Building better models of health function

I’ve been frustrated as of late by the strong urge of people, especially health and nutrition researchers and practitioners, to classify everything health related into 2 categories:

  • things which are good for everyone
  • things which are bad for everyone

In my opinion the sum of all things that fit into both of those 2 categories is dwarfed many-fold by the things that fall into this category:

  • things which may be good for some people some in some circumstances and also bad for some people in some circumstances

Almost everything health related has important context and without that context people cannot make optimal decisions.

Of course I understand the appeal of simple models for the world. It is easier for someone to believe that a certain food is “bad” for them and simply avoid it than to have to consider a larger picture of their health/diet/nutrition/activity in deciding whether to buy an apple, or an egg. But if my conversations with and observations of other people is accurate these simple models are not serving people. Many people (especially on the west coast) are trying to eat well and make healthy choices but they still feel worse than they think they should given the effort they put into the process.

I want to suggest that their may be some better models than “X is good” and “Y is bad” that might help people find the quality of life they are seeking.

1. The importance of quality: not all eggs are the same

Eggs are a great example because for decades people have been trying to put them into the models of “Eggs are good for you” and “Eggs are bad for you”. Well, one simple context to add to the model is the quality of the egg. A disclaimer is that I eat eggs nearly every day and I believe they are quite nutritious. But I will only eat eggs from pasture raised chickens who spend their time outdoors eating something close to their natural diet. I would not choose to eat an egg that comes from a chicken confined to a battery cage. Apart from the ethical concerns I believe, in general, the former is healthy and the latter is not.

2. The importance of balance: avoiding too much of a good thing

Another food that people want to reduce to a simple good or bad model is fish oil (and marine animal oils in general). A valid model for fish oil is that it is often good for people in the US whose typical diet has an excess of omega-6 fats and a lack of omega-3 fats. However, once balance has been reached between omega-6 and omega-3 further consumption of fish oil can push the ratio out of balance toward excessive omega-3 fats. This can disrupt mitochondrial function and leave people without adequate energy.

So for an individual asking “Is fish oil good for me or bad for me?” the answer, like most health inquiries is: it depends. For some people the answer will be yes, and others the answer will be no. And that answer may change with time as the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio moves toward or away from balance. And though I used omega-3 and omega-6 fats as an example, the human body is replete with nutrients that are being kept in a state of balance.

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