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More Must Be Better

More Must Be Better
Angelo Coppola

It can be tempting to believe: if something is good for me, more must be better. Sometimes it’s downright automatic in our thought processes. Even if we grasp the fallacy, we may still fail to recognize when we are thinking this way.

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
― Ayn Rand

But is it?

If vitamins are good, then I should take supplements, because more must be better.

If exercising makes me feel good, more must be better.

If some luxury is comforting, more must be better.

If making more money makes me happy, even more must be better.

If working makes me productive, more must be better.

If eating fat is healthy, more must be better.

If carbs make me feel good, more must better.

If protein builds muscle, more must better.

Well, sometimes more is better, but most of the time that’s too simplistic a way to approach life. Sometimes more is better; sometimes it isn’t.

Enter the inverted u-curve.

Inverted u-curve

As you can see, in the beginning more is better.

For example, exercising twice a week makes you feel better than once. Then, three times a week may feel better yet. Increasing exercise may help with weight control, mood…everything!

Before you know it, you’re working out seven days a week. You’ve convinced yourself that you’ll gain several pounds if you miss a day. Meanwhile, you’re overworking yourself, stressing your body and mind, and moving closer to a breakdown of some kind.

Part of the problem is that we tend to believe what we are doing is more important than what we are not doing. In a sense, we place more value on the notes we are playing than the silence between. But you need both to make music.

In other words we think our workouts are more important than our rest days. But they aren’t. We think the identified nutrients in whole foods are more important than the rest of the whole food. But they go together. We think being productive is more serious than sleeping. But we get more done with sufficient rest.

At some point, we hit peak benefit. Go beyond that and the benefits begin to diminish. Go far enough, and you could even get hurt.

We’ve all overdone it, and we’ll all overdo it again. But, if we remember the u-curve, hopefully we’ll keep getting better at aiming for the sweet spot.

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”
― William Blake

  • Will

    The first time I realized this principle was back when I was reading one of Kurt Harris’ blog posts. He was critical of the idea that just because eating some fruits/vegetables/fiber is good, eating more must be better. The much-touted benefits of plant antioxidants and polyphenols may cap out pretty quickly.

    When you recently had Stephan Guyenet on your podcast, I think he also mentioned something similar in regards to nutrient density. Increasing the nutrient density of the diet is helpful to a point, but after hitting all the RDAs there’s not much benefit left to be gained.

    • This is probably the least of most people’s concerns, as most would benefit from eating more fruit, vegetables, and fiber. Personally, I would be more concerned about taking in too many nutrients via supplementation versus whole foods.

      People are most likely to run into a problem with nutrient-density when they focus on faddish “superfoods” or they don’t include enough variety. This can lead to eating too much of certain compounds and not enough of others.

      In the context of this article, “some liver is good for me, therefore eating much more must be better” or “kale is good for me, so eating much more must be better” or “chia seeds are good, more must be better,” etc. makes more sense to me versus vaguely generalizing about a nutrient-dense diet.

      If generalizing, though, a more nutrient-dense, whole-food diet would be better for most people. And if it’s done with a variety of whole foods, (plant- or animal-based) I believe the likelihood of passing the sweetspot at the top of the u-curve is highly unlikely. I’d love to hear of real-world examples, if any exist.

      Still, I would pay attention to recommended upper limits, such as those for iron, for example.

      In Harris’ article he says it seems “plausible to me that eating some plant matter along with your animal products is probably healthier than otherwise.” I suspect it seems more than plausible to him nowadays, nearly 5 years after writing that. I wish he was still around and writing.

      • Will

        Oh absolutely – most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Most people don’t get enough exercise either. It doesn’t exempt these things from the U-curve phenomenon, though. In bringing up these examples, I wanted to propose that even the most sacred cows adhere to the same principle. It isn’t my goal to scare people off from eating their F&V.

        The U-curve suggests that there’s a single apex, but that’s not always the case. For individual nutrients, the dose-response is expected to be basically flat within range between the RDA and the UL, for 97.5% of the population. In other words, the apex of the U-curve is elongated.

        In practical terms, this could mean that if someone is already hitting the RDAs on the Mediterranean diet, for example, replacing olive oil with more vegetables won’t convey any additional benefit from the added micronutrients. At that point, the reason to make this exchange is mainly increased satiety / reduced calorie intake.

        But increased satiety from whole foods and fiber can definitely be overdone. I know because I’ve done it. And when I read the stories of ex-vegans who ate servings upon servings of vegetables and felt lethargic and hungry all the time (not to mention stomach troubles), I know exactly what they are talking about.

        Some paleo dieters also have trouble with this, hence the term “faileo.” Others have left the paleo diet altogether and regained their health following the likes of Matt Stone or Ray Peat (a number of Peatarians seem to be causing a stir on /r/paleo lately), both of whom advocate increasing the metabolic rate through higher caloric intakes. Personally, I see this as the opposite extreme and not necessarily any better in the long-term. But if something is possible to overdo, you will invariably find people who overdo it 🙂

        • Excellent points, Will.

          That inverted u can really take on many shapes. Sometimes it’s an inverted v and sometimes it elongated at the top, as you said.

          Just a nitpick, but if one wants to follow a Mediterranean diet without the olive oil, they don’t have to move toward calorie-sparse vegetables. They can still opt for a whole-foods Mediterranean diet and just opt for more nuts, avocados, or actual olives. Or even less processed foods, like chocolate.

          “More is better” is generally a lousy axiom, and I doubt it can be replaced by an equally simplistic one. The inverted u-curve puts things in better perspective, but that curve can take on many shapes. Plus, we each have individual variances that come into play. AND nothing stays constant…so what works now may not later, and our goals can change on a whim!

          At the very least, we can say that it’s a good idea to reevaluate from time to time. 🙂

  • Sean Seale

    Great article!! Thanks Angelo!