POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 22, 2013
~~<p><span style="font-size: 12px;">Do you make your food choices based on fear, outrage and eating only "healthy" foods? That can become a problem if essential nutrient needs are not met. A rational fear of hazards in the world around us is normal and important for health and survival. However, fearing too many foods or food groups that friends, websites or activist groups label as bad can cause long-term health problems. At its extreme this obsession with healthy eating, known as orthorexia, does more harm than good.</span></p>
Do you make your food choices based on fear, outrage and eating only "healthy" foods? That can become a problem if essential nutrient needs are not met. A rational fear of hazards in the world around us is normal and important for health and survival. However, fearing too many foods or food groups that friends, websites or activist groups label as bad can cause long-term health problems. At its extreme this obsession with healthy eating, known as orthorexia, does more harm than good. Increasingly people are choosing or rejecting foods because of minor or nonexistent hazards falsely perceived as major. The resulting outrage, often caused by misinformation, can result in choosing foods that do not meet essential nutrient needs. Ultimately, humans are likely to make better food choices when they are based on facts that allow rational ranking of hazards on their priority list of concerns. Sadly, information overload can make it challenging to distinguish facts from beliefs. Prominent "risk communications" expert and author Peter Sandman has proposed a simple formula for assessing risks around us: Risk = Hazard + Outrage. The risk of something can be high because the hazard is great, even though awareness and outrage are low. In contrast, the perceived risk of something can be high if the hazard is low but the outrage is high. In the first case the challenge is to inform and educate people about the hazard. In the second the challenge is what Sandman calls "outrage management," or calming irrationally upset people. If the hazard and outrage are both high, it becomes a crisis management situation. Question: How can the average person get the risk formula into perspective for a perceived health hazard? Answer: It can be achallenge. Sandman suggests that you first consider everyone to be not trustworthy. Expect that those outraged about a hazard are stretching the truth as much as those trying to convince you that it is no big deal. That also entails questioning your own thinking. Sandman stresses that the level of outrage is rarely appropriate for the true risk level of a hazard. Q: How can we use the risk formula to deal with issues related to food, nutrition and health? A: There certainly is no shortage of outrage from sincere people about food and nutrition issues. Likewise, there is no shortage of assurance of safety and healthfulness from those selling foods and dietary supplements. First, assume that the true level of a hazard is likely somewhere between the two extremes and seek reliable sources of facts. Finding unbiased, trustworthy facts can be difficult. Ensuring that your sources have an appropriate educational background to judge risk can be a first step toward putting a hazard into perspective. An example of high hazard and low outrage is illustrated by the herbal products containing ephedra (ma huang), used primarily for weight loss. This "natural" amphetamine-like herb was causing heart failure in some people. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned it in 2004 even before there was significant public outrage. The flip side of the ephedra case is illustrated by the dietary sweetener aspartame, which is made of two common amino acids. Although hundreds of studies and decades of use support its safety, the outrage remains high based on websites claiming it is ruining the health of the nation. Finally, keep in mind a quote from FDR: "Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth."
——— Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., and Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii-Manoa. Dobbs also works with University Health Services. Login for more...