How to eat healthily at any age.
Is it ever okay to ignore the guys in white coats and follow your health intuition, or should you bow down to science and government guidelines even if it doesn’t feel right to you?
Government health guidelines are pretty adamant about a lot of things. They’re created after consultation amongst public health officials and specialists who have drilled into the data to determine what seems to work best for most people’s good health.
They recommend things like 2.5 serves of dairy and six serves of grains a day for most adults.
But chat to your friends and family and plenty of them shun these major food groups because of a particular diet they’re following, what their favourite Insta-stars promote, or because they just don’t sit right in their belly (or mind).
So is it okay to detour the major dietary guidelines for an eating plan that seems to suit you individually better? When should you listen to alternative nutrition theories being spouted by celebrities or online, and when should you go with the mainstream flow?
And what of more serious health concerns like treatment of cancer and heart disease? Science will suggest particular medication and treatment plans, yet plenty of people ignore the Western approach and opt for alternative or Eastern interventions that resonate with them.
Are they crazy or is it sensible to follow what feels right?
We all want to feel fabulous and do the best we can for our health. So here’s what you should consider when wanting to choose your own health path.
The science standard
Before making any major health decisions, it’s worth understanding how science works and how to determine if a study has enough solid evidence or is relevant to you.
While you might read new headlines each week spruiking a new superfood’s merits or suggesting a long-held health view is now redundant, you need to be careful about what you adopt.
The “gold standard” of evidence is called a meta-analysis or systemic review, which occurs when researchers can compare the data of multiple high-quality studies into a particular health problem, ideally including thousands of people, to get the clearest picture possible.
“A single study can hit the media and everyone responds dramatically about a potential cure for something but the reality is that you need a consistent body of evidence to reliably say, ‘This is what we should do’,” Professor Helena Teede, from the Monash University School of Public Health, who has been involved in setting Australian health guidelines, told Coach.
These systemic reviews are used by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to develop Australian guidelines, which Professor Teede says are very trustworthy.
“Government-endorsed guidelines in Australia are very well-researched and conflicts of interest are managed at every stage,” Professor Teede says.
“In contrast if [information] comes from someone who has a vested interest or a particular agenda, or is simply a form of self promotion then you need to be sceptical.”
But even when large studies seem to point to a particular health outcome, they are still not always relevant to all people.
“The evidence may not be directly applicable to you because you’ve got all these other challenges, such as a family history of a disease or a particular ethnicity, that weren’t like the people in any one study,” Professor Teede says.
Sometimes Professor Teede says there isn’t enough evidence to make a concrete recommendation about a particular health issue, so a team of multi-disciplinary experts put their heads together to come up with a position statement about what they think works, based on their collective experience.
The trouble with science
Science has come a long way in the past few decades with health treatments and nutritional knowledge advancing at breakneck pace.
And while this puts us in a better place than ever before for understanding how humans can best thrive, it also highlights how quickly opinion and treatments can change.
Case in point is fat. The latter half of the 20th century saw a war waged on fat, blaming its consumption for rising obesity and high cholesterol levels.
But health authorities now suggest that not all fats are created equal and encourage the consumption of unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, nuts and avocado, for optimal heart health.
It’s not surprising then that plenty of people are left wondering what we’re eating or doing now that could one day be proven detrimental to our health.
“Science is always changing – one minute fat is bad then it is good then it is bad again and eggs are out and then they are in again,” nutritionist Fiona Tuck told Coach.
“Although science now says we can eat eggs every day, I have a handful of clients that find too many eggs shoot up their cholesterol levels [so] their cholesterol tests prove opposite to the latest science.”
For this reason, Tuck recommends keeping abreast of the science but then cherry-picking what works for your individual health.
“I am a big believer in looking at the science but ultimately listening to your body … But make sure you follow professional advice,” she says.
“Eat a little bit of everything and not too much of any one thing, and include a variety of different foods every day to ensure a wide variety of nutrients.”
Professor Teede points out that by their very nature, guidelines are suggestions — but don’t mandate what you have to eat or do.
“Guidelines are recommendations saying, ‘This is the best evidence we have from around the world’,” she says.
“As long as an individual is using appropriate bodies of information and evidence and guidelines to inform their decisions, is not being misled by false information, and is seeking individual professional advice, then that is likely to deliver the best outcomes.”
This is particularly important when it comes to things like cancer treatment.
“The internet and social media has led to lots of misinformation being published. There are lots of bogus cures promoted online as well as unfounded claims about things that can prevent cancer, such as drinking alkaline water,” Professor Sancha Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council, told Coach.
“Some of the most worrying examples I’ve seen are people mortgaging their house and travelling overseas to undergo expensive, unproven and potentially dangerous ‘alternative’ treatments rather than undertake potentially curative treatments here in Australia.”
Professor Aranda says that the testing for cancer treatment in Australia is so rigorous that many potential treatments don’t make it from the lab into the hospital.
“Thanks to science, Australian cancer survival rates have increased dramatically – today, 68 percent of people diagnosed with cancer will survive at least five years, up from 40 percent in the 1980s,” Professor Aranda points out.
Find a good GP
Given the way science changes and the fact that not all studies are relevant to all people, Dr Bastian Seidel, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), says your best bet is to talk through your health opinions and concerns with a good doctor.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach – you need to put information in context,” he says.
Dr Seidel says GPs use the latest evidence as well as their own medical knowledge to treat patients, because sometimes there isn’t enough rigorous studies into particular ailments.
“There are various ways of how we interpret science,” he says.
“We don’t just have medical evidence … we still need a commonsense approach of what makes sense in medicine [so we can treat] emerging problems. It wouldn’t be good enough for me to say, ‘There’s no study investigating your problem, therefore I can’t help you’.”
Dr Seidel says that GPs are forbidden from endorsing products, so you know you are going to get unbiased advice.
“We have celebrities endorsing nutrition products and ways of life and although it may work well for them or for their bank account, it doesn’t mean the information they are putting out there can be uniformly adapted to what individual patients are going through,” he points out.
When it comes to nutrition, Dr Seidel says people don’t have to follow the nutritional guidelines to a tee — so long as they are getting adequate nutrients from substitutes.
So if you’re going to shun dairy, then you need to find a way of getting enough calcium, protein and vitamin B12.
Similarly, if you’re convinced gluten doesn’t sit right with you and you’re bypassing the bread and pasta, you want to make sure you are getting enough carbohydrates and fibre to look after your health.
“When anyone wants to consider dietary or lifestyle alternatives to those presented in the guidelines, they need to have an understanding of what the evidence and background to that is, and be savvy about making sure there’s no conflict of interest in the sources of information,” Professor Teede says.
“Ultimately health decisions should be based on the best quality, non-biased evidence, whilst considering personal preferences and individual characteristics.
“Beliefs, preferences, cultural factors, age and interactions with other illnesses are all important and should be considered in partnership with your health professional.”