Nutrition is Not a Religion.
When it comes to nutrition, What You Believe Wont’ Get You Results, but Science Can.
When people start talking about diet and nutrition; it’s often in the context of a belief system.
In other words, the answer to “What should I eat?” is often based on faith, theory, emotional attachments, and/or what feels “sciencey”, rather than on real evidence or the scientific literature.
And until we fix this, nutrition will get more confusing, not less.
How We Come to Believe in Nutrition
When someone is interested in learning something, Google is the first place to start.
Imagine someone want’s to eat healthier. Maybe they want to lose weight, decrease inflammation, work on their cholesterol or build muscle.
These people would likely begin with search terms like: how to eat healthier, healthy eating, best nutrition, muscle building meals.
As I write this article, here are the literal search results:
- “How to eat healthy” gave me 169 million results.
- “Healthy eating” gave me 80.7 million results
- “best nutrition” gave me 319 million options.
- And “muscle building meals” gave me a whopping 65 million options.
As I researched some of the search engine results above I noticed something.
Each website had a story to tell. They told about their super supplements, or secret diet hacks or the reason why their nutrition program is the best. But what catches my attention is when you take a step back and look at all these stories together, you quickly find that these stories all contradict each other.
Yet the one thing they do have in common is their “belief system”. This is the foundation for their opinions, rather than hard science and objectivity.
Don’t get me wrong… belief systems are important. Believing in God, or believing that you have the potential to change your health is so important. But beliefs may or may not have anything to do with factual certainty.
In other words, how many times have you heard the following statements:
- “Sugar is a poison.”
- “Carbs make you fat.”
- “Humans were not meant to eat grains.”
- “I believe that GMO’s are dangerous.”
- “Cholesterol causes heart disease and clogs your arteries”
- “I believe that organic foods are better for the body.”
And because of these statements, we base our actions on what we believe. So the answer to “What should I eat?” is based on faith, theory, emotional attachments, and/or what feels “sciencey”, rather than on real evidence or the scientific literature.
Human Nutrition is not a Belief System, But a Science
I’m a Doctor of Chiropractic, Certified Functional Medicine Physician and Functional Diagnostic Nutritionist. I promise… all that I have learned in school was not based on someone’s opinion or belief system. It’s all grounded with the scientific method and current facts of how the body works. That’s not to say there was no philosophy or “belief systems” that started the process. But what ultimately dictates treatment is based on hard science and not a belief.
Most of my work is with families. I care for many elite athletes and many more chronically ill people. And much of my job is to use nutrition (plus fitness and human movement) to get my patients the results they want.
The way I see it, when your meal strategy can be the difference between having a stroke before you get to hold your grandchild or preventing the 2nd leading cause of death (cancer), there is no room for “hoping” that nutrition will work.
There’s no room for going on faith alone. Which is why science, not beliefs, govern my practice.
For example, I have a patient with a form of terminal cancer, and I guarantee she doesn’t care about what I believe about food. She only cares about what I know about nutrition’s effect on her body and her capacity to live her remaining years as best as she can.
That’s why I need to ensure that my nutrition recommendations are based on measurable, accurate reality. On science. On the best evidence that we have right now. Which changes rapidly and why you should only take advice from someone who is up to speed on the data.
And no… your fancy degree from [insert popular institution] won’t impress me. The fact that you train [insert celebrity] doesn’t mean anything. Only results.
Physiology is Physiology.
It doesn’t matter if your husband doesn’t believe in chiropractic. He has a brain and spinal cord and the spinal cord is protected by the spine. Failure to correct and maintain the spine will result in problems.
The brain controls the body. The spinal cord transmits information form the brain to the body. The spine protects the spinal cord. That’s it. There’s no argument. It’s a medical fact.
So believing something, or wanting it to be true or not true, or feeling it should be true doesn’t mean it is true. Whoa! That’s a mouthful…
Physiology (like chemistry, like physics, like neurology) follows certain known principles.
That’s why scientists research things like macronutrients, hydration, and/or the effects of supplementation. That’s why we try to understand the biochemistry of digestion and metabolism. That’s why we learn about things like glycemic load and glycemic index.
It’s why we ask questions like:
- “How does protein intake impact muscle function as we age?”
- “How do ketones impact the body’s metabolism?”
- “How does fruit sugar (fructose) affect insulin sensitivity in a non-diabetic person?”
- “How does short term fasting impact or predict subsequent food intake?”
Of course these are only a few examples of the thousands upon thousands of questions scientists have regarding human nutrition. And yes… some of these questions have more answers and understanding than others.
In short, although we’re trying to understand as much as possible about the biochemistry of digestion and metabolism, there’s so much we don’t know (especially given the important of context and individuality).
Will honey and cinnamon “rev my metabolism”?
Some people believe this to be true (or at least want others to believe it). But nobody knows.
Will creatine monohydrate improve my power output?
Absolutely. We know some things about creatine monohydrate and its effect on the body, because it’s been scientifically studied. It’s been carefully experimented and objectively measured and more importantly scientists have reproduced those findings over and over.
See how that played out? One claim (honey and cinnamon rev metabolism) is based on speculation or the drawn out conclusions of a few studies about cinnamon on metabolism. The other claim (creatine monohydrate improves power output) is based on facts and a well documented physiological outcome.
So here we are, faced with a big problem: the internet.
The Internet is Not a Nutritional Coach
What super foods should I put in my smoothie?
What should I eat before I work out?
Should I eat before I work out?
Should I add butter to my coffee?
How many bananas are too many?
And of course you’ll find all sorts of answers on Google, not to mention Facebook and Instagram. Erbody has an opinion there.
A quick search and I’m sure you’ll find a super charismatic person (with an amazing body) juicing on facebook live and sharing their pitch that consists of their own beliefs as “the protocol” or “system” everybody needs to be following.
These programs tend to include:
- A set of certain foods and/or supplements to eat. (Like acai berries hand-picked at sunrise and blessed by the northern winds)
- A set of certain foods to avoid. (If a caveman wouldn’t eat, then you shouldn’t eat it. Stay away from anything in a box!)
- Rules about how much to eat, when to eat (or not eat), and possibly even where to eat. (Only eat between 1 and 6 PM, no food at night or you’ll turn into a gremlin!)
If the belief system (or the person who invented it) is compelling or “sciencey” enough, it can be pretty tempting to believe them. Even doctors fall into this trap!
After all, many of these “systems” come with lots of reasons to believe, including:
- Irresistible promises
- Clever branding
- Photos, graphics, and other visual “evidence”
- Testimonials and/or celebrity endorsements
- Powerful personal stories (“If this guy did it, I can too!”)
- Sex appeal
- Scholarly citations pointing to studies that turn out to be poorly designed, fatally biased, or not yet replicated (a hallmark of — you guessed it — actual scientific fact)
And before you know it, you can’t remember the last time you didn’t put honey and cinnamon in your oatmeal…and yogurt…and tea.
Look, it’s not bad for wishing something were true. In fact, it’s very human.
Belief systems bring us comfort. Having a protocol or specific set of rules to follow gives us a huge sigh of relief because nutrition is so damn confusing these days.
Belief systems also make us feel like we’re part of something. And in a world of so much social separation, being part of a community that shares the same values, aspirations, and desires becomes the core reason why we stick to it. Who doesn’t want a strong sense of identity, and belonging?
But when we buy into a belief system, we’re looking for help. We want to make a change, or finally find a solution to a problem that’s bothered us for a long time.
That’s completely normal and natural.
The people who start or share a belief system aren’t bad, either. Most of them are good, genuine, positive people just trying to make other people’s lives better.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to believe. Or wishing some things were true.
The problem happens when we base our own health decisions on emotional bias or the rules of a certain philosophy… and either ignore what science has to say about the facts, or perhaps have no idea whether such facts even exist.
Science and Nutrition Are Anything but Simple
It would be great if there was a single ingredient to cure cancer, or a single exercise to get you ripped. How amazing would it be if all you had to do was get a chiropractic adjustment and your pains would all go away?
But physiology isn’t simple, and neither is science. Especially nutrition science.
You might be able to find a study to support nearly any nutrition-related belief you want. This is especially true if the study was small, or sponsored by a particular interest (like a supplement company).
People who read research understand this. They understand the weight that the particular evidence holds, and where it is placed in the hierarchy of nutritional importance.
But a new trainer in the industry, or a mother looking to get back in shape, or a dude who just got a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, may not know the difference. They may assume that if it was demonstrated in one study, it is a fact.
This isn’t how science works, and it’s not how the truth is discovered.
Did you know that drinking alcohol can increase muscle tone?
Imagine me filming myself in my kitchen (with no shirt), while pouring beer into a frozen mug explaining why you need to start drink beer to increase muscle tone:
“In 2013, a double-blind clinical trial found that men increased testosterone 17% after a low dose of alcohol. In 1987, another study found similar testosterone-increasing results. Finally, a 2000 study showed that alcohol also increases testosterone levels in women. Understanding that alcohol increases testosterone, and knowing that as testosterone goes up, so does our muscle mass and strength, I conclude that we should all drink beer and get bigger muscles!”
Of course this is ridiculous. Because we’d be ignoring the volume of data that suggests alcohol actually lowers testosterone. We’d also be ignoring the established fact that alcohol harms our health and fitness in every physiological way.
The fact that alcohol contains 7 kcals per gram, which adds up quickly when you get drinking (especially if you add mixes), and then normally increases appetite shortly afterwards, which leads to further snacking. (Food trucks anyone?).
Instead of picking just one study, you have to look at all studies on that topic to see where the overall weight of the evidence lies.
But let’s get real.
People are busy.
Health and fitness clients don’t usually have the time, the experience, nor the interest to pore over research. They have jobs and lives.
So What’s the Harm in Believing?
If you’re someone who is needing nutritional advice. If you want to lose weight, improving fitness or work on overall health it’s crucial for your “nutritional guru” to know what they know, and what they don’t know.
They should know where they can legitimately make recommendations based on actual expertise, and where they need to refer out to another health care professional.
In other words, to make appropriate, evidence-based recommendations about nutrition, it’s not enough to simply:
- Have made a big change to your own body (such as losing weight, or succeeding at a new sport).
- Follow some blogs.
- Have a stack of health and fitness magazines on the back of the toilet.
I didn’t know stuff when I was new to the field, either. That’s why we learn and practice… and practice and learn… and then practice and learn some more.
But leaning on those methods of “research” — aka believing instead of knowing — can be dangerous.
We all know the old saying:
You know just enough to be dangerous.
In the case of nutritional coaching, beliefs without evidence can cause physical harm.
Nutrition can affect the human body’s systems dramatically — that’s the amazing power and opportunity, and it’s why we nutritional coaches love this field.
The downside is that doing the wrong things can change our bodies in ways we don’t want.
Some of the most popular belief-based diets today consist of strange and/or misguided ways.
They ask you to:
- Completely give up grains, beans, and legumes
- Swear off all fat
- Eat only raw food
- Base their intake on a single food (e.g. grapefruit, cabbage)
- Only eat meat
- Only drink “detoxing” juices
- Hold your daily calorie intake to some “magic” number, like 600
- Replace all carbs with bacon
- Decrease carbs and increase fat
These diets either selectively use research (for instance, a study in rats showing that grape juice prevents tumors) or get stuck on small details while missing the big picture.
The reality is… some people, based on their current situation would do better with decreasing their grains, beans and legumes. But the next person I consult may be completely opposite of that.
Treat your personal nutrition as a science, instead of a belief system.
Nutrition science is a big field. We can’t know everything, and certainly not all at once.
But we can commit to putting the beliefs away and embracing a lifelong process of learning, studying, thinking critically, and applying evidence-based analysis to every decision and recommendation we make for ourselves.
And you should be doing that because your life depends on it.
- Practice having an open yet critical mindset when it comes to personal nutrition.
“Because it worked for so and so” is not enough evidence
Be curious. Ask questions. And, by all means, experiment on yourself (with objective data points).
Try different things. Document the effects.
Over time, that’s as legitimate a way of knowing. (Make sure you’re always tracking and revisiting, though — bodies do change!)
- Live in the middle ground.
I stay away from absolutes. Biology rarely operates in extremes. Only in very specific contexts (for example, actual diagnosed Celiac disease) do “always” and “never” have value.
So be suspicious of “always” or “never” language in nutrition talk.
For example, someone might tell you that everything should be “100% natural” or else it’s bad. But just because something has been processed in some way does always not make it inferior. Again, it depends on what we’re talking about.
In some cases, processing can actually improve the desired effect and/or nutritional profile. For example, in 2011 the Journal of Nutrition published a report showing that without supplements or enriched foods:
- 100% of Americans would not get enough Vitamin D.
- 93% not enough Vitamin E.
- 88% not enough folate.
- 74% not enough Vitamin A.
- 51% not enough thiamin.
- 46% not enough Vitamin C.
- 22% not enough Vitamin B6.
Sure, maybe there’s some “perfect” diet floating around out there, but for most of us, having a few fortified foods and even supplementing with vitamins is probably a good idea.
But a diet full of processed, fortified foods and synthetic vitamins, not so good.
- Notice when words and concepts trigger emotions.
Recognize when you feel “pulled” by a certain idea. Ask yourself, am I considering this “system” for the right reasons? Am I looking for an “easy” solution because I feel sad/frustrated/lost/stressed today?
I promise you… there’s no easy approach to optimizing your nutrition. It takes time, experimenting, changing up your plan, experimenting some more and then continuously optimizing.
- Scrutinize claims that are tied to financial gain.
“Eat as much as you like and still lose weight!” (A real-life claim aimed at selling a diet book.)
“Ripped abs in 1 minute!” (Real claim. Workout DVD this time.)
“Control insulin levels, decrease blood sugar, speed metabolism, lower LDL cholesterol, burn belly fat and suppress appetite!” (Real claims from the makers of a cinnamon supplement. That’s right, cinnamon.)
- Be skeptical of one-size-fits-all approaches.
Humans are unique, complex systems. They should be treated as such.
There is no one best diet. Any plan should be a system that’s based on evidence, and truly reflects the client’s unique lifestyle, goals, and needs.
Again, I may tell someone that they should follow a paleo diet and the very next patient I’m asking them to increase their grain and carb consumption.
So it depends on the individual and their physiological needs, not my opinion.
- Get qualified coaching.
If you don’t feel confident reading research or understanding the science, consider finding a Nutrition Certified coach
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