why so much fitness and diet advice is wrong

Getting fit is a massive industry which claims to have the latest science behind it. But as more people are taking their advice, the world's obesity epidemic is spreading. How is that possible?
fitness model climbing rope

According to far too many fitness gurus, motivational speakers, personal trainers, and lifestyle pundits, your body is a complicated, precisely balanced machine that can be customized pretty much any way you want. All it takes is precisely calibrating your calorie intake, nutrient balance, and exercise routine, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re ready and willing to help you do exactly that for a fee tailored to your financial situation. And yet, despite lifestyle and fitness being an 11 figure industry, post-industrial nations are dealing with explosions of obesity and are awash in complains that none of the advice given by experts seems to actually work for millions and millions of people desperate to lose weight or get the bodies they want.

So, what gives? How can so many dieticians, nutritionists, trainers, and doctors get so many things so wrong? Well, according to an article in Economist’s 1843 Magazine, it’s because the science behind fitness and nutrition is based on nearly century old guesstimates and basic, preliminary studies taken as holy writ, then seldom improved on even when major problems were pointed out. Specifically, the story focuses on why despite what you may have heard, a calorie is not a calorie, is not a calorie. People absorb food differently, have different, wonky, and changing metabolisms, and while eating less and moving more is always a good idea, not everyone should eat less of everything and move more in the same way.

why isn’t the advice working?

Just consider the story of Salvador Camacho, featured prominently in the aforementioned article. In his quest to lose weight, he received the same advice as everyone. Eat less, move more, and keep track of every calorie in and every calorie out. His success was minimal for years on end, and he only got in shape after learning to listen to his body, focusing on eating minimally processed food, and exercising for fun and the social benefits of fitness classes, instead of punishing himself for not losing enough weight the previous week. He lost fat and packed on plenty of muscle, though as far as the BMI chart is concerned, he’s still overweight because BMI applied to individuals who fall outside a certain range is about as accurate as a Ouija board.

And this is an important lesson to internalize. Lifestyle studies are notoriously misrepresented in the media and seldom say what you’re told they say, often feeding into narratives from an entire industry of people who want to help you lose weight, gain a six pack, and protect you from cancer. At this point you’ve probably been told that coffee causes cancer and also helps you live longer along with a little wine, that organic food will help prevent cancer despite the studies in question showing it has absolutely no protective effect, and that pork will turn your gut into tumor city despite the fact that even if you eat it every day, your risk of developing gastrointestinal cancers ticks up only negligibly. And if experts are still unsure of how we can reach optimal health, focusing on studies they say are very narrow and focus on very specific questions for other experts, there’s no way lifestyle gurus have answers to questions still up for debate and in need of years of careful research.

why we need to get fit at our own pace

It’s confusing, overwhelming, and you’re right to be frustrated and incredulous when you hear about another seemingly nonsensical finding which was probably grossly misrepresented for the benefit of ratings. The reality is that aside from not smoking and just trying your best to stay active and eat well, we don’t know enough to give people some sort of blueprint for how to live their lives and prevent cancer, obesity, arthritis, or dementia, and those who say otherwise are just trying to sell you something. If you really were a finely tuned instrument, there’s no way your ancestors would’ve survived the hundreds of thousands of years before the first studies into nutrition. They’d constantly be eating the wrong things, getting improper exercise, failing to meet the right balance of micronutrients, opening their third eye with the wrong yoga poses, or what have you.

Our great-great grandparents should’ve been malnourished wrecks barely able to reproduce or take care of their children instead of having similar lifespans to us, just lacking the tools to stave off infectious diseases we can treat with antibiotics today. (Well, at least for now.) It’s not that people aren’t listening to the advice they’re given and failing to heed it, it’s that so much of the advice is based on very tenuous and preliminary science, or comes from misconstrued, out of context findings. It could also very well be that we’re making things more complicated than they need to be and trying to fill in gaps of artificial complexity with cargo cult science, setting millions up for a long period of frustration and disappointment, if not outright failure.

The fact that so many of us can get fit just doing basic things, and that our ancestors managed to stay fit back when the very idea of calories was still being worked out and the main forms of exercise were running around in the woods, walking around the neighborhood, and juggling kettlebells to jazz and big band music, should be a pretty strong hint that we’re overthinking this, often at a huge profit to a massive industry with an appalling failure rate.

# health // dieting / exercise / fitness / scientific research


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