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Columns

June 11, 2011

On cells, sprouts and sodas

It figures. Six weeks after we dropped our landline, the World Health Organization issued a warning that radiation from cell phones might cause brain cancer.

Meanwhile, the ultimate health food, organic bean sprouts, is being blamed for one of the deadliest E. coli outbreaks in recent history.

These are the latest headlines in a dizzying onslaught of information about what's good (and not good) for us. Health has never been a hotter topic. Magazines, newspapers, blogs and websites are full of information on what we can do to improve our health. And yet, as a nation, the United States ranked 11th in a 2008 analysis by Forbes magazine of the healthiest places in which to live in the world, despite our huge health care expenditures and our cultural obsession with wellness.

We live in a world that seems so fraught with health risks, real or exaggerated, that it's become difficult to sort out which ones really matter. In addition to having too much information, there's the "cry wolf" factor. We've been told that eggs/butter/potatoes are good for us, then bad, then good again. After a while, it's easy to be skeptical of any advice offered by the nutritionists, scientists and government experts.

The WHO's cell phone warning was based, in part, on an international study in which participants who used cell phones for at least 10 years had twice the rate of brain glioma, a type of tumor.

Of bigger concern is the fact that no studies have been done on children or longer-term users. Because cancer takes 15 to 20 years to develop, it's too soon to assess the risk for people who have had phones glued to their ears since age 12.

I take some comfort in the fact that my teenage daughter spends far more time texting than talking. But I'm not about to run out and buy a headset or go back to paying for a phone service I don't need, anymore than I'm going to stop eating spinach, tomatoes or cucumbers because they might be contaminated with E. coli. (Avoiding sprouts, on the other hand, is a win-win!)

Besides, doesn't everything "possibly" raise the risk of cancer these days? The polluted air we breathe, the pesticides on our South American grapes, the chemicals in our water, the medications we take for other conditions, red meat, sunshine, nonstick pans, canned vegetables, plastic water bottles, power lines.

Short of subsisting on roots and berries in a distant cave, there's not much we can do to live risk-free.

For every no-brainer (Don't smoke!), there are dozens of counterintuitive and conflicting health warnings. Take diet soda, for example. With no calories or sugar, it has long been recommended as a healthier alternative to regular soda, sweetened teas and sugary juice drinks.

Now, it turns out that daily consumption of diet soda increases the risk of low bone mineral density in women, as well as type 2 diabetes and stroke. In addition, some studies suggest that excessive diet soda consumption may even cause weight gain _ the very condition many diet soda addicts would like to prevent.

This is just one example of the ever-changing barrage of do's and don'ts that makes it hard not to take the WHO's cell phone warnings with a grain of salt (just one grain, since, last time I checked, too much sodium was still bad for me).

Yes, I'll try to limit my cell phone use, just like I'll try not to eat too much red meat or drink too much wine or spend too much time in the sun. It's not easy to follow the old "everything in moderation" adage in an era of extreme makeovers and fashionable diets that exclude entire food groups, but it seems to be the most sensible path.

My recipe for better health is to focus on getting enough sleep, remembering to water my little vegetable garden, and making time each day to run, walk or go for a bike ride with my kids. On the weekends, I might even lie in the hammock with a good book.

Last but not least, I will try to resist the temptation to read the latest health news headlines, because I'm pretty sure I saw a study that said worrying was hazardous to my health.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.

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