The fitness industry is dirty. There may exist no larger salesforce on the planet. Myths abound, and are spread daily; lies aren’t pretty, but they sell-sell-sell, baby.
Sometimes, these myths are passive, and don’t hurt anyone. If believing that “antioxidants” are the cure for your dry scalp, and that makes you eat more carrots, great. More often, though, what we don’t know CAN hurt us.
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” – Mark TwainCompounding the problem is our own motivation: we WANT to believe. If a friend recommends a protein drink, then finding benefit in the drink validates their belief, as well as our own judgment in choosing our peers. We WANT that creatine to add 5lbs to our squat in the noon group…and so it does. We want to believe that coffee will raise insulin sensitivity, because we love coffee, and bacon….well, bacon.Supplement companies know this, and their burden of proof is minimal. If a bodybuilder said, “I take this, and it makes me huge!” then that was good enough for me twenty years ago. But long-time exposure to the fitness industry, its “research,” and the pendulum of expert opinion will make anyone a skeptic. Approaching healthcare practices with a critical eye is vital to my success as a coach, and our success as a community. Skepticism is healthier than most things on our store shelves.To help train your critical eye, here are some of the most popular frauds used by the supplement industry (there are so many that I’ll break this into two or more posts.)
#1: Science PROVES that this works!
As Mike Watson once said, “science doesn’t exist to prove, but to disprove.” Anyone can attack CrossFit, or squatting, or avoidance of grains using research. However, science is limited to saying, pro or con, “This is what happened under these exact circumstances. It should happen the same way again, given the same circumstances.” For this reason, we often have research that contradicts other research – change one variable, and it’s a different case altogether.
Innovation is primarily led by those ‘in the trenches,’ and supported – later – by research.When science fails to disprove something, it’s declared valid (this is the formal process behind proving the null hypothesis.) Science, on its own, is simply a rigorous, disciplined detractor. Unfortunately, in the time required to disprove a claim, MANY will believe it.
Science doesn’t exist to ‘prove’ that a supplement works.
#2: Correlation VS Causation. Two things can happen in a vaccuum without one causing the other. For example,
A diet high in fibre is correlated with lower blood pressure. Yes…correlated. It does not necessarily CAUSE lower blood pressure. Could it be that people who eat more fruit and vegetables from natural sources are also more likely to exercise than people who don’t? In fact, the only thing that has been proven to REDUCE high blood pressure, moderate blood sugar, remove the effects of stress, improve sleep, increase HDL (good) cholesterol, and lessen the risks of heart disease….is exercise.
#3: Actual ingredients are hidden. If the first ingredient on a label is a brand name – it carries a trademark or registration symbol – it may contain anything. This is the big flaw in labeling laws – a manufacturer can claim that an ingredient is proprietary (a secret blend) and avoid breaking it down into its component parts.
For example, look at the label below. It’s hard to believe, but ‘Mutant Whey’ may not actually create (or contain) mutants.
#4: The overly broad application of data (Of Mice And Men.) Application of data beyond the very small window to which they actually apply.
Lab mice showed a 50% increase in lean muscle gain after eating this food for two weeks! could mean:
- The mice were underweight before being given the food.
- The mice were given other things to eat besides the food.
- The mice were given the food in amounts that a normal mouse wouldn’t eat.
- The food was administered non-orally, and therefore avoided the digestive tract breakdown.
- The mice did other things – like lifting weights – that helped them build muscle tissue.
- You are not a mouse.
That sounds like an obvious example, but this is a tactic employed VERY often in the fitness and supplement industries: it worked for this guy, so it will work ten times better for you!
#5: The ‘More is Better’ fallacy. In the first example cited here, well-meaning scientists and healthcare bureaucrats consider that a diet high in fibre seems to be correlated with better health. Ergo, a high-fibre diet is healthy. It follows that eating MORE fibre must be healthier. Any way we can get more fibre in, therefore, must be good. And that, friends, leads to this:
Does adding psyllium husk – an indigestable grass – REALLY make Froot Loops an acceptable, healthy choice?
#6: Mixed or confusing terminology. “Part of this balanced breakfast!” sounds a lot like, “all the important bases are covered!” but really means, “It’s pretty bad, but the milk is good, so that makes the score 1:1.”
#7: The ‘Expert’ Testimonial. Any good supplement worth its salt will quickly find a doctor willing to endorse its powers. Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Mehmet Oz set the gold standard here.
The trick: combine reasonably good science with illogical hearsay. An example, from the Skeptic’s Dictionary:
The appeal of Weil’s integrative medicine is that he mixes sound scientific knowledge and advice with illogical hearsay. For example, on his Men’s Health Internet page, he provides scientific information regarding men with prostate problems. He offers common sense advice such as don’t ingest caffeine and alcohol if you are having trouble with frequent urination, since these substances will increase the need to urinate. But he also advises men to eat more soy because: “Asian men have a lower risk of BPH and some researchers believe it is related to their intake of soy foods.” As Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig note, however: “the same logic requires us to blame high rates of cancers of the esophagus, stomach, thyroid, pancreas and liver in Asian countries on consumption of soy” (Soy Alert! 2001). Weil also states that saw palmetto “may help” BPH because: “There is clinical evidence that saw palmetto can help shrink the size of the prostate, and it may help promote healthy prostate function.” Now we know there is clinical evidence that saw palmetto doesn’t helpshrink the size of the prostrate.
#8: Studies that begin with the end in mind. “We set out to prove that our protein works…”
A major criticism of the supplement and drug industry is that most of the research supporting their claims is funded by the companies themselves. If I give you money to ‘prove’ that I’m right, is there a likelihood that you’ll prove me wrong? What if your salary – your house, car, groceries – depended on proving that my vitamins were stronger than their vitamins? You might not skew the test, but you might only report favourable data, or find a metric in which my vitamin IS better than theirs. Is a half-truth still a lie?
If a ‘white paper’ or ‘clinical trial’ uses the trade name of a supplement, you can be certain that the ‘research’ contained therein is inherently biased. Even when a supplement’s ‘white paper’ lists research supporting specific ingredients IN the supplement, there’s no guarantee that each ingredient will be included in a dosage that has any effect, or won’t interfere with the efficacy of OTHER ingredients.
There are plenty of other ways that the fitness industry and supplement companies attempt to fool us. This is why you won’t find supplements for sale at Catalyst: while there may be legitimate products out there, they aren’t easy to find. We’d prefer that you eat real food, exercise intensely for short periods in ways you find exciting, and recover well.