I also blog frequently on the Yesod Web Framework blog, as well as the FP Complete blog.

How I research health

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I’d like to present two fairly straightforward points:

  • I’ve written multiple blog posts on health related topics
  • I have absolutely no formal training on the topic, and there’s no reason people should take my blog posts as authoratative

That said, I continue to write these blog posts, share information with friends and family, and make decisions for myself. How do I reconcile this? How do I approach the truly terrifying level of contradictory information available in the health/nutrition/exercise landscape? How do I want other people reading content from me to relate to it, given that I’m a self-acknowledged non-expert?

I strongly believe that the biggest hurdle for people to adopt healthy lifestyle choices these days is knowing where to begin (with willpower to do so in second place). Are you supposed to follow low carb, or low fat? Jog, or sprint? Body weight training, or free weights?

In general, this is similar to the Paradox of Choice, only worse: not only can you become paralyzed by the sheer number of options out there, but you can also be paralyzed by the fact that different sources will claim that each alternative will actively harm you. Given that landscape, it’s only natural for people to walk away saying “the experts are just going to change their minds in 10 years, there’s no point trying to make changes to my lifestyle.” And I should know: I felt that way for years.

My process

Having established my credentials as a non-expert in this field, here’s how I’ve approached gathering knowledge and making decisions on the topics:

  • Trust very little. If “experts” can completely contradict each other, blindly trusting “experts” is impossible. You’ll end up on a low-fat, low-carb, vegan, carnivore diet. In other words, you’ll starve yourself to death. Except the experts also say not to use fasting.
  • Listen to everything. This may sound contradictory to my previous point, but it’s not. You should read, listen to podcasts, watch videos, and consume any other content from as varied a set of sources as you can. Take them all into account, but don’t blindly trust anything. Look for patterns in the recommendations. Pay attention to the inconsistencies. Watch for trends. This may help guide you towards some relatively uncontroversial opinions (e.g., “avoid processed foods,” “don’t eat unless you’re hungry”), and help you understand better what the current debates are all about.
  • Dig into the sources. This stage is honestly optional, but I find it enjoyable because I like this stuff. Having understood where the “authorities” are arguing, look at their sources, and others they don’t provide. Read nutrition studies and reviews. It may help you understand how those “authorities” are misrepresenting some facts, for example. Accept the fact that even these primary sources are going to contradict, but see if you can parse through the contradictions. Example: it’s very common for “low carb” studies to come up with vastly different results; pay attention to if they’re using the same definition of “low carb.”
  • Experiment on yourself. Sample size 1 experiments without a double blind control aren’t real science. Fair enough. But they do tell you a lot about your own body and how you respond. Even if it’s the placebo effect, it’s still an effect. If you get a headache every time you eat X, even if all of the studies say it helps with headaches… maybe don’t eat X. (Intentionally not giving a concrete example, I don’t want to cause a placebo effect in anyone.)
    • One caveat I always feel obligated to restate: I am not a doctor. My advice is just the advice of someone who doesn’t know anything. If you have medical conditions, or specific medical instructions, I am absolutely not telling you to ignore them.

My sources

My sources of information these days tend towards voices in the low carb and barbell training communities. More on how I ended up here a bit below. As I said above, I’d strongly recommend gathering many different sources. And even if you disagree with one side (e.g., you’re either pro- or anti-vegan), I suggest finding the best sources on each side that you can.

Here are some of the sources I read or listen to.

And books I’ve read and recommend:

  • The Obesity Code
  • The Complete Guide to Fasting
  • The Hungry Brain
  • The Case Against Sugar
  • The Secret Life of Fat

Some notes on these:

  • The Hungry Brain and The Case Against Sugar are in many ways contradictory. However, as I’ll mention below, I think they can complement each other.
  • I got less out of The Complete Guide to Fasting than I expected. It was interesting and motivational, but I was already motivated to try fasting. If you want to know why you should try fasting, read it. If you just want to do it: feel free to just fast :)
  • Similarly, The Secret Life of Fat was more theoretical on topics I was less interested in, and didn’t lend much on the practical side. Still a good collection of information.

My filters

There’s a huge amount of information out there. It’s simply not humanly possible to read everything, experiment with everything, etc. You’ll need to ultimately install some filters to help you parse through the information. Here are some I use:

  • I like to be educated on a topic. But if it doesn’t affect me personally, or I’m happy with my approach for the moment, I’ll stop focusing on it.

  • I believe sources are biased. This applies to me (as I tried to point out a bit above, and will do more so of soon). As a religious Jew, I use this example: if a Rabbi told me that eating pork was unhealthy, I would distrust him. I believe there’s quite a bit of that in the health space, where moral arguments end up influencing, for example, complete avoidance of animal products or using only humanely raised products. I’m not going to comment here on the moral arguments at all, but I will say that I think they bias many proponents. Similarly, people who have made a career on advocating a certain dietary or exercise approach will have a vested interest in continue to espouse it, despite new evidence contradicting.

    We can’t eliminate this bias, it’s human nature. My best advice, and what I try to do, is to identify it, and weigh arguments. When possible, I try to find less-biased sources on topics, such as Jeff Nippard’s video on vegan diet science.

  • After I get into a rut of a specific approach, I try to force myself to listen to contradicting views again. It’s enlightening to see how I will react negatively on hearing the arguments. I try hard to force myself to get past my own biases and judge the information on its own. Basically: when I listen to a video or read a post/article/book, I try to turn off my falsehood filter temporarily, absorb the information, and only analyze its veracity after the fact.

I’m currently actively looking for information sources which are more positive of high-carb and vegan eating approaches. The sources I’ve found so far typically have been too moralistic (eating animals is bad) or authoritarian (all major organizations support what we say) for my taste. I’d be happy if people want to leave some recommendations below.

My biases

This section is mostly irrelevant, but for those curious, I want to be more explicit about my current biases:

  • I believe resistance training is overall more important to health than cardio. Of resistance training, I believe weight training is easier to improve with than bodyweights or resistance bands. And of weight training, freeweights (barbells in particular) give the best results, though require significant effort in learning the form. And you’ll never beat deadlifts for back problems.
  • Sugar is the worst part of our diets today. You should avoid it like the plague. I’m mixed on artificial sweeteners.
  • Vegetable oil is almost as bad as sugar.
  • Both low carb and low fat work really well. But overall, low carb is easier to lose weight with and adhere to.
  • The simple rule of “no processed foods” will solve about 80% of diet problems, if you include sugar, vegetable oil, and refined grains as processed foods.
  • Fasting (intermittent, multiday, etc), are healthy. Not only are they good physically, but more importantly they prove to yourself that you’re stronger than you think.
  • While hormones are an important part of obesity, and likely the prime factor (constantly high insulin), the approach in “The Hungry Brain” of highly palatable foods/food reward causing overconsumption of calories seems to be a factor. (I might even say it’s obviously a factor.) Despite much public attention, I don’t see the hormone and food reward hypotheses as completely conflicting, and believe both should be paid attention to for optimizing health.

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