Everyone has an opinion on nutrition. There is an overwhelming amount of seemingly valid yet conflicting information out there. Information becomes toxic
when it causes you to waste energy and time, be it through following a protocol that doesn’t work or just spending time sifting through all the crap
and deciding what to believe. In the 21st century (the Information Age) human beings have fallen prey to the addiction of generating and digesting
information ad nauseum (oh the irony). I am not proposing we burn all the books and take down the internet but I do think our constantly increasing
appetite for shiny new information (well let’s face it, shiny new everything) is getting in the way of valuable real life experiences. You can’t learn
to ride a bike by reading a blog post or book about bikes. Sure, you might get some useful tips but there’s only one way to learn the skill and that
is to saddle up and give it a try. Yes there’s some risk involved but that’s life, you gain experience by taking risk.
In his book Thinking Fast & Slow, Daniel Khaneman, identifies a heuristic called risk aversion. In a nutshell we feel the pain of losing £1 more intensely that we feel the joy of gaining £1. In other terms, we’re slightly biased towards fearing the pain of falling off the bike than to anticipating the joy /advantage of riding it. It’s probably a trait that evolved (or a strategy that survived) in humans because those who were slightly more scared/aware of the risks tended to survive. Picture a bees nest full of honey in a tree top in the forest. The hunter standing on the ground below must look up at the opportunity to harvest the honey through the lens of risk vs. reward. There are many factors that will be considered in the decision of whether to take the risk of climbing the tree to get the honey: the height of the nest, the difficulty of the climb, his past experience, the availability of other food, his hunger level, the time it will take, the amount of honey in the nest, etc. Imagine that the unconscious process going on inside the hunters head works as follows. Each of the factors I listed (and many more) will be evaluated automatically and translated into something actionable by intensifying the feeling of one of two competing emotions: 1. the the fear of injury / death or 2. the desire/need for the honey. If the hunter is a very skilled climber then his fear of falling may not be much of a factor. If he believes there to be a lot of honey in the nest this may increase his desire significantly. It makes sense that the hunter will be slightly biased towards caution because he doesn’t want to pay for the honey with his life. The final decision to take the risk and climb the tree or to move on in search of other food will come down, in part, to the strength of the emotions he is feeling.
So how does all this relate to our current addiction to consuming information, specifically information about food and nutrition? I am suggesting that our aversion to risk drives us to continuously seek information as a way of eliminating risk and uncertainty from our lives. Most of us are never party to decisions like to one faced by the hunter in the forest, where a healthy level of risk aversion is critical for survival. Lots of the information about food and nutrition is misleading and even scare-mongering and can lead into us believing that certain foods are a danger to us. But unlike the hunter who has a limited amount of time and a limited amount of information to analyse, we have the luxury of time and an infinitude of information. The hunter decides whether to risk his neck for some honey in a few minutes, the 21st century human spends weeks trawling through the internet deciding which foods and supplements to include in his diet. We can only develop real expertise in certain types of environments: those that are both predictable (to some degree) and which also providing immediate feedback. The hunters environment permits him to develop expertise through a process of trial and error by dealing with many similar scenarios and learning what works and what doesn’t. He can look at a tree and predict his ability to climb it safely based on past experience. The immediacy of the feedback is also critical to the hunter to becoming an expert; he knows success or failure straight away. He’s either walking away unscathed with the honey or he’s injured (or worse) and regretting his poor judgment. As an expert hunter he knows intuitively whether he should take an opportunity or not, he has “skin in the game” in the purest sense of the saying. In the scenario of a human-being seeking to optimise her nutrition, it is much harder to develop the same kind of expertise because the feedback is slow and the environment is much less predictable (because there are so many more variables). With the nutrition problem you might have to wait weeks to see how you feel, months to see any results, and years before you’ll know if the strategy you are implementing is sustainable. It’s plain to see that a tree with few branches is going to be harder to climb, but the hurdles in the nutrition problem might be invisible. For example: What is the status of your gut microbiome? What foods do you have sensitivities to? Because there are so many unknown variables, very specific generic approaches to nutrition simply don't work for most people. But instead of using where we are now as a starting point from which to begin making our own adjustments we keep going online looking for a new place to start every few months. The consistent message from companies saying “WE CAN DELIVER UNBELIEVABLE RESULTS” leads consumers to believe in that narrative and mistakenly thinking such a solution exists. The reality is that the best solution to a very complex problem can often be something very simple. Contrary to what some “experts” would have you believe, the amount of information used or the complexity of solution is not directly related to the quality of the results derived by using it. When did such a simple part of our daily lives, deciding what to eat, become such a complicated question and such a massive industry? I'm not exactly sure but I think the advent of highly processed foods, the growing power of competing food lobbies, and the abundance and appetite for information on the subject have made things a lot more complicated than they need to be. Good old trial and error might not sound fancy or come with a guarantee, but it works
Finally, if you’re looking to someone else to tell you what and how to eat then you need to consider whether they have skin in the game. Do they have some negative consequences if you follow their advice and don’t get results or worse end up further from your goals? Very few people have malicious intentions but if they don’t have skin the game then their advice should be regarded with caution. Especially if they seem to be pedaling a narrative as fact and offering a concrete prescription for success rather than helping to guide your experience and development. This is the difference between a guru and a coach.
Our minds like certainty, facts and rules, and are hence prone to believing the following narratives:
- There is an ideal human diet as defined in terms of optimum daily consumption amounts of the three macronutrients and if I can find it I will be (pick that which applies to you): healthier / leaner / more beautiful / happier / fitter / longer-living / etc.
- There are two kinds of foods: GOOD & BAD. If I learn what they are I will be able to avoid / consume them and achieve my goals.
- Reducing body-fat percentage (aka: getting lean) is all about calories: eating fewer and burning more. Building Muscle (aka: getting jacked) is all about training. We adopt the following bro-science logic: Lift heavy shit to build zee muscles, more sets, more sessions, heavier weights = more muscles.
Perhaps our minds like the certainty offered by narratives above but the following versions of events might be more grounded in reality:
- There are infinite ways of nourishing a human life and none of them is “wrong”. Genetic, microbiomic, psychological, & environmental factors probably play a greater role than nutrition in how healthy / lean / beautiful / happy / fit / and long living we are. A specific prescription of macronutrients levels might be useful during a process of experimentation and comparison but for most people it’s not sustainable and might even reduce one's ability to interpret the sensations of hunger, thirst, and fullness.
- Whether a certain food will have a positive or negative impact on the person consuming it depends on myriad factors, most notably her individual goals. Allergies, sensitivities, metabolic health, activity levels, individual taste, availability of alternatives and many other factors also come into play. Neil Maddox who’s a shredded CrossFit Games athlete famously eats donuts. Now I am not saying that they are his best option, but he certainly needs to get in a lot of calories and that is one way of doing it. Someone who is 50lbs overweight and pre-diabetic eating donuts is a different story obviously. Mainstream media love to publish lists of “superfoods” and readers assume these must be good for them but in reality that might not be the case. People can be so blinded by the narrative they read that they lose touch with their preferences and how they feel after eating a certain food. For example, "eat Brazil nuts because they are high in selenium and selenium is responsible for such and such a process in the body." This is a narrative, it might even be a true narrative. But buying into this narrative and scoffing super foods at the expense of paying attention to your preferences is absurd! Especially if, like me, you hate Brazil nuts.
- Aesthetics (how we look naked) is…you guessed it, also the product of myriad factors. Building muscle depends not just on sets and reps but also on, genetics, recovery, sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise selection, bio-mechanics, endocrine health, mental health, training background, and many other things. Losing body fat is not just about calorie deficit, the type and volume of stimulus your getting in from your physical training, and all the other factors I just mentioned also play important roles.
So, if my brain is not well suited to directing my behaviour based on tons and tons theoretical information then what should I do? The answer is to take some basic principles and use these as a starting point to begin the process of trial and error. More information doesn’t always lead to deeper understanding or “the solution” it simply leads us in circles. Instead of seeking the solution to each problem by putting it in to Google, come up with your own solution and try it. Gain experience by trying new foods, ways of cooking, meal-time customs, timings, and portion sizes. This will improve your ability to decide how you WANT to eat, what foods you enjoy, and what solution is compatible with your goals and preferences. If you’re eating ready-meals and takeaways and you’re not feeling energised in the gym and looking beach ready, then try something different. How do I know what to try? Can I look online? Sure, but keep your bullshit detector on high-alert. Instead why not find someone you trust and ask them about their diet?
You’ve read this far and given the title of this article I will now give you four simple rules to live by when it comes to food. I've reiterated several times how each individual is unique and needs a unique solution to nutrition but I think these are so basic that they can apply to everyone. I will leave it up to you to decide if I am full of shit or whether you want to give them a go:
- Eat slowly (take at least 15 minutes) and focus your attention exclusively on the meal and the friends who are eating with you.
- Eat whole foods. If it grows or comes from something that grows it’s a whole food. Something that’s got a long list of ingredients is not a whole food.
- Eat food you love preparing, eating, & sharing with friends and family.
- Eat when hungry. Drink when thirsty.
Try focusing on just one rule at a time, if you master it for two weeks then you can add the next one and so on. Use these four rules as a starting point and invest your time and energy in trying new ways of preparing, eating, & sharing food (instead of digesting more information) then you will eventually find what works for you. Despite the feeling that the answer is out there somewhere on the internet if you just look long enough, it just isn’t. Living is an art, a set of crafts we can become better at with practice, not something we can hack or a code we can crack with the right knowledge.
- Photo Credit : http://humanplanet.com/timothyallen/2011/02/bayaka-honey-gatherer/
- Concept- Skin in the Game - Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
- Inspiration for my four rules 1 and 2 - Debbie Manlove, Co-Founder of NUCOA http://nucoa.co