I read a blog post today about why “Our Grandparents didn’t have food allergies… but you do!” It was another in a (very) long line of arguments, by countless fitness “pros”, claiming that the way things used to be was good, and that the way things are now is bad.
I’m going to call this the Conservative Fallacy, which is, as we’ll see, closely related to the classical philosophical problem, the Naturalistic Fallacy.
I don’t want to pick on this particular person (who I don’t know), but rather upon the basic trend in our field to paradoxically engage in both of the following:
- Over-simplifying the interesting
- Over-complicating the simple
Nutrition is far from being a “mature” science, and “health” even less so. Telling someone with authority they YOU know the answer is nonsense. Outside of the most basic, broad proclamations (like exercise is good, eating plastic is bad), we simply DO NOT know what is true and what isn’t regarding what it takes to be healthy and live a longer life.
(in a truly scientific sense — see my point about Falsification below)
Don’t We Have More Food Allergies Now?
Not necessarily. What we KNOW we have now is better reporting of symptoms, and a wider tendency to diagnose those symptoms as belonging to something we call an “intolerance”. We do not at all know whether our grandparents (or theirs) suffered the same symptoms, but stoically kept their suffering (?) to themselves.
In other words, if these intolerance’s are something, they could have easily existed in exactly the same percentages per capita then as they do now.
Don’t We KNOW That Some Foods Are Healthier Than Others?
No. Again, outside of the most obvious (Broccoli good, rocks bad), we DO NOT have sufficient conclusive data to support the notion that a diet based upon one set of foods is superior to a diet based upon another if all other factors are equal.
That last italicized phrase is key! (Please read it 6 times, out loud.) No cheating.
- Quality of food, and how that impacts health over the long term, we know almost nothing about, conclusively.
- Quantity, however, is one of the few areas of “health science” (no such thing), where our data isn’t complete fantasy.
A diet that is massively high in calories does look to be far less healthy than a diet that is low in calories. At least in other animals that have been studied, this appears true. However, humans live a long time… so life-long studies are still forthcoming. Without lifelong studies, on a broad scale, we are still in speculation-mode.
Surely, Our Grandparents Were Healthier Than We Are?
If your Grandparents are of the same generation as mine were, then their diet consisted of massive amounts of wheat-based breads, biscuits, gravy, and all the fixins. The traditional American diet is alive and well here in the South, only it’s been renamed Southern Cookin’. The South also has among the highest obesity and type-II diabetes rates in the country. Just correlation, maybe. But it’s worth investigation.
Who’s Grandparents do you mean, exactly? Mine ate like shit. (<– opinion, not scientific fact.)
(It’s also worth noting that I’m drinking a sweet-tea as I write this!)
Ya, But At Least They Ate REAL Food!
What is “real”? If you mean “not-plastic”, then I’ll agree with you. If you mean “fast”, or “microwavable”, or “ramen”, or “burgers”, or … then we are in murky territory. Clearly (I do mean CLEARLY) define what the word “real” is supposed to mean, then we’ll be able to have a non-silly conversation based upon science. Until we do that, we’re in religion-land.
But… Things Were Just… Better Back Then
When you think of your Grandparents, do you imagine them taking a shit? Doing so might help you break out of the all-too-natural human tendency to drastically idealize the past, gloss over its ugliness, and romanticize it out of recognition.
A case in point is the fallacious notion that the 20th century was a particularly violent century for human kind. That is patently false when compared to how horrible life was for humans PRE-20th century. Even when you add in the Holocaust, WWII, Vietnam, Bosnia, and all the shit in the Middle East… the 20th century ranks among human-beings LEAST violent/horrible centuries.
For instance, during prehistoric times, upwards of 15% of all humans met a violent death. Imagine if 15% of the people you know were going to die by violence. That was the REAL past… not the fantasy “noble savage” bullshit that we still cling onto. (see Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and his FAQ page about it.)
This is the Conservative Fallacy at its best (worst?). We can SEE, with our own eyes, the bullshit of the moment, the warts, and farts… But the past is lit up, as if on the silver screen, in beautiful black & white, washed clean of its sins and turmoil.
At the turn of the last century, children died in droves before reaching adulthood. A diet of magic and pixie dust (or whatever we claim they ate) didn’t seem to work the wonders for them we are claiming it will work for us.
I have no tolerance for any diets or protocols that claim “historic precedent” as some kind of proof.
A Quick Reminder About The Naturalistic Fallacy
It isn’t only the Grandpa diets and the Paleo diets of the world that suffer from silly-science-nonsense. They are simply the easiest, and currently among the most popular. But, almost the entirety of the fitness community is prone to believing that “going back to nature MUST be good” is a self-evident truism.
“If something is natural, it is good.” — The Naturalistic Fallacy
- Uranium is natural, should I eat it?
- Violence is natural (extremely so), does that make it right to kill someone?
- Rape is commonplace in nature, and was for humans throughout history. Are we OK with it?
Of course not. And yet, the foundation of so many fitness/diet trends rely on the Naturalistic Fallacy as their primary source of “evidence”.
Now let’s flip it.
- Penicillin, as used by us as a drug, isn’t natural. Yet it’s responsible for saving nearly 200 million lives so far, and counting.
- Cars, planes, and boats aren’t natural. Are you going to give them up and start walking everywhere? (No cheating and riding a horse! That isn’t natural either.)
- You’re reading this on the internet. Are you on a smart phone? A laptop? Why? Those aren’t natural.
Falsification & Scientific Theory
Fitness, health, and nutrition are NOT sciences. They are, at best, proto-sciences. The methodology within these fields would NOT pass muster in the more robust sciences — like physics or chemistry.
What do I mean by “passing muster”? Your theories MUST be falsifiable.
A theory is Falsifiable if and only if it can be disproved.
In other words, the strength of a scientific theory is NOT in how much corroborating evidence (<— HUGE oxymoron!) it has, that is, studies that agree with the theory; but in how able it is to RESIST being disproven. The theories we can trust, rely on, and feel confident about are those that have been attacked the most, and have still held up.
Here are a few of the scientific theories that DO “pass muster”:
- Quantum Theory
- The earth is spherical
Not one — NOT A SINGLE ONE — of the “theories” in fitness or nutrition can hold a candle to any of those in terms of their ability to resist counter-evidence. Worse, most claims in fitness/nutrition aren’t even falsifiable even in theory.
A classic non-falsifiable claim is: “No human lives forever”. How would be design an experiment to disprove this? You can’t. Therefore, it isn’t a scientific theory.
Similarly, in fitness/health, the claim: “The paleo diet is healthier than the standard American diet” SOUNDS like something we could try to prove. But, upon further investigation, it turns out not to be.
Explain to me how you would falsify that claim about the Paleo diet? (Feel free to substitute in a Vegetarian diet, or Vegan, or raw foodist…)
- First we would need to DEFINE our words carefully, scientifically.
- What does “standard” mean? What is an “American” diet? Specifically!
- What does “healthier” mean? Do you mean “lives longer”? “Better for strength training”? “Better for disease prevention”? Which diseases? All of them?
- What do you mean by “Paleo Diet”? EXACTLY what is the Paleo Diet? Details. Hard lines. Can you tell me, exactly, if one person’s diet is or is not Paleo?
Contrary to the diet theories, all of the REAL scientific theories above can be detailed, exactly, precisely. Because of that, we CAN know, with precision, if they are wrong, and what kind of evidence we need to SHOW that they are wrong.
The claims in fitness/nutrition aren’t like that. They are… wishy-washy. We don’t clearly know what most of these diets even ARE, let alone how we can clearly test them. They are NOT theories, they are simply claims in the weakest sense.
But, What If These Diet Claims WERE Good Science?
For fun, let’s assume that we could avoid the issues above, and that these silly diet claims had any validity as scientific theories.
Practicality, how would we do LIFELONG tests with THOUSANDS of subjects to ensure that the effects we see have any significance whatsoever on longevity and overall health?
Tiny tests, on tiny populations, done over tiny time scales are meaningless as anything more than hypothesis generators (giving you a guess as to what might make for an interesting next experiment).I believe in these tests for THAT purpose, and I do them all the time with my own athletes. But we can’t go around making broad-based claims about how these micro-tests (and their associated meta-analysis) prove anything at all. They don’t. Claiming such nonsense IS pseudoscience.
There ARE good scientists out there who are doing the best they can with what they have… unfortunately for them, what they have is largely a giant mess. This means that, as scientists, they are having to stick with pretty tiny claims to ensure that they have any validity as theories AND so that they are attackable in practice. Not easy!
The Final Lesson
You don’t know shit. Neither do I. When it comes to what is “healthy” and what isn’t, the claims are bullshit. They are unscientific. They aren’t something you can get into a fight about. The trends, and battles, in fitness and nutrition are far more like religion wars than they are like true scientific exchanges.
The best thing is to be honest and say, “I don’t know.” It’s just food, it’s just exercise. Do what you want, and stop pestering everyone else about how “wrong” they are.
Now go lift something heavy,
PS. Check out this article by Karl Popper on Falsification.