Nine Traps to Avoid; Tell Us Your No. 10

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

'Tis the season -- or almost -- for vowing not to repeat the mistakes we made last year. Three consumer health experts helped us identify some of them. Before you prepare your own list of things to do better in 2008, consider their review of health lessons -- and traps to avoid -- in the new year.

Watch those Web sites: While the Internet has become an important source of health information, not all sites are created equal. "There's no Good Housekeeping seal of approval for Web sites," says Steven Findlay, a health-care policy analyst for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. "You're on your own," he says, in finding reliable ones.

Some guidelines: "When you go onto a health Web site, start by finding out who sponsors it," Findlay advises. "Go to the 'about us' section and see where the support and content come from." If a group touts a product and the product's maker is a sponsor of that group, be wary.

Can't find the funding information easily? "Then move on to another site, even if the first one looks snazzy," he says.

Findlay also suggests caution when using "social networking" health sites where regular joes, not doctors or scientists, write the content.

"Emotionally, informationally, they can be helpful," he says. "But check to see if there's any data on the site, any attempt to offer solid statistics from the government, and citations of studies. If not," he says, maybe it's not such a good basis for decision-making.

Seek real science: Be skeptical of claims of "scientific proof" when buying into a weight-loss or fitness program -- or any product, for that matter -- advises Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise ( http://www.acefitness.org).

"As a general rule, good-quality science can always be replicated and will be published in a peer-reviewed, juried journal such as the Journal of the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine," he says; reports in popular magazines don't cut the mustard.

If product makers don't offer details on "scientific support," says Bryant, be wary: "In most cases, when a product or service has undergone research that's been published in a reputable journal, they'll let you know."

For that matter, it's worth remembering that even a gold-standard study is just one piece of evidence. Science is incremental. Further studies on the subject could change the picture.

Focus on food labels: By now we all know to check labels for artery-clogging trans fats (sometimes listed as partially hydrogenated oils). Other ingredients to watch for: corn syrup, thought to be a major player in the obesity epidemic; and salt (sodium), too much of which can raise blood pressure and lead to heart attack and stroke.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest ( http://www.cspinet.org) says that African Americans, people over 50 and those with high blood pressure should limit salt intake to 1,500 milligrams a day; "healthy, young white adults" can have as much as 2,300 daily. It's easy to exceed those limits; processed foods are full of salt. "Read labels carefully," Jacobson advises, even for foods you wouldn't expect to be salty.

Similarly, while you may feel virtuous about shifting from white bread to whole wheat (a good move, given whole wheat's high vitamin and fiber content), check those labels, too. Many products, from chips to frozen waffles, have dubious claims to whole-wheat or whole-grain status. If white flour is listed ahead of whole-grain flour, that means the bread's more white than wheat.

Beware ad nauseam: Tired of those ads for insomnia pills and erectile-dysfunction drugs? Sorry. Don't expect commercials for these and other prescription products to go away anytime soon. One problem with them, says Findlay: Generally, only new, high-priced drugs get advertised; ads may steer consumers away from older, sometimes better, lower-cost alternatives.

Findlay's advice? "I'm not suggesting you ignore these ads altogether. You can hardly do that in our culture. But take them with the same grain of salt you would add when seeing ads for detergent or cereal."

Be skeptical of supplements: How many times do we have to tell you? Be wary of claims made for dietary supplements. Supplements are only loosely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and as long as their purveyors don't make specific claims about curing, treating or preventing disease, they can say just about anything.

While some of these products may help promote better health, some can do harm. Jacobson points to a recent report from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research that high doses of beta carotene supplements actually increase the risk of lung cancer for smokers, former smokers and those who have worked with asbestos.

There's nothing wrong with taking a daily supplement (such as One-A-Day or Centrum), Jacobson says. But when it comes to other supplements, he says, "be extremely skeptical. Discount their claims by 99 percent. And don't expect any benefits."

Skip the samples: Those free samples of prescription drugs that your doctor doles out may seem like manna from heaven. But they come at a price. As with ad campaigns, says Findlay, "there are only free samples available of brand-new, high-priced drugs." When the doctor hands you those packets, a costly prescription is likely to follow.

Next time it happens, Findlay suggests, "Ask your doctor, 'Would this be the drug you would have prescribed had it not been in your closet and you weren't able to give it to me free?' "

Avoid the "effortless": Whether you're shopping for exercise equipment (bought any "no sweat" infomercial ab-reducers lately?), a workout program or dietary supplements to help you lose weight, avoid anything that promises to be "effortless," counsels Bryant.

Weight loss takes effort, he says. "The way the human body has been designed, we can't expect to go through massive transformations without taking some time and making lifestyle changes" that can be maintained throughout life, he says. Safe weight loss involves dropping no more than two or three pounds a week, Bryant says. "If you're going on a program or taking a supplement that promises to do it faster, that should raise a red flag."

Examine the experts: When a product is endorsed by a supposed doctor or other expert, Bryant says, "be careful. Make sure that individual who is supposed to be an expert is in fact one -- in the area that he's supposed to be." Google the name; "see if he has a degree from a reputable university in a discipline that would suggest he would be an expert in that field." Be on the lookout, too, for experts who "have a history of supporting a whole variety of products" -- something that suggests their backing is for sale, Bryant says. To check whether experts have industry ties, visit CSPI's "Integrity in Science" Web site at http://www.cspinet.org/integrity/search.html

Do the math: You're probably stuck for the next year with whatever health insurance plan you have. But if you want to control costs, it's time to start tracking what you actually spend on care, advises Findlay.

Pen and paper work just fine, but the technologically inclined might want to start a personal health record, or PHR. Electronic PHRs are available for free from many large insurers and on Web sites such as WebMD and Revolution Health.

Before entering any personal data online, Findlay cautions, check the site's security system. Findlay says, "Most PHRs are more secure than your own computer, and while break-ins do happen, they're rare." PHRs have improved in design and security so much in the past year, Findlay notes, that "consumers ought to be actively looking at them in 2008," he says. "I wouldn't have said that six months ago."

Share your lesson. Tell us a health lesson you've learned. Lessons -- 200 or fewer words, please -- can be posted at http://www.washingtonpost.com/health. (Click on this story and type your lesson under "post a comment.") Or send lessons via e-mail to health@washpost.com; include your name and phone number, and write "health lessons" in the subject line. We'll publish the most helpful in 2008.

Jennifer Huget is a frequent contributor to Health. Comments:health@washpost.com.


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