Self-described experimental journalist A. J. Jacobs has done a few extraordinary things in the pursuit of self improvement: He read the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover to protect his slipping IQ, and then went on to try to improve his spiritual life by living by the bible, obeying hundreds of its ancient laws.
And now comes the third lag of his journey – chasing perfect health. Realizing he can’t take his health for granted after a bout of tropical pneumonia, Jacobs sets to change his ways and seek maximum health by any means available, and for a guy in New York City, these are many.
I enjoyed Jacobs’s previous books – he’s a very funny writer, and a joy to read, but I had expectations coming into this book. In his previous adventures Jacobs had a way of distilling years of self-experimentation and lots of thoughts, stories and information into just the essence – honing in on what’s really important. I wondered whether Drop Dead Healthy would leave me with the same kind of big-picture-but-let’s-enjoy-the-fine-details feel.
Jacobs interviews researchers and experts for his Health Project, reads many books, buys lots of equipment and takes us along to try what both the sane and the slightly crazy do in the name of health. Although he claims he had forgotten most of what he learned from his Britannica adventure, there are lots of know-it-all fun facts seeping through his writing, and these are a treat. Did you know that the Graham cracker was invented as a functional food, and designed to be bland, in order to empty a teen’s might of carnal desires (much like other foods with health promises, it doesn’t work), or that dolphins’ two brain hemispheres (halves) take turns resting, therefore dolphins can only be half asleep, or that we can blame Coco Chanel for skin cancer because she started the tan craze? Among the anecdotes I learned some great stuff: looking for an aphrodisiac to enhance his sex life (current understanding is that sex is healthy) he learns from Dr. Helen Fisher that there are only two true aphrodisiacs: testosterone and dopamine. Before you ask for a dopamine prescription, here’s your natural aphrodisiac: do something new and exhilarating with your partner. Novelty, excitement and thrill get dopamine flowing in the brain – try a vacation.
What to eat
As you can imagine, the pursuit of perfect health involves dealing with many contradictory and confusing diet plans.
Jacobs goes Raw. Two weeks of juicing and dehydrating fruits and veggies leave him light yet hungry (and flatulent) – even light-headed. He also can’t find lots of scientific support to the belief that undercooked triumphs cooked.
He goes caveman. The Paleo diet makes him feel full, but he finds science is skeptical about this diet plan’s effect on the heart, and about what our ancestors actually ate.
Going no-sugar for two weeks proves super hard but beneficial. Jacobs says he had “more energy, fewer aches and pains and better workouts.” But “I’m a weak man,” he concludes – no-sugar is just too hard. Instead, he decides to cut sweet-talk from his language, and replaces his usual pet name for his wife from Sweetie to Pumpkin.
And since no health quest is complete without a cleanse Jacobs enlists his wife, Julie – always the voice of reason in the narrative – to the adventure. Julie lasts all of 9 hours. A. J. completes the 3-day regimen; “waiting for an epiphany” he’s hungry, cranky and spacy. He’s also read the cleanse-debunking science -- nothing whatsoever to support a juice cleanse.
What Jacobs eats for the most part during Project Health is a sort of Mediterranean diet – a plant based diet recommended by the majority of scientists. The fact that it’s recommended by the majority of scientists doesn’t mean they can’t all be wrong, but it does make it a safer bet.
Distilled wisdom: Eat less, move more, relax!
So what does the guy who got to try almost everything keep when the project’s over? That is to me the extra bonus from this book. Sure, it’s a one-person experiment and has no statistical significance, but you can learn a lot from Jacobs’s two-year (and over) immersion project.
It’s a happy ending for Jacobs: 16 pounds lost, 2 belt sizes down, perfect lipid profile, lots of push-ups, and half the body fat.
I don’t want to spoil the book for you, so let me just say that Jacobs, like many others, sums health advice in 5 words: Eat less, move more, relax.
And he also heeds plenty of warnings against health overzealousness. Mortality makes a few appearances, some of them unexpected. One of the favorite pieces of advice Jacobs received during the project is from Steven Bratman, M. D.:
“Don’t be so obsessed with healthy food that you end up sitting alone in the corner eating organic kale and silently judging your friends.”
A healthy lifestyle is, many say, about moderation, moderation in all things, including the pursuit of health.