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.

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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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