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Q: I have read that both a meat-centric Paleo diet and a vegan diet—polar opposites, it seems—are healthy ways of eating. What’s the truth? — J. Ricks, Galveston, TX
A: The debate over the best way to eat is not going away. In fact, in just the past few years, it seems to be paralleling our national political debate—and not in a good way. Nutrition is getting ever more partisan—the raw-food people disagree with the Paleo people, who think the vegans are nuts, while the South Beach Diet enthusiasts take offense to the keto diet people, who think all the rest of us should be eating like they do. And the debate over exercise isn’t much better—interval training or conventional weights? CrossFit? Standard aerobics? Every day? Once a week? (Insert “scream” here!)
Calm down, people.
Every so often, it’s good to step back and take a “helicopter view” of a situation. We get so deeply into the minutiae and details of things that we frequently lose sight of the bigger picture. Though you wouldn’t know it from all the tribalism, there actually are a few things that we all can and do agree on. So for this column I’d like to offer what I consider the “7 Bipartisan Principles of Health,” habits that would be worth cultivating for absolutely everyone, no matter what diet or exercise program you follow.
What are the 7 best healthy habits you can adopt now?
1. Eat Real Food
By “real food,” I mean food that would go bad if you left it outside in the air for a couple days. Food that you could hunt, fish, gather, or pluck. When I say this at workshops, I inevitably get the question, “Does that include (fill in the blank)?” My answer is always the same: If you’re not sure if it’s real food, it’s probably not. There’s not much to wonder about with an apple, a berry, a nut, or a fish. If you have to think about it, it doesn’t make the cut. Sorry.
I happen to believe that the quality of the food we eat matters more than the proportion of carbs, fat, and protein. If you cut out the junk, it automatically reduces your carb intake. And if you get food quality right, you automatically improve your microbiome, which can improve everything else. You’re also less likely to have micronutrient deficiencies, which can lead to a host of other health issues.
Focus your diet on “real food” that you could hunt, fish, gather, or pluck.
Are there tons of ways to work out? You bet. Do they have their advantages and disadvantages? Yup. But in the bigger scheme of things, what matters is that we move our butts. I don’t care if it’s walking, golfing, climbing stairs, doing jumping jacks, belly-dancing, unicycling, juggling, or doing the Macarena.
And don’t confuse exercise for weight loss with exercise for fitness. A brisk daily walk won’t get you on the cover of Men’s Health or Shape, but it will grow new brain cells and reduce the risk for cancer, depression, diabetes, and heart disease.
3. Supplement Intelligently
I’m often asked if you really need supplements. I always answer, “No. You don’t need supplements; you also don’t need indoor plumbing. But why would you want to do without either of them?”
Supplements are just a high-tech way to deliver nutrients that your body needs. And many of those nutrients aren’t available in food (examples: alpha-lipoic acid and CoQ10 are notoriously difficult to get from food unless you eat a ton of organ meats).
I consider basic supplementation to include at least fish oil, magnesium, vitamin D, and probiotics. Beyond that, one size does not fit all, but some of my favorite add-ons include curcumin, resveratrol, vitamin K, and CoQ10.
Basic supplementation includes fish oil (pictured), magnesium, vitamin D and probiotics.
4. Manage Stress and Sleep
Stress is implicated in a host of health problems, from interfering with a good night’s sleep to bringing on an attack of a condition or disease (herpes, acne, alopecia). It can aggravate an existing illness, and it makes recovery from anything slower.
During a stress response, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are secreted. Blood pressure rises and heart rate increases. But all that happens whether you’re running from a lion or sitting in a traffic jam. And chronic stress can shorten your life in the long term.
That’s why managing stress in some productive way is crucial. There are a million ways to reduce daily stress, ranging from taking a walk to doing yoga. Don’t concern yourself with the best way to reduce stress—just do whatever lowers your heart rate and deepens your breathing, for at least a few minutes every day.
Worth noting: Not sleeping well is a major stressor, which is one of the reasons that good, healthy, restorative sleep is vital. Important metabolic operations happen during sleep, like the making of biochemicals, the parsing of neuronal circuits, and the release of hormones. Make sleep a priority. Keep the temperature down in your bedroom and the lights off, and never fall asleep with the TV on.
On some level, “like seeks like.” People who stay fit, care about their health, don’t smoke, and exercise regularly are likely to be surrounded with people who care about the same things. So choose your friends carefully!
But there’s more to it. When Dan Buettler researched the areas around the world with the greatest number of healthy 100-year olds, he made an astonishing finding. While there were a number of variations in these areas, there was one constant across all of them: social fabric. The people all had strong social relationships, ties that bound them to neighbors, friends, and family and that were an important part of their lives. There’s a reason why people in long-term relationships live longer. Relationships matter.
Ellen Langer is a psychologist at Harvard who has done some amazing studies on human behavior. In one, she went into a nursing home and gave half the residents a simple task: take care of a plant.
The results were remarkable. The plant caretakers had fewer doctor visits, got sick less often, and recovered from illness more quickly. And their blood pressure went down.
Langer showed that the very act of caring for something outside yourself, thus directing your energy away from obsessing over your own concerns, has significant health benefits. And doing it makes you feel a whole lot better in the process. As marriage and family therapist Esther Perel says, “The most powerful antidepressant is taking care of other people.”
So volunteer for a cause close to your heart, such as an animal shelter, soup kitchen, or retirement home, even if only for an hour or so a week. The benefits—not only to those whose lives you impact, but also to you—are priceless.
7. Keep your word
The seventh habit that I recommend sounds the weirdest, but may actually be the most important of all: Keep your word. Here’s why it matters.
Think for a minute of a friend you have who is always late. Like, always. And every time—every single time—he promises you that he’ll be on time. What do you do? Easy answer: you don’t believe him.
I would argue that we have become—to ourselves—very much like that friend who keeps breaking his promise. We promise ourselves we’ll eat better. We give our word that we’re going to stop smoking. We vow to keep our New Year’s resolutions (again).
So we stop believing ourselves, just like we stop believing the always-late friend.
This matters because words have power. (Even thoughts have power—there’s a whole science called psychoneuroimmunology that studies how our thoughts influence our immune system.) Imagine if every time you told yourself (or someone else) you were going to do something, you did it. Every time. Eventually, you would start really believing in yourself, and so would others. Being true to your word is the opposite of helplessness and victimhood. It’s claiming that wonderful quality that mental health professionals say is so important for well-being: agency. The sense that what we do matters, that we are the masters of our own fate.
So there you have it. I believe that these seven basics matter more than any of the details of specific diets or exercise programs. We could debate the minutiae of various plans and programs endlessly. But if you just adhere to these basics, you have a solid foundation for good health no matter what camp you’re in.