I often see reports like: people who drink red wine are less likely to have heart attacks; people who smoke are more likely to develop lung cancer; people who drink green tea have fewer cancers. Sometimes it seems like everything is bad for you - unless someone is selling it, in which case everything is good for you.
It can't possibly get more complicated - or can it?
I often meet people who "don't like" specific foods. Some people "can't eat" specific foods, saying "I'm allergic to...".
Green peppers can cause people to burp - because the skin is harder to digest. And when you burp - you taste and smell the food that caused the discomfort - so you learn that green peppers cause digestive problems. This is a natural defense to keep us from eating foods that are toxic. Burping after you eat any new food can lead to a dislike that is hard to shake. Green peppers are often used in pizza - and I can see another source of dislike. Pizza is not a very safe food, prone to food poisoning if you are not careful. If you get food poisoning from pizza, you might burp - you might throw up. And which of the ingredients will you remember? I'm betting it's the green pepper. It is easy to learn to dislike the taste of green pepper.
Beer is one of the least famous. Many people don't like the taste of beer, especially people in their late teens to mid-twenties. But many people who don't like the taste of beer 'like to drink' beer so cold that the taste disappears. I like the taste of beer, so I don't like cold beer - it has no taste.
Our diets change over time, often without our awareness. We can learn to like things that we don't like. And we can learn to dislike things that we do like. When we are children, our likes and dislikes are often created by comments from parents or siblings - who might say things like "YUCK, how can you eat that?". I know several people who's fathers served in the war - and learned to hate mutton. So the children learned a dislike for the taste of lamb. Over time, each of us develops a unique "Don't Like" profile.
As I encounter people who don't like certain foods, or who cannot eat certain foods because of allergies - I sometimes wonder if anyone has studied Don't Likes and related them to illness. What if we created a field of study called "Don't Like Analysis"?
Are people who don't like green peppers more likely to develop certain illnesses?
Are people who have a lot of Don't Likes healthier, or less healthy than people who have few dislikes?
Are there clusters of people who don't like groups of foods? How does the health of these people compare to people who do like most foods in that group?
Do our tastes change, or mature over time? It seems that young people don't like red wine, or olives. But as we grow older our taste changes - and we might learn to love both. Does this happen for all foods, or just some foods?
I like the taste of lobster, but it seems that, about 50 percent of the time, if I eat lobster - I break out in a serious case of hives the next day. It generally lasts less than 8 hours, but is very uncomfortable. So, I don't eat lobster - even though I like the taste. I can't be sure if it will get better or worse. Once I had a similar experience from trout - which I also love. I assumed the trout may have been processed over a table that also processed lobster. I've enjoyed trout many times since then without incident. It would have been easy to decide that I shouldn't eat trout.
Now that I've started to think about it... I suspect there have been few health, or illness, studies on what people like to eat. It's difficult to measure what people actually eat and then study their health. It might be easier to ask them what foods and drinks they really like - and then analyze their health and illness for correlations.
Which goes to show - we don't know much about health. There are many more questions than answers. It reminds me of a quote that a co-worker kept over her desk:
We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.
We are confused about health. There seem to be more questions than answers. Each answer seems to raise a whole new set of questions. We are getting more and more confused.
But our confusion about health seems to be very erratic. We are not asking questions, and finding answers that raise our confusion to a higher level. We are jumping from one answer to another. From one confusion to another. Red wine is good. Alcohol is bad.
We are not creating a foundation of knowledge, we are not "confused at a higher level and about more important things".
If we ar to raise our knowledge of health to a higher level, we need to study and understand the hierarchy of health. We need to learn to measure health in each of the layers, and each of the components of health - separately from illness. When we learn to measure health, we can learn which health measurements are most useful. Today we only study the usefulness of illness measurements.
When we learn which health measurements are most useful, most indicative of overall health status - we will have answered questions that raise our knowledge to a higher level. Then we can ask questions about "what people don't like", and measure the results - relating them directly to health.
Maybe someday we will find health practitioners with this quote variation over their desk:
We have not succeeded in answering all health questions. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.
I want to be confused about health - at a higher level, and about more important things.
yours in health,
Tracy is the author of two book about healthicine: