It would seem that we humans are hardwired to prefer our choices to fall into two and only two categories. Do you like Pepsi or Coke? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Are you a jock or a nerd? Mets or Yankees? It’s either one or the other, Bub. Are you for us, or are you against us?
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the endless debates on what constitutes healthy behaviors such as diet and exercise. Are you doing keto or intermittent fasting? Is red meat good or bad? Are calories the only thing that matters or not? Are you a runner or a lifter? Do you do CrossFit or are you a bodybuilder?
In reality, there are infinite shades of grey between black and white. For most choices, there is a third option, and often a fourth, fifth, and sixth option too. You can do a low-carb whole-food instinctive-eating intermittent fasting diet and combine this with high-intensity interval training two days a week, and bodybuilding type workouts three days per week and you will be just fine. You don’t need to get into arguments with your coworkers and friends about why a low-carb high-fat carnivore diet is the best diet ever conceived because some guy on Instagram lost 100 lbs in 3 months by eating this way (and in the same token, don’t get offended when I tell you that this guy is probably going to have colon polyps the size of tangerines by the time he is forty).
“Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”-Bruce Lee
With all things health related, there are several choices. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking whatever you are doing at this very moment is the be-all-end-all lifestyle plan and that everything else is junk. In a few years there will be a new trend out there and whatever you are doing at this moment will have either fallen out of favor, or will not have withstood the test of time (remember the Atkins Diet?)
As a student of science, I learned early on that “the truth” (as in what is actually the objectively correct answer to whatever question is being asked, aka the “big truth”) is actually more of a hypothetical concept than a tangible fact. The truth is an undiscoverable ideal that we can hope to get really close to knowing, and then when we think we know it we continue to refine our tests to get even closer and closer to the essence of the truth. But we can never really know the ultimate truth by measuring it…we can merely test hypotheses and estimate where the truth is with a high level of confidence.
In studying diet, exercise, and human behavior–some of the things that comprise a healthy lifestyle, we can barely create well-designed studies, let alone get within a mile of discovering the big truths. Look at any scientific paper on nutrition for example…the methods usually have unavoidable flaws such as recall bias and self-reporting bias, the sample sizes of the studies are often too small to draw powerful conclusions, and the endpoints of the study are often necessarily short-term measurable outcomes that are not easily extrapolated into what would happen if people did whatever it is they are studying for a lifetime. Even large trials following cohorts of people over many years still suffer from self-reporting bias and other issues. So there will always be some element of the unknown in scientific studies of diet and lifestyle!
As a side note, just because even the best designed studies are flawed does not mean that we should abandon science! An imperfect study is still better than some random anecdote that you found online by a guy who just incidentally happens to also sell supplements, or essential oils, or an ebook on the celery juice detox! For this reason, we should strive to study diet and nutrition MORE! Our knowledge as a species is sorely lacking in these subjects and the resultant explosion of lifestyle illness like diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, and many others is the unfortunate result of our collective ignorance and the belief that a “quick fix” is a real thing…
How to avoid the trap of the false dichotomy
This is how I avoid the logical fallacy of thinking there are only two ways of doing something, or that my way is the only way and everyone else is wrong.
- Respect the basic principles: Does this new diet or lifestyle pass the “sniff test?” Does it seem somewhat balanced and logical, or is it extreme and clearly not sustainable while living a normal life. Does it require you to do things that are not rewarding on a daily basis, like eat or drink unpalatable supplements and shakes for most of your meals? Does it promote processed fake foods over whole foods found in nature? Does it require avoidance of entire food groups, like all carbs (including fruits and vegetables)? If so, it’s probably not a great long-term lifestyle. If not, maybe open your mind to the possibility that there may be some truth in it. Even if only 10% of it is good information you can still learn something from it.
- Try and test: If this new diet or lifestyle seems like it might be for you, give it a try! What have you got to lose? If it doesn’t work, well now you know that it was bogus! More likely, there will be a few useful things that you pick up from it. Also, you can then tell people that “Diet X” or “Workout Y” did or didn’t work for you because you actually tried it. It’s a better argument to make rather than “That’s what fake doctor whoever says is the best diet on his Instagram or podcast and I buy all his supplements and books so I just repeat his silly dogma everywhere I go!”
- “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless” Just because you only love 30% of a new exercise plan doesn’t mean you need to do the other 70% of the plan too. Same goes with diet…see what actually works for you by doing it, and adjust your course from there. I am happy that every few years my diet and exercise plan changes by about 10-20% from what I was doing in the past, while still holding true to my core principles. These small adjustments lead to slow and consistent progress over time. Change constantly as you find out what works and what doesn’t, and you will continue to refine yourself year after year.
Don’t forget, we are all in this together! Be happy that someone else cares even a little about fitness and nutrition and see what useful information they may have that you currently don’t have. No one, not even the top authorities (often especially NOT the top authorities), knows what is absolutely the best diet and lifestyle for all people. Don’t fall into the all-or-nothing zero-sum mindset when you’re thinking about diet and lifestyle change. Remember, if you’re reading this site you are smarter than falling for that type of group-think mentality! Save your painfully one-sided ignorant arguments for where they really belong–debating politics and religion with strangers on Facebook!
Here is a little abdominal workout I made up by combining a few things I knew with a few things found on the internet. Is it the best abdominal workout of all time? No! But it does the job this month and I will keep working it until it’s easy and then find ways to make it harder! Follow along on Instagram for a bunch of little videos like this, and other topics related to health, fitness, and gastroenterology!
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