Everything in Moderation is Lazy Thinking

“In the world of modern processed foods, “everything in moderation” is a recipe for a moderate level of health, which is hardly something you want to aim for”
-Dr. Cate Shanahan

I’ve just finished a book called Deep Nutrition by Dr. Cate Shanahan. I was prompted to read it after hearing her on a podcast and really loving some of her thoughts on nutrition and how we think about food. One thing she brought up that really resonated with me is that the “Everything in Moderation” mantra is lazy thinking. It’s lazy because it’s the easy thing to say when you don’t have a core belief (or as Shanahan called it, a “food philosophy”) to guide your interpretation of information and/or haven’t spent the time to research it.

Shanahan pointed out that vegans and paleo folks sometimes have the same core belief: food matters to health. This may seem ridiculously simple, but most people do not have this core belief, including most medical professionals (if you have any doubt about that, spend some time in a hospital and see what they serve you for dinner). The core belief that “food matters to health” is the lens through which vegans and paleo folks evaluate the information they consume about nutrition. Other people have different core beliefs, of course. Some I can think of are “food is fuel”, the low-fat hypothesis, eating locally, raw food is superior to cooked, etc.

Relating this to something I just wrote about in a newsletter, let’s say a person (ok, me) who believes that food matters to health reads something about chocolate milk being a good recovery food after endurance exercise. Through the lens of my food philosophy, I will consider whether a product that is processed to remove fat and then has it’s remaining fat homogenized, has added sugar and stabilizers, some synthetic vitamins thrown in, artificial flavors, and a cartoon bunny on the label is a food that helps foster good health and optimal recovery from training stress. Some things I might also take into consideration:

  • the study was NOT about what makes a good recovery drink but a comparison of 2 available options
  • the study was funded by the dairy industry (studies funded by industry have a higher “positive” result than studies funded neutrally

 

My food philosophy tells me that real fruits, vegetables, fats and protein sources have in no way been knocked off their pedestal. In fact, I cannot think of a single reason to drink chocolate milk after a ride other than it being cold and delicious. A person without a core philosophy, however, may just take the results of that study and automatically give chocolate milk a place in their routine without any consideration for the pros and cons of such a choice. If you don’t believe that food matters to health, then it doesn’t matter how poor the quality of the food, only that it pours glycogen back into your muscles.

Most triathlon coaches are more interested in the training side of coaching, as they should be, and not nutrition. But since most triathletes want help with nutrition, coaches are frequently put in the position of giving advice on this topic despite it not being something they may be knowledgeable about. There are two ways that a coach typically handles questions about nutrition if this isn’t their area of expertise:

1. Tell the truth. I don’t know is a perfectly acceptable answer. Then you can refer them to someone else who does know.

2. Tell the athlete “Everything in Moderation”. This is really just another way of saying “I don’t know” without admitting it and may also come from a coach who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. That’s a recipe for disaster! Lots of coaches out there follow this mantra for themselves so they might not take kindly to criticism. But if you are aiming for more than “moderate” health, you need to be looking beyond this mindset. Food matters and being an athlete doesn’t make unhealthy food suddenly become healthy.

In a future post I will be talking about the 4:1 carb to protein ratio that is used to judge the quality of a recovery food and how ridiculous it is to use this guideline without ANY consideration for health. In other words, the dangers of nutritionism.