Episode 06: The Quantification Debacle

In Episode 06: The Quantification Debacle, Geof and Todd discuss why they think that when it comes to your health & wellness (with the advent of technology) that we are stuck quantifying an endless number of metrics (i.e. steps, body fat percentage, metabolic rate, macronutrient intake, sleep, heart rate) that may or may not help us achieve our health goals.  More isn’t always better and just because you can measure something doesn’t mean that is useful to you.

We also discuss how, at the same time that we’re quantifying too many things that we’re also failing to put into proper context who should be using certain products and services such as chocolate milk or Gatorade and whether we should be concerned with the latest “health scare” study put out by the factoid and tidbit, cocktail party conversation fodder, “according to the latest study”, press releases that is the modern day media.  So many of these press releases leave us less informed than if we have never heard anything about the topic at all.   Geof discusses how drinking chocolate milk immediately after a workout is not a magical recovery elixir and Todd laments on the fact that not everyone needs to drink sugar water with a splash of electrolytes (Gatorade) during a workout.

Let’s be clear.  Quantification is very important.  As someone trained as a scientist I understand firsthand how important the identification and quantification of the variables are to an experiment.  If you can’t quantify and you can’t control the variables you’re going to learn nothing from your experiment.  The problem that Geof and I have with quantification is that we are either doing too much and over-interpreting our data or doing too little and extrapolating it to populations that certain products and services will likely neither help nor harm.

Too Much Quantification
We quantify people’s weight, body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage, waist circumference, waist to hip ratio, steps, pace, distance, heart rate, heart rate variability, weight lifted, repetitions, muscle mass, metabolic rate, resting metabolic rate, sleeping metabolic rate, grams of fat, carbohydrates, and protein, percentages of fat, carbohydrates, and protein, calories burned during a workout, fat calories burned during a workout, vitamin and mineral intake, fluid intake, sleep, and VO2max to name a few.

Each of these measurements has its time and place but depending on your health/fitness goals, the vast majority of them will not be very beneficial to you.  I used to religiously track my steps before I developed osteoarthritis in my toes, for years I kept a weight training notebook, which transformed into an excel spreadsheet, I have trained with a heart rate monitor, I have taken metabolic rate tests, and was once obsessed with knowing my VO2max.  I don’t do any of that now (although I do track my walking, hikes, and bike riding on Strava) and my body has felt the best that it has in quite some time (several months). 

Geof and I are at a place in our fitness journeys where we don’t need any fancy tests or tools to meet our goals.  We don’t even need a scale.  Our benchmarks are, do our pants still fit (Geof refers to his largest pants as his “danger pants” because if he has trouble fitting into them then he knows that it is time to change)?  Even if I stepped on the scale and it read 205 (I’m usually around 190), if my pants still fit, I’m not willing to make a change.  But if my pants stop fitting, I know that I need to do something.  And that something isn’t going to involve the vast majority of the things that we can measure.  I am going to reduce portion sizes and exercise more (I know because I’ve done it before and it works).  For some reason many of us are trained to think that a more complicated plan equals better results and that by measuring all of these things that we’ll be better able to control the process and track our progress.  I’ve argued before that we need to take the scientific approach and track and measure everything we can to be successful.  I no longer believe that to be the case.

As Geof and I discuss, there is always an “optimal” way of doing things but more often than not the focus on maximizing efficiency or doing things the “absolutely correct way” robs us of some of the energy and focus that is required to stay consistent while also falling victim to the law of diminishing returns.  If you come up with a workout plan and execute said plan for a number of weeks, then you can see whether it worked or not.  All too often we get stuck in the planning stages and seek perfection rather than pragmatism.  We’re so worried about doing things incorrectly that we end up doing nothing at all.  Oftentimes inertia to change is our biggest obstacle.  Remove the inertia, do something, and fine tune from there.

Too Little Quantification
The other side of the quantification coin involves too little quantification, context, and/or explanation.  Stop me if you’ve heard this before, “According to a recent study”….or “a new study out of Cambridge reports that…”.  As someone highly trained in nutrition and exercise science, I absolutely despise these factoid and tidbit, out of context stories/trash that we are exposed to through radio, news, and marketing.

These stories tend to be in the form of entertainment, marketing or both.  They might be framed as “informing” you but in my opinion they tend to do more damage than good.  As Geof points out, these stories give you just enough information to be dangerous, that is now you are aware of the topic and have an opinion on it even though you know near to nothing about it.

So many of these stories emphasize what you’re going to lose (your life, health benefits) or what you’re going to gain (health benefits, longevity) but fail to properly quantify who is going to benefit, in what situation, in what dose, for how long, etc.  Instead, products and services are grossly overmarketed to populations that will not benefit whatsoever. 

The easy examples to pick on are Gatorade and chocolate milk.  Gatorade was originally created to be a hydration/rehydration beverage for individuals working in hot and humid conditions.  In following sports science guidelines, Gatorade should be used when continuously working out at a moderate to vigorous intensity for greater than 90 minutes in hot and/or humid conditions to replenish the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat.  However, not everyone working out needs to drink Gatorade.  Noncontinuous exercise (i.e. lifting weights, baseball), exercise lasting less than 90 minutes, nonstrenuous exercise (i.e. walking, light jogging), or exercise in thermoneutral conditions (i.e. not hot and humid) do not require Gatorade.  Water will do just fine. 

But not only has Gatorade been marketed to ALL exercisers but it is also consumed by non-exercisers.  People watching television, playing video games (or insert activity here) drink Gatorade because it is thought to be a healthier alternative to soda and sweet tea when in reality Gatorade is sugar water with some electrolytes, electrolytes that you should be able to easily get in your diet if you consume any fruits whatsoever (salt is easy to get, potassium is in fruits).  Now there is also Gatorade Zero and a host of other Gatorade products aimed at the masses.  I used to drink gallons of Gatorade on long bike rides but now I haven’t drank Gatorade in years, even on hikes, because I simply don’t need to.  I’d much rather drink my calories as beer than Gatorade.

Chocolate milk has been marketed as the ultimate sports recovery drink as it contains a nice mixture of carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores (stored sugar) and protein to promote muscle repair and much like Gatorade has the backing of legitimate sports science and scientists.  The problem that Geof and I have with chocolate milk is that most people do not require a recovery beverage.  They didn’t exercise hard enough to need to replenish glycogen stores or they don’t need to replenish glycogen stores as quickly as can be completed by consuming carbohydrate immediately after an exercise bout.  By this I mean that unless you plan on exercising again within the next 2 – 6 hours, your normal dietary patterns will be sufficient to replenish your glycogen stores and repair your muscles.  The same can be said about Gatorade.  The electrolytes and fluid lost during exercise can easily be replaced with normal dietary patterns.

Yet, chocolate milk (the dairy industry) has aggressively marketed chocolate milk as being this magical, all in one recovery beverage.  It is a relatively “whole food” despite the addition of high fructose corn syrup, which people are more comfortable with than consuming an “artificial” protein shake or god forbid having to eat a peanut butter and jelly or turkey sandwich, which requires you making one.  Chocolate milk is a sweet treat (typically for kids), not some magical recovery beverage.

The final thing we’ll say about chocolate milk is the way many of these sports beverages are marketed.  If you don’t immediately “lock in your gains” after you have lifted, your workout somehow doesn’t matter.  Maybe there is research supporting enhanced recovery (I haven’t looked at it for a while) but to me it doesn’t matter if drinking chocolate milk immediately after a workout caused you to gain 2.7 pounds of muscle over the course of multiple weeks and those who didn’t gained 2.4 pounds of muscle.  If drinking chocolate milk is just part of your routine and not an inconvenience and if you would rather use chocolate milk in your calorie budget rather than another treat (i.e. beer or Doritos) then have it.  But, the idea that chocolate milk is somehow special is greatly overblown.  There are thousands of ways to gain the same effect.

In our podcast we also briefly talk about how people also do not understand risk and how if you want to lie you can do so with percentages.  Far too many news stories talk about how your risk of something bad (let’s say cancer) will happen if you do (or don’t do) something.  For example, “a recent study shows that people who drink diet soda have 2x the incidence of cancer”.  What they don’t tell you is that your risk went from 0.1% to 0.2%, which technically is a 100% or 2x increase but in terms of real world risk is still only 0.2%.  Many of these news stories provide no citations and if they do provide a link (in a written story), most people are not trained to be able to interpret complex scientific studies.

Conclusion
Quantification (computer science, software, technology, algorithms) are becoming more and more prevalent in every aspect of our day to day lives.  This massive amount of data and data generating abilities has allowed us to quantify an amazing number of health & wellness metrics.  Yet, so many of these metrics aren’t very meaningful to our health goals.  On the other hand, media and marketing further floods our brains with scare tactics and fantasy health gains along with factoids and tidbits that may be good for cocktail party conversation but are not useful in making meaningful change in our lives.

I previous wrote a blog titled, Three Easy Ways to Drastically Increase Your Nutrition Knowledge, and in it I suggested completely tuning out news stories and marketing because I have found none of it useful and most of it deceptive at best.  It might be entertaining and make you feel good that you have learned new information but in reality you would be better off never having it brought to your attention at all.

Food insecurity in America still exists today and the coronavirus and the resultant economic insecurities have laid bare this reality.  However, many Americans are so food secure and financially well that they are able to focus on further improving their health and wellness.  Although there is so much to be said about this, this privileged class is so high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that they are able to chase moronic fantasy land health and wellness ideas to further improve their health, when in reality, their privilege has allowed them to DECIDE what is good and bad for them (i.e. carbs are bad) when so many other Americans do not have that luxury.  It makes me sick.  As a further plug and evidence of this reality, I would like to refer you to another article that I have written, Everything You Eat Will Kill You.  In essence, this article shows, with scientific evidence, that roughly 80% of the common foods that we eat have been linked to cancer or some other type of disease.  So it is true that if you want to, you can decide which nutrient you don’t like because it is “bad for you”, when in reality it is just bad science and misinterpretation of data.

The entire health & wellness ecosystem in this country is broken.  We quantify shit that doesn’t matter and we fail to quantify things that do matter.  Some people’s pockets are being lined while other peoples’ health is being diminished.  The solution to this, if there is one, is to find trusted health & wellness experts that can provide you with sound advice.  While it is difficult to figure out who is a quack or a maleficent fool trying to make some money, Geof and I hope that you can begin to trust us to provide you with the right amount of quantification and context to prove useful in your health and wellness journey.

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