I spend a lot of time researching nutrition online. I’m always looking for credible resources on nutrition for weight management, fitness and athletic performance, long-term health maximization, and disease avoidance.
But often, I struggle to find a straight answer on certain nutrition topics. I’ve thought a lot about why this is, and what to do about it.
You’ll be a better Architect of your own long-term health and vitality if you understand the root causes of confusing, conflicting nutrition info. And if you know sources of “truth” for at least some basic topics, as well “both sides of the story” for controversial ones. For 40+ guys doubling down on nutrition as part of long-term body-and-soul health, this is critical.
Let’s start with reasons why nutrition information is confusing, and what you can do about each one.
REASON #1: FIXATION ON QUICK-FIX WEIGHT LOSS & FITNESS PROGRAMS
I guess it’s human nature. Guys’ interest in “how to lose weight fast” and “how to get ripped soon” often crowds out “how to eat well over the long term.”
In turn, journalists choose topics based on what people pay attention to. And of course, a lot of “information” we see is advertising in one form or another. Companies promote what sells. So both journalistic media content and ads/infomercials focus a lot on rapid weight loss and appearance improvement.
But information and recommendations focused on “quick” results often differ from advice for a longer-term approach to good health. Example: 30- or 60-day diet programs are really popular despite most experts agreeing rapid weight loss almost never lasts. And in pursuit of rapid results, people often inflict unhealthy regimes on themselves.
What can you do about this? Be wary of nutrition recommendations solely or mainly focused on how fast they achieve results. Or where descriptions of results are mainly about cosmetic body changes. I want a flat stomach and some visible muscles as much as the next guy (maybe more). But I want to get those things in a smart, long-term way. Look for information that’s about long-term health and behaviors you can imagine sustaining, brother.
REASON #2: LACK OF SCIENTIFIC “PROOF” FOR/AGAINST THINGS
Many who advocate “unconventional” nutrition approaches (often called “hacks” nowadays) are passionate and sincere. But there’s no research-based proof of what they advocate. So, other similarly-conscientious people caution against these approaches.
Meanwhile, it’s tremendously difficult to prove certain things related to nutrition. Why? It requires strict control of what individuals eat or don’t eat, 3+ times a day for months, years or even decades. It’s virtually impossible to manage “research subjects” this way. Also hugely expensive. And organizations who can afford to fund such studies often have motivations to keep people eating how they currently do. Think: big packaged-food/drink and mass agriculture companies.
Want to know more about why nutrition science is so challenging? Read: “I asked 8 researchers why the science of nutrition is so messy. Here’s what they said.”
Example of “Elusive Proof” Dynamic: Coconut Oil
Proponents of coconut oil laud it as a near-magical food that super-charges weight loss and muscle gaining efforts. As a reason, they point to a chemical composition that’s slightly different from other saturated fats (coconut = “medium chain triglycerides”). They highlight low heart disease rates among people from Oceanic nations, whose diet relies heavily on coconut, as proof coconut oil is beneficial.
At the same time, critics (including nearly all “establishment” scientists) say it’s a dangerous saturated fat that increases risk of heart disease. They explain that heavy coconut-eating populations also have very low consumption of sugar, refined flours, and red and packaged meats. So there are many other reasons why they may have low heart disease rates that are not because of, and may be in spite of, coconut.
Implications for Your Approach
So what’s the implication for us “civilians” in these theory wars?
We should look for evidence from clinical studies first and follow those if they’re available. If not, for things whose results can be seen quickly, we can personally experiment. But for things whose purported benefits or risks are longer-term, experimentation doesn’t work. So we should think about relative risk. “Since I might wind up getting this this wrong, which mistake am I more willing to make?”
Take my view on coconut oil, for example. It might have awesome benefits. But I can mainly get those benefits other ways, so “failing to capitalize on coconut oil” is not a major worry. On the other hand, “inadvertently consuming a bad saturated fat, in large quantities, for a long time” would be BAD. So while I use coconut now and again, I’m not going whole-hog into the coconut craze.
REASON #3: SKEPTICISM OF “ESTABLISHMENT” NUTRITIONAL VIEWS
Starting in the late 70’s, the official view of “how to eat well” was pretty far off-base for 20+ years. Dietary guidelines demonized fat and inadvertently fostered higher intake of “low-fat” foods high in sugar, white flour and chemically-altered fat substitutes. Obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-driven conditions grew.
Even today, nutrition orthodoxy says things that seem to violate common sense. Example: it’s widely decried that most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. They’re missing out on important micro-nutrients: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber. But many experts discourage vitamin & mineral supplements. They say, “you shouldn’t need them if you’re eating a good balanced diet.” But wait, man. Didn’t you just say many people aren’t eating a good balanced diet, so shouldn’t supplements be a smart, practical thing?
So government and academic nutrition science has been wrong in the past, and seems impractically “doctrinaire” even today. Many people therefore are skeptical. Combine this with the “elusive proof” point. It creates a situation where we often believe what we want to believe. Or what a persuasive marketer wants us to believe.
Nowadays, social media heightens this dynamic. Your Facebook feed may be loaded with opinions, supposed study results and evangelistic proclamations that reinforce whatever your online behavior shows you already lean toward thinking.
“Fake news” is a phenomenon in politics recently, but the food/diet/supplement industry was an inventor of this and raised it to an art form.
What to do? A little skepticism is a good thing, but make sure to point it in both directions. Don’t just pooh-pooh what the government or universities say (if that’s your inclination). Also have healthy paranoia about what motivates those urging unconventional/alternative nutrition approaches. Or flip these two approaches around if you tend to always “believe the scientists and doubt all others.”
And think about applying the approach described in Section 2. Experiment on yourself if results are short-term-knowable. If not, think about relative benefits and risks.
TAKE ACTION: ZERO IN ON AT LEAST SOME KNOWN TRUTHS
Despite confusion driven by the three factors discussed here, there ARE important nutritional topics with well-established knowledge from credible sources (without ulterior motives). Check these out, dude, bookmark them, and use them to help you ensure you’re at least literate on “Nutrition 101” things every guy should know.
- What basic “macro-nutrients” are and their role in the body (protein, fat, carbs)
- Which fats and carbs are good vs. bad
- Why fiber and antioxidants are so important
- What “bio-metric” screening #’s mean (body mass index, cholesterol levels, blood glucose), and how changing your diet can move the needle on them
- Where to look up nutritional info for different foods
Tapping these sources will also help you judge for yourself what “both sides” say on controversies that persist. So, invest a little time in yourself during the next week or so. Check out and bookmark these sites! And also please check out this “Nutrition 101” article on OlderBeast.
- Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics
- Mayo Clinic “Nutrition & Healthy Eating”
- Harvard School of Public Heath “Nutrition Source”
“Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz, between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy.” (Bruce Springsteen, Jungleland — click to listen)
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