Kick Research In The Butt and Break Free From Conventional Wisdom

Note: This is part 2 of The Problem With Research series. Part 1 is here.

The truth is more important than the facts. Frank Lloyd Wright


They’re everywhere. You can find facts in a book, in a magazine, or on the World Wide Web. You can find people talking about facts on the news, in a political convention, or at a health professional conference. You can find facts almost everywhere you go because our culture bombards us with facts supporting this and facts supporting that. Facts are literally being fired off in every direction just like free throws in one of Shaq’s basketball games.

Here’s a brain-crasher: facts aren’t always true. In fact, some facts are false… deceptive… even lies. Other times facts are an illusion of the truth, but have been skewed into half-truths (this means that they’re not true!). There are a great many things that differentiate the truth from the facts.

Facts can be interpreted many different ways. Truth is known.

Facts can be used as evidence to support an opinion. Truth supersedes opinions.

Facts can be used out of context to create the illusion of truth. Truth is absolute.

The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is. Winston Churchill

Now that we know facts aren’t always true, let’s look at how facts can be manipulated in the realm of research for health and fitness.

As one of my readers, dubbahdee, pointed out in the first article about the problem with research, there was a recent study that was published and used to promote the idea that organic food is no healthier than non-organic food. The world was in uproar as men and women from both sides duked it out in every media outlet possible. The funny thing is that when you look at the study itself, you quickly realize that it was focusing on a fraction of the issue that the mainstream media was making it out to be. The study didn’t claim that organic food was better or worse. The study just looked at the nutrient profiles of organic versus conventional foods, and found measurable, but minimal differences.

What this study DID NOT look at was the affect that pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers have on the content of the food and the impact they have on health long-term. It also didn’t address nitrogen, phosphorous, or titratable acidity levels and their impact on health long-term. Not to mention it completely ignored the fact that organic foods taste better.

If you’re wondering why flavor matters at all, then I challenge you to try a little experiment at home. Go to your supermarket, and purchase both an organic and a non-organic food item of the same type. Something that is highly flavorful is preferred (like an orange, for example). Take your oranges home, peel them and try each of them, noting which one tastes better. Now assuming oranges are in season and you got the best quality oranges available, you’ll notice that the organic oranges have much more flavor, and thus, they taste better. Now, let’s put aside the fact (there it is again!) that better flavor means you’ll enjoy your food more and be more inclined to eat more of it. Let’s just use our common sense to determine why one tastes better than the other.

Is it because one has more artificial flavors than the other? No, obviously that wouldn’t be an issue if it’s produce. (But that brings up an interesting point – will produce eventually be infused with additional flavors to make them taste better – or more real? I can see that happening in the near future if it isn’t already.)

Is it because one is grown in a certain type of soil? You’re getting closer, but you’re not quite there yet.

Think about it – what are natural foods composed of? Organic materials that can be broken down into individual nutrients. So, isn’t it logical to assume that the nutrients are indeed what give a food its flavor? Yes it is. Therefore, organic food has better flavor because the nutrients are better. How many people can figure this out all by themselves?

This doesn’t even get into soil fertility, soil structure, and farm sustainability, which all play a role in our food quality (the study didn’t address any of these issues either).

So, we’ve got this controversial study which highlights one debatable fact that gets released to the public and the world gets hysterical over the issue. It’s a classic case of Tooth Fairy Science (aka Fairy Tale Science) at its best. Harriet Hall, MD is a contributor to the popular website Science Based Medicine. In an article about acupuncture in relation to heartburn, she reflects about Tooth Fairy Science. She says,

You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists.

Think about the implications of that example for a second.

In our example, even though this study concluded that the nutrient profiles were not much different, it didn’t address the primary question that needs answering: is organic food or conventional food healthier to eat long-term?

The study didn’t even come close to answering THAT question. Yet the world was in an uproar over the issue because of one new supposed fact, which leads me to my next point. Not only is research often used for propaganda, sometimes it’s even directly funded for specific propaganda. That’s right, those children’s health aware advocates at our major cereal companies are actually paying researchers to conduct studies that indicate Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms, and Corn Pops should be a healthy staple in every family’s kitchen – even if that’s a ludicrous idea.

If you tell a lie long enough, loud enough and often enough the people will believe it. Adolph Hitler

I read in a recent interview with fitness professional, Paul Chek, who said,

In fact, a few years back, Dynamic Chiropractic published research showing that 79% of all medical advertising was found to be bogus and could not back up it’s claims objectively what-so-ever! Yet, people read this stuff like gospel and often lose their lives because of it.

Note: it should be noted that I cannot find the study mentioned. Maybe you can if you’re familiar with DC research. Regardless of whether the study is real, and also legitimate, this anecdotal evidence doesn’t surprise me at all. As a fitness professional and a consumer, I have come to expect this of medical research.

Interestingly enough, the organic vs non-organic study found some similar results to Chek’s accusation. It states about their research methods:  “[in] 52,471 articles, we identified 162 studies;… 55 were of satisfactory quality.”

In other words, 66% of the studies they looked at were NOT of satisfactory quality. We don’t know what “satisfactory quality” means exactly. Does that mean that 66% of the research was not in favor of their hypothesis? Or does it mean that 66% of the research was not peer-reviewed or otherwise legitimate, and thus, could not be used as evidence for a conclusion? We don’t know. This just goes to show that this particular study has some loopholes (several loopholes actually) that, to my knowledge, are unanswered and demerits its validity and objectivity. Is it a coincidence that the study I’m using as an example has some flaws? Maybe. Or maybe most research is like this and we just have to accept that.

We now know that some facts are not true. We also know that some, if not most, research is flawed.

So, what should we do?

There’s some sage advice in the old saying, “don’t believe everything you hear.” In fact, I would say when it comes to health and fitness research, don’t believe ANYTHING you hear. If something strikes your fancy, look into it, cross-reference it, see if it works outside of a controlled study. Do whatever it takes to assure you that it’s the truth.

Not only are there people who blatantly lie to us about health and fitness methods (have you seen late night TV infomercials?), there are also others who offer a skewed perception of the truth (whether they know it or not). There is so much misinformation, myth’s, and lies in our industry it’s almost overwhelming. I’m aghast at how we got to this point.

That’s why I have been adamant about teaching my readers to follow what you know to be true – the basics. I’m talking about the simplest of things that are essential for a healthy lifestyle: quality sleep, balanced nutrition that is individualized for your needs, regular physical activity that is often vigorous, a low stress lifestyle, minimal exposure to toxins, clean and abundant water, fresh air, and sunshine among other things. These are the things that almost everyone agrees to be excellent for health.

Too often, we spend our lives in search of the next best thing, when we already have the best things available to us. If you’re not doing the above, then you’re likely to be wasting your time searching for a special method or tool that will help you reach your physical goals. There’s no reason for you to be looking into elite training programs, supplements, unique fitness gadgets, or diet programs if you haven’t got the above covered. Strength coach Dan John is fond of saying, “don’t ask me about special training programs unless you eat breakfast everyday.”

Do what you know to be true, and after you’ve got that figured out, then feel free to focus on some of the specifics. There’s a very good reason for this. It’s because those who achieve mastery over themselves physically (elite athletes, major body transformation successors, elite servicemen, etc.) do so by sticking with the basics. Those controversial details about the “best training program” or the latest performance-enhancing supplement are usually complete garbage, and when they’re not, they account for the last little bit of benefits, like the last 5% of the equation. This might matter in professional sports, but it isn’t relevant for most of us who don’t make a career out of athletics.

Some advice to help you make this a reality is to eliminate the need to hear research before you make decisions. Do your own research! Keep a training and nutrition journal. Log notes about your food intake, meal timing, approximate portion sizes, and how you feel during the day and week. Make notes of everything, even if you have indigestion. Record your workout progress in a notebook, with notes about your level of technique, exertion, and discomfort. Write everything down: your sleep quality, restfulness, sexual drive, even that old injury that keeps bothering you. And especially make a note of when you feel great all day because you can look back and see what you did differently to improve your health.

A thorough training and nutrition journal will provide you more personal value than years with your nose in the peer-reviewed research journals.

Lastly, when you find something that works for you, exploit it as much as possible. That’s why I keep using joint mobility training, Prasara yoga, bodyweight exercise, and clubbells for my fitness goals, because they work for me time and time again. When it’s working, keep doing it.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Steve Jobs

To your health and success,

Fitness Professional

6 Responses

  1. Great post John! I recognized that Steve Jobs quote from the commencement speech he gave… that was a great speech.

  2. Lovely post. Just stumbled on this site, and really enjoying the thoughtful journals that accompany the passion for ‘real’ fitness. Very engaging!

    • Thanks Lari – I’m glad you found something that resonates with you. Welcome to Physical Living!

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