How Not to Become the Healthiest Person Alive

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In Drop Dead Healthy, humorist and author AJ Jacobs set out to be the healthiest man alive - or else. A review and Q&A.

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At lunch in New York, AJ Jacobs orders hummus. It comes with pita bread, but he doesn't deign to eat something so fattening. He scarfs just the hummus, along with a garnish of lettuce.

Jacobs, 44, is the best-selling author and comedic writer for Esquire who has tried everything from "living biblically" for a year - dressing and behaving like the folks in the Old Testament - to reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and outsourcing his life to India. Now he has just released a book describing how he nearly killed himself trying to be the healthiest person alive.

Jacobs looks famished as I eat a hearty soup and salad. Still hungry myself, I point to his pita slices.

"Do you mind?" I ask.

"Not at all," he says with a tinge of regret, like he really wanted to eat them himself. He confides that as soon as his book tour is over and he no longer needs to look svelte for his appearances, he's going to go crazy with eating exactly what he wants to. "If I order humus, by God I'll eat the pita, too."

"That's crazy talk," I say.

He smiles slyly, a thin(ner), dark-haired man whose quest for self-testing (and self-promotion) is as shameless as it can be revealing. (And I know what I'm talking about, as a guy who set out to personally self-test a whole slew of new health technologies in my book Experimental Man).

Jacobs spent two years on this self-improvement odyssey, half mockingly and half seriously trying out virtually any healthy regimen and advice that came his way. This ranged from whatever Dr. Oz said on television to the latest studies on the health impact of chocolate, frequent orgasms, blueberries, counting sheep, marriage, and cell phones.

Like his previous books, Jacob's fixation does make an important point: that zealotry, whether in health, religion, or acquiring mindless facts, is not only ridiculous at times, it also can push people to go from the reasonable to the extreme - those that in the current project he refers to as "health fundamentalists."

At one point, Jacobs visits a couple who for years have semi-starved themselves on a "caloric restriction" diet in the belief it makes them healthier and will prolong their life.

Reducing calories to a nutritional minimum has increased the lifespans of mice, flies and worms, and may work on people. Yet as Jacobs points out, starving oneself to eke out a few more years seems not only surreal, but also doomed to failure for most of us. Jacob's effort to radically reduce his calories lasted only one day.

Over time, however, Jacob's healthy living sheared off 15.5 pounds and shrank his waist from 35 inches to 32 inches - not bad for a 5'11" man over 40 years old.

Jacobs never preaches, which is good. Nor does he judge, preferring to make his points about the sublime and the ridiculous through a good-natured humor. Personally, I would have liked more bite about the flimflam science and the quasi-religious diets and crusades that he encountered - those infomercials that promise to make us young again, and the ads that guarantee we will lose 50 pounds in just 8 weeks!

Jacobs largely avoids this seamier side of the healthiness industry, preferring health-remedies that have at least a slim basis in science.

Munching on his pita, feeling only a little bit guilty, I ask Jacobs some questions, which I recount below with his answers.

You look healthy. Do you have a six-pack under that shirt?

I don't even have a two-pack. I found a Harvard medical school researcher who said that having abs is actually bad for you.

I'll go with that.

I think most people will. Except for those who have the six-packs.

Why did you attempt to be the healthiest man in the world?

Part of it is I want to be there for my kids. I want to be healthy so that I'm around for them. Also, it is so confusing to the layperson what actually is healthy. I thought this would serve me well in the future, to know what is healthy and what is not.

Did you do this because you want to live forever?

I don't know if I want immortality. I told my wife that if I lived to say, 1,000, I could stay married to her for maybe 300 years, and then by the time I'm 5 or 600 I'm going to get a hot 200 year old. And there's also the existential problem. If you make a mistake in life, then it's going to be with you forever, that's it. I don't think I want to live forever. I would take a couple hundred years, and then say goodbye.

So enlighten us. What have you discovered about being healthy?

Well, gosh. One of the things that struck me is that most of being healthy is really basic stuff - eating whole foods, exercising, not sitting, sleeping, and not being angry, depressed, or stressed out. But how do we actually make ourselves do that? I came up with some strategies for how to make myself behave in a healthier manner. Almost treating myself like a lab rat. And one of them is the quantification. The more you quantify, the healthier you're going to act.

Like the steps you take each day, which you measure with a pedometer - which you have on right now?

Yeah, I'm not doing bad today. 7400 steps.

Are you still walking more steps that your wife?

Yes, I am. Partly because I work on a treadmill. I've set up a desk right there on the treadmill. That's one of the biggest changes I've made to my lifestyle.

You write in this humorous way. But is this really funny?

I think you can be entertaining and talk about health at the same time. Otherwise you're going to lose your audience, and that's not healthy. That's the problem, I think, with a lot of the talk about "eat your vegetables," people just tune out.

It's a fine line as a writer, though. You're talking to people who take it very seriously. You bump up against using satire sometimes, but you don't really go there.

I think that when I wrote the book about the Bible and met with all those religious fundamentalists and various religious sects, that that was great training. I thought it was too easy to go in and make fun of religion. To paraphrase P.J. O'Rourke, it's like shooting cows with an AK-47. So I tried to take it seriously and go in with a completely open mind, but also have some humor to it.

But you do in a nice-humor way go after some people's fervently held beliefs about their diet or remedy.

I think that I will get flack from a few people, because whatever you say about health, there are going to be some who are on a crusade, who think this is similar to religion. There are the anti-vaccine people, and I come out in favor of vaccines over all. Then there's the idea of statins. There are some anti-statins people.

The government, too, sometimes makes claims for health that later turn out to be untrue, or more complicated.

There needs to be more admission by authorities that we don't really know the answers in many cases where nutrition is concerned, and what's good for you, or not. We should have a more agnostic approach, saying: here are the benefits, here are the potential costs - as opposed to saying everyone should be on statins. Or everyone should be taking aspirin. For me, the one-size fits all medicine is just not going to work.

How do you deal with all the contradictions and uncertainty?

It's hard. You read that turmeric is a wonderful spice and you should be eating it with everything because it's an enhancer. And then the next day you read, oh, they found high levels of lead in turmeric. Don't eat it. I have a few reactions. One is that yes, there is a lot of confusion. Just like in the Bible, there's much contradiction and you have to figure it out. But I don't want to overstate the contradiction. There are plenty of things we know that have a mountain of evidence to support them. Like exercise is good. Believe me, I looked for evidence that exercise is not good, because I was desperate not to exercise.

Health should be like choosing a movie. I don't just choose based on one reviewer. I go on Rotten Tomatoes and it's got to be above 80% or 90% of reviewers liking the movie. And that's the way I feel about health. You've got to make sure that it's in the 80 or 90% range.

Did you test your DNA?

I did a test at 23andme. Luckily, thank God, they found nothing serious that I have, yet. I didn't spend time with genome testing because I don't think you can learn much yet. But I am thankful because my wife got her DNA tested, and there were no big problems there, either. So I'm not going to divorce her.

Did you go down the vitamin and supplement route at all?

Very little, because I think there's so little science on it.

So what do you say to the healtherati on your book tour that might not care about the science if they think their miracle herb works?

This was one of the most surprising things to me - how many people buy into stuff that has absolutely no scientific backing whatsoever. I talk in the introduction about the caveman practice of trepanning, where you drill a hole in the head to let out the evil spirits. There are modern day advocates for trepanning. You can go on the Internet and find the Trepanning Society. It's unbelievable!

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David Ewing Duncan is a journalist in San Francisco. He is also a television, radio, and film producer, and he has written eight books. His most recent e-book is entitled When I’m 164: The Science of Radical Life Extension, and What Happens If It Succeeds. More

Duncan's previous books include Experimental Man: What one man's body reveals about his future, your health, and our toxic world. He is a correspondent for Atlantic.com and the Chief Correspondent of public radio's Biotech Nation, broadcast on NPR Talk. He has been a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition, and a contributing editor for Wired, Discover and Conde Nast Portfolio. David has written for The New York Times, Fortune, National Geographic, Harper's, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He is a former special correspondent and producer for ABC Nightline, and correspondent for NOVA's ScienceNOW! He has won numerous awards including the Magazine Story of the Year from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His articles have twice been cited in nominations for National Magazine Awards, and his work has appeared twice in The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He is the founding director of the Center of Life Science Policy at UC Berkeley, and a founder of the BioAgenda Institute. His website is www.davidewingduncan.com

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