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Health studies baffle women

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — In the topsy-turvy world of women's health, Frenchie Perry has thrown up her hands. Hormones were good, then bad, now good again. Then experts fought over fat. Now she hears they're reconsidering the bone-strengthening powers of calcium.

"I think now, you don't know what to think," said Perry, 63, shaking her head. "You're on your own."

It's been a dizzying month for women after a series of major studies seemed to contradict traditional thinking about how to stay healthy. Among the headlines: Low-fat diets may not significantly lower the risk of heart disease or some cancers. Exercise might not change your chances of getting colon cancer. Taking estrogen doesn't up the odds of heart disease, if you've had a hysterectomy.

And the chalky calcium pills may be for naught: They don't appear to help prevent broken bones.

Whipsawed by contradictory advice, some women said the latest findings won't make them change their ways. After all, even if the studies found some habits weren't helping, they weren't hurting, either.

"I'm doing what I'm doing," said Geri Brown, a 52-year-old CPA from Portola Valley, Calif., who drinks soy milk, practices Bikram yoga and takes calcium supplements. "This week it'll be this, next week it'll be that."

Louise Beattie, a Palo Alto, Calif., homemaker, says she stopped listening long ago. "Remember when they said mammograms weren't preventing cancer (deaths)?" said Beattie, 65. "I figured, 'Oh, men just don't want to spend money.' "

Beattie was working out at Curves in Palo Alto with Judy Laura, a retired real estate agent from Menlo Park. Despite the findings, both say they'll continue taking calcium — Beattie drinks a quart of milk a day, Laura takes it in pill form — because their doctors said their bones were strong.

"I think you have to use common sense," Laura, 63, said.

Dr. Ruth Shaber, director of women's health services at Kaiser Permanente-Northern California, said she has no intention of changing her medical advice to women based on the low-fat diet study by the Women's Health Initiative.

"The WHI is only one study," she said, noting that it only followed women for eight years, well before some emerging cancer or heart disease cases might be detected.

Like most medical experts, Shaber puts great stock in consistent research, including some data from the WHI, showing that exercise helps improve heart health. "Thirty minutes a day, at least five days a week. No excuses anymore."

She counsels women to eat whole grains, avoid so-called "bad fats" and avoid high-fructose corn syrup.

"Women are very susceptible to what they hear in newspapers, on the radio, from friends and family," she said. "They'll come in with a bag full of vitamins that they've spent a great deal of money on. There's confusion out there about what's good for them. It's confusing for doctors, too."

Kathryn Sucher, a dietitian and professor of nutrition and food science at San Jose State University, said the problem with studies like the WHI is that they are examining a one-size-fits-all diet strategy.

"There probably isn't a benefit to everyone from a low-fat diet or taking calcium and vitamin D," she said. "But if you know you have a risk of a certain disease or if your cholesterol is high, should you go on a high-fat diet? No."

The study's results "don't give you a wholesale license to go out and eat whatever you want," she said. "One of the biggest risk factors for breast cancer is being overweight."

Sucher, 55, has changed her own diet to minimize her risk of heart disease, which runs in her family. By cutting back on salt, saturated fat and trans fats, and eating oatmeal, she has lowered her cholesterol and blood pressure. She advises women to control their weight, exercise frequently, eat more fruits and vegetables and replace saturated fats such as butter with healthier fats like olive oil.

"Everything in moderation," she said. "Eat real food, and don't go overboard."