Johnny Carson used to have a joke about it. A friend of his had sworn off coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, red meat and sex. The guy was doing just fine, Carson quipped, until he committed suicide.
Well, I haven't reached the brink of despair just yet. But I am having a hard time trying to figure out exactly what I'm supposed to swear off. Yes, I know that the information on nicotine and caffeine is cut and dry, so I've cut them. But what about alcohol? Word has it that consuming at least one glass a day (or is it two?) improves your cholesterol level. This comes in handy because all the confusion over everything else on the menu could lead a person to drink.
The most pronounced dietary mixed-message centers on carbohydrates vs. fats.
"Eat meat, cheese, avoid carbs at all costs," the protein-purveyors insist.
"Meat? Are you mad?" the carbivores carp. "Grains, vegetables, fruit and salad: those are the tickets if you want to live a long and healthful life."
Well, salad can get dull, but then death is no picnic, either. So we store up and dine on leaves and sprouts and anything green and raw, and suspect we're so on top of this health thing that our virtue will be rewarded with pain-free longevity. And we begin to relax about our culinary well-being, when out of the blue, it hits us -- that latest and hottest of ailments: heartburn.
Yes, heartburn has made a noticeable comeback. So, for anyone experiencing heartburn, or its more avant-garde appellation, "acid reflux disease," guess what? No raw fruit, no veggies, no salad. Yes, you read correctly, no need to put on the reading glasses. Raw fruits and vegetables are actually bad for something, and that something just happens to be the ailment du jour. Salad, it turns out, can be bad for your health.
So, it's back to the cutting board. Trying to sort through it all -- complex and simple carbohydrates, butter vs. margarine, monounsaturated fats (good), polyunsaturated fats (bad), the fats in salmon (good), the fats in a slab of bacon (bad), omega-3 oils vs. partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (good, bad, respectively) -- trying to make sense of the myriad edibles at our disposal can make us quite anxious. And that, we know is bad.
Unfortunately, the conflicting messages regarding our health are not restricted to the kitchen. A few years ago, we women learned that an extensive study coming out of China threw the venerable breast self-exam into question. After years of being exhorted by the medical profession to conscientiously conduct these monthly examinations, we're now told they make no difference whatsoever in our effort to get the jump on breast cancer.
Then there's estrogen -- the modern medical miracle that's been found to temper our mood swings, forestall aging, maintain memory and increase the likelihood of blood clots and strokes.
And let's not forget the much-ballyhooed medications that can retard, even reverse, bone deterioration. A generation of thin-boned women who remember all too well the broken hips of their female forebears have been popping these osteoporosis-fighting tablets with glee. Whoops, we learn, the pills might have a side effect or two: like blood clots and heartburn. OK, so we incorporate the medication into our ever-expanding repertoire of life-extending potions and vow to stay away from salad (to stave off the heartburn), dairy and meat (to beat the clots). We'll limit ourselves to well-cooked carbohydrates.
What's so bad about carbs, again? Oh, that's right, they're fattening. But then, just when we decide that we're over being vain, that we can live with being a bit pudgy if it means we will, indeed, live, we remember that excess weight can kill us, too. And, besides, who's over being vain?
It would seem there's nothing for it but to drown our confusion in drink, our frustration in cupcakes, and to hope, as we binge, that Woody Allen turns out to be right. Remember when the long-comatose character in his film, "Sleeper," awakens at some date in the not-so-distant future to learn that our contemporary researchers were wrong? That hot dogs and Ding-Dongs and cigarettes were actually good for us? Yes, of course, this is just wishful thinking. But then what, I wonder, is the rest of it, the diets and medical breakthroughs? Science?
Elyce Wakerman teaches composition at California State University Northridge and is the author of "Father Loss: Daughters Discuss the Man That Got Away" (Henry Holt, 1987).