Critical thinking in health and fitness

“Let us keep our minds open, by all means. But do not keep your minds so open that your brain falls out!”

– Walter Kotschnig, 1939

The process of how we think is something innate in, nearly, all of us (insert flat earthers). A claim is made, the evidence for and against is weighed, and a decision is made based upon those prior convictions. 

From seemingly obsolete daily decisions to life and death scenarios, we manage to, be it consciously or subconsciously, weigh up those decisions. 

Why am I taking the time to write about something so seemingly apparent then? 

Well if I am being honest, it would appear that over the last decade there has been a bombardment of information on Television, Facebook, Instagram, and all other forms of media. We have moved into a period in time where we digest such an enormous volume of information that oftentimes we simply aren’t giving it the critical assessment it requires. 

I hope to focus this in on health and nutrition as best I can, and I hope to not run too far down any particular rabbit holes. 

Unfortunately, where there is money to be made and science yet to be established (or easily manipulated) there are cranks and charlatans eagerly awaiting for your overly open minds, and wallets. 

A large part of effective critical thinking is assessing what we know to be true, and working out the most likely answers from there (Occam’s Razor). Let’s look at a common claim, that sugar is as addictive as cocaine or heroin. 

Firstly what we do know, is that physiological addiction is classified via two key symptoms, those being tolerance and withdrawal. Although there may be anecdotal claims that those are present via ‘health gurus’ and ‘clean eaters’ in sugar, it simply is not shown in clinical research (Hebebrand et al., 2014). 

Okay so maybe we can’t call it physiological addiction but what about psychological? You know they say it lights up the same brain regions as hard drugs do. 

This one we really have to get critical on. Yes there is some evidence (though scarce at best) that the thought of sugary foods will light up that section of the brain. Unfortunately most of that research has been done in rats, and beyond that, the same can be said for thoughts of winning, listening to enjoyable music (Breiter et al., 2001). This one is a classic logical error, equivalent to saying, when you have the flu you may vomit; therefore when you vomit you must have the flu. And that is simply not the case, correlation does not equal causation. 

And back out of the rabbit hole we go. As we can see with a little more thought to a fairly unscrupulous claim, you can arrive at an answer based on what we do know to be true. But why is that actually important for us to do. Part of the reason is simply not allowing yourself to be tricked or manipulated by clever headlines and sneaky sales tactics for ideas or products that are of no benefit to you. 

Don’t think people are out there taking advantage of that? 

Let’s take aim at some of those infomercials that love selling you the latest and greatest ‘Abs blaster 3000 machine’. How do we know that they don’t really “blast belly fat” or “get you rock hard abs in 30 days”.

*Puts on critical thinking cap* 

We know that you cannot spot reduce belly fat over fat stores in other areas. When you reduce body fat it is largely based upon genetic predisposition that will dictate what becomes leaner first. We also know that doing some crunches on an expensive machine might make those abs of yours stronger and even hypertrophy them a little more. What that won’t do on its own is strip away belly fat, that’s done through a sustained calorie deficit. 

To summarise, critical thinking is a tool that can help guide you through everyday interactions, some small, some large, and some potentially expensive. Being able to critically assess decisions that have an impact on your own health, wealth, and daily life decisions. 

References:

Hebebrand, J., Albayrak, Ö., Adan, R., Antel, J., Dieguez, C., de Jong, J., … & van der Plasse, G. (2014). “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 295-306.

Breiter, H. C., Aharon, I., Kahneman, D., Dale, A., & Shizgal, P. (2001). Functional imaging of neural responses to expectancy and experience of monetary gains and losses. Neuron, 30(2), 619-639.