The Danger of the Dogma

dogma (dôɡmə/ /ˈdɔɡmə): A principle, or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true[1].

The dogma (not to be confused with dog ma, my future occupation as a mother to copious doggos) is one of the most detrimental ways to hinder your progress in your health and fitness journey. Being dogmatic is something we are all guilty of, be it with ourselves or our clients. You see it everywhere: Do this to burn belly fat. Follow my exercise plan to build glutes without building your legs (still bitter about this one). This is the only way to eat.

We are convinced that we have the best way, the only way, and everything else is a colossal waste of time. I firmly believe that being dogmatic and unwavering in your approach to training and nutrition is a sure fire way to ensure you never reach your full potential. Resigning yourself to one school of thought, be it veganism, powerlifting, bodybuilding or #cleaneatingonlybbz is easy. But what are the pitfalls of this? Is it really that bad to stick to your guns?

I Could Never Eat That: Being Dogmatic With Your Nutrition

You see this all the time. It’s everywhere; in conversation, on social media and out in the big bad world. The world of food and nutrition is rife with dogmas and ruling principles that are set by our culture, environment and our goals. ‘I couldn’t eat that’. ‘No carbs after 6pm bro’. ‘I’m being good this week’. ‘WTF do you mean this isn’t organic kale? Am I a joke to you?’ Whether we realise it or not, we have set values and “rules” around food, be they good or bad. There is nothing inherently wrong with this.

Nutrition in particular, brings out the stubbornness in people. We are as a species, very much in defence of our nutrition and diet. Especially when it comes to achieving health outcomes. Food is a hugely personal issue for people, and it makes sense that we would be territorial about it. Where this becomes an issue is when your motivations become twisted, or you lose sight of what you stand for.

Keto, Veganism, Intermittent Fasting & Everything In Between: The Danger of Aligning With One Nutrition Camp

There are now more diets than there are . And similarly, not all diets are created equal, and some are marketed better than others.

Be it keto or veganism, there are a variety of eating patterns, with individual nuances and claims. I would argue that the real danger of aligning yourself specifically with one nutritional school of thought lies with the individuals reason for choosing it. Following a vegan diet because you believe it is unethical to eat animals/animal products is a valid reason for following veganism. Eating a vegan diet because it “makes you lose weight” is not. Vegan food does not immediately create a calorie deficit, in the same way that animal products do not instantly cause weight gain. Any diet that puts you in a calorie deficit will make you lose weight. The diet itself is not responsible for creating a deficit, you are. If you find that eating a certain way/following a certain diet plan helps you achieve your goals, then stick with it (assuming it is balanced obv). By being clear on why you are eating the way you are, you avoid falling into the “all or nothing”/”good or bad” wagon that can hinder your progress.

Kale=Good, Cake=Bad: Assigning Moral Value To Food

Putting foods into the category of “good” and “bad” may worsen your relationship with food. And really, what makes a food “good”? And what happens when you can’t eat your “good” foods the only thing available is “bad”? Well hun, you best get yourself out to see the ocean one last time, because your time on earth is coming to an end. The mental impact of assigning moral value to foods is exhausting and quite damaging. It can take a lot out of you to be constantly battling with yourself and beating yourself up for your food choices.

I have spent a lot of time believing certain foods were the ticket to health and lifelong happiness, and if I couldn’t eat them I was a massive failure (read: salad). It is only when I actually thought about it, that I understood where I was going wrong. Educating yourself, and learning about food and properly fuelling your body is the most powerful thing you can do. But that is only possible once you leave the school of dogmatic thinking. There is more than one way to get to your end goal. You don’t have to eat one particular thing, you need to have an understanding of what you’re doing to make a truly informed choice. And fuck salad.

Our education on food and nutrition is largely shaped by the media. Most unfortunate, as it is usually presented to us with the goal of selling us something. Were you ever told as a kid that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Do you know who provided the funding for that study? Kellogg’s. It is no surprise that Tony the Tiger would recommend you eat breakfast now is it? Until we learn to question how and why we think, we are destined to follow the same pattern of behaviour. Educating yourself is the best thing you can do. The worst thing you can do: accept things without question. Closely followed by believing everything from Netflix documentaries.

It is hard to challenge our behaviour, especially around food. Most of us tie up some form of our identity with our diet. “I’m a vegetarian”. “I can’t live without chocolate”. “If I don’t eat breakfast, I turn into a murderous psycho”. All of the above form part of our beliefs about ourselves. Stories we tell ourselves. It is completely natural we would be reluctant to question our behaviour, as it challenges who we are.

This Is The Only Way To Get Shredded: The Dogmatic Approach to Training

Training is largely goal-dependent. And like nutrition, some people are more partial to one style of training than another. Furthermore, some people also twist the facts to suit their narrative. Sure, the Instagram model built her glutes by following her “best rOuTinE fOr gLuTeS” that you can conveniently purchase by swiping up. But it sure as hell doesn’t mean if you follow it you will.

One-Size Fits All: Why We Don’t All Have Instagram Bodies

The response to training is individual. The sooner you understand this, the angrier you get at the health and fitness world. There is no “best exercise” for building delts so big you could build a house on. Nor is there a best exercise for burning that stubborn bit of belly fat Instagram constantly reminds you you have.

Your response to training depends largely on your genetics, your diet and your body. Among many other things. Some people are what’s called hyperresponders to certain styles of training. And they are normally the ones who shout the loudest. For example, people who swear that CrossFit is the only way to get jacked, tend to be the ones who have responded the best to that style of training. Just because something works for someone, doesn’t mean it works for everyone.

Exercise Prescription: Trainers

Exercise programming for others is more difficult than programming for yourself, as you have the advantage of knowing what you like, and what suits you. Programming is what separates the Personal Trainers from the FiTnEsS pRofEsSiOnAlz who give cookie cutter programmes to everyone and continue to profit off their own success. People who care about your results will make a tailored programme for you. I would argue that this is where you see separation of true “evidence-based” practitioners and those who have read a few nice Instagram infographics.

It’s Called Evidence-Based Practice: Look It Up Hun

There are always outliers. Consider the individual in front of you. Evidence-based practice isn’t merely about scientific literature, it’s about experience with training people as well. For example, if you were to go purely off the literature, and I came to you with the goal of building my quads, and building them ASAP. You do a quick Google search because you are “evidence-based“, and you find an old article that says sissy squats will build quads, and build them quick[2]. I go with it because I am the client and you are the perceived expert. However, I also have a ruptured ACL that prevents me from carrying out sissy squats with full range-of-motion (don’t want that ACL to snap off and go flying across the gym floor). Therefore, I don’t get the massive quads you promised me. And because you told me sissy squats were the only way to whopper quads, I am resigned to a life of chicken legs. Thanks hun.

Therein lies the danger of the dogma. What happens when someone can’t follow your magic cookie cutter programme? Does that mean they can’t get as good if not better results? Absolutely not. It just means you need to be a bit more creative to get your clients across the line.

We are all special snowflakes with unique body habitus and likes/dislikes. We must consider the individual client, their goals and the multiple different ways we can guide their trajectory. Resigning yourself to the one school of thought extremely limits your skills and abilities as a practitioner, and reduces the amount of clients you can work effectively with. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with having a niche and sticking with it. But if your goal is to coach and train as many different people as possible, you will have to be far more open minded.

So, You Don’t Know Everything

You’ve read through this article and realised everything you thought about yourself is a lie. Score. It’s not the worst thing in the world. In fact, it can open your eyes to how different and vast training is, and just how individual you can be with your health and fitness practices.

“What’s bad for the hive cannot be good for the bee.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In essence, as darling Marcus alludes to, we get nowhere by assuming absolutes. The world of health and fitness is built on dogma and bullshit. “Take these fat burners to shred body fat”. “Buy my glute plan and you will be entirely desirable to men and all of your problems will disappear”. “Lifting weights makes you manly”. All of these things we believe as individuals without question do nothing to advance ourselves, or the industry.

There is no universal “best” diet or exercise plan. There are very few absolutes in training and nutrition. For example, creating a calorie deficit to achieve weight loss is unequivocally true. That is an absolute. Following a strict ketogenic diet to achieve weight loss is a practice, not an absolute. If you do not eat in a calorie deficit on your magic ketogenic diet, you will simply not lose weight. Sorry keto warriors. Best practice is unique to the individual. Some will thrive on a ketogenic diet, and others will struggle to adhere. Similarly, some people will enjoy running and others will despise it. The methods of getting to a goal can differ. But the absolutes do not change. Don’t be fooled by nice Instagram infographics or lean fitness models with massive glutes and tiny waists promising you the magical land of a complete transformation for a small monthly fee and a discount code.

Furthermore, being flexible can be a huge learning experience. Being open to new ideas, training methods and even the idea you could be wrong about something can open up a world of possibilities. You might find completely changing your perspective to be the best thing you ever did!

Question everything. As the book by Simon Snek suggests, start with why.

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What the hell am I doing?
  • Do I know this to be absolutely true?
  • What would happen if I didn’t do this?
  • Is there another way?

It’s okay not to know all the answers to these questions. But if your answer to any of these questions is “because”, it might be worth investigating a bit further!

Published by Michelle Carroll

I am an online coach (MSc Sports & Exercise Nutrition, EQF Level 4 Personal Trainer, PN Level 1) and radiographer (BSc). I believe in empowering others to make better choices for their health through education. I think that the fitness industry has created a disconnect between best practices and “evidence-based” practices. I hope by chronicling my experience as a healthcare professional and my education as a fitness professional I can assist others on the path to bettering themselves.

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