Gupta: Keeping medical info in check without inducing headache

By Ragini Grace Gupta

Four years ago I attended a summer camp focused on science exploration in Gainesville, Fla. In… Four years ago I attended a summer camp focused on science exploration in Gainesville, Fla. In Florida, there’s an obsession of sorts with water, not only because of the high coast-to-inland ratio, but also because of the large aquifer in the state. Perhaps it makes sense then that it was at this camp that I was shown a presentation on the ills associated with bottled water.

One woman in the crowd listened intently, but then said, “Everything gives you cancer. I’m not going to stop drinking bottled water,” as she shook her head and took a big gulp from her plastic bottle.

Although I was taken aback by her confidence and assurance at the time, what she said reflects how I feel now: overwhelmed by virtue of being medically informed. Medical information is everywhere, from websites, television shows and magazines to everyday advice from family and friends. It is easy for anybody to come down with medical student syndrome — where after reading about a disease, a medical student starts thinking he has said symptoms.

We are constantly bombarded by conflicting and continually changing studies and investigate reports that this drug or that seafloor supplement are either panacea or poison. I used to watch the Dr. Oz Show every day. In each episode, Dr. Mehmet Oz tells his viewers about both miracle foods and death traps. Blueberries are antioxidants. Turkey is a great lean meat. Almonds are good for revving up the metabolism. Many white food products aren’t healthy, and so on.

The trouble comes when there is talk about bad foods. As “Super Size Me” and “Food Inc.,” have shown, we are surrounded by yucky, but yummy food. So when people tell me to avoid white foods like white bread, I know they mean well. But really, are they trying to torture me? Going to the dining hall or grocery store is like some sick taunt where all I see is “white things” — the easy, layman’s way to identify foods with processed and refined white flour. When I look at a loaf of white sandwich bread, I no longer see my favorite peanut butter and jelly sandwich but rather think of love handles and spikes in blood sugar.

These days everybody is a doctor in the sense that the average person knows a great deal about health and many invariably keep up to date with new findings. Here’s an example female readers might be attuned to: Ovarian cancer has symptoms quite similar to less serious GI problems, and because of this, it often goes undiagnosed. Now I can’t help but wonder if that occasional stomachache is not acidity, but rather cancer. Life could easily become a constant worry about small aches and pains that we start to view as serious when warned that there are actually a whole host of diseases that people didn’t know existed and which have symptoms similar to those of relatively harmless health issues.

So it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the information. But don’t get flustered or panic.

I got to the point where all I had room in my brain to think about was not eating the easily accessible bad foods, finding and eating the good foods and dwelling on the constant monitoring of my body, wondering whether any conditions were symptoms of life-threatening diseases.

Sure, it’s vital to be informed, but don’t adopt all the things you hear — it’s not productive. Take things in increments and be choosy. Remember life goes beyond being healthy — don’t go completely out of your way to take on some new health tip or the inconvenience of it could prompt quick abandonment. If you hear that white, processed foods are not healthy, be conscious and try wheat bread and pasta when you go to the store — you don’t have to go cold turkey. Any adjustment can be tough, but a gradual one will prove better in the end.

When you learn of a positive health tip, especially an exercise tip, adopt it gradually, and make sure it’s something you can realistically commit to. Trips to the gym would have to become day-trips if it meant trying to keep up with all the latest workout trends and exercise advice.

So in the swaths of new medical advice and health tips, be selective, not overwhelmed. All that information is bound to make you stressed — and, just in case you didn’t know, stress is good for neither the body nor the mind.

E-mail Ragini at [email protected]