“We’d Be Better Served Watching the Carb Content of the Diet Rather than How Much We Eat and Exercise.”

Habits interview: Gary Taubes.

I’m so pleased to be posting this interview with Gary Taubes, because it’s no exaggeration to say that his work has had more practical influence on my day-to-day habits than probably any other writer.

In Better Than Before, I describe the multiple strategies we can use to change our habits. One of the most powerful, but also one of the most mysterious and unpredictable strategies, is the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.

When the lightning bolt hits you, you’re so moved by a new idea or belief that your habits change, overnight. Instantly, effortlessly.

I was hit by a lightning bolt when I read Gary’s book, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, in March 2012, when my eating habits changed dramatically. Just a few days ago, I described the lightning bolt in a short video. (Some of you may be a bit tired of this subject, but I wanted to explain the strategy before I posted Gary’s interview. Next week, different topics.)

It’s interesting — I was hit by this Lightning Bolt, and my habits changed. Another habits strategy is the Strategy of Other People; we often pick up habits from other people. My habit changed, and my father picked up that habit change, through me. He’s a Questioner, and as he weighed the book’s arguments and tested its principles on himself, he became persuaded gradually. Now he’s as much of a convert as I am. We got to similar habits through different routes.

It’s important to be aware of the forces that can affect our habits, for better and for worse, because when we understand what’s happening, we can direct it.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Gary: This one’s easy, but counter-intuitive: that the conventional wisdom on why we get fat or fatter is both foolish and wrong. Ever since the 1950s, nutritionists and obesity researchers have insisted we get fat merely because we take in more calories than we expend and all we have to know about the effect of foods on our weight is how many calories they contain. What I now realize is that this is like having a theory of wealth management or investing that says people get rich because they make more money than they spend, or that the only thing you have to know about an investment strategy is that it makes more money than it loses. If your financial advisor told you this was the secret formula to how they were going to invest your pension plan, you’d fire him or her in a second. And yet this is the way we’re supposed to think about obesity and the way the authorities do. What I suggested in my books is what pre-WW2 European researchers had come to believe: that obesity is a hormonal/regulatory disorder and that foods influence our weight not because of their caloric content (although that’s obviously one way to measure quantity) but because of their effects on the hormones and enzymes that regulate fat accumulation in our fat tissue and whether or not we burn that fat for fuel. If you think about it from this perspective, then the focus becomes on the carbohydrates in our diet, because carbohydrates drive up secretion of the hormone insulin which in turn tells our fat cells to store fat and our lean cells not to burn it. So just by thinking of obesity as a biological problem rather than a mathematical or physics problem, you end up with a conclusion that maybe we’d be better served watching the carbohydrate content of the diet rather than how much we eat and exercise.

 What aspects of eating habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

If it’s true that the way foods influence how fat we are — our adiposity — is by their effects on hormones, and specifically insulin (and leptin, as well, but that’s another, technical story), then any foods that drive up insulin and make us store calories as fat are also likely to make us hungry in the process. These foods will come to taste better than other, foods and these are the foods we’ll quickly come to crave. When we’re hungry or dieting, these are the foods on which we’ll end up binging. This is an idea that came out of school of science in the 1920s-30s known as physiological psychology and the idea is that our most pronounced behaviors are responses to underlying physiological states. The implication is that if you change the underlying physiology, you can change the behavior. So we can change food habits — how we eat, how much we eat, when we eat, when we snack, what we snack, etc. — by understanding that physiology and changing that. It’s not that this won’t require some willpower and restraint in the short term, but once we’ve got our physiology fixed and healthy, our eating habits will be healthier too.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Is it fair to say “everything?” Or rather anything that I might have thought I knew about forming healthy habits when I was 18 was as likely to be wrong as right. And even if it was right, it might have only pertained to the forming of healthy habits as an 18-year-old. Each age presents new challenges. Certainly as I get older, forming healthy habits is as much or more about unforming unhealthy habits first. At 18 I would have been more of a blank slate.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

For creativity and productivity, it’s making sure that my morning hours are reserved for writing — it’s the only time of day when I’m smart enough to write — and getting to my desk having already been thinking deeply about what it is I have to write that day. For health, it’s living by the lessons I learned researching my books (with the caveat, of course, that I turn out to be right and they serve me well). For leisure, let’s just say I have to work on that. I’ve always been a workaholic and have never managed to hit a healthy balance of  leisure time with work time. I was writing articles about burn-out when I was in my 20s. Now that I’m in my late fifties, I could write an encyclopedia on the subject if I wasn’t too burnt out to do it. I have to work on the leisure thing.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Well, let’s see. I used to be a smoker and now I’m not. It was an endless battle, capped by using nicotine gum in my early 40s to finally quit. Then I chewed the nicorette gum for a decade. Recently I quit drinking caffeine. I titrated down over the course of a summer — buying one pound bags of coffee from my local Peets that were first 80 percent caffeinated, 20 percent decaf, then 60/40, then 40/60, then 20/80 and finally all decaf. Then I gave up the decaf. This was last summer. I was off caffeine and coffee entirely by last August. It was as hard as quitting smoking, although in a different way. I never thought of caffeine as anti-depressant until I found out how depressing mornings could be without that first cup of hot coffee waiting for you. Now that I have to write a book, though, and it happens to be almost two years over due, I will probably go back to the coffee or at least caffeine to get it done.  I may even start chewing nicorettes again, with the expectation that I’ll quit both — again — when the book is done. I also gave up fattening carbohydrates about a dozen years ago, first as an experiment and then, when I saw the obvious benefits, as a lifestyle. That’s one healthy habit I’ll keep for the duration.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Definitely a Questioner. Although doesn’t everyone or at least most people think the same?

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

When you’re a person who doesn’t eat sweets, baked goods or starchy vegetables, as I am, dinner parties are an always an adventure. I try not to be a zealot in any way and will eat anything, but it’s a challenge. Moreover these foods can be a little bit like drugs — the sweets, especially — and so the more we eat them, or at least the more I eat them, the more I want to eat them. So my wife will order a dessert; she’ll take one bite and leave the rest. I’ll take one bite because, well, it’s there, and then have to struggle mightily not to eat the rest, and then everyone else’s left over desert as well. It’s the way I am and the way I’ve been for a long time. When I was young I was like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercial. Remember? Give it to Mikey, he’ll eat anything. Of course, when I was young I could eat anything (and usually did). As I got older I found I couldn’t, or at least not without my waistline expanding. Now I find it easier to avoid sweets entirely than to try to eat them in moderation. But dinner parties and restaurants always challenge that decision. [I describe this as the abstainer/moderator distinction.]

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.? [I ask because reading Why We Get Fat hit me like a lightning bolt.]

When I was turning fifty, I got a life insurance exam which included being weighed. Lo and behold, I appeared to weigh 240 pounds. This was about fifteen pounds heavier than I expected. Now I’m supposed to understand the diet weight control thing, and if I’ve gained fifteen pounds that’s a bad sign. Right? So I started thinking about what could have happened. As I may have mentioned, or should have, I was a caffeine addict. I would have a cup of coffee by my side, at my desk, all day long, and I drank that coffee with cream. One thing I could never understand was why I had to have the coffee at my desk, all day long, even at those periods that I was drinking decaf? Was it the dregs of caffeine in the decaf, or something else — the cream? — that caused the craving? So I did some research, found out that some people  over-secrete insulin response to dairy — even cream — and thought that might explain it. I switched to drinking black coffee, which was easier than I expected. A testament to the addictive power of caffeine. It took me only three days to actually like black coffee. The 15 pounds went a way in six weeks, along with another five for good measure. I’ve been a healthy 220 ever since. (I’m 6’2″ and so this is my healthy weight.)

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I try to embrace the good ones, obviously. But I realize that I’m disorganized and could definitely use some habits to help me be better organized. I suppose I resist those on the basis that I don’t have time to learn them. But if I did learn them, I’d have more time. I’m working on this.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Yes. Other than the obvious — my wife, my two boys, my best friend Marion and my partner/boss, Peter Attia — I have an older cousin who lives in Hawaii and was an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. When I was living in Hawaii between my junior and senior years in college, he gave me a lecture about not working hard enough. He said things came easy to me and so I coasted and was willing to settle for what came easy as good enough. I took his lecture to heart and changed my work habits and my goals. I owe him for that.

Does Your Sweetheart Drive You Nuts with the Very Qualities that Attracted You?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: Are you driven nuts by the very qualities that drew you to your sweetheart?

A few days ago, I read Elizabeth Bernstein’s Wall Street Journal piece, How to cope when you and your partner are falling out of love.

It discusses the idea of “fatal attraction” — that the traits that drew you toward your sweetheart now drive you nuts. Often, we’re drawn to a quality in someone else because we somehow lack or desire that quality in ourselves — but then that very quality turns out to be a point of tension. An introverted person might be attracted to someone’s more outgoing nature, but then get tired of their constant desire to be sociable.

Bernstein cites the research of Dr. Diane Felmlee, a sociology professor at Penn State University, who has identified give situations in which this “fatal attraction” patterns emerges (I love these names):

Time Will Tell — you’re drawn to someone who’s putting best foot forward. You don’t see the downsides to a trait until later.

Sour Grapes — you’re in a tough relationship so you’re trying to distance yourself from your partner, by recasting traits as negative.

Rose-Colored Glasses — you’re attracted to a positive quality, but suspect there’s a downside — yet ignore it until it’s not possible to overlook it anymore

People Pleasing — a partner turns a positive trait into a negative trait, by laying it on too thick

Familiarity Breeds Contempt — there’s no change. You just get annoyed.

I can give an example from my own experience, though I’m not sure it fits squarely into these five categories. I’d call it the category of “Every upside has a downside.”

I’m an Upholder, and one disadvantage of being an Upholder is that I too readily meet expectations. It’s hard for me to know I’m “supposed” to do something, and then choose not to do it.

My husband is a Questioner. He has no trouble ignoring an expectation if he thinks it doesn’t make sense. I’m sure this is one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place.

In many situations, his Questioner nature is helpful to me. I often ask him, “I’m supposed to do X. Do you think I have to do it?” Or sometimes I just think to myself, “What would he do in this situation?” His Questioning provides a very healthy counter-balance to my Tendency. I admire this aspect of his nature.

But at the same time, his Questioner Tendency drives me crazy. I’ll say, “Would you do X?” and he won’t do it just because I ask him to. He’s funny that way.

Until I understood (or rather, invented) the Four Tendencies, I didn’t understand this dynamic. Now that I understand why we each of us behaves the way we do, and why his behavior really is helpful in many situations, I behave with much more patience. Well, I think I do. Maybe I should ask him if I’m acting with more patience. I feel more patient.

How about you? Do you recognize any of these patterns in your own relationships?

Video: For Habits, the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt. Ah, this is one of my favorite strategies.

Discussions of habit-change often emphasize the importance of repeating an action, over and over, until it becomes automatic, and such repetition does indeed help to form habits. However, it’s also true that sometimes we’re hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits. We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a longstanding habit. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt takes its power from knowledge, beliefs, and ideas.

The Lightning Bolt is a highly effective strategy, but unfortunately, it’s rare, and practically impossible to invoke on command. Which can be frustrating, because it often makes change so easy.

Something, whether positive or negative—a panic attack (here’s one person’s story), pregnancy, a documentary, a diagnosis, an anniversary, hitting bottom, a birthday, an accident, a midlife crisis, even a conversation with a stranger—can trigger a Lightning Bolt, because we’re smacked with some new idea that jolts us into change.

 

As I explain in the video, I was hit by a Lightning Bolt in March 2012 when I read Gary Taubes’s book, Why We Get Fat. I was so persuaded by his arguments about nutrition that my eating habits changed, for the better, overnight. No small steps, no gradual change, no looking back — bam.

Have you ever been hit by the Lightning Bolt, and found that your habits changed? I’ve been surprised, as I’ve been writing Better Than Before, to discover that this happens more often than you might expect.

How the Strategy of Scheduling Helped Me Make a Habit.

In my study of habits, I’ve identified many strategies that we can use to make or break our habits.

The Strategy of Scheduling, of setting a specific, regular time for an activity to recur, is one of the most familiar and powerful strategies of habit-formation—and it’s one of my personal favorites.

For most people, and certainly for me, there’s a kind of magic about seeing an item actually appear on a schedule. Scheduling makes us far more likely to convert an activity into a habit (well, except for Rebels), so, for that reason, I schedule even some slightly ridiculous habits, such as “Kiss my husband every morning and every night.”

One of my most helpful Secrets of Adulthood for Habits is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

However, while I want many of my habits to happen daily, or almost daily, there are other habits that I want to follow just once a week.

Many of my habits revolve around trying to read more. Reading is my favorite thing to do, and it’s also essential to my work, yet I still have to work on reading more and reading more widely.

This is one of the most surprising thing about habits — at least to me. I understand why we find it tough to make habits to do something that we don’t want to do, but why is it often so hard to make a habit to do something we do want to do? That we love to do? (One of the big themes of Better Than Before is how to make habits that allow us to do more things we enjoy.)

In my case, I made a habit to get me to do more of something that I both like and dislike to do. I used the Strategy of Scheduling.

I’ve acquired a large pile of books that look fascinating — but also demanding and dense and perhaps a bit boring. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Plutarch’s Lives, and Victoria Newhouse’s Art and the Power of Placement were at the top of the stack. I needed to schedule a specific time for this kind of reading. It wasn’t work reading, for which I always make time, and it wasn’t pleasure reading, for which I make as much time as possible…it was study.

I decided to add thirty minutes of Study Reading to my weekend, to tackle those books. I can read more than thirty minutes, if I want, but I can also stop at thirty. That’s another Secrets of Adulthood for Habits: To keep going, sometimes I have to allow myself to stop.

I became a little discouraged when it took me a month to plow through Understanding Media. Should I abandon this habit? Then I realized—well, I wasn’t reading the McLuhan very fast, but it was faster than I’d been reading it for the past two years, when it sat untouched on my bedroom nightstand.

For more tips on reading more, check here. If you want to hear when Better Than Before hits the shelves, sign up here.

How does the Strategy of Scheduling work for you? Do you find, like me, that just seeing something “on the schedule” makes it much more likely to get done?

Revealed! Book Club Choices for August. Happy Reading.

Yes, I said I was on vacation this week, but I forgot that it was time for the book club suggestions. So here I am, live from Kansas City, for a single post.

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

I’ll post these recommendations here, or to make sure you don’t miss them, sign up for the monthly Book Club newsletter.

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’m considering whether to change this, but I haven’t so far, for two reasons:

I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds. I assure you: when I choose these books, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

Also, one of the secrets of reading lots of books is making time to read. It would take me a lot of time and mental energy to do justice to the terrific books I choose, yet at the same time, with a single click, there’s a huge amount of information available about the book choices. So I’ve figured that I could let readers avail themselves of that option.  But I’m pondering whether I should do it differently. (By the way, here are more tips on getting more reading done.)

In the meantime, if you want a little more explanation of why I picked these books, I do provide slightly more context in the book club newsletter.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think? Crossing to Safety; Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH; and Fight Club. All so good.