Medical Advice with a Grain of Salt

Today’s blog post talks about a tricky subject. A pediatrician recently wrote an article in The Upshot for the New York Times called “The Whiplash from Ever-Changing Medical Advice.” We’re constantly swamped with new findings about food, lifestyle, gadgets, or habits that could help us or harm us, according to the medical community. The author of the article, Dr. Aaron Carroll, notes that while medical researchers need to publish their work and news organizations need to report these findings, sometimes these results have a neutral effect at best. Other times, new results could actually reverse previous research that was released only a few years ago, which may confuse the general public.

 

The eternal debate about food allergies is a good example. Recently, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease recommended that we begin giving babies peanut extract or powder in their food before they are six months old, in order to reduce the odds that they develop peanut allergies. There was substantial evidence for the effectiveness of this method, especially for children who were at risk of developing these allergies.

 

Yet back in the early 2000s, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned against giving children who were at risk of developing peanut allergies any peanut-derivative products before the age of three. In hindsight, this recommendation might have actually increased the number of children with these allergies.

 

This “medical whiplash” about conflicting advice can really exhaust readers, especially parents who are trying to make healthy decisions on behalf of their children. Dr. Carroll has written articles expressing his concerns that these recommendations, “which were not supported by strong evidence, may be doing more harm than good.”


Physicians like Dr. Carroll will be the first to agree that “simple lifestyle changes may be more influential than many medical interventions.” Interventions that work for some people might not work for others, but not all medical or news organizations will definitively admit that. It’s important to keep moderation in mind as a priority, and to be receptive but critical of the plethora of medical research that comes out every day.