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Science, like diets, always evolves

It has become too convenient nowadays to find

It has become too convenient nowadays to find an expert or a scientific study that agrees with your health choices. Credit: iStock

I recently found a co-worker heating up pepperoni slices with melted cheese on top, or as he calls them, breadless pizza bites. He told me he’s on a ketogenic diet — a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that is the latest and sexiest health trend in my social circle.

It seems as if there is a new health craze every other day. Remember how quickly the gluten-free movement took over our pantries and grocery lists (and emptied our wallets)? We were convinced that gluten was the culprit behind all our problems, from stubborn weight gain down to a poor libido. It was a wonderful illusion that was amplified by endorsements from celebrities and athletes, #glutenfree hashtags on Twitter, and glamorized photos of gluten-free dishes on Instagram.

The term “echo chamber” is usually associated with politics, but it could just as easily be applied to health beliefs. The advances in technology and communication that have tightened our grips on our political convictions have done the same for our health beliefs.

It has become too convenient nowadays to find an expert or a scientific study that agrees with your health choices. Just as you can choose whatever news sources fit your political views, you have the luxury of cherry-picking health evidence or expert opinion to absolve you of your guilty indulgences.

Want to eat a large, juicy steak for dinner and still feel good about it? There is a study that suggests diets lean in protein can lower your “bad” cholesterol in the long term.

Want to snack on a chocolate bar without the guilt? Another study implies that eating dark chocolate could delay the onset of dementia.

Anyone could find these two papers with a quick Web search. And even though both were published in reputable medical journals and vetted by experts, you must remember that no finding is ever infallible when it comes to medical science. These two, as with many medical studies, were done in the vacuum of clinical experimentation that shows association, but no causation. So even though the intervention may have had an effect on the study participants, it may not benefit the rest of us.

Only a handful of medical findings have stood the test of time — vaccinations, antibiotics, insulin for diabetics — and it would be no exaggeration to say that the majority of medical findings will require revision, and some will be outright disproven. Even the gluten-free craze is showing cracks. New evidence has shown that a strictly gluten-free diet might be associated with higher levels of certain toxins. And by this logic, even this evidence will one day be disproven.

So when I see a front-page headline reportinga sudden miracle cure or offering a shortcut to a healthier life, I react as any informed physician, scientist or person should: with tremendous suspicion and disappointment as I realize this new health fad will be soon anointed as the next sexy miracle pill that will save us from our ailments.

So whom can we trust if even the medical authorities aren’t always right? Ourselves, of course. We have to think critically and consider the opposing evidence, confronting each claim with a large dose of skepticism. Knowledge might be only thing that is safe to consume in excess. And of course, if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

Steven Zhang is a fourth-year medical student at Stanford University and a Howard Hughes medical research fellow at the University of California in San Francisco.

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