The Problem with Health Advice: It’s Confusing as Hell

health advice

This week on the podcast I’m taking a look at health advice and wellness. And trying to help you and me and everyone navigate this super important topic that also can be, for lack of a better term, crazy-making. 

I’m inspired to take on this topic because it’s something that’s important to me and that I know a decent amount about: I covered health for magazines for several years in the early 2000s, and in the last several years have been writing books with doctors and other health care providers. Part of this week of episodes is just me trying to digest everything I’ve learned, and  part of it is also reflecting on what wellness means in this moment in time where the pandemic has had an impact on all aspects of health–including mental health–in such a big way. 

I’m going to do these episodes in kind of a one-person debate style. I’m going to start by illuminating something that’s problematic about health and wellness, then look at the other side, and then leave you with a takeaway that I hope will help you think more clearly about it all.

You’re reading the transcript of an episode of the How to Be a Better Person podcast. If you’d rather listen, click the play button below.2

Listen to the Podcast Here

And the first issue I’m taking aim at is the fact that when it comes to health advice, it is confusing as hell. 

There’s a new take every week — eat whole wheat bread instead of white bread! No, don’t eat any bread, as bread has gluten and too many carbs.  Brown rice is the healthy choice. No, brown rice has lectins, stick with white rice! Except, no, none of that matters because rice is contaminated with arsenic and carbs are bad for you, anyway, eat cauliflower rice or quinoa! And don’t forget to soak your quinoa. 

Oh goodness it’s enough to make you want to soak your head. 

When I work with a doctor on their book, I get immersed in their point of view and their program

I learn so much. I follow their programs. It changes my life. And sometimes, it also makes my head spin. Even on things they agree on, like, salmon is a great protein source because it’s high in omega-3s, the doctors I’ve worked with contradict each other. Some say you should only ever eat wild-caught salmon, while others say farmed salmon is fine so long as it’s raised clean. But then another doctor will say that you can’t trust most of the certification labels on foods because they’re greenwashing. It’s enough to make you feel like there is no one right choice. Which is an elemental truth that is hard to accept. So if there’s no one right choice, what’s the point? Let’s just eat mac and cheese and call it a day, right? 

When it comes to our health advice, we want certainty and right answers. Which is what gets us to gobble up the latest nutritional advice. But the more you read, the more you can feel unsure. This is a problem because it can leave you demoralized, when clearly you have a desire to know that you’re taking good care of your health because you were seeking that content out in the first place. It can feel like a broken promise. 

Trying to determine what to do in order to be healthy is as full of as many twists and turns as a plate of spaghetti. 

Why is that? 

First, you have to acknowledge that our understanding of how the things you eat and the activities you do either add to or take away from health is continuously evolving. 

Remember in the 70s, eggs and bacon were the number one no-no foods? Then it we were all scared of sugar. And then it was fat that everyone was avoiding. (Remember Snackwell low-fat cookies?). Then Atkins came and put low-carb on the map. Then gluten became enemy number one. And then it was paleo, then keto, then intermittent fasting. 

Health advice is continually changing because our knowledge is continually changing. This is how the scientific process works–you test a hypothesis, draw some conclusions, and then develop new hypotheses and draw new conclusions. The human body is an exquisitely complex machine and we may never truly understand exactly how it works, nor how it interacts with our continually changing world and environment and lives. 

That means you have to accept that there is no one right answer to the question of, how do I take care of my health? 

Also, magazines and websites and even books are sold because they proclaim certainty. Very few authors will say, “my understanding is still evolving” (although some do! I’m interviewing one of those on Wednesday, so come back or keep listening for that one). It’s up to you and me to go into any health education knowing that there is no certainty. 

Plus, we’re all individuals. You have circumstances and factors that are unique to you, so while advice that’s geared toward the public can be a useful guideline, it can’t 100% apply to you because you aren’t the same as everyone else in the public. 

The takeaway is my best advice for wading through all the health advice out there to find eating strategies and health practices that work for you. 

And that is to remember that there are some practices that are non-negotiables for you

The things that you do that you know help you be well. For me, those non-negotiables are avoiding gluten (I’ve not been tested for celiac but when I eat it, my digestion gets angry), walking every day (which is why I got a dog), doing strength training and yoga (or else I experience back pain and impaired sleep), and being mindful about carbs (otherwise, I put on weight in my belly that I know comes with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and I’m an older parent–I really want to be here for a long time for my kids and, God willing, my grandkids). 

Beyond those things you already know, there are probably a lot of other little things you can do that would boost your overall wellness. 

Maybe it’s increasing your water intake. Or committing to taking vitamin D and omega 3 supplements. Snacking more on nuts and seeds and less on chips. Eating more greens and fresh herbs. Drinking less. Getting in the habit of going to the farmer’s market so that you eat more seasonally. Or starting a garden. 

For those types of things, you can experiment with them one or at most two at a time, and try to commit to doing just them for a few months before you try adding anything else. 

Adding things at what appears to be a slow rate still adds up to a lot of good change over time. It’s important to layer things on so that you can incorporate each change and it doesn’t just automatically slough off. 

Taking it one thing or two at a time also prevents the confusion and overwhelm that comes from trying to keep up with the latest program

So. Examine and acknowledge the things you know are good for your health. And then pick one refinement to practice for a season. Maybe it comes from a book that you’ve read, or an article, or something you talked about with a friend, or that your doctor or other practitioner is advising. You know, you want to be continuing your education. Then, when spring comes around you can try something else. 

Unless of course you’ve gotten a diagnosis and you need to make some more sweeping changes in which case, get support! Work with a nutritionist or get a friend or partner to commit to doing it with you, 

What’s your health improvement thing that you’re focusing on for the next few months? Think about what’s been calling to you, maybe something you used to do that you know worked for you, or something that’s related to something you’ve been experiencing–like if your low back has been bothering you, you might commit to stretching for 10 minutes in the mornings or before bed. 

You’re not committing for the rest of your life, that’s a lot to take on. Just go for three months and by the end of that time, chances are good that you’ll have incorporated it into just what you do and you won’t lose it if you change your focus to folding in something new.


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