Navigating the Truth in Health
Health knowledge seems to be constantly growing. Thousands of researchers dedicate their careers to investigating the mysteries of the human body. However, as is the case with ‘ideas’, there are probably only a few good ideas out of a few thousand at any one time. Some of these ‘good ideas’ will grow and become parts of daily life, but many won’t.
Every few years or so, there seems to be a new ‘theory’ that captures the attention of why some proposed ‘method’ works. Off the top of my head, in the context of dietary changes, there have been the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet, the ketogenic diet, the carnivore diet – all claiming a unique reason why they produce ‘results.’
Words like ‘ancestral’ and ‘optimised human performance’ are used to justify why something has worked – and will continue to. Most of these ideas disappear just as quickly as they surge in popularity. Why? Because the possible mechanism behind why it works is not synonymous with why they say it works.
That is, the reason their solution works, is not actually the reason that it works. As far as I can tell, the best explanation we have in terms of why weight change occurs is explained by the calorie in, calorie out principle, and even that has been challenged over the years.
Our obsession with ‘why’ something works, prompts researchers to investigate this very question, creating banks of knowledge that require years of study just to understand. And yet, through the ages we have had simple, unscientifically proven advice from our elders that still hold true today. They have no idea why it works – just that it does. The longevity of the function of the idea says something about its’ truth, whether the proposed idea is true or not.
Allow me to give you an example. The old saying goes ‘make sure you get a good night’s rest,’ which has survived for countless generations. However, the recent field of ‘sleep science’ has only just begun. Their investigations illustrate why this statement seems to be true, as well as finding ways to help someone sleep better. However, the practical and purported benefits of sleeping have been widely understood prior to anyone sticking electrodes on their temples to observe brain wave activity. Most people will say when they sleep well, they feel better.
We didn’t need empirical evidence to know that sleeping was good for us, and yet it is now a growing research field, likely because we are forgetting to listen to our basic natural physiological signals – to sleep, and sleep plentifully.
This is a segue into my next thought. How important is it to understand exactly why something works, fully knowing that the ‘why’ could be an artificially researched idea that may change in the next few years, or decades? No matter how many times we ‘re-invent’ the theory of gravity, objects will always drop to the ground. No matter what theory is described for the benefits of exercise, bodies that are physically challenged, will always be stronger.
No matter what theory explains why ‘breathing’ sustains life, we know that ‘not breathing’ causes us to die. We knew this long before we were familiar with gas exchange and blood perfusion. There are answers that come from heuristics that have stood the test of time, and will continue to. Unlike emerging fields like technology, we have been acquainted with our bodies from the day we are born.
With the advent of internet, as well as numerous ‘experts’, health literacy has now become a scary place. What is said by one is wholly contradicted by another. How can one navigate this landscape without a scientifically trained mind? Ideas that have survived the test of time regarding health, are probably good places to fall back on. Not only ideas, but cultural behaviours that have existed through multiple generations are probably safer than ideas that have only come about for a couple of years.
The Asian culinary culture is filled with white rice, which was demonised for a few years when carbohydrates were being blamed for rapid weight gain in the 21st century. This has now been debunked, but the debunk will be debunked again, and so continues the vicious cycle. However, it is still true that thousands of years of eating rice has helped the Asian people thrive, and continue to till this day.
In the presence of confusion and conflicting theories, turn back time and investigate what has historically worked and survived. It probably has more truth to it than the latest theory.