I recently started flossing regularly, partly because it’s good for my teeth but also partly because it’s potentially good for my heart. It seems utterly absurd to think that periodontal disease really causes heart disease, and I’m inclined to think that either the studies that found the association were flawed, that there’s a serious correlation/causation mixup going on, or that the causation actually runs the other way and heart disease causes unhealthy gums. But what the heck, right? I’ve got no illusions that healthy behaviors will make me immortal, but I’d like to put off dying as long as possible. Why not do something that might potentially keep me from getting sick?
Well, there are also flawed, correlation-and-causation-confusing studies out there saying that losing weight will lower my risk of heart disease. The research is no better than the gum research, the conclusions are no more solid, but they might not be a hell of a lot worse. If I’m willing to take one dubious approach to improving my heart health, why not another?
Here’s why: Because if flossing doesn’t prevent heart disease, what’s the worst that’s happened? I’ve got healthier teeth and gums and my dentist is happy with me. If I try to diet my way into weight loss, the consequences are a little more dire: I risk disordered eating, anxiety, depression, undernourishment, low self-esteem, immune suppression, metabolism changes, and weight cycling (not to mention becoming totally boring). Even in the unlikely case that it is as simple as that, that weight directly correlates with heart disease risk, it’s not clear that I’d come out ahead. Flossing means undertaking an immediately healthy behavior in the hopes that its ill-proven future health effects also turn out to be real. Dieting means undertaking an immediately unhealthy, unpleasant, and eventually counterproductive series of behaviors in the hopes that its ill-proven future effects might outweigh present misery. (Oh, and of course I would become totally pretty. But it’s all about health, dontcha know.)
Some stuff that’s healthy, or might be healthy, is worth doing. These things vary according to what’s healthy for your individual body — someone with a torn meniscus might not find it healthy to jog, for instance — but it’s a sure bet that some things will make you feel better over the long and short run, and might even make you less likely to get sick. But it’s also a sure bet that you’re not going to live forever, not even if you do every supposedly healthy thing you can think of — and you don’t have to do them all to benefit from some. What that means to me is that it’s a no-brainer to miss out on things some study says are potentially healthy if they’re also going to cause me immediate harm. If I’m worried about heart disease, I can floss (definitely helps teeth), exercise (definitely helps mood and sense of well-being), and eat foods high in antioxidants (definitely delicious). Or I can try desperately, painfully, and ultimately unsuccessfully to lose weight. Even if the disease-avoiding benefits of the latter are much higher, and there’s no good reason to believe they are, deciding to give it a miss because it’s horrible doesn’t cancel out the benefits of the first three. And if none of them keep me from getting heart disease, which is also quite possible? Well, then I’ll have clean teeth, a good mood, and tasty things to eat, and I’ll die just like the thinnest person alive.
It’s great to do stuff that you find is good for you — you deserve that kind of care. But be aware that there’s not a lot we know about the long-term effects of our daily choices, and what we know is changing all the time. Is it really worth it to ruin your “now” in the hopes of maybe possibly tacking a few years onto your “later”? You can find a version of “healthy” that works for you — that decreases pain rather than increases it, that improves mood rather than wrecking it, that contributes to your quality of life rather than considering “quality of life” an affront to Puritan virtue. Figuring out what will extend your life is a guessing game. Figuring out what will make it enjoyable? That’s not nearly as hard.