The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

Don’t Train Yourself Like a Dog

I agree that the animal element of human nature is a factor in everything we do

These days, there’s quite an emphasis on appreciating the animal side of human nature. We’re cautioned to respect the power of our lizard brain, and to consider how we respond to stimuli in an instinctual way. We should train ourselves like a dog to improve our habits, experts say.

I agree that the animal element of human nature is a factor in everything we do.

But sometimes, I think, we overlook the ways that people differ from animals.  People are powerfully moved by imagination, belief, and knowledge. They can consider the past and future. They can make changes in their behavior out of reason, in a way that animals can’t do.

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I had a recent experience like this. In March, I was intrigued by the title of Gary Taubes’s book, Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It, and when I flipped through it, I saw that Taubes writes a lot about insulin. Because my sister is a Type 1 diabetic, I’ve become very interested in insulin. So I read the book.

I finished the book in two days, and when I’d finished, I’d completely changed both my beliefs about the elements a healthy diet and my actual eating habits. I’d been thinking and eating one way for years—now, overnight, that was all changed.

Among other changes, though I wasn’t eating much sugar, relative to a lot of people, I gave up sugar altogether—and it wasn’t even hard. After what I read, and what I now believed, I didn’t want to eat sugar.

This sounds so difficult, but as an abstainer, and with this new knowledge, I found that it wasn’t difficult at all. In fact, it was easier just to give it up than to try to indulge at a low level. (Except ketchup. I still do eat ketchup.) I made other giant changes, as well.

Now, Taubes’s argument about “why we get fat” is controversial. Highly controversial. You may disagree! This controversy surprised me, because I thought that the basic elements of a healthy diet were more or less beyond question.  Such as “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.” I’d always wondered how this could be true, given that it seemed obviously contradicted by common experience, but I hadn’t known that it was seriously debated, or why.

The fact that there’s controversy about the make-up of a healthy diet is important. Compared to forty years ago, many more Americans are obese or have diabetes or other related health problems. (Then: 1 in 7 Americans obese, 4 million diabetic; now: 1 in 3 Americans obese, 20 million diabetic.) Why? What has changed in such a short time with such a huge result? This question is so critical, and it’s in dispute.

Therefore, I was very happy to see Gary Taubes and  Dr. Peter Attia launch a non-profit, the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI). Its purpose is to facilitate and fund research to resolve questions related to the relationship among diet, obesity, and chronic disease.

For people, ideas matter. If, based on what they assume is sound science, people believe that eating X or Y or Z is healthful, that belief is very likely to influence their behavior. So it’s important that the science shaping that behavior is accurate.

That’s what NuSI is going to tackle.

Through the magic of the internet, I connected with Gary Taubes and Peter Attia, and I’m thrilled to serve on the Board of Advisors for NuSI, to help spread the word about the work they’re doing, to use rigorous science to answer the simple, essential question:  What is a healthy diet?

How about you? Have you ever read a book, seen a movie, or had a conversation or experience that completely transformed your behavior? From talking to people I know,  this seems more common than you might think.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

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