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Self-Experimentation Doesn’t Trump Science; It IS Science

Over the last few days I’ve spent significant time catching up on reading some of the newer Paleoish, Low-Carbish diet & fitness books to hit the shelves. Specifically, Rob Wolf’s The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet , Art De Vany’s The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us about Weight Loss, Fitness, and Aging, and one that’s been around a while, Jeff Thiboutot’s and Matt Schoeneberger’s S.P.E.E.D.

All of these books are heavily researched and referenced, but the more common thread I find among them is a deep confidence in these authors surrounding a pretty simple set of dietary and/or lifestyle principles informed by a recognition that humans are animals with a reasonably easy-to-determine biology and physiology, and that a lean & strong body and a healthy sense of well being ought to come naturally for human beings, as it does for all other animals that behave in accordance with their natures.

But even more than that, one gets the sense — at least I do — that these foregoing principles were arrived at first by simply thinking logically about it, followed by self-experimentation, followed by excellent results, followed by introducing family, friends and clients to these various self-experiments, followed by equally impressive results in them. What kinds of results? Well, there are tons of them right here, in both the posts and the many comments to the posts.

The scientific references contained in these books are fine and dandy and to some extent, necessary for credibility — but how are you going to know any of this science has any particular value to you, unless you put it to the test on yourself? And what happens when your personal results in terms of how you look & feel contradict what mainstream, conventional experts have been telling you and backing it with "science;" you know, of the sort typically reported in breathless quotidian headlines in the "Health" section.

To put it more directly, probably the most common comment we see around here in terms of self-reporting of results and progress is the prelude; that of years, often decades of trying to follow "expert," conventional advice, yet getting fatter, sicker, and more depressed all the time. Look around you. How genuinely happy and self assured can these increasing numbers of obese souls be, especially the young ones who ought to be having the times of their lives? And, do you suppose they’ve really been self-experimenting at all, or have they simply been doing what they’ve been told to do — or not, feeling or realizing that "eat less, exercise more" is like some sort of miserable prison sentence?

So I would suggest to you that your experience trumps all science in these matters, no matter how sound it seems. That said, there’s no need to go off the deep end. Moreover, it’s better that you gain the confidence you need to carry it forward and you do that by controlling for variables. What that means in simple terms is that you change one or two things at a time, just long enough to see how it works for you. Then you change more things.

In a dietary context, perhaps you go low-carb first, but don’t worry so much about what sorts of foods you’re eating. And once you’ve established how that works, you might try dropping grains, sugars and anything with modern vegetable or seed oils, like corn, canola, soy, safflower, sunflower, etc. A different approach might be to just drop the aforementioned processed foods and go the paleo way from the get-go. You might find that it’s not so much the carbs, but what kind of carbs.

Once you’ve established your path in terms of diet, now you can turn towards exercise. Perhaps you simply drop cardio. Maybe replace it with sprints. And how about shortening your workout from three sessions of an hour each to 2 sessions per week of 15-30 minutes, but give it your all and lift heavy for fewer reps and fewer sets?

There are a lot of variables to account for and while it’s certainly possible to jump in and change everything at once and you’ll probably get excellent results, those results are going to be an average. You’ll have no way of knowing what’s giving you the greatest benefit vs. what might not be helping, or is even slowing you down because the negative is being made up in other areas.

In my personal case it kinda worked out this way without even explicitly trying to go the slow, steady route. I began with the workouts. Short, 30-minute sessions twice per week, no cardio, and I began to see results even without much attention to diet, especially in a rapid lowering of blood pressure. Then, over the months I gradually began cleaning up the diet to a more paleo way and saw results increase in terms of more rapid weight loss, easing of GURD symptoms, dropping sinus allergy meds, and so forth. What did this tell me? It told me I was on a good track in terms of both diet and exercise. Had I done everything at once it would have been harder to tell what exactly was doing what.

Then, after another few months I discovered intermittent fasting and fasted workouts and weight loss got even more rapid, energy levels seemed to increase, sleep became simply awesome and again, I had verified for myself that humans, just like any other animals, are designed to go hungry now and then. When we go hungry our bodies turn to self repair by using the waste, damage and garbage in our cells as repair fuel.

The next step was some supplementation. This one is difficult because it’s simply very difficult to gain certainty, and so I keep it simple and reasonable. First, I got plenty of sunshine and that was a very noticeable improvement in well being, to the extent of occasional euphoria. So, I began taking some vitamin D and noticed I never get colds anymore (I currently take 4,000 IU, but not every day). A bit of cod liver oil & fish oil seems like a good idea so I do it, but modestly, about 3g total per day. And vitamin K2 I think might be one of the more important ones since we don’t seem to eat as much of the foods containing it as we would have in the wild. And that’s pretty much it, save for a bit of magnesium, and some iodine once per week or so.

…But there was one more self experiment I engaged in that turned out to be perhaps the most surprising, and of all the things I’ve ever blogged about, seems to have been the single thing that got this blog more attention that anything else.

My next post will recount the history and results of that most successful self-experimentation, now more than 18 months running.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

29 Comments

  1. Ben on December 29, 2010 at 10:24

    One question: in an Approx 30 min weight training session (and I think you’re going old school big lifts right: DL, backsquat, press etc) does that account for stretching? Or do you just hit the warm ups straight away? Thanks a bunch.

    • Richard Nikoley on December 29, 2010 at 10:29

      I don’t stretch. On my current two workout days I’m doing DL first one day, squats the next. I just do about 3-5 reps at 60% of the weight I’ll be working with on each of those. Except for a couple of warmup reps on bench that’s about my only warmups.



  2. VW on December 29, 2010 at 10:26

    Good article.

    I’m currently taking around 2.5 grams of omega 3 + 5,000 IU of D + 200mg of Magnesium citrate/day. Feeling good. Still ugly. Mostly happy.

  3. David Csonka on December 29, 2010 at 10:38

    Unfortunately, the headlines in the favorite tabloid junk will likely trump the evidence that is sitting right in front of people’s faces. I think there is far too much faith in journalism sources of health news, and too much insecurity in personal experience. I suppose the cultural and institutional insistence that a Ph.d or MD be required for one to act as arbiter of health information has something to do with that.

  4. Grant on December 29, 2010 at 10:52

    Im looking forward to the next post. I have been undergoing the same self-experiment for 12 months and its worked out for me also.

  5. Andrew on December 29, 2010 at 11:05

    I just listened to Robb’s podcast that featured Tim Ferriss. Apparently, his new book is about subjecting himself to myriad self-experiments. The podcast mentions the commonly recited critique of professional science being suspect because of the financial interests. However, the perspective was tweaked in a less cynical way that I appreciated. Basically, it’s not the science that gets done with funding that’s the problem, but the science that doesn’t get done because it’s not funded. In other words, if you wait around for the monolith of “science” to give you the answers, you’ll be waiting forever.

    • VW on December 29, 2010 at 11:07

      “Basically, it’s not the science that gets done with funding that’s the problem, but the science that doesn’t get done because it’s not funded. In other words, if you wait around for the monolith of “science” to give you the answers, you’ll be waiting forever.”

      Yep. I heard that and appreciated the point as well. The example given about the impact of dairy on you was a good one.



  6. Jake on December 29, 2010 at 11:17

    Right on:

    I have been studying nutrition research for a long time and what is amazing is how variable humans are. The only science that counts is the science that works for you.

    Also most nutrition studies are poorly done by people with agendas. Use these studies as a point of trial not as truth.

    If you are worried about blood values, you can order any test a doctor can at Direct Labs. Make a change and do a test, that’s what I do. I have achieved some amazing blood values by following the paleo diet.

  7. Jim Stone on December 29, 2010 at 11:27

    Hey Richard. I’d like to make a distinction.

    There’s the Institution of Science, and the Methodology of Science.

    The methodology of Science is simply a collection of tools we use to avoid being fooled. We’ve learned the hard way about the value of repeating experiments, of doing double-blind studies, of controlling for confounding variables, and so on. These make up the practice of good science, because they are all ways of helping to make sure we don’t fool ourselves.

    We do have to be careful trusting the Institution of science, precisely because its members don’t use the methods of science consistently. And the institution, like all human institutions is corrupted by personal interests (reputation, money, peer pressure, etc).

    However, we also have to be careful trusting self-experimentation. As Richard Feynman said, the first rule of science is to avoid fooling yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

    You have to be very careful with N=1 experiments that don’t control for confounding variables, and that don’t take into accounts the biases of the experimenter (yourself in most cases). Something can “seem” to work via placebo effect. Something can work for a while, and then stop working. And our minds will play tricks with us. In order to save a hypothesis, we’ll invoke special causes if we get bad results, but take an experiment as confirmation if it supports our preconceived notions. And so on.

    I would say this is the proper order:

    Good Science with N much greater than 1
    > Good Science with N=1 (self-experimentation fits here)
    > biased and careless self-experimentation
    > biased and careless Institutional Science

    With that said, given that there isn’t much good science in the field, we often have no choice but to do self experimentation.

    I would just encourage people to try to do it as scientifically as they can. Be suspicious of your own desires to save a hypothesis. Make sure you’re dealing with the data in a fair manner, and, in general, that you’re not fooling yourself.

    Jim

    • Jeff on December 29, 2010 at 12:51

      Excellent points Jim



    • peterlepaysan on December 30, 2010 at 02:37

      Good science relies on scepticism and robust argument (no, Richard, it does not necessitate the use of f-bombs).

      Dieticians, nutritionists, medical doctors, surgeons, medical eunuchs (epidemiologists and the media) appear to to comprise the membership of the “Institution of Science”.

      Is that what you mean?

      If so, I heartily agree.

      If not, who the hell is in this institution?



  8. rob on December 29, 2010 at 11:52

    Personal experience trumps everything, personal real-life results are what matter. As between my opinion, based on personal experience, of what is best for me, and the opinion of some supposed experts drawn from some probably flawed studies which may have been initiated with a preconceived agenda, I am going to go with my opinion every single time, because it’s my freaking life and I don’t have an infinite number of years left.

    I am always amazed by friends who have been getting terrible results the way they have been eating, and who agree on an intellectual level that Paleo style eating is the best approach … but who are unwilling to give it a try … it’s always “Maybe in a few weeks” … do they think they will live forever? Give it a try, what can it hurt.

    On the workout front, I spend 5 1/2 to 6 hours in the gym every week, I just love lifting weights and the gym is my favorite place to be in the whole world (no phones, no fax machines, no email) …. to me the time spent in the gym is the reward for living right … and in the Paleo community the goal seems to be to spend as little time in the gym as possible … I pick and choose the stuff that works for me , if something different works for you that’s great, in the end it’s all about trying different approaches and finding the one that gets you the results you want.

    I’m always tweaking my diet and the way I workout.

  9. Case on December 29, 2010 at 12:26

    Richard,

    Great blog! Would you care to report on your vitamin D intake scheme, as you mention “supplementing, but not always” in your posting above?

    • Richard Nikoley on December 29, 2010 at 13:15

      When I take it, most days, it’s 4,000 IU. I may skip a day, 2 or three some weeks, not always. I’m trying now to make things a bit more random, like taking two weeks off from the gym, then working out two or three days in a row.



    • Eegah! on December 31, 2010 at 01:19

      Excellent post. I think randomness and variety are the keys to really thriving, it can be all too easy to slip into routine.



  10. Tommy on December 29, 2010 at 13:26

    I’ve just ended 14 months of experimentation so this post is timely. As I said back in comments to another post, I prefer to follow principles rather than a set technique or way. Finding the principles behind an idea or technique allows me to then tailor it to fit “me.” In the past 14 months I have experimented with a few different ways of eating followed by lab work. In addition to that I have poured over studies and literature, blogs and forums learning all I can about fat, sat fat, heart disease and plaque, cholesterol, diabetes etc. I’m not even close to being overweight nor have I ever been so many times it has been frustrating weeding through information that has a slant on it toward weight loss. Shit, there have been times I was glad to be safe behind my computer fearing I’d be beaten by an angry mob for mentioning something as innocent (seemingly) as adding a little honey to my coffee!! Lol.
    I feel that once we get too involved in forums and such there is a tendency to become cultish and start to lose sight of the big picture. We lose our ability to be objective. It was happening to me too. I found myself discussing diet with people at work and almost burning crosses against carbs. It isn’t the gun that kills people it is the person using it….right? Part of being healthy is maintaining a low level of stress. Stress can come from dieting also. Eating shouldn’t be that difficult. I always knew how to eat good but now I know that you can go overboard with eating good…I did. That means I ate too many things I “thought” were good but probably hurt my health. Over the past 14 months I learned what whole foods are….real food. Over the last month I’ve learned not to fear foods…any of them, but rather how to use them properly. Over the last 14 months I have been talked out of my statin also. Research and knowing “my” body, has led me to believe that “for me” the statin may be helpful. Science? Not quite. Informed decisions based on self-experimentation based on science….definitely.
    Something I have found about the science behind diet and health, especially heart and artery issues is that, at least in my view, it’s all inconclusive. Some of the best science is good for many but doesn’t work for many others. We are all so different and sometimes just by so very little of a margin. That is why I look at the principles and then apply them to me without becoming a slave to one method. At the start of all this I believed in my philosophy of staying “middle of the road.” Now, with a lot more knowledge of how certain foods work in the human body, how they work in “mine,” what happens when I go more to one side of the road or the other, it all comes back to my middle of the road theory. Only now it is with a better understanding of real food. In the past few months I began to get a real fear of certain foods and was finding that every week a new one would join the list. After banging my head against a wall a few times I snapped out of it. I feel more at ease about eating now. Don’t fear the food Tommy, only fear yourself and how you might abuse it or what you might do with it. I don’t want to put any more thought into eating….only into living.
    The last thing I have found is something I knew already due to being a “message board” member since around the early/mid 90’s then a forum addict and more recently blogs, even running my own for a few years. That in itself (the internet) leads to trouble and stress. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as they say. Information overkill. Forums tend to make people become too loyal to the forum or its topic. Everyone else becomes the enemy. Dogma quickly develops. Not for all, but in general. I have found that stepping back for awhile clears this. I gave up all forums a couple of years back until my recent research. It is easy to fall back into the river and get caught up in the current again. Self-experimentation….Know yourself “and” your enemy and you will be victorious in one hundred battles ~Sun Tzu

    Tommy

  11. Derrick on December 29, 2010 at 14:54

    I’m with you on the fish oils. Robb Wolfe’s calculator gets pushed all over the paleo-ish message boards and it prescribes a very high amount. I think it was telling me I had to take over 10 grams of omega 3s a day, so I started ramping up my intake to see what would happen.

    When I got over 6 grams a day I started experiencing a thinning of the blood that I had read about being a sign of too much omega 3 consumption. It took me a while to figure out what was going on – I’d bang my hang on something and then a bit later my arm would feel wet, so I’d look down to discover blood all over the place! And it was all watery and thin blood that took forever to clot some little ding that never should have bled in the first place.

    So I just dropped back down to 2-3 grams of omega 3s a day and things went back to normal. Basically I just take a teaspoon dose of Carlson’s with every meal and on most days, that’s two meals.

  12. Mallory on December 29, 2010 at 18:15

    awesome post…. i have learned SO much about what my body likes, and what it doesnt. usually, bowel movements are a good sign for me, as well as what my heart does after food. what works for me isnt going to work for someone else….the concepts maybe, but not what “I” do because everyone is different. i think when someone accepts that….that there is NO answer to your questions and that the question lies in your own body, you have to force yourself to try stuff, and feel it, and engage in your own body. only way i could have learned about myself and my body.

    best self experimentation to date for ME…. ice cold showers upon waking…sucks like a bitch until i do it and start the day, then im wired lol. a close second is carb cycling, and random days of saying ‘fuck it’ to any and everything paleo/diet/health related and getting drunk and doing whatever i want 🙂

  13. Richard Nikoley on December 29, 2010 at 18:54

    “a close second is carb cycling, and random days of saying ‘fuck it’ to any and everything paleo/diet/health related and getting drunk and doing whatever i want ”

    We had Chinese last night, and the standard stuff, too (family left, no motivation to cook). I was pretty surprised at how well I took it all in and I really went for it. Ate BIG. No heartburn, no feeling tired. Amazing. Keep it right most of the time and you can indulge sometimes.

    No alcohol, though. Burned out after days of excess consumption.

    Tonight’s different. 🙂

  14. Ned Kock on December 29, 2010 at 19:22

    As much as we talk about successes, the flip side of the coin is rather startling. I find it rather amazing to see how many people relapse into old habits and gain lost body fat back again.

    When we look at dieting studies in general, on average people lose weight and keep it off for a while on any diet, and then nearly all gain a significant proportion of the weight back. When they do, the body fat percentage is higher than before.

    It seems incredibly unusual for anybody to lose more than 50 lbs and keep it off for more than 2 years, on any diet.

    • peterlepaysan on December 30, 2010 at 03:22

      You have answered your own question.

      “relapse into old habits” is the key.

      We have been conditioned (“brainwashed”) into eating habits from a very early age.

      Ask any ex smoker or ex alcoholic how they coped.

      They had to identify the triggers and habits and devise coping strategies.

      Us eaters just go on doing what we learnt when we were still in nappies (diaper for yankees).

      Anyone, with sufficient incentive, will follow a dietary regimen for as long as it takes.

      Then what?

      Ho hum.

      Back to what I always have done.

      Then what?

      Ho hum.

      Back to my old weight.

      What a surprise.

      Dieting is easy.

      Changing the habits of a life time is not.



    • Annlee on December 30, 2010 at 06:59

      Ned,

      In Mar 2004, I weighed 186 – at 5’1″ (84.5kg at 155cm). I lost weight rather stepwise – exercise and dietary restriction, with a protein bias, got me down to around 145-150. After that I did basic calorie counting and got down to around 135. I bounce now between 130 and 138, with no calorie counting at all, just essentially paleo/primal eating and daily fasting of 16-20 hours.

      It’s been almost 7 years – and some times have indeed been easier than others. But I eat now based on appetite instead of the mucked-up Death-by-Diet Pyramid, and it works.

      I used to *have* to eat every few hours or suffer varying – but bad – levels of lower GI distress (gas and bloating, mostly). In addition, when nature called I had bare minutes to answer – and I thought that was normal, because I had been like that for so damned long. When I cut out wheat, both problems disappeared. A couple of incidents since have validated wheat as the culprit; corn gives little problem, and rice even less – but why waste my eating on empty calories? Dairy seems to be no problem for me (northern European stock, as nearly as I can tell).

      I want to lose more fat and gain a bit of muscle, but that’s going to be done by continuing what I’ve been doing, and limiting the food a little bit. But even if I don’t lose that last bit, I will NEVER go back to where I was. Not only NO, but NO SQUARED.



    • Matt on December 30, 2010 at 10:24

      This is why the psychological interventions are far more important than the specific diet interventions. Most nutritional protocols work in the short term, although some make it easier because of certain foods’ ability to satiate. But changing behaviors is by far the most complicated and difficult and long-term dietary success rates are terrible in the literature. People should stop going to personal trainers and start seeing cognitive behavioral therapists, or maybe see both.



    • Mallory on December 30, 2010 at 14:39

      on the flip side, it works with anorexics too. gaining weight is ‘easy’… same as a fat person saying ‘dieting is easy enough’…. but STAYING there and keeping up what you did is the hard part. just like 99% of people who lose weight gain it back, 99% of anorexic who get to a stable weight relapse



  15. Bill Strahan on December 30, 2010 at 09:37

    Awesome post. I’d like to add a point about duration of the experiement, in reference to your statement “your experience trumps all science in these matters.”

    I agree 100%, but the challenge is to not be fooled by intermediate results in n=1 situations. I’ve known more than a few people who went on a restrictive, vegan diet, and felt “the best they’ve ever felt” within a week or two. They were losing 3-5 pounds a week, feeling awesome, and at that point in their experiment they would claim their experience trumped my (paleo-ish) science.

    30 weeks on, however, they were feeling like crap. Run down, getting sinus infections every other week, having weird cravings and occasionally giving in to them. One interpretation is the results they obtained couldn’t be sustained, another is that they weren’t being strict enough and hadn’t eliminated enough.

    The group that chooses that second interpretation has a long, tough road ahead. They received feedback that a strict vegan diet works, and now their solution will be an even stricter vegan diet. They “need to detox” or they “just need to be stricter.”

    My science counterpoint is they only felt good because for the first time in their life they had probably been fueling themselves primarily with good, saturated, animal fat. They seem shocked when I say that, but if they were “losing” 3-5 pounds/week that really meant they were USING 3-5 pounds of saturated animal fat/week for fuel! Sure, it was their own animal fat, but what’s the difference metabolically?

    My science would point out that’s a lot of fuel, 10,000-18,000 calories depending on how you look at it, which means more than half their fuel was from animal fat! I suggest they just switch to eating it rather than forcing their body to burn it by starving it. 🙂

    Now, an astute n=1 researcher would keep experimenting until they discovered this on their own, but I hate to see some people go years while destroying their health to do so.

    I firmly believe my whole life is an n=1 experiment. Now, where did I hide that cheese…

  16. […] ← Self-Experimentation Doesn’t Trump Science; It IS Science Christmas at the Cabin […]

  17. Ancestral Health Symposium | Free The Animal on February 23, 2011 at 18:58

    […] so sure it's "the best science," so that's tentative. More on self-experimentation here, and on Dr. Kurt Harris' site here and […]

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