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.