Clearing the Clutter of Nutrition Myths
This big long blog post is a transcription of an interview I did this week. The topic was Nutrition Myths and why they persist.
What are some common food and nutrition myths related to physical activity and sport performance?
There are so many.
I come from the fitness industry, and we created a lot of incredibly bewildering rules around food, fuel, and exercise.
On the extreme end of the spectrum, I have a lot of opinions about sports nutrition for anyone who’s not a professional athlete, for example. Protein supplements during a magical “anabolic window” wherein ALL the gainz happen. Branch Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) supplements that are supposedly providing some type of recovery benefit to our muscles, even though the research is sketchy at best (and anyone consuming adequate dietary protein is getting more than enough of all of the amino acids to effectively repair tissue). Carbohydrate as a biochemical necessity for hypertrophy…
And none of this stuff is of any importance to “GenPop” anyway - the, like, 80% or so of people you see in the gym who couldn’t give a rat’s behind about anabolic windows. Sports nutrition is a waste of time for most people, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve been in the gym since I was like 13 years old - if anyone should be shouting the praises of sports supplements, you think it might be me.
I struggle as well with the 80-20 pie chart that floats around, suggesting that “achieving your fitness goals” has 80% to do with food and 20% to do with exercise.
Hey - my fitness goal is spinal mobility. What do you say to that, pie chart? Is spinal mobility made in the kitchen too, right next to the abs? Fitness is about fitness, and nutrition is about nutrition. They are two separate pies.
But if I had to choose one fitness nutrition crusade right now, it would be the belief that exercise exists to “burn off” the food we’ve eaten.
For starters, I just think this a depressing cycle to fall into: “earn and burn.” Like every special, delicious meal we ever eat exists only to be sweated out on an elliptical machine later. Food is fuel, yes - but food is a lot of other things too. Indulgence, celebration, socialization, beauty, fun, festivity…
Let’s talk about fuel for a moment. Have you ever worked out with the intention of burning fat off your body? Ever done a “fat-burning workout?” I dare say it’s why most people are at the gym: trying to burn the fat off their body.
So which is it? Are you burning off the food you’ve eaten today or are you burning off the fat on your body? Your workout only needs so much fuel. Almost nobody is creating the energy demand from their one hour in the gym that they believe they are. A heck of a lot of people are over-eating after a moderate workout “because they earned it.”
You do not need to eat to fuel workouts and you do not need to exercise to burn off what you've eaten. It doesn’t work that way. It’s simply not that linear.
But let’s talk about fat-burning for a moment. Let’s agree that a really nice result form exercise would be if we could somehow convince our body to let go of the fat it’s holding onto.
What is fat? It’s stored fuel. Food is fuel, I guess. But FAT IS LITERALLY FUEL. Sitting right there on your body, waiting to be burned.
If your exercise successfully burns off the food you’ve eaten, then we can assume that it hasn’t touched the fat on your body.
If your exercise happens to successfully tap into your stored fat, then “food as fuel” becomes a non-starter. (Never mind your workout - imagine if your entire waking day was energized by stored fuel… it can be done! This is how several of my clients have lost substantial weight in the absence of exercise.)
If you want your body to burn fat, then you need to train it to burn fat; and to do that you need to give it the opportunity to at least try. One of the ways you can accomplish that is by getting out of the mindset that “food is fuel.” You can teach and encourage your body to mobilize your stored fuel. There is a process that can accomplish it and when it works: you’ll probably never really need to eat to fuel a workout again. And absolutely best of all, workouts stop existing to “undo” food choices.
It’s f*cking liberating, and food gets to be fun again.
Where can reliable and accurate food and nutrition information be obtained?
Most health brands and organizations are aligned with something. It’s very, very hard to find an agenda-less source of health information. We are all trying to sell you something - full admission of guilt.
As an example, I align strongly with the whole foods, ancestral health crowd. I believe that humans have a biologically appropriate (omnivore) diet, and the closer we can get to eating like we did in earlier generations - before we started just becoming unwell as a species - the more optimal our human experience will be. I also find this to be a really simple way of approaching food choices, and I really like simple. I’d like it to be simple for everyone, and this is the thing I’m selling: the effortless relationship with food.
So personally I look to many of the “functional medicine” practitioners for a realistic approach to health and how food can support it: Dr. Chris Kresser; Dr. Mark Hyman; I also like the Weston A Price Foundation. These are doctors and researchers who have built practices and legacies treating clinical and subclinical disease states by addressing how food and lifestyle can support us or derail us. I like that. That works for me.
You will be hard-pressed to get a straight answer - even from me! - as to how to find the mythical land of truly non-partisan nutrition and health information.
When I want straight-up biochemical information about the nutrients in food without any particular bias, I turn to whfood.com (World’s Healthiest Foods). It literally gives information about what role various nutrients play in the body, and which food sources are best to get those nutrients from. Bam.
Why do food and nutrition myths persist?
Ultimately I think it’s because we know food supports our health and we want to trust that the key to living the most amazing, happy, healthy life possible might relate to what we end up putting on our plate.
Consumers seek out these myths and stories, ultimately out of the very best intentions. We all want to live our optimal human experience, and we’re seeking answers: WHY am I not thriving like I should be? What am I over- or under-consuming that is making me feel this way? Then we get to grasping at an approach that will get us on the path to wellness. For better or worse, we have access to SO much information; once we get Googling, it truly becomes a rabbit hole.
For an opportunistic health brand, this is a gold mine! We can create the next fad diet, the next thing to try, knowing that the public is desperate to find The One Thing that works!
I saw this blog post floating around on social media the other day from one such opportunistic health brand: “Here’s Why Fad Diets NEVER Work, and What You Should Do Instead.” The article, predictably, came down pretty hard on things like The Ideal Protein plan, HCG, Paleo, Keto, low carb, low fat, caloric restriction, and the like. It wrapped up by suggesting that “everything in moderation” is the one and only key to abundant, effortless health. But “everything in moderation” is a fad too! It’s just another “way” of eating that has its own rules and restrictions.
It’s the Fad Wars: my fad is better than your fad.
When you boil it down to biochemistry, it’s relatively black and white. Different nutrients support different pathways in the body. If you are looking to improve some aspect of your health, simply zero in on the pathways that influence that aspect of health.
As an example: many of my clients are looking to improve their metabolic health - get fuel partitioned into the body’s energy pathways in such a way that they’re using their food calories, rather than storing them as fat. So to improve that body system, you need to understand what nutrients support metabolic function and HOW and WHY. Sometimes we forget those last bits. A health brand will quickly sell you a meal plan because they know that’s what you think you need. But a meal plan only answers What and When. It doesn’t give you the How and Why.
I‘m not saying everyone has to become a nutritional sciences nerd, but if you are looking for answers as to what to actually eat, seek out a source that is at least trying to align itself with human biology. It takes away a lot of the guesswork.