If all you have is a hammer …

    … everything looks like a nail.

    “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

    – Abraham Kaplan, 1964

    Uhhhh … why are we talking about hammers?

    Confusingly enough, another Abraham (Abraham Maslow) is the author of a similar quote you may have heard, often paraphrased as “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    Basically: people love to use the tools they’re familiar with, often to the exclusion of better options.

    This idea applies exceedingly well to health and nutrition. Below are just two specific “hammers” to watch out for on your own personal health journey.

    The diet hammer

    Although Examine is a nutrition and supplement focused website, it’s too easy to believe that a perfect diet is the answer to all health problems.

    Person A: “Oh yeah, I have XYZ condition.”

    Person B: “Interesting … have you tried this diet? It’s great for XYZ. People swear by it.”

    You see, while you are literally what you eat, you are also much more than that. That “much more” often gets minimized in favor of things that are easily quantifiable, like a supplement regimen or a macronutrient plan.

    Also, time and energy are zero sum. If you go into too many rabbit holes about nutrition and supplementation, without paying lots of attention to things like sleep, socializing, and stress reduction, all that diet knowledge isn’t likely to help you much. The total effect of those factors on health is likely to be larger in most cases than diet plus supplementation.

    If you feel up to it, list out how hard you’re trying on the above three health factors on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being best. If you’re at a 5 or below on any of them, consider shifting some attention there.

    The randomized trial hammer

    Because Examine is the biggest database of randomized trials on nutrition and supplementation, you might think I’m a randomized trial evangelist.

    Nope! Trial quality can vary a ton, and poorly conducted trials can easily be misleading. As we continue revamping the site, we’re going to see how far into trial quality we can get without blowing our whole budget spending dozens of hours dissecting a single trial.

    More importantly, there’s a lot that’s not easily captured by randomized trials. If you take a supplement that’s shown to work and it doesn’t for you, what does that really mean? Or if trials show it doesn’t work, but it does for you, what’s the deal?

    The deal is that human biology is immensely complex, and there are 8.03 billion people in the world with different constellations of physiological and non-physiological traits. Of course a single trial (or even meta-analysis) won’t cover all of these situations! Trials are informative, but not deterministic.

    So next time someone tries to hammer you with randomized trial evidence, ask them to swap out the hammer for a massage gun. Trust me — a relaxed discussion where you can massage your viewpoint as new evidence (trials, observational, or personal) is introduced is much more fulfilling.

    I promise to avoid analogies in the next email,

    Kamal Patel
    Co-founder, Examine