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Why ‘top ten’ lists are utterly useless

These days, you can't go online without being bombarded with ‘top ten’ lists that promise to make you healthier and wealthier. Here's why you should avoid them

Do 'top ten' lists really make any difference?
Do 'top ten' lists really make any difference? (Istockphoto)

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Any given day, as if governed by some marketing conspiracy, there are at least five emails in my inbox promising me the secrets of the universe in under five bullet points. A few years ago, when I was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I would devour these emails to find out what key element I was missing in my quest for success. 

I read everything from “Top ten ways to grow your email list” to “Top 4 foods to eat if you want to lose weight”. Every time I read one of these lists, however, I didn't gain any valuable insight at all. Over time, I became tired of this boiled-down, cheapened way of disseminating unhelpful information. These emails quickly found themselves in my trash.

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If I were to list the top ten things I hate, the infamous “top ten” list would feature on that list. 

Of course, some people like lists. In a world of quick responses on social media, the nervous twitch to scroll past numerous posts all at once can be too enticing. It seems almost laughable that, as a society, we want highly intelligent, independently researched, incredibly nuanced, and complex information dumbed down to a five-point summary to read in 13 seconds. It's a shame to force industry professionals with degrees or multiple years of experience to follow this mindless pattern of instant information consumption, and try and capture their audience's transient attention through lists that add little value to anyone's life.

That being said, some list topics do make sense. For example, what if I was to create a list that told you about the five foods that contain the most protein? Such a list would work to highlight other sources of protein that you could add to your diet. Are these foods the only sources of protein? Of course not, they simply contain the highest amount of protein. Do you have to eat them? Of course not, but you can use them in your diet if they make sense. What happens if you already eat them? Fantastic, pat yourself on the back and move on. 

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The other lists that don't make sense are things that bring you false hope or false information. One that screams out is the "top 5 fat-burning foods". This kind of topic is very enticing because eating food is always preferable to depriving yourself, and the idea that you can eat and still lose weight is enticing. 

You may rush out, buy the foods, and start consuming them with the expectation of weight loss, often without reducing other food in your pre-existing diet. After three days, you decide you've had enough, drop the list from your mind, and move on. It may stick around as an afterthought, a casual anecdote to relay to a friend who wants to lose weight. But you haven't actually put it to practice, and if you had, you likely didn't see any change on the scale. 

If you want to lose weight, you should know that it starts with a simple equation of calories in vs. calories out. Adding food (which contains calories) into your diet without adjusting accordingly isn't going to get you any closer to your goal. If weight loss were as simple as drinking three gallons of green tea daily, the diet industry wouldn't be as profitable as it is today. 

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But let’s say that you did create the ultimate list. There is a phrase that I frequently use with my clients: Simple doesn't mean easy. What I mean by this is that just because you made information simple to digest, doesn't mean that it's also easy to implement. Implementing is the hard part. A list certainly needs to provide you with a complete roadmap to integrate this information into your daily life and be successful at it. Once you’ve created this simplified list, how are you going to support someone’s journey while trying to implement it?

I'm not saying that we all have to be information detectives, but I am saying that as consumers we can't make lists our only source. We wouldn't use a list to diagnose health issues (although I am sure people have tried), just as much as we can't become a Fortune 500 CEO by following a “top 5 tips” to become one. There is an entire, non-linear and unique journey that impacts success along the way, and that success will look different for everyone. Rarely will it fall into the same cookie-cutter mold as the next person. 

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Similarly, we can't use these lists to create personalized fitness plans or even plan our diets. When an industry professional tries to sell a generic list as a universal solution to a specific problem, we create unrealistic expectations and opportunities for people to fail at living better, healthier lives. As fitness and nutrition professionals, if we offer our expertise as boiled-down lists, we also discredit our ability to create personalized and unique programs for people with nuanced issues that need addressing. After all, that is precisely what we have been trained to do.

So, when it comes to your health and fitness, it pays, in the long run, to set out and find out more information beyond the list. When checking your emails or scrolling through social media, note the topics that interest you the most. When you've done that, start researching and digging deeper into what you need help with. If you need to, connect with a professional or find a mentor to help answer your questions.

If hiring a coach or personal trainer isn't in your budget or doesn't interest, you – that's fine. But if you have a condition or question specific to your body, needs, or lifestyle, living on the list is not a wise place to search for answers. 

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach.

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