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Health findings open to interpretation

Published June 09. 2012 09:01AM

"I don't know what's wrong with us," a friend said the other day in response to the many domestic problems dogging the United States.

"I do," I said. "Too many sheep. Not enough shepherds."

While she chuckled at my comment, that doesn't mean it's accurate. After all, I'm not exactly an expert in our country's affairs. I spend far more time reading about health and fitness than the state of the nation.

What I can say with certainty, however, is that the lack of true health-and-fitness shepherds is why I wrote last week's article. Too many news services, both print and electronic, don't see health and fitness reporting necessarily as a public service, but as a way to attract attention; therefore, what you read is often technically right without necessarily being right for you.

In other words, you have to be your own shepherd. You have to critically consider the protocol as well as the end result of studies because so much data is open to interpretation.

Consider the rather extensive study the habits of 400,000 people were assessed for more than 10 years that found women who drank four to five cups of coffee a day had a 16 percent lower risk of death than women who drank no coffee at all in a mid-May edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. Smaller amounts of coffee yielded smaller percents, but the benefit was consistent regardless of gender.

Men who drank two to three cups a day, for instance, had a 10 percent lower risk than men who drank none at all.

Yet that doesn't mean that coffee drinkers live longer than non-drinkers, something that the article in the New England Journal of Medicine article explains. But most people don't read the NEJM. They get the information secondhand by reading the media reports about the study.

These are often introduced with attention-grabbing headlines such as "Coffee lovers likely to live longer" even though any study that observes habits can only establish relationships, not cause and effect.

Furthermore, the study actually found that coffee drinkers were more likely to die than non-drinkers, but that they have far more negative health habits. The coffee drinkers in this study smoked more, exercised less, drank more alcohol, and ate more red meat than the non-drinkers.

Only after the negative consequences of these behaviors were eliminated from the equation did the study reveal that coffee drinking increased life span.

But those are the factors that don't always get included in the media's coverage of the study. Or if they do, they are found at the very end of the article, and because of time constraints these days more and more people don't read full articles.

On the same day that the coffee study hit the news wires, the Agricultural Department released a commonsense study that found eating healthy foods is actually less expensive than eating junk foods, a claim that contradicts public perception as well as some past studies.

Yet those past studies were, technically speaking, correct. That's because the past studies measured how many calories could be purchased for a certain amount of money.

A sheep might fall for that type of logic, but a shepherd should not.

Of course, junk food is cheaper per calorie. It's junk. It's filled with sugar and processed flour, so it tends to be calorie dense and nutritionally void.

A food like broccoli, however, is the opposite. It contains very few calories but is packed with vitamins and phytochemicals and contains fiber.

If you were to go to a local grocery store, for example, you might pay $1.99 for one pound of broccoli. Eat that steamed and it would be a significant portion of a meal, yet you'll ingest only 122 calories far fewer calories than if you would spend that $1.99 at McDonald's for their featured vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes, in that oh-so healthy combination of French fries and ketchup.

McDonald's medium-sized French fries contains 380 calories, 170 of which are pure fat. Add two packets of ketchup at no additional cost! to provide a little dose of sugar, and you have yourself an absolute bargain. You've just consumed 330 percent more calories than is found in the broccoli yet you paid the same price.

That's why the manner in which the Agricultural Department designed their assessment, by costs of food per portion size, is a better indicator.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a serving of broccoli is a half cup. That means that pound of steamed broccoli provides a bit more than 10 servings. How many servings do you get out of a medium order of McDonald's French fries?

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