Why Is Fitness & Nutrition So Confusing? What You Should Know About Where Your Information Comes From

Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S. Pn1

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One week you're killing yourself because drinking coffee causes cancer, and the next week coffee is the cure to cancer.

With all this contradiction you may feel getting healthy is too difficult and too confusing.  That maybe inaction is safer than taking the wrong action.

I hear you, and I want you to know that it isn't as difficult as it seems.  You just need the right tools to make sense of the information overload. 

 The first step to this is to understand the information overload is to learn the underlying problems.  In this article, we will discuss just why the information you read and hear is so contradictory and confusing. 

Do you remember playing the game telephone when you were younger?

If you aren’t familiar, Telephone is a game in which one person starts with a phrase and then whispers that phrase to the person next to them. That person then whispers the phrase to the person next to them and the game continues until it reaches the last person in the line. 

Each time a person passes the phrase it gets altered ever so slightly. By the time it reaches the last person phrase is often much different from the original phase the game started with.  

Along the way, the phrase gets altered slightly and by the end, the phrase that comes out sounds wildly different from the one that went in.

With health, wellness, and diet, the reason things seem so controversial and contradictory is that You are the last person in the game. 

You often aren't receiving quality information, but information that's been processed and altered for your consumption. 

Let’s take a look at a few stops along this telephone line to see exactly why the information you receive is so confusing. 

The Science

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The information telephone line starts with the scientist and practicing experts trying to answer difficult and complex questions. 

What you need to know is that nutrition and exercise are a young science.   The human body is incredibly complex and scientist are just scratching the surface of how it works. 

Making their task even more difficult is the many constraints scientist face while conducting research. Humans are complex and can’t be locked in a room for experimentation. Because of all the variables, it is difficult for scientist to draw definitive conclusions. 

For example - research may show that vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters.  But are vegetarians healthier because they don’t eat meat? or because they tend to be more health conscious,  more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke? 

Another example is that science falls into a reductionist trap. Reductionism is the act of reducing a complex thing into smaller and smaller parts to better understand it. In science, an apple isn’t an apple but a variety of parts such as Vitamin C, Fiber, Fructose, ect. 

While this approach may help us learn more about the effects of individual compounds, it does not acknowledge that an apple is more than a sum of its parts. Each of those parts interacts with each other and then interacts with us to create effects we fully don’t understand. Thinking in this way makes health more complex. Humans eat foods, not nutrients. 

This is the world scientist live in. A world full of nuance. This nuance is important for telling an accurate story of what’s going on. However, these details often get distilled out by the time they reach you meaning you never get a full, accurate story.

This is all before the Bad Science.  

There are two types of bad science. 

Theirs the bad science that involves poor methods, subjects, or metrics. These studies often aren't published in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Although they still may be picked up by less than reputable media outlets. 

Then there is the industry-funded research. 

Industries will often fund research on their given product. While this may not be inherently bad there is an issue with it. Studies funded by industries are far more likely to conclude a result that favors the industry being funded.

The reason may not be because the scientists are lying. However, they may set up the study to be more likely to give a result that favors the industry. 

The result is that the literature can become skewed by this bad science and create an illusion that the science is wildly inaccurate, contradictory and all over the place.

Dark chocolate is now a health food. Here’s how that happened. - Vox

The Press

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What sounds better to you?

Chocolate is healthy and can help improve your cardiovascular function?

or

A flavonoid may have properties that improve cardiovascular function in mice?

The press is about getting clicks and readers. Which means they often distort scientific findings to make an article or headline sound better.

I remember reading an article on the topic above. The headline and article claimed that scientist found chocolate could improve cardiovascular function and aerobic performance.

As a collegiate cross-country runner, I was ecstatic. I may have found a secret to improving my performance… and that secret was chocolate!!

But what happens when you actually read the scientific study?

You’ll find that the study didn’t even use chocolate or humans. It was a study funded by Nestle where they gave mice flavonoids(a molecular compound) that chocolate happens to contain. 

In fact to get enough flavonoids to see health benefits a person would have to eat milk chocolate by the pound and In no world is that healthy.

That media outlet grossly misrepresented the findings of the study. If like most people you are busy and don’t enjoy geeking out on scientific studies like myself, then you probably would have only read the headline or glanced over the article. 

The Marketers

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“Fools and their money are soon parted”

I use the quote not to call you a fool but to highlight that there are tons of money to be made by keeping you confused and unsavvy.

The less you know the easier it is to sell you a product.

This is another reason things constantly feel confusing.

Consider Diets, the mother of marketing and a multi-billion dollar industry.

One key to marketing is differentiation:  To show how your product differs from someone else’s.

This differentiation leads to polarization. A sensible diet isn’t edgy, different, or marketable. Through the use of hyperbolic grand claims that often demonize one food while placing another on a pedestal, you get diets like veganism, keto, paleo, the whole 30, juice only, or the velocity diet. 

This makes things seem really confusing. 

I received an ad where a guy with a 6 pack told me that fruits are making people fat. Fruits! This is what happens when marketers hijack the narrative.

The reality is that any healthy diet will address the following 3 principles

  1. Food Quantity (How much you eat)

  2. Food Quality (What foods you eat)

  3. Macronutrient Ratios (What are those foods made of - carbs, fats, proteins)

Most commercial diets only pick one or two of these principles.

If you want to learn more about how diets work, how to make sense of them, and how to use these principles for your own benefit I suggest you read my article on the subject.

Making Sense of Diets

But the conclusion to this section is it’s confusing because it’s supposed to be. It’s all marketing.

This marketing narrative is then picked up by the press. The information bounces back and forth becoming further and further changed and distilled until it eventually finds itself to you. 

You

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The last reason why health, fitness, and nutrition seem so confusing and contradictory is that you were never given the tools to make sense of it. 

Did you know the word superfood has no defined meaning? Did you know supplements are not regulated by the FDA and that their ingredients may be completely different from what they claim on the package?  Did you know cardio may not be the best way to burn fat? 

Did you ever learn the fundamental principles of a healthy diet or exercise program? 

The answer is no. 

When it came to health and fitness our schools failed you.  

Our schools fail to address physical education and nutrition in any qualified manner. For most PE is just a time you play some sports and health is about the dangers of sex.

We fail to teach you how to properly move your body, the importance of food, how to make good food decisions, or how to discern quality information from marketing junk.

We threw you to the ocean without ever teaching you to swim. Is it any surprise that as a society we struggle with obesity and chronic pain? 

So if things seem confusing, one reason is that we as a society failed to give you the tools to make sense of this information.

Conclusion

Why does health fitness and nutrition seem so confusing and contradictory?

Because there’s a long game of telephone being played and you‘re on the wrong end. 

  • It starts with the complex systems of the human body and the difficulty that scientists face when trying to draw conclusive results from the data.

  • This inherent challenge becomes compounded when you add in poorly conducted and potentially biased industry-funded studies into the mix.

  • These potentially flawed research results are then picked up by the press who don’t properly represent the research and data.

  • This research and press are then picked up and used by marketers who polarize the narrative of how we talk and discuss topics related to fitness and nutrition.

  • The press then perpetuated the marketer's narratives, and after they have manipulated it dozens of times it eventually falls to you.

  • Innocent you who just wants to live a healthier life but was never given the tools necessary to make sense of it all. 

Fortunately, there is good science out there, there are good media outlets and there, there are intelligent and responsible professionals who vet the information, and there are honest businesses who aren’t trying to sell you on a get fit quick gimmick.

Things are far from hopeless. 

In next week’s article we will go over how to make sense of the chaos, where to find these reputable sources, and give you the tools you need to make sense of the information overload. 

If you want to learn how to not only make sense of information but apply it then sign up for our weekly newsletter. There you will get articles, videos, recipes and resources delivered straight to your inbox. You can subscribe at the bottom of the page.

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Stephen GriffithComment