About thirty years ago a girlfriend put her hand on mine at the dinner table and told me I should put down the salt shaker. Salt, she said, was bad for me. I thought she’d slipped a cog. Salt? She had to be kidding.
No, she was quite serious, and quoted some some studies about how too much sodium could lead to high blood pressure. I parried with the fact that my father took salt tablets in hot weather to replace the salt lost in perspiration—and he was in great shape. (Indeed, his heart did pretty well until he developed atrial fibrillation and then congenitive heart disease, in his early nineties.)
In any case, two or three years after that advance notice by my health-conscious girlfriend, I’d joined the big boat of salt avoiders. Today, my GP says I don’t have to worry much about it, because my blood pressure is fine. All things in moderation.
What I’m driving at is how easily we are driven by the winds of dietary and food advice. In particular, the recommendations for Alzheimer’s patients are all over the map. Don’t let him drink coffee, I was told only six years ago—yet today the wisdom seems to be that caffeine is good for those with dementia. Eat a diet rich in antioxidants has been staple advice for decades—but consider a recent article in Newsweek by Sharon Begley, who describes how we’ve long been advised to load up on antioxidants, which help to control the free radicals responisble for aging, cancer and heart disease.
“Not so fast,” says Begley. “First, studies piled up showing that taking antioxidants—even such common and seemingly innocuous ones as beta carotene and vitamins C and E—as supplements was not beneficial to health and might even be dangerous.”
Oxidants, for one thing, are the front-line defense against pathogens and cancer cells—so we may not want to squash them categorically. An assessment of 67 studies with nearly 400,000 participants concluded, “We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention, [and] Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E may increase mortality.”
You can read the Newsweek article and decide for yourself. My point is that we’re often lead down a path we don’t know that much about. Remember when eggs were the devil incarnate? Now researchers sing a milder tune about them: lots of benefits, as well as the concerns. What I remember, a bit shamefully, was the cogent argument I put up against the dangers of sodium. How convinced I was, and how wrong. Well, that girlfriend was right about almost everything, so I should have known.