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Take Charge of Taking Care of Yourself: Why Mass Media Should Not Be Your Only Source for Health Information

By Haley Vale

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Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow is headed to Washington as a well-dressed, passionate political lobbyist. Despite the similarities between Paltrow’s most recent project and the plot of Legally Blonde 2, the legislation Paltrow is supporting has not drawn approval from all corners.

Paltrow is advocating against a bill that would prevent requiring foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such. Under the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, labeling foods containing GMOs would be voluntary. The bill also requires that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirm that GMO foods intended to be sold are as safe as their non-GMO counterparts.

Paltrow and other opponents of the bill (organized under the “Just Label It!” campaign), argue that Americans have a right to know what is in the food they feed their children.

I’m not here as an expert. I’m here as a mother, an American mother, that honestly believes I have the right to know what’s in the food I feed my family,” the actress said at an event on Aug. 5th after presenting a petition for President Obama to veto the bill.

When viewed from the perspective of a mother concerned for the wellbeing of her children, Paltrow’s opposition seems reasonable. However, there is no significant scientific evidence to suggest that the presence of GMOs in foods sold in the United States is anything but safe for consumption. In fact, the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that GMO foods are perfectly safe, including those of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Medical Association (AMA).

In fact, labeling GMOs just might be detrimental to Americans. One study out of Cornell University concluded that if GMO labels were required, a four-person family could end up paying $500 more per year for food. Additionally, GMO labeling could suggest to consumers that GMOs are unsafe, which could stigmatize modified foods and create more fear and confusion around genetically modified (GM) produce.

So why, if there are no risks associated with GMO foods and potential harm could be done by labeling and stigmatizing them, did 200,000 people sign Paltrow’s petition?

The answer seems to be misleading information presented by celebrities and popular media. When compounded with a misunderstanding of what GMOs are and ignorance of the vast troves of research concluding that GMOs present no danger, media and celebrity influence determine what most people believe about their personal health.

By crusading against GMOs, Paltrow and other celebrity backers such as Sarah Michelle Gellar, Pharrell Williams and Neil Young have effectively prevented science from doing what it is supposed to do: inform humans.

But this is not the only time celebrity influence has popularized an unfounded health craze.

The Paleo diet, a relatively innocuous example of this phenomenon, is based on the assertion that humans have evolved to eat a specific diet that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers would have eaten (namely lean meats, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) and that the only way to eat healthily is to match what hunter-gatherers would have eaten.

However, contrary to widespread claims about the health benefits of the Paleo diet, evidence shows it can lead to serious illnesses such as heart disease and high cholesterol. Furthermore, the design of the diet itself is flawed.

Firstly, it assumes that all Paleolithic peoples had the same diet, which they did not. Paleolithic diets depended largely on geography and season with some groups of hunter-gatherers eating a diet of mostly meat and fish while others depended mostly on seeds and nuts or roots for the bulk of their calorie intake. Evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers adapted their diets to eat whatever was available. The effort to reduce the diet of many varied peoples to one set of rules for modern people to follow is futile.

The main flaw, however, is that the diet assumes that the human body has not adapted to eating the starch-rich, dairy-filled diet that most people consume today. On the contrary, since the advent of agriculture, modern humans have actually improved their ability to metabolize dairy and starch.

While the Paleo diet is scientifically unfounded, it has persisted in its popularity despite being deficient in essential nutrients such as calcium and fiber. As in the case of GMOs, the science debunking claims about the modern diet has been ignored.

An even more worrying example of America’s tendency to jump on board with celebrity health recommendations is the recent trend of not vaccinating children for the sake of their safety. Concerns about the safety and morality of vaccines have been debated since their inception.

Modern opposition to childhood vaccinations, however, centers on a proposed link between vaccinations and autism. These concerns stem largely from a study published in 1998 which found a link between vaccination and autism. The paper has since been retracted by the publication that originally printed it, and the author has been discredited as a fraud.

However, parents still fight against immunizing their children despite powerful scientific authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), publishing research stating unequivocally that there is no link between vaccines and autism.

One of the strongest and most recognizable opponents to childhood vaccination is Jenny McCarthy, an actress and mother of a child with autism. McCarthy believes that “toxins” in vaccines caused her son to develop autism and points to the rise in vaccination rates and autism rates between 1983 and 2008 as evidence that vaccines are a causative agent of autism. The CDC have refuted these claims as well.

The real harm in McCarthy’s assertions, however, is that a few unvaccinated children are a far greater risk to society as a whole than many realize. Vaccinations prevent individuals from contracting illnesses, but their other purpose is to prevent widespread outbreaks through herd immunity. Herd immunity is the concept that if enough people in a population are immunized for a particular disease, there can be no sustained outbreak of that disease, and thus people who are ineligible to receive vaccinations such as the very young and the immunocompromised are protected.

An unfortunate example of this breakdown in herd immunity is the recent outbreak of measles in California earlier this year. Of the 110 cases of measles reported in California, 28 patients were intentionally unvaccinated because of personal beliefs. Additionally, 12 patients were infants too young to be vaccinated. This is not a one-time occurrence either. Of the 183 cases of measles reported in the first half of 2015, most were unvaccinated. In fact, measles outbreaks occur most often in communities with vaccination rates far below average.

At the end of the day one wonders how the health of Americans will ever improve if this trend of pushing science aside persists. The mainstream media is a powerful force, but unfortunately, it is dictated by what is groundbreaking, interesting and popular. Not what is scientifically true.

It is the responsibility of individuals to understand their health. To look deeper, past what is fed to them by celebrities and TV. The consequences of personal health choices lie with the individual making those choices, so it must be the individual who learns and listens to science and medicine. The jargon of the medical science community is understandably a deterrent to most who would investigate further, but in those cases the best answer is also the simplest one: ask. Ask a doctor, a scientist, the internet. Push for knowledge and understanding, because personal health is a responsibility that every person must bear.

Gwyneth Paltrow may decide her own beliefs of what a healthy lifestyle is, but she should not make that decision for everyone.

Reference List

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