Looking at the world today, it is easy to see that as humans we are at odds with a lot of things…religion, politics, race and yes, even nutrition. The fact is we are humans and humans hold beliefs. And while beliefs are comforting in a way, they can also be very limiting. If we hold so tightly to a belief that it defines us, makes us rigid and unyielding, it can be downright dangerous. It is easy to fall into this pattern because we are after all, only human. And as humans we want to belong and believe in something. It is ok to believe in something but be aware that it is quite possible that new solid information, grounded in science can come along and disprove a current belief. For example, at one point in history everyone believed the earth to be flat. Low and behold, it turned out to be a sphere.
At CrossFit West Houston, we like to be firm in our beliefs but be open to the possibility that something better or a new way of thinking can come along to challenge our beliefs and possibly be credible enough to challenge our thinking. After all, our motto is Evolve to Your Strongest Self. Evolve implies continuous change. So today we are going to dig into the dogmatic approach to nutrition, the problems of government recommendations and how you can learn to best fuel yourself nutritionally as an individual by becoming your own science experiment.
Webster’s Dictionary defines Dogma as a.) something held as an established opinion; especially a definite authoritative tenet b.) a code of such tenets c.) a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds. For most people dogma becomes a set of blinders in which they cannot see any other way. I am not going to go into politics, race or religion here, but will limit the scope to nutrition.
How do you recognize dogma? Typically, dogma will be very limiting as in, “this is the way that every human being should eat.” Quite possibly the food choices will be limited and things will be classified as good or bad. Discussion will quickly become argument from someone who is steeped in dogma.
In nutrition dogma is out there in many forms, vegetarian/vegan, paleo, keto, no carb, all carb, no fat, etc. Many in these communities are very strict about how they implement their given approach and it works for them. That is great for them. However it does not mean it is good for you. And it does not necessarily mean it is good forever. Humans are highly adaptive creatures and it is quite possible that the approach someone takes can provide good results in a short window, however eventually it may stop working. In other words it works until it doesn’t.
Given the highly technical nature of our current society, we are bombarded with messages through mainstream media and social media with messages about what is healthy, what changes body composition, what to eat, what to avoid, etc. There are truths to some of these messages for SOME people but not all people will respond the same. While we are all generally the same, we are all different. This is a biological law called the Law of Individuality or Individual Differences. Structurally we are the same, we have brains, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines, blood, muscles and bones. However, how we react to different foods, chemicals, stimulus, etc. is very different. In the end, what works for one person may NOT work for another and in fact be detrimental even. Watch out for those approaches that are dogmatic.
Government food recommendations have been around for a very long time, since 1894 according to the Wikipedia page on the History of USDA Nutritional Guides. Over the course of the last 123 years, the guidelines have gone through many forms:
Over the years the government recommendations have been subject to criticism and controversy. One only has to look at the history to see the fundamental problem with adhering to the guides. In general, the guides are fraught with bias toward special interest groups. Big agriculture has many lobbyists that push their agenda with members of congress for government food subsidies and all the individual interests are fighting for their place in front of consumers. If you think through this, it casts a dubious shadow over the information distributed by the USDA.
A prime example is the Food Guide Pyramid. The original proposed food guide which was intended to be a hierarchical pyramid with the seemingly most important foods at the base. The finished product had the following daily recommendations:
While these were the recommendations released, it was not the original pyramid presented. According to the Wikipedia page, the original pyramid proposed had the foundation of the pyramid to be vegetables and fruits. However, the very powerful lobbies of grains, meat and dairy feared that if this was presented to the public, they would buy less bread, meat and dairy thus financially damaging these big agriculture companies. They were changed…and not in the best interest of the public, but the best interest of the special interests. These recommendations stood for 12 years until the original pyramid was leaked. And it was admitted that following the above recommendations could “lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.” Interesting, to say the least! Government food policy is suspect due to the power of special interest groups.
Being your own science experiment
As stated above we are all the same and we are all different. Just because a certain strategy or approach has worked for a friend or co-worker does not mean it will work for YOU. And just because it works now does not mean it will work forever. There are a lot of factors at play. Let’s say a friend is trying something new that is really working for them. What is your body type compared to your friend? Are you similar or vastly different? What are your food tolerances or preferences? What access to resources do you have compared to your friend? What is your lifestyle, schedule and activity level compared to your friend? These things, and more, are all factors.
So what can you do? Be willing to experiment. Determine a path to follow and look at the results objectively. Did you follow it exactly? If yes, what was the result? Did you gain weight, lose weight or stay the same? Did you feel better or worse? Did you perform better or worse? Did you have good energy or were you lethargic and tired? Did you biomarkers improve or not?
Take a good long look at things with emotional detachment. If the results are positive, go with it. But, even if you went a direction you did not want to go, it is still information that will allow for course correction. It is not good or bad, it is data. Now you know what not to do. Decisions are only good or bad if we attach a stigma or emotion to it.
Be willing to fail to move forward. Failure teaches us lessons. Be willing to learn the lessons the hard way to grow. Challenge what you believe and be open to a new way. Let your new nutrition learning inform your own nutritional decisions.