If Content Is King, Then Context Is God

I was recently watching a talk with Gary Vaynerchuk where he said that “if content is king, then context is God”. If you have no idea who Gary Vaynerchuk is, he is an incredibly successful entrepreneur who originally started out running a wine store and then became the poster boy for social media as a marketing tool. He was huge on Twitter when it was just starting out and now when a new platform starts getting big (whether it be vine or snapchat or whatever) Vaynerchuk is normally at the forefront of explaining how to use it (and often has invested in it).

His comment that “if content is king, then context is God” was in regards to using different social media platforms to broadcast your message. While you want to be creating great content that people enjoy, how you then wrap it up will be different depending on the medium that you use. So if you use Facebook you do it one-way, on Twitter it would be another, and on Pinterest it would be something different again. Same great content, just understanding the best way for that to work in the context of how you’re putting it out.

His quote really struck me because while he was talking in regards to marketing, the idea is equally true when thinking about health and nutrition. You need to be reading and researching and learning about different foods and lifestyle habits – the content. But just accumulating this knowledge is not enough because what is healthy is not black and white. Understanding the body that it’s going into, the other things going on in your life, the other foods that are making up your diet – the context – is what really determines the results you get.

I remember from high school economics the idea of opportunity cost. It’s been over 15 years since those economics classes so my memory and interpretation of it may be a little off. But I will explain it as I see it and how it then relates to health.

The opportunity cost for any decision is the alternative that you miss out on from one choice over another. For example if you decide to have a salad for lunch, the opportunity cost are the other alternatives that you could have had – a steak and chips, a prawn curry, a jacket potato with tuna. If you decide to go to the gym in the afternoon the opportunity cost are the other alternatives for how you could have spent that time – gone for a walk, watched TV on the sofa, played piano, worked etc.

If there’s one villain in health that’s being blamed more than any other at the moment, it’s sugar. People have come to their senses about fat and the mistakes they made in the 1980s and 90s for blaming it for our health woes. But the mob has now turned its attention to sugar, the new village ogre, and is coming after it with pitchforks, flaming wooden stakes and crossbows. But is this justified? Is sugar the real culprit or is everyone just on another wild goose chase of trying to pin a huge range of issues squarely on the shoulders of one cause?

In my opinion, we are repeating the same mistake we made with fat in the 1980s and 90s (just as we did in the 1910s and 1920s when protein was blamed for all our health problems). No food is inherently bad and everything has pros and cons. And this applies whether we are talking about stir-fry vegetables or a McDonald’s hamburger. What determines the value of the food someone is eating is the context in which it is consumed and this encompasses looking at all components of someone’s diet and lifestyle – all the things that contribute towards health.

But let’s stick with sugar for now, as it’s the current bad guy, and look at how the idea of opportunity cost can be applied to health. Say you decide to have a chocolate bar in the afternoon as your afternoon snack. This is the only food that you have between lunch and dinner. The opportunity cost of this choice is all the other alternatives that you could have chosen in it’s place. By choosing only the chocolate bar you are missing out on taking in any real protein with the meal. You are missing out on taking in any fruits or vegetables. You are missing out on all the other foods that you could have had instead.

Now let’s say that instead of just having a chocolate bar in the afternoon, you had a mandarin, a carrot, some cottage cheese and a chocolate bar. In this instance you are taking in a more substantial snack. It is more well balanced because it now contains some protein from the cottage cheese, which was missing with just the chocolate bar on its own. It also contains some fruits and vegetables. The opportunity cost is less because the snack is more rounded and has provided the body with more.

And this is how I see sugar as either being ok or causing a problem. Normally when sugar is causing a problem it’s because it’s being eaten in isolation. Or because it means people are choosing to eat sugar more often and at the expense of other foods that are able to provide the body with more.

If someone is having two or three meals a day that are only chocolate bars, cans of coke, and cake, the issue isn’t that these foods are inherently bad but rather the opportunity cost of the other foods people are missing out on. If someone sat down and had just butter or just cream for two or three meals a day it would equally cause a problem. It’s just people are less likely to do this unless you are Jimmy Moore. And again, this wouldn’t be because butter or cream is bad, but it’s how they are being consumed in the context of the rest of the diet that is causing a problem.

If sugar is used as part of a healthy diet and is eaten in this context then it is not a problem. And rather than just being not a problem, it can actually be very healthy.

After exercise, you want to take in good amounts of carbohydrates to shut of the stress response, replenish any used glycogen and start the repair process. Taking in some sugar as part of a proper meal can help to increase the carbohydrate content to help with this process.

In wintertime, the body is less able to create energy from the food you eat. Our cells make energy in the presences of sunlight and with less sunlight we make less energy. Having more sugar in the winter time, again as part of complete and well balanced meals, can help increase our cellular energy. This could be especially important for someone who has thyroid issues, as symptoms are normally worse in the wintertime because of issues with energy production.

These are just two examples but there are plenty more. Because when sugar (or any food for that matter) is used in a way that considers context, you can make the most of the benefits that it can bring.

Another concept to keep in mind with this are tolerance levels. While there are some foods that people can eat in large quantities without any issues, for other there is a threshold or upper limit. A couple of dried figs and everything is fine; have a whole packet and you may spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in the bathroom feeling like you’ve drunk water from a polluted river in a 3rd world country.

This threshold is also context specific rather than being static. Bread is a good example for this. Bread, like sugar, is having some PR issues at the moment. Because of books with imaginative titles like “Wheat Belly” and “Grain Brain” and the popularity of paleo and ancestral diets, bread is hanging out on the outskirts of town with the other food-lepers like sugar and fast food.

In practice I do find that some clients have issues with bread. Some just don’t tolerate it at all but most have a upper limit before it starts creating a problem. That upper limit can move both up ad down depending on the other foods that they eat. If they have identified the foods that support their digestion (and this is person specific) and are eating mostly these foods, then they are able to have more bread before it becomes a problem. If they haven’t been eating so well, been having late nights, been drinking more, then even a small amount of bread may set them off. As you can see, the threshold is context specific and isn’t just about the particular food, but the diet as a whole.

The point is, when used in the right way, all foods can be beneficial, just as all foods have limitations. There is a tendency to demonise foods and to suggest that people outright avoid them. You use the example of a person taking it to the extremes with this particular food and getting horrible results to prove your point. But when foods are consumed in the right context then their ‘bad’ side disappears and you get to reap their benefits.

Rather than demonising foods, work out how you can combine them to minimise their individual weakness and capitalise on their strengths. Because the whole really is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

p.s. This is a video of Gary Vaynerchuk on Conan O’Brian. It’s from years ago when he was just a wine guy and it‘s what first introduced me to him. It’s hilarious.

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Chris Sandel is the founder of www.seven-health.com. He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.

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