The other day Darling Lynsey showed me an article with the head line “High protein diets are nearly as bad for you as smoking”. This came as such a shock to me that in my confusion I took a bite out of the cigarette I was smoking and then tried to take a drag on my steak to calm my nerves. I then spent the rest of the day writing a new business plan in case this whole gym thing doesn’t work out. Bacon and Hedges, the gravy flavoured cigarettes. I would have thought no more about the article however that evening at work it came up a bunch of times, people seemed honestly worried about the findings from this latest “shocking” study. And thus, dear reader, I have decided to write this brief guide to ignoring bullshit popular science so that you may put your minds at ease concerning this and every other paper written on nutrition or fitness science.
Bearing in mind I haven’t actually read the paper yet, just scanned the precise and the amazingly widespread media coverage. I will read the paper itself over the weekend and get back to you so consider this as a general rather than a specific rebuttal.
3 Tips On How To Ignore What “Science Says”.
1. Is it is done on rats?
Or mice. Which, in the media, often goes unremarked – as if rodents were the gold standard for human compatibility. The reason rodents make such good lab animals is that their short life-spans are readily compatible with research timetables and they are really cheap to breed and house – not because they are in any way analogous to humans. If I repeated the study with cows or turtles, bears or baboons, would the results be wildly different? Even if we studied chimps or pigs, animals much closer to humans, would the results change? If the answer is yes, then the rodent results are pretty meaningless, but even if the answer is somehow no I would still treat the findings with skepticism. In the years that I have trained people I have seen first-hand how variable human nutritional needs are. I have had clients who digest some carbohydrates so slowly that a slice of bread leaves them looking like they’re six months pregnant and feeling even more bloated and slow. I have also had clients that digest protein so inefficiently that even with relatively low serves they have so much partially digested protein in their system that ammonia leaks from their sweat glands and they smell like industrial solvent. So if I know that I can’t rely on a diet plan that works wonders for any one human to work equally as well on any other human being then how much credence can I possibly give to what works for Mikey and his three blind mates?
2. Are they measuring what they say they are measuring?
Health and fitness are really nebulous terms, difficult to define, difficult to measure and really very difficult to study in an objective manner. So I sympathise with the science guys, I really do, but my sympathy doesn’t extend to allowing them to study one thing and talk about another. The dictionary defines health as ‘free of disease or injury’. To me health also includes resistance to and the ability to recover from disease and injury and not just their absence. Many would include fitness, over all physical capability and even mental perspective into their definition of what being “healthy” means. These are all valid interpretations of “health”. What isn’t a valid description of health is “age” which is exactly what these studies invariably use. The fact that rats in group A lived for a longer time than rats in group B tells me precisely nothing about the health of either group. Were the rats in group A longer lived because they were so tired and miserable that they slept all day? Did the rats in group B shorten their lives through constant partying, drinking way too much rat beer and engaging in unsafe rat sex acts that even made the seasoned researchers blush? Who knows, likelihood to engage in freaky rat sex acts isn’t a widely used metric in nutrition studies but maybe it should be, to my thinking it is probably a better indicator of overall health than longevity is. To me, healthy isn’t necessarily about extending life another 20 years after the capacity to enjoy it has passed, healthy is being able to squeeze another five or six productive years out of joints and organs that would have otherwise packed it in. Maybe I will change my mind in the next few decades but for now, and I think most people would agree, quality of life is way more important than quantity of life and studies like these make no distinction between the two. Death is inevitable, leading a fulfilling life is optional and health should be about maximizing the later rather than postponing the former.
Actually there is a creature for whom death is not inevitable. There is a species of jellyfish that can switch between its larval stage and its fully mature form at will and in doing so achieves complete cell regeneration, giving it effective immunity to the aging process. So it is possible to live for ever, you just have to live forever as a jellyfish.
3. Why am I reading this? Who did the study and how did they do it? Is it a lab study or is it remotely applicable to the world I live in?
Please don’t assume from all this negativity that I am against science or the scientific method, there is no better way to discover the working details of our lives and the universe. It is science as portrayed on the likes of “Sunrise with Kochi and Mel” that makes me angry. For example, in a petri dish in some lab somewhere it was discovered that cancer cells died off much faster than other tissue cells when soaked in a solution of diluted vitamin C.
“Ahh interesting”, thinks random white coat guy, “some characteristic of these particular cancer cells (which I don’t know) reacts with some characteristic (Not sure which) of this particular vitamin solution (maybe just this one, maybe a range of other blends) to do something, (I don’t know what) that results in making cancer cells die off slightly more quickly than the other tissue present. (maybe just this particular type of tissue, maybe just this particular donor, maybe even just this individual petri dish.)”
So he releases his paper hoping that with enough further research into the causes and effects displayed some useful treatment may be implemented in a decade or three. Of course the headlines the next day say “Vitamin C kills cancer!!!” Which isn’t exactly wrong but it is certainly a long way away from right and nothing at all like what a researcher with any sort of scruples would suggest his experiment demonstrated. It does however probably sell a few extra bottles of vitamins at the local supermarket. Headlines, and increasingly entire news articles, are more aimed at grabbing your attention than providing you with information. It is really hard to sell a newspaper with a front page that says “Todays shit, exactly the same as yesterdays shit. Only newer.” Which is why only the studies that claim something unorthodox get printed. The one peer reviewed article claiming global warming is a fraud gets more coverage than the three hundred peer reviewed articles supporting the theory because dissenting opinion is “news” while the bulk of scientific research which affirms a theory is “olds” and thus won’t help sell anything. So the simple fact that a science paper is being reported in mainstream media outlets rather than just the relevant journals indicates that a healthy dose of skepticism is required.
While we are wearing our skeptical spectacles, do I really need to point out that the vast majority of research is paid for by organisations looking to promote the benefits of a particular product that they own? It shouldn’t come as a surprise when research by the Milk Board suggests we drink more milk and yet a study paid for by Soy Corp proves that the old moo juice is unhealthy. The tobacco firms started the trend, but these days almost every large scale industry organization has a research team dedicated to singing the praises of their products. Fitness Australia certainly has and do you think they will be publishing anything that suggests getting sweaty is kinda gross, exercise is a massive pain in the ass or that fat and happy people are just as common as fit and happy people? Of course they won’t.
Finally there is also the question of how useful lab data is once it is out in the real world. For example lets look at the Vitamin C example above. Without the means to apply a weak solution of intravenous Vitamin C directly to cancerous cells, you would need a syringe, an IV bag and a circulatory system that works pumping orange juice instead of blood for starters, there is no possible behavioral change that can be supported by the evidence. Or let’s say that they discover muscles grow better in zero gravity (totally the opposite by the way), even if the study was in all other aspects impeccable if you are not an astronaut you can’t do anything about it. This comes up when studying of high doses of various micronutrients all the time. Alar, an industrial chemical linked to birth defects, cancer and listening to Justin Beiber was suddenly found in apples and the easily concerned but scientifically illiterate types immediately wanted warning labels printed on every granny smith and a quota system for grandma’s baking. It took weeks before someone pointed out that Alar occurs in such small quantities you would need to consume more than twice your own body weight in apples before you felt any ill effects and if you are eating twice your body weight in anything you have way worse problems that a little industrial chemicals.
There you have it, my quick guide to dismissing stuff you don’t agree with without having to bother reading it at all! I will actually go check to see what the study has to say over the weekend and get back to you all but honestly, if the findings support anything as controversial as the headlines I will eat both my shoes. If it is as bad as they suggest I promise I will just cut them into bite sized chunks and chow down, so if you see me barefoot in the gym next week feel free to point and laugh.
If you enjoy being a sceptical prick you should really read “bad medicine” by Dr Ben Goldacre. He focuses mostly on examining the medical industry and science reporting but where he really shines is in educating his audience to a point where they can identify for themselves when nonsense masquerades as science and when statistics are massaged so they suit the researchers purposes.
If you think you might enjoy being an immortal jellyfish here is a deliciously nerdy dude explaining a bit more about them.
See you in the gym