Over the course of my medical career, I have noticed an almost continuous procession of new diet and health fads that claim to be the "Holy Grail" of living a longer and healthier life. Some of them have been harmless, some foolish, and some downright dangerous. The frequency with which yesterday’s "miracle plan" becomes today’s "death wish" has left me with a skeptical eye towards the whole field.
Being somewhat of a "down-to-earth" kind of guy, I’ve always had a conservative, traditional view of lifestyle habits. Consequently, I’ve noticed that few of my ideas in this realm have changed over the years, despite a flurry of faddism. Sometimes the simplest and most level-headed advice is the type that stands the test of time
So, in that spirit, I offer my rules of healthy living:
Rule #1: Diet: Keep it Real
The human species evolved eating an omnivorous diet. Specifically, our ancestors exploited an astonishing variety of natural food sources which supplied the various nutrients necessary for health and survival.
Unfortunately, our contemporary eating habits have gotten away from this. First, many people have diets overloaded with one of the various food groups at the expense of the others. Second, modern food processing and preparation have added a variety of new substances into our diet which are not healthy and which have not been part of our biology over the eons of evolution. Neither situation is ideal.
Some new diets have returned to the principle that everything you eat should be a food that would have been readily identifiable by one of our primitive ancestors. In other words, if the food on your plate can be hunted or picked, then it is "real" and probably good for you. Meat, vegetables, seafood, etc. are found in nature and were an integral part of our evolution. Spaghetti, Twinkies, and egg rolls are manmade concoctions that are new and potentially harmful to human biology.
This is a simple rule, but it is also accurate and effective. At least two meals every day (and preferably all three) should consist solely of a variety of foods that are readily identifiable in nature.
It is also a mistake to concentrate too much on any one food source or food group. Besides the dreariness of eating only bean sprouts or strained turnips, it is important to realize that every individual food group has its drawbacks. Beef often contains drugs (which are fed and/or injected into cows); it can elevate your cholesterol, and is occasionally contaminated with harmful bacteria. Ditto for chicken and turkey. Seafood often contains a variety of toxins found in the water, including mercury and PCBs. Many fruits and vegetables have been sprayed with dangerous insecticides and fertilizers.
But you obviously have to eat something.
The great Swiss physician Paracelsus once said that "the dose makes the poison." This is a basic argument for a diverse diet. If you eat a lot of different natural foods, not only will you consume the various nutrients that are present in each, but you will also lower your exposure to the harmful effects of any single food source.
So keep it varied, and keep it real.
Rule #2: Exercise
The human body simply was not designed to sit in a cubicle all day and blob in front of the TV all night. The ill effects of a lifetime of sedentary living are too numerous to mention. And besides the negative physical effects of this lifestyle, it also results in low energy levels and reduced ability to enjoy the good things in life.
One of the great things about exercise is that it takes only a small amount to make a relatively large difference in your overall fitness. If the average American couch potato would simply go to the gym three times per week for one hour per session, he could make enormous strides in his overall health and significantly increase his life expectancy (one should, of course, see your family doctor before heading to the gym for the first time…especially if you have a history of medical problems).
I recommend a combination of cardiovascular training and weight lifting. About 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times per week can have a significant impact on one’s cardiovascular health and overall stamina. Swimming is best, as it does not involve undue mechanical stress on the joints. If a pool is not available, then the reclining stationary bicycle is probably second-best.
Weight training also helps to maintain healthy muscle tone, increase strength, and improve flexibility. Since many of us have no realistic possibility of becoming a muscleman, I recommend working out with multiple reps of relatively light weight.
And aside from keeping one fit and trim, exercise contributes enormously to the general feeling of wellness and it dramatically increases your energy level. It is a winner all around.
Rule #3: Supplements: Keep it simple
There is an astonishing array of dietary supplements out there, and many of them seem to appear and disappear with alarming regularity. I’m amazed that even professional dieticians can keep up with it all. It seems as though every time I turn around, I’m reading about some newfangled pill that guarantees long life and vigor. Again, many of these may actually work…many may be worthless…and many may be harmful.
So my skeptical, conservative nature leads me to some basic rules.
First, take a basic multivitamin every day. This is not difficult. It is not dangerous. Many of them are even easy to swallow. There is not really a valid reason not to take one.
Second, I recommend a dose of fish oil or cod liver oil every day (you should have your vitamin D level checked when taking cod liver oil, as you don’t want to overdose on it.)
The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are well documented and have a wide variety of positive health effects. The American diet is generally deficient in these critical substances, and the most abundant natural source (fish) is often contaminated with toxins. Fortunately, there are a few preparations out there which come in gel capsule form…negating the necessity of swallowing the oils (which can taste pretty bad and have a slimy texture to them).
As for the other million or so supplements out there…I don’t think that they are a good idea. There are quite a few "snake oil salesmen" pushing a variety of pills which are of dubious value. Humans have survived for thousands of years without these concoctions…and chances are you’ll be OK without them too. And since I have neither the time nor the patience to investigate, purchase, and regularly use more than two supplements, a basic multivitamin and cod liver oil capsules will have to do.
I have friends and colleagues who pop a dozen or so pills every day. But that’s not for me.
Rule #4: A sensible cancer-screening regimen
While medical science has been making slow progress in curing cancer, there have been numerous profound advances in screening techniques that can diagnose various cancers at an early stage and thus maximize the chances of successful treatment.
Everyone should discuss a comprehensive screening program with his family physician.
One of the best known tests is the periodic mammogram for suitably aged women. They are easy to perform and are invaluable for the early detection of breast cancer.
In addition, all women should have an annual gynecologic exam. The new, liquid based pap smears (accompanied by reflex testing for Human Papilloma Virus infection) are amazingly accurate in detecting pre-cancerous lesions of the cervix. This allows for treatments which can easily prevent the progression to cancer. In this day and age, no woman should die of cervical cancer. It should be an historical disease.
Likewise, no American should die of colon cancer. While Katie Couric may spout a lot of nonsense on her morning TV show, she happens to be correct about this issue. Barring unusual circumstances, all suitably aged adults should be regularly screened for colon cancer via colonoscopy. This test is simple, and is extremely successful at eliminating adenomatous polyps before progression to cancer. It can also detect cancers at an early stage, which maximizes the chances of survival.
Additionally, fair-skinned individuals should have an annual total-body screen for skin cancer. A skilled physician can detect and remove suspicious lesions before they progress to life-threatening malignant melanoma. Early discovery and excision can save your life.
There are also a variety of other non-malignant diseases for which effective screening programs exist (hypertension, diabetes, and coronary artery disease, to name a few). These tests should also be incorporated into your overall screening program as per the advice of your personal physician.
Rule #5: Get married
While this may seem somewhat quaint, many studies show that happily married individuals live longer, suffer fewer illnesses, and have fewer psychological problems than singles.
While the wild, bachelor lifestyle may sound adventurous at first glance, it is actually fraught with danger. Those living "la Vida Loca" run into numerous problems that married folks don’t experience. They acquire stalkers. They wake up in sleazy motels to find their wallets missing. They contract nasty infectious diseases.
It is best to find a nice girl and avoid all of this tomfoolery. A rewarding, happy marriage is most conducive to a healthy, joyous life…just like your mother used to say.
Rule #6: Nurture religious faith
Similarly, numerous studies also show that those who have sincere religious convictions are healthier and live longer. When they do get sick, they heal more quickly. And even when they become terminally ill, they usually maintain a much more positive outlook. There seems to be something about yielding one’s fate to a higher power that creates a sense of tranquility that agnostics and secularists simply don’t enjoy. In addition, the sense of community which is found in a religious fellowship yields abundant dividends in companionship and emotional stability.
I cannot, of course, guarantee that following these six rules will result in health and happiness. Any of us could be crushed by a meteorite tomorrow. As one of my medical school professors used to say, "The fatality rate of the human species is 100%." But such issues generally revolve around statistical likelihood. Following these ideas will maximize your chances to live to a ripe old age. And since they are based on sound, ancient wisdom, it is highly unlikely that any of them will suddenly be overturned by some new "study" published in the popular press. And better yet, none of them are particularly difficult…and some of them are even enjoyable.