The Lie of Averages
“My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.” – Orson Welles
If scientists have concluded that the average temperature on the moon is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, it certainly seems like a habitable temperature for humans, right? But what if I added that the temperature soars to over 250 degrees during the day and plummets to -250 degrees during the night? This tremendous fluctuation is primarily the result of the atmosphere’s limited ability to temper the sun’s rays when the moon is exposed, or trap heat when the moon is hidden. So, concluding that the moon had a livable temperature based on the average would not be so smart.
Although this moon example is an extreme one, the truth is that we make such false conclusions using averages (as well as medians, for the statisticians out there!) all the time. No, we aren’t going to live on the moon any time soon. But we do adjust our lifestyles all the time based on studies that look at averages. These studies can ignore our very important differences.
My Cholesterol Problem
Allow me to share a personal example of a study that impacted me. My family has a history of high cholesterol. My father takes Lipitor to manage it, and my mother eats a very clean diet to keep it in check. So, it wasn’t a shock that at age 30, my doctor prescribed me a cholesterol-reducing medication, as my “bad” cholesterol was quite high. I decided not to try the medicine and instead opt for a six-month period to adjust what I ate in order to see if I could reduce my cholesterol through better nutrition. I’m proud to say that my efforts paid off. My next cholesterol test showed results well within the normal range, somewhat surprising my doctor. I held lower blood-cholesterol levels through my mid-to-late 30s without using medication.
And Then I Read A Study
In December 2014, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Council, the nation’s top nutrition panel reversed nearly 40 years of strict government warnings, stating that cholesterol in the diet is no longer a “nutrient of concern.” The group continued to warn about the dangers of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, but said that the food-blood link was tenuous. A study published by The Harvard School of Public Health also found that consumption of foods high in cholesterol did not raise serum cholesterol levels. The media happily shared the “good news,” and special attention was paid to one specific cholesterol-laden food: egg yolks. For decades, egg yolks were considered unhealthy due to their high cholesterol contents (one yolk provides 62% of the USDA’s daily recommended allowance of cholesterol). The benefits of yolks were touted: a great source of vitamin A, D, and E, folate, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Changing My Lifestyle
The government and Harvard had seemed to dismiss this red herring of cholesterol. It wasn’t the cholesterol we were eating that was leading to heart disease, they said, it was the amount of it and the level of saturated fats we consumed. Eggs – including the yolk – were now okay. Hurray! The tastiest, yellowiest, gooeyest part actually was good for me? Good deal. What a fool I had been for asking restaurant servers for egg-white-only omelettes all these years! How awful that I had deprived myself of eating the entirety of “The Incredible, Edible Egg!” The one hook was to keep to a one-yolk-a-day limit, the experts said, just to be safe. So I converted quickly. My daily breakfast, which included a Nutribullet greens-centric juice and an egg white omelette, turned into a Nutribullet greens-centric juice and a one egg omelette. I didn’t really miss the yolk, to be honest, but why would I take it out or buy pricey egg white cartons now that the code yellow warning had been lifted?
My daily routine went on for months. Then, in July, I had my annual physical. I figured it was going to be the usual routine: chit chat, give blood and urine, turn and cough, etc. And it was. But, to my astonishment, my doctor called me the following week and informed me that my “bad” cholesterol level had increased over 50 points and I had high cholesterol that needed to be addressed. We discussed what had changed in my lifestyle and diet over the last year, and one thing was clear: I was eating an egg every day. I told him that I thought it was healthy, given all the research, and he reminded me of the fact that everyone is different. Everyone reacts differently to food, medicine, sleep, exercise, skin creams, sunlight, caffeine… the list goes on. We are not all the same. We are not all average. In fact, no one is average. No one has exactly average properties across every characteristic.
I had my cholesterol rechecked just three months after the previously disappointing test. Most doctors don’t recommend checking cholesterol so regularly since it takes time for the serum levels to adjust to behavioral changes. So, I didn’t have high hopes for a dramatic turnaround from my bad cholesterol spike. However, the results were great. My overall cholesterol declined by 30 points, due to a drop of 24 points in my bad cholesterol. I think it’s safe to say that the elimination of egg yolks from my diet is working for me. It may not work for everyone. It may not show up in a study. But it works for me.
Dangers of Believing in the Average
The moon may have an average surface temperature that may be habitable, and studies may conclude that the average person will not be adversely affected by the consumption of egg yolks. Yet, trusting in the average is dangerous, particularly when it comes to our health. “One trick pony, good news” diet trends have been around for a long time in our country.
In the ’30s and ’40s, smoking was widely considered a healthy way to lose weight, with cigarette brand Lucky Strike’s “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” campaign leading the way.
In the ’50s, the industry known as “Christian dieting” exploded, with best-sellers such as “I Prayed Myself Slim,” convincing many that satisfying a spiritual hunger will lead to weight-loss.
The ’60s had The Cabbage Soup Diet, which promised dieters that they would drop 17 pounds despite the “gassy side effects.”
The ’70s entered into more dangerous territory, as miracle diet pills became the craze.
The ’80s were all about low-calorie and fat-free diets, which often resulted in over-consumption of processed foods.
The ’90s highlighted the low-carb Atkins diet. “Eat all the fat and calories you want, but stay away from carbs and you’re good to go” went the mantra. It’s certainly a great example of a “one trick pony, good news” diet.
These days, we have all sorts of diets: gluten-free, organic-only, high-protein, and even, yes –I couldn’t make this stuff up – The Egg Diet. While I’m sure all of these diets “work” for someone, they do not work for all. Just as exercise routines should be customized for each of our individual bodies, preferences, and schedules, what we eat must be customized as well.
Guidelines for Changing Habits
As the CEO of a fitness equipment and education company, I am asked all the time to offer guidance on how someone can lose weight, get a six-pack, or just eat better. Aside from saying I’m not an expert, and advising them to consult one, I say “it depends on you.” So, my request to you is that the next time you read another headline about the benefits of X or the drawbacks of Y, think about it in the context of your life. Do not take the average studies as gospel, especially when they recommend altering your lifestyle in a way that may be dangerous to your health.
This article was written by Avenue Group Founder Jeremy Greenberg