In January 2021, I gave the following talk for a group of people at Vector Media. The talk presents a three-part framework on the way to becoming what I call, “foodwise.” That is, having (1) the ability to understand which foods are actually healthy, (2) how to actually get yourself to do it, and then, (3) how to become the kind of person, who doesn’t need to “get yourself to do it” anymore.
The transcript is below.
For those who prefer the written form:
“We’re getting ready to colonize Mars,” neuroscientist Sam Harris recently said, “and yet, we still can’t agree on what would be healthy food to take on the trip.”
Is Harris right? Do we really not agree on what’s healthy?
Hey, I’m Justin, and for the next 15 minutes, I’ll relay to you what the last 15 years of study and self-experimentation has taught me about diet and behavior. If you’re having diet problems, you’re likely caught in one of three thorny issues. I call them: Knowing, Doing and Becoming.
Knowing is about figuring out what to eat. On the one hand, Harris has a point – I mean new diets every year, 9 milk alternatives at the supermarket. I mean, are eggs good or bad? It seems no one can agree. But this, as I’ll show, is an illusion, albeit a convincing one. The experts— the real ones— mostly agree on what’s healthy.
But even if we solve Harris’s “Martian Problem,” knowing what to eat and actually eating those foods, are two very different things. Sure, you may get pumped up after watching The Game Changers or What the Health, and swear off meat for a week. But try doing that for a year, or 50. Step 2, “Doing”—about figuring out how to get yourself to eat healthy consistently.
And, finally, Step 3, Becoming. Because, It isn’t about merely tricking yourself into Doing health; it’s about turning into the type of person who actually prefers the healthy choice.
I am not pitching a diet, here. What’s important is not which diet is best, but how to think best about diets. I’ve spent over a decade thinking about diet. I’ve read over 100 books on health and behavior, read scores of scientific papers, and taken courses on physiology, applied nutrition, and statistics, and then I applied them all to myself, trying out various diets and tactics, and measuring the results. Using this research and self experimentation, I’ll supply you practical tools you can use on the way to enduring health. On the way to— what I call—becoming foodwise.
We start with Knowing. How do we know what to eat? What foods are actually healthy?
To understand that, we have to seek out the right kind of experts.
Let’s get to it.
PART 1 – KNOW
From whom do you get your nutrition advice?
Let me list some options for you, and you tell me which people you recognize. I’ll split them into two groups.
Group 1– Barbara Schneeman, Walter Willet, Frank Hu? Anyone? Likely no.
Okay. How about Group 2? Dr. Atkins, Tim Ferriss, Dr. Oz, Gwenyth Paltrow, Tom Brady, Deepak Chopra.
Likely, you knew most of Group #2, and none of Group #1. From now on, we’ll call the no-names in Group #1 the Nerds, and the celebrities in Group #2 the Newsies. Understanding the difference is the key to Knowing.
The Newsies spread the nutritional news. They are not only famous diet writers and celebrity doctors, but our own doctors, trainers, and friends. They are expert communicators, excellent at getting information to us in a simple way we can understand. But they have a drawback, too. They don’t quite have the knowledge of Nerds.
Nerds are the people wearing white coats and carrying Bunsen burners. They’re the ones actually doing the research, teaching at universities, and running laboratories. Ideally, we would get our information straight from them, but they have their own problem—they’re insufferable. Ever read an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine? About as interesting as a dictionary, and as accessible as quantum physics.
So instead of tying to decipher the Nerds, we depend on the Newsies, who tend to warp the message. It’s like the childhood game Telephone. The first kid starts with one message, and, by the time it gets through 12 immature, wacky minds, it comes out as something completely different.
So how do we get both— the right information and understanding? The best path is to look for groups of experts working together— nutritional cyborg organizations where the Newsies report directly on Nerd findings.
Take popular diets, for instance. Every year there’s a new one— Paleo, Keto, Vegan. Which one is right?
Well, for the past decade the Nerds have been ranking these diets in terms of evidence-based health. And guess what they found? Of over 40 diets analyzed yearly, it’s the ones you’ve heard of that all rank in the bottom 20% in terms of health. On a positive note, the top-ranked diets—the DASH diet, the Flexitarian diet and the Mediterranean diet— basically share the same exact dietary elements.
But it’s not just diets. These foods are the same ones recommended by bodies like the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association, and even NASA. Same foods to eat, same foods to avoid.
Okay, so what are the foods?
Basically every credible, Nerd-backed organization suggests basing your diet on daily portions of fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, and nuts.
There’s a good way to capture this list visually. It’s called a traffic light.
Remember those old-school, two-bulb traffic lights? You know, green means go, red means stop.
Think of the consensus healthiest foods as the Green Light. Virtually as much as you want of fruits, veggies, whole grains.
There is also Nerd consensus on the least healthy foods. The same organizations all say to avoid: table sugar, processed snacks and grains, trans and saturated fat, and alcohol. These foods are represented by the Red Light.
Pretty simple then. Green means go; red means stop.
But you may have noticed there’s a lot of foods not mentioned at all. What do we do with those?
Here, even the Nerds can’t help us. I call this the Gray Area.
The Gray Area
Some experts recommend dairy; others do not. Some allow for moderate amounts of meat, while others don’t even mention it. Same for soy, wheat, eggs, oils, and wine. The research in this area is uncertain and Nerds are split. Large reviews of the science conclude: “We need more information.”
How do we approach the Gray Area? Be cautious, decide for yourself.
If we go back to the traffic light, we can complete the analogy. Most of the time, the traffic light is working fine. Green means go, Red means stop. But occasionally, the light goes off or starts to blink. In those cases, we need to be cautious, look both ways, decide for yourself when or if you move.
When it comes to Grays, you have three choices. You can (1) avoid them, 2) experiment or (3) take a chance.
By Avoid, I mean that you can abstain from these foods until the Nerds agree. If you want to experiment, choose one gray at a time, then eat it, and measure what happens to your body. This takes effort, but you’ll find what works for you faster. And the third option is to chance it. Just say to hell with it, and risk that a gray is not in fact a red.
The choice is up to you.
But it’s one thing to know what to do; it’s another to actually do it. For that, let’s get to Part II— Do.
Part II— Do
Okay, fruits and veggies are healthy and sugar isn’t. You might be thinking to yourself, “I already knew that.” That’s exactly the point.
We all know exercise is important. We know that getting 8 hours of sleep is better than 5. And we know we should call our mothers more. But do we get an hour on the treadmill each day, and 8 in bed each night? No. And, if you’re anything like me, then you probably haven’t called your mom in days. So how do we get ourselves to do what we know is right?
There’s a branch of social science dedicated to this very problem called behavioral science. What these Nerds noticed was that, even when we know the right thing to do, we have trouble doing it. On the bright side, by creating certain practices, we can correct for our unconscious errors. That’s what Doing is about.
I’ll share two of the most evidence-backed tactics. The first one has to do with creating a healthy environment.
Create A Healthy Environment: Google
In the early 2000s, Google wanted to improve the health of their workers. After exhausting a list of traditional options, it was one tiny, environmental tweak that led to startling results.
In previous years, unhealthy snacks like cookies lined the countertops in prominent places, while the healthy fruits and veggies were harder to see. The Google execs simply reversed this, placing the carrots, hummus and apples in large, eye-level bowls, while demoting the cookies and candy. What happened? Almost overnight, Google employees increased fruit and veggie consumption over 30%, decreasing unhealthy by the same margin.
Decades of science have proved this out. The key factor:
you eat what you see.
You can do the same thing as Google with your kitchen or office— your personal environment.
By “Seeing the Good” and “Hiding the Bad.” Promote fruits and veggies, relegate cookies and candy to the backstage. As they say, out of sight, out of stomach.
Get a Little Help From Your Friends: Penn Jilette
You might know Penn Jilette as the larger half of the magic duo, Penn and Teller. He’s sawed many an audience member in half, but his greatest trick was cutting himself in half. He lost 100 pounds in a matter of months. And kept it off. How did he do it? With a little help from his friends.
One of the strongest findings in behavioral research is that you are who you spend time with. Penn used this power to help turn his health around. He hired a diet coach, his wife supported him by cooking plant-powered meals, his friends joined him in his health quest.
To be foodwise, you should leverage the power of the people around you. If you live with someone, get them on board. If that isn’t possible, pay a coach to hold you accountable. If that isn’t possible, find a community—a group of people trying to get and stay healthy.
The bottomline: Find a way to share your health commitment with other people, and give them the authority to hold you accountable.
So now we know what to eat, and we have some tools to start doing it. But there’s one last problem to solve—How do we become the type of person who doesn’t need tricks. How do we Become Foodwise?
Part 3: Become
We all know those people who at one time or another have “done” health— maybe it was you. You made a resolution and ate salads and took spinning classes all winter, dropping 10, 20 lbs in the process. But then, something happened. You got married, you had a kid, you changed jobs, you moved, or, I don’t know—a pandemic hit. Now, you haven’t seen an kettlebell or a brussel sprout in months. How did you lose your healthy habit?
The trick to Doing is that you fool yourself into eating healthy. The employees at Google weren’t intent on eating healthy, “Big Brother” Google changed the environment. When you find a coach or community, what you’re really doing is finding someone to do the work you can’t. It’s all external.
This is fine while times are good. But, as many people saw over the course of 2020, when your stable environment is shaken, your hard-won habits tend to falter.
So what’s the answer? How do we become resilient to change? What do people who continue to be healthy—even in a pandemic—have in common?
What researchers find—in everything from diet to enduring artists and scientists, from businesses to empires—is that those who endure not only change their external environment, but also examine and overhaul their internal selves. It’s not about “getting” themselves to do health, it’s about becoming the types of people who prefer it.
With respect to diet, the two most important levers for Becoming are commitment and purpose.
Commit: Michelle Obama
Perhaps no one has done more to promote the idea of health in America than Michelle Obama. She’s turned the White House lawn into a produce producing garden, inviting school children there in order to spread the value of healthy eating.
But many don’t know that Michelle had her own health struggle—-and it hit an inflection point in 2005
She knew the value of exercise and diet, but with two young kids and an executive role at a major hospital, her healthy habits had faded. And she didn’t even notice it until problems sprung up between her and Barack, and they sought help. It took counseling and self-reflection to realize the problem: she was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. She was unhappy.
“This was my pivot point,” she wrote in her memoir. “For starters, I recommitted myself to being healthy.” Having children had drastically changed her routine. And that breakneck routine led to her dejection. Now, she would have to adjust in a big way. She would need to commit.
She didn’t do it alone. Like Penn Jilette, she got help— scheduling a trainer for 5 AM workouts and having a friend meet her. Her loving mother watched the kids.
But what’s crucial—-what started it all, what we all need to do to become Foodwise–is that she first made that commitment to herself.
“This new regiment changed everything. Calmness and strength, two things I feared I was losing, were now back.”
Michelle Obama made a commitment. But she also had something else we need to become foodwise—she had a purpose.
Know Why: Simon Cowel
In 2017, producer, Simon Cowel, was rushed to the hospital. Due to heart issues, Cowel had passed out while walking down the stairs, suffering a concussion. The doctor told him he had to change, or next time, the damage could be permanent. He recommended a plant-based diet—the opposite Cowel’s eating habits before the fall. Cowel made the change a day later, and hasn’t looked back.
How did he make such a major change without struggle? He found a purpose.
“It’s easier than you think.” Cowel said. “Because (my son) Eric is 5 right now and if I didn’t sort myself out physically, I wouldn’t be able to catch up.” Ultimately, he said, all he needs to do is think about his son, and the eating part takes care of itself.
This is purpose, and this is Becoming. Though all of us, in any given moment can be attracted to the Red Lights of croissants and pizzas, it’s not hard to abstain when we recall our reason why we want to be healthy— whether it’s your work, your partner, or, as in Cowel’s case, your kids. As Simon says, you have to know why you’re doing this, and you have to make that connection, over and over, especially when things get hard.
And this brings us full-circle.
Look —- many of us know we should eat healthy. But before we know it, we’re like Michelle Obama, running from one thing to the next, forgetting to nurture and prioritize the thing that makes it all possible —our personal health. And even when we make that commitment to health, it tends to be for a short-sighted, superficial purposes. And those reasons, research has shown, will not be enough when things get hard.
With that, allow me to conclude with the single most important insight I’ve gained with regard to diet over the last 10 years. And it’s about what diet is for.
Diet is perhaps the most underrated tool we have to improve our lives. And I mean beyond mere weight-loss or defense against disease. It’s about the immediate and long-term function of your brain. Eat a broccoli and blueberry salad instead of that slice of pizza at lunch and your focus and memory will be better, not in a decade, but by dinner. You’ll also be less anxious, less prone to sickness. You’ll feel more vital, yes, but it’s better than that. You’ll actually be more vital. A better version of yourself.
So what’s diet for? It’s for becoming the best you, to show up to the things you care about—your work, your friendships, and your family. I’m not saying that kale is more important than your kids; I’m saying that eating kale will give you the energy and emotional fortitude to be a better parent. And that’s what’s important.
Okay, that’s a lot. We Know, we can Do, and we can Become. But where to begin?
First, know. Go on Green Lights, limit the Reds, and with the Grays—make your own call.
Second, Do. Like Google, create a healthy environment, and like Penn Jilette, get a little help from your friends.
And third, decide what’s important to you. Like Michelle Obama recommit to your personal health, and like Simon, know why. Remember what healthy eating is really for. And reinforce it, over and over.
That’s how you become Foodwise.