Why Are We So Confused About Our Health Needs?

Two out of three Americans would benefit from losing weight and becoming more physically fit. For one out of three, it could be a lifesaver. Weight problems and obesity, combined with other diet- and lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer, are at the forefront of our ever-worsening public health crisis. All this is well documented and communicated, and yet, it seems, there is no turning point in sight.

What would it take to persuade Americans to take better care of their health? One would think that fear of debilitating illnesses or premature aging would be enough motivation to get the ball rolling, but nothing of the kind seems to materialize.

Contradictory Messages and Our Own Biases
Can Keep Us From Making Better Choices

For decades, we have been bombarded with messages that health-promoting behavior is important, and most folks agree with those goals – but without much consequence for their actions, according to Jane E. Brody, a health columnist for the New York Times. She suggests that health experts should reframe the messages they’ve been giving and make them more relevant to everyday life.

People are thoroughly confused about the often-contradictory messages they’re receiving. Those who follow health news at all must be especially frustrated with the so-called “new findings” that regularly invalidate their efforts to live more healthily.

There is still general agreement that our weight problems come from overeating and lack of exercise. But we also hear that this may or may not be true, or at least it may not be the whole story.

For example, “Eat up,” was the headline of a recent article on the benefits of calorie-restriction, which was based on one study’s conclusion that slim monkeys did not have a longer life expectancy than their overweight peers. In other words, if eating less doesn’t let you live longer, why not dig in while you can? “Exercise is not enough when it comes to weight loss,” says another. So why bother getting sweaty?

In the face of such inconsistencies in our health messages, who can blame those who simply give up and let the chips fall wherever they may?

Both dieting and exercising are thought of as temporary measures (primarily for weight loss) by many who hope for quick fixes, as opposed to making permanent lifestyle changes. When a particular goal – e.g. shedding a few pounds for a wedding or a reunion – is achieved, the return to old habits is almost inevitable. The motivation is gone and so is the stick-to-itiveness. But it’s also the confusion that comes with the mixed signals we’re constantly confronted with.

A proper diet is important for health and exercise is necessary to keep our bodies strong, says Carrie Burrows, founder of thebootcampblog.org. There should be no confusion about that. But then the experts have us believe that getting enough exercise is the only thing that matters because we can burn off calories, no matter where they come from or how many we consume. Or, that the kind of foods we eat makes all the difference, whether we exercise or not.

“Food manufacturers and food product suppliers depend on you eating crappy food. They have a vested interest in you eating more. Gym facilities depend on you spending your money there but never walking through the doors,” she says. If those were our only sources of information to take care of our health needs, we would be clearly out of luck.

What’s the alternative? Educating ourselves as much as possible. Cutting through the confusion and overcoming our own limitations, including our ingrained habits, preferences and biases, is a continuing task each and every one of us has to perform. It takes our entire lifetime and we can’t count on much help from the outside.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The Meaning of Good Health.”

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