In May, University of Alberta health law expert Timothy Caulfield visited American University to discuss his best-selling book “The Cure for Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness, and Happiness.” Caulfield spent a year going on a “quest to find the truth about the things that make us healthy,” wading through a mass of misinformation, testing health crazes scientifically and personally.
At our School of Communication studios, I talked to Caulfield about his book, with excerpts from our conversation below and available at YouTube. The interview is part of the new American Ideas video series.
MAKING SENSE OF HEALTH MESSAGES
In our opening segment, Caulfield describes how messages about science and evidence are twisted by researchers, the media, and industry, all making it difficult for consumers to cut through the baloney to understand the simple principles that lead to a healthy life. He also discusses how his focus on diet and fitness to open the book offers a logical way to lead readers into a discussion of similar problems and principles that apply to reaching judgments and decisions about personal genetics and alternative health remedies. Caulfield closes by describing why he chose to write the book as a personal journey, combining synthesis and expert advice with narrative storytelling.
THE TOP MYTHS ABOUT FITNESS AND EXERCISE
In the segment below, Caulfield describes the biggest myths about effective exercise, warning that exercise, for example, rarely leads to weight loss unless you are also making major changes to what you eat. He also describes his experience training with a Hollywood fitness guru and what it takes to gain the benefits from high intensity exercise.
DIETING VERSUS LIFESTYLE?
In the segment below, Caulfield describes how his “food odyssey” was the most challenging part of writing the book, and the many ways we delude ourselves about diet and health. Dieting never works. You have to instead adopt a healthy lifestyle and a pattern of eating, recommends Caulfield. Eat 2,000 calories a day, eat mostly fruits and vegetables, and keep a diet diary for a week to learn about what you are eating.
THE CYCLE OF HYPE AND THE “GENETIC REVOLUTION”
Caulfield discuss what claims about personal genetics have in common with claims about fitness and diet. Increasingly the idea of genetics in society is that if we know what our genetic predispositions are, we can adjust our lifestyle to address any risks. In addition, argues Caulfield, the idea of a “genetic revolution” has been sold to us. Caulfield however doubts how relevant genetic information will be to population trends related to health. There are far simpler factors to consider such as diet and exercise that would make a much bigger impact on public health. In contrast to this reality, Caulfield describes the “cycle of hype” that has promoted the idea that the “genetic revolution” will make a difference in predicting or preventing disease.
MAKING DECISIONS ABOUT ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE
In this segment, Caulfield discusses why more than a 1/3 of North Americans use some form of alternative therapy or herbal remedy and the evidence that stacks up against their effectiveness. He also compares claims made about alternative therapies and the claims of the pharmaceutical. I also ask Caulfield what’s the harm — if placebo works for people — why should be concerned about alternative therapies? Finally, Caulfield discusses whether there should be greater funding for research on alternative therapies.
REACTION TO THE BOOK AND OTHER HEALTH DEBATES
To wrap up the interview, I ask Caulfield to reflect on the feedback and criticism that he has received about the book. Some critics — describes Caulfield — say he didn’t spend enough time on addressing the body image issue and other cultural pressures that shape diet and fitness discussions. He says he is happy that the book has generated so much discussion. If he were add chapters to the book, he would focus on the debate over sodium and fat in our diet and also investigate the impact of the food industry on diet guidelines.
AMERICAN IDEAS WITH MATTHEW NISBET is produced by the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. The series interviews leading experts and authors about research and trends related to public affairs, culture, and the media.