If I had to pick the single biggest challenge I have as a health educator, it would be this:
Getting people to look beyond the headlines.
(Omega-3’s cause prostate cancer! Saturated fat causes heart disease! Vegetable oils are “good for us”!)
Looking deeper doesn’t come naturally to us—we’re a sound bite society with a short attention span and a lot of demands on our time. But to really understand anything—and that includes our health— we’ve got to dig deeper than the headlines.
Let me give you an example.
Back in the 1980’s, the go-to symbol for rock-star excess was known as the “M&Ms demand”.
Van Halen was the biggest rock touring band at the time and David Lee Roth—the flamboyant lead singer of the band– was the poster boy for over-the-top, demanding, entitled rock stars.
Why? Because of the famous “M&Ms demand”.
You see, Van Halen was known for a stupendously detailed and obnoxious 53 page rider to their contract, with very specific demands about technical and security requirements as well as a section called “Munchies” which laid out, in agonizing detail, exactly what was to be provided in the way of food and snacks.
The rider demanded potato chips, nuts, pretzels and— wait for it—M&M’s. But with one important caveat, which appeared in the contract in capital letters:
WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES.
What a bunch of jerks, you might well think. A bunch of entitled, coddled rock stars throwing around stupid demands for no other reason than ego and the exercise of power.
Which is exactly what I thought all these years.
Until I read the whole story.
You see, Van Halen’s show had “colossal stage, booming audio and spectacular lighting”. And this required a tremendous amount of electrical power, structural support, and safety precautions to make sure that “no one got killed by a collapsing stage or short-circuiting light tower”.
But how to know that the concert promoters were actually paying attention?
How would the band know that these important safety requirements were in fact being followed?
So Roth who, despite having a massive ego, is anything but stupid—came up with a plan. As soon as the band arrived at the stadium where they’d be performing, Roth would immediately run backstage and check out the bowl of M&M’s. If he spotted the brown M&M’s, guess what—the promoter hadn’t read the rider.
This meant that the band had to do “a serious line check to make sure that the more important (safety) details hadn’t been botched either”.
Once you know this, your whole assessment of the “crazy rock bands demanding no brown M&Ms thing” changes, doesn’t it?
Before, you only knew a single piece of data—Van Halen has a ridiculous rider demanding no brown M&M’s. Now that you’ve read the “fine print”, you see that same data point in a completely different way. You’ve put it into context—now it has a whole different meaning. The crazy power-mad rock star now comes off as a very crafty, forward thinking, safety-conscious responsible citizen.
The fine print makes all the difference.
Now let’s take a look at how that same principle applies to some of the data we regularly consume in the area of health and society. Like a few commonly accepted truths that also start to crumble when you read the fine print.
1. Most marriages end in divorce.
True, statistically. But when you look at the data, it turns out that a relatively small number of people actually get divorced. How can that be? Simple. The high percent of marriages that end in divorce are driven by what we might call “serial divorcers”—people who keep getting married and then divorcing. In fact, though those folks drive the numbers up, they’re not in the majority.
2. We’re winning the war on cancer.
People pushing conventional cancer treatments love to point to better “cancer survival rates” as proof that conventional treatment is really making a dent in cancer. What they don’t tell us is that cancers are often detected earlier now than they used to be, so the time from diagnosis to death is naturally longer. For example, if in the old days, Mr. Jones might get a diagnosis of prostate cancer at 78 and die at 79. Now, he would likely get the diagnosis at 73. He’d still be alive at 78 (just as he would’ve been in the old days) and by using the “5 year survival rate” metric, he’d be considered a “success”. But he still dies at 79.
3. More children are being abducted in the US than ever before.
Child abduction rates in the US are rising, a fact that by itself would scare the bejeezus out of most parents. But look at the fine print. The rates are being driven up by couples in which the man and the woman were born in different countries with vastly different cultures. They find themselves in acrimonious, culture-clashing divorces with horrifically awful custody battles, and a fair number of them grab their kids and flee the country. Abduction rates overall go up. But the actual number of abductions of children by strangers isn’t rising at all and may even be declining.
4. Eating Saturated Fat Leads to Heart Disease
Actually, eating saturated fat sometimes affects cholesterol, but it does not increase the risk for heart disease at all. And when it does lead to increased cholesterol, it’s because saturated fat raises generally protective HDL, as well as the big fluffy LDL-a particles, which are essentially neutral and harmless; at the same time, it lowers the number of hard dense LDL-b particles which are inflammatory and atherogenic.
In other words when you look at the “fine print”, you see your risk factors actually went down (even though your cholesterol may have gone up.)
Obviously this last one has been a burning passion of mine, having devoted an entire book to it. That’s because I believe the saturated fat and cholesterol myths have done more to further the epidemics of diabetes and obesity than almost any other wrong-headed notion in nutritional history.
But when you think about it, the saturated fat and cholesterol myths are just examples of the bigger trend: we don’t read the fine print anymore.
Maybe we should.