You are what you eat.
The modern diet and its discontents
“Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something.” — Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
“Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with; are the things you need the least.” — Bob Dylan. Lonesome Day Blues. Love and Theft.
“There’s definitely no logic to human behavior.” — Bjork. Human behavior.
The more people I talk to, the more I learn about the world around me, the more I realize what an idiot I am!
This is not a profound, or even novel, observation. Philosophers, poets, sufis, and mystics have been saying the same thing for centuries. Socrates famously wrote: “The more you know, the more you realize you know nothing.” It’s just that most of these quotes, polite as they are, downplay the “idiot” part. It’s not until you slap your own forehead for the third or fourth time that some facts finally sink in. Allow me to explain.
Not a day goes by, it seems, when I don’t meet someone by chance who teaches me a profound lesson or two. Each such conversation is capped, at the end, with me slapping the noggin’ while exclaiming: “Of course! That makes perfect sense. He [or she] is absolutely right and I’ve been totally ignorant of this simple fact my whole life.”
None of the lessons are esoteric in nature or even remotely complicated. Almost all are basic common sense. I’ve even been aware of the facts in most cases but simply failed to act upon them due to sheer laziness or stubbornness.
The most recent bout includes conversations about diet and metabolism and specifically blood glucose levels, topics I’ve studiously avoided most of my life and only recently been forced to examine in depth. I’ve had a terrible diet for most of my adult life, justifying it by the rationalizations that I’m just too busy and don’t have time to pursue a healthy diet or that I exercise like a madman and can burn off the calories, ignoring the fact that not all calories are created equal.
Most people do the same thing and that’s why we have an epidemic on our hands not just of obesity but also of diabetes and anxiety. The maxims “You are what you eat” and “Healthy body, healthy mind” are repeated so often that they go in one ear and out the other.
Being the obsessive type I am, I’ve read many books and watched many documentaries on the topic, even studiously measuring my blood glucose levels on a daily basis given a genetic predisposition to diabetes. But it wasn’t until I talked to a few friends recently that a few important factors came to light.
Even though I compulsively inform myself on the subject, I rarely slow down long enough to apply the learnings to how I behave on a daily basis. This brings about a slap to the forehead moment when you realize you’re well aware of the dietary issues with fat and salt and sugar, for example, yet that doesn’t slow you down even for a millisecond from ordering that medium rare cheeseburger with a basket of fries and a pint of beer or that extra large bucket of popcorn at the movie theater or that tiramisu for dessert.
Never mind that our species has evolved on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years or that our ancestors, the apes, did so for millions of years before that without a single one of them ever having access to even a tiny percentage of the daily intake of sugar and salt and caffeine and alcohol and fat that modern humans consume every day.
It wasn’t even until a few thousand years ago, an evolutionary millisecond, that we settled down and started domesticating animals and farming, dramatically changing our diets in the process. And it’s only been a few hundred years since we’ve achieved the material wealth to be able to afford such gustatory delights at scale.
The amount of sugar in that Tiramisu I consumed with dinner last night far exceeds the weekly sugar intake of an entire village until a hundred years ago. It’s just that our body and our genes take a lot longer to evolve than technology and human innovation (and gluttony) allow for. Our bodies are just not used to this level of caloric intake, this amount of fat in our diet, this many chemicals, this many sugar spikes in a given day.
This is a slap to the forehead kind of moment. When you say to yourself: I know all this! And, yet, I give in to the urge to have not one but two scoops of chocolate raspberry ice cream. I know all this, I’ve read all these books, I’ve been educated for decades on what these chemicals do to my body. And I’ve judged others, both consciously and unconsciously, about their dietary choices. And yet, and yet, that doesn’t stop me from going to the Cheesecake Factory or cracking open that can of Coca Cola/Mountain Dew/beer/name your poison.
I’m not following the same rules I’m asking everyone else to follow. Every time I’m presented with a choice, and I’m presented with such choices several times a day, I make the wrong goddamn decision. I order the menu item that tastes good but I know is bad for me. I drink another cup of coffee. I order the combination dessert for the table, worried that I may miss out on the raspberry cheesecake and crème brûlée if I order only the chocolate mousse! WTF?!? What have we become? Why do we drown our sorrows and anxieties in ever increasing helpings of unhealthy food?
I often point out to friends who ask whether I’m hungry before a meal that there is no longer a causal relationship between hunger and eating! We’ve long separated the sensation of hunger from the act of eating. Proof: We’re never hungry and yet we keep eating. The starving children in Africa are always hungry but never get to eat. The two have nothing to do with each other. QED!
This type of behavior shouldn’t even be possible; it shouldn’t even be allowed in a sane society that cares about the wellbeing of its citizens. 30–40% of all food is wasted in the US on a daily basis while a large percentage of our society goes hungry every night. Yet we all walk down the aisles at the grocery store and don’t even think twice about the piles of food on the shelves. We’re served heart attack and diabetes on a plate and we gobble it up. What the hell is wrong with us? What stings the most is the realization that this has only been the case for most of humanity for less than a hundred years. We’ve lost our way and don’t even realize it.
For most of our history, we were busy running around the savanna, collecting berries and nuts and maybe getting lucky once in a while, killing a zebra or a gazelle. Our diet didn’t have any of the chemicals in it that we are so obsessed with today. Any wonder our bodies didn’t evolve to handle them and succumb to disease as we stuff our faces with pizza and cake, burritos and cinnamon rolls?
Have you ever looked at the teeth of a Kalahari bushman? He never brushes or flosses, never goes to the dentist. Yet he has gleaming white teeth, straighter than the best made piano keys, not a cavity in sight. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
The same evolutionary logic goes to our minds, by the way. A typical hunter gatherer used to spend about four hours a day finding sustenance and the rest of his time lounging around. Is it any wonder that our minds didn’t evolve to deal with 24x7 tension and anxiety? Is it any wonder that our minds, like our bodies, succumb to mental disorders under the onslaught of information we unleash on ourselves and are overwhelmed by the level of social anxiety we live under every hour of every day?
My first slap to the forehead moment arrived recently when I met with a couple of friends. One of them refuses to eat anything but sashimi at restaurants. The other wears a continuous glucose monitor that shows him real time blood sugar levels throughout the day.
As I sat with the first friend, I mentioned my problems with taste and smell. As it turns out, I’ve lost almost 100% of my sense of smell and taste. No, it’s not Covid. It has happened slowly over a decade or more. I was able, for example, to taste ginger at the sushi restaurant but, oddly enough, not the wasabi.
I mentioned that I’d seen several doctors, none of whom had been able to diagnose a root cause and all of whom had told me to basically “just live with it.” Yup, some people lose their sense of smell and taste as they get older. We don’t know why. They get used to it after a while. so… just get used to it. At least it’s not something critical like your visual or auditory senses.
This friend pointed out that it wasn’t just the chemicals in my blood that needed to be measured but rather the rate of absorption and regeneration of those chemicals that matter the most to our health and well-being. Well, duh! Of course! <Here comes the first slap… Thwack!>
It’s not just the amount of sugar in your blood that matters but also the rate at which your body metabolizes it. Or vitamin B. Or thiamine. Or whatever. So, why aren’t most doctors asking for this type of information? It wasn’t until I specifically asked my doctor that he ordered an A1C blood test, one that shows the amount of sugar in your blood over the last three months rather than just the current level.
And while we’re at it, what’s the deal with diagnosing an entire disease based on a single data point? Go to the lab in the morning and give them some blood. Make sure you do so before you eat anything so we can compare the data to a consistent known baseline. They’ll send me a number a day or two later. Based on that single data point, I will diagnose whether you’re diabetic or not and proceed to prescribe medication and change your diet, etc. WTF?
This is not medicine, this is throwing darts at a wall and hoping for results. It’s like looking at a large train station usually bustling with thousands of people through a keyhole just once (and doing so while the place is shut down for the night) and deciding we know everything that ever happens there! The whole episode reminded me of this cartoon:
I happen to measure my (fasting) blood glucose level almost on a daily basis and it typically registers anywhere from 90 to 110 on any given day. That’s a 20% swing! And that doesn’t even begin to take into account whether that last meal spiked my blood sugar level to 150 or 250, how long it stayed at that level, how much insulin was generated in response, how long it took for that insulin to get absorbed, possible inaccuracies in the monitoring device, etc.
The sashimi-eating friend was also the first person to point out that loss of the olfactory sense is usually the first sign of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, often occurring decades before the onset of motor and cognitive decline. Oh great! Of course! <Second slap to the forehead. Thwack!> This makes perfect sense. My father, now in his mid eighties, is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and two of his siblings died of the disease. It’s just my genes catching up with me.
Why didn’t any of the specialists I saw about the problem ever mention this? One of the doctors even ordered an expensive brain MRI to rule out a brain tumor but no one ever mentioned that it was usually a harbinger of worse things to come. “Get used to it” and “Just live with it” indeed!
I had another slap to the forehead moment when a second friend informed me today that he was wearing a continuous glucose monitor on his arm while showing me real time readings on his iPhone as we talked. Here’s what happened when I had two eggs for breakfast. Here’s what pizza looks like right after lunch and the curve as it’s processed over the next couple of hours. Here’s a Grande Pumpkin Spice Latte. Whoa! Data! Information!
Being the nerd that I am, I immediately looked up the startup that offers this service and that’s when I heard the loud thwack of the third slap. Of course! It’s time! Wearables are here. Technology has finally caught up. This makes sense. Our bodies metabolize sugar (and other chemicals) at different rates. This is the correct way to see how different kinds of food impact my health and, for the first time in history, we have the technology to collect and analyze the data in real-time, all the time.
I want to know this data. I want my doctor to have access to this data. I want to compare my data to others in my age group. Sign me up! There’s a wealth of information here just waiting to be analyzed. Compare it to the single number we look at today and you immediately see the massive difference.
The opportunities for biohacking and the potential improvements to our healthcare are enormous. Our big data algorithms will gobble up all this information and spit out interesting insights never before seen. The implications of this advance will reverberate through our society for decades to come. I suspect this will be the last time in history that we will diagnose diseases with so little data at our disposal.
Then, and only then, was it that I had the final slap to the forehead moment. Of course! I’ve been ignoring my body for years, eating whatever I want, whenever I want, for decades. At best, I had a checkup once every few years and had my blood glucose level checked professionally once a year. But I rarely used even that minuscule amount of data to change my behavior, my diet, my wellbeing. I never listened to my body.
It’s not until it’s too late, until the symptoms of disease are staring us in the face, that we get serious about dealing with them. By then, it’s often too late.
Add to this the state of our minds, bombarded as they are with a constant flow of useless information, saddled with anxiety and stress at every turn, and is it any wonder that our bodies and minds are falling apart, that they’re failing us?
Here’s my first friend who treats her body like a temple, refusing to allow any contaminants in, eating nothing but raw fish in a restaurant. Here’s the other friend, wearing a device that gives him a constant flow of information about his body and how it’s metabolizing the food he just consumed.
It’s not for me to say which approach is better: the body seen as a fortress to be protected vigilantly at all times or as a machine to be studied and maintained constantly. What I can say is that, by comparison, I’ve been deaf, dumb, and blind in my approach. And as much as I hate to admit it, at least in this respect, I represent the vast majority of the human species.
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