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How to Hit a Moving Target: Health Information that Keeps Changing

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Every day, the news is something different. It pops up in our inboxes and social media feeds and glares at us from the television. But no, I’m not talking about that news. I’m talking about health news and the health advice out there supposedly based on the latest study about this, the latest research about that—the brand new, cutting edge, shocking, must-know, rock-your-world health advice du jour.

Recently, I spent several days in Los Angeles filming a segment on the TV show The Doctors. The segment was about the benefits of omega 3 fatty acid supplements. I recommended them because, based on the previous research, they are a source of healthy fats that are cardioprotective. But what did I see in my inbox as soon as I got back home? Multiple articles out there in the health sphere about how omega 3s are not protective for cardiovascular health. I felt a moment of embarrassment. I had spoken passionately on the show about the benefits of omega 3s on heart health, so what was all this? Article after article dispelling the belief I was so fervently supporting? How could this be possible?

Of course, the solution was to do a little research, and here’s what I found at first: In the new Cochrane review of 79 studies evaluating more than 112,000 people, there was no evidence that an increase in the consumption of ALA and long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, protects against cardiovascular health.  The World Health Organization Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group was actually recommending that omega 3s should not be used. Wait…what?

Many years ago, omega 3s were shown to be beneficial—so much so that the American Heart Association endorsed omega 3s for heart health. This prompted me to join the Global Nutrition and Health Alliance, an international group of doctors, dietitians, researchers and allied health professionals who came together to review the state of health in their respective countries. I wanted to share this important news and guide people in other ways in their understanding of how best to eat to improve their cardiovascular status.

In meetings, we focused on the role of diet, specifically with an understanding that to reap the benefits, people must achieve a certain level of omega 3s in the blood. Once we began to investigate this information more deeply, we discovered that even in people who believed they were eating healthfully, 98% had low levels of omega 3s in their diets. How would we disseminate this complex information, and what would we tell people to do?

But looking back, and comparing that research to the current information, I can see that objective testing was not part of the review that has been recently published. There were many unanswered questions. Were the subjects taking omega 3 supplements? Was the omega 3 not being delivered? Or were they only eating in a way they thought was healthy but that did not include enough omega 3s?

But let’s step back and get some perspective. This is just one example of how health advice that seems so solid one moment can seem to become irrelevant the next. How can we possibly know what to do when research swings the pendulum so far in either direction without explaining the nuances in a way that is actionable and that people can understand? This is not only difficult for me as a “regular person” interested in taking care of herself. This is also complicated for me as a physician trying to make recommendations for my patients. It matters to me that the information I give to people is clear and accurate. It was a horrible feeling thinking that I had told the viewers of The Doctors the wrong thing. Health news we get from television should be true, but of course, that isn’t always the way it goes. I do my best, as do most doctors who offer advice, whether on TV or in the privacy of the examination room. But the truth is that the truth (such as we understand it) keeps changing as we learn more. And we are always learning more.

So here’s the bottom line: The headlines, the feeds, the blogs, the articles, even the TV doctors don’t always fully explain the big picture or interpret complex research information in a way that is useful for the average health-conscious person. It is especially challenging to understand and explain information that seems contradictory, even at opposite ends of the spectrum (such as this latest omega 3 upset!). All you can do is read the fine print, educate yourself on discerning good information from bad (hint: look at the source), and keep the lines of communication open between you and your doctor. We not only need to advocate for ourselves, but we also need to be investigative reporters because not everything you read is as simple as it sounds. If it were, there would be no confusion at all.

But aside from all that—aside from the details, like which supplements to take or which particular food items are good or bad—my tried-and-true advice to you is that the very best, most reliable way to maintain a healthy heart is to practice the lifestyle choices that we know for sure make a difference:

  • Eat a well-rounded, diverse, Mediterranean-leaning diet filled with vegetables, healthy fat (like olive oil and nuts), a little fruit, and some natural whole grains.
  • Exercise regularly, about 150 minutes per week.
  • Manage your stress—rather than ignoring it—in whatever way works for you (meditation, nature walks, deep breathing, a nightly bath).
  • Laugh more.
  • Keep good friends and family around you and interact with them often.
  • Find a purpose or a meaning for your life and pursue it.

These are the things that will give you the best chance of avoiding heart disease, not to mention keep you feeling healthy, strong, and happy, and that will never change, no matter what the latest headline says.

Click here to buy Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life

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