In May of this year, I wrote a column called “So done with medical science” after articles began appearing in both scientific journals and the popular press that calcium supplements, the sacred cow of medical advice for women, could actually cause you harm. But it’s only gotten better – or worse, depending on how you think about it. If I didn’t have a character limit, this column would be titled “Totally absolutely never going to believe anything medical science says again and this time I really mean it!”
When one reads about medical treatments through the ages, one is frequently horrified at the amount of suffering that was inflicted upon people by what passed for medical science in their day. Of course, you say to yourself, they didn’t know what we do now. Lately I’ve begun to wonder if we know anything at all.
In 1973, Woody Allen presciently released the movie “Sleeper” about a health food storeowner whose body was accidentally cryogenically frozen and who wakes up 200 years later in 2173 to find that the real health foods are tobacco and red meat. The doctors who unfreeze him are more than dismayed to learn that he consumed the likes of wheat germ and organic honey. “What?” they exclaim. “No deep fat, no steak, no cream pies, no hot fudge?” subsequently observing that “these were thought to be unhealthy — precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”
Guess what, folks. It’s 2173. We just got there 160 years early.
Frankly, it’s all changing faster than I can keep up with. In the wake of the calcium revelation, vitamins have been declared to shorten your life, and saturated fat has become good for you. The saturated fat argument, of course, has actually been around for a while in the form of the Atkins diet, which maintained that it wasn’t harmful – IF you didn’t pair it with high carbohydrate intake. Otherwise, sayonara, baby.
But now even that line has been crossed with the sudden popularity of foods like coconut oil. I started seeing it more and more frequently as an ingredient in recipes and even Dr. Oz is flogging it as a health food that fights illness-causing viruses and bacteria, wards off yeast, aids in thyroid and blood sugar control, improves digestion, and improbably as it sounds to me, increases the good HDL cholesterol despite its 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. Surely even a bacon cheeseburger dipped in a hot fudge sundae can’t have 12 grams of saturated fat per bite?
I’ve never had a primary care doctor who didn’t caution me that artery-clogging saturated fat was a fast track to ending up counting worms. Still, since a whole display case of coconut oil had magically appeared in my local supermarket, and Dr. Oz said it was OK, I decided to add a jar to my basket. But I only got five steps before the chest pains started and I put it back again. It’s not that I’ve never eaten saturated fats. But I’ve always felt bad about it. I may have jettisoned the calcium supplements, but I don’t think I have enough life expectancy left to embrace coconut oil. I’d probably end up dying from a reverse placebo effect: I believe it will kill me.