Do you take the blue pill, or the red pill?
I love this scene from The Matrix.
Neo is stuck in a virtual world, completely unaware that anything is going on. To him, sidewalks are solid, everything tastes like chicken and women in red dresses just happen. He’s taken in by a group of Rebels who know what’s really going on, and given the ultimate choice:
"You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
If Neo chooses to take a Blue Pill, he doesn’t need to worry about a thing. He just continues living the lie that he’s been told up to this point and forgets all about it. He’ll never know the truth and he’ll never truly be free, but at least he’ll be content and doesn’t have to undergo the pain of changing his view (or of jumping off buildings and getting shot at).
If, however, he takes the Red Pill, his eyes are opened to an entire new world which has been hiding from him this whole time, covered up by lies and deception. This is a perfect analogy (if I do say so myself) of the world of health, fitness, nutrition, research and marketing.
The Blue Pill
One thing we always find, at BTN, is that there is a huge range of people who come to us with a vast range of views around nutrition. This is fantastic, of course, because nobody should ever shy away from an intellectual challenge or an opinion that differs from his or her own. The day you decide that you have the answer and you stop looking for different opinions that challenge your views is the day you become dogmatic, and that’s rarely a good thing.
But when you think about it, it’s actually pretty surprising that these different opinions exist. The research is what it is, and it exists in a largely free space. What isn’t free, has been read and disseminated down in textbooks, articles, magazines, blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets by people who have access to the latest research for us all to take in. Surely if we all have access to the same body of research, then we should agree on everything – right?
This is where the problem comes in.
In an ideal world, that’s exactly what would happen – but this world isn’t ideal. What actually happens is that people are free to ‘cherry pick’ different bits of research to back them up and ignore the rest of the stuff which suggests they have plucked their ideas from a dark orifice. We also have well-meaning folk who spread ideas that they have heard or have read a little in to but don’t really know the context behind and so things get misrepresented or repeated incorrectly in a kind of research-based Chinese Whispers.
We also have the helpful guy at the gym that did something for himself and got results, and therefore concluded that the thing he did is the thing which got him results, rather than the million other things he’s doing at the same time. And finally we have the folks who simply lie in order to sell you something. BS artists, the Gurus, the folks who tell you that a bellybutton piercing is contributing to belly fat gain, or that running makes you fat, or that “There is no acceptable amount of any chemical to consume – ever”.
(All three of those things are ridiculous).
Yes, in an unregulated industry such as fitness, you don’t even have to be reading from the hymn-book at all to get so sing in the choir, and this has led to some pretty ludicrous things being spread over the years, meaning that this whole ‘health, fat-loss and muscle gain’ malarkey has become infinitely more difficult to decipher than it ever needed to be.
Here are some of my favourite gems….
Silly thing #1: Eating Fat Makes you Fat OR Eating Carbs makes you fat.
Fat is very good for you, it’s just pretty easy to overeat due to it’s caloric density and overall deliciousness. One or two studies was all it took for this little idea to take hold, despite a huge volume of data which stood to the contrary.
Then because fat wasn’t the bad guy any more, carbs had to go. We had the insulin hypothesis (which states that carbs=insulin=fat, and which was never backed up by anything and doesn’t even make sense when you know about how insulin actually works) and a number of low carb diet successes to thank for this one going viral, but again the vast amount of the evidence never supported it.
What’s the truth?
To be honest, both of these diets work. They work because when you remove an entire macronutrient you, by default, remove a fair amount of calories unless you make a conscious effort to replace them with other things. In fact, when studied directly, there is no difference between low fat and low carb diets so long as the amount of protein that people eat is accounted for (1). When protein isn’t accounted for, typically a low carb diet will have more protein due to people eating a bunch of bacon and eggs and steak, so these people will lose weight faster – owing to protein’s filling nature and a few inherent fat loss benefits.
Silly Thing #2: Sugar is Bad for you
This is a really popular one at the minute, but it’s not entirely true. Earlier I mentioned that people say stuff without context – well this is important because the context of a statement can determine its truthfulness or lack thereof. The statement “Sugar is bad for you” is incorrect, but the statement “Sugar is something which is probably best monitored within the diet, especially for non-active individuals” is not. Let’s back up.
The word sugar is a word used for short chain carbohydrates. They come in a number of forms (such as lactose in milk, or fructose in honey), but the most commonly spoken about one sucrose, which is a combination of two different monosaccharides – sugars – namely glucose and the above mentioned fructose.
Now, sugars are sweet to taste, and dissolvable in water. This means that they taste delicious and you can pack a lot of them into something that won’t fill you up like a drink or a syrup. These pack a lot of calories and are easy to overeat, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad for you per se. In fact, sugars are pretty damn useful.
Your body likes them so much, that it makes it’s own.
If you were to eat a white potato, you would be consuming a food which contains a carbohydrate known as starch, which has a long and complex molecular chain comprised of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen which needs to be digested and simplified before your body can use it. Starches or ‘complex carbs’ are typically considered good for you, but…
Upon digestion, this starch is broken down into, you guessed it, shorter and more ‘simple’ molecular chains, or sugar (glucose, specifically). In fact, your body is quite the fan of glucose – it’s the primary energy source for pretty much every part of you, and without it vital organs including your brain, and intense activity like lifting heavy weights start to suffer dramatically.
When you consume a sugar, the only real difference as far as your body is concerned is that it doesn’t have to perform this ‘breaking down’ stage before getting the exact same substance (worthy of note, your body can convert most things into glucose, including protein in some situations, and the other sugars mentioned above – it all gets used for energy as dictated by the calorie load you consume).
Because of this, a lot of the arguments against sugar are in fact arguments against carbohydrates, as the mechanisms for their use are more or less the same.
In fact, sugar has never shown, in humans, to be fattening, toxic, addictive, or any of that good stuff (2,3,4). It’s just tasty and calorie dense, while being poor at keeping you full, and when refined contains no nutritional benefit to us other than a raw fuel source.
Silly Thing #3: You HAVE to take X or Y Supplement to do something
Now, barring some unusual circumstances whereby a dietary or lifestyle choice makes it impossible to meet your nutritional needs, you should be able to get everything you will ever need to be perfectly fit, healthy, happy and on top of your game from food. If you’re a vegan it might be worth looking into B Vitamins and if you work night shift all of the time, Vitamin D might be a shout – but generally speaking you’ll be fine.
So why is it that just about every magazine, every other article and just about every athlete seems to be telling us (with scientific backing, might I add) that we need a certain powder or pill because it will dramatically improve our gainz or because without it we literally may as well just stay at home and drink tea instead of hitting the gym?
Simple – marketing, and loose usage of research references.
To explain this point I’ll consider a supplement which was popular recently, but which doesn’t actually do anything useful – D-Aspartic Acid. This was supposed to be a natural testosterone booster unlike anything you’ve ever seen before – it boosted free testosterone levels by up to 40% and had the research to prove it!
The problem is, that there was one study that showed this result, and a TON that showed no benefit at all. The full body of research actually sided with DAA being completely useless, but this one study showed 40% improvements so the supplement industry screamed “jump” and just about everyone in the gym asked how high. The most interesting thing here is the way in which even this one study was represented. 40% sounds massive, but when you bear in mind that free testosterone makes up a tiny fraction of total T – so 40% of almost nothing, and when you bear in mind that added free T without added receptor sites is like adding more cars to a car park without creating new spaces, and you can see that flashy wording and statistics can actually hide the truth beneath the label
"It’s time to take the red pill – it’s time to start your education".
The Red Pill
So, it’s confusing. Half of the industry tells us to eat carbs, half says don’t. Half recommends calorie counting while half recommends manipulating hormones. Some say do cardio, some say don’t, and at every turn someone is trying to sell a training program, diet, supplement of fancy bit of kit which promises to be ‘the answer’.
It’s time to take the Red Pill – it’s time to start your education.
The only way to learn what’s what, is to soak up as much information you can from trusted sources while also fostering critical thinking skills and a base level of suspicion which is offset by an open mind. These things seem conflicting, but it’s very possible to have an open mind whilst also being critical of all things you consider allowing in.
“If your mind opens too much, your brain falls out” – Tim Minchin.
So, what should you look for in a trusted source? Look for someone who stays on top of the research, someone who changes their approach and their stance on things as new data comes out – rather than simply ploughing ahead with whatever biases they have, fingers in ears and eyes shut. Look for someone who is able to take the vital information you need, mash it up, wring it out and present it in a way which allows you to understand, appreciate and actually LEARN.
Look for something like the Body Type Nutrition Foundation Academy, which we have built to do just that. Over this 10 week online nutrition course you will learn the basic fundamentals of diet, nutrition and human health for the goals of health, fat loss, muscle gain and performance. No more confusion, no more lies, no more conflicting ideologies or smoke and mirrors.
When you enter our online nutrition course, you DON’T get a textbook unlike other popular courses. We haven’t printed one because we can’t, nutritional research keeps changing and we need to change our resources to keep up and bring you the very latest each time we teach the BTN Academy. Instead we give you an empty folder, this way each time we teach a week on the course we go back into the research, check for updates, changes, and opinions based on the research to allow the course to ALWAYS be up to date.
Otherwise we would be teaching you old theory, and we pride ourselves at being at the front of nutritional science. So if you want an online nutrition course that is backed by research, but taught in a practical way, with support, mentorship and guidance, then choose the BTN Academy, which you can check out HERE. Our next intake for the BTN Foundation Academy starts on February 1st 2016.
Or, you can stay in the Matrix, never really safe from marketing, lies and false prophets.
It’s your choice – which pill will you take?
- Sacks et al (2009). ‘’ Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates’’. N Engl J Med 2009; 360:859-873February 26, 2009DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa0804748
- Hellerstein, MK (1999). ‘’ De novo lipogenesis in humans: metabolic and regulatory aspects’’ EJCN
- McDevitt et al (2001). ‘’ De novo lipogenesis during controlled overfeeding with sucrose or glucose in lean and obese women’’ AJCN
- Mela, D J (2001). ‘’ Determinants of Food Choice: Relationships with Obesity and Weight Control’’. Obesity