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Jack Zaleski, Published March 22 2014

Zaleski: Medical ‘studies’ can make you sick

People my age pay more attention to medical news. As a card-carrying member of the baby boom generation (that would be a Social Security card), I am in that category, as are many of my gracefully aging friends. Others are dead, probably from the stress of trying to make sense of medical “breakthroughs” and “miracles” that are supposed to enhance quality of life and stave off the ravages of aging.

For years, butter, lard and other animal fats were said to be anathema to good health. The stuff our grandparents cooked with and put in pie crust was relegated to the no-no list in favor of (remember?) margarine, an oil fat that was supposed to be heart healthy. It was not to be. Further research concluded fats in margarines were more harmful than animal fats.

More recently, the trans fat scare compelled us to pull out the worry beads. What the hell is trans fat? Bad fat, we were told, and most food processors no longer use it. Fine.

Now a study suggests grandma’s cooking fats are not so bad, and even might be good for us in moderation. “Moderation” is never definitively defined, so I assume my Aunty Marie’s pie crust, made deliciously flaky by lard, was OK, and aunty’s to-die-for (To die for. Get it?) peach pie did not clog my arteries. I assume my grandmother’s mashed potatoes, which were liberally seasoned with salt pork and butter, then whipped into memorable delight with heavy cream, did not damage my longevity prospects.

Who the hell knows? Given the routinely conflicting health/diet studies that are reported by media with breathless hyperbole, credibility is taking a hit.

Last time I saw my doctor, he said long-accepted ranges for blood pressure had been changed. The new standard for high blood pressure was adjusted lower. My readings were good, but I wondered how at risk I’d been because I had been living with the old standard for years. A new study changed a landscape I’d been negotiating successfully. It was disconcerting. Just thinking about it probably raised my blood pressure.

A few years ago, my doc referred me to a nutritionist. She was marvelous. I kept a log of meals. After analyzing my diet, which was not an example of healthy eating as fashionably defined by the food police, she said I should eat what I want, but not to excess. How sensible that sounded. She must not have read the latest studies.

I’m not one to fall into the nostalgia trap that the fare served up by our grandparents is what we should eat today, although I still crave it and occasionally indulge. An honest assessment of Grandma’s day will find members of her generation were sick with maladies we don’t worry about today. Compared to today’s “elderly” our grandparents were less active in old age and died young. It was about more than food; but what and how they ate were factors that affected their health and the length of their lives.

Still, I wonder if it was better to negotiate the travails and triumphs of life without obsessing over the latest health advance, nutrition warning or miracle drug. Mental health is important, too, and the mind-numbing crush of competing and contradictory studies makes me crazy. I need comfort food.

Pass the mashed potatoes. And the bacon …

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski (701) 241-5521.