Pilar Gerasimo, Experience Life Founding Editor

Revolutionary Acts

Experience Life founding editor Pilar Gerasimo shares her renegade perspectives for thriving in a mixed-up world.

Posts Tagged health

Experience Life Magazine

Revolutionary Act 5: Question Authority

When it comes to health and fitness information, authoritative organizations may not be your best source of advice.

As a health journalist, I rely a great deal on expert opinions and authoritative resources. But I’ve also learned to get second and third opinions, to do my own research, to follow the money and to consult my own common sense and experience.

Basically, I’ve learned to question authority (which is No. 50 of the 101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy). Because what I’ve discovered is that experts and authorities of all kinds are often mistaken — sometimes about important stuff. And in my experience, they are wrong more often than they will admit to being in doubt.

This is particularly true in the domain of health. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten lousy health advice from “beyond-reproach” sources like the American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration (to say nothing of the media outlets and health experts that rely on them for information and insight), I’d be a wealthy woman indeed.

But all those dollars would not be worth it — not by far — because if I had followed their advice, I suspect I’d also be sick, overweight and unhappy. I’d be worried about all the wrong things (saturated fats, calories, dietary cholesterol), and I’d be fairly clueless about the things with the greatest chance of slowly killing me (refined flours, undiagnosed gluten and dairy intolerances, sugars, toxic industrial fats, chemical additives and prescription drugs).

I’d be vigilantly counting calories instead of thoughtfully evaluating the quality, character and origin of my food. So I’d be poorly nourished and hungry all the time. I’d be struggling to exercise — and doing it joylessly, mostly to burn calories, instead of challenging my body to build strength, energy, resilience and vitality. And I’d be frustrated that no matter how hard I tried to follow all that dreadful advice, my health and fitness would continue to worsen.

Nutritionally deficient, inflamed and imbalanced, I’d go to the doctor looking for relief. I’d probably be prescribed a slew of medications — for my cholesterol, my stomach acid, my blood pressure, my back pain and my depression — all of which would cost me a fortune and have side effects of their own.

Before long, I’d no longer be the rich woman I’d become by accepting all those dollar bills in exchange for my gullibility. Instead, I’d be a bankrupt, prematurely aged, chronically ill, foggy-brained woman trying to figure out what in the heck went wrong.

I realize this may all sound a little dramatic, but it is precisely what is happening to millions of Americans each and every day. Why? Because a lot of the advice we are getting from the voices of authority is bad, corrupted, half-baked, outdated — and a lot of what we most need to hear (about what really works) just isn’t getting through.

Check out the dietary and lifestyle recommendations at the American Heart Association’s website. Or the American Dietetic Association’s site, or in the literature of any one of a dozen other official-sounding organizations. You’ll see a big emphasis on counting and burning calories, avoiding saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, reducing salt, eating a lot of low-fat or fat-free dairy and eating more so-called whole grains (mostly in the guise of whole-wheat flour products, which are not whole at all).

You’ll see comparatively little emphasis, meanwhile, on reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates (like flours, starches and sugars), industrial vegetable oils and artificial ingredients — the primary ingredients in processed foods.

You’ll also see little on why eating phytonutrient-rich, fiber-rich and whole foods is so important to building vitality and reducing inflammation.

In other words, you’ll get totally backward advice. And when you do get decent advice (like “eat more vegetables”), you’ll get it wrapped in a fat-free, whole-wheat tortilla and served with three side dishes of low-fat dairy.

There are many reasons for this, and plenty of blame for the ag-food-pharma industry, policymakers and the media to share. But the most pernicious dynamic is this: The food industry heavily influences the ADA’s nutritional recommendations. (For more on this dynamic, read Justin Stoneman’s excellent rant). They contribute vast sums of money to the ADA. They sponsor a lot of research, and they determine how and if the results of that research get reported. Then they leverage their preferred study results (along with a whole lot of lobbying money and power) to convince experts and policymakers to support official positions and recommendations that just happen to be advantageous (or at least not damaging) to their most profitable product lines.

By the time those official recommendations and guidelines come out, they often make no sense at all. Still, they get reported en mass by conventional media outlets — many of which have those same industry research-funders and lobbying interests as major advertisers. All this undermined, incomplete advice gets rolled out to the newsstand and airwaves, to public-health resources and to doctors’ offices. And suddenly, that’s “the truth” that everybody knows is true and right. Even if it’s not.

We recently did a piece in Experience Life magazine called “Digesting the New USDA Dietary Guidelines” (September 2011) that offers a nice overview of just how confused and undermined official recommendations like these often are.

We’ve done many other pieces over the years– on saturated fats (“A Big Fat Mistake“); on low-fat dairy (“Skimming the Truth“); on cholesterol (“Cholesterol Myths“); on artificial sweeteners (“Poor Substitutes“); on pharmaceuticals (“The Other Drug Problem“); and on weight loss (“Weight Loss Rules to Rethink“) — that illustrate why failing to question authoritative truths can be so dangerous to your health.

Whenever we are doing the background research for articles like these, I’m amazed at how much decent information is actually out there, but just not breaking through to major media outlets.

Why on earth, I wonder? And then I remember: Follow the money.

A couple of weeks ago I had a really great heart-to-heart conversation with a fellow journalist, an editor at a major lifestyle publication. Over drinks, this editor told me in hushed tones that their editorial staff couldn’t even use the phrase “processed food” in their copy. Their advertisers (processed-food companies) would go nuts. It makes you wonder what else our “authoritative” major media outlets can’t comfortably write or talk about.

So my advice is this: Don’t assume that the “authoritative” sources are necessarily the best sources — particularly when it comes to healthy lifestyle advice. Look for second and third opinions. And be willing to thumb your nose at authority now and then, particularly when your health is at stake. Which it is.
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For an ad-free, convention-busting collection of revolutionary healthy-living resources, including “A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-Up World,” and the “101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy,” visit www.RevolutionaryAct.com.

Experience Life Magazine

Why I Do Not Dig Diet Soda

DietSoda.jpgOK, I am not going to rant. But I need to get this out of my system: I think diet soda is awful. I think all soda is awful, actually (yes, I know there are no “bad” foods, but I hold soda in approximately the same regard as those puffy orange Circus Peanuts — these are not really “foods,” per se). Diet soda, in my view, is especially insidious.

Here are my top 10 reasons:

1. There is absolutely no proof that diet soda helps people lose weight. The calorie-reduction argument is total bunk, and zero studies have shown a positive correlation between drinking diet soda and weight loss. On the contrary, there’s significant evidence that diet sodas and other noncaloric, artificially sweetened drinks actually lead — quite powerfully — to weight gain. (See “6 ‘Healthy’ Food Choices to Rethink” for more on that.

2. Diet sodas are billed as being good for type 2 diabetics and other blood-sugar- challenged types, but they aren’t. Because of something called the “cephalic phase response,” your body tastes the sweetness, and even though there are no calories to shuttle, the brain triggers a release of insulin from the pancreas and also a “Sugar is coming! Stop-burning fat” response from the liver. The result is the usual array of insulin-related problems (increased urge to eat, increased tendency toward fat storage, pro-inflammatory biochemical cascade), plus an arrest of healthy protein-and-starch production, and a confusion of the body’s built-in caloric monitoring systems, all of which compel you to plump up and eat even more unhealthy stuff later. (For more on this dynamic, read the article, “Poor Substitutes.”)

3. The act of drinking diet soda — and of seeing it in your fridge — sends your psyche a slew of negative, demoralizing, less-than-healthy mental messages (I am afraid of getting fat; I don’t trust my body to crave the right things; I need to be on a diet; I am compelled to drink sweet stuff, even though I know it’s not good for me; I’m being “good” now so I can be “bad” later), all of which tend to drive other unhealthy eating behaviors even as they trigger disempowering feelings of self-denial and self-indulgence. (For more on this dynamic, see my Thoughts From the Editor column, “View to a Fridge.”)

4. Diet soda contains all kinds of icky chemicals that add to your body’s toxic burden, lowering your immunity, contributing to inflammation and reducing your body’s ability to deal effectively with other, less easily avoided toxins like those pervasive in our food, water, body-care products and environment.

5. Diet sodas and the chemically derived artificial sweeteners they contain (especially aspartame) may act as neurotoxins and have been linked to headaches, memory problems, anxiety, brain fog, depression, skin irritations, menstrual problems, fibromyalgia, joint pain and more. (You can read up on the scientific debate about this both in the aforementioned “Poor Substitutes” and in our article “Excitotoxins.”)

6. Artificial sweeteners and artificial colors tend to drive cravings for more sweet and hyper-flavored foods (more diet soda, please!) and reduce your ability to properly taste more subtle flavors or natural foods, perverting your palate and dissuading you from making other healthy changes to your diet because nothing natural tastes the way it ought to.

7. Frequent sipping or gulping of diet soda blunts your thirst, reducing your intake of pure water, which is a much better choice for hydration and helps to clear toxins from your system (vs. further polluting it). Regular imbibing of soda may also interfere with your body’s healthy hunger signals and thus dissuade you from eating healthy snacks that would support good nutrition, metabolism, energy and mental function throughout the day.

8. The acids in diet soda (and regular soda, for that matter) eat away at the enamel on your teeth. They also are acidifying to your entire system, and thus disruptive to your general health, including the good flora in your gut, where about 60 percent of your immune system resides.

9. Diet soda (like regular soda) is generally bottled or canned, and its aficionados tend to drink it by the case, multi-liter twin pack and so on — day in, day out, year after year after year. Habitually imbibing packaged drinks creates all kinds of nonbiodegradeable garbage, and every aspect of soda production (from manufacturing and packaging to transport — and even its recycling) is an unnecessarily wasteful use of fossil fuels. Drinking any soda is also incredibly expensive, an important point for anyone who protests that they can’t afford high-quality food or decent nutritional supplements.

10. Despite all its amalgamated cruddiness, diet sodas somehow get a pass in practically all weight-loss plans, and are actually promoted by many dietitians as “free” foods or “good” treats despite the fact that they are categorically lousy for people. They are aggressively advertised as being “better choices” for health- and weight-conscious people, and as a result, many kids and teenagers make them a habit early in life. Every time I see this pro-diet-soda dynamic in action, it just chaps my hide and makes me dislike the stuff even more.

OK, I wound up ranting a little. Sorry. I know that many people who adore diet soda and have been sold on its wonderfulness may take issue with my demonization of these beverages. To which I say: Let’s agree to disagree. If drinking it makes you happy enough, or is an occasional enough dalliance that none of the above matters, drink away!

And to those who find themselves addicted to diet soda, I can only say take heart: Thousands before you have broken the addiction and found themselves astonished by how much better they feel.

My recommendation: For a week, start each day with a big bottle full of pure water with a slice of cucumber or orange or lemon floating in it. Sip away, avoid the soda aisles and vending machines, and just see if you don’t start feeling better yourself.