One of the most counterproductive and even damaging traits relating to health, fitness and weight loss that so many uninformed people succumb to is the culture of extremism.
Of course, extremism is quite a strong word and no one ever really sees themselves as being an extremist. After all, everyone is just trying to do the best they can to lose weight and get healthy, with the knowledge and the tools they have.
The fact is however, that a significant percentage of health and fitness enthusiasts unknowingly follow extremist thinking, and doing so actually holds them back from progressing as fast as they should, often times to the point of stalling their progress altogether.
So how do you know if you’re affected by extremist thinking?
Well, being an extremist doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re spending four or more hours a day in the gym, seven days a week. Or that you’re only eating chicken breast, sweet potatoes and broccoli each and every day. Although these practices would certainly classify you as an extremist, extremist thinking can be much more subtle than that.
Simply put, extremist thinking is characterized by any or all of the following three beliefs:
- If something is good, then more is better.
- If something is good, then as much as possible is best.
- If something is bad, then none whatsoever is best.
Jeremy Loenneke Tweeted the following 12 excellent examples of extremist thinking some time ago:
- “Many people could benefit from lowering carbs a bit” – they take that as carbs are the devil, eliminate them completely.
- “Saturated fat may not be quite as bad as many first thought” – they take that as I can eat as much saturated fat as i want and be fine.
- “Most people aren’t negatively affected by consuming higher than recommended sodium intake” – they take that as SALT EVERYTHING.
- “Some people are lactose intolerant and can’t consume dairy products” – they take that as NO human should EVER consume dairy.
- “Some people can’t tolerate gluten” – they take that as NO human should EVER consume gluten EVER . . . NEVER.
- “Dietary fat doesn’t make you fat” – they take that as you can’t get fat from eating too much fat. I think we all see the issue with that.
- “Some alcohol a day may have health benefits” – they take that as throwing back a six-pack every night.
- “Higher dietary protein is safe” – they take that as justification for their 400g/day intake.
- “Blood flow restriction is safe” – they take that as more restriction the better, longer the better, heavier the load the better.
- “Flexible dieting within your macros is an effective means to contest prep” – they take that to mean cookies and pop tarts all day.
- “Muscle protein synthesis is maxed out at ~30g/meal” – they take that as meaning the body can only absorb 30g of protein per meal.
- “Soy protein isn’t the best protein source” – they take that as soy protein should under no circumstances EVER be consumed.
Here are a few other typical examples of extremist thinking in health and fitness that we regularly come across when hearing from people:
- Fatty foods cause weight gain, therefore if I eat low-fat food I won’t gain weight.
- Dark chocolate contains healthy minerals and antioxidants, therefore I can eat as much as I like.
- Exercising in the 8-12 rep range is best for muscle-building, therefore I should never exercise outside of that rep range.
I’m sure you get the idea.
To avoid falling into the extremist thinking trap, there’s a word that you need to remember and live by, and that word is “optimal”. Everything has an optimal point, and while that point can vary from individual to individual, it never, ever lies at any extreme – for anyone.
Consider water intake, for example. Water is very good for you, in fact it’s essential for proper functioning of your body and good health. If you were to have too little water intake each day (from what you drink and from your food) you would quickly dehydrate and get sick.
So does that mean you should drink ten gallons a day? It is good for you, after all!
Of course not! In fact, if you were to drink too much water, the level of sodium in your body could drop too low. That could then lead to a condition known as hyponatremia, which causes your body to retain too much water. This could cause your cells to swell, which is particularly harmful to your brain and can lead to seizures and even death.
So as with everything else, there’s an optimal point. Too much or too little of anything that’s essential and/or good for you is harmful. This is why extremist thinking never pays – it’s virtually a guarantee that whatever it is that you’re doing, it’s not optimal.
But what about those things that are considered not to be not good for you?
Take sweets and fast foods that are high in unhealthy trans fats, for example. Surely the less you have of these, the better, right? And none at all must surely be optimal?
Well, not necessarily. From a purely nutritional point of view, sure, these types of foods have little to offer and basically represent “empty calories”, as they say. But you must always bear in mind that nothing exists in a vacuum, so what may appear optimal on paper isn’t necessarily so in the real world.
The fact is that we’re not machines. We’re not happy to chug along for our entire lives on exactly the same fuel day in and day out. We need variety and we even need the occasional indulgence. Planning to adhere to a militant eating program, where absolutely nothing but the most natural, nutritionally valuable foods are permitted, is essentially planning to fail.
Sohee Lee of www.soheefit.com said something along the lines of,
This is absolutely true. If you can’t see yourself maintaining your current practice for the long term, it means it’s not sustainable – because it’s too extreme. So while you may think it’s optimal for you right now, the reality is it isn’t, because it’s not going to allow you to achieve and maintain your goals.
As Dr. Layne Norton says:
So, does this mean it’s OK to gorge yourself on so-called “bad” foods, for psychological reasons? Of course not – that would be extremist thinking at work on the other end of the scale.
The key here is “moderation” – another word to remember and live by.
By exercising moderation, you reap the psychological benefits of allowing some flexibility in your diet to keep yourself happy and satisfied, without any significant physiological downside. This is the key to making your diet sustainable for the long-term. Extremist thinking may sound impressive at first, but it’s rarely, if ever, sustainable in the real world.
So once again, there’s an optimal point somewhere in the middle, even for so-called “bad” foods, and it’s different for everyone. Too little, and you make your life miserable and set yourself up for eating binges. Too much, and you experience physiological drawbacks (poor health and/or weight gain, for example) and feed unhealthy cravings to strengthen them.
You need to find your own personal optimal point and stick to it.
As a rule of thumb, whenever you come across anyone offering health, fitness, and/or weight loss advice who uses superlatives in their sentences such as “always”, “never”, “best”, “worst”, and so on, you need to be extremely wary of what they’re saying. Superlatives are an indicator of extremist thinking, and 99% of the time, of seriously misleading statements.
Always remember that in health and fitness there are no black and white answers, only grey ones, and the truth never lies at the extremes, but always in the middle somewhere.