I once got into a debate on a health forum regarding a famous online doctor’s “formula” for lasting health: “Health = Nutrients / Calories.” I argued that this formula encouraged anorexia because Health appeared to improve as Calories decreased. I proposed changing the equation to “Health = Nutrients : Calorie.” My opponent in the discussion forum, a former math teacher, argued that these equations were identical. I disagreed. Because, even if they mathematically evaluate the same, nutrients divided by calories is a very different concept than nutrients per calorie.
It is essential that ‘pop math’ equations, like popular science explanations, retain quantitative legitimacy while clearly communicating their underlying qualitative value. People derive real emotional meaning from algorithms (like the health equation above), and it pains me to think of how many people may have dabbled in eating disorders because of a simple misunderstanding.
Another health example of an oversimplified equation is the oft-cited ideal ratio between Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in our diets. Paleo advocates, for example, will argue that the Modern Western diet contains a much lower ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids than our Paleolithic ancestors, whose dietary ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 was theoretically around 1 : 3. By contrast, eaters of the Modern Western diet can eat a ratio of 1 : 20 or higher.
Our exponentially lower Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio can be a potential risk because Omega 3 fatty acids are considered to be “anti-inflammatory” while Omega 6 are considered to be “pro-inflammatory.” So, on paper, it appears that our lower ratio of Omega 3 : Omega 6 is a ‘more inflammatory’ way of eating.
But what does this ideal 1 : 3 ratio really mean? How much Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats should one consume? Is there a minimum quantity of Omega 3, or even Omega 6, needed for health? (Do you need any Omega 6, for example?) Is the problem that we currently eat too little Omega 3, too much Omega 6, or both? (Note that all three options appear mathematically identical but lead to genuinely distinct dietary recommendations.)
Instead of saying “make sure to eat a 1 : 3 ratio of Omega 3 to 6 fats,” shouldn’t we say something like, “eat between ____ and ____ g of Omega 3 fats per day, at a ratio of 1 : 3 with Omega 6 fats”? The ideal ratio by itself does not provide enough information.
Simplification is essential for complex topics like healthy eating, where you need a mental schema to guide you into habitually making good decisions. But it is equally important that these ‘shortcuts’ not over-simplify to the extent that they misguide you. Eating more nutrients is great; reducing calories is not always healthy. Eating a higher ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats is beneficial, as long as we understand how the two elements are synergistic. Otherwise, we risk telling ourselves that “calories are bad” or “Omega 6 fats are bad,” beliefs that are potentially more dangerous than the problems we were trying to solve. Balance and health, just like helpful algorithms, require dynamic, not binary thought processes.