120 years ago, John Harvey Kellogg invented corn flakes as a way to keep people from masturbating.
I’m not messing with you. He ran a sanitarium where one of the goals was rehabilitating people through vegetarian diets and sexual restriction, and after accidentally creating the first corn flakes, he hypothesized that their blandness would reduce sexual urges in his patients.
Eventually he realized that maybe not-insane people would also enjoy these corn flakes, but it would be a little harder to sell them on the whole “eat bland foods because people who eat sweet and spicy foods have too much sex and go straight to hell” rhetoric, so they had to come up with something else.
The industrial revolution was getting underway, and it turned out that working at machines and standing still for a long day after eating a big breakfast of bacon and eggs was kind of exhausting. So Kellogg pitched people on eating a lighter breakfast of corn flakes as part of their spartan work ethic and puritan commitment to doing their best work.
Pretty soon, breakfast was being sold as the most important meal of the day because you need your corn flakes to be an industrious, god fearing member of society. And so you don’t masturbate so much.
And here we are, 100 years later, still spreading the myth that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” despite absolutely no evidence that it’s important for your health.
But Nat! You might say, Doesn’t eating breakfast keep you from getting fat?
Maybe! Here’s one extremely in depth research article that demonstrated that eating breakfast helps people stay thin.
Done skimming it? Now go look at it it again. Can you figure out who funded it?
Okay, so what about some research that wasn’t paid for? Well, one meta-analysis demonstrated that most of the research connecting breakfast to health is flimsy at best, and the very few controlled trials (instead of mere observational studies) showed no effect from adding or skipping breakfast on weight loss.
There’s a massive amount of research done on this issue, mostly because the breakfast cereal industry has made so much of it up, and I’d encourage you to dig through PubMed over a glass of wine and make your own conclusions (my idea of a wild and crazy evening).
But ultimately, your belief in breakfast as the most important meal of the day should boil down to one question:
Could that be explained by marketing?
Or phrased less eloquently: is this obviously true on its own? Or might it be something I believe because it’s in the financial interest of someone to make me believe it?
With breakfast, the answer is clearly the latter. There’s no need to eat three meals a day, no health benefits from doing it, and there are actually significant health benefits to not eating so many meals a day. I’ve been doing it for 7 years now, and regularly go for a day or longer skipping eating entirely.
The idea of breakfast as the most important meal of the day can be explained by marketing. What else can?
How many steps should you try to get in a day?
10,000, right? That’s the healthy amount of steps a human should take.
Well, no. That number was made up by a Japanese company in the 1960s as a way to sell the first pedometers.
You know the term “Banzai!” that you shout before you throw back a glass of sake? It means, roughly, “10,000 years!”, which is a term of endearment and respect essentially meaning “may you live forever” and used to be shouted at the emperor. As a result, the number 10,000 has a special place in Japanese culture.
So, when someone in Japan invents the pedometer they decide to call it the man-po-kei, which translates to “10,000 step meter” because he knows the 10,000 number will make it more appealing. FitBit and all of the other step monitors stuck with that number because it’s great for marketing and easy to remember, despite it being completely made up.
10,000 steps, it seems, can be explained by marketing. Should you walk more? Yes. Is there something special about 10,000 steps where once you hit it you can go back to sitting on your couch eating Oreos? No.
Once you start looking for habits and beliefs that can be explained by marketing, you’ll find them everywhere.
I haven’t used shampoo or conditioner in over 6 months, and no one can tell the difference. They’re completely unnecessary, but you better believe that “use shampoo and conditioner every day!” is a great way to sell shampoo and conditioner.
No workout needs to last an hour unless you’re a professional bodybuilder. You can sprint to exhaustion or lift to your max in less than half an hour.
So why are there so many 1-hour workout routines? Personal trainers and gyms make more money. Explained by marketing.
The level that’s considered “high cholesterol” for LDL is arbitrary and has gone down from 250 to 100 in the last 50 or so years. Do you suppose that, maybe, that change happened because statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) are a $30 billion dollar industry?
Another one that we’re thankfully seeing a regression from, but for that 50 year period where people thought that fat was bad and carbs were good, what was the explanation? Not looking at humans in their natural state, but rather, the sugar industry made up a bunch of research to shift blame to fat. Explained by marketing.
This site gets ~10,000-15,000 visitors a day from Google, and I don’t do a single thing that “SEO Experts” say you need to do.
What’s the explanation? Most of the experts and bloggers are likely adding a bunch of artificial complexity to the equation as a way to sell their consulting services and $500 courses and to keep publishing more articles on it. Explained by marketing.
Yup, flossing might not do anything useful either.
Fans of a certain life hacker may believe that they need to buy special coffee because normal coffee has “mycotoxins” that are harmful to their health. Is there any evidence for that? No, not really, but he definitely makes more money by making you believe it so you buy his coffee.
ADHD is over-diagnosed, and in all but the most serious cases is simply a normal human reaction to being stuck in an overly constrained, boring, rigid environment.
If you don’t have ADHD while in class or in a cubicle you should be worried. So why is it treated as such a widespread issue? Come on, you know the answer now.
“Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.” Is it? There’s no evidence of that, but it sounds like a great explanation to justify buying pills that help chemically rebalance your brain.
Taking multivitamins hardly does anything since we’re not coming by them in their natural form. And yet, the marketing train moves along.
Your goal should be to apply the “could that be explained by marketing” filter to any statement that’s remotely suspect. You’ll run into these kinds of beliefs constantly throughout the day, so it’s a habit you have to cultivate. You likely are already acting on a number of them that you never questioned.
I’m not suggesting you ignore everything, but rather that you should be a little more suspicious of the information and products you’re buying into.
Next time someone comes up to you and says something like “You need to use a special guided meditation app every day to get the best effects.”
Or, “You work better while walking, which is why those treadmill desks are so good.”
Or, “Be sure to eat your corn flakes every morning, otherwise you’ll be overcome with sexual urges and go straight to hell.”
Now you’ll know to ask yourself if maybe, just maybe, that could be explained by marketing.
Then consider joining the 19,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.