Do you ever feel paralyzed by the sheer volume of information and advice that is available to you? I love the internet—I love the ability to access so many different thoughts and opinions and to educate myself on virtually any issue. But when you start digging in to something, inevitably you find that there is more than one way to skin any cat, and it can get really confusing to keep track of the “right” or “best” opinion du jour. I see this a LOT with issues of health and wellness—even if you’re seeking informed, science-based opinions from real experts, you will get a huge array of opinions about the best ways to eat and to exercise. For example, there’s a lot of science and research to support a paleo diet (if you’re interested, I highly recommend It Starts With Food by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig) and there’s also a lot of science and research to support a vegan diet. These two ways of feeding yourself seem pretty diametrically opposed: paleo diets eliminate grains and legumes, which are staples of the vegan way of eating, and vegan diets eliminate all meat, eggs, and seafood, which are paleo staples (both diets eliminate dairy, so everyone misses cheese and ice cream. A lot.) I got thinking about this again this week when I read this article about the number one piece of advice twenty-three different health bloggers would give about having a healthy diet. They are SO DIFFERENT! These are all healthy and health-minded people. And they have such different perspectives.
You can see the same tension between devoted runners and crossfitters. I’ve seen seemingly-reputable science that demonstrates both how good and how bad running is for your health—even some that suggests that sustained steady-state cardio actually contributes to weight gain, rather than promoting weight loss (but…I don’t know a lot of devoted runners who are overweight, so I think that deserves a healthy dose of skepticism.)
I bring this up because I find that sometimes trying to get to the bottom of the best way to do anything—feed yourself, stay fit, manage your finances, whatever—stops me from just doing things well. It’s sort of the “perfect is the enemy of good” thing: I can spend an afternoon reading research about whether grains are or good for my health or bad for my health, and what I end up with is not a more enlightened view of nutrition, it’s a frustration that leads me to want to eat jelly beans on the couch. But both of these examples are missing the forest for the trees. Is there disagreement on whether meat is good for you or bad for you? Yes. But there is a huge amount of overlap in what nutritional experts agree on: vegetables are good for you, and more are better. Avoiding pesticides, added sugars, preservatives, and excess sodium are all good ideas. If you’re going to eat meat or eggs, organic versions that have no added hormones or antibiotics (grass-fed or free range, depending) are all better. If you’re going to eat grains, whole grains are best. I think we’ve settled the fact that healthy fats are good, at this point, but we’re back and forth on that one. Same with exercise: is weight-lifting good for you? YES! Absolutely. Lift more heavy things. Is running good for you? YES (ok, that’s my opinion, but yes). Moving is good for you. If you’re moving and using your muscles and your lungs and you’re getting sweaty, you’re doing good things for your health. Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but that basic reminder is important to me when I’m getting really stuck in the weeds.
The ironic thing about this post is that I remember reading an article when I was in law school comparing paleo and vegan diets to try to settle the question of which is better. At that time, I remember thinking the article was absurd, because paleo and vegan diets were so similar in my mind (because…they are both sort of extreme? I don’t know.) Flash forward three years and I find myself asking a lot of the questions that article asked. I’m not an expert at all, but I think the right approach has to be a moderate one that draws mostly from the things that everyone agrees on. For me, that means focusing on eating as many vegetables as I can as often as I can, above all else. It also means eating high-quality, sustainable, and humane animal proteins (including free-range eggs, wild-caught sardines and other fish, and some free-range chicken and grass-fed beef). It means eating some gluten-free grains (usually rice or corn) and avoiding dairy as much as possible. My best self doesn’t really eat sugar, but my real self does her best to eat a moderate amount of sugar, ideally real and not-so-processed sugars. My real self also puts French Vanilla International Delight creamer in her coffee every morning, because it is delicious and I love it and it doesn’t make me nauseous (even though it is straight bullshit. Main ingredient: bullshit.)
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the contradictory and vast amount of health and fitness advice available to you, know that you’re not alone. Skim the “lose fifteen pounds in seven days” and “all-natural packaged snack cakes” advice right off the top, and land in the moderate “just eat real food and move your body” camp as much as you can. Don’t follow the grapefruit diet. Do drink more water.
Got it? Ok, good. Me, too.