Monday, January 7, 2013

The Secret to Good Health

I read an excellent article recently about the problematic nature of scientific research in the area of human health, and it made me think of all of the idiotic news stories I've read recently about how exercise is bad for your heart, or obesity helps you live longer, and on and on. If you've ever been worried or confused by headlines like these, I encourage you to read the article. One eye-popping statistic is that about two thirds of the studies published in top medical journals reach results that turn out to be wrong. (Let that sink in for a moment. Two thirds--that's a result 16% worse than having a monkey flip a coin.) The article goes on to parse out the reasons for this; two of the big ones are the difficulty of experimenting on humans and the journals' preference for exciting results (scientific journals love catchy headlines as much as any other news source).

So where does that leave us? If we can't believe the latest sensationalist headlines, what do we believe? Well, for starters you don't have to completely throw out scientific research; you just need to take everything with a grain of salt and work with the assumption that if a result of a study doesn't seem to make any sense, there was probably something wrong with the study. It also helps to look at research about a topic as a whole, instead of just one study. Over time, the scientific community often (but not always) corrects itself. The problem from our end is that the "Oh wait--exercising is healthier than sitting on the couch eating Cheetos after all" articles tend not to get quite the same press coverage.

Newspapers try to avoid using the word "duh" in their headlines
But let's take a step back. Does it really have to be this complicated? Do we really know so little about the needs of the human body that we have no idea what a healthy lifestyle looks like, or are we just being willfully ignorant? I believe that deep down we all know what we're supposed to be doing, we just don't want to do it. And like a kid who puts off homework until the last minute in the hope that somehow there will be a snow day or the school will burn down, we all secretly cling to the hope that someday science will justify our current lifestyle.

I can't help but wonder if this accounts for much of the success of the Atkins and paleo diets. If you tell a kid that he doesn't have to go to school because the school burned down, he's not going to become suspicious and demand proof; he's going to start planning his day off. Likewise, if you tell an adult that, yes, a whole plate of bacon and some chicken wings is a healthy meal, you're not going to get the same degree of skepticism that you would if you asserted that bacon causes AIDS.

In reality, there's nothing mysterious about getting healthier. Everything you need to know you heard from your mother as a kid. "Finish your vegetables." "Go play outside." "Eat your apple slices and stop asking for a Twinkie." The only trick is to buck up and stop acting like you don't know what you're supposed to be doing.

So what is it that we all know? Let's start with things that we all know are good for us: fruit, vegetables, exercise. Many people would argue that there are other things to add to that list, but let's cap it there for the moment. (Others would argue that some of those items are bad for you, and if you are one of those people, do me a favor and slap yourself.)

(Side rant: if you're following the paleo lifestyle and refuse to eat fruit because of it, I've got bad news for you: you aren't paleo, you're on the Atkins diet. There's never been a real hunter-gatherer who refused to eat fruit because it wasn't on his diet.)

Okay, now let's cover the things that we all know are bad for us: fast food, processed food, refined flour and sugar, sedentariness, tobacco, excessive alcohol. Again, there are a lot of additional items we could add, but let's stop here.

Now, assuming you're with me so far, we have two lists that we can all agree on, one of things we know are good for us, and one of things we know are bad for us. Guess what? That's really all you need to know to be healthy. The only secret to feeling better, weighing less, getting fitter and living longer is to get more of the first category and less of the second. It's really that simple.

Now, obviously there are a lot of foods that don't fall into our two groups, and aside from a few crackpot studies and diets (*cough*, Atkins, *cough*) it's those other foods that are the subject of most of the health debate. It's tempting to join in the fray, but first you really need to ask yourself this question: are you getting lots of our first group--are you eating tons of fruit and veggies and exercising regularly--and avoiding the second? Because if you aren't bothering to do that, you have no business arguing the details of an optimum diet. Go finish learning arithmetic, and then we'll talk trig.

Okay, back? Great. Opinions differ greatly over the relative merits of virtually all the remaining foods. I'm sure you're dying to hear mine, so here it is. Personally, I divide them into two main groups. One, foods that are probably bad for us but may be okay in small quantities: red meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, honey, alcohol. Two, foods that are probably healthy but that are either debatable or not as healthy as fruits and veggies: whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish. That gives me four groups total, which represent a progression from healthiest to unhealthiest:
  1. Fruit, vegetables
  2. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish
  3. Red meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, honey
  4. Fast food, processed food, refined flour and sugar.
This also represents a chronological progression for me. Three years ago my diet mostly consisted of foods from groups 3 and 4. Gradually, I gave up the foods in group 4, then group 3, and finally group 2, so that now my diet is comprised almost entirely of fresh fruits and vegetables. At every stage along the way there was a marked improvement in the way I felt, in how much I weighed, and in my running performance.

Like this, but with fewer lobbyists
So there you go: the secret to good health in one blog post. Let me know how it goes.


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?


  1. "Side rant: if you're following the paleo lifestyle and refuse to eat fruit because of it, I've got bad news for you: you aren't paleo, you're on the Atkins diet."

    Thanks for stating that - Not that I've studied the Paleo diet, but I did do Atkins in 2000-2001 (all you can eat bacon? sign me up...) and Paleo just seemed to be a variation of Atkins.

    Whenever I see the studies that say "Running is bad for your heart (especially if you're running barefoot)" or "It's better to be overweight" I wonder what the point of the study is. Not to get all Oliver Stone about it, but I wonder if some dark entity is trying to promote sedentary obesity.

    But this also points to the issue that we know what we need to do (eat less, move more); we - as a society - just don't want to.

    1. I wish it were some dark conspiracy, but unfortunately it's probably because we want to hear it. Always knew those stupid anorexic fitness nuts were ruining their bodies...

  2. Excellent straight-forward post! It's so much easier to believe what you want to be true...

    I really enjoy reading your blog; I knew I wasn't the only barefoot runner in AZ!

    1. Thanks! Do you ever run any of the Aravaipa races?

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