When I came to appreciate how complex systems work, it enabled me to take a more dispassionate and sympathetic look at the myriad of problems and predicaments facing us. The downside of this was the realization that predicaments can’t be fixed, period, no matter how brilliantly designed, elegant and popular our ‘solutions’ might appear. The best one can do is to learn, probe, experiment and adapt. The upside is that I no longer waste energy hoping and striving for what is beyond my personal, and our collective, control, and no longer feel motivated to assign blame to anyone for the situation — fixing blame is a very human first step in any process leading to a ‘solution’, and when it’s acknowledged that there is no ‘solution’, there is no point in looking for who was to blame.
This is the approach I have brought in recent years to self-management — learning and becoming more aware of what’s happening inside me, physically, intellectually, emotionally and instinctively, so that I am less reactive and so that my actions are better informed than they used to be, and hence probably more useful to others, and to me.
My health self-management journey began in 2006 when I contracted a horrible case of ulcerative colitis as a consequence of my body’s inability to cope with massive chronic stress. At that point I didn’t really understand complexity (I was still, foolishly, bound and determined to reduce the amount of stress in my life, and you probably know how that usually turns out). But nevertheless I, perhaps intuitively, used the only viable approach to dealing with complex systems — learn, probe, experiment, adapt. Through regression analysis I was able to identify precisely which therapies improved my health and which didn’t, and I adapted my lifestyle, as much as possible, to go with what made me healthier. I’ve now been symptom-free for 11 years.
Seven years ago I made the decision to go vegan instead of ‘just’ vegetarian, and again closely monitored my health (I have decades of data on my daily feeling of wellbeing, plus my times for my regular 5k and 10k runs and 3-hour hikes, so I know when my health is off), and have been healthier than I have ever been.
This year I discovered (thanks to friend Mat Hallam-Eames) the non-profit website NutritionFacts.org, which provides a wealth of clinical research and other factual evidence on the connection between nutrition and health (the doctor’s suggested “daily dozen” foods/activities are shown in the graphic above). The evidence suggests that for most (not all) people, a balanced whole plant based diet is healthiest. That means vegan, but more importantly it means weaning yourself off processed foods, especially sugars and oils.
For me, dependent as I was on coconut milk, stevia, Earth Balance (“hippie margarine”), veggie burgers, vegan desserts, frozen convenience foods, and frying in oil, trying to eat even healthier and fulfil the “daily dozen” has proven to be harder than either going vegetarian or going vegan. I have a long way to go — on a typical day, this dedicated vegan manages just 7 of the daily dozen, and that’s 3 more than I averaged just a few months ago. And I thought I was eating healthy!
And that brings me to the point of this article: We eat badly in part because we don’t know better, and in part because eating is both a social activity and a way in which we reward ourselves for coping through another day in this wonderful, terrible, stressful, fucked-up world.
It is easy to blame the pharmaceutical industry, which tells us the way to get better is to take pills instead of preventing ourselves from getting ill in the first place by eating what our bodies are designed to eat. But nutrition is not their bailiwick; their job is to make pills that will make you less ill if you don’t look after your own health.
It is easy to blame doctors, who fail to tell us how vitally important nutrition is to our health, and hence allow us to get sick so they can do what they see their job as being — healing you. But they get almost no training in nutrition in their medical program, which is already exhausting. And because there is no money in research that tells you eating a balanced whole plant food diet will prevent and alleviate many chronic illnesses far better than expensive drugs and endless therapies, there is too little research done, and what is done is not enough to get doctors’ attention (or the media’s, or teachers’, or parents’, or for that matter even nutritionists’ or dieticians’). So everyone is in the dark, when the apparent path to a considerably longer and much healthier life is staring us in the face.
It is easy to blame the processed food and fast food industries, who feed us crap that is bad for us. But they’re giving us what we want — food that tastes good (at least what our taste buds have been conditioned to appreciate as ‘good’), and that is cheap and easy when many are working two jobs and have no time left to cook (or even to learn to cook). Same for the coffee shops, bars and liquor stores. Most people would, quite understandably, wrinkle their noses at the “daily dozen” above — a diet worse than death.
It’s easy to blame grocery stores, who operate on very thin margins and yet still do their best to accommodate the infinite variety of different choices customers demand. It’s not their fault the deli counter is crowded and the produce aisle is empty.
And it’s easy to blame advertisers, product labellers, factory farm operators, politicians who allow food producers to lie and hence endanger consumers’ health, and lawyers who enable them to get away with it. Our economic system, which no one controls, ensures that these roles will continue to be filled even when some walk away when they learn the truth about the consequences of their work.
And of course it’s easy to blame ourselves: For not having will-power, for not managing our time enough to have the energy and to develop the knowledge and skill to make nutritious food delicious. And our parents for not knowing either, so they could pass on this knowledge. And our kids for refusing to eat the nutritious food we try to provide.
But that blame won’t stick either. We eat the foods we eat because we can’t help it. It’s not some kind of moral weakness that has us nibbling french fries and downing diet soft drinks and putting that extra spoonful of sugar in our coffee. It’s a physical and psychological addiction to flavours we have been conditioned all our lives to love, a coping mechanism to reward us for surviving another meeting or another day of stress and anguish and struggle, and a powerful social sharing with others that is as old as our species.
And all of these factors work together brilliantly to ensure that we continue to eat badly, even when we know the cost is to reduce, perhaps by as much as a third, the number of healthy days in our short lives, with the commensurate staggering cost to our mental health, the cost of health care, loss of productivity, and all the costs that flow from them.
This is a predicament. It has no ‘solution’. We are no sooner going to start eating healthy than we are going to reverse global warming. The best we can do is learn, probe, experiment and adapt.
That means becoming a bit more knowledgable and aware of how the food system, and our bodies, work, and what our bodies are telling us, and making small incremental changes that are not self-punishing. But who has the time, money, energy and opportunity to do even this? Very few people. But just as we might start an organic community garden or help decommission a dam or clean up a river or prevent our island from being logged, we can do a few personal, local things that are not too hard, and maybe even fun, that will make things a little better. The combined effect of what Adam Gopnik has called “a thousand small sanities” can add up, though not in ways we can hope to depend on or even anticipate.
Sometimes, it might seem like it’s hopeless, and therefore better not to know. Sometimes, just knowing, just being a little more aware of what is really happening, is enough.
. . . . .
Postscript: Here are the small, easy steps I’ve taken personally to eat just a little better. I mention them as an example of how to make significant improvements to nutrition and health (in my case, moving on average from 4 to 7 of the “daily dozen” each day) without having to change much, do anything I don’t like, or work hard. I don’t intend them as advice for others (every body is different):
- Make one of my meals every day a large bowl (or large smoothie glass) of at least 6 different chopped vegetables that I like, with a dip/dressing on the side, sprinkled with ground flax seeds and chopped nuts.
- Dish of sliced whole fruit once a day; berry/fruit smoothie 3 times a week.
- Two mugs of green tea a day, with non-GMO erythritol sweetener, non-GMO soy creamer and (first mug each day) 1/3 tsp turmeric.
- Listening to interesting podcasts or audiobooks while doing my hour/week core and upper body exercises; using my treadmill desk to multitask while doing my four hours/week aerobic exercises.