As with all fields of scientific research, biomedical science is an emergent truth built out of a tapestry of studies, not just one. Often, however, each health-based study is presented by the media as if it’s an indelible fact. Rarely are faults or limits of the study, along with vital additional context, included. Claims are frequently exaggerated or oversimplified.
As Ben Goldacre, a highly respected annihilator of bad medical science once put it in a BMJ editorial: “It is common to find correlational findings misrepresented as denoting causation, for example, or findings in animal studies confidently exaggerated to make claims about treatment for humans.”
Through this pick-and-choose, misrepresentative attitude, health tips given out by TV doctors, outlets, talking heads, and your friends and family can often be closer to horoscopes than scientific facts. These erroneous modicums of advice can either be completely ineffective, specific only to a small demographic, or potentially bad for you. Here’s a look at a handful of them.
“Avoid Dietary Fat”
We need fat to build cell membranes, sheaths surrounding nerves, and it plays a vital role in muscle motion, vitamin absorption, and blood clotting.
For decades, however, fat was made out to be the archenemy of the food groups, the harbinger of all kinds of health-based doom, and the deliverer of weight gain. As time’s ticked on, we’ve learned that it’s far more nuanced than that, and it largely depends on the types of fats you’re ingesting.
As pointed out by Harvard Medical School, you have unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, which you can get from various oils and oily foodstuffs, like fish and avocados. Their omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent heart disease and stroke.
Then you’ve got trans fats, which are byproducts of hydrogenated oils, found in a wide range of processed foods. “Trans fats have no known health benefits and that there is no safe level of consumption,” the post notes, linking even small consumption levels to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
You also have saturated fats, found in butter and red meat. Research in the 1950s and 60s suggested saturated fat made you unhealthy, which metastasized into anti-fat dietary advice in general. The meat industry wasn’t keen on saying that saturated fats in their foods were bad for you, so they lobbied the US government just to advise people to eat less fat in general.
Additionally, for decades, the sugar industry – whose own research clearly linked sugar to heart disease – withheld their knowledge from the public. Instead, dietary fats were promoted as the cause of coronary heart disease, something that plenty of the public still readily believe today.
It’s in fact not clear what effect saturated fats have on your health, so right now, the general advice is to moderate your saturated fat intake, as you do with anything else, and stick to the healthier ones. Simply saying eating fat is bad is daft, and cutting it out completely can be unhealthy.