Diet. Religion. Drugs. Video games. Television.
The list of beliefs, ideals, and habits that have the potential to be abused is endless.
The love of food can be taken to an extreme, leading to the development of disordered behavior. Religion can bring about a dogmatic mindset, leading one to shut out all opposing viewpoints. Video games can become a vice; a useless time suck. Television can alter our perception of reality if we choose to become immersed. This is a result of tendency to migrate towards extreme sides of a given spectrum. The fringe is much more exciting, more sensational, and more marketable.
Through this tendency, extremists are born.
“We are in a world that is quite extremist and extremism makes more noise. Normality does not sell.”
– Vicente del Bosque
Extremists shut out reality. They become so entrenched in their fringe mentality that they will ignore logic and conflicting evidence if it means they can remain attached to their cherished belief system. This mindset encourages certainty and dichotomous thinking, which are dangerous in a time when evidence evolves rapidly, and the “facts” are challenged on a daily basis.
Extremist logic, using a common example, tends to go something like this:
Drugs have the potential to be abused. Drugs have ruined the emotional stability, the relationships, and the lives of those who abuse them. Therefore, all drugs are evil and anyone who uses them should be condemned.
But, is the fact that something has the potential to be abused enough to denounce it completely, ignoring all context in which it might be applied?
Forks, through their inherent sharpness, can certainly be abused. But is the fact that someone could decide to jam a fork into their leg enough to discourage the use of forks altogether? Most people use forks the way they are intended, but there could be circumstances in which they are not used intelligently. Should forks be outlawed?
Going back to the drug example, is it logical to claim that all drugs are bad, to lump all drugs, and those who use drugs for differing purposes, into the same category? A reasonable conclusion would be no, of course not.
In the fitness and nutrition industries, the inability to distinguish between use and abuse has led us to condemn nutrients, habits, and ideas that can be useful if placed in the right context, and utilized by the right individual.
Absolutism gets us nowhere. Before making claims on the effectiveness and safety of any habit, nutrient, vitamin, drug, or belief system, we must look at the big picture instead of simply deciding to “believe” an extreme, context-less viewpoint.
Below I’m going to discuss a few aspects of nutrition, fitness, and overall lifestyle that have been demonized due to their potential to be abused. These issues are often addressed in a black and white manner, when in reality, the middle ground is where the answer lies.
Self-Weighing: Unhealthy Obsession or Effective Weight Loss Tool?
The scale is probably the most dreaded piece of equipment ever invented. We all have one, yet we are often afraid to step foot on it; and even more afraid to look at the numbers that appear on the tiny screen.
Obsession with the scale is quite common. Many attempting to lose weight have a tendency to abuse the scale, to weigh themselves five times per day, often cultivating disappointment and self-loathing.
As a result, we are encouraged by some to ignore the scale completely. This is extremism, a black and white approach to a grey-area issue.
Sure, self-weighing is a habit that has the potential to be misused. But it also has the potential to be a powerful progress evaluation tool, a motivator, and a way to remain accountable and on track.
Butryn and colleagues, in a paper published in Obesity in 2007, attempted to find the relationship between weight loss maintenance success and the frequency of self-weighing. They found that, out of 3003 people from the National Weight Control Registry, 36.2% reported weighing themselves on a daily basis. Further, the researchers found that:
“Weight gain at 1-year follow-up was significantly greater for participants whose self-weighing frequency decreased between baseline and one year (4.0 +/- 6.3 kg) compared with those whose frequency increased (1.1 +/- 6.5 kg) or remained the same (1.8 +/- 5.3 kg)” (1).
In conclusion, the researchers wrote:
“Consistent self-weighing may help individuals maintain their successful weight loss by allowing them to catch weight gains before they escalate and make behavior changes to prevent additional weight gain” (1).
Other research supports the conclusion that frequent self-weighing is an effective way to lose weight and maintain weight loss over the long-term (3, 4).
All of the above being said, self-weighing certainly has drawbacks, many of which indicate an issue with underlying psychology rather than the act of self-weighing in and of itself. For example, some attach their morality and self-worth to an arbitrary number, becoming preoccupied and obsessed with their weight (2). They become disappointed if the scale does not indicate progress, and as result, they sulk or even quit.
Outside of individual psychology, the scale has its own inherent problems; the main one being: it doesn’t account for changes in body composition. One can certainly remain the same weight, or even gain a few pounds, and still make body composition improvements.
In summary: self-weighing has repeatedly shown to be beneficial for those looking to lose weight and prevent weight regain. However, it is not a habit without flaws, and it should be used intelligently, with individual differences in mind.
So let’s not hastily toss out the scale or dismiss self-weighing as an effective measurement tool. Determine your unique preferences and decide whether or not self-weighing will be effective based on your goals.
Using self-weighing correctly is effective, abusing it can be damaging. Understand the difference.
Sugar: Poison or Neutral Nutrient?
Discussions of sugar always invoke emotion and vitriol, especially towards those who defend this often-labeled pure, white, and evil substance.
The debate surrounding sugar consumption is a prime example of people’s desire to migrate towards extreme sides of the spectrum. Sugar is often called a drug and considered addictive, although the research in this area is far from conclusive.
We are told to fear sugar, to avoid it at all costs. As a result, we become emotionally attached, using belief in a particular dogmatic stance as validation, rather than logic and evidence.
If we look at the objective evidence surrounding sugar intake, we will find that the harms caused by sugar are largely dose related. In other words, sugar can be detrimental if it is abused, consumed irresponsibly and excessively.
Evidence, often pushed by the likes of Robert Lustig, has demonstrated that extreme doses of fructose quickly induce insulin resistance (7). As a result of this research, many have made it a point to demonize sugar at every opportunity, ignoring the middle ground.
Sugar is evil no matter what, we are often told. This claim is alluring, sensational, marketable, and emotion-invoking; all the while being completely false.
Sugar consumed in the context of a hypoenergetic diet (i.e. a caloric deficit) does not impair weight loss, nor does it cause adverse behavioral or metabolic effects (5).
In addition, a systematic review of the association between sugar and body weight concluded that sugar intake only leads to fat accumulation via its effects on energy balance (6). Basically, if sugar causes you to bypass your daily caloric allotment on a frequent basis, it can lead to weight gain.
Sugar is not inherently evil. Yes, it can be harmful if consumed in ridiculous amounts and in the context of a poorly formulated diet. However, when a balanced, sensible approach is taken, there is no reason to fear sugar or to cut it completely out of your diet. Context is key.
Cardiovascular Exercise: Sensible Running or Obsessive Overtraining?
Claims that “running makes you fat” and the like are becoming increasingly common.
DH Kiefer, through his article titled “Why Women Should Not Run” stirred up much undue controversy. Unfortunately for Kiefer, his cherry picked research and padded reference list was not enough to steer clear of the objective facts.
Cardiovascular exercise, and exercise in general, undoubtedly has the potential to be misused. Exercising far too frequently can cultivate an obsessive relationship, possibly leading to disordered behaviors, stress, and increased risk of injury. However, again, this is an example of a habit being condemned on the grounds that it can be misused, rather than an inherent issue with the habit itself.
Cardiovascular exercise is largely beneficial, both in terms of fat loss and overall health, so blindly lashing out against it while ignoring the big picture is ridiculous.
Find the Middle Ground
With the New Year underway, the temptation to adopt extreme habits and ideas will be strong. You are motivated, encouraged, and excited by what the future holds. Understanding the difference between implementing a habit or idea slowly and abusing the habit is crucial.
You will be encouraged to make extreme dietary changes. You will be tempted to try out that new fad exercise program. You will be advised to cut out entire food groups, to fearfully ignore certain nutrients.
The allure of an extreme mindset is strong. You must be able to strike a balance, both with your mindset and your actions. Utilize methodologies and techniques mindfully, not allowing yourself to migrate towards the fringe.
Make a habit of learning to adapt and morph ideas to fit your own unique situation, while ignoring black and white viewpoints. Differentiate between use and abuse, intelligent implementation and blatant misuse.
1. Butryn ML, Phelan S, Hill JO, Wing RR. Consistent self-monitoring of weight: a key component of successful weight loss maintenance. Obesity. 2007;15(12):3091–3096.
2. Quick, V., Larson, N., Eisenberg, M., Hannan, P. J., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2012). Self-weighing behaviors in young adults: Tipping the scale toward unhealthy eating behaviors? Journal of Adolescent Health, 51, 468–474. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.02.008.
3. Linde, J. A., Jeffery, R. W., French, S. A., Pronk, N. P., & Boyle, R. G. (2005). Self-weighing In Weight Gain Prevention And Weight Loss Trials. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 30(3), 210-216.
4. Steinberg DM, Tate DF, Bennett GG, Ennett S, Samuel-Hodge C, Ward DS. The efficacy of a daily self-weighing weight loss intervention using smart scales and email. Obesity 2013 March 20 Epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1002/oby.20396.
5. Surwit R. S., Feinglos M. N., McCaskill C. C., Clay S. L., Babyak M. A., Brownlow B. S., Plaisted C. S., Lin P. H. Metabolic and behavioral effects of a high-sucrose diet during weight loss. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1997;65:908–915.
6. Te Morenga L, Mallard S, Mann J (2013) Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed).
7. Basciano H, Federico L, Adeli K. Fructose, insulin resistance, and metabolic dyslipidemia. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2005; 2: 5.