The Importance of Context

I’m going to start out today’s article by asking a seemingly irrelevant question but, trust me, I’m merely using it to make a point.  Hopefully, by making it something sort of unrelated to the major topic of this site, people will be able to look at it with a bit less emotional investment.  Ok, here’s the question:

What’s the best car for someone to buy?

Now, unless you’re particularly thick, or just haven’t had enough coffee this morning, you’re probably thinking to yourself something along the lines of “Good grief, what an utterly stupid question.”  Which it would be.

Hopefully the thought process would run towards something like “There’s no answer to that question, it’s going to depend on what the person is using it for, where they live, what kind of terrain they are driving on, how much money they have and a whole host of other questions.”

That is, you’d look at the context of the person and their situation before you gave anything approximating a suggestion.  To give a recommendation without considering those issues would simply be silly.

Put a bit differently, if you went to a car forum and posted the above question, would you expect to get a single answer?  Or would you expect the majority of people to ask you a bunch of followup questions to try and determine your specific needs, and use those needs to give recommendations on what might be best in that context.

Since I’m a fan of repetition, let me put it a third way just in case I’m not clear.  Consider the following two situations shown in the table below where I’ve described two individuals based on a handful of different categories.

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Category Example 1 Example 2
Age 35 45
Gender Female Male
Status Married Single
Children Two None
Primary Destination School, soccer practice, grocery store Wherever 22 year-old, easily impressible, girls hang out

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Essentially I’ve described two diametrically opposed situations.  The first is what would normally be called a soccer mom.  Mid 30’s mother of two, needs a safe an reliable vehicle to ferry the kids around, go to store, etc.  The second is a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, trying to get himself a nice 22 year old girlfriend to make up for the fact that his penis isn’t working so well anymore.

Could you possibly give the same car recommendation to both individuals?  Of course not.  The context determines what is ideal, best or can or should be recommended.  For the first case, it might be a typical mini-van type vehicle. Lots of room, reliable, safe, etc.  For the second, a sports car or whatever vehicle is currently being used to overcompensate for a non-working penis.

Clearly recommending the first car to the second person or vice versa would be completely idiotic.  The sports car would be completely inappropriate for the soccer mom and, generally speaking, mini-vans are not chick magnets.  Well, maybe if you’re trying to pick up a soccer mom.  But for the specific target (20 something hot chick), it would not be the right choice.

You could easily draw up as many other specific situations where different vehicles might or might not be the best option.  Off-roading would require a different choice than someone who wants to drive really, really fast.  On and on it goes but my point is this : the specific context would determine the ideal (or range of ideal) recommendations. There might very well be more than one appropriate recommendation for a given situation, but there certainly would be no single recommendation appropriate for ALL situations.

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I Think You Can See Where I’m Going with This

So why is it in the field of nutrition and training that the majority seem to think in absolutes where the context of the situation is never taken into consideration?  Because as often as not, it isn’t.   Rather, individuals will state in absolute terms, regardless of context that such and such is good, or bad, or best, or worst.   Squats are good, squats are bad, carbs are good, carbs are bad, saturated fats are good, saturated fats are bad.  Pick a topic and you’ll find extremist, absolutist viewpoints on all sides.

No matter what the topic, invariably someone will come along and feel that there is an absolute answer regarding that topic, regardless of the context.  You can see this running through the comments sections of many of my articles.  Because, when I write, I generally spend a lot of time trying to address the different contexts, places where something might be good (or best) in one situation and bad (or not best) in another.  That’s a big part of why they are so long.

And without fail someone will come along and throw down an absolute statement about the topic.  Or accuse me of being anti- (or pro-) whatever it is that they are absolutely pro- (or anti-) about.   I can almost set my watch by it: that no matter how clearly I write, or how many times I repeat the same basic idea, that at least one person will manage to take issue with it because I didn’t repeat the single answer that they know is right for all situations and all context.

Put differently, folks like that have a rather simple rulebook that they live by.  X is good for everything and everyone.   Y is bad for everything and everyone.  Everything is phrased in simple black and white with no shades of any other color.  To any even remotely related question, the simple rulebook answer comes out.  Regardless of context.  And anyone who doesn’t see the world in that same black and white is defined as criticizing their belief.

It’s a simple belief system and certainly doesn’t require much thought.  Unfortunately, it’s almost always wrong.

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Example 1: Are Saturated Fats Good or Bad for Health?

A stunning example of this can be found in the comments of the article Carbohydrate and Fat Controversies Part 1 and Carbohydrate and Fat Controversies Part 2.  In that article, one thing I looked at was the issue regarding saturated fats and health where there currently exist two rather extremist viewpoints.  The mainstream view point is that saturated fats are always bad, always hurtful, always negative; the alternative viewpoint is that they are healthy with zero detrimental effects.

The truth as usual lies in the middle.  For example, consider the following two situations:

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Category Example 1 Example 2
Activity High Low
Body fat Low High
Energy Intake Equal or less than expenditure Greater than expenditure
Vegetable Intake High Low
Smokes/Alcohol No Yes
Stress Low High
Other lifestyle factors Good Poor

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The first could describe any athlete.  Or possibly the ‘average’ paleo hunter type (who was lean, active, etc.) that the ‘saturated fat is good people’ are basing their beliefs on.  The second is the majority of people in the world: overweight, inactive, lots of stress, poor overall food intake, etc.

In the first context, a high saturated fat intake (or high fat intake in general) might be completely neutral to health and, in fact, the studies show that that is the case.  In one study, for example, in trained cyclists, neither a high-fat diet or a high saturated-fat intake had negative effects on anything. Presumably the cyclists burned off the fats for energy before they could do any harm anywhere.  In that context, saturated fats are irrelevant as is total fat intake.

And in the second, as about 30 years of literature demonstrates, saturated fats are detrimental to health.  They cause inflammation, insulin resistance and an excessive intake, especially in the context of the rest of the modern lifestyle, is one of several risk factors for heart disease.  When people are carrying excess body fat, inactive, consuming too many total calories and refined carbohydrates, and gaining weight you simply can’t deny the negative impact of saturated fats.  No matter how hard people try.

But the pro-saturated fat people seem unable to make or understand this distinction.  In their minds, saturated fats are ‘good’ regardless of the context.  The anti-saturated fat people, usually involved in making food policy, tend to be less concerned about the exceptions and are focused on the majority in the first place.  Even if they acknowledge that high-fat/saturated-fat diets are neutral for those exceptions, that isn’t the group that they are targeting with their recommendations.

Is this sinking in at all yet?

It’s all about the context.  In a given context, something may be the best thing ever; in another it may be the worst.  There are no absolutes, only context specific situations and context specific right- or wrongs.

Yet, go check the comments section, one individual left something to the effect of “You seem to be siding with the anti-saturated fat people and saying that they are negative.”  Basically, since I didn’t repeat the black and white dogma that he believes, I must disagree with him.

Because, apparently the Internet, among all else that it has accomplished, has made people illiterate.

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Example 2: Squats vs. Leg Press for Leg Size

Another good example can be found in the article Squats vs. Leg Press for Big Legs.  In that article, I discussed specific contexts where the leg press might be better than the back squat for the specific (and singular) goal of lower body hypertrophy (e.g. leg growth).  Yet check the comments section.

People talking about squats being better for whole body strength (a completely different context, requiring a different ‘best’ answer), or ignoring the differences in mechanics (e.g. femur and torso length affect a lot) between people or a whole host of other things that completely missed the context of what I was talking about.

Said context being:

  1. Developing leg size (not necessarily leg strength and not full-body strength)
  2. Specific situations (e.g. usually mechanics related) where leg press is a better choice than back squats

For example, for trainees with certain body mechanics, often very long femurs or a long torso, back squatting for the legs tends to be an exercise in frustration.  The low back gives out far before the legs and it becomes an ineffective exercise.  Under that specific situation, taking the low back out of the picture with a leg press movement works better.

But, as predicted, since it was a topic where people tend to have absolutist, non-context dependent views (which usually project what works for them personally, with no recognition that they don’t represent the entirety of humanity), any suggestion of a context specific answer was met with absolutist responses.  Because these people know that squats are good and leg presses are bad.  The context is irrelevant to them, it’s just that simple.  It’s also wrong.

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Summing Up

If someone told you that “A Jeep Wrangler is the best car to buy.” without considering the context of the specific situation, you’d think they were an idiot.  And they would be.  Yet most seem to have no trouble making similarly absolute statements, with no consideration of the context, in the arena of training and nutrition.

I often annoy individuals who ask me questions because most of the time my answer is “It depends.”   There are a handful of exceptions but, for the most part, I can’t give a good answer to a question without knowing the specifics, without knowing the context.  When you read articles on this site, you might notice that I tend to spend a lot of time looking at pros and cons of different things.

As well, folks will often get confused when two of my recommendations may seem to contradict one another.  What they are missing is that what I might suggest in one specific context won’t apply in a different specific context.  And what I would tend to suggest in that second specific context may not apply to the first.  There is no contradiction, simply different suggestions based on the context of the recommendation being sought.

A good example of this recently came up on the forum.  Someone was confused about my differing recommendations regarding stacking ephedrine with tyrosine.  Because in one context (general dieting), this can be a good combination.  But in another (specifically the protocols outlined in the Stubborn Fat Solution protocols), I say not to do take the combination.  No contradiction, just context-specific recommendations.

Because what might be perfect for a given situation could be the absolute worst choice for another situation.    Whenever someone starts speaking in absolutes, it’s clear that they aren’t thinking about the situation, they’ve ignored the context. In their mind, there’s only one answer (usually what works for them or whatever propaganda they’ve absorbed to the point of repeating it without thought) and the context be damned.

Unfortunately, things are never that simple.

Questions such as:

How many carbohydrates do you need?
Should you use a small, moderate or large dietary deficit?
Is Rapid Fat Loss right for you?

and many others are all questions that are context dependent.  And the ‘right’ answer depends on that context, the situation, and the person in question.

Is the person large or small, insulin sensitive or not, doing a lot of training or very little, whats’ the intensity of that training, what are their goals, how much time do they have to train, can they change their training schedule to fit a specific diet, what genetic issues might there be, individual preferences are all specifics that affect what might or might not be the best.

But even if you find an answer for that one given situation, it’s critical to realize that it still isn’t the best answer in absolute terms.

It’s only best in that context.

So if there’s a point to this article, it’s this: when you see someone proclaiming that something is best, or worst or ideal or not, it’s important to consider the context of the situation.  Both theirs and yours.  Because it’s entirely possible that they’ve found the right solution for their context.  But that doesn’t mean it’s the best solution for yours.

I’d finish by saying that trying to force-fit a solution that is perfectly appropriate for one context into a context where it doesn’t fit is usually a recipe for disaster.   It becomes what I call a round-peg, square-hole problem; you’re trying to make something fit that simply doesn’t fit that context (it would be like the soccer mom trying to make the sports car work for her situation, I guess the kids go in the trunk).

One example is my own Ultimate Diet 2.0. It’s an involved cyclical diet and certain things with regards to training and diet have to be done at certain times for it to work.  Basically it requires certain scheduling in terms of when you can train and what kind of training you have to do on certain days.  What often happens is that people with no control over their training (e.g. college athletes who have to train on the schedule set by their coach) want to do it.  And I tell them to pick something else.  Without the ability to control their training to the degree required by UD2, it can’t be worked.  It’s the wrong choice for that context and I’ll generally point them to the Fat Loss for Athletes series on the site.

The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook is another example.  It too has certain requirements regarding training and what should or even can be done with training needing to be cut back to extremely minimal levels.  People unable to cut back training ot the degree required by the book (by choice or requirements) do poorly on it.  It’s the wrong choice for their specific context and they have to do something else.

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