In my previous article on extremes, I questioned the appropriateness of diets which lie on either end of the bell curve for macronutrient ratios (zero carb, or ultra low fat) and argued that for most people an optimal diet will exist somewhere closer to the middle of the distribution. Never-the-less, a lot of folks cling to dietary paradigms or practices that encourage this kind of “all or nothing” attitude.
Continuing along that theme, I’m going to talk about another type of “extreme” mentality that I often see exhibited by people. No, not extreme sports and such like bungee jumping or drunken alligator wrestling, I’m talking about more mundane behaviors (like exercise or eating), a sort of mindset that takes on similar psychological elements of extremism.
You hear the words “balanced” and “moderation” a lot when involved with topics like diet, or fitness, but it seems to me that despite the emphasis placed on those concepts, in practice these ideals are rarely achieved or even desired. I find this curious. Why do some people tend to gravitate to the extreme ends of the spectrum and what is the psychological motivation that drives them outside of the middle of the bell curve?
For instance, somewhere along the way when the paleo diet started becoming very popular, the dangerous dietary fat concept came under attack with saturated fat becoming somewhat vindicated in the ancestral community. It wasn’t long before bacon became the symbol of paleo and anything and everything that had to do with bacon came into vogue. Bacon has always been loved by many, but now that some of the health warnings that dissuaded people from eating were slipping away, crispy strips of fatty pork were back on the menu, with gusto.
It wasn’t just back on the menu, folks were gleefully posting pictures of mountains of bacon being consumed, and bacon this and bacon that. It became commonly believed, in short order, that one could eat as much bacon as physical possible without any repercussions (as long as it was sourced from pastured livestock). Still today, if there was a flag for the “paleo nation” it would probably have a sizzling strip of bacon on it as the emblem of pride.
I understand all of that, as I was wrapped up in the same hysteria. I would regularly try and increase the amount of bacon I could cook at one time on my counter-top electric grill. Would it perhaps be better to approach a food with an attitude like: “Mmm bacon isn’t so bad after all, perhaps I’ll add a few strips with my eggs this morning.” – as opposed to, “OMG bacon I ate 4 pounds this weekend, bacon is life!” It’s a peculiar type of food obsession which I suspect might have some relation with the more general food-based psychopathology that seems to pervade western cultures.
More is Better
In the USA, I think there is a particular attitude of our society where it is generally perceived that “more is better”. Despite the weight given to a much more reasonable idea like “less is more”, when a solution to a problem is found all too often it is assumed that adding even more of the solution will make things even better.
For example, people can’t just drink a glass of orange juice or eat some strawberries to top off their vitamin C levels. If a little extra vitamin C is good, then supplementing with thousands of units will be even better! Right? Not necessarily, but all too often this is the idea that is bandied about, and folks are happy to believe their ailments can be turned around into superior health by just piling on more and more of any and every kind of medicinal or vitamin.
In reality, our bodies have physiological limits and built-in regulatory pathways to handle supra-levels of various compounds. Excess vitamin C will simply be disposed of when “nature calls”. If a particular nutrient is difficult or impossible to obtain in nature at such high levels, is it reasonable to think our bodies can make use of it at those excessive levels? That kind of heuristic doesn’t rule it out, but I think it provides a useful benchmark for what is biologically feasible. It’s fair to say that people generally go overboard with supplements, and more often than not are ultimately just creating really expensive urine.
Marathon Weight Loss
Ok, let’s go in a different direction. Why is it that grand gestures for fitness or weight loss are so appealing? I totally understand and support the idea of having a goal to work towards, as a sort of figurative or even literal finish line to get to such as building up endurance and slimming down to be able to run a race. But, I’ve known some folks to set their goal to “running a marathon so that they can lose weight.”
I think running is great, and while I don’t personally engage in extreme endurance sports like triathlons and races beyond 5k’s, I fully support others who partake and compete in such activities. Running a marathon isn’t something to be taken lightly. Of course I have limited perspective on the subject, seeing as how I’ve never run one, but coming from that position I give even more respect to the endeavor. I struggle to understand the mindset of folks who come from a state of being incredibly out of shape and a bit pudgy, to deciding that they will work towards running a marathon this year in order to resolve this problem.
From my vantage point, making a few small and easily doable changes to one’s exercise and diet habits each day, is a far more sustainable and approachable plan. You’d be less likely to injure yourself from pushing too hard, or becoming demoralized by setting your sites far higher than you’re able to accomplish.
I believe that one explanation for these situations where people gravitate to more extreme solutions to their fitness or dietary issues, is the concept of group polarization. This is a phenomenon that when placed in group situations, people will make decisions and form opinions to more of an extreme than when they are in individual situations. For example, after participating in a discussion group, members tend to advocate more extreme positions and call for riskier courses of action than individuals who did not participate in any such discussion.
This type of concept can translate over into online groups like the paleo or low-carb communities, or on Facebook or DailyMile where people share their workouts. It’s not hard to observe how an idea will grab hold of the group mentality and then individuals will continue to push the idea to further extremes. Of course, these moves will often require leaps of faith from a logical sense, and in many cases the science to validate such ideas just isn’t there.
- There may be some benefits to limiting carbohydrate consumption, but then leaping to the idea that all carbohydrate-based foods are undesirable and everyone should be in ketosis 24/7 is easily debatable.
- Preventing nutrient and mineral deficiencies (possibly due to environment or lifestyle problems) through supplementation may help you to achieve better health, but it doesn’t follow that one will achieve even better health by surpassing physiological dosages.
- Marathons might be a prestigious benchmark for endurance-based fitness accomplishments, but it doesn’t mean that trying to achieve one will be the most effective way to lose weight and get back in shape in a short period of time.
I think it is important to be mindful of how easily we can fall into mental traps like these. When you’re exercising with part of a group, or engage with a community online talking about different topics like fitness or nutrition, it’s easy to become swept up in the hype or enthusiasm for a particular “thing” be it a racing milestone or a novel nutritional theory. Even further, competitive attitudes can subconsciously drive us to “one-up” each other either to garner attention or to satisfy our egos.
Being a part of a group or community is obviously a valuable and rewarding experience. Humans are social animals of course. We just need to be mindful of how our perceptions and goals can change when we’re no longer just thinking for ourselves. We should also guard against obsessive behaviors, and be aware of how some of the pathological aspects of the modern “human zoo” society (more is better, etc.) might compel us to approach our lives with more excess than prudence.