Sifting Through the Madness

Grains are heart-healthy, grains are toxic; free weights are the best way to strength train, free weights lead to injuries; red meat is an excellent source of protein, red meat will give you cancer; cardio workouts are good for your heart, chronic cardio will leave you weak and tired; red wine is good for you, drinking alcohol destroys your liver; tuna is a great source of omega-3’s, tuna causes mercury poisoning.

With so much conflicting information out there about diet and exercise, how is one to know what to believe?

Belief Systems
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have a belief system by which we judge new information. Our foundational beliefs shape our opinions about everything we encounter in the world.

My belief system is based primarily on three things: experience, logic, and intuition.

One of my favorite Buddhist quotes says, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who has said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own experience.” I believe this to be some of the best advice ever given. There is nothing that I trust more than my own reason and firsthand experience – and there is nothing you should trust more than yours.

If something comes up that I don’t have firsthand experience with, utilizing logic becomes the best course of action. That just means I ask myself, does this make sense? If it doesn’t make sense, there may be something that I’m overlooking, or it may simply be bullshit. That’s where intuition comes in.

Experience means relying on your five senses; in a way, intuition is our sixth sense. Trusting your intuition means believing in yourself.

If I need to make a decision about something that I have no prior experience with and I can’t come to a logical conclusion, intuition is all I have left to go on, so I’ll do what my instincts tell me. If my instincts wind up being wrong, at least I’ll have some experience to go on the next time I’m presented with similar circumstances.

Question Everything!
There are countless “experts” out there who claim that their method is the best or the only way to achieve success. The more sure someone seems of their beliefs, the more I’m inclined to question them. I always try to challenge my own closest held beliefs as well – that’s actually how I came to my decision to stop taking exercise supplements.

Whenever someone is trying to sell you something, their motivation is suspect. That’s not to say that there aren’t honest salespeople out there, but they are few and far between. Other times, we as customers are so desperate for a solution to our woes that we will abandon our common sense and buy into an idea that we know is too good to really be true. Don’t let your emotions override your sense of reason when making important decisions.

Faulty Belief Systems
Many people base their actions on shaky foundational beliefs. My hope is to steer you away from these pitfalls.

Getting up on my high horse

While the term is often used in religious contexts, dogma pops up everywhere from political ideologies, to science (we’ll get to that in a minute), and even in the world of health and fitness.

Don’t assume that just because the experts agree on a given concept or practice that it must be right for you. Following dogmatic principles can often mean the opposite of trusting your own experience and that can get you into trouble. Anyone who disregards their real life experience because it conflicts with “the way things are supposed to be” is making a huge mistake.

If intuition is the belief that our instincts will lead us to make good choices, faith is the opposite of that. It’s a subtle distinction, but as instinct implies that we trust in ourselves to find the answers, faith means believing that something outside of yourself will guide you in the right direction. Some people believe in destiny; I’m more interested in manifesting my own.

Science isn’t always an exact science and controlled experiments aren’t real life. When things happen in the real world, there are a lot of factors involved. The more factors involved, the more difficult it becomes to determine causality. The chasm between theory and practice makes most studies about diet, exercise or pretty much anything else irrelevant. Secondhand knowledge will always be inferior to one’s own practical experience.

Furthermore, just like you have to question a salesperson based on their motivation, you must also question science when it comes from a sponsor who’s invested in a particular outcome. Even “unbiased” or “double-blind” studies can be unknowingly influenced by those involved in the experiment, and test subjects may not be accurately reporting data in the first place.

Don’t Take My Word For It
This is not a call to action to adopt my belief system, but rather an urging to question your own beliefs (and mine). When faced with information that doesn’t mesh with your own experience, logic or intuition, proceed with caution.

61 thoughts on “Sifting Through the Madness

  • Pingback: How do you know what to believe? | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page

  • By Damon Lease -

    I think the real key is to question absolutely everything.  I work with doctors on a daily basis and I challenge them on issues related to diabetes regularly.  I’m one of those people that reads a study and then reads the references.  I question the validity of research.  I try to find out who paid for the research.  I want to know if there are hidden motives or agenda.  And lastly, I use my personal experience – what works for me and what doesn’t.  Does anything else really matter for any of us?

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      You and I are on the same page, Damon.  Unfortunately, I think us free-thinking types are in the minority.  Keep asking questions and challenging authority!

  • By Winter Gregor -

    Great post. I go by the quote by Richard P. Feynman “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” .

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      That’s a great quote, Winter.  Thanks for sharing!

      • By Jax4444 -

        Hey AL: I still check you out, but haven’t commented in  awhile. Just wanted to say

        One of your best pieces.

        Great job!

        • By Al Kavadlo -

          Thanks, Jack!  Good to hear from you!

  • By Chuck Stephens -

    “The last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way”

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Right on, Chuck!

  • By Stefan -

    This can be so hard sometimes. Diets are the hardest IMO. Who can you trust? PB or no PB? Stay away from bread? Eat potato or just sweet potato and so on. Everyone has a different take and most really don’t have a clue but are just quoting something they’ve heard from someone else who in their turn heard it from someone else. And all the trends… Oh, my fucking gods… Fruit is great! No wait, that was yesterday, now it’s the source of all evil.

    But different training systems can be as hot topic as religion too… I think it was Brooks Kubik who wrote in his Dinosaur Bodyweight book (definitely grab a copy if you get the chance) that one shouldn’t surround himself with people who say things along the line of “don’t do that”, “you can’t do that” or “you’re training wrong”. Sure it’s good to hear a different POV than ones own, but there’s a difference between different opinion and negativity.

    / rant over 😉

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Nice rant, Stefan!  Anyone who uses the phrase “You’re doing it wrong” is themselves, doing it wrong.  🙂

  • By Mark Strong -

    Excellent stuff Al, well put and all true. Pragmatism is the ONLY true indicator in your life; if you look around, the world is full of people telling us to do things their way, usually because they are trying to convince themselves of something….Doctors are the worst, especially when they are telling people that they have 6 monthes to live and shit like that!!! I had 2 cracked discs in my back once courtesy of Ju-Jitsu, and the first thing the doc told me was “you won’t be doing any more martial arts”, totally negative.  2 years later I was in the British full-contact Kickboxing squad, then went off to Thailand to do Muaythai. Don’t believe ANYONE. Only yourself, methinks.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Mark!  I totally agree with you about Western medicine and doctors.  Congrats on your recovery – believe and achieve!

  • By Karen P. -

    This is a great counter-read to Don’s Primal Wisdom post today.

    In my experience, people are often wired differently. I, for example, do not have a single “faith” gene in me, but my intuition has never steered me wrong. My husband, on the other hand, is very intellectual and has to pro and con everything to death, worry about it, then eventually relax into it only when disaster hasn’t happened as a result. Others I know are completely paralyzed by having to make decisions about anything, and most certainly would not have survived on the Serengeti in that fashion. 😉

    Re: Clydesdale photo: Nice way to follow directions, Al! 

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      I know what you’re saying about people being wired differently, I’ve known many people like your husband who fret about every decision.

      As for the horseplay, I’ve never been one to follow “the rules”, in fact, that’s pretty much what this post is about!

  • By Steve Langford -

    as Jack Lalanne said “if man made it do not eat it is becoming truer watch out for genetically engineered rains and beware of pesticides and herbicides.  

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      That’s a great quote, Steve.  RIP Jack Lalanne.

  • By gojirama -

    Well said! I have spent much of my adult life reading about health and nutrition, refining how I eat, and getting healthier all the time. Betond eating real food I know that not only does what works for me not work for everyone, but different things have worked for me at different times in my life ( both mentally and as a woman going through the stages of life). Nothing is written in stone.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Change is part of life and sometimes it’s best to go with the flow.  Nothing written in stone indeed!

  • By Saulius -


    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Glad you enjoyed this post – and thank you for questioning it!  I agree that sometimes it is best to defer to others, but you have to be selective about which experts you trust – that’s where personal experience, logic and intuition come in.

      • By Tim -

        Also try to compare what the various experts are saying. If a large set of disparate experts agree on one thing, such as trans fats being bad for you, or obesity raising your risk of chronic disease, then it is probably true.

  • By Blair Norwood -

    Great post Al.
    Being a scientist in training (masters student) I love to research stuff, but even more I love to test it. So for me the no grains idea seem reasonable so I gave it a try, I gave up my moring porridge, bread and cut right down on the pasta. The biggest change I found is that the eczema I had suffered for years was gone. Also now if I break my diet and eat a large muffine or some cupcakes the eczema breaks out again. No grains totally worked for me and I try to stick to it strictly. I don’t go pretching about no grains (but I do push for real foods), but I do tell people to experiment with their diet and see how they feel with different changes.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Congrats on finding a solution to your eczema!  I’m personally not pro-grains, but I do enjoy them sometimes.  I tend to feel better when I’m eating fewer grains though.

  • By Max Bronson -

    Great article, Al.

    I’ve always thought that the two biggest causes of good health and longevity are genetics and stress. We can’t control our genes, but we can control our stress levels. By worrying so much about what not to eat and how to exercise, we create stress.

    Just use commonsense. If you eat a bit of red meat now and again, while exercising and eating nutritionally, and yet still get cancer, then it probably your genes were more predisposed to get cancer.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Max.  The idea of someone stressing themselves out about trying to be healthy is a bit ironic.

  • By Lancehogle -

    Hi Al
    Couldn’t agree more when it comes to all of the information related to dieting. Have you ever posted a few days of your diet so that people can see what you eat?
    Cheers Lance

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      I have not, Lance.  I don’t want everyone to know how much ice cream I’ve been eating.  Oh the horror!

  • By James Walbourne -

    I’m beginning to think more and more like this as well Al, especially since I got into CrossFit. So much stuff out there, some of it’s BS, some of it isn’t and the rest we’re not sure! lol! I love that quote by Buddha – sums it up so well. Question everything, and if it isn’t broken, break it! Great post!

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Right on, James!  The Crossfit community can be very dogmatic, but I know you won’t let them brainwash you!

  • By Matthew Palfrey -

    You free thinkers will be the death of us all! Great stuff as always Al. Matt

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Matt!

  • By IvyBlue -

    Question everything?  I am amazed at the number of people I meet that don’t question anything.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      I’m amazed by it too, IvyBlue!  By the way, are you questioning my advice to question everything?  🙂

  • By Anonymous -

    Excellent post, Al.  Lots of great comments.  And lots of wise quotes.  Here’s one more:
    -Chuck D ’88

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Nice one, Danny!  Thanks for your input!

  • By Tim -

    You probably went a bit far saying that “The chasm between theory and practice makes most studies about…pretty much anything….irrelevant.”

    For example, I assume you don’t smoke, and that you would advise your clients not to smoke. Some facts are backed by so many studies that even a hardened skeptic would be foolish to think they were irrelevant.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      I don’t need studies and experts to tell me that smoking is something I want to avoid.  My experience, logic and intuition have already provided me with that information.

  • By Evan McGrath -

    How do we decide on anything if we question everything?  Even intuition can be questioned. 

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Are you questioning me!?!  🙂

      Seriously though, we make decisions after we’ve questioned things, considered our past experience, used logic, etc.  The alternative is to blindly accept things as truth just because someone else said so.

      • By Evan McGrath -

        I just feel as though constant questioning can handcuff the ability to make decisions. A question of whether or not a decision should be made regarding an action, can just as easily be asked about the intuition that is compelling the act being questioned.  I feel like intuition can be dissected with just as much cold hard logic as any decision concerning the material and I feel at that point you hit a kind of slippery slope.  I guess what I’m really saying is where do you draw the line in questioning yourself. 
        Great article by-the-by, I have a strong personal interest in this kind of discussion, and this is more my own reflections then any kind of criticism, I think a lot of people or just the world in general would greatly benefit from this kind of approach to life. 

        • By Al Kavadlo -

          I get what you’re saying, Evan.  There definitely comes a point where you just need to take action!

          “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” – Rush

  • By ShavedApe -

    Great article Al.  If only the dictum of “Question everything!” was taught in school these days we’d be a much better world for it.

    Color me naive but I’m shocked on a daily basis how most people simply go along to get along.  It’s such a bovine mentality that it’s no wonder the term “sheeple” is now part of our vernacular.  Case in point, I recently went in for my yearly required physical exam.  The receptionist asked if I had gotten my flu shot.  When I said no she seemed surprised.  Then the nurse who took me to the exam room asked if I got my flu shot yet.  When I said no she said they could get me one right away.  I declined and she seemed a bit surprised as she left me in the exam room.  A different nurse came in a few minutes later and she took all my vitals and then went thru a litany of questions about my health, etc.  The flu shot question came up AGAIN and I said no I had not gotten one.  She asked if she could schedule one and I declined.  She then began questioning me as to why I didn’t want the shot, shooting me a look of suspicion.  I begged off saying I wasn’t interested.  Finally the doctor came into the room and we went thru the same litany of questions.  He too asked why I haven’t gotten a flu shot, his tone suggesting there was something wrong with me for declining.  I didn’t get the shot but I got a lecture about “herd immunity”, blah blah blah. 

    The point is, I was made to feel like a pariah because I questioned the need for a flu shot instead of simply doing as “the authorities” in life ordered.  The question in my head as I left the doctor’s office that day was how many mindless drones had come before me and simply did as directed, thus making me the lone contrarian?  I was definitely left with the impression that I was not “normal” because I actually questioned the procedure instead of simply submitting to it.  How sad that our medical community promotes taking ownership of one’s health yet when someone actually does that they are suddenly suspected of sedition. 🙁  

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Of course they don’t teach you to question things in school, they’re too busy trying to indoctrinate you to blindly follow their rules!  Good for you for standing your ground at the doctor’s office.

  • By Lori Frederic -

    I love your thinking! Especially on the studies. I get so frustruated when my clients come running to me with the new latest and greatest study results the Today Show just covered on (fill in the blank of the latest foods off the healthy list).
    And it’s nice to know I’m not the only one out there quesitoning the ethics of the exercise supplement industry! Keep up the great work.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Lori!  It’s definitely good to know there are like-minded fitness pros out there.

  • By Shaun Somers -

    “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect” – Mark Twain

    I find myself constantly challenging Conventional Wisdom on so many issues.  It IS important to stay aware and make sure I’m not just going against the crowd for the sake of going against the crowd though.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Nice quote!  And like you said, pausing and reflecting doesn’t necessarily mean you change your mind – it just means you give some critical thought to what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

  • By ken O'Neill -

    As they say in India, cultivate deep doubt about all that you take for granted as true: deep doubt results in the few precious truthes to live by.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      That’s a great quote, Ken!  Thanks for sharing!

  • By Carrtommy -

    Peter Ralston says that the four pillars of martial arts should be “honesty, integrity, questioning and not-knowing”.

    It’s refreshing?

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      This Ralston guys sounds alright!

    • By Sundar JM Brown -

      Honesty is telling the truth, not only to others but to ourselves.
      This distinction goes beyond the conventional use of the word to a profound and real experience of being as “rock bottom” honest as we can manage. In this distinction we find that our normal tendency is not one of such powerful honesty — we manipulate our own thinking and feeling, and our experience is so influenced by our beliefs, fears and ambitions that we cannot trust it to represent the “truth” without challenge. We must maintain a diligent probing into the truth of anything that arises — from our ideas on how something works to the nature of relationship and communication. It appears that direct and honest communication leads to powerful interactions and relationships. What is actually occurring is already so, we begin to participate in this when we are honest with ourselves and others.

      Not-Knowing and Questioning
      Paradox and Confusion are the guardians of the truth.
      The truth is often found in unexpected places. How can we experience the truth if we are not open to every possibility? How can we question or wonder without first allowing ourselves an experience of not-knowing? Without the power of questioning, there is only knowing. With only knowing, there is no question and so no growth, no mystery, no learning, no discovery, no insight, and no experience of the authenticity of simply “being.”

      Grounded Openness
      These are two fundamental principles that we strive to keep in balance.
      To be grounded is to be real, to be committed to something, to be clear and standing on solid and authentic insights and effective distinctions.
      To be open is to be free, fresh, unstuck, creative, to make breakthroughs, to entertain radical possibilities, to embrace paradox.

      The dangers of groundedness without openness tend to be: -an inability to learn -becoming dogmatic or closed-minded -becoming or remaining stuck in a belief system -never challenging one’s own opinions -not being able to detect one’s own lies -having no breakthroughs -no transformation

      The dangers of openness without groundedness tend to be: -becoming superficial -being abstract, over-intellectualizing -adopting fantasies or good ideas as if they are true or as if you have experienced them as real -not being able to demonstrate or manifest what you are talking about -not being able to “live” your philosophy -merely believing in things rather than proving them for yourself -getting confused or flighty, having nowhere to stand -not being committed to anything. As you can plainly see, the issue of balancing groundedness with openness comes up in every form and dimension of our living and our pursuits. The purpose for maintaining such a vigil in these distinctions is to empower our investigations in being as real and as far-reaching as possible.Direct and Authentic Experience We are open to the possibility that we can directly experience something.This is the possibility that we can — without belief, knowledge, conjecture, interpretation, or hearsay — experience the truth of something, beyond subjectivity. Consistent with our commitment to become directly conscious of whatever is true, we do our best to have the most authentic and genuine experience that we can for ourselves — as opposed to merely believing something or having an idea that it “may” or even “must” be some way. Since openness and questioning are always at hand in any true inquiry, this distinction represents a “direction” in which to go rather than a “place” at which to stop. However, it also suggests that we are standing at the furthest point possible in our experience at this time, in other words, the most honest and authentic experience we can have in this moment.It’s important to remember that none of this is meant to be presented as factual to be believed or not. The purpose here is to offer directions and possibilities for your own exploration and investigation. Remember, the pursuit is to question and discover for yourself what is actually so in the matter.

      • By Sundar JM Brown -

        The above is directly from Peter Ralston.  Al, sounds like you have a brain-twin… Very pleasant to read. I found his descriptions quite calming and reassuring.

        • By Al Kavadlo -

          Thanks for sharing, Sundar!

  • By Aatif Naziri -

    Good stuff Al. Like most stuff, thinking and reasoning also needs practice. Most people struggle with the idea of “question everything” and some take it so far that they go off in the world of doubt, paranoia and conspiracies.  I guess our minds are trained to look for that silver bullet solution to everything (like the vampire movies, nothing kills the vampire but that magical silver bullet, sorry I digress) hence the confusion and chaos over diet, exercise, supplements etc etc.  We are looking for that magic pill, that magic exercise or that magic diet that will give us the body we all want.  Of course there are those among us who are able to organize and institutionalize this chaos and come up with that coveted magic diet, magic workout and that magic pill and in the process fatten there wallets.  But there are also among us, who dare to say that hey! every thing that you need in terms of diet and exercise doesn’t have to be complicated and convoluted….how dare you, Al.

    Don’t want this post to get too long, but I wanted to share a couple of thoughts and ideas that have assisted my evolution into becoming a better thinker or I should say a better human being (work in progress), because that, I think is the ultimate goal.  If you practice and implement this simple formula in your daily life it will pretty soon become part of you and it will eventually become as easy as  breathing.  The simple formula is “Listen, Analyze and the Respond”.  Its very simple but we all struggle with it and we have all heard how important listening is, so the next question is how do you become a better listener? My experience tells me that it all starts with caring, you have to care so much about what is being said that you have to immerse yourself into every word, every sentence, and listen to what you hear not only from your perspective but from the other person’s perspective, once you care enough to listen to what is being said, only then you can completely understand and comprehend what is being said.  And once you do that, only then you can conclude upon a response that is based on logic, reasoning and intuition.

    Hey Al, by the way I was on a American Airlines flight the other day and I flipped through their magazine and I saw a picture of a tattooed bald guy doing leg raises on a bar, I was like wait a minute, I’ve seen this guy somewhere before!

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks for the comment, Aatif.  I’m glad this post got you thinking and I like your ” listen, analyze and respond” philosophy.  It’s amazing how many people will skip the “listen and analyze” part and go straight to the “respond” part.  Also, glad you saw the AA magazine!

  • By Rarwakent -

    Here’s a basic tenet of fitness enthusiasts that I used to follow blindly:  I used heed the warnings of various athletic authorities never to exercise right after eating.  However, I eventually observed that in elementary schools, children play at recess right after lunch with few if any ill effects. I started to realize that anytime I had forgotten the rule and exercised on a full stomach I was fine.  Then, I realized that some students had P.E. scheduled after lunch, and I didn’t hear about kids being sent to the health room.  Eventually, I no longer paid attention to the rule. Now, I am ready for action whether or not I have eaten.  I even swim with a full stomach which would have been a definite no-no to the coaches.  Maybe I might refrain from eating corn-dogs and milkshakes right before getting on a fun-house ride at the fair, but otherwise, I don’t notice any stomach upset, nor any decrease in strength by doing exercise after eating a healthful meal.  I found out that it is up to us to confirm by our observation and experience what is true for ourselves.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Right on!  Way to be a free thinker!

  • By John D -

    True words of wisdom Al !

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, John!

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