by Bill Adamson
As the new health writer for the North and West Melbourne News I sat down with the editor to discuss what I wanted to do over the next four publications.
My main goal was to provide a relevant, well-researched and not sensationalist reporting of health issues.
As I was sat over my computer last week thinking of how I could frame this conversation I was a bit stumped, but then something amazing happened.
An article titled ‘Bacon causes cancer’ popped up on a newsite I follow, and then on another and then another and soon it was everywhere.
It had grabbed the public consciousness and no newsite wanted to be left behind.
I was excited as this was the very issue I was struggling to explain clearly.
Health messaging in this modern digital age is challenging.
Newspapers and websites need traffic through their websites to make them sustainable. But simple, accurate health information isn’t all that exciting.
The more sensationalist the headline the more likely the average person is to click through to the website concerned.
The ‘Bacon causes cancer’, ‘Bacon the new smoking’ headline was based on a review of 800 epidemiological studies conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
And there was some great information to be gleaned from the review. Essentially processed meats such as bacon increase the risk of bowel cancer twofold.
But eating bacon infrequently will only very marginally increase your risk. It is far more relevant to those who consume processed meats more than five times a week.
As part of this review the WHO placed processed meats in the same category as asbestos and tobacco, in that they are known carcinogens.
But they are not of the same potency. A lifetime of smoking increases your risk of lung cancer by a factor of 50, bacon by a factor of two.
And this is where the issue of health messaging lies. Good studies are produced. Journos under pressure to create click-baitable headlines cherry-pick bits out of lengthy studies and reports.
We the public see yet another thing that we consume, use, live with, that is sure to kill us.
So what do we do? Ignore it, joke about it, keep living our lives exactly the same way.
Sensationalising a subject, sensationalising the content of a study, gets greater clicks, but it also decreases the relevancy to the reader. We become immune to the actual message of the study because of the way it is delivered.
And so the purpose of this article and the ones to come is to demythologise health. To give basic, simple health advice that is relevant, and to convince people that they should be careful when reading things online.
Because in science terms health is relatively simple.
Eat your veggies, don’t eat too many foods that are processed, and get as many colours on your plate as you possibly can.
Exercise a bit, and in an enjoyable way, with variety. Try whatever fad comes through. If you enjoy it do it. But don’t think that it is the only thing you or others should do.
And with exercise don’t just do loaded stuff, don’t just do stretchy stuff. Mix it up, move with variety. And don’t discount vigorous house-cleaning, gardening, horizontal dancing with your partner, or someone else’s partner.
Be mindful. Don’t cram your mind with information all the time. Social media is great, but refreshing Facebook for the 17th time is not going to reveal some spectacular new thing. If your feed is anything like mine, it’ll probably reveal another new baby.
But more of that next time. Until then, be careful of reading too much online rubbish, it’ll probably cause you cancer…
Bill Adamson is an osteopath at Errol St Osteo and also a director on the board of Osteopathy Australia.