Don’t Be So Sure: Why Doubt Is an Essential Tool for Reaching Health Goals

Doubt FinalI’m sure we’ve all found ourselves around people who are absolutely hamstrung by their beliefs—whether about business or healthy eating, politics or fitness. Some people are overly sensitive or even overtly defensive when discussing them. Others might be congenial but simply shut down when the conversation turns to a “sacred” topic. But if conviction hampers them this much in social exchange, can you imagine how much it hampers them in the rest of their lives? Many of us tend to perceive certainty as a strength, but often it can cut us off from imagining a scope of better options. Over the years, people have invested so much time, energy and justification in their opinions that the cost to entertaining other possibilities seems too high. And that’s too bad. Because as the old saying goes, the only thing worse than making a mistake is to keep making it. That’s why today I want to talk about the value of doubt.

Productive doubt, I’ve found, applies just as much in health considerations as it does in other areas of life. Conventional health wisdom unfortunately continues to reign, after all, not because it’s incontrovertible truth, but because it’s a convention that society refuses to question. As a result, we have more people than ever who suffer from obesity, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases. In the end, the more certain (i.e. hard-headed) we are, the more limited we’ll inevitably be. That reality can both compromise our personal health and erode our belief in positive health change.

At first, it might seem strange that I’m even making the case for doubt. After all, here I am more than a decade into promoting a specific blueprint for health, weight loss and vitality. However, those of you who have been around here for a while know I’m anything but a fixed thinker. I have never, nor will I ever, suggest anyone give me or the Primal Blueprint blind faith. Please don’t check your skepticism at the door here. By all means, inspect and scrutinize. Put the plan and all its principles fully under the microscope of your own experience. I’ve always said I’ll follow the Primal Blueprint until someone shows me something better. That day hasn’t come, but one day it might, and I’ll be genuinely grateful for the insight if and when it does.

I grew into the Primal Blueprint philosophy over decades of experience and experimentation as well as study. If my mind hadn’t been open and stayed open, the PB never would’ve gotten out of the gate, let alone evolved over the last several years to become an inclusive, but loose design for flourishing. And I fully trust it will keep developing into new areas, highlighting new principles.

Because here’s the rub.

When we seat ourselves in certainty, we abandon curiosity. We see the effects of this in everything from government to parenting, science to education. Those who are convinced they know what they know despite evidence to the contrary have cut themselves off from learning, from growing, from expanding. Can you imagine what our world would be like today if a hundred years ago we collectively decided that we had already discovered and invented everything worth discovering or inventing? What if we’d settled on it even ten years ago? Thankfully, enough of us throughout history (and our current times) are driven by a pretty insatiable curiosity that leads us to doubt the status quo whenever possible.

Tunnel vision certainly never got Grok anywhere—literally or figuratively. At some point, someone always had to doubt that the same old means for x, y or z wasn’t the best approach. It took a while, but the human species over time continually found better ways to do things, easier methods to gain the same results for less effort or risk.

And so it is today. When I talk about the the Primal Blueprint as the genuine design to gain health and vitality with the least amount of pain, suffering and sacrifice possible, it should be clear that this is the continuing, in progress objective. The Blueprint is not a static formula, and neither should your experience of it be.

So, how can you leverage doubt in pursuing a healthy life? Let me throw out a few takeaways and examples.

Don’t accept just anyone as an absolute “authority”

I don’t need to personally conduct my own longitudinal studies or spend years authoring large meta-studies to trust them.

That said, I can scrutinize scientific studies and/or read diverse sources that cover and discuss these studies or the health and wellness field in general. I can read each with a grain of salt, understanding that the best argument isn’t always the most insistent or entertaining. I suggest you employ the same measured skepticism as well.

Question how much any product, contraption or membership will realistically benefit your priorities and lifestyle

I don’t own much equipment, and most of my workouts don’t require a gym. That’s the beauty of Primal movement principles. Likewise, I’m skeptical of the countless new gimmicks that get rolled out every year as the latest panacea for everything under the sun.

Prioritize the basics of real food diets, Primal macro ratios, solid sleep, and essential nutrients. If a health recommendation or contraption sounds complicated, it’s probably superfluous.

Don’t underestimate the need for modification

Health practices, even as they follow general principles, still need to be tailored. Metabolic and other physiological subtleties vary from individual to individual, and we all obviously bring plenty of personal circumstances to the table that will influence what works for us and what doesn’t.

By all means, study the principles, but commit to continual self-experimentation and modification. Isolate new variables for a while, and see how increasing or decreasing carbs slightly works for you. Adjust the timing of your workouts. Try giving up nightshades for thirty days to see how you feel when you’re off of them and when you go back on. See if eating more fat or less affects your body composition, hunger or energy levels.

Likewise, consider what realistically fits your lifestyle. For example, the best health practices are, above all, the ones you actually do and maintain over time.

Never accept that you’re “done”

Not only is stagnancy a boring prospect for a healthy and fulfilling life, but it’s not a sustainable truth. The human body even under the best of circumstances changes over time, adapting to age and circumstance (e.g. athletic training, significant weight loss, stress, etc.) as well as physical events or natural shifts (e.g. pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause).

A health routine, even if it’s Primally based, that feels perfect at 25 likely will need several adjustments by the time you’re 65. If you simply maintain the same drill for years if not decades, you’ll likely be sacrificing top level benefits. Bring a healthy dose of skepticism to your own routine. Be willing to both read and experiment further to stay in your optimal zones of fitness and nutrition.

Likewise, changes of life circumstance should cause us to reexamine our assumptions about what works best for us at any given stage. For example, those HIIT routines you’ve been doing for the last five years may not be the best strategy now that you have two kids under three and are operating on routine sleep deprivation. CrossFit may sound great (and is for many people), but ask yourself if it’s really the fitness practice you want to commit to as you just begin to reclaim your health and start getting back in shape after a ten year hiatus of exercise.

Don’t assume you need to adopt every good strategy you read about

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth saying again. This blog reaches several million people a month, and readers here are working at varied levels with countless interests. In keeping with that, I cover a lot of ground in terms of strategies and information. Not all of it may be valuable or relevant to you.

I think this point is critical: be selective enough in what you take on that you don’t overwhelm yourself and lose motivation. Keep Primal living as simple as you can. Apply doubt when considering whether any additional change or routine will make enough difference to be worthwhile in this particular moment. That doesn’t mean the answer will always be no. Sometimes it will absolutely be a definite yes, and a window of experimentation can confirm as much. Regardless of our ultimate decision, doubt can ensure that we’re thoughtful about each new practice we commit to in the grand scheme of our health goals.

Thanks for reading, everyone. How has doubt helped you in your health endeavors? Share your thoughts, and have a great end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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20 thoughts on “Don’t Be So Sure: Why Doubt Is an Essential Tool for Reaching Health Goals”

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  1. This is great and it all goes back to the basics…listen to your body. See what works and what doesn’t. Don’t try to do everything at once. Build a routine that works with your lifestyle. I feel I have a great routine that works for me, but had I started everything at once I would have been completely overwhelmed. I also totally accept that life gets in the way. Sometimes my grass fed meat comes directly from a local farmer. On a busier week it might come from Target. We’re all doing the best we can!

  2. Agreed on all counts, Mark. Doubting all the bunk diet and nutrition advice out there is what brought me here (and what brought me all the actual successes I wanted in weight loss/feeling a thousand times better).

  3. I’ve had to question/doubt my own primal plan a few times. Whenever I’d hit a plateau, I’d tell myself, “But you’re doing everything right! This must just not be for me.” But then, of course, I’d take another moment to doubt that assumption. Often times, I’d find that there were plenty of things I was doing that could/should be changed. and low and behold, once I really evaluated and changed a few things, I’d start feeling progress again.

  4. Certainty is often used as a tool to reinforce feelings of victimhood. “I can’t do anything else. I’m stuck this way.” “Nobody knows what I’m going through. There isn’t any hope.” We’ve all been in that place, but doubting those negative assumptions is really what starts to get you out of a place of disempowerment and into one of action.

    1. “Certainty is often used as a tool to reinforce feelings of victimhood.”

      this is a brilliant observation!

  5. Oh, boy, have I been in the situation of trying every darn new thing I’ve come across. Lol. If I feel better now, if I try X, then I may feel REALLY great. The only problem is, you just end up with a ton of haphazard pieces/variables that may or may not be benefiting you. And, since there are so many, you can’t often tell which thing is of benefit. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to sustain them all at once in a reasonable way. Simplicity for the win!

  6. Great post! Over the years doubting/questioning experts (i.e., doctors) has spared me unneeded procedures and medications. Being encouraged (by a doctor) to look at things from different perspectives and trust my intuition, eventually led me to this blog and literally saved my life. As my life has evolved over the past 5 years, so has my primal journey.

    1. Doctors are good with trauma. With everything else there’s plenty of room for skepticism. In general, I’ve had better luck with alternative healthcare providers.

  7. I certainly scoffed at the idea of Primal when it was first mentioned to me because I *knew* I was doing everything right! My body was wrong, not my diet.
    I only tried it out of desperation. 4+ years now of primal & much more open to studying & learning new and different ideas about body & diet along the way.
    Good stuff again, Mark.

  8. This a great post, thanks Mark!

    “Keep Primal living as simple as you can.” Wow, music to my ears.

    The simplest things always attract me the most, and my father always told me to “question everything, especially long-held and cherished ideas” no matter where they originally came from.

    Critical thinking about any subject always requires a bit of doubt.

    Grok on!

  9. Well.. I doubt that many of those close to me will do much if any of what you just suggested! So I just keep moving ahead. Trying, changing, adjusting and so on. It’s well worth the effort. Thank You Mark!

  10. thats funny, todays people are open to everything except the Bible and more than that The God of The Bible, of Israel. He gave us laws concerning eating and exercising and much more. Sadly people are not open to it and continue to suffer the consequences..

    1. Speaking of “Don’t Be So Sure” … so adherents of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism … and humanists and secular people cannot be healthy because they don’t read the bible???

  11. I like the concept of prioritizing the basics. An occasional ersatz brownie made with coconut flour and stevia (or whatever) probably won’t hurt anyone, but it’s far from basic and certainly nothing Grok ever ate. A diet full of replacement foods defeats the whole idea of Primal living. I don’t weigh, count, measure, or analyze what I eat. For me, simply sticking with the basics at least 80 percent of the time takes care of all that.

  12. I suffered from uti, got it once a month. Doctor said that diet wouldn’t make any difference.
    In the end, I was so desperate, that I tried out avoiding sugars and starches, which I had been reading could be a solution. And much to my surprise it worked. Amazing. And from there, I found paleo diet.
    If I hadn’t doubted the doctor, I wouldn’t have found the solution and would have continued to pop antibiotics.

  13. Thank you for the great reminder and advice — applicable not only to personal health and vitality, but nearly all aspects of a positive, fulfilled life. I agree with another commenter, this may be your best essay yet! Stay curious, my friend.