The best health study is the study of yourself.
Dr. Sara LaMarch
Popular Health Statements
Over the past 25 years, diet book sales and gym memberships have increased significantly, yet obesity is on the rise and cardiovascular disease is a common ailment in our country. This explosion of the fitness and nutrition industries, coupled with the speed of information exchange these days, creates an environment in which we’re constantly bombarded by messages about what is and is not healthy. Regardless of whether this information is coming from the media, the government, or corporations themselves, it can be very difficult to decipher what is true and what isn’t. One of the big obstacles for most people is they don’t have the specific education to determine the validity of the information they hear and read. Think about some VERY common refrains in our society today, “saturated fat will clog your arteries”, “red meat will give you cancer”, “eating cholesterol will lead to heart disease”, “whole grains are heart healthy.” The majority of your exposure to these statements is not from the media or advertisers, but from regular people you and I come into contact with daily. Take a quick peek at the steps to a perfectly persuasive message and you can understand why people repeat these statements so often. The fact is that if I asked the average person to explain exactly HOW saturated fat will clog my arteries, they wouldn’t have the first clue how to tell me. They’re simply regurgitating conventional wisdom.
We can’t all be experts
Getting a firm handle on nutrition requires a good understanding of biochemistry and cellular metabolism, as well as the composition (fat, protein, carbohydrate, vitamin, mineral) of the food we eat daily. Understanding the ramifications for lifelong health is even more difficult. Similarly, to truly understand the basics of how fitness is built and maintained requires knowledge of anatomy, kinesiology, and bioenergentics. Getting your head around all of these topics simply is not possible for most people. You all have full lives with career and family commitments and do not have the time to achieve the depth of knowledge that is required to wade through all of the mixed messages presented by the media, food manufacturers, and health professionals.
The reality of health studies
To make things even more ambiguous, sometimes even when you attain all of the knowledge provided by a B.S. in exercise science or nutrition, there are still unanswered questions. Chemistry and anatomy can only take you so far. To answer specific questions (i.e. what’s better for building muscle, 3 sets of 10 or 5 sets of 5?), scientific studies are performed under the best possible conditions in order to flesh these answers out. While this can be helpful, studies are often plagued by as many biases and issues as the messages that come from the media or the manufacturers. In fitness trials, two big problems are that the sample size is often low and they typically use untrained individuals. Novice trainees will gain muscle and lose fat if exposed to ANY training protocol, so it’s difficult to decipher the efficacy of different methods. In nutrition studies, researchers often collect observational data since it’s not really feasible to keep subjects on site and prepare all of their meals for them. This means the subject in the study must self report their own food intake, which as you can imagine makes the findings a little sketchy.
N=1: Study Yourself
So if we can’t fully trust what we hear from the media and research studies, and don’t have time to get a health related degree, what is the answer? How can we possibly know if what we’re eating and what we’re doing in the gym is having positive impacts on our health? The answer is N=1. This is a fancy way of saying you’re performing a self experiment. I first heard the term on Keith Norris’ excellent fitness and nutrition blog, Theory to Practice. The truth of the matter is that regardless of what anyone in the media or the scientific community says, we all react differently to different stimuli. Messages from the media and study results are typically blanket statements like “fat is bad!” or “acai berries prevent cancer!” or “quinoa is a magic grain!” Not only are these statements based on potentially bad science, but they are generalized to everyone. They don’t take into account that many of us react differently to certain things. Some of us have varying degrees of intolerance or allergy to things like nuts, dairy, eggs, legumes, wheat, and other grains. Some people have metabolisms that enable them to ‘eat whatever they want’ and hardly gain any fat. Other people can virtually start gaining fat just by looking at carbohydrates. Some people sleep soundly throughout the night, others are fitful. Some tolerate caffeine and alcohol better than others. We’re not cookie cutter versions of each other and hence may require individualized approaches to nutrition or fitness.
The point is that regardless of any opinions you hear from the outside world, your best bet is to run an N=1 experiment on yourself. The best way to start is with a good hypothesis about something you may need to change in your life to make yourself healthier. A good example would be using your knowledge of the paleo diet to decide that gluten might be bad for you. First, resolve to remove it for at least 3-4 weeks with ZERO cheating. The effects of gluten (and dairy) can linger for almost a month, so you may not feel the full benefits until then. It is NOT a good experiment if you’re strict during the week then eat pizza and drink beer every Friday night. A month may seem like a long time, but if you can’t go a month without something that may be compromising your health, that should be evidence enough of the addictive power of that particular food. To run a good experiment, try to keep everything else in your life relatively constant, such as work, sleep, exercise, and the rest of your diet. This may be tough but just do the best you can. Keep notes about your energy levels before and after meals, as well as any changes in mood or quality of sleep. If you’re serious about documenting this and want some statistical proof, run the gluten-free experiment for a few months and get medical tests done before and after. One or all of the following are excellent: body weight, body fat %, triglycerides, blood pressure, total cholesterol, HDL/LDL, LDL particle size, c reactive protein (for inflammation), and A1c (blood glucose). These results along with your anecdotal notes will give you REAL information about how gluten affects YOU. From then on, anything you hear from the media or scientific community can be taken with a grain of salt because you’ve already experienced more concrete results that apply to you. Also, even if you go back to eating gluten occasionally, you’ll always know what type of health you were in completely free of gluten.
Back in the day before people had constant access to information, everyone had to run an N=1 experiment. And if you look at some literature from the 1920’s and 30’s, there were some incredibly strong, fit, and healthy people competing in weightlifting and sport. Through careful trial and error over time, they figured out what was required for their bodies to thrive. I’d urge you to do the same!
Dr. Sara LaMarch
Mill Valley, CA
For more information please contact me at email@example.com