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Issue #28 (February 2017)

From the Editor

Volume 1

Is access to health information a human right?

That’s an intentionally loaded question. Most people would limit their list of human rights to the old standbys, as “human right” carries a degree of gravity with it, and shouldn’t just be thrown around.

But access to health information is a mess, at least in the US. This applies to both personal health information (your medical records and the like), as well as information about health topics in general (from PubMed searches, notably).

Let’s look at personal health information first. Electronic medical records have been fairly common since the 1990s, but it can still be massively annoying to get easy access to your records. Due to privacy concerns, and sometimes just plain old inefficiency, records are often only available in paper form. Which is interesting, because we’re living in the year 2017, not 1987.

One time I was at a new dentist’s office, and the administrative assistant asked me to step into a room for a set of x-rays. I informed her that I’d gotten a full set of x-rays earlier that year. She replied that they didn’t have records of that, and I’d have to have a full set right away or else forfeit my appointment. Frustrating, but not unheard of. In fact, most people have had at least one (if not a dozen or more) frustrating experiences due to wonky medical records or administrative strangeness.

While there’s a strong case to be made for a “right” (although not “human right”) to your personal health information, that case isn’t there for information on health topics. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t massive holes in that area.

From the time we’re in grade school, health information is not a priority. While we get years of education in history, civics, math, etc, we don’t get much information on how to live healthy lives. Eventually, many people get sick and attempt to find this information for themselves. If you can separate the wheat from the chaff, Google can be your friend. If not, fad diets and gurus abound. Some people get deep into topics and find themselves on PubMed, only to be blocked from accessing the majority of papers.

This wouldn’t be a big deal (since there’s no obligation for privately owned journals to provide public access to papers), except for the fact that the Internet is so full of garbage. There’s an increasingly large number of people who have taught themselves how to understand research, and they can’t access the majority of papers unless they have access through a university. Nobody’s going to pay twenty bucks per paper they want to read.

So while there may not be an intrinsic right to health information, it’s painfully obvious that today’s world, full of people with chronic illness looking for answers, could really use easier and more efficient access.

Kamal Patel,
Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Examination Research Digest

Volume 2

Minimalism is trendy these days. Which, unfortunately, somewhat masks the usefulness of the concept. Especially when it comes to health.

People always ask me “What supplements should I take??”, to which I often answer “The ones that either make you feel better or have very strong evidence behind them.” That answer rings hollow for some, but not others. In fact, you can almost see the gears turning in some people’s heads. If I take ten supplements a day, and I don’t feel any different when I’m not taking them … why am I taking them?

If five of those supplements are for the purpose of extending my lifespan, but their evidence is mostly based on animal studies, are they still worth taking? After all, research is littered with examples of compounds that acted quite differently in rodents versus in humans.

The answer to “Which foods should I eat??” is similar to the supplement answer, but with a twist. Most people feel crappy when they eat crappy foods. So crappy foods should, quite obviously, not make up a large part of your diet. Many people feel great when they eat large amounts of mostly unprocessed plants. Some also feel great eating moderate or even large amounts of mostly unprocessed animals. This is where diet gets trickier than supplements: people vary quite a bit in which foods they enjoy, which foods they have access to, and a multitude of other factors.

So one very simplistic answer to “Which foods should I eat??” could be “Eat mostly foods that make you feel good and healthy.” Everybody knows this, but far fewer focus on it as their core dietary principle. And part of the reason is that people compare their diets to other people’s diets. Which ignores a simple fact: people vary, and quite a bit at that.

Some people can handle eating cookies every day, if the rest of their diet is healthy, while others get tummy upset or can’t control their overall calorie intake. And that line of reasoning can differ depending on the food: cookies, ice cream, even things like yogurt or peanut butter. It’s quite clear from research into supercentenarians (people who live to be over 110 years old) that diets can vary drastically and still allow good health at older ages. Some can live to be 110 eating fried chicken most days, while others eat little to no meat. Some eat a ton of chocolate, others eat no sweets.

None of this means that delving into nutrition science details is bad. It just means that perspective is important. If you read a negative study on a food, and decide you have to stop eating it immediately, take a step back and think of the forest and not just the trees. Research is an adjunct to common sense, not a replacement for it.

Kamal Patel,
Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Examination Research Digest

See other articles in Issue #28 (February 2017) of Study Deep Dives.