It is very important to conduct scientific experiments/research that produce relevant results. For instance, pharmaceutical companies conduct drug tests to ensure their poisons are effective. They need to get significant results (the drug produces a measurable effect) in order to convince the FDA, Health Canada, and other regulatory bodies to let them market their products as cures for whatever ailments are afflicting humanity. There are some people and companies who are actually doing good research and I don’t want to take away from them, but most research is motivated by financial gains (not bad in itself), not by providing cures.
There are also epidemiological and observational studies which are aimed at extracting meaning about something (disease, addiction, etc) from a large population. For instance, “what is the rate of diabetes in the province of Ontario?” would be a research question in an epidemiological study. These studies are meaningful in order to determine truths about populations, but there are so many variables in play that researchers cannot draw conclusions from their observations. The numbers usually represent averages, and we all know that the average human being has one testicle and one breast.
The China Study (1 & 2) is one of the largest observational studies in existence. Many books have been written based on the observations in the study, most of them drawing irrelevant conclusions from the numbers. Some of them even skew the numbers to fit their pre-conceived notions. Denise Minger did a great critique of one of these books, which is available here.
My point is that we cannot look at observational studies and give prescriptional advice that is applicable to other populations which weren’t studied. So, why did I name my article “n=1 experiments are relevant”? Well, for the simple reason that experiments with one’s own body can reveal relevant information for that particular body. That is to say if I do something to change my lifestyle, and that change causes me to feel better or worse, that is relevant to me. Someone who has peanut allergies may eat a peanut to test how allergic they are (I don’t recommend this by the way), and it turns out to cause severe anaphylactic shock. That experiment on one person (n=1) is quite relevant. As it turns out, that particular experiment and its results can be reproduced in the rest of the population, generating meaningful results.
Even if an experiment cannot be reproduced in the rest of the population, its results are meaningful to that one person undergoing the experiment. There is tremendous bias when doing an experiment such as this, but the results are what they are. In the example above, the person eating the peanut knows it will produce an allergic reaction (bias), the only question is the severity of the reaction (result), which can be quite objective.
The same applies to people undergoing lifestyle changes. They probably expect a change for the better, else they would not be undergoing the change. This bias may carry them through the first stages of the experiment, but meaningful results will eventually emerge after the initial “high” is gone.
My personal n=1 experiment is one of many with the same theme, and so far I’ve had quite relevant results. My original goal was to lose weight, which I did, but this has plateaued recently. Instead of being discouraged, I realized that the goal should be to improve health, not just to lose weight. I realize weight loss will come slowly, as healthy weight loss is wont to do. In the meantime I’ve made the following observations through eating whole foods and eliminating wheat:
- I don’t feel “hunger” any more unless I don’t eat for 24h+
- My body composition is changing despite lack of weight loss
- I consume between 1700 and 2300 calories daily, without counting
- I have constant energy, not spikes and lows
- I sleep uninterrupted and I’m not thirsty during the night
- I don’t have food cravings or the need to binge
Basically, my body is getting to a state of natural homeostatis, similar to that of hunter-gatherer traditional people. These observations are not limited to my own experiment, and many other people experience these changes when switching to whole foods, full fat alternatives, and eliminating grains. Science hasn’t really caught up to us, but I’m sure it will, if only to disprove our findings.