Though this blog mostly concerns chemical exposures, it is critical to keep in mind the more important role that our basic health tenants play in good health. That is, the importance of a healthy diet, exercise, and aversion of harmful habits. While avoiding toxic cosmetics, eating organic, and watching the fish you eat are things certainly worthwhile, and things I clearly advocate, their impact to health is relatively low compared to the impacts of eating well and staying active. This reality is often missed by those interested in health. More tragically, minimizing chemical exposures can give the false illusion of healthy living, when in fact a person is not leading a healthy life. You might say, what good is reducing your late-life cancer risk, albeit by a fraction of a percent, if you’re going down the path of a midlife heart attack?
There was a time when environmental exposures represented a larger piece of total health. It was only decades ago that dirty factories filled our cities with thick plumes of smoke. Still today, while much improved, air pollution kills thousands each year. As it stands, though, the single greatest killer in America today is heart disease. And the best way to avoid heart disease is through eating right, exercising, and avoiding smoking. Even better, the perks to eating well and staying fit stretch well beyond a healthy heart. They reduce your risk of all sorts of chronic diseases, including many cancers. There are few chemicals one could avoid that would have such a broad and profound impact. In other words, eating well and exercising offer a whole lot of bang for your buck! And if you think you’re too overweight to benefit from the loss of a few pounds, think again. Studies looking at overweight people show that every 10 pounds of weight loss is associated with a substantial (10-20%) decrease in the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
It seems in today’s society that fitness is often driven by dreams of a “sexy body” rather than long term health. This is fine in that “hey, if it drives you to be lean, then great!” However this overlooks an important piece. That is, your health is more than simply looking good. Further, the strict emphasis on a sexy body has led to all sorts of fad diets that promise weight loss without considering long term health. Most of these diets, I might add, are backed by little to no science while others, such as the Paleo Diet, can actually lead to worse health.
Similarly crucial to good health is aversion of smoking. And not solely due to lung cancer. Statistically, smokers disproportionately flood the hospitals for all types of disease relative to non-smokers, probably due to compromised immune function. Smoking serves as a good example of what I mean by “keeping exposures in perspective.” That is, if you smoke, don’t worry about harm from urban air pollution, the smoking is far worse. Similarly, the benefit of avoiding a few toxic chemicals here and there is unlikely to amount to any meaningful improvement in health or longevity to someone who is unhealthy from a diet/exercise perspective. So if you’re serious about your health, prioritize your diet/exercise first, make sure you don’t smoke, and once these are under wraps, then worry about chemical exposures.
Over the next two months I will be excerpting from an excellent book by leading nutritional scientist Dr. Walter Willett titled “Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy,” to bring you the seven most important things you can do to improve your health. Dr. Willett is one of the most respected scientists in nutritional medicine, and is also Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health as well as professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School. The recommendations you will read are drawn from decades of large-scale population studies and other scientific evidence, something that will hopefully be refreshing given the fad diets and spurious recommendations we often hear about in the media. So stayed tuned as I highlight the key takeaways for better health!
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-Shahir Masri, M.S.