Dr. Roach: Risks and rewards of a strictly organic diet

Keith Roach
To Your Health

Dear Dr. Roach: Does eating strictly organic food and drinking only bottled water help in a meaningful way to prevent diseases and contribute to a long and healthy life?

— M.T.

Dear M.T.: There is no consistent high-quality evidence that consuming organic foods lead to improvement in health outcomes, including longer life. Some but not all studies have found slightly higher amounts of nutrients in organically grown produce. Organic foods are made without synthetic pesticides, but may use pesticides found in nature. There is not convincing evidence that natural pesticides are any safer, nor that the small amount of residual pesticides left in conventional produce leads to significant health risks. However, there is preliminary evidence that consumption of mostly organic food led to a decrease in the risk of one type of cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but not an overall decrease in cancer. Based on current available evidence, I don’t recommend organic food consumption for health benefits.

The quality of tap water varies greatly across North America, but most locations have high-quality water available at extremely low cost with minimal environmental impact compared with bottled water. Even if tap water is unpalatable in a person’s location, I recommend a filter system rather than resorting to bottled water, again for environmental concerns as well as cost. Bottled water is rarely the only option, and if so it is usually due to contamination of tap water with microbes or heavy metals, which should be known to the community. My own municipality mails me a water quality report yearly, and it is outstanding quality.

Two additional points are worth considering. The first is that organically prepared foods have been the cause of foodborne illness due to contamination at a much higher level than expected. The second is that organic farming prohibits nontherapeutic antibiotics, a practice with which I strongly agree as a means of reducing the potential for antibiotic resistance.

Until further evidence is available, my opinion is that most people would do better eating more produce, whether conventionally or organically grown. Locally grown fresh produce may have more benefits than organically produced due to freshness.

Dear Dr. Roach: All of the latest information states that an adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Is this “unbroken” sleep? For example, I sleep for four hours, wake up for one to two hours, and then sleep three to four more hours almost every night. If the sleep is to be continuous, is it better to take a sleeping aid or continue with the current pattern? Nothing I read indicates if sleeping seven to nine hours with a sleeping aid provides the same benefit as not sleeping continuously for that time period.

— P.M.

Dear P.M.: While it is true that people who sleep seven to nine hours per night tend to live longer than those who sleep less (or more), it is likely that there are some people who need more or less sleep than the average. Further, it isn’t clear whether the apparent improvement in longevity is due to better sleeping, or whether people who don’t sleep well have an underlying medical condition that is really responsible for the harm seen.

As far as whether continuous sleep is better than interrupted sleep, there isn’t good evidence to compare the two. There is strong historical evidence that prior to artificial lighting, two distinct sleep periods separated by an hour or so was considered normal.

Most sleeping aids adversely affect sleep quality, and increase risk of falls and accidents the next day. If interrupted sleep is working for you, I’d recommend continuing versus using a sleeping pill.

Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.