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Like a lot of people, when it comes to nutrition, I’ve always considered myself a rationalist. But relying on rationalism has proved to be strangely irrational. Fat isn’t what has been making people fat, apparently. And coffee, although highly addictive, proves to have virtually no adverse health implications. So, nope, it’s much better to rely on research, to be an empiricist. Do that, and a lot of things that seem like they shouldn’t be good for you turn out to be not so bad after all.
And it’s not just a case of bad things proving to be good, but also good ones bad. Fruit juice, for example, has been revealed as mostly just another sugary drink—loads of sugar, not a lot of nutrition. Save your money instead for the coffee shop or maybe even the bar. Given the research, it’s the rational thing to do.
Gluten has long been recognized as a terrible thing for the roughly one percent of the population with the autoimmune disorder celiac disease, which no doubt contributed to the reception of initial Australian research establishing ill effects for non-celiacs. That study was recanted after a more rigorous follow-up did not duplicate the results, but a 2016 study by the Columbia University Medical Center confirmed that a small proportion of the non-celiac population suffers from an inflammatory immune disorder involving gluten. But gluten avoiders among the remaining population (which could be up to 98 percent of us) are doing nothing for their health except denying themselves a delicious and nutritious dietary element.
How could something with a name like monosodium glutamate be anything other than bad? Yet, in numerous randomized double-blind studies (considered together in a so-called systematic review, or meta-study, published in 2016 by the peer-reviewed Journal of Headache and Pain), people who believe they suffer from “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” have reacted in the same way to placebos as to MSG, a thoroughly benign substance that’s present in almost everything we eat (and especially in things like soy sauce and Parmesan cheese).
Our March cover star, 89-year-old marathoner B.J. McHugh (read more about her incredible fitness achievements), knows how to find the perfect balance: she eats steak once a week and enjoys a glass of shiraz every night, even before a marathon.
We all bought the idea that fat wasn’t heart-smart, but in truth the research back then was absent, suspect or ambivalent, and replacing fat with carbs and sugar made us fat, which really contributed to heart disease. The emerging view from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: chow down on the good fats (vegetable oils, especially, though it’s complicated), and don’t sweat a certain amount of the “less good” either.
Because caffeine is so highly addictive, and coffee so sinfully delicious, it has been subject to intensive research, with results that at one time seemed cautionary for heavy users. But extensive data from longitudinal studies as well as coffee-specific research from institutions including Johns Hopkins University, the Harvard School of Public Health, UBC and the University of California, Berkeley, have found virtually no drawbacks and many benefits to moderate consumption of up to about five cups a day. These include insulating effects against dementia, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, certain cancers and even suicide.
Another addictive substance, alcohol too has been intensively researched—included, in fact, within literally hundreds of longitudinal studies following millions of people over many decades. Time and time again, moderate alcohol consumption correlated with both increased longevity and better overall health—but there’s a catch. Unlike those heavy consumers of coffee, moderate drinkers prove to be wealthier, better educated and more physically and socially active than non-drinkers, and when that was taken into account by a 2016 meta-analysis in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, most of alcohol’s health benefits disappeared. Still, moderate consumption appears to be roughly a wash, health-wise, so hey!
Check back for more from VanMag’s 25 Ways to Live Forever package (our March 2017 cover story!) to learn about the myriad ways—blood transfusions, juice cleanses, IV drips—Vancouverites chase the dream of eternal youth.