“Because evolution”

Evolutionary theory, including all those sub-fields where evolutionary is a modifier, is well on its way to becoming a tool of pseudoscience in performance and nutrition. “Evolution” is invoked not only to explain, but to justify things like behavior, moral judgements, and yes, even what we eat and how we train.

Evo-psych is a common transgressor, popular among nerds as it tries to “explain”, among other things, why men and women behave in certain ways. Thanks to serious methodological issues and the inherent problems with figuring out causality in complex biological and cultural interactions, it’s hard to take seriously. Such pseudo-explanations have more in common with making things up than with serious investigations into the “why questions” of human nature (even being charitable, it’s hard to see how essential biology and social construct are disentangled).

There’s no denying that, insofar as our current biology can be said to have evolved “for” the purpose of survival (we can excuse the teleological language), evolution provides a kind of explanation for why things happen to our bodies as they do.

Only in broadest terms, however. Adaptationism remains controversial, meaning that our biological traits need not be fitness-enhancing “designs” but may just as easily be historical accidents, or as epigenetics is currently showing us, shaped by the environment. Evolution explains how, in a global sense, rather than explaining why in specific terms.

Can’t lose fat? Body getting ready for starvation mode, because evolution. Can’t put on muscle? Body doesn’t want to add muscle because muscle is expensive and evolution. It might be fun to blame this stuff on evolution, but this should not be confused as any meaningful insight into how your body works, and it certainly has nothing to say about how we should address it as real-life solutions.

“Because evolution” is not the right answer to questions of training and nutrition.

The Fish Oil Dilemma – Panacea or Poison?

There’s been a little controversy happening lately over what role, if any, fish oil should have in a ‘healthy diet’. I’ve been taking the stuff myself since around 2003, after reading much the same research that drove everybody else to it. Fish oil, or more precisely the omega-3 EPA and DHA in it, can sometimes seem like a miracle drug, with benefits for everything from heart disease to joint health, fat metabolism and brain function.

There’s a lot of information out there as a quick scan of Pubmed will reveal. It’s safe to say that the scientific consensus — which, however tentative and provisional, is the only real ‘truth filter’ we have with regard to health matters — is on the side of at least a moderate intake of omega-3 fats.

But then we have a spanner in the works in the form of Ray Peat. Peat is an outsider who has a large portfolio of writings on human health and nutrition, and while I know little about him, he does touch on these topics in an interesting way. Relevant here is his article “The Great Fish Oil Experiment”. Here, Peat says exactly the opposite: the consensus is misleading, biased, and these polyunsaturated fats (a category which includes the omega-3 fatty acids) are actually dangerous.

My interest in fish oil has little to do with cardiovascular disease or joint health. I am, however, keen on it for reasons of mental health. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a strong connection between my fish oil intake — and lack thereof — and my sense of well-being. The spells where I’ve gone without fish oil for longer than a few months have been, to be blunt about it, hellish. It starts to feel like I’m disintegrating from the inside out, and it’s not a fun place to be.

The last few months of 2010 were one such episode, and on resuming fish oil the whole thing reversed itself in a matter of days. More recently, I took a month or so off after a few us of started toying with Peat’s recommendations, and it wasn’t long before the same symptoms returned, and then quickly vanished after getting omega-3 back in the diet. Needless to say, I’m sold — even if it’s a placebo effect, quality of life is worth it. Fortunately there are plenty of hints in the research, by way of actual clinical trials and meta-analyses, that bolster my findings so there’s a good chance I’m not making it all up.

Here’s the thing, though. I do fine on low doses, talking 5-12g per day, and that’s roughly what these studies are suggesting. My impression is that, since my diet isn’t particularly PUFA-rich, that amount is reversing whatever deficiency I have, topping up the tank so to speak.

But how common is it now to see people taking insane mega-doses of fish oil, upwards of 30-40g a day with the typical American thought process: some is good so LET’S TAKE ALL OF IT!! Peat is right, I think, to point out that these are complex systems that do not respond well to that logic. Some can be good, and more can be lethal. We would do well to bear that in mind, rather than applying the usual blunt instrument of medicalizing all our problems, as if everything ‘wrong’ needs a pill (or miracle food or what have you) to solve it.

This is a fine instance to demonstrate why we need to be aware of the conditional nature of science’s discoveries, rather than uncritical acceptance, and to exercise a little epistemic humility with respect to what we believe to be true. This isn’t a religion, and I think Peat is raising points that demand consideration. I will say that I’m not enamored of the narrative defenses he deploys, the accusations of scientific misconduct and so on, and I believe that hurts his argument (and if the well is so poisoned, on what grounds can we believe what Peat is saying when he drinks the same water?).

That said, I’m being more cautious of my fish oil intake, too.

Is anything more useless than the “form check”?

I’m not sure who thought it would be a good idea to post videos of squats and deadlifts on the internet to get a “form check”. This almost always turns out to be the blind leading the blind, and even when it isn’t, has anyone actually made their form “better” by reading a list of generic form cues? What does “better” even mean? Do people even have a benchmark in mind when they ask for advice, or are they just giving in to their own neuroses?

“Better form” is the leprechaun of internet fitness communities. Want a better squat? Get under the bar and practice it until you can handle over double body weight. Better pull? Pick the thing up. Figure out how your body wants to move under load. It can move just fine without “expert” biomechanical advice. Doing the thing and paying attention to what happens is more valuable than any internet checklists.