

Pop-ups, ads, infomercials, social media ads and etc.

That’s just as bad as not having much information. Nowadays consumers get paralysis by analysis from all the contradictory articles they read.

What was considered healthy today might be portrayed as the devil tomorrow. 

Advise with caution

To differentiate between what’s good and what’s bad for us, we need to know, what being healthy means.

Not only for ourselves, but also for our friends and family, since most of us often share the latest health and nutrition trends. Otherwise, we're at risk of actually doing more harm than good.

I believe almost everyone has a friend that’s overly concerned with providing advice on healthy eating.

Do you recognize these statements?

“If you eat sweets you’ll become fat!”

“Don’t eat fruit, because fructose is bad for you!”

“I’m following the 90-day diet now – look how slim I look!”

Depending on the context, this sort of advice can be both good and bad.

Sweets make you fat, only if you consume more calories than you spend.

Fructose can be bad for you in (extremely) high quantities. Yet it's not realistic to achieve similar levels of fructose from fruit consumption alone. And actually, everything in large quantities can be harmful.

The 90-day diet can cause weight reduction, but yet it’s not sustainable long-term.

I must admit – I’m guilty of providing the same simplistic nutrition advice to my friends.

I was hopping from one trend to the next because I didn't know any better.

Yet over time I’ve evolved beyond that. On one hand thanks to scientific evidence. But so I stepped back to take a look at the bigger picture and started to think in context.

What’s the EXACT definition of health?

Contrary to popular belief, being lean is not the same as being healthy. And the opposite – that someone’s overweight doesn’t mean their health is in a bad state.

If we want to give an honest answer to a complex question, we need to start with the definition of the problem at hand.

When it comes to „health“ what better definition than the one of the WHO. (World Health Organization in case you're living under a rock)

„Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”

Abs, veiny quads, and diet are all excluded from this definition.

What we can derive from this definition of health is that physical health is not only related to the way we look. Not only this, but it also includes other important factors – mental and social well-being!

Health is not tangible, in the sense that we can touch it or hold it in our hands.

It’s a function of exactly three factors – physical, mental and social well-being. Here’s my attempt at depicting this function mathematically.

ƒ(x)=α(PH) + β(M) + γ(S)

This function tells us that our chances of survival are based on the three factors mentioned before.

The better your body's systems work, the healthier you are. All else equal, it’s less likely that something will go wrong and you will be in danger.

That’s why, except for extreme cases, health cannot be determined only by the way you look.

We need to get tested and checked by a professional and in a controlled environment. That’s the reason we have hospitals and doctors.

For example, cholesterol is often mentioned in reference to the health status of a person. That is because cholesterol has been established as a valid proxy for cardiovascular disease.

We know for sure that excessive cholesterol levels can also be an indicator for a bunch of other diseases such as atherosclerosis, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s.

Other examples are micronutrient and mineral levels. Or the state of your hormonal milieu.

Salt is often demonized by media. Yet, sodium is an important electrolyte that can impair muscle function. Chronically low levels of salt, a state also known as hyponatremia, can lead to muscle spasm, cramps, and fatigue.

If this is caused by a serious medical condition it can also lead to a state of coma. Yet, certain populations need to track their sodium intake. People suffering from hypertonia for example.

That's precisely why we need to approach health in a contextual way. This sort of black and white dualism can transform what usually would be good advice into a terrible recommendation.

The mental and social aspects of health

If we try to mix physical health with exogenous factors it becomes even more complex. Stress, sleep deprivation, environmental pollution, and food quality can all play a role.

The examples from the previous paragraph are related to physical health. But yet let’s not forget the other two factors I’ve mentioned throughout this text.

Mental health is something that’s not receiving nearly as much attention as it should be.

This includes a whole host of mental disorders, that can vary in terms of gravity. The worst part is, that mental disorders are usually left undiagnosed.

Often, the individual is not aware that he or she may be affected. Moreover, wellness professionals are not trained to spot, diagnose and treat such disorders.

Eating disorders, for example, are becoming more and more common in health-conscious populations.

Bodybuilding, physique and bikini competitors, are often considered as the golden standard of health. They are quite lean and have well-developed musculature. On top of that, they also lead a healthy and active lifestyle.

Even so, these populations are quite predisposed to eating disorders! And that's not even the end of the list. Obsessive compulsive disorders such as body dysmorphia are common even among average gym goers!

Moreover, in certain situations, the stress from thinking what and where to eat can outweigh the benefits of an otherwise healthy diet!

Last but not least, social well-being is also part of what makes us healthy.

And for a good reason.

This includes the conditions in which we’re born and raised. The job opportunities we’re exposed to. The corporate culture in our country and the standard of living.

Early age development, access to social institutions such as health and educational institutions can have a massive impact on our long-term health!

Unemployment and social integration also come to mind, especially for minority populations.

I'm from a small country with a bad reputation. I've come to know how being marginalized and shut down from society can feel. It can lead to excess anxiety which spills over to physical health!

Why generic health advice sucks

Keeping in mind all the factors that can affect our health, it’s no mystery why generic health advice is outdated. Or worse it neglects context.

There’s few things in this life that are only black and white – health is not one of them.

Health advice is often the result of generalizations and is not always based on scientific evidence. Alas, the most popular health recommendations are mere truisms. Often they are the result of common perceptions.

That’s why the next time one of your friends tells you that carbs are bad for you, you MUST ask why.

No matter how extensive the answer, ask them again.

Keep rolling the “why’s” in their face until they start citing research.

Not that reading a few papers gives a person authority to throw such definitive statements. But at least it would be easier to see how biased and/or knowledgeable they are.

After you’re done gathering statements you can read through the academic literature and form your own opinion.

Last but not least – sometimes it takes a long time before breakthrough scientific evidence can reach the field.

My favorite example is the myth that egg yolks cause high cholesterol.

This statement has been debunked and refuted a bunch of times. But yet, it has taken close to 17 years for this information to reach your local GP.

Let’s not forget that reaching a scientific consensus can also take a few decades of research. Hence, we can be absolutely certain in few things.

We can say what the current paradigm is, but all it takes is one black swan to challenge that same paradigm.

Take home messages

Health is not tangible. It’s a function of our physical, mental and social well-being.

Physical health is not related to the way we look. It can be measured via blood chemistry and liver enzyme panels. There are many other health markers that have been validated by science.

Health advice is often unsubstantiated and lacking in context. For that reason, we need to keep asking “why”. Moreover, ground-breaking scientific information will travel long before reaching your local health practitioner.

That’s why we need to perform our own research before we jump to conclusions.