Last week, we began our discussion of scrutinizing your source with the question What Do They Stand to Gain? Now, let’s look at another question you should always have ready in your arsenal…
Question #2: Where Did They Get Their Information?
There are several advantages of questioning the source of your source. Not only could you easily dismiss what’s being said and not waste time worrying about it, but you could also end up finding another trusted source of your own. And having trusted sources of your own can make things much easier. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Let’s take a look at some of the most common sources of health and fitness “information,” and what might be wrong with each of them.
Most of what you’ll hear from people around you will fall into the category of conventional wisdom. You, yourself, likely have heaps of conventional wisdom tumbling around in your brain right now. By rights it almost ought to be called ubiquitous wisdom.
In the health and fitness realm, though, it almost always falls short of actually being helpful (or even truthful).
Ever hear the saying “Eat Breakfast Like a King, Lunch Like a Prince, and Dinner Like a Pauper”? And we all know the rules of being fit and trim, like no eating after 8pm and that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? And who would question the fact that if you have a cold, all you have to do is drown yourself in vitamin C products?
Conventional Wisdom has many pitfalls and questionable origins, but there’s actually no need to go into all of them here. Simply look around: if all of this conventional wisdom were true, would we, as a society, be in the shape we’re in? With the rates of overweight, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s (sometimes referred to as Type III Diabetes or Diabetes of the Brain), and myriad other non-infectious diseases on the rise, I think we all know the answer.
Bottom line: if it sounds like something that “They always say…” or that “Everyone knows …” you might want to do a little more research (if not dismiss it completely).
This is not going to be a section on bashing the likes of Dr. Oz and The Biggest Loser (though it easily could be). It’s not that I do not think that’s warranted, but I simply do not think it would be helpful here. I’d just like to make sure we’re all seeing the same reality of shows like these.
Firstly, television shows are geared at one thing: viewership. Therefore, like we mentioned last time with other major corporations, they care only that you think what they’re telling you is helpful and effective, and not an ounce whether or not it really is.
Secondly, these shows need content, and a lot of it. They have to fill hours every week with guests and stories and segments that they believe will ensure both continued and new viewership. Can we all agree that there probably aren’t 200 new weight loss breakthroughs and miracles popping up every year? Again, take a look around.
Lastly, television shows get a good portion of their funding through advertisements. And in a fight, who do you think would win, Kellogg’s or the message “I wouldn’t recommend eating breakfast cereal of any kind”? I don’t think Dr. Oz is going to do much biting of the hand that feeds him on national television…
“Wait…did he just say doctors?!”
Unfortunately, yes. Do not get me wrong – doctors have their place and are a necessary and helpful part of our society. That being said, though, it might surprise you to learn that most medical doctors receive very little—if any—education in either nutrition or exercise science. Their recommendations are based typically on three main influences: guidelines handed down by numerous governing bodies (AMA, APA, etc.); “information” from pharmaceutical companies (I don’t think we need to state again the intentions of major corporations…); and—you guessed it!—conventional wisdom.
The guidelines dictate for doctors standard methods of treatments for all manner of conditions. Some doctors might even simply be bound by these guidelines even if they know a better way. For example, some doctors are aware that fear of cholesterol is one of the biggest canards in medical history. [For more information on all that, check out this article, part 2 of that article, this other article, this book (which, despite being a book about cholesterol, actually made me chuckle aloud quite a few times), and also this book, and this website dedicated pretty much entirely to the topic. But until these guidelines catch up, the whole doctor-patient transaction will work in one of two ways:
- Patient presents with Symptom A (we’ll call it high cholesterol).
- Doctor prescribes corresponding Treatment A (do I even need to say “this will be a statin and maybe also a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet”?) based on guidelines.
- Symptom A goes away, even if the risk of other things (cancer, anyone?) goes up.
- Patient presents with Symptom A (we’ll, again, call it high cholesterol).
- Doctor recognizes that it’s not high enough to be a condition like familial hypercholesterolemia, therefore it’s not an issue and starts to treat the patient for other, more important things.
- Patient has a heart attack for any one of a litany of reasons.
- Patient sues doctor (or doctor’s medical license is revoked) for not following the guidelines.
Doctors have an important role, but we can run into trouble when we trust in them blindly for our overall wellness. It is our own responsibility no one else’s to find the information and make the decisions that should ultimately keep us from needing to see a doctor, save a regular checkup or treatment of an illness or injury.
With the exception of magazines aimed at specialty topics like décor or fishing or…I don’t know, pickup truck grilles, finding a magazine cover that does not tout an article on losing a certain number of pounds in a certain number of days, healthy recipes, or getting six-pack abs is sort of like finding a needle in a tiny little pile of hay with a sign that says “No needles here.” So…you won’t find one.
The cover of a magazine has one purpose: to get you to pick it up. And specifically, to get you to pick it up instead of the one next to it. The inside of a magazine has two purposes: first, to provide enough content to keep you flipping pages and hopefully coming back for the next issue; and second, to provide ad-space for all the companies who’ve funded the magazine by buying ad-space.
Much like TV shows, this produces the same triple-threat of “you can’t trust what they’re saying” situations: they care only that you think they’re providing helpful information; their message cannot conflict with any of their sponsors; and they need to fill issue after issue articles and advice even if there exists no evidence to back up their claims.
But Studies Show That...
This is another topic that will likely get its own post in the future, so I will not go into too much detail here. But it’s important to realize that what’s being presented to you (to me, to us) as science is not really “science” in its true form. What we get are interpretations of the results of studies and experiments, with no limit to how long the game of telephone has gone on or what facts are highlighted, ignored, or even falsified.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll give two quick examples of how rules backed by “science” can be…less than perfect.
First, it’s a fairly well-known fact that the body will use glucose in the blood for energy before it uses fatty acids. Some people use this as evidence that glucose is the body’s preferred energy source, and, so, base their recommendations on a carbohydrate-rich diet. Makes sense, right?
The other side of that coin is to say that elevated blood sugar is toxic to our bodies, so we’ve evolved mechanisms to quickly deal with this imminent threat. And based on this, a higher-fat/lower-carbohydrate diet is the healthy way to go.
[Of course, I can be found in the background, not-so-subtly sounding my “Context!” trumpet…]
You see? One actual fact, two diametrically opposed interpretations and subsequent recommendations.
Second, we’ll discuss the oft-talked about (in my circles, anyway) example of the Seven Countries Study (there’s no hyperlink there because I don’t care to support traffic to their site). At the outset, the SCS seemed a groundbreaking study that effectively changed how our government determined their dietary recommendations. The study seemed to clearly show that saturated fat and cholesterol were highly associated with heart disease risk.
But! What if I told you that the designers of the study simply skipped over the countries that didn’t support their hypothesis?! It just so happens that the Seven Countries were cherry-picked from the TWENTY-ONE countries from which they collected data. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like science to me…
Ok, I think I’m probably starting to lose you (since I’m almost losing myself and I’m a huge nerd for this stuff). For a really great (and entertaining) resource for some of this information, check out comedian Tom Naughton’s documentary Fat Head. It’s occasionally on Netflix, too.
Until next time!