Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Fit to Be Tied

Published in Blog.

Last year Lifehacker published an article titled “Why There’s So Much Confusion Over Health and Nutrition.” Sourced from a heavily-educated group of collaborators, the lengthy breakdown goes deep into the advertised chaos, but the key takeaway from it is a line of questioning that helps sift out the scattered grains of qualified and substantiated theory from a desert of baseless online opinion: first, when considering health and nutrition advice, take into account the source and question the basis for their reasoning; second, given the “who” and “why,” ask if there a chance that individual is wrong; and third, if they might be wrong, ask if there is a second unrelated source that corroborates the position. If the line of questioning doesn’t pan out, the stated opinion is not likely valid. David Katz (whose qualifications pass the test) went at this same conundrum head-on in his 2013 article “Opinion Stew,” challenging hollow nutrition expertise in unravelling one particular source of confusion:

I don’t think someone who has been a passenger on a plane is automatically a credible source about how to fly one. I don’t think anyone who has driven over a suspension bridge necessarily knows how best to build one. I don’t think someone treated once by a neurosurgeon gets to offer expert commentary on the nuances of brain surgery.

I trust these examples all seem pretty silly. We would never allow for claims of expertise, and cottage industries based on them, to be established on such flighty nonsense.

Unless, of course, the claims of expertise and cottage industries pertained to nutrition and weight loss — in which case, that’s exactly what we would do. It’s exactly what we are doing.

“Dietitians and nutritionists are experts in food and nutrition,” says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “They advise people on what to eat in order to lead a healthy lifestyle or achieve a specific health-related goal.” And in 2012 there were 67,400 of these people working in the United States. That same year there were 267,000 fitness trainers and instructors on the job. (These figures may or may not include positions such as actualization masters, bodyweight-training aficionados, cleanse-ologists, endurance senseis, fitness gurus, life architects, personal empowerment concierges, physique strategists, strength and conditioning sages, visualization instructors, or weight loss mentors, though I’m sure at least a few are in the mix somewhere.) There is no shortage health industry (which, for the ease of use from here on out, will bundle fitness, health, and nutrition) experts in this country, and if you plug “fitness” or “nutrition” into your local Google map search, you’ll see plenty of evidence that the cottage industry Katz refers to is booming. I did this, myself, and a few months ago I decided that a career change was in order: $736.11 later and I was on my way to becoming a certified personal trainer.

Not long after I registered with the National Academy of Sports Medicine and began my studies I was having lunch with a friend and I started telling him what I was working on. Without hesitation he snapped back at me, “Please tell me this isn’t like becoming an online minister.” My defenses shot up as I unpeeled a hasty response: there was the near-700 page textbook I had to read, the self-study program I’d purchased, the videos to watch, the exercises and procedures to learn, the CPR and AED training, and the final exam I had yet to pass. This was legit, I told him. I could still see where he was coming from though, and I can still identify with his reservations. To him (and plenty of other people), being a personal trainer seems to have more to do with how many push-ups someone’s capable of doing than it does their understanding of biomechanics. Yes, part of why there’s so much confusion over health and nutrition likely stems from everyone with an opinion having an opinion on fitness and nutrition, but few aspects of the health industry are able to escape scrutiny, when you get right down to it.

For example, the recent herbal supplement controversy brings about an important distinction regarding general health supplement regulation — most notably, that there really isn’t any (and how bizarre is it that “good manufacturing practices” is an un-required opt-in only manufacturing distinction?). Besides what may or may not be in the supplements that are to aid in good health, “research shows that people who take dietary supplements are often the ones who need them the least.” So people who take the supplements they take probably don’t need what they’re taking, if in fact what they’re taking is what it says it is. Common sense aside, it can be confusing to know what’s healthy and what’s not.

Every new week brings with it new research that contributes to the ever-shifting definition of healthy living, regardless of who might have “sponsored” it (or if that research has any actual implication on humans). And once opinion is set, we tend to lean on confirmation biases to strengthen our positions of what’s right and wrong. Even in the face of scientific research that concludes otherwise, “if enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it.”

Once a conclusion has been made, binary thinking has a way of taking over, leaving room for only right or wrong. Rarely does this not result in some warped version of what healthy living is, with polar opinions leaving little room for nuanced perspective. And depending on your daily media diet, it can be fairly easy to form strong opinions around baseless information that seems to come from reputable sources. (This is where reasonable online debate can degenerate into sea-lioning — if you’ve ever read Internet comments you’re all-too-familiar with Katz’ explanation of how “the least substantiated, most uninformed opinions” will “come at you with the greatest conviction.” As a related sidebar, “Popular Science magazine recently stopped allowing comments because of a study from the University of Wisconsin that showed that such comments could make naive readers think that settled science is up for debate.”)

Even among “experts” the range of grays between informed and uninformed is myriad. In and of themselves, calling yourself a “personal trainer” or “nutrition consultant” doesn’t mean that you have any qualifications, though there is a certification process associated with each field that can be completed to add a training-based legitimacy to the title (that said, accredited by no means is to be confused with regulated. “This means that your 90-year-old grandmother can be a trainer. So can the guy beside you, or even someone who just started training.” If this is starting to smack of the rather scammy self-improvement industry, there’s a reason for that: Wherever there is a profession built on the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of people, there will be people who exploit those vulnerabilities and weaknesses for their own gain. Pick your choice of late-night infomercials to back that claim up. Writing for The New York Times in 2007, Michael Pollan’s “Unhappy Meals” is as comprehensive and informative article on the curious evolution of nutritionism as there might be. It also sniffs out the obvious motivation behind making the nutrition industry as confusing as it is.

The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutritional science and — ahem — journalism, three parties that stand to gain much from widespread confusion surrounding what is, after all, the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. Humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you’re a food company, distinctly risky if you’re a nutritionist and just plain boring if you’re a newspaper editor or journalist. (Or, for that matter, an eater. Who wants to hear, yet again, “Eat more fruits and vegetables”?) And so, like a large gray fog, a great Conspiracy of Confusion has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition — much to the advantage of everybody involved. Except perhaps the ostensible beneficiary of all this nutritional expertise and advice: us, and our health and happiness as eaters.

You can’t always trust the food industry, you can’t always trust the “experts,” you can’t always trust the media, and confusion continues to reign supreme. Yippee.

There is an inherently non-existent level of authority that comes with being a personal trainer-in training. I get that. I also recognize that reading a bunch of articles online and parroting back their conclusions does not make my opinions on fitness, health, or nutrition more well-informed than anyone else. I haven’t been consistent in taking care of myself in the past, and I don’t even have a physique that screams “I’m a personal trainer!” In fact, I’ve never actually trained anyone, nor do I have any gym or health club work experience. My prior education isn’t in a field of study related to fitness and/or health, and — honestly — the only barrier to entry I’ve had to overcome to this point in pursuing a career as a personal trainer has involved the accrual and application of a personal line of credit. But I think it’ll all work out so long as I avoid contributing to the confusion.

When I pulled the trigger on buying the personal trainer course, I also made a decision that I was going to start blogging about health, fitness, and wellness. The goal was fairly loose, and it included maybe funneling blog-readers (if they still exist somewhere) into a mailing list which I could use to sell something to someone at some point in time. But through these first couple months it’s become apparent to me just how unnecessary that is: projecting an enhanced understanding of health, fitness, and wellness to create the perception of authority where there is none is the exact opposite of what I need to be doing right now. Besides, there’s no way this world needs more reductive articles counting down the top 10 ways to maximize your gains.

I want to keep learning so that I can eventually help others, but right now I want to keep learning so that I can help myself. People don’t tend to appreciate others who fail to recognize the disconnect within their own actions and beliefs. Right now

There is very little sex-appeal to moderation, and it’s not flashy to be consistent, but I want to keep making small strides at this until I’m of actual benefit to myself. Then maybe I’ll be helpful to someone else.

[This article is unfinished and has been published in its draft state.]