I Call Bullsh*t: Fear Mongering and Pushing Perfectionism in Health Articles

I’ve spent a long time being a voracious consumer of health research. My interest began after my Celiac diagnosis and continued unabated for years. I (metaphorically, and with pun intended) gobbled up anything I could find on nutrition, disease prevention, and healthy living. But, as I found recently, the more I read, the more I became…scared sh*tless.

I didn’t even realize it until my health-panic reached critical mass a few weeks ago — but prior to this epiphany, I’ve spent untold amounts of time vigilantly avoiding everything that I’d read was harming me: canned food, tap water, non-stick pans, plastics, household cleaners (hence the article I wrote about it last spring/summer, when I realized that a lot of products are seriously no bueno), grilled meat, non-organic foods…the list goes on.

While all those habits are definitely good, I didn’t realize until recently that they’ve fed into a growing reservoir of “holy crap you guys everything is poison and I’m going to die an early and painful death because THE ENTIRE WORLD IS MADE OF TOXINS AND DOOM.”

 

DoomThen, a few weeks ago, the reservoir breached its banks. I was reading yet another article about the horrors of drinking water, even though this is a generally venerable habit: tap water is horrible for you, and bottled water is apparently no better. The proposed solution is to buy some sort of reverse osmosis uber-filter and install it in your sink, but since we live in a rented apartment and can’t exactly take apart the plumbing without getting into a heap o’ trouble with the property management office, the alleged “only solution” isn’t viable for non-homeowners like us.

Cue the panic: “Omigod. The bottled water is toxic. The tap water is toxic. I can’t install the filters they say will keep the water from being toxic. I DRINK A LOT OF WATER AND IT’S ALL TOXIC AND IS GOING TO KILL ME OMIGOD.”

Then, a few seconds later, just as I was about to weep and curl up in fetal position beneath my desk, I had another thought: “I do the best I can with the resources I have and the circumstances I’m in. Why do I feel so scared that I’m not doing enough? Why do I feel that despite all my effort, I’m totally doomed?”

A few more seconds later: “Wait a minute. This is bullshit.”

EpiphanyThen I took a brief tour through some of the articles I’d read in recent months, and you know what? According to pretty much everything I read, THE WORLD IS MADE OF TOXINS AND EVERYTHING IS GOING TO KILL YOU.

Here’s a small recap of all the things that are going to lead to you being sick, miserable, and probably dead: being tall, your bottled water, your tap water, your tea, your food, the air in your home, your air freshener, anything plastic, getting angry, taking vitamins, flying, insomnia, your antiperspirant, and, wait for it, pretty much everything you own.

Oh, and BTW: being stressed or anxious about the fact that everything is going to kill you is, in fact, also going to kill you. However, be forewarned that using modern medicine to treat your anxiety is going to kill you even more.

Now, I’m prone to freaking out about, well, everything — but these articles had the collective effect of making me nearly crap my pants in sheer panic. The fear-mongering, as I realized with my highly scientific (cough, cough — sarcasm — cough, cough) meta-analysis, actually looks pretty epic. “Scary,” “could kill you,” and “is killing you” are some of the most common themes that cropped up, over and over and over.

Now, there’s a definite difference between actual scientific studies saying that X (for example, height) is correlated with Y (in the case above, cancer) and the outright fear-mongering pieces that tell you to be afraid, very afraid, of everything. But even in those legitimate study results, I realized that no one ever brings up the fact that correlation doesn’t imply causation. Just because two things are linked, it doesn’t mean that one causes the other. But no one ever says that when writing about studies linking X and Y, which then leads the reader to draw the conclusion that X actually causes Y. And let’s be honest: these studies usually correlate everyday things, like your height, with really scary, life-altering/ending sh*t like cancer. Which is terrifying.

Brandon — AKA The Rational One — has occasionally called me on my panic-induced BS, noting that our water is fluoridated (ergo, my fit of freak-out, which happened after I read some terrifying article about the dangers of fluoride in toothpaste, was really just an exercise in futility), and that the whole antiperspirant-breast cancer link has been resoundingly debunked. (Which is good, because my brief foray into all-natural deodorant sans antiperspirant led to me schvitzing right through my sweaters, thus yielding sweat stains the size of watermelons. I despised it.)

Deodorant without antiperspirantI also noticed that along with these prophecies of doom, there are ample recommendations on what you can do to prevent horrible health outcomes from befalling you. What’s the best way to prevent being killed by everything you own, touch, or ingest?

According to all the health literature I’ve read over the years, it’s simple: adopt this easy 80-step, time-sucking process to propel yourself into vibrant health!

  • Spend 20 minutes per day doing oil pulling. And no, it doesn’t matter if you usually barely have 2 minutes to spend brushing your teeth.
  • Make your own toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, lotion, and all personal care products, only using fresh spring water that you retrieved yourself and carried on your head in a fair-trade, non-GMO, certified organic clay jug.
  • Similarly, craft your own non-toxic stone ware out of fresh clay that was found in a sacred clay deposit after the rainy season in Sedona.
  • Cut gluten, dairy, meat, vegetables, sugar, fruit, grains, and beans out of your diet, because they’re all toxic. Subsisting on air is the way of the righteous.
  • If you do choose to consume food (because you don’t love Mother Earth), don’t buy almond or coconut milks from the store — they have carrageenan, which will kill you! Instead, make your own from scratch. Please note, though, that it must be infused with unicorn saliva, or else it will be unhealthy and still likely to kill you.
  • You must cook solely from scratch, using only organic produce that you foraged from your local forest/city park/vaguely terrifying remote wilderness populated only by militiamen and aspiring Unabombers/whatever.
  • Get at least one hour of exercise per day. And, as one of my track coaches used to say, if you’re not on the brink of barfing or passing out, you’re not working hard enough.
  • Meditate whenever you’re not actively oil pulling, foraging, exercising, cooking, making toothpaste using your artisanal mortar and pestle, or hunting down unicorn saliva.
  • Never allow yourself to experience stress. Always be filled with serenity, gratitude, happiness, and positivity. Horrific tragedy is no match for the power of positive thinking!!!1!
  • Make every effort to be the perfect parent. Not doing so will irrevocably screw up your kids for the rest of their lives. Having screwed up kids will stress you out, which will kill you.
  • Sleep at least 8-9 hours per night.

 

Unicorn SalivaBasically, it comes down to this: 1) at the end of the day, most people are just doing the best they can with what they have, and 2) scaring everyone into doing 80 kajillion more things to keep our lives from killing us probably isn’t going to help.

Yeah, I get that “scary” and “this everyday thing could kill you” make great click-bait – it appears that in the health world, fear seems to sell far more than sex ever could – but after my “this is bullsh*t” epiphany, I’ve become acutely aware, and exceedingly tired, of fear-mongering headlines and articles.

But look: we can’t all take the time to make a bajillion DIY products, 8-9 hours of sleep is sometimes outright impossible (shout-out to all those with newborns or, hey, any children under age 12), and there are plenty of times when people really do need anti-anxiety/depression medication. Ain’t no shame in any of it, folks. You play the cards you’re dealt.

So, in calling bullsh*t on a lot of the aforementioned fear mongering in a lot of health literature, I’ve decided that I’ll continue doing the best I can with what I have. Buying mostly organic, using glass food storage, and using non-toxic household products and cosmetics wherever possible? I’m on it.

However, I’ve decided to quit freaking out about drinking the bottled water at work (plastic bottles > lead pipes), the occasional serving of canned soup, my store-bought shampoo and body wash (Pantene and Dove 4-EVAH, yo), the absolutely necessary antiperspirant, my beloved almond milk, and the fact that it saps all my personal willpower and discipline just to make myself floss regularly. (To my dentist: Sorry, dude. But it really is onerous.)

After all, trying to add oil pulling, detoxing, and DIY almond milk-making to my schedule would make me totally lose it.

And that would probably kill me.

10 responses

  1. Hah! This may have just become my all time favourite blog post ever. I can admit I definitely fall victim to the health ‘advice’/scaremongering and do find myself stressing over what I’m doing and not doing. It’s ridiculous! life is too short to fret about these details is key, and you’ve reminded me of that :)

  2. Yes!!!!
    I’ve definitely fallen into this trap, and I’m certain I’ve been guilty of perpetuating it. As an alternative health care practitioner, I have been bombarded with these messages incessantly. In grad school, I heard a lot of, “Gasp! You just ate refined sugar/Your phone doesn’t have a magic sticker that neutralizes its death rays (yes, this is a thing)/ you don’t ride a bike everywhere/ you just said the word, ‘hate’ which infuses you and the world with negativity/ etc.”

    It’s gotten to the point where my general response to, “[fill in the blank] isn’t healthy,” is, “Life in modern society isn’t healthy, so I’m doing the best I can.”

    And I agree, deodorant without antiperspirant is horrible.

  3. Nice post/rant! I definitely agree, and have been stewing about these crazy/dangerous headlines articles throw out everyday. I have a draft on here I haven’t written yet, but will one of these days, about the fact that one person’s healthy food is another person’s poison. Claims of healthiness are in the eyes of the beholder sometimes, and nobody can agree. We do the best we can, test what works for us, and not feel so bad about it. I had a post last week where a woman commented that I shouldn’t buy any packaged foods. I told her, ok, I make my own homemade yogurt, bread, tortillas, granola, basically cook everything from scratch, my hubby even makes chocolate out of his own cocoa beans! But I am not making potato chips and crackers for my kids lunch…you do have to stop somewhere, right? But of course, just from being criticized, I started thinking “maybe I need to make our own crackers again?:,….ugh! Glad to see you posting again!

  4. Haha ach. This is exactly why I don’t read anything online anymore that’s medically related because it’s too easy for me to freak myself out. I typically just go directly to my doctor and ask. I would love to buy only natural and organic stuff, too…but we are on a serious budget and can’t afford it for everythingg we eat so we pick and choose. We do the best we can, and at the end of the day I think that’s all that matters!

  5. Oh my gawd, I heart you for writing this so much. I have been in this post chemo, post radiation craze of trying to do everything humanly possible to stay healthy. One of my doctors said, well you need to exercise 30 min a day 5 days a week to prevent cancer recurrence (which made me think, does he actually think I had a recurrence of breast cancer because I wasn’t working out enough?? or was it the few rogue cells that may have been left behind or the sh*tty BRCA gene rearing its head). So…literally I have schlumping away on the elliptical or the treadmill for my thirty minutes since finishing treatment and am just exhausted (shockingly, working full days after treatment and then trying to work out makes you simply exhausted). I’ve also been on a crazy anti soy, anti sugar, anti Splenda, anti plastic in anything, anti alcohol, anti chemical sunblock, etc. phase on top of it and driving myself bananas trying to figure out what is good or evil in this world. At the end of the day, I think at the end of the day I am going with everything in moderation advice my Penn oncologist once told me (except Thai food, which I have been craving for two months straight like a crazy person).

  6. SLOW. CLAP.

    This. This. A thousand times this. You’ve put your finger on the very thing that has been causing me minor-grade stress in the back of my brain for the better part of a year now. I’m sick of pausing in the grocery store and thinking: “Wait, which were the seven fruits I need to buy organic?” How about the fact that we’re eating fruits and vegetables AND washing them off with that poisonous tap water beforehand?! Gets an A in my book. I’m also sick of wearing all-natural deodorant that quite simply DOES NOT WORK. And worrying about whether or not my laundry detergent is pumping endocrine disruptors into my clothes which in turn sit on my skin and get absorbed into my bloodstream.

    Amazing post, Lillian.

  7. Yes, lately there are MORE AND MORE things discussing what’s bad for you and what’s going to kill you and what will most definitely maybe give you cancer. Cancer seems to be inevitable with the world the way it is today. Anyway, it’s a never ending cycle of what you can and cannot have and depending on the author/researchers, it’s all motivated differently with SOME sort of agenda. It’s all about what you choose to accept as fact and what you choose to brush off because at the end of the day – you can’t control the air you breath. You can’t control the water you drink – unless like you said, you did that thing and for most of us, that’s not feasible.
    In the meantime, I choose to follow my own intuition and my own research in terms of the choices I make and it hasn’t failed me yet. :)

  8. Yes, yes, and YES! I am laughing so hard right now… it’s all so true. We are very similar with this and I’ve been prone to a few anxiety meltdowns about how everything is killing us, and how we’re all doomed. My rational one – Michael – talks me down as well and always offers the reminder that you do what you can do, with what you have, and make smart decisions. Worrying about every tiny little thing that can kill you is only going to…. well, kill you.

    Thanks for the hysterical read!

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