Magical Run

Magical Thinking about Diet and Exercise

Another study – this one published in Diabetes – tells us that air pollution might contribute to insulin resistance and ultimately to diabetes. It addresses a genuinely interesting subject for scientific inquiry. But it doesn’t tell us that a healthy diet and exercise is the antidote for the harms that air pollution might cause. Nevertheless, the New York Times chose that tidbit of magical thinking as their bottom line in reporting on this study. They quoted the senior author, Annette Peters, saying:

For people who already have bad metabolism, adding air pollution makes them respond more strongly. This means they really need a healthy lifestyle. The effect of air pollution can be countered with healthy diet and exercise.

The study had nothing to do with diet and exercise. Nothing in the study supports a conclusion that people living with air pollution “really need a healthy lifestyle.” But this is what Peters and the New York Times are telling us that this research “means.”

Their conclusion is wrong on three counts. First, it’s false. The study did not examine the effects of lifestyle, so the study tells us nothing about the need for a healthy lifestyle.

Second, the advice to get more exercise is potentially bad advice for someone living in a highly polluted environment. Not only is evidence lacking to support a benefit for exercising in a polluted environment, thoughtful analysis offers reasons for concern about doing so. So the best advice is to reduce the pollution or to move away from it. That’s easier said than done, of course.

The third and perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this false conclusion is the biased magical thinking it reflects. A healthy diet and plenty of physical activity is indisputably good for the body. But it’s not a magical cure for all ailments.

It’s not a substitute for cleaning up unacceptable levels of air pollution.

It’s not a foolproof cure for obesity or diabetes. It is not an adequate substitute for the bariatric surgery that some people need – despite recent, seemingly contrary advice published in the Times.

Healthy dietary and physical activity strategies are helpful, but they are not magical. Suggesting otherwise is an offensive disservice to people who need medical care for a serious chronic disease. It’s a callous response to people living in highly polluted environments.

Click here for the study and  here for the flawed reporting from the Times.

Magical Run, photograph © Hernán Piñera / flickr

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September 24, 2016

3 Responses to “Magical Thinking about Diet and Exercise”

  1. September 24, 2016 at 7:43 am, Al Lewis said:

    Great smackdown. And you know me. I love a good smackdown.

    You could add one other thing, which is that in the US rates of air pollution and rates of diabetes have been trending pretty strongly in the opposite directions over recent decades. Further, the cities with the most pollution, like LA and Denver, are not known as cities with a high prevalence of diabetes.

    • September 24, 2016 at 11:23 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughs, Al. Correlation studies like this are interesting but not definitive. The subject of the study itself intrigues me. The leap to diet and exercise was absurd.

  2. September 24, 2016 at 9:01 am, Allen Browne said:

    Go Ted!!!