Humorist explores lifestyle of optimal health

A. J. Jacobs

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Jewish Light

Twice, A. J. Jacobs has successfully authored humorous but informative books that have been the product of exhaustive explorations. Jacobs decided to read all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, A through Z, and then described his mission in “Know It All: One Man’s Humble Quest To Become the Smartest Man.” Then he topped himself with “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally As Possible,” after a year devoted to following the 613 mitzvot /commandments of the Hebrew Bible.

Jacobs chronicles his latest project in “Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection.” After 24 months of experimentation with an optimally healthy lifestyle, Jacobs distilled his research into four precepts, “Eat less, move more, relax, sleep.”

During a recent phone interview, Jacobs stayed consistent with his reformed, more active life style:  While talking, Jacobs was also walking on his treadmill and at 5 p.m. was 2,000 shy of his daily goal of 10,000 steps. 

You live in New York City’s Upper West Side. Did you consider living in the suburbs—like most of us who will be in the audience when you visit St. Louis?

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Absolutely, we struggled with it. In the end it was my wife, Julie, who wanted to stay in the city to be near family. In terms of health, it’s a good question, because New York City has all the pollution. But actually the average life span here is slightly longer than in other places—by 1½ years. People think it’s because to get around we do so much walking.

I would have thought New York would be below the national average, because of the increased stress of living in a big, unfriendly city.

Stress is terrible for you. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of evidence that physical contact with other people is great for you. So I try to hold my kids’ hands while they still let me, and I try to hold my wife’s hand until she gets annoyed. About New Yorkers being unfriendly, it’s hard to generalize. Just yesterday I was with two people from Toronto, and I was showing them around town. I tried to swipe them into the subway, but my metro card had expired and out of the blue this guy said “I’ll swipe them in for you.”

Does it seem to you that the medical profession focuses a lot on pathology and very little on preventive medicine?

So true. I think it’s a huge problem. Although a large part of my book is about prevention. 

It’s strange that medicine has not come up with a definitive answer to the perennial question: What should we eat?

I know — it’s so frustrating. Michael Pollan says that the science of nutrition is where the rest of medical science was in the 16th century. I will say that on the bright side: If you just follow a few simple rules, you are 90 percent there. Eat whole foods. Eat a huge variety. Stay away from processed foods like white sugar and white flour.

Are some trends or fads really tied to marketing inspiration rather than our health? A case in point, Vibrams, those shoes that you write about that are like gloves for your feet?

I think that’s part of it. But a lot of the snake oil salesmen actually believe in what they’re selling. I am not saying the Vibrams are snake oil. I don’t wear them that much. But for some people, depending on their foot type, they’re fine. But they’re not a panacea for everybody’s foot problems.

I was impressed that while working on the book you lost 16 pounds. Have you kept the weight off?

Yeah, when I started the book, my body-type was like the snake that swallowed the goat. I put back on maybe three or four pounds. But I’ve kept the rest off.

Where does the research weigh in on more small meals vs. less larger meals?

There’s no huge amount of research either way. But if I get really hungry I tend to eat, without thinking, whatever is around—even the most horrible high caloric foods. So I find it more effective to keep the hunger at bay by having a bunch of smaller meals throughout the day.

I was interested that after two years of pursuing optimal health, you were thinking, “Now I want to go back to eating cupcakes at birthday parties.” Do you really eat the whole cupcake, instead of just a bite or two?

As the teachers at my kids’ school say: there are the red-light, rarely foods; yellow-light, sometimes foods; and the green-light, always foods. I try to follow that. But occasionally I have the whole cupcake. Because there’s importance to celebrating life and joy is an important part of good health.