Ever notice how many different diets and exercise programs there are? The barrage of trends, new ideas and new formulations on health is relentless these days. Veganism, Low Carb, Paleo, Juice Cleanses, bootcamps, CrossFit, running clubs, this diet, that device and the list goes on and on and on. You name the program and there are devout followers preaching its virtues. Nearly every one of them has found the answer to their health problems. Here’s the thing: if so many of these things work so well and claim to hold the secret to health or weight loss, then why are there so many different, often polar opposing, programs out there? And why do so many people end up switching from one program to another after the original one stopped working?
The answer is simple…
None of these are cure alls, every one of these diets and programs are tools. They are not the universal “answer” or the “truth” or “secret” which is why they all work for some people, for some goals, some of the time. There is no almighty health panacea, no matter what the popular trends might have you believe. Nothing works for everyone all of the time. We are too different physically, emotionally, culturally and habitually for that to be the case.
Right Tool For The Right Job
Every one of us has a slightly different job (circumstance), project (goals) and needs tools (intervention) to help us accomplish the necessary tasks. For some, vegetarianism is a handy tool, for others, Paleo or Gluten-Free might be better tools. For some, all three can be helpful at different times, depending on their personal project. The correct tool(s) depends on both the job and the person. Take the hypothetical task of hammering a nail into a piece of wood to anchor it to another surface. Obviously a hammer works best, but not everyone has access to a hammer or knows that it’s the best option. Based off what someone has or hears is the best tool, they might try a myriad of options. Trying to use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail might work for someone who is handy, has patience and is very precise. It may not be perfect but it can work in the right circumstance. If you only have one nail to hammer, this might be workable. If you have a bunch of nails or a really tough surface this tool will fail, even if it shows some promise in the beginning.
Many tools work in the short term but no tool works forever. Low Carb is a great intervention for many people but it often comes up short in the long run. Same with veganism. Tools can be effective for a job or two but trying to complete a whole project with just one device is likely a fool’s errand. Just as you don’t build and care for a house with just a screwdriver or hammer, you don’t create and maintain a lifetime of optimal health with just one diet or exercise program.
This is why it’s helpful to consider everything you come across as a tool. Even if Dr. Oz says it’s the greatest health discovery since penicillin, it’s just part of the tool box available to you. If it seems like it might be helpful, do some research, teach yourself how to use it and try it but remain savvy to its inherent “toolness”. If you gather it’s not working, time to put it back in the tool box and try something else.
Jack of All Trades?
The closest thing you’ll probably get to the proverbial Swiss Army knife is a whole food based omnivore diet, closest resembled in an Ancestral/Paleo/Primal lifestyle. Although it doesn’t work magic for everyone its basic philosophy and biologically loyal premise has the most to offer of any diet/program out there and is often a great foundation to build on. A jack of all trades approach, an evolutionary based health paradigm allows quite a bit of flexibility and user personalization. Like veggies? Then steer your diet toward them but don’t abstain from animals all year long. Like more animals? Then steer toward them but don’t forget we are omnivores and certainly benefit from eating plants, particularly when they are in season.
Virtually no humans before a few decades ago were able to eat the same thing all year long. We ate a highly variable, regional and seasonal diet. This is why I think people experience such good success on so many different diets, particularly two opposite dietary approaches: low carb and vegetarian/vegan. Our biology is geared toward variable, seasonal food intake. Winters with lower carbohydrates available. Warmer months with plants growing everywhere. Could it be that because humans have traditionally been more plant based during some parts of the year and more animal based during others our biology is geared toward this?
Enter the vegetarian diet. People often feel good when starting, experience health benefits and lose weight. Makes sense, the human body is likely wired to eat this way on a sporadic basis. What also makes sense is that so many people struggle with long term adherence on plant based diets. As the genetic omnivore continues to be forced dormant it pushes harder and harder to be heard. Whether seen as outward cravings for animal flesh or chronic health problems from nutritional deficiency, the answer is not to become more strict and go vegan. It’s probably to eat some animals. This is why countless strict vegans and vegetarians feel so good when returning to omnivery, many claiming a rebirth of sorts.
Simarly, the nearly polar opposite low carb diet works wonders for many. Why? It would also make sense that if a human body has been eating a higher carbohydrate diet for a while, years upon years of “summertime” eating, that entering a period of restricted carbs (wintertime eating) would fit well with our biology. The body, like most mammals, knows how to deal with this situation and starts to heal, repair and shed extra weight. Fantastic at first but it is also a temporary fix for most people. Adherence starts to fade and the seasonally eating human starts to need different nutrients, including carbohydrates, as the year(s) go along. The body/brain start having problems very reliably. The answer isn’t to go Ketogenic. It’s probably to eat some carbs. Same as the above scenario, extended low carbers often feel reborn after eating some carbs again.
Both are viable eating strategies. Both are tools that need to treated as such. Similar to countless other dietary approaches, they have a time and place but likely fit better into a more complex and bigger picture.
We could continue this same line of thinking with physical philosophies, such as endurance and strength training? Opposite approaches that work wonders for many but often fall short in the long run. Both are viable ways to move the body and have value, although each person will have a different equation and will usually come up short if they spend too long on one side of the fence.
This human variability and adaptability is one of the reasons why I think eating seasonally is a smart way to approach nutrition and moving seasonally is a smart way to approach fitness. That way you can get the best of all the worlds each and every year. Some years you might favor a few tools over others but in the grand scheme you’ll still be taking advantage of a very diverse tool box to build the home of your dreams.
So carry your Swiss Army knife with you for your general every day needs and then when a special job arises, go grab your tool box, pull out one of your tools and put it to use. When you’re finished, the tool goes back in the box it and you go on with your life, Swiss Army knife and all.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. I explored the idea of looking at behaviors as tools a while back in Think Like A Sculptor, which goes along with this line of thinking.