Correlation, Causation and how they Pertain to Health and Fitness


The health and fitness industry is perpetually evolving. It wasn’t that long ago that people were TERRIFIED to eat dietary fat for fear that it would increase body fat and a host of unwanted health problems. Now, surprisingly it is all the rage to ONLY eat dietary fat (or in very high amounts), and is being touted by some as a sort of magic bullet for weight loss.

There is a lot of bad “science” out there regarding fitness and nutrition due to the fact that there are billions of dollars on the line in that market! If you are a company that makes protein powder you want to convince everyone that protein is king. If you are a chocolate company you want everyone to know the health benefits from eating chocolate!

I think the biggest problem with nutritional “science” is that many studies or articles deal more with correlation then with causation.

Causation, also commonly known as cause and effect, is when an observed event or action appears to have caused a second event or action. This is very easy to explain: if you eat a peanut and immediately have an allergic reaction, you are most likely allergic to peanuts. If you drink 2 litres of water, you WILL have to urinate.  In terms of nutrition, if you eat less calories than you burn, you will lose weight. If you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. 

Correlation is a mutual relationship or connection between two or more things or the relationship between two sets of variables used to describe or predict information. There is an emphasis here on RELATIONSHIP. Sometimes we can use correlation to find causality, but not always. This is a little bit less black and white than causation and the problem with the health and fitness industry is correlation and causation are often marketed as interchangeable.

In my research to write this I came across a few really good examples of this at play! This website has some hilarious correlations to elaborate on this point.

For instance, between 2000 and 2009 there was a 95.8% correlation between civil engineering doctorates awarded and the per capita consumption of mozzarella cheese. This would lead you to believe that eating more mozza will magically create more civil engineers! As ridiculous as that sounds, this is the same type of logic that a lot of people use to market or defend their claims in the health and fitness industry. Correlation is not science and it is not cause and effect. With enough time you could make just about anything fit your agenda using correlation. Here is a great example:

Crossfit has become a global phenomenon and I myself have said many times that crossfit has done more for powerlifting, weightlifting and strongman then those sports ever did for themselves. However, in the year 2000 30.5% of adults in North America were overweight or obese. In 2013, 37.7% of adults were overweight or obese. Interestingly, in the year 2000 there were roughly 2 million people participating in crossfit but by 2013 that number more than tripled to over 6 million. So, as crossfit participation grew the general population became more overweight. Therefore, one could correlate (ridiculously) that crossfit causes people to become overweight! A growing number of endless statistics could be used: Treadmill sales? Gym memberships? Organic farms? Energy drinks? Anything that has grown over the past decade could be seen as a reason for the growing obesity epidemic. But clearly that is ridiculous.

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There is a ton of money to be made in the fitness industry and unfortunately just about anyone will spew their word vomit to convince you of one thing or another in an effort to grab a piece of the gigantic pie. Do you really think the trends of all organic food and gluten free everything is being sold just for health reasons? I don’t believe so, as these are part of big business just like anything else. And those businesses, just like cereal companies, snack food companies, alcohol and tobacco industries and countless others are going to try to sell you on their products.

I say this all the time to our clients: look at these products and issues through the lense of “common sense.”  Does it really make sense that crossfit causes obesity? Not at all. Just like it doesn’t make sense that apples cause cancer, or non-organic food causes celiac disease.

Learn to use that muscle between your ears, make common sense your common practice and most of all: Don’t blindly believe everything you find on the internet as fact!

-Denis LaBreche

Denis has been strength training for over a decade and competing in powerlifting for 3 years. He has competed at the national and international level. He enjoys working with clients of all skill levels. From true beginner to the elite powerlifter and athlete. His true passion lies in helping people with nutrition. Whether the goal is weight loss, muscle or performance gain or somewhere in the middle he has you covered! Follow him on Instagram and Facebook