In order to keep my sanity, I frequently avoid conversations around nutrition when I am not otherwise required to do so.
I didn’t always actively avoid though; I’ve had my share of monologues dispelling myths and giving advice. But because the truth is rarely sexy, it doesn’t hold up to the excitement that the internet can provide.
I’ve found that a lot of people just want affirmation of something they’ve already decided to do. There isn’t anything wrong with experimenting, but most people are just recycling old mistakes without realizing it.
They do so because they haven’t learned how to set goals, which means they have no idea what is actually working and what isn’t.
They make wishes but call them goals (more on this later). They have a strategy but no expectations, which means when they fail, they “just need to try harder.”
I see people give up on a strategy at the pinnacles of success because they think they are doing poorly, and just as often, I see people making a fool of themselves with more confidence than any PhD in the world (aka Dunning-Kruger effect).
How is that possible, you ask?
It’s because if you don’t know what to expect, you can be sold on just about anything that promises results.
To further explain, I’ll use a metaphor to help you understand why I pick my nutrition battles and why most RDs have developed selective hearing.
Imagine a terrible automotive business that makes the worst possible cars on the planet, but they have this amazing ability to always keep the customer feeling like they are the ones at fault.
The customer brings in the unreliable vehicle saying, “I think I used the brakes too much this week” and the workers just agree and charge them to fix the problem.
The workers would then tell the customer that they need to hold their breath while applying the brakes or else the car will not stop properly. The customer will then blame every wreck or breakdown on themselves and their pesky desire to live.
The customer will likely look to the internet for advice on how to deal with oxygen starvation while operating a vehicle in bumper to bumper traffic. As with most topics, there are plenty of experts to offer assistance and even cutting-edge products that help ease those awful hallucinations just before the moment of passing out.
Thank goodness for the internet!
In this obviously ridiculous scenario, you were able to see the problem right away. You might also be thinking that you would have to be an idiot to fall for something like this.
However, this is more or less reality when it comes to people trying to navigate nutrition and health information.
Instead of an evil automotive company, it’s a vast market of often well-intentioned services and products intended to help people solve a problem. Unfortunately, most of the problems are fictional, don’t need to be fixed, or are impossible to fix.
You’re Being Lied To
Nutrition and health marketers are metaphorically trying to help you not pass out while driving your car. They work hard to convince you that you’re broken, made of glass, or that others are scheming against you.
Most importantly, they, and only they, have the solution to handling your brittle and fragile body.
Fortunately, none of this is true.
Humans are amazingly adaptable, which is evidenced by the incredible differences in diets and lifestyles around the world. It’s also evidenced by phrases like “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Perception is reality.
Like most RDs, I walk through the grocery store rolling my eyes at the latest trend-pandering products.
The grocery store is a place where nonsense can hide in plain sight. For some reason, people are skeptical of other people selling them things face to face, but not so skeptical when the physical person is removed and replaced with words on a box or wrapper.
People think “hey, this is healthy because this package says it is!” instead of “how do I know this isn’t just a way for them to make money?”
It reminds me of the 1994 song “Hook” by Blues Traveler.
If you’ve never read the lyrics, I encourage you to do so. If you do, you’ll find a song that you’ve been singing along to for many years that makes fun of you for not paying attention to the lyrics.
The singer says that as long as he sings with inflection, he can literally say anything, and you’ll buy it and he’ll get rich. I can’t hear that song without thinking about nutrition marketing because it is painfully similar.
To borrow from the song, as long as they use the right buzz-words “the hook brings you back.”
Exhibit A: Organic Wine
Did you know they sell organic wine?
I’ve laughed at a number of products, but few have offered more chuckles than organic wine.
Organic is, somehow, supposed to be better because it’s more “natural” and many associate the marketing term with a reduced risk of cancer (among other fantasy-like wishes).
I’ll break this down…
First, tigers are “natural” but they aren’t necessarily friendly to humans.
Secondly and more importantly, wine contains a known human carcinogen regardless of whether or not it’s “organic.” In other words, wine contains alcohol which is known to cause cancer in humans.
So, what does that make “organic” wine? An oxymoron.
If you didn’t know that prior to this, that’s okay. However, if you continue to buy organic wine, you’ll be a regular moron.
Sorry for the dad joke, but seriously, don’t let “the hook bring you back.”
Before anyone asks, I’m not saying you should panic and throw out all of your wine. The dose makes the poison.
The point is that there isn’t a “healthy” wine regardless of what the bottle says.
If you like wine, there’s nothing wrong with that but stop pretending that you’re drinking it for your health. You’re an adult. Just say you like it and move on.
Wishes vs Goals
In my opinion, things like organic wine exist because most people don’t understand the difference between a wish and a goal. Again, if you have no expectations, you can be sold on just about anything as long as it promises something.
Wishes are typically not measurable or quantifiable, and are therefore not subject to reality.
Wishes are often mistaken for goals because people feel like they are taking meaningful steps to accomplish them, but often the original premise isn’t based in any reality.
I’ll use an example that I hear constantly…
“I don’t want to get cancer so I’m going to eat more/less [insert thing here].”
It isn’t really up to you.
I don’t mean to oversimplify such a nuanced topic, but the primary driver of cancer is time and not dying.
There are certainly things you can do to reduce your specific risk (don’t smoke, don’t eat or drink anything you find under the sink, exercise, eat a reasonable diet, and talk with a primary care physician), but ultimately the final outcome is decided by a multitude of things beyond your control.
You can “do everything right” and still get cancer. It sucks, but it’s a reality that can only be escaped by death itself.
The major takeaway is that this person is basing success on whether or not they get cancer. The premise is not based in reality and therefore any strategy based on this wish is arbitrary at best.
Not wanting to get cancer is something we all share but you have to understand that unrealistic expectations can lead you down expensive roads and into the arms of gurus and Instagram fitness models.
Cancer sucks but that isn’t an excuse to start believing in magic. The government is out to get you with aspartame to about the same degree that Lord Voldemort is going to kill you with the Elder Wand.
Personally, I’m way more concerned with the latter. (AVADA KEDAVRA!!!)
Here’s My Advice
Learn to focus only on the things that you can control and accept everything else as it comes.
Bonus points for accepting things as they come without using words like “good,” “bad,” “fair,” or “unfair.”
Most importantly, measure your success by your actions and not the outcome.
That sounds counter-intuitive to some, but you’re going to get dealt a bad hand from time to time and focusing on how unfair something is will derail you from the goal.
I recommend learning how to set goals the SMART way. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound.
Let’s put the original wish into SMART terms so you can see the flaws in this type of thinking.
Wish: “I don’t want to get cancer so I’m going to eat more/less [insert thing here].”
Specific: This means that you or anyone can understand exactly what you mean.
Be honest, can you describe what cancer is and how it develops?
Do you think that’s important to know before buying products or giving advice to others?
Measurable: This is how you will know if you are successful or even making progress.
How will you know you are/aren’t getting cancer?
How aggressive should you be and how will you know if it’s enough?
Achievable: This is where you should consider how realistic your goal is and whether or not it is possible.
Can you or anyone else stop cancer?
Do you see how being unable to answer that leaves you open to the placebo effect?
Relevant: The goal should line up with your “big-picture” ideas.
This is the big-picture idea.
Are you also going to abstain completely from alcohol and tobacco for the rest of your life?
Are you also going to exercise regularly, eat vegetables, and practice good sleep hygiene?
Time Bound: Set clear dates and times for when your goal should be achieved. This should prevent you from wasting unnecessary time when things aren’t working.
What is a good timeline for not “getting cancer”?
Should you quit your job to focus on this or can you knock it out at your convenience?
Hopefully when you see the original statement put into SMART terms, you can see how vulnerable it is to people trying to sell you something.
Pay attention to commercials and other advertising and you’ll see that they only promise things that can’t be measured. “Look better,” “feel better,” “have more energy,” and “be healthier” are all common marketing terms that are completely subjective and meaningless.
In other words, they are stupid.
There isn’t an acronym for this, they’re just stupid.
Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to decrease your risk of cancer, but you should focus on things within your control. Don’t know where to start? Ask your PCP.
Here’s another INCREDIBLY common example on a different topic…
Wish: “I want to get really toned and be healthy.”
What is toned?
What is healthy?
Again, what is toned?
How do you measure healthy?
Is toned healthy?
What is toned?
How do you know if you achieved something if you aren’t sure what it is?
Do you have the skills and resources for this task?
Have you tried before?
How is this different?
What will happen if you achieve it?
How do you know how long this should take if you can’t define it?
SMART goals aren’t going to stop you from being human, but they should give you some insight to where your plan is vulnerable to people that want to separate you from your money.
From a marketing standpoint, if it’s hard to measure an outcome, it’s easy to sell a product based on that outcome.
Consider this instead of “toned.”
I want to lose 20 pounds.
I weigh X now and want to weigh X – 20.
I have access to a (gym, coach, RD, or other help).
I understand it’s going to suck at times, but I am willing to pursue it anyway.
If you’ve failed at this before, then this part should be your major focus. Get help as needed but be skeptical of those promising anything quick or easy.
I ultimately want to lose 50 pounds for medical reasons.
20 pounds is a great start toward my ultimate goal.
(Aesthetic desire is fine too but just understand that it isn’t a goal. It’s a wish)
I think I can realistically lose an average of 1 pound per week for 20 weeks in total.
When people have SMART goals, they are less likely to seek out gimmicks in desperation.
If a person thought that they should lose 5 pounds each week, it would be very tempting for them to look for the “10 secrets your doctor doesn’t want you to know.”
I’ve had countless people get frustrated because they “only lost 2 pounds” in a single week, which is literally the gold standard. It’s easy to see why people would consider that a failure if they are thinking they need to lose 50 pounds and they only lost 2.
It hits even harder when they hear that Bob lost 50 pounds in one month doing keto.
However, this isn’t a SMART goal because the time-frame of losing faster than they already are just simply isn’t sustainable for the majority of people.
Furthermore, losing weight will likely be followed by a lifetime of effort maintaining the weight that was lost. Bob is starting the maintenance phase at a disadvantage and will soon learn why properly managed expectations are important.
Setting SMART goals will help you embrace the process and endure the parts that just plain suck while building the necessary habits to help in the long run. Proper expectations keep people away from home DNA/food sensitivity kits, diarrhea teas, crystal meth diet pills, and other over-the-counter nonsense.
One Final Thought
I’ll leave you with one final thought.
Things that are worth doing are rarely easy.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, then you’re already enjoying a lot of advantages that other people in the world would love to have.
When people in under-developed countries hear the complaints of Westerners (specifically Americans), they are often disgusted because they still live in a world that doesn’t have an “evil FDA” that makes sure their water is clean, food is safe, and all the other wonderful things we’ve taken for granted.
The truth is rarely sexy and if you truly think your doctor is keeping secrets, get a different doctor.
If nothing else, at least see the irony in running to someone that wants to protect you from the pharmaceutical industry by saying “here, just buy these supplements.”
If those supplements worked, the pharmaceutical industry would sell them as prescription medicine.
Lastly, remember that your value is in your efforts to better yourself and not necessarily the final outcome of whatever it is that you’re chasing. Bad things happen to good people and life is far from fair, but how could you ever truly know what you’re capable of if you were never actually tested?
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca