This is why online diet and fitness advice is so terrible

Online fitness advice is full of contradictions

You’ve probably noticed that the internet has a lot of completely contradictory advice when it comes to health, exercise, and fitness. Even if you dismiss articles written by obvious charlatans looking to make a buck, there are still seemingly sincere experts who all say different things. This contradiction among experts gets amplified by non-expert bloggers and journalists who, of course, indiscriminately publicize every theory they get their hands on. In the end, it just looks like nobody knows what they’re talking about.

So what’s going on? I think there is a simple answer rooted in a basic psychological problem with how people approach the internet. Namely,

Not everything is about you.

When I wrote “You eat too much” it created quite a stir, because I said that losing weight is simple: instead of meticulously measuring every gram of every nutrient and vitamin you get, just eat less and exercise more. Of course I was inundated with replies from fitness addicts, bodybuilders, and personal trainers telling me that this is wrong: you can’t simply pay attention to the total calories you take in; the type of calories you take in matters!

Of course, they are absolutely correct. I know they are correct both from scientific research on the subject and from my own personal, first-hand experience. I’ve been a bodybuilder and weight trainer since I was 15. My diet is extremely controlled, and my body fat level is extremely low. If I keep the same calorie count, but shift those calories so that more are coming from carbs rather than protein, I see changes in my level of muscle definition. If I keep the same calorie count but reduce the amount of vegetables and “real foods” I get, replacing them instead with supplements, I feel changes in my energy levels. Because my diet and exercise routine are very controlled and my bodyfat levels are so low, every tiny change makes a difference.

But guess what? The article “You eat too much” wasn’t written for me. It wasn’t written for people who are already active and in excellent shape. The article is specifically targeted for people who are not active, and who are medically and seriously overweight. If you are in incredibly good shape, then even the smallest changes in what you eat will make a noticeable difference. If you seriously over-eat, then the problem is that you over-eat: it’s not the types of foods, but the amount that you eat, that you need to change.

The moral of the story: not every single article out there is about you. There are plenty of other examples.

One fitness website says that you need to exercise your abs to get a good six pack, another fitness website says the key to having good abs is having the right diet. Both are right: the advice is simply targeted to different audiences. If you exercise and lift weights but have body fat around your midsection, doing crunches will not cause you to burn the fat that is covering your abs. Only controlling and manipulating your diet will get you to lose weight and give you definition in your midsection.¬† On the other hand, if you are a skinny kid who doesn’t work out, and you have a flat stomach, you will not be able to “diet your way to abs”. You need to do exercises to stimulate the growth and tightening of the muscles in that area, to give your abs the “pop” of visibility.

One website says you should eat 5-6 small meals a day, another website says that it makes no difference whether you eat your food in small meals or all at once. Once again, both are correct, but for different audiences. If you are very fit and looking to push yourself to the next level and make those abs pop even more than they already are, consider breaking up your meals and eating continuously in small doses during the day. If you are overweight and your goal is to drop 30 or more pounds, paying attention to whether you get 3 meals or 6 is a complete waste of your time: you need to eat healthier, and focus on the total amount you eat, and nothing else.

(One quick caveat: There is some psychology involved here. If you are seriously overweight and you find that eating throughout the day makes it easier for you to eat less total food, because you don’t have “between-meal hunger”, then by all means go for it! Do what works best for you. But if you find that eating more often means that you eat more food, then you are not doing yourself any favors by focusing on those websites that tell you to eat 5-6 meals a day.)

One website says minimizing carbohydrate intake will make the pounds just melt away! Another website says that no-carb diets are unhealthy and don’t work. Both are right: diets that exclude carbohydrates originated decades ago among bodybuilders and fitness models who used them as a short term method, usually right before a competition or photo shoot, to “dry out” and become extremely lean and defined. For that purpose, used in that way, it absolutely works. But if you are an average Joe on the street who doesn’t exercise and isn’t particularly¬†conscientious about his diet, and you suddenly try cutting carbohydrates completely out of your life, not only will you be tired, unhealthy, and miserable, but there is such a great chance that you will “cheat” on the diet that it will be worse than worthless. (Yes: alcohol contains carbs.)

The list goes on and on. I will give expert and professional publications the benefit of the doubt: they probably think that it is obvious what audience they are targeting. The bodybuilding magazine that says the secret to abs is diet assumes that the reader works out, and the women’s magazine that says you should just eat fewer calories assumes that their readers are not (typically) women who work out 6 days a week, have a life-long habit of a very controlled diet and are ripped as hell. The publications know and assume this, and perhaps the dedicated readers of those publications know it as well.

But then along comes the internet, and on the internet people tend to lose their minds. Instead of taking into account the source of information and the intended audience, people click around and assume every single article appearing on their screen is targeted specifically at them. So they read one article that says, “Eat whenever you want!” and another that says “Eat 6 meals a day!” and they assume that both articles are intended to be universal advice for everybody. And, quite reasonably, they get super-duper confused.

Making it worse are the non-expert journalists and casual bloggers who pick up these headlines and report them as if they are advice for everybody. Now suddenly gossip columns and low-rent online journals really are writing articles about how everybody should (or shouldn’t) count calories, and everybody should (or shouldn’t) avoid carbohydrates, and everybody should (or shouldn’t) do ab exercises to get a six-pack. The result is a frantic contradictory mess.

So in your online search, don’t get confused by the contradictions you see. Instead, just always keep this question in the back of your mind: who is this advice really for? And remember that not everything you read about fitness online is actually advice specifically for you.