In the face of so much noise and conflicting advice, how do you go about making sound health choices? Below we offer some strategies and tips that we use to help us stay on track (Jared's post is more geared towards general health and Andrew's is more specific to nutrition).
Jared - Last week's interview with John Lyne really made me question this idea of who do you trust when you are searching for health and nutrition advice? After talking to John it became clear to me that science can be a great way to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Science in its purest form is non-biased. The problems are the people running experiments and the agenda they have. This article is a perfect example of what I am talking about: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html?referer=https://www.google.com/.
Health professionals will cherry-pick studies as evidence to back up whatever claim they are trying to defend. Now, more than ever because of big business’s influence on a multi billion dollar a year health industry it is just as important to check who funded the study as well as the results. So, if a pharmaceutical company backs a study, more than likely it will be in favor of whatever agenda they are trying to push. Buyer Beware!!!
When it comes to following advice from a health practitioner who is on the internet I have a few guidelines that I check for:
If in order to get better you have to take out a loan for all the supplements you need, then that is not balanced. A perfect example for me is Robb Wolf. Robb is a former research biochemist, health expert and author. He is most well known for being a strong advocate for the paleo diet. He’s not selling any products, he’s level headed, he has a solid background and education and has helped many people. Also what I like about him is that he is not stuck in his own dogma of paleo. A once strong paleo advocate, Robb has done more research, experimented, and found a better solution. To me It’s ok to be wrong. It’s not ok to continue to tell people the wrong thing because you don’t want to look wrong. After you find someone you value, it’s important to know that their advice might not work for you. So even if Robb said in order to fix my gut I had to eat Twinkies and whole fat milk, if I experimented with that and felt terrible, I wouldn’t keep doing it. How I feel is what matters most.
There are a couple things that I always think about when hearing somebody’s point of view: is it simple, if I were alive 300 years ago or living in nature would that be possible and does it make sense to me. I think if you follow most of those guidelines, you will keep yourself out of harms way from crazy snake-oil salesmen. The great part about it though, is that as long as you aren’t chugging anti-freeze, even if you start on the path doing something that isn’t the best for you, eventually you will learn more, read more and find your way. You will also know what doesn’t work. Keep an open mind and be skeptical about everything.
Andrew - I'm really interested in this phenomenon of questionable evidence in nutrition science. Especially when you consider how sound science has proven to be in other areas. The same establishment that is responsible for predicting the solar eclipse down to the actual second last year and curing many of society's life-threatening diseases is completely in the dark when it comes to providing sound nutrition advice. You mean to tell me that we can come up with various theories and algorithms to launch a space shuttle into the atmosphere but we can't say for certain whether or not gluten is bad for us? It doesn't make any sense! Obviously I am simplifying a bit, as there are thousands of factors when it comes to understanding nutritional outcomes, such as social determinants of health (e.g. physical environment, education level, SES, social support networks, etc.), epigenetics and hereditary dispositions, individual risk factors and general lifestyle habits, but it is still frustrating as hell that we are so far behind the 8-ball when it comes to nutrition science.
Either way, in lieu of all of the uncertainty, I still think that there are some strategies that people can employ to make the best decisions possible when it comes to navigating their nutrition journey. Below are some of the things that I try to consider when making informed nutrition decisions.
Know What Labels Mean
In the era of questionable science, alternative facts and fake news, deciphering what nutrition information is plausible can almost be impossible. Making matters worse is the oversaturated media climate we are in, where we are constantly inundated with an overabundance of health-related messages (think gurus on Instagram, influencers on Twitter) with no checks or balances to govern them, the noise becomes too great to filter out. On top of that, food marketing companies are literally playing with us by coming up with vague terms and flashy packaging (think earth tones, animals grazing, etc.) just to get us to buy their products (in 2013, the food industry sold almost $41 billion of food labeled "natural," which is an ambiguous term that has no federal regulation by the USDA).
So how do we maneuver in a climate like this? While you will never truly know exactly how products are processed or manufactured, by taking the time to educate yourself about what certain labels and certifications mean can give you some type of orientation when it comes to navigating your personal nutrition (look for our in-depth critique on food labels in the weeks to come). What is the difference between cage-free versus farm-fresh eggs; USDA Organic versus NON-GMO Project Verified; why are some labels federally regulated and others not; what labels are worth paying more for? Having a basic knowledge of what to look for can give you a baseline to start from.
Get Empowered! Take an Individualized Approach
While you may not always be able to trust science, you can always count on yourself! By taking an individualized approach to understanding your own nutrition, you will get more effective and easier implemented solutions. While we would never suggest completely abandoning science or expert-level advice (always consult with your doctor before doing anything), we are suggesting that these sources should be used as an entry point rather than the end-all-be-all and taken as gospel. Find out from your doctor what are healthy levels for your blood sugar to be at, and then YOU regulate it by seeing what foods work best for you by using a glucometer to test pre and post mealtime (there are some simple tutorials about how to do blood glucose testing online). Run to Costco or Target and pick up a blood pressure cuff to keep daily tabs of your BP numbers based on your activity and stress levels. Download a sleep app on your phone to help you better track and get better quality sleep (Sleep Cycle, Sleep Better and Calm are all free apps). There are always new technologies coming out that can you use yourself to better chart your progress. For example, PrimalHRV is an app that allows you to measure the variation in beat-to-beat intervals in your heart, which is important for seeing where you lie on the scale of "rest and digest" to "fight or flight" throughout the day. With the ease of access to information nowadays, there is no excuse why you can't be equipped to take back your own health. Educate yourself, have a plan and execute!
Know What to Look for in Studies
For those of you that have ever gone online to look up research studies or abstracts on a certain diet or food, you know how confusing the process can be. Let's face it, trying to interpret scientific studies on your own can be downright intimidating and leave you feeling like you are reading a foreign language. But if you are equipped with knowing what to look for, it can simplify the process. This is important because many reports or articles that you read in magazines or online will often cherry-pick findings to make their argument, and they are relying on the fact that you the consumer are clueless and will not push back to make whatever claims that they want. The key here is to know what buzzwords to look for.
In science-based research, there are all types of study designs, including meta-analyses, systematic reviews (lit reviews), case-control studies, randomized controlled trials (RCTs), cohort studies, cross-sectional studies, among others. Of all of these, the randomized controlled trial (RCT) is the gold standard. This is where researchers take two groups, give one of them the intervention (food, drug, etc.) and chart the outcomes of both. This is the only way to truly understand cause and effect between a food and its effects on the body. Unfortunately the majority of major nutrition science findings over the past 40 years are not aimed at measuring causation, but rather correlation.
Anytime you are reading Muscle & Fitness or Women's Health and they cite studies that are "observational," "population," "cohort," or "epidemiological," know that they are trying to establish a correlation between a certain health outcome across a specific population, but they do not establish cause and effect. A simplified example of this would be "every time that I don't sleep I get a headache," with the correlation being made between lack of sleep and getting headaches. But there could be a million other factors why someone might have a headache (stress, dehydration, etc.). The same goes with nutrition. Just because there is a correlation that red meat causes cancer doesn't mean that red meat actually causes cancer (I always want to ask those researchers what else were participants doing besides eating red meat and how were they eating it–like say, grass-fed steak or with a bun, french fries and Coke?). So anytime you see these terms when describing a study, be skeptical and don't take it as gospel🙌.