Almost always, “save the world” initiatives are aimed somewhere far from the developed world. Whatever you want to call it: the third world, or some developing nation; we regard it as THE area that needs saving: warring factions in Syria, censorship in China, extortion in Mexico, hunger in Ghana, rape in India, and corruption in Russia. These are real and serious problems in the world and we’re right to seek ways to improve the greater good of people there.
But the developed world is full of many of its own problems, often orthogonal to those of the less developed world:
- Diabetes and cancer are the diseases of developed world, and throw us into an inefficient healthcare system that’s incentivised to be expensive and bankrupt patients.
- Our food system isn’t helping – the most convenient and least expensive food tends to very processed. Moreover, information on healthful eating is muddled by vested interests.
- Many people find themselves in unnatural settings for daily work, where they spend most of their waking hours: long and stressful commutes, uninspiring work, hierarchical and restrictive work structures that cause the same angst and disorders as hierarchical regimes, and a lack of sunlight, fresh air, and movement. This “life” causes many physical and mental ailments including obesity and a widespread reduction in well being.
- A consumerist mindset occupies our minds, ceaselessly telling us we need more to be happy, adding clutter to our lives and waste in our landfills.
- We find ourselves endlessly busy and distant (physically and mentally) from things that bring true happiness: sleep, family, friends, love, community, and general relaxing and reflection.
The crux of this is that people in the developed world might not be very happy in their day to day lives. By some measures we might be less happy than those living in the developing world
These problems are nothing compared to warfare and hunger, but it’s critical that we make strides to address these issues. For one, most of world is becoming more developed. They crave to be more modern. They want to be more technologically advanced and be a part of the greater world economy. They want success and prosperity and growth. And they rightfully should. But as the developing world inherits our advancement, they inherit our problems. And these would be new problems for them – the next five billion – and big problems for the planet as a whole. So if we’re to “save the world”, let’s go after the problems in front of us, and not just the ones half a world away.
Human social and societal behavior
- A strong personal and professional research interest
- I’ve worked with faculty at Stony Brook University in developing a theory of evolution of religion, which reached into in-group / out-group behavior and a theory of culture. While this work is yet to be published, it is referenced in the book “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe: Human Evolution, Behavior, History, and Your Future”.
- I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate and graduate (classroom and online) course on Social Coercion Theory
- I’m a former practitioner of Kyokushin karate and served as an instructor for 5 years
- I presently practice capoeira, an afro-brazilian martial art and have done so for the past 7 years
- I’m an avid roller blader, as a daily commuter and as a safety marshall (5 years) for the inline skating community
- I enjoy many outdoor activities including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing
- I’ve volunteered at St. Francis and Bellevue Hospitals
- I was trained and certified as a NYS EMT and briefly volunteered with the Glen Oaks Volunteer Ambulance Corps
- I was a pre-med student in a college and applied to medical schools, but decided against the career
- A strong personal interest and I do a lot of reading, research, and personal experimenting
It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.
Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.
The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.
Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.
We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.
The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.
As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!
Note: I understand that as a young adult with no major family responsibilities, I have quite a bit more time than others, so this post is geared more towards my peers. Still, for those looking to make the most of their hours and also juggle family responsibilities, check out 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think
I like to think that I live an interesting life. My days are spent doing challenging work at my full time job. My nights are filled with physical activities that include roller blading, martial arts, and indoor rock climbing. Plus there’s the non-fiction books I finish every couple of weeks, the blog posts I write, and other less frequent adventures such as mountain biking. All without cutting back on necessities like sleep and seeing friends. When I tell new friends or coworkers about the life I lead, they often ask me how I have the time to do all this. The answer is: I make time. I fill every minute with stuff that matters and cut out the things that don’t.
Let’s start with a few things going for me:
I’m young and free of major family responsibilities – this is also the case for many of my peers
My job has a very flexible work schedule, and I eat 2 meals a day there
I live in the same house as my parents and have a mom that loves to cook
One major thing I don’t have going for me:
I have a very long commute – it would be close to 90 minutes to 2 hours by conventional means, but after 9 months of experimenting, I’ve got it down to about 75 minutes each way, which is still a lot.
Because I’m fortunate enough to have some very flexible work hours I typically wake up at around 8:30 or 9:00am. Now this “sleeping-in” might not sound like the most efficient start, but it’s necessary because I usually get home around midnight. I make sure to have breakfast – and then begins the commute.
In part one of my commute, I drive halfway across Queens, which is about 15-20 minutes each way (because I leave late enough, I don’t hit traffic and I can find parking without much trouble). Still I don’t let this time go to waste – I listen to audiobooks while driving. I’m presently listening to one on Portuguese survival phrases – I’m visiting Brazil soon. But previously, I was listening to a book about the balance between rules and wisdom in our institutions. I already have some podcasts lined up for future drives.
The second part of the commute is the subway ride, which is about 40 minutes each way. Here, I often read non-fiction books (the topics range from social science to business to self improvement). But I also keep my app phone synced with TED Talks and long articles or essays.
I arrive at work at around 11:00am but stick around until nearly 8:00pm to get stuff done (sometimes I don’t get as much done as I’d like and I’ll let it overflow to a weekend with spare time – it all evens out eventually).
Next comes the fun evening activity. Depending on the night of the week, it’s either roller blading (10-30 miles around the city), capoeira, indoor rock climbing, or karate. I get home somewhere between 11pm and 1am, which allows me just enough time to have something to eat and get a decent amount of sleep.
Weekends are for all the things I’m usually unable to cover during the week. This means seeing family and friends, doing cleanup and laundry, replying to personal emails (which includes looking through articles and videos sent by friends). Weekends also serve for more special activities, from going out on mountain biking trips to writing these blog posts (I typically draft several of these articles at a time when my mind is feeling the zen of writing). Oh, and there’s an awesome capoeira class every Saturday night. Weekends also serve as sort of an overflow buffer. Since I’m running on the margins during the weekdays, I’ll sometimes have a little bit of sleep to catch up on or maybe a project at work that I obsessed with finishing since it’s ready in my head.
It’s important to note that I’ve cut out some less than fully satisfying activities from my life. I don’t watch TV or play video games. For many years of my life, I was obsessed with both of these (in the case of the latter, it was practically my life). It’s not that I actively stopped either of these things. Rather, they just got pushed off the table as I became engaged in more and more interesting and fulfilling activities. Fortunately, it was a rather painless process. There are many timesinks in our media-centric culture – it’s essential to understand their pervasive opportunity cost.
Putting in the time to take care of oneself pays off in spades to avoid disasters and the resulting anguish and time loss. For example, I make sure to get plenty of sleep. The kinds of challenges I have at work are pretty mentally demanding so the day is a wash if my brain isn’t up to the task. Likewise, my body needs to recover to be ready to handle the next day’s physical activities – not getting enough sleep puts me at risk for injury. Likewise, by eating well, being physically active, and keeping social, I stave off illness (at the time of this writing, it’s been about 6 years since the last time I got properly sick).
It’s not my intention to gloat or show off with what I’ve said here (ok, maybe a little bit of the latter). I just want to point out that our daily or weekly lives can be full of all sorts of fun, productivity, healthfulness, and meaning. I grow disappointed when I hear someone say that they don’t have the time to read this book or try that new activity, or even worse, not take care of themselves. The true disappointment, however, is on the individual, because he or she will miss out on living an extraordinary life that spans into the everyday. Make the time, be awesome!
I’d like to tell you about my friend and skating brother, Ryan, an individual with seemingly superhuman powers. I first met Ryan in summer 2007 on Tuesday Night Skate, a group inline skating event where we fly through 20 miles of city streets each week. Needless to say, I was in the back of the pack that night, due to my limited experience with such distances and my low performance skates. But Ryan held the front with ease, despite wearing hockey skates with tiny wheels (these offer great maneuverability at the cost of top speed and momentum). He clearly had an incredible athletic ability; the extent of it is simply unreal.
For example, a few years ago, Ryan spontaneously entered a skating race. He wore his hockey skates as always and his attire consisted of a t-shirt of board shorts. Most everyone around him, speed skaters with racing level skates, was wearing spandex. Come the end of the race, Ryan placed fourth, beating out many folks that spend countless hours to be in tip-top racing form. This goes beyond skating. In the past year or two, Ryan participated in a bunch of running marathons and triathlons, seemingly just for kicks and to stay in better shape. He doesn’t train for these things. Despite this, he regularly beats out most of the competition, and sometimes wins outright.
How is it possible that he’s able to do this? Perhaps cause he’s young (a couple of years younger than I am), but even then, he’s quite unique among his peers. I’ve met many incredible individuals of all ages and while some have truly amazing athletic ability, none seem to be in the class Ryan sits in. Many folks claim that Ryan is simply innately talented – that he was born with superhuman abilities. I find this answer demeaning, to both Ryan and the claimer, and I’ll explain why below. If we step back and look at the big picture of Ryan’s life, we see the source of his talents.
Ryan is driven for self-improvement and to better the world, learning at every opportunity. He sits front row center in his college classes, showing great interest in what his professors have to say (likewise, he connects with his professors to learn beyond the course material). His skating technique has changed over the years – it’s clear he always works to improve that. By the same token, Ryan shows great consideration outside of himself. One, he’s very friendly – it’s difficult for me to imagine a [sane] person that wouldn’t like this guy. There’s a strong aura about him. Two, he truly wants to better our world and does every bit to push for this, no matter how small. For example, he doesn’t waste a morsel of food and picks up litter in state parks. Three, he’s idealistic yet also down to earth. Like when he discusses ways to improve the grim condition of our planet, something he’s very passionate about, he speaks with such positivity while being completely aware of the true picture.
All or Nothing
Ryan is often pretty relaxed and easygoing – except when he’s not. When he does any physical activity, it’s full blast. When riding around campus, whether on skates or a bike, he always goes top speed. Although these trips are short, it does mean that Ryan’s muscles only understand one way react – 100%. Likewise, Ryan cranks it beyond our skating trips – he insists on doing a thorough job on any assignment whether for school or for work.
Connected to Nature
Ryan is quite in tune with nature. He has spent time in the Amazon, the villages of Peru, and the Andes. Likewise he’s worked summers in the Everglades and in Yosemite. He presently manages a nature preserve. Perhaps you’d think that Ryan is just a Tarzan type figure, but then there’s the fact that Ryan grew up in New York City and that this life surrounded by nature has been the case for only the past five years.
Disconnected from Distraction
Ryan stays away from many things that inject into our modern lives, particularly certain technologies. He spends little time using electronics (though does show curiosity in my gadgets, probably for the sake of learning). He does use email, but only as he needs it. He doesn’t use Facebook. And while Ryan does have a cell phone, you’d be lucky to get a hold of him on it. Likewise, Ryan doesn’t fixate on possessions or our modern standard of comfort. It is all about the experience for him – which means he doesn’t mind beat up gear. He makes it work, and it’s clear that he’s mindful about using technology.
I consider this the most important factor. If there was someone that perfectly fit the ideals I put forth to live well, it’s Ryan. His eating habits are fantastic. His diet is mostly vegetarian, but by no means strict. It’s just that he loves fruits and vegetables, and often consumes them in a raw state. He’ll eat an apple, core and all, leaving just the stem. On his way to class, he’ll grab a zucchini or chunk of bread (whole grain, of course) and that’ll be his meal. Ryan doesn’t “exercise” but he’s more physically active than pretty much anyone you’d meet. Moving around is a core part of his life and not merely addendum to it. It helps immensely that he arranges his life around this: from biking around everywhere to digging up holes and such when at work at the nature preserve. Contrast this to most other folks, using cars or public transportation and sitting in offices all day (stuck inside and away from sunlight and fresh air). Moreover, Ryan has little unnecessary stress in his life. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t experience great stress, especially given his driven lifestyle. Still, this stress is self imposed and on his terms, so it likely bears few negative effects.
Perhaps the perspective is relative, but I don’t think Ryan is really superhuman. More precisely, I feel the rest of us are just subhuman. Put simply – Ryan is maxing out human potential in its most natural and evolved way. In light of everything I discussed, there’s no surprise that Ryan is such an incredible human with seemingly unreal athletic ability. Ryan’s entire life is arranged to make this so and it’s not unintentional. I give him much credit for living in this manner – it’s a very difficult thing to do in our modern society. But knowing what makes for a person like Ryan is inspiring, because it means we have a realistic opportunity to be so much more than we are right now. We can use his methods, many the same as those I discuss on this blog, to live up to the human potential. Until then, no matter how hard we train for those athletic events, be ready to be outclassed by Ryan. We don’t stand a chance.
In so many of my posts, I go on about all the evils of processed food and of all the terrible things it does to us. Today I’d like to discuss actual sound uses for processed food. Now before I go on, we should understand that the ability to process food is a technology, and one our society uses heavily. Processing often strips food of much of its nutritional quality. In doing this, the food’s shelf life and stability increase dramatically (interestingly though logically enough, this happens because the nutritionally deficient food doesn’t attract the bacteria and fungi that would otherwise cause it to go bad). This quality of “not going bad” is actually pretty handy in, let’s say, bringing food to unfortunate groups of people that would otherwise starve. In the choice between eating processed food, and eating nothing, one is clearly better off with the former from a health standpoint.
I’m not entirely sure on the history of this but I believe processed food started out this way (do correct me if I’m wrong). It was used to reach people that were hungry and starving. Somewhere along the way, food manufacturers realized that they could cut their own costs by processing foods. Longer shelf life and less spoilage permitted a lot more leeway in the process of selling food and also in creating “new and exciting” products. Of course food companies passed on some of the savings to consumers and we took the bait. Cheaper food meant we could have more. In the US we went from spending 40% of our income on food to under 10% within the last century. Is the savings in money really worth the price in health?
As with any technology, we should consider the situations we use it in. Processing food is a great tool in reaching those that may not have anything otherwise. But it’s also a curse upon those who could be eating better and have to pay consequences in health instead.
Step 1: Eat more vegetables
That’s it, you’re done!
Vegetables rank very low when it comes to caloric density. But they rank up on top when it comes to health benefits. Surely you have all those fancy vitamins and antioxidants. But vegetables also help keep your digestive system (and the rest of your body) running smoothly with their high fiber content. So meals should be loaded with vegetables. And you can eat a lot without the extra burden of calories. Unfortunately, a lot of our meals (especially what you get when eating out) offer meager vegetable content at best. What can we do to change this reality? For one thing, we can order the food that does come with vegetables. Perhaps we can even request that veggie filled items be added to the menu. If enough people do this, then it’s surely in the interest of an establishment to do so. And if you’re cooking yourself, then toss some more veggies in there and add some life to the meal!
Oh my god! It has Omega-3! It must be healthy! Look at all the flax seed! Eat more fish! This whole omega-3 thing is a mess and an unexpected consequence of “broken” food. You’ve probably heard about how we’re supposed to have a not so disproportionate ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and yet we have way too much of the latter, hence creating a business friendly market for the former. Basically, you mostly get these two forms of fatty acids from more green foods for omega-3s and more grain foods for omega-6s. This effect is amplified by eating animal products because what the animals eat matters, A LOT. So much of our livestock, which is naturally inclined to eat greens (especially cows and chicken) are now on grain diets. Oops, factory farming has done it again!
Now you’ve definitely heard that you should eat fish (or fish oil) to get omega-3s and there’s a real simple reason fish are good for it: they eat greens (algae). Oh, except for factory farmed fish where, you guessed it, the omega-3 benefit has vanished. Double oops. The health consequences could be quite substantial. Basically omega-6s cause an inflammatory response in the body while omega-3s do the opposite. Theoretically, the body’s system becomes totally out of whack with an imbalance of fatty acids and we get all sorts of nasty problems, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer. And the opposite effect appears for omega-3s, which means food companies are trying to ride this health wave by cramming omega-3s into all sorts of food products. Whether there’s an actual health impact from this is questionable. A better approach, for the wary eater, is to try to keep things balanced. Vegetable oils, found in so many processed foods, are a big culprit (lots of omega-6s). As are factory farmed animal products, including dairy. I’m not saying it’s so bad to have omega-6s; it’s just bad to have so much of it relative to omega-3s. So do try to get more greens in the diet. It’s a big win since green foods (and I mean vegetables) have an incredible array of health benefits.
Is it in you?
Sorry Gatorade, you got the wrong guy. It’s all water here and it costs nearly nothing coming out of the faucet. I don’t need your high fructose corn syrup laden product to perform.
But soon we’re switching to natural sugar.
Sugar is sugar. See my earlier post here.
But what about the electrolytes?
Okay, so you have some potassium and chlorine ions in your product. I replenish my body with proper meals after activities.
But it makes you perform better!
Hmm, I thought my 10 hours of martial arts and 30 miles of skating, every week, fit the definition of performance. Perhaps we should check the dictionary.
Sports drinks are not only unnecessary, but are also processed products, and likely not good for your health. Save your money and your health – drink water. (Note: the above dialog is written by me but based on fact)
We’re in a seemingly positive health trend where high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become demonized. While it’s great to see that this highly processed crap is on its way out, it will make little difference on people’s health. It comes down to a simple point: sugar is sugar. While high fructose corn syrup is especially processed, its key evil is that it’s an added sugar. Although food companies are ridding their products of HFCS, they’re simply substituting in other forms of sugar. And the fact remains that any sort of added sugar is processed and is pretty harmful to our health. Cane sugar, brown rice syrup, organic sugar, it’s all junk.
The particularly insidious, and dangerous, part is that we are misled to believe otherwise. We’re led to think that if a product doesn’t have HFCS (as so many products now tout on their labels) or is made from some form of organic sugar, it must be okay to have. This is not the case. So take extra care to avoid such products. They are far more consequential on health than you might expect.
This doesn’t mean that all sugar is bad (though all processed sugar likely is). The sugar from whole fruit is okay to have because of all else that comes with it. Fruit is packed full of fiber, and that slows down (as in, regulates) the digestive process and thus allows sugar to be absorbed gently.
I hope that we all come to realize these facts, and instead of food companies playing off the HFCS witch hunt, they’d actually work towards something more meaningful for our health. But there’s no chance of this happening until we step up and express the desire for less processed food.
In an earlier post, I covered some all around good reads on eating well and food culture. In this post, we’ll focus more on actually practically eating better. Again, we have a book by Michael Pollan. Food Rules, an incredibly short read that you can finish in two hours, presents 64 simple rules to eating better. Most of them have a few paragraphs explaining the rule at hand. Anyone not exposed to Pollan’s mantra: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much” will be blown away by his simplistic, yet wholesome, approach to eating well. And as Pollan states, having just a handful of these anecdotes in your head is plenty to get you eating better. I’ve carefully looked through all the 64 rules and can’t disagree with a single one.
Another interesting, and very unique, book is Food Matters by NYT food writer Mark Bittman. In the first half of this book, Bittman shares his own story on how he began to eat better and the transformation it brought to his health. The story is very telling yet personal. The second half of his book is very special, because Bittman presents a detailed plan on achieving the goal of eating better. Literally. He includes four weeks of daily meal suggestions. Even more incredible: the following 150+ pages are filled with recipes of the very meals he suggests in the meal plans. You’d be hard pressed to find a better all-in-one guide that combines information about the food culture, a real story on the tremendous impact of eating better, and the tools to help you make the same transformation. If you like Bittman’s recipes, he’s got a ton more in his How to Cook Everything books.
Enjoy the reads, guys. They really get down and dirty with eating better. And if you have your own suggestions, surely let me know.