Free Yourself From the Soft Tyranny of Nutrition Studies

Chances are, you already know what you need to do to be healthier.


Fish oil: Is it good for you? Who cares? Credit: Charlotte Ball/ZUMA Press/Newscom

"Fish oil or omega-3 supplements won't help people with heart disease," writes nutritionist Alice Callahan in Lifehacker. Her source is a recent JAMA Cardiology meta-study that looked at 10 trials with a total of 77,?917 participants and found that "supplementation with marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids for a mean of 4.4 years had no significant association with reductions in fatal or nonfatal coronary heart disease or any major vascular events."

American consumers were told to supplement with omega-3 (and to eat more fish) based on studies of Inuit people in Greenland who eat a lot of omega-3-rich animals and have exceptionally healthy hearts. You should read Callahan's piece at Lifehacker for the full story (turns out, Inuit genes may be different than yours and mine), then check out the JAMA Cardiology paper if you want more.

The post you're reading right now, however, is about nutrition studies and why you shouldn't think about them too much.

Nutrition studies are confusing and mostly useless for regular people. I do not say that just because a leading nutrition researcher has been exposed for manipulating data for years and years. I say it because most nutrition studies test the validity of small claims that just don't matter in the larger scheme of living a life you love, and because the problems that ail us at the population level cannot be fixed with a bandolier of colloidal silver bullets. There is no "supplement" that can cure heart disease, or melt away obesity, or reverse the effects of inhaling a carcinogen all day, every day, for decades.

Take curcumin. For years and years, people have sworn by the yellowing agent in turmeric as an exceptionally potent natural remedy for almost everything. But as Derek Lowe noted last year, "no curcumin trial has ever reported any convincing positive results." Turmeric is a great ingredient. Put it on everything if you like—but because it tastes good, not because it'll change your genetic predisposition to disease or undo the decades you spent treating yourself like garbage. And if you live up north or are worried about bone health, there's no harm in taking the daily recommended amount of vitamin D in supplement form. Just don't expect it to cure your cancer.

Our desire for incontestable and universally true claims about nutrition reflects our fear of death and our inability to navigate the Age of Abundance, which I posit began in 1863 with the publication of William Banting's Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, and extends through today, when you can choose from 13 different types of Cheerios.

A wealth of options and of competing health claims, coupled with our ability to consume media everywhere, all the time, seems to have given many of us the impression that living a good life requires reviewing all of that information, deciding whether to believe it, and integrating new products into our lives on a revolving basis. Never mind that most of us aren't capable of critically reviewing the studies that produce these claims (nor are most journalists), or, that many such products are forgettable fads. Remember the pomegranate craze? How about the insanity over echinacea in the late 1990s and early 2000s? We'll probably be talking about coconut oil the same way a few years from now.

There is a simpler method for stocking your medicine cabinet and your fridge, and that is to opt out of the micro-efficacy debate entirely. Enjoy things you like in moderation, eat more things you generally resisted as a child (broccoli; I'm talking about broccoli), and don't throw money at the next big thing. Even if it is mildly carcinogenic, bacon alone probably will not kill you, any more than curcumin alone will allow you to live forever, even if is revealed to be mildly anti-inflammatory. For most Americans, there are bigger and more important questions to tackle: Am I getting enough sleep? How can I eat more perishable (read: fresh) foods? Should I be drinking less alcohol? What's a good way to quit smoking cigarettes? How do I work regular exercise into my schedule?

If you're in the 90th percentile, go nuts on the nootropics and BCAAs; maybe you'll get some marginal improvement. But if you live a sedentary life, sleep four hours a night, chain smoke, and/or eat garbage at every meal, it does not matter what vitamins you take or whether you eat garbage in small quantities five times a day or in larger quantities three times a day. Pursuing optimization strategies as a means to achieving a baseline level of health is like hanging a Kandinsky in a crackhouse.

None of this is to insult nutrition researchers or the general assignment journalist who cover their work. I think they sow confusion mostly by accident, and that many researchers of all stripes wish people read less into their (generally) narrow findings. But you don't need ever to read another nutrition paper or health trend story to live a relatively healthy life. Just sleep and exercise more; consume less alcohol and processed sugar; and for God's sake, quit smoking cigarettes.

You won't live forever, but you'll probably save a few bucks.