Drunk Pregnant Women, the Paleo Diet, and Why I Hate Studies

I feel that this post is the most important one I’ve ever written, and I hope you read it. Below I lay out a framework for making important lifestyle choices.

There’s been much ado in the news recently regarding a Danish study about drinking during pregnancy. Before you rush to organize your local mother/fetus pub crawl, let’s talk a little bit about the purpose of studies and why you should often ignore them.

Some types of studies help solve a problem that common sense could not. A few years ago, studies revealed that compression-only CPR is probably superior to compression-and-rescue ventilation CPR. If you come across a person lying unconscious in the street, the decision is a no-brainer – you should use the chest-thrusting motion to try to revive them as opposed to a combination of that and mouth-to-mouth. There is no tradeoff for you, unless the victim happens to be extremely attractive. Studies like this save thousands of lives.

Other types of studies are what I call wager-based studies – a study that measures the riskiness of a behavior which provides some sort of benefit to the participant (e.g. the social enjoyment benefits of alcohol vs. the risk of harm to the child).

I suppose I should clarify something at this point. The headline of this blog post was intentionally misleading – I don’t actually hate studies. Studies are incredibly useful for advancing our understanding of our world, our bodies, and science that surrounds us. But, due to their extremely narrow focus, they rarely have real-world applicability.

The biggest problem is that the media, whether due to sensationalism or stupidity (probably both), often misinterprets a study and propagates false conclusions. Fox News published an article about this one entitled “Low to Moderate Drinking in Early Pregnancy Deemed OK for Children.”

Let’s look at the actual scope of what our Danish friends examined. Like most studies, it researched only a very narrow set of conditions: it showed that there was no difference between the IQ, attention span, executive functions, and self control of 5 year old children whose mothers drank less than 8 drinks per week during pregnancy vs. mothers who abstained completely.

In other words, the study answers this question: “will my 5 year old be less intelligent if I drink while pregnant?”

But that conclusion is useless because it doesn’t answer the real-world question that you’re unconsciously asking. You’re seeking the answer to a value judgment: “should I drink during pregnancy? Contrary to the Fox News headline (gasp!), the study didn’t address that topic at all – it simply revealed that the wager is a little less risky than we previously thought it was.

Our life path, physical health, and relationships all depend on how we approach these value judgements. Studies can’t show us how drinking during pregnancy may affect a person’s ability to negotiate complex contracts, make beautiful art, or become a successful novelist. We’ll never know if children of mothers who drink may be more likely to settle for an average relationship instead of pursuing earth-shattering love. Or worse, perhaps they’ll be predisposed to enjoying reality TV and gossip magazines.

When the sacrifice is minimal and the potential risk is large, ignore the studies and use common sense to make a value judgement. We all know that alcohol isn’t the greatest thing for the human body, and so it would be reasonable to think that it probably isn’t so great for a developing fetus, either. A study that rules out one small, possible risk won’t change my mind on that. Neither will ten or a hundred studies, for that matter. If I were a pregnant woman, the benefit of nine months of drinking would not be worth the yet-undiscovered potential risks.

Similar reasoning would lead you to use a cell phone headset, despite the lack of conclusive evidence showing that cell phone radiation causes brain tumors. Do you really want to wait for concrete evidence to exist? I’d personally rather be ahead of the curve, and you’ll often find that the scientific studies trail painfully far behind it.

This philosophy is called the precautionary principle and you’re already using it more than you think. If you could rob a bank and get away with it, would you do it? If you answered no, your subconscious is probably reasoning that the financial benefits are not worth the potential risk of punishment in the afterlife – even though that risk is completely unproven and you may not even consider yourself religious.

Sometimes you’ll decide that the benefits are worth the risk, and that’s OK, too. Though I know that alcohol is bad for my health, I (attempt to) drink in moderation because I feel that the experiences it brings me outweigh the possible damaging effects. As my personal philosophy evolves and my priorities in life shift around, that value judgement may change as well.

This framework for decision making has most recently led me to start eating 100% organic, or at least as close to it as possible. Though studies may not show a statistical difference between people who eat organic and people who do not, I’m willing to wager that I’m probably better off without chemicals and antibiotics in the food that I eat.

I’ve also decided to eat a Paleo diet, which consists of foods that can be hunted, fished, and gathered. It calls for you to eliminate grains, dairy, and processed foods. Though no conclusive evidence exists to prove that gluten and dairy are unequivocally bad for you, the arguments that I’ve read against them make a lot of sense to me.

And if I reach the End of Days and discover that I was wrong, I’ll have the rest of eternity to think about whether I should have spent my time on earth robbing banks and eating Big Macs.

But something tells me I’ll be OK.

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Un abrazo fuerte,