A new series for people who don’t want plastic in their water or bugs on their plate. From Nellie Bowles for The Free Press.
(Photo illustration by The Free Press, images via Getty)

Welcome to Free Press Health

A new series for people who don’t want plastic in their water or bugs on their plate.

Welcome to Free Press Health. This is a series focused on staying alive.

Why is this necessary? 

A few reasons.

First, because the mainstream press is losing credibility when it comes to health and science news. The legacy reporters tend to run their health coverage through government communications departments and have a mindset that puts your actual health last on the priority list, far below a thousand other very interesting niche environmental and social concerns, which leads to things like a Time magazine feature on “The White Supremacist Origins of Exercise.” 

Second, there is a thriving, incredible world of smart new health and science writing and podcasting. But it’s hard to figure out who or what to trust when you’re beyond the gatekeepers. In this Wild West, you’ll find a lot of truth. Let’s be real though: you’ll also have to bushwhack through folks telling you the flu shot makes you glow in the dark. When I call up Peter Attia for advice on this newsletter, he reminds me: “The mainstream media has problems, but the freewheeling podcast landscape does too.”

Finally—and probably the biggest reason to start something sense-making in this space—is that the new world is very hard to navigate. People doing the most cutting-edge research are not always the greatest writers. Meanwhile, those who communicate clearly are often in little hideaways—obscure blogs and feeds. 

We want to separate the signal from the noise to bring you the information that you need to know when it comes to your survival: insights from doctors and experts who have earned our trust, plus, of course, some takedowns of the best of the worst in mainstream health coverage. Our aim is to bring you healthy skepticism (not paranoia), exciting new developments (not snake oil), and honesty (not cynicism).

Your guide for now is me, Nellie Bowles, who you may know as the deranged narrator of TGIF

I believe I am infallible, of course, but my colleagues here insist otherwise. And given that health and science are subjects of such importance, I’m not flying solo. We’re going to do our own version of peer review by bringing in a roster of health experts to weigh in on topics of the day. 

Now, a note on politics. We’re here to learn about health. A lot of the most interesting thinkers on this are wacky. If I recommend an article about the benefits of goat meat, and the goat farmer also happens to believe that Jesus is going to come back as a turtle next Tuesday, that’s what I call: not my problem. Obviously, this is all within limits, and there’s a good-faith gray zone—I’m not getting Stalin’s sauna tips. But I’m not stressing out if my kombucha lady burned a cop car in Seattle or was at January 6 and honestly, knowing kombucha ladies, either one is entirely possible. Both, even. 

Our view is that you don’t need your health news sugarcoated; you can look elsewhere for spiritual and political guidance. Because the truth is, health is not fair. It’s not equitable. And as anyone who has known a young person diagnosed with cancer knows, it’s certainly not just. 

So who is this for? This is for people who’d rather not have hormones in their milk, plastic in their water, or bugs on their plate. This is for old-school environmentalists and new-school health nuts. It’s for people who know that worrying about seed oils and lifting weights isn’t “right-wing” and wanting clean air and water isn’t “left-wing.” This is for people who don’t want every health and science story prechewed by ideology before it gets to them. 

One note on timing: FP Health will be piloted at random intervals for a few months. Send feedback to By the fall, we’ll be in a regular rhythm. Now, for a look at the health news from the last few weeks: 

→ Microplastics tied to colon cancer and diseased arteries: There’s a new study out of Austrian universities that shows microplastics seem to accelerate colon cancer cell growth. And a study out of Chinese research hospitals finds these plastics in our arteries. If you’ve found your way to this newsletter, you probably have some idea that microplastics are bad for us, and we should generally avoid them. But we’re all figuring out the extent of it, day by day. How panicked should we actually be? (I write this as hot Thai curry sits in a melting plastic to-go container for me to eat tonight.) How much should we inconvenience ourselves? Which sources are the worst culprits? I imagine that plastic—its impact on us, what the hell to do about it—will be a theme of this newsletter. Because I read studies like that but still have no idea whether or not my dinner is going to kill me.

→ The CDC got the maternal death rate totally wrong: The CDC has been telling us a story of disaster and panic for pregnant women (birthing peoplx). The maternal death rate is a crisis, the CDC said. The maternal death rate has more than doubled over two decades, and it’s the worst among non-white women. America—with a reported 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021—is a far more dangerous place to have a baby than in other rich countries. The media was very sure to trumpet the alarm

Now, there is a quiet correction. A very subtle adjustment, if you will. 

It turns out that the CDC was just poorly categorizing things. It was counting any maternal death (i.e., a pregnant woman in a car accident) along with women who die during childbirth. Thanks to researchers at Rutgers University, we learned that our real maternal mortality rate is “slightly more than 10 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births”—well in line with our international peers. Okay, so the entire panic that we’re so much worse than Europe was, basically, fake. Will there be any corrections or changes to the many, many headlines about this crisis? No, there will not be. 

This reminds me of the old chestnut from when I went to college: that one in four college women was the victim of sexual assault, making campuses more dangerous than Afghanistan. That turned out to be true only by counting just about any unwanted advance as sexual assault, which we’ve known for decades, but the statistical lie is useful for political arguments, so it still gets trotted out.

→ The great sex decline, visualized: Just in a chart, don’t get too excited. I have no idea if it’s the phones or the porn, but the reality is we’re all a little neutered now. 

→ The federal budget is just a diabetes slush fund: The new class of semaglutides (Ozempic, Wegovy) might save Americans a lot of money, per a new study showing that their use reduces kidney disease hugely. Diabetes care is a strain on the U.S. economy: nearly 1 percent of the federal budget is spent on diabetes and dialysis (a stat from Duke economist Ryan McDevitt, backed up by numbers from National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases). Anyway, yes, 1 percent. Just on dialysis, basically. There’s also a book out last year about the insanity and corruption of the dialysis industry, if you want to deep dive into Big Diabetes. A lot of people are skeptical of these drugs, which makes sense because there’s no such thing as a side effect–free miracle drug. But obesity is also dangerous—and really expensive. 

→ Antidepressant use skyrocketing: Covid took the trend of growing antidepressant use and poured rocket fuel on it. The most dramatic increase was among adolescent girls, but the rise hit boys and adults too. Here from researchers out of University of Michigan and published in Pediatrics in February:

You’re considered anti-science if you question whether all these teens need antidepressants. Like, why would you want these teens to suffer? Also: these drugs are clearly useful, even if no one is quite sure why. I took Zoloft for a few years and loved it, the gentle muting of my panic, but I was and am in my 30s. We really have no idea how these drugs will broadly impact teenage life and development.

→ Donald McNeil on being lied to about Covid’s origins: Before he was forced out by The New York Times in one of the dumber scandals of 2020–2021, Donald McNeil was the paper’s top Covid reporter, a graybeard with the gravitas to say when something was an emergency and the experience to know when he was being manipulated. And yet in his new memoir, he reflects on how top scientists flatly lied to him about Covid’s origins, a truth we now know through their various Slack messages. Those messages show top scientists around the world coordinating both on the origins lie and specifically how to deceive McNeil about it. He writes about being a “victim of deception,” about being disappointed in himself, and about how hard it was to push back against their wall of faux certainty: “It’s one thing to be lied to by a politician and fail to check it out. But on viral evolution, to whom do you go for a second opinion? If Albert Einstein assured you that nuclear fission is harmless, whom would you trust to quote saying, ‘Einstein’s dead wrong?’ ” 

We’re still due for the reckoning we deserve on this. The take from Experts is still why does it matter where Covid came from, and asking is racist. Call me crazy, but I do care if Covid was made in a U.S.-funded Chinese lab and would want to, like, figure out what went wrong there. 

→ The myocarditis false start: A study came out of Oxford in March claiming that Covid vaccines actually reduce the risk of myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, which has been a concern especially with young men getting boosters. The argument is basically that while the vaccine triggers some amount of inflammation that causes myocarditis, Covid itself triggers even more. I wanted this one to be true, but for all these topics I turn to Dr. Vinay Prasad, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. Unfortunately, he gives it a thorough debunking. The vaccinated are different in many ways from the unvaccinated, ways that have nothing to do with the shot. Prasad writes: “It is obvious that people who get vaccinated are different than those who don’t, and these patterns of covariates cannot be easily adjust[ed] for because they pertain to domains of life that are not readily captured in health records.” 

→ You must stay on birth control forever: Hormonal birth control, because they’re hormones a woman takes every month, has real side effects—especially on mood and sex drive and of course, on weight. Seems fine to talk about? No. “Women are getting off birth control amid misinformation explosion,” The Washington Post alerts us. See, there’s a new movement to help women get off birth control and use either physical methods or cycle-timing—and to generally get more in sync with the body’s natural cycle. An example the Post goes after is the new company 28 Wellness that sells a product called Toxic Breakup, whose founder talks a lot about cycle-syncing and being in tune with your female body, natural vibes, moon rhythms, I don’t know, guys, things that used to be read as quite hippy-dippy. But did you know that’s actually right-wing now? 

From The Washington Post: “Physicians and researchers say little data is available about the scale of this new phenomenon, but anecdotally, more patients are coming in with misconceptions about birth control fueled by influencers and conservative commentators.” And “an underlying conservative push” is behind all this, the paper claims. 

Now, for sure there are conservative groups who have always been against birth control and generally sex outside of marriage (I’m thinking most major religions). But this new movement has more to do with personal health optimization and taking young women seriously when they talk about side effects than it does with traditional Catholic values. No matter. Nothing upsets Experts more than if people talk about getting off a medication, any medication. I could be taking canine flea medicine and there’d be some reporter alarmed that I’d consider quitting it. But I say: let the ladies do their moon cycle dances! Just for fun I looked up “Washington Post sponsored by Purdue Pharma,” since that was the first pharmaceutical brand I could think of. Well: 

→ Concerns that psychedelics trials are biased: A large research review by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review last week has found “substantial concerns” about the validity of research on psychedelics. Psychedelics, in the past few years, have been cast as something like a miracle drug, especially for PTSD, which is something everyone says they suffer from these days. From the review team, citing bias among the researchers: “We heard from multiple experts about the very strong prior beliefs of those involved in the trials (as investigators, therapists, and patients) about the benefits of MDMA-AP. Concerns have been raised by some that therapists encouraged favorable reports by patients and discouraged negative reports by patients including discouraging reports of substantial harms, potentially biasing the recording of benefits and harms.” There’s also the issue that it’s impossible to do blind randomized controlled testing—you definitely know if you’re in the test versus placebo group! I know a lot of people—stressed out moms, every single tech executive in America—who have benefited a lot from mushrooms and MDMA and other things I refuse to try. But every since I bought Dogecoin, I’m always skeptical when something is hyped too aggressively. And these drugs are covered glowingly, almost without exception.  

→ All this autism is a blessing! Autism diagnoses are rising, and fast. Jill Escher, the mother of two autistic children, wrote a profound piece for The Free Press on the insanity of these takes. In my mind, it’s one of the most important pieces we’ve run. She’s now released a smart video through the National Council on Severe Autism, laying out the irrefutable evidence that yes, autism is actually increasing. Why did she need to put this out? Because you’ll find two arguments against worrying about autism: first, that autism is a superpower, making people simply different, not any worse off. Second, that it’s not increasing at all, we’re just noticing it more. Autism and the informed, nuanced work of people like Escher are topics we’ll follow closely here. 

→ Google’s new artificial intelligence demands you eat bugs: When Bloomberg reporter Joe Weisenthal asked Google’s artificial intelligence software to write something to encourage eating meat as a good protein source, the engineers had coded it to deny the request. Here’s the prompt he wrote and Google’s response

But then when you give it that same prompt, but to make a campaign for eating bugs? Well, it comes back with great tagline ideas: 

• Skip the Steak, Try a Beetle. • Insects: They’re what’s for dinner (of the future). • Get Your Protein Buzz: Crickets are the New Kale. • Protein Revolution: Insects - Nutritious, Sustainable, Delicious.

People try to deny that there’s a concerted effort to convince people to replace burgers with bugs—a conspiracy, says NPR! and also somehow racist, says NPR! Right. 

→ Alcohol-related deaths are surging: Remember how during Covid lockdown, in-person Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were banned and church was banned and sports were banned, but liquor stores were declared essential and bars were allowed to stay open? Well, it turns out that when you close all community activities but allow for the steady flow of booze into a society, people drink more! Now, alcohol-related deaths are up by 29 percent, and PBS is asking questions recently like:

What could have happened between now and five years ago? What might have changed? It’s a mystery, PBS, a forever mystery. 

→ Don’t let a little science fraud ruin the party: Earlier this year, leading researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, including the CEO Laurie Glimcher, were found to have published research with what sure looks like fabricated data. The discovery came from the independent writer Sholto David, and it’s part of a broader movement: independent investigative journalists are diving into the research of celebrated, famous science figures—the sort who get profiled in all the best magazines—and discovering that a lot of their work is faked. (A young student at Stanford’s reporting led to the president of the university stepping down over his research, which appears to be fraudulent.) And here you see the difference between the mainstream press and the insurgent reporters, because in March, the leading science news source STAT named that Dana-Farber CEO to their STATUS List 2024 with a post: “As CEO of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Laurie Glimcher isn’t afraid to shake things up.” STAT didn’t find the fraud—a random guy with a random blog found it. 

→ Sure, try Viagra for Alzeheimer’s: Viagra might be a good drug for Alzheimer’s, according to new research in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. And I say great. This was discovered in part by new artificial intelligence software that’s combing through vast tracts of data for interesting nuggets like this one. AI is also starting to spot tiny breast cancers in mammograms, cancers that clinicians had missed. For all the doomerism about AI, it’s astonishing what it’s already doing for our health. Stay tuned for more on this.

→ The EPA only just banned asbestos: In a good reminder that the American government is not going to prioritize your health, the Environmental Protection Agency only just successfully banned asbestos (the EU did that in 2005). Why’d it take so long? The EPA’s effort to ban it in 1989 was overturned by a federal court of appeals that weakened the agency’s authority. In other words: you’re on your own.

→ It’s really weird that no one knows what puberty blockers do to brain development: Puberty blockers have been very commonly used for gender-dysphoric children, the idea being that it gives children the ability to stave off puberty, and a little more time to decide whether to fully medically transition. But in March they were fully banned by England’s NHS, which has been prescribing them after basically cursory visits to the clinic by uncomfortable kids. The next question is: What have these blockers done to kids’ brains? Because the reality is, we have no idea! Adolescence brings huge brain changes—do those come later when the kid eventually takes cross-sex hormones? Are they the same as they would be unmedicated? There is the horrifying potential reality here that these children’s brains will never exactly develop into what we think of as adulthood. They might! But they might not. (Read this from Quillette on the possibility.) And a couple weeks ago, at a conference for clinicians to discuss these issues among themselves, protesters disrupted the event, blocked attendees, and threw smoke bombs. 

The worst advice:

→ An example of what you will not find here: One reason we started thinking about health is because of articles like this one from The Washington Post’s official food columnist (I’m being hard on the Post; it’s too easy). This article is on how very bad saturated fat is: “Don’t believe the backlash. Saturated fat actually is bad for you.” Saturated fat is the type you find in meat, dairy, and eggs. The food trend of the last thirty years has been toward carbs and sugar instead of fat. Everything is supposed to be low-fat food, and we’re told Egg Beaters are healthier than eggs, vegetable oil is better than tallow, etc. 

Our WaPo food columnist acknowledges that there are all these weird studies showing that people who eat saturated fat (i.e., people who eat meat and eggs) are pretty healthy. “Much of the research exonerating saturated fat comes from researchers. . . following large groups of people, asking what they eat, and seeing what diseases they get. I will spare you my rant about what a lousy tool I believe this to be, and just say that I think inaccurate data and a bazillion confounding factors disqualify it from settling the saturated fat issue. . . ” Instead, she quotes scientists saying it’s bad anyway. Don’t listen to those other studies, just her studies. 

She ends the column with: “That should settle it, don’t you think?” What? How? 

→ And you will not find me telling you that exercise is too dangerous: Read mainstream health coverage and you’d think that going for a jog should require a permit. For a good example, here’s The New York Times in February fretting over whether a new workout challenge is “too intense.” 

Of all the health problems facing America, a bunch of guys doing a three-month workout challenge is not my concern. If you guessed that the word problematic is in this piece about people working out, you are right. 

Books of the week: 

There’s a bunch of old books making a comeback as people seek new health perspectives (yes looking forward sometimes means looking back), and the two I’ve just finished are some of the classics of this moment, both written by great eccentric characters. First, Weston Price’s strange 1939 classic Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, where Price, a dentist, documents the dental health and stronger bone structure of various communities that ate old-world diets rather than modern foods, including one group of isolated villagers in the Swiss Alps. This book is the reason I let my toddler eat enormous amounts of butter, which alarms most everyone around me. 

I also read Nourishing Traditions, a rebel cookbook from 2001, when Sally Fallon said the low-fat nonsense of margarine and fake eggs was miserable and trash. She was ahead of her time, telling people that all that special processed diet food was not, in fact, healthier. I particularly love Sally’s warm title and brutal subhead:

Question for readers: What’s the worst health advice you’ve ever received from a doctor? Something that sounded nice but is actually wrong. Write to us:

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