In my opinion, one of the most common mistakes in the field of health and fitness (and pretty much all other aspects of life for that matter) is to jump right in with specific conclusions and opinions without having first established a fundamental framework. Just like building the top of a pyramid requires a robust foundation, we have to establish a core set of principles before we can understand the smaller, more specific concepts and questions in life. Essentially, we will never be able to build a perfect pyramid without having a solid foundation. Also, having this type of system saves us a lot of time, as it ensures that we’re not spending time on questions/ideas/thoughts/hypotheses that have no underlying support. Starting at the bottom might seem like the obvious way of doing things, but the fact is that the conventional way is often to try to jump right in at the top.
We can never build a solid foundation without knowledge about evolution and history! While studying the millions of years of human evolution and understanding the selective pressures that shaped our genome and species don’t necessarily provide any firm conclusions as to how we should live our lives in the 21st century, it gives us a base and a set of principles to build upon. When it comes to human health, I like to adhere to what I’ve called the organic framework. This is the structure I use to understand the smaller question related to nutrition, exercise, and general health. Since this framework is very broad, I like to adjust it somewhat depending on the topic I’m looking into.
I understand that these concepts might seem a little abstract, so here are a couple of examples to illustrate the idea.
Example 1: A new study which seemingly shows that consumption of red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer is published, and newspapers around the world put up articles extolling the dangers of eating red meat. For someone with little experience in the field of nutrition, this information might seem convincing, and many people end up changing their diets. However, if we have a basic system for understanding human nutrition, we quickly realise that these results are probably nothing to worry about.
First of all, the idea that red meat consumption is bad for you makes absolutely no sense from an evolutionary point of view. Second, we know that the vast majority of data don’t support the notion that consumption of high-quality, grass-fed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer. We can’t throw out all the previous RCTs and meta-analyses just because of this one study.
Since the result from this new study have little support in our basic structure for understanding human nutrition, we automatically question the conclusions and realise that several different factors, such as study design (was it just an observational study?), methods (did they use processed meats?), and confounding variables (e,g,. did the rest of their diet and lifestyle impact the outcome?), probably influenced the results.
Example 2: Okay, let’s do another one on nutrition. One thing I hear a lot is people complaining about how difficult it is to know which foods are healthy and which are not. All of the conflicting information on nutrition has led some people to essentially give up, saying that “nothing seems to be healthy anymore”. This confusion largely stems from shocking media reports and constant shifts in dietary trends, and it seems that some folks are under the impression that a healthy diet today is very different from how a healthy diet looked like a couple of decades or centuries ago. However, this is clearly not true. Our human genome, and to a certain extent the human microbiome, were forged in the ancestral natural environment. If we use evolution as the foundation when looking at human nutrition we don’t have to care about dietary trends, new study results which seemingly show the complete opposite of what we know to be true, and shocking newspaper articles, because we understand that our genome and physiology today are largely the same as they were a thousand, or even a hundred thousands years ago. We still require the same inputs in order to optimize gene expression.
Example 3: Let’s do a final example to really get the idea; this time about training. While I find that an evolutionary perspective on physical activity is a great way to understand how we should move our bodies, it isn’t enough when it comes to optimizing muscle growth, strength development, and/or athletic performance. Why? Although studying indigenous human activity patterns can help us understand what the human body can handle in terms of frequency, intensity, and type of exercise, it’s only recently (from an evolutionary perspective) that bodybuilding-type training, weight lifting, and sports training have become very popular. Yes, humans definitely ran long distances and lifted heavy things even in the paleolithic era, but not in the way athletes train today. However, by adhering to a basic set of core principles, which are based on evolution, science, and experience, we can quickly dismiss poor ideas and understand how to develop effective training programs. E.g., is it optimal to completely exhaust (20 sets) each muscle group once a week if the goal is the gain muscle and strength? First we ask, does it make sense from an evolutionary perspective? No. Is it supported in science? No. Is it supported by practical experience? No. In other words, we dismiss this idea.
Okay, so I hope this gave you a little insight as to how I think about things and hopefully a couple of tips as to how you can incorporate this type of system into your life and way of thinking. I also want to emphasise that although the examples above revolve around health and fitness, the “pyramid principle” can be used in pretty much all other aspects of life as well. You can quickly recognize anyone who adheres to these types of principles, as their ideas and thoughts are rooted in a solid foundation.
In my next article I’m going to show how these principles can be used to make sense of a seemingly complicated topic.