Beware of Diet Bias!

Beware of Diet Bias!

Since quitting sugar on October 24th, 2011, I’ve adopted a low carbohydrate, moderate protein, and high fat diet. Basically, the Atkins diet. That’s been going really well.

Though I’ve lost a lot of weight, it was never my primary focus. Sure, I’m stoked about being leaner. It feels great to fit into some of my old clothes. Also my abs are beginning to resurface, which totally rocks. And one of the benefits of the Atkins diet (if you do it right), is that you never…and let me emphasize this point…NEVER(!) have to go hungry. There’s always something you can eat when you’re hungry. In fact, if you’re keeping only fresh and mostly unprocessed foods in your refrigerator and pantry, you can almost eat whatever you want when you’re hungry and not gain any weight.

So when I hear about people following other diets, I almost pity them. I want to pull them aside and explain how awesome the Atkins approach is. I’m pretty much convinced that it’s hands-down, the best diet, period.  …or is it?

May I Have Your Attention Please?

If you’ve ever bought a new car, you’ve probably experienced your selective attention at work. An example of selective attention is when you’ve decided what car you want to buy and suddenly, you’re seeing that exact car all over town. Ever wonder why that happens? Well, as I understand it, we are pattern-seeking people. It goes back to a time when we spent most of our days hunting and gathering. If we couldn’t identify a threat in a vegetation-dense forest, for example, then we became dinner for a bigger and badder animal.

We all employ selective attention. We’re constantly sorting the information we gather from the world around us. Some data gets stored for later retrieval, while other data seems to get dismissed. This helps us develop preferences and biases.

For instance, as early man, we might have seen a member of our clan get brutally attacked and killed by a saber-toothed cat. It scared us and sent us running for safety. Later, while on a hunt, we may notice another saber-toothed cat at the edge of a forest or jungle which instantly sends us running for safety again, not waiting to see if the animal is even going to attack. Because of our selective attention, we were able to spot the animal and since it represents danger or death, having a selective attention may have saved our lives. It allows us to identify one specific thing among many others. Our singular point of focus gets magnified in our attention, the rest fades into the background and is barely noticed, no matter how prominent it may actually be. Sometimes this is great, but not always.

I Like “Myself”

We also have a bias for members of our own clan, family, or social group. We feel a sense of security and trust when we belong to a like-minded group. Simply stated, we like people who are like ourselves. We feel an affinity with them and even tend to have similar views, similar likes and dislikes, maybe watch the same TV shows, like the same musical groups, and we may even eat the same foods. We tend to be a lot like the members of our various groups. In fact, by observing the activities and preferences of the people in our group, our own preferences may be swayed in favor of the preferences of the group. Through our connection with our social group, we may follow the accepted norms adopted by the group, which becomes a set of biases that are shared by the group and are always working in the background of our consciousness.

When you have a group bias, or a bias of any kind, your selective attention may activate without you even knowing it. So when a stream of data is swirling around you, such as when surfing the net, or watching TV, you’re more likely to notice the things you have a bias toward or a preference for. Your favorite football team may get your attention while another team might go unnoticed. You may pay attention to information about a political candidate that you support but because the information is unkind, you dismiss it all as untrue. If you were to examine your biases, you might find that many of them exist because of your social affiliations. Whatever the group likes, thinks, says or does, you follow, support and adopt similar behaviors, because you belong to the group. It happens automatically and unconsciously, not to everybody all the time, but it happens to all people, very frequently in some form.

Do You Have Diet Bias?

Since I’ve joined the growing number of people who have quit eating sugar, I’ve become more familiar with the different “camps”, factions, or communities that exist in the diet and nutrition realm. People love their group affiliations and become very attached to them and invested in them. They usually adopt the same or similar biases that the group holds as well. These biases can be so strong that even when new and contrary information is presented, their biases sort it differently and attempt to logically (or illogically) invalidate anything that would make their belief (which is the also belief of the group) wrong. Their biases often prevent them from being objective when assessing their own results or validating the merits of their specific diet. Therefore, their results may follow in lock-step with the rest of the group.  This is what I call diet bias.

Also, I believe there’s another aspect of diet bias that I’m seeing at work. People who “buy into” a specific model of eating, a specific diet and nutrition approach, sometimes become very fond of it. They become such big fans of that particular “diet” that the placebo effect kicks in and helps them see things that may not really be there. As an example in my own life, I read a lot about how people feel after quitting sugar and adopting a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. People report having so much energy that they don’t know what to do with it. They talk about being pain-free after years of health issues caused from eating poorly. They also talk about needing less sleep and having consistent energy throughout the day. But I think that in many cases, this is diet bias in action.

We like to feel like we belong. We’re social animals so we like to be included in groups of similar interests. Historically, this solidarity is necessary to our long-term survival. When we pledge allegiance to a specific diet, we begin to mirror others who are also in our community. We adopt similar behaviors, beliefs, and even begin to interpret our results through the same biased lens. In other words, we become more like them. For example, if everybody is saying, “I feel great since starting Atkins…I have so much energy”, you may also find yourself saying the same thing because that’s what everybody in the community says after starting Atkins. You may hear people saying, “Since I started eating paleo, I’ve felt stronger and have more stamina.” Likewise, you may also find yourself saying something like this. Yes, I realize that it also may be true, but I believe it’s not true as often as reported.

Your Results May Vary

After I gave up sugar, I crashed. I had been seriously addicted to sugar. I felt sluggish for the first few days, broke out into random sweats, my body felt thick and like it was mired down in mud. But around day 4 or so, the clouds parted and I felt great. But if I’m being totally honest, that initial “great” feeling has come down a bit. I do feel so much better since quitting sugar. That much is true. But I have caught myself saying, “I feel great!” to people when they ask how I feel since I quit eating sugar. But it’s not true. I feel very good most of the time, but I have definitely not reached super-human status just yet. I caught myself overstating my case.

Based on everything I was hearing from so many sources, I assumed I would have an excessive amount of energy most of the time. This hasn’t happened. I thought my body would practically reverse any joint pain, this also hasn’t happened. I expected to feel like an entirely new person. And while this also hasn’t happened, I’ve come close on this one. Losing weight does change how you feel. But to say, “I feel great!” all the time or “I have so much energy I don’t know what to do with it” just isn’t true for me…yet.

It might be different for you, but I definitely feel like I’m taking a hit where sleep is concerned. I don’t get as much sleep as I need. I know this. And I know that some of my lack of expected energy or residual joint pain, for example, might be due to not getting enough sleep or to the statins I took for years (which, as I understand it, can cause joint issues to develop). Statistically speaking, the average person doesn’t get enough sleep. That’s practically an epidemic as much as (maybe more than) obesity is. And if that’s true, than that also means the majority of people who eat Atkins or some other form of low-carbohydrate diet probably don’t get enough sleep either.

I suspect that there are many people who are overstating how they feel as a result of their low-carb diets, simply because they know the drill. Their connection to the low-carb community means they’ve formed a bias in favor of low-carb eating. This also causes them to adapt to the standard recitations heard from many in the low-carb community. In actuality, I think there are many people (if they’re being honest) who are like me. They definitely feel better, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. However, their diet bias makes them a little blind to their own truth, and without thinking, they automatically state that they feel awesome.

Is There Anything Better?

Is there another diet better than Atkins? I don’t know. I like the Atkins diet and I don’t have any plans to change how I’m eating anytime soon. But I’m also paying close attention to what’s happening to my body. Am I getting the results I want? I’m aware of my own diet bias, but I still pay attention to new data so I don’t overlook a different diet or a simple tweak to my present diet that may be very beneficial. I don’t automatically hunker down ready to argue the finer points of my way of eating so as to invalidate any diet that is different. If you’re waving the banner of veganism, I’m all for you. If you feel like eating only organic foods, I’ll cheer you on. If you want to quit eating sugar, I’ll pat you on the back and celebrate your success. But just because you’ve determined that it’s the best path for you, that doesn’t mean it’s the best path for everyone, or that everyone will have the same results as you….nor will you have the same results as everyone else.

There are other considerations. There are a host of medical conditions that may interfere with how you’re feeling or whether you’re losing weight or not. Also, if you’re lacking in any vitamins or minerals; if your nutrition isn’t properly balanced; if you exercise too little or too much, or don’t get enough sleep–all of these must be considered and addressed before jumping to any conclusions or reciting the standard answers. Feeling great is a process that takes time and intelligence, but I believe it’s possible for everyone to achieve great health, if you’re really paying attention.

So the next time you hear someone stating how fantastic they feel since starting to follow the [whatever] diet, be aware that they may have diet bias and that while they may feel better, they may not actually feel “fantastic.” Also, when you hear someone saying, “the [whatever] diet has been proven to be the healthiest over all others”, realize that they may be blinded by their diet bias; they may not be fully or rationally considering any diet outside of the one that they are (and their group is) following.

Be Aware and Think For Yourself

If you want to make the most progress and really fine-tune your health, I suggest you be as honest as possible about how you feel as a result of your diet. Objectively assess how you’re feeling and be willing to tweak your diet so you can continue to feel better and better. Love your diet, but be open to new diets and new nutrition information, and consider them carefully and with good critical reasoning. But, above all, be aware that we all have biases and that includes people in every diet-based community. Look out for diet bias and listen objectively to what they say, then make up your own mind rather than copying theirs.


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Author: Scott Milford

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