Can We Learn Anything Useful From Food and Exercise Studies?

Recently, I have been struck by the number of articles in the popular press regarding this or that study about exercise and food.  This plethora of information includes new guidelines by one expert group or another, telling us how much exercise we should get, and how we should eat.  You may have noticed that the information out there is difficult to interpret, and the studies often contradict one another.  What is a good food?  What is a bad food?  Are carbohydrates good for us or bad for us?  How often should we exercise and what kind of exercise is best?  I could go on and on.  The sad truth is that no one really knows the answers to these types of questions.

We scientists are not quite as clueless as I may have led you to believe, but it’s pretty pathetic.  We do know that obesity is associated with increased risks for many adverse health outcomes.  We also know that high blood pressure and high cholesterol are associated with increased risks for adverse health outcomes.  But, how best to use diet and exercise to lower these adverse health risks?  As a very interesting article the other day in the NYT explains, we don’t really know much.  The article was written by Gina Kolata, and is entitled “Food and exercise studies have one big problem.”  I urge you to read the article.  It will probably make you think twice the next time you hear or read about about a new wonder diet or exercise plan.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do not want you to get the idea that efforts to lead a healthy lifestyle are hopeless.  It is just that we should not be looking for some magic formula to achieve success in maintaining a reasonable body weight and reasonable physical fitness.  Be wary of dogmatic “pushers” of this or that plan guaranteed to help you.  With respect to the food/diet issues, I strongly recommend you check out some of the books written by Michael Pollan (e,g., “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” published in 2006 or “Food Rules,” published in 2009).  He offers a number of practical suggestions without being dogmatic.   Of course, we also need to pay attention to other healthy lifestyle matters such never driving a motor vehicle when impaired (e.g., alcohol, drugs), always wearing a seat belt when in a motor vehicle, and not texting while driving.  These measures might not have much effect on your waistline or exercise tolerance, but they might just save your life.

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