8:30 Monday morning
I’m at the gym preparing for a meeting with a client—let’s call her Deb—at 8:45 am. She is attending a strength class that will end in a few minutes.
The class finishes and Deb walks over to meet me, breathing heavily and wiping her face with a towel.
“How was class today?” I ask. “Great!” she says, but I can tell something is on her mind. She chews on her lip and avoids eye contact.
“Let’s talk about your weekend. How’d it … ” Before I can finish the sentence, she cuts me off and says, “Um, pretty good but I have a question for you. I saw this study that says milk prevents cancer, obesity, and a bunch of other health risks like heart attacks. I haven’t been eating dairy. Should I start eating it now? I thought it was bad for me.”
Her brow furrows and her eyes stare directly at me, looking for an answer. I sense trouble brewing…
The Story of Deb
Deb works hard during class but has found nutritional changes to be a challenge.
One change to her diet has stuck, however: Deb has given up dairy. Afterward, she discovered that she feels better, experiences fewer allergy symptoms, lost weight, and sleeps better at night. This discovery gave her confidence and was a big win for her.
Now, presented with this seemingly conflicting information from “experts” in the media, she is second-guessing herself.
I think back to that study and remember that on the surface, it did appear that milk was presented as a “miracle cure” for a litany of ailments. However, as with many studies, there is often more to the data than is reported. So, I planned my approach, and started in…
“I remember that study, and a lot of our members have had questions about it. But remember when you gave up dairy and you felt better?” I remind her of the benefits she experienced. Deb straightens up in her chair and starts to smile.
“While it is true that dairy can be a healthy source of key nutrients, it isn’t for everyone. You are living proof of that,” I say. I congratulate her on cracking her own nutritional code and can see that things are turning around.
The Truth Behind the Truth
“Unfortunately, the media isn’t always great about reporting many of the subtle details about studies,” I add. Deb seems intrigued. “What do you mean?” she asks.
I lean forward, place my hands o the table and say, “What if I told you that ice cream sales cause more shark attacks every year?”
Deb chuckles and replies “That’s nuts. That can’t be true.”
I begin. “There is a little town on the coast of California that people love for its beaches and amazing views. A student living in the town was interested in sharks and worked at a local ice cream store. Through the years, he noticed that when the store sold more ice cream, more shark attacks happened. Incidents would double the more he sold. He was able to gather data from store receipts and news sources to conduct his own research. He submitted it to his school, and it gained national attention.”
Deb sits back and smiles. “People buy ice cream when it’s warm, and that’s when they go swimming in waters with sharks. Nobody gets attacked in the winter months when ice cream sales are lower, and tourism is down and no one is swimming. What does this have to do with dairy in my diet?”
I smile and sit back in my chair. “Everything. Or maybe nothing,” I answer.
The Problem with “Studies”
This study about dairy is what is known as a meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is a study that looks at a bunch of other studies and draws conclusions based on their findings. So Deb and I discuss how these studies rarely provide detailed information on the individual study designs, populations, or methods used to gather data and, as a result, the conclusions of such a study can be a little misleading.
For example, let’s look a little closer at the claim that milk products reduce obesity in kids and adolescents. The conclusion of the study says that the consumption of milk products reduces the risk of childhood obesity and improves body composition in adults, particularly during fasting. Do you see anything wrong with that assumption?” I ask.
“Well, it sounds good but couldn’t other things come into play besides milk?”, she asks. I tilt my head, inviting her to continue.
“They don’t tell us anything about these people. Even if I don’t think about the children, who fasts?” I shrug, pretending to be clueless, and smile. “People who are trying to lose weight or are into the whole fasting fad. These types of people are probably using some kind of protein supplement, and that could be made from milk.”
I sit up and say, “Yeah, that is something most people may not think about. Great observation! Besides, the protein and calcium they cite as beneficial can be gotten through other foods, too, right?”
Deb is all on board now, and I feel like I’m actually making progress here. “Of course! I think I understand now what you meant about shark attacks and ice cream.”
“Great!” I say. “Oh, and did I point out that several of the people cited in that study serve on various dairy boards and receive grants and ‘support’ from similar organizations?”
Deb laughs, “This just keeps getting better and better. Well, I feel much better without dairy, so I’m still going to stay away from it.”
“Good news,” I say. “Let’s keep on doing that. Oh, and can you do me a favor?” She nods. “How about you stop reading so much health news or a least let’s talk it over before you decide to change anything with your diet. Deal,” I ask?
She smiles, nods, and replies, “Deal.”
A Lesson Learned
None of us has all the answers. That’s why a fitness coach can be so important in helping achieve a fitness goal. While I can easily say I love surfing the web and reading all about new research, strategies, and tools that can help me and my members improve our health, I don’t love the large amounts of misleading, confusing or just plain wrong information I find.
So please, for the sake of your own health, find a coach that can help you evaluate and understand the information that can affect your health. (Just ask me, I’ll be happy to sit with you and talk for hours over coffee or a beer.)