Sunday, June 20, 2010

Eating Healthfully May Be Good For You, New Study Suggests

Last week's Well blog on the New York Times website made a radical claim: "Eating Brown Rice to Cut Diabetes Risk". The piece focuses on a recent study from Harvard that concludes: "Substitution of whole grains, including brown rice, for white rice may lower risk of type 2 diabetes." Really? Is this news to anyone? It doesn't take a degree in nutrition to know that eating whole grains - that is, the entire grain without the removal of the bran - is better than eating a refined grain in which the bran is removed. The bran provides fiber, which has become a buzzword in the food biz, touted for all sorts of health benefits. Fiber is an interesting topic in and of itself because the different types, soluble vs insoluble, confer different results, but most whole foods will contain some measure of both. Whole grain also have a lower glycemic index (GI) than refined ones, referring to the rate at which they elevate blood sugar levels. In this there are gradations - long grain brown rice will have a lower GI than short grain brown rice, but brown rice overall has a lower GI than white rice. This may be very significant when discussing the risk of developing diabetes. Additionally, whole grains provide magnesium, an important micronutrient that may also account for the lower rates of diabetes in those who eat whole grains.

The study does have some limitations but overall I don't know that anyone is trying to say that it is wrong in its conclusion. And while I certainly believe in the importance of evidence-based research, I sometimes wonder why so much funding is supporting studies of interventions that are already well known, widely understood, and frankly, common sensical. (Really, soda consumption may be linked to obesity?) About two months ago I signed up for e-bulletins on new research from MedlinePlus. Since then I've received daily digests with quick links to all sorts of health research news. Here's a sampling from this past two weeks:

1. Least Healthy More Apt to Think Genes Explain Disease Risk: Survey also found these people were not as interested in information on lifestyle changes

2. Early School Start Times Raise Risk of Teen Car Crashes: When high school classes began later, number of accidents dropped, study found

3. Obesity Can Take Toll on Sex Life: Stigma may lead to fewer sexual encounters, poorer sexual health, study finds

4. Stricter Rules Can Steer Kids Away From TV: And physically active kids watch less television, researchers report

5. Poor aerobic fitness, low physical activity linked to greater high blood pressure risk

Where's the big science here? Obviously I've chosen specific examples of studies that make my point. I do believe there is a place for research and it plays an important role in the scientific process. But does every intervention really need to be studied in this way? Because at the end of the day all studies have limitations and the best results yielded will still demand further research to back them up. Which is not to say that we should stop conducting research, but just recognize that research is not the be-all, end-all.

Here are some of the concerns I have: research gives the placebo effect a bad rap: if people think they're being treated and they actually see improved results, isn't that a good thing? Doesn't that in fact point to the effect of the mind in the healing process? Also, research may show a likely relationship, but how that translates for the individual will vary. Yes, most people who exercise and eat whole grains and fruits and vegetables may have lower risks for cancer and diabetes and heart disease but they may not. Each of us has our own genetic map and that living healthfully can only go so far in determining your health outcome. In fact, this very news may impact whether someone even bothers to take care of his or her health (see study #1 above).

The important role of research is to provide us with enough certainty to make educated decisions. But there are some decisions that we are well-equipped to make on own. So next time you're at a Thai restaurant, order the brown rice. And while you're at it, have some green tea.

1 comment:

  1. One day ahead of The New York Times: