My Single Biggest Challenge

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:


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.




  1. SALLY

    One tough thing is getting people to hear an inconvenient truth. I was talking with someone the other day about how bad drinking soda was and that everyone should give it up. She tried to tell me diet was ok, and when I told her no soda was safe, she nastily said that it was just my opinion! And this person was trying to lose weight, but would not give up her soda. Oh well, we all make our choices!


    Sally, I know what you mean. It is so hard to get people to give up pop. It took 2 years with my neighbor. Now that she has given up the habit, she says that she feels so much better, she is sleeping better, has more energy, and doesn’t feel bloated all of the time. I’ve been successful in getting quite a few people to give it up, but it has taken a lot of time in all cases. All you can really do is keep gently reminding them, and lead by example.


      I’ve long been a fan of Michael.


    Dear Jonny,

    Just a quick note here about details. This is my second post on this issue (you did respond to the first one). You have a great mind and are educating so many on health and pointing them in the right direction, thank-you! As a long-time editor I wanted to point out again that commas and periods go INSIDE the quotes. You consistently do the reverse. Check the LA Times and New York Times for verification.


    I have not bought any newspaper in about 4 years because they refuse to tell the truth. If you notice that the online papers (well here in the UK anyway) have amazing headlines and then you read the article and the headline could have been about something completely different. I do not take much notice about TV new either. I have an analytical mindset so if say an “expert” is giving his/her opinion on a particular subject, my first thought is “what is his/her background? Does he/she have an agenda?” Unfortunately the vast majority of the population are not like me and just believe everything they read and see in the media.

  5. MARK

    The pop thing drives me nuts. I have a friend who weighs about 320 pounds at 5’9″ and insists he doesn’t eat much. I suspect he’s right if you only count solid food, but he drinks over a gallon of pop a week. He seems deaf to my cautions that the pop is keeping him fat. And I’ve never seen him eat a vegetable without a hamburger under it!

  6. CAT IN VT

    Yup, gotta watch those headlines and beware of statistics…

    Pickles cause cancer
    Look at the Pickle that the pickle people have put you in!
    Pickles will kill you. Every pickle you eat brings you nearer to death. Amazingly, the thinking man has failed to grasp the significance of the term “in a pickle”. Although leading horticulturists have long said that Cucamis Sativus possesses Indehiscent Pepto, the pickle industry continues to expand.
    Pickles are associated with all the major diseases of the body. Eating them breeds wars and Communism. They can be related to most airline tragedies. Auto accidents are caused by pickles. There exists a positive relationship between crime waves and consumption of this fruit of the curcubit family. For example:
    o Nearly all sick people have eaten pickles; therefore, the effects are obviously cumulative.
    o Of all the people who die from cancer, 99% have eaten pickles.
    o 100% of all soldiers have eaten pickles; therefore, pickles must be related to wars.
    o 98.8% of all Communist sympathizers have eaten pickles.
    o 99.7% of all the people involved in the air and auto accidents ate pickles within 14 days preceding the tragedy.
    o 93.1% of all juvenile delinquents come from homes where pickles are served frequently.
    Evidence points to some startling long term effects of pickle eating:
    Of all the people born in 1865 who later dined on pickles, there has been a 100% mortality rate.
    All pickle eaters born between 1890 and 1900 have wrinkled skin, brittle bones, have lost most of their teeth and are afflicted by failing eyesight… if the ills that come from eating pickles have not already resulted in their death.
    Even more convincing is the report from a noted team of medical specialists. They found that rats which were force-fed with 20 pounds of pickles per day developed bulging abdomens. It was further noted that the rat’s appetites for wholesome food was completely destroyed.


    Specifically on the cholesterol topic, I’m so thankful to see that people are slowly becoming aware of what research truly validates, as opposed to just taking what their doctor says verbatum.
    I recently had a random follower ask where she could get the NMR lipoprofile to determine her husband’s LDL types… Tells me the message is getting recieved.
    Thanks for the post ?


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