Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
Many drink soy for its health benefits, but some worry that it may be connected to an increase in breast cancer risk.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/11/2009 8:21:16 AM ET 2009-08-11T12:21:16

For Jessica Ward, a simple bottle of sunscreen has become the riddle of the sphinx.

“I wonder about putting it on my kids all the time,” says the 28-year-old Seattle writer and mother of two. “What’s worse — sunscreen or sunburn? It’s right up there with plastic water bottles. ‘To do or not to do?’”

In a world swirling with studies, stories and online health forums, it’s hard to figure out what to do and who to believe when it comes to truly healthy behavior. Do we slather on the sunscreen to ward off skin cancer and risk a possible Vitamin D deficiency ? Say goodbye to caffeine, but hello to the dementia it may (or may not) prevent ?

“You don’t know what to believe from one day to another,” says Laurie Marshall, a 43-year-old nonprofit development coordinator from Springdale, Ark. “I’m constantly seeing ads and reading books that suggest every surface of every item that comes in contact with my child should be disinfected. But there are conflicting articles that say this kind of highly sterilized environment could be contributing to the rise in childhood allergies and asthma. It’s like, what’s the Web site or the magazine that can be trusted?”

Laura McLeod, a 47-year-old communications specialist who keeps informed by reading a range of health publications and newsletters, says she’s been blindsided by science again and again.

“I drink soy milk because it’s supposed to be better for me than regular milk but now they’re saying it might contribute to breast cancer,” she says. “Vitamin E is another one. It’s good for skin, hair, blah-blah-blah, but now ‘they’ say too much can cause something or other , I don’t even remember what. I feel annoyed when my best intentions are undone by science but I’m not very surprised anymore.”

Even scientists get frustrated
Kathryn Liszewski, a research scientist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, says even professionals get foiled in their attempts to stay healthy.

“It happens to me, to my family, to my friends,” she says. “You just throw your hands up. One of the major heart studies done in this country showed that it was incredibly beneficial to have an aspirin a day to help prevent heart attacks. But the study was only done on men. When they did the same study in women a couple of years later, the results were different. So, men vs. women, age, family history, location, life history, confounding features like cigarettes or narcotic use. There are many different variables in any kind of study.”

Just trying to figure out whether the latest health findings apply to you can be enough to cause a headache, says Dr. Robert Goode, a family medicine physician with Swedish Executive Health in Seattle.

“A lot of times, what’s published on the Internet or in the paper is based on one single tiny little study and it doesn’t pan out to be true for the general population,” he says. “It’s really frustrating for patients if they want to be proactive with their health because there’s so much information out there.”

Even in the midst of seemingly contradictory research findings, patients should focus on the good health basics we know are true, says Goode. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, drink in moderation if at all, get plenty of sleep and keep a good social support system.

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“That takes care of 95 percent of things people need to do to be healthy and avoid disease,” he says, adding that applying a sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection before going out in the sun is another general recommendation he would make.

“I think there’s pretty good science behind the use of sunscreen and the reduction of skin cancer and melanoma,” he says. “It might block your production of Vitamin D, but you can always take a supplement.”

The swinging pendulum of science
And when it comes to those maddeningly conflicting reports?

“The pendulum of medicine swings back and forth and what’s true today isn’t true next year but in a couple of years, it’ll be true again,” he says. “It’s great to gather information, but before patients implement it, they should go to their physician and find out the latest. You can pretty much find a study to support anything you want to do and they’re very conflicting. As health care professionals, we have to sort through them and guide patients through those murky waters.”

Liszewski says that while it's important to listen to scientists and pay attention to studies, it's  more important be in charge of your own decisions.

“Ask questions of the science behind the studies, ask questions of your health practitioner, take responsibility for your own health and knowledge about your own body, and be moderate in whatever you do,” she says.

And that can include healthy behaviors.

“When I was young, I read so many things about how water is the wonder cure that I’ve always downed as much agua as I could stand,” says Nicole Bobbitt, a 33-year-old communications manager from Portland, Ore. “But then I found out — when I was pregnant, no less — that I might be drinking too much water. My ob/gyn said I should be drinking half as much as I was drinking. She even said I could be hurting my kidneys.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World ."

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