Thoughtfood 2: The Survivorship Bias And The Great Food Pedestal.

by Alex Bernier,

My obsessive behaviour with the importance of nutrition in one's healing process has left me drained. Over the last five years, I have wasted my time, energy, and credibility fighting what I thought was the good fight. At times, I was even condescending about it, believing it was for the greater good, as if my limited knowledge of the human body and everything surrounding it warranted any kind of moral high ground over anyone seeking my help (or just anyone).  

Rather than empowering and guiding my students, I would assume the role of authority and project my own health-view onto them. I first taught them to fear calories and fat, then sugar and gluten, and more recently GMOs and environmental toxins. The villains changed, as did the story, but the problems stayed the same. Whatever the flavour of the week, I was expending more energy trying to convince or disprove others than actually helping them. In hindsight, I was nothing but a foot-soldier following orders.  

A recent appreciation of the unknown and everything that is left to discover about the human body has pushed me further away from the conventional wisdom than I ever would have imagined. 

We get it – Food is important. 

It is your medicine. It is the fuel to your metaphorical Ferrari. It is the currency of the health-pilgrim, the wealth of the super healthy, and the difference between healing and a slow disease-laden death. But as the global health continues to degrade at an alarming rate, I am starting to wonder if it truly warrants the attention I have been giving it. 

Nutrition has been raised onto a pedestal for the last six decades, and not much has come out of it but greater confusion and division amongst ourselves. The question we need to be asking ourselves at this point is why do we believe food to be so important? 

The answer is intuitive – Healthy people eat healthy diets. Medical authorities have been repeating this for ages, and more recently, the rise of social media has exposed us to more successful life-changing testimonials than ever before. You may even have experienced it yourself. Surely, all signs point towards food as the common denominator of a successful healing journey, and that is why we may have been wrong all along. 

In psychology, our tendency to focus on the framework of success to become successful is known as the survivorship bias. It is a common human error we do on a daily basis, simply explained by David McRaney is his best-selling novel You Are Not So Smart : 

''It is easy to do. After any process that leaves behind survivors, the non-survivors are often destroyed or muted or removed from your view. If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all. '' 

For every successful story, there are countless of failures who get pushed out of the limelight. Just think of all the aspiring actors who migrated to Hollywood to fulfill their dreams only to be sent back home empty handed. Their stories never make the headlines do they? Because we are inherently terrible with statistics, it is much easier to fathom the common "hard work through adversity" story of the very few who make it than trying to understand the plethora of factors explaining all the other failures. 

You don't really see many health experts sharing unsuccessful testimonials or before/after pictures do you? That would be bad for business, and it would certainly make it harder to maintain any form of authority over a large group of individuals if there was any underlying doubt that the established system was flawed.  

Yes, most healthy people do eat healthy diets, but is it really the only thing they share in common? Through all the factors and variabilities at play, how can we be so sure that food is truly the winning denominator, and not something else?  

How can we confidently glorify the diet-health hypothesis when the exact same food can have two completely different outcomes on different people? I have witnessed individuals on polar opposites of the diet spectrum experience life-changing transformations, and others have their situations worsened by eating different variations of a squeaky clean diet. If one man's medicine is another man's poison, why the hell would we generalize and promote a potentially dangerous medicine? 

Something is off, and the growing rates of chronic disease globally seem to indicate our survivorship bias might be holding us back My perspective, which to you will only amount to another opinion in the noise, is that we are missing an important piece of the puzzle. Maybe if health experts and gurus started sharing and exploring their greatest failures publically we could finally shed some light on this pretty urgent matter. 

More on the Survivorship bias:

Alex BernierComment