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Why are health messages so confusing?

If knowledge is power, confusion is disempowering. Looking at our health, particularly in light of those health messages, it suggests things aren't as they should or could be, writes Dr Ron Ehrlich.

While we are congratulating ourselves on living longer, heart disease is still the number one killer, closely followed by cancer. I doubt whether there is anyone reading this who doesn't know someone very close, or even themselves, that has been affected by this disease. There are now also over 80 autoimmune diseases, that's the body attacking itself, as well an epidemic of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Our kids aren't doing that well either with one in three having allergies, one in four with asthma, one in 10 with ADHD, and one in 100 with autism. Childhood cancer, diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety are also on the rise. So if the evidence is anything to go by, something has seriously gone wrong, and health messages have been an important part of the story.

Let's look at two fundamental health messages that got us started on this epidemic of preventable chronic degenerative diseases. The first was the food pyramid, which placed grains as the foundation of a healthy diet. This was essentially a construct of the USA Department of Agriculture (USDA) whose primary role is to sell crops. It succeeded. The second health message was the demonisation of animal fats and cholesterol, with "compelling research" sponsored by the sugar industry, and later consolidated by the food and pharmaceutical industry.

In fact, industry supports almost every professional health organisation, and in the same way that we have seen industry and corporate lobby groups influencing government policy on fossil fuel, the same is true of health messages. As evidence-based medicine has been held up as the gold standard, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between evidence-based medicine and evidence-based marketing. It's a story that is easy to miss, but difficult to ignore.

Cholesterol is good example, with "healthy levels" coming down over the years as the number of patients requiring medication going up. As outlined by marketing and branding guru Vince Parry, who has worked closely with many global pharmaceutical companies, "Healthcare marketers are taking the concept of 'branding a condition' (disease - my emphasis) to new levels of sophistication. Done appropriately, this type of branding helps keep both the brand managers (from the pharmaceutical industry) and the clinical community (healthcare workers) focused on a single story with a problem/solution structure."  In other words, brand a new disease (high cholesterol) and then market a pharmaceutical to manage the disease; increase the number of people defined as having a disease, and profit is assured.

A Harvard study comparing the health benefits of cholesterol-lowering drugs found that industry sponsored research was 20 times more positive than independent research. It is a perfect economic model… just not a very good health model. Busy health practitioners are drawn to simple health messages; "fat is bad" and "the lower the cholesterol the better", particularly when supported by "research articles in refereed journals".

The message for health practitioners and patients is a hard one to swallow. Our health and the research that supports it, together with our food that should nourish us have become commodities, and we are paying the price financially, and with our health. It's important to realise the role of the food and pharmaceutical industries in all levels of healthcare from regulatory bodies, to scientific journals, universities, from the doctors' surgeries to the kitchen table. 

The conclusion is a simple one. Your health is just too important to leave to anyone else.  While our world becomes more complex, the solutions are remarkably simple. Common sense and basic lessons from our past combined with what is not disputed in modern independent research. Focus on a consistent night's sleep, let natural food be your medicine and keep moving. You won't be confused, but you'll be well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich is the author of A Life Less Stressed: The 5 pillars of health & wellness. He also delivers keynotes and wellness workshops, and has a weekly podcast, Unstress with Dr Ron Ehrlich.

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