Health And Fitness Paradigms – Who Do You Believe?

I have always had an interest in trying to understand how the human body works and how to train optimally with the minimum amount of time and effort being spent. Much of my spare time is spent attending numerous conferences and workshops, doing online courses, and reading every book I can get my hands on related to research, and educated peoples opinions on what they consider affects human physiology. However, whenever I do read books or attend seminars I never take for granted that what the author/presenter is saying is in fact correct – very few guidelines in the health and fitness realm are scientifically proven facts – they are, for the most part, educated guesses with many of them being proven wrong or misleading over time. The “diet” industry is a prime example of this, as is the never-ending succession of fitness fads that come and go. It’s true to say that “best practices” – as defined by the tried and true ways of doing things – often become conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is often wrong.

Many studies that at face value seem to have undeniable results that agree with the intended hypothesis, in reality have not considered many other variables that can be involved in a “cause and effect” scenario. Neuroscience experts are now finding that there is more and more evidence to suggest that it is more likely that humans are actually “causing an effect”.

Studies on the placebo effect – whereby our mind can cause an effect on our body purely by thinking that something is going to have a certain effect on us – have shown that this phenomenon absolutely exists. This fact opens up wide-ranging implications on how we have the ability to control what our body does just by “believing” that it can do whatever we focus our attention on. But there’s an important clarification to make here – I didn’t say that we just have to “THINK” about what we want our body to do but rather “BELIEVE” that it can do it. Thinking about it, or wanting it to happen, is totally different to actually believing it can happen.

I recently attended a fitness industry conference and one of the presenters was a very well respected dietitian and health industry educator, who I greatly admired for his excellent presenter skills and in-depth knowledge on nutrition. I particularly wanted to see his presentation on ‘The Paleolithic (or commonly referred to as The Paleo) Diet'” and hear what he had to say about it. While I had never actually read any specific books on The Paleo Diet I was aware that it was loosely referred to as the “Caveman Diet” because it preached following a diet of all natural foods with no processed, or chemically or genetically modified foods, which I strongly agree with and it’s basically the foundation principles of my lifelong eating regime.

If I can just diverge for a moment here – by “eating regime” I mean what commonly used to be regarded as “diet”, in the proper sense of the word, but in the 20th Century the word “diet” developed the connotation of being a restrictive eating plan that you had to follow rigidly.

Wikipedia gives the meaning of the word “diet” as being the sum of the food consumed by an organism or group, and “dieting” as being the deliberate selection of food to control body weight or nutrient intake and “diet food” as being foods that aid in dieting, but despite this text book nomenclature, the word “diet” these days is virtually only recognized as referring to a food restriction plan and this is why I never use the word in conversation about my own eating habits.

Now, to get back to the Paleo Diet seminar… I arrived late to the event so missed the start of the presentation but as I walked into the room I was surprised to hear one of the conference delegates (all of whom were Personal Trainers) ask the question of the presenter about should we be eating apples because they wouldn’t have been around in Caveman days? I was quite surprised and thought it was a pretty stupid question because surely the Caveman Diet was just figuratively speaking and didn’t literally mean what the caveman ate but that we should follow their lead in eating only fresh and natural foods. Well, as if the question didn’t surprise me enough the answer totally floored me! The presenter went on to explain that although there may not have been apples in the Caveman times they would still be OK to eat. He continued to explain in detail what exactly the caveman would have had access to and that’s what we should also be trying to eat. And then he made the comment that had me wondering why we should ever NOT doubt anything we hear “experts” say when he added that “of course, the Cavemen had an average lifespan of only 30 years”… what??? Why on Earth then are we being told we should eat like the Caveman when he only lived to be 30 years old???

Now no one is saying that it was their diet that prevented them from living past 30 years of age but even so, how can we draw any conclusions on the success of their diet when we have absolutely no evidence of the benefits of their diet on their health?

The even-more horrifying part was that all the Personal Trainers in the room were nodding in agreement and writing down notes as if they accepted every word he was saying because, being the expert that he was, he should know! Was I the only person in the room – or in the world! – who recognizes that (as I mentioned a little earlier) “conventional wisdom is often wrong”?Am I the only Personal Trainer who goes to seminars and questions the validity of things I am being lectured about with a healthy dose of skepticism until I can prove it to be true?

Personal Trainers, as like all professional people, attend conferences and seminars to further their knowledge in their given field of expertise and they then use this newly acquired knowledge to pass onto the people who rely on them (and pay them!) for guidance and instruction in that particular field of expertise. My biggest problem with this is that if conventional wisdom is often wrong then who are the masses to believe if their teachers are accepting, without question, what they are themselves being taught?

I recently came across an article written by a world renowned heart surgeon with 25 years experience and having performed over 5,000 open-heart surgeries who admitted that he had trained for many years with other prominent physicians labeled “opinion makers.” Bombarded with scientific literature, continually attending education seminars, these opinion makers insisted heart disease resulted from the simple fact of elevated blood cholesterol. The only accepted therapy was prescribing medications to lower cholesterol and a diet that severely restricted fat intake. The latter of course they insisted would lower cholesterol and heart disease.

But he now concedes that this is not working. These recommendations are no longer scientifically or morally defensible. The discovery a few years ago that inflammation in the artery wall, and not blood cholesterol levels, is the real cause of heart disease is slowly leading to a paradigm shift in how heart disease and other chronic ailments will be treated.

Now, if world-renowned heart surgeons can get it wrong what hope have the rest of us got in knowing whose advice to follow?

I also have a personal favorite anecdote from my time working in the fitness industry when the gym I was working at had a weight control program that people could pay to do. This was in the late 1990’s when the idea of fats being bad for you was beginning to take acceptance. I remember the woman who led the group stating that it was perfectly OK to eat Macca’s Hotcakes so long as you didn’t have the whipped butter with it. The highly processed pancakes and maple syrup were perfectly fine to consume so long as you didn’t go over your calorie allowance for the day. It was the “conventional wisdom” of the day that only fat was bad for you and that sugars and highly processed foods were totally harmless.

This is the age old dilemma that mankind has faced in relation to health and fitness education. With so much of the advice we are given, it is impossible to know if it is accurate or just another misguided fad that society will eventually supersede with something better, cheaper, easier or just more interesting and harder to dis-prove “conventional wisdom”.

Unfortunately, for the average man on the street, there is no easy solution to this age-old problem. My solution to the problem has been to spend my entire adult life researching the subjects that I feel passionate about and that is: “how my body functions and what can I do to optimize its performance”. Because most people don’t have the time or inclination to devote their life to this cause they rely on the “experts” to give them guidance but unfortunately we have seen that this method seems to provide only hit and miss solutions. For too long people have been misled to believe that they have no control over what their inherited genes can do.

We need to learn more about our body and how the human race has got itself into the predicament it has – how we got to the point where BILLIONS of people world-wide are not just overweight but obese, and over 40 million children under the age of five are overweight. And despite the recognition of the problem, the world continues to put on weight and governments continue to ignore the real causes, which are:

· Ever-increasing numbers of fast-food outlets supplying the population with nutrition deficient junk food.

· The most notorious outlets providing bigger and bigger portion sizes – “upsizing”.

· Supermarket aisles full of absolutely unnecessary and highly addictive bad food choices, i.e. soft drinks/sodas, potato crisps, biscuits, candy, highly processed packaged food, etc. Three quarters of the aisles at supermarkets are totally unnecessary to the survival of man and do nothing but tempt people who either don’t know any better or choose to ignore the health warnings.

· School canteens providing all the above ‘food’ items to school children – what child will have a drink of water if they can get a can of Coke?

· Major sporting events world wide being sponsored by junk food/drink companies.

I’m sure you can start to see the underlying problem now – the GDP of the modern world relies on the profit from these products. Do you think the Olympics would ever be sponsored by a fresh food co-op or the Australian beef industry? Not a chance! The “REAL FOOD” suppliers don’t make anywhere near the profits that the junk food/drink industry make. What a deadly vicious cycle we have created – all the world’s major sporting events are sponsored by the world’s worst influences on mankind. It wasn’t that long ago that the sporting worlds biggest sponsors were the tobacco companies – I think we’ve gone from bad to equally as bad, or even worse!

The problem has gone way beyond any chances of government policies being able to make a difference. Money, power and corruption are now – as they always have been – what rule many of the worlds government policies, not only in the developed world but even more so in the undeveloped nations. There’s a reason why there are so many anti-corruption agencies around the world! Governments just can’t ignore the trillions of dollars that these lifestyle products supply to the economy of the world today.

The reality is that the health of you and your family rests squarely on your shoulders – don’t be naïve enough to think that the government would – or should – control what goes into your mouth. We can only blame the governments for letting these products be supplied – not of making us buy them! Only YOU can make the choice of either buying healthy or unhealthy food – there’s no one to blame but yourself for your lack of willpower. Just because these items are available doesn’t mean you have to buy them. People are kidding themselves if they think that anything but wholesome food is a necessary item in the supermarket trolley.