This past winter and much of the spring, I sank into a deep funk with too many steaks, too many beers, too many late nights, and almost zero exercise. Everything, from personal motivation and work ethic through to relationships, was grinding to a halt.
Hoping to kick-start a change, I decided to live the U.S. government’s definition of a healthy lifestyle for a month. My hope was that I could replace my lethargy and slobbiness with physical activity and greater mental resilience. If similar experiments in masochistic, time-specific life changes—everything from Super Size Me to The Year of Living Biblically—were to be believed, enlightenment was just a short burst of extremism away.
This isn’t your mother’s crash diet or your sister-in-law’s five-day detox. This sure as hell isn’t your grandfather’s questionable master cleanse. This diet is federally sanctioned. My sacred texts for the month would be The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, along with advice from the U.S. Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Morgan Spurlock adopted an opposite lifestyle to mine in Super Size Me, but like him I’d super-size my diet by exceeding recommendations and always choosing the healthiest option at restaurants.
My ground rules:
- Eat a wide variety of protein: Replace meat with seafood or choose lean meats. Avoid red meat.
- Reduce time spent in sedentary behavior: A combination of five hours of moderate physical activity each week and two and a half hours of vigorous activity.
- No more than one medium-sized beer per day or one glass of wine.
- At least half the plate should be fruit or vegetables, three cups of veggies and two cups of fruit a day for men ages 19-30. Eat a wider variety of vegetables and choose whole-grain foods. Choose fat-free or low-fat milk. Emphasize calcium-rich foods.
- Less than 10 percent of calories should come from saturated fatty acids,which come in cream, butter, and lard, so choose Diet Lard or replace with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids.
- Less than 2300 mg of sodium per day. (That’s hard to measure, so I take it with a pinch of salt.) Less than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day. No trans fats—zero nutritional value, banned in Switzerland and Denmark.
Avoid oversized portions: Control calories to maintain body weight.
Day One and Slightly Before
As I’m preparing to begin my experiment, it’s already cursed. News breaks of a deadly e-coli outbreak in Germany, which happens to be where I’m living. Organic fruit and vegetables are suspected as the carrier, which means the healthiest foods are now the most dangerous. This perfectly represents a dilemma in healthy eating: What’s healthy? It’s rarely obvious, and just reading all of the conflicting advice to prepare for this month has given me whiplash. Now I have extra suspicion for all vegetables. My girlfriend suggests steak with steak could be the safest dinner, but red meat is off the menu.
The exercise requirements for this month are where I imagine I’ll see the biggest difference in my day-to-day experience. In the past, cycling a long distance or playing tennis has doubled my energy, restored my mental powers, strengthened my emotional resilience, and sliced my stress in half. Having a malleable personality, always eager to change things, I expect big changes this month. Today, rather than take the subway, I walk to and from the tennis courts, where I play for an hour or so, and I fix my bike for the week ahead. It feels unnatural to exercise just because this regime compels me rather than of my own volition, but the novelty of the thing helps me power through.
The USDA has toppled the food pyramid. It’ll be replaced with a plate chart, which is a pie chart, minus the pastry.
Now is a bad time to change my life like this, because I’m busy with work so I just want soda and convenience food, not hours of shopping, chopping, and cooking. As part of an otherwise low-calorie diet, soda can be fine, but I’m avoiding it, while convenience and fast food is almost totally prohibited. I only want it more. Already, the regime is sandpaper against the usual momentum of my life.
After eating a chicken sandwich on whole-wheat bread with a lot of vegetables and no added salt or dressing, I feel good, strong, and positive, but I yearn for condiments.
Breakfast is oats, muesli, trail mix, extra seeds, and low-fat fruit yogurt. Seeds and nuts are good protein, and after cycling over to the tennis courts and playing for a couple of hours, I’ve almost reached the exercise requirement for the week. Today’s a public holiday, and I didn’t shop. At the Vietnamese restaurant I am under obligation to choose a wholesome vegetable soup, and I’m jealous of the duck and fried rice my friends order. With my soup I get one beer, as much as I’m permitted each day, and after midnight I order a second, pulling from Day Three’s ration. This diet restricts glorious binge drinking, but my friends’ rocky physical state in the morning is little comfort to me.
In Julie & Julia, Julie Powell cooks the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over a year, and addresses deeper problems in her life during the process. Her challenge, of course, is more about herself than about healthy eating, but like so many self-challenge memoirs, her nauseatingly twee observations and the stock language of self-help books displace most of the grit, self-questioning, and pain that really test the experiment, and the person conducting it. While I easily trip over my own plans, the benchmark is set low. Unlike Julie Powell, who cooks delicious food for her friends, I’m dragging my girlfriend along for a not-so-fun ride, so I’m thankful that she’s on board and helping me to follow the rules.
I haven’t begun to plan meals and lift weights because of an overload of work that makes me want to just go ahead and devour the cucumber in the fridge, if it has e-coli, which it obviously does.
Professional tennis player Novak Djokovic believes his new gluten-free diet helped him to his record-setting string of 43 wins. Today, gluten has let him down, with a loss to Roger Federer in the French Open. This loss symbolizes the end of an incredible run; that it was broken by the best player of all time symbolizes the transformative potential for a diet but also how much a diet leaves up to you to accomplish: the winning.
The USDA has toppled the food pyramid, I learn after a healthy breakfast and my own defeat at tennis. It’ll be replaced with a plate chart, which is a pie chart, minus the pastry. Meat is no longer a category, replaced by the broader “protein.” Like my diet, it emphasizes eating more fresh food and avoiding excessive calories and too much salt. Overall, the guidelines say, “eat less,” but making the message, “exercise more, eat less,” is the slogan that’s needed.
I’m skeptical of all this because as the fattest major nation, the United States clearly has its work cut out for it. Then again, the challenge might not be so much about knowledge but willpower. I can tell you already, from experience, that these sorts of strict regimes are a real drain on willpower.
After two and a half hours of playing tennis a dust devil appears on the court, summoned by all the energy we sacrificed: the Omniscient Obesity Ogre is not happy. Breakfast: Nuts and low-fat fruit yogurt. Lunch: rye bread, salad, low-fat cheese. Dinner: wishing for bacon.
I almost buy a kebab from the Turkish restaurant on our block after drinks with friends (one beer), but resist the temptation. When I am awakened at dawn by the sound of fire engines and the smell of burning plastic, the kebab place has been gutted by a fire. The gods are removing temptation, but I feel good to have skipped it on my own, even though it’s some of the best fast food going.
While Spurlock, during his experiment, was afflicted by rushes of sugar and fat and subsequent steep crashes into sickness, I’m just flat-lining.
On the fifth day, after the early-morning kebab-shop fire, I rest, sleeping instead of exceeding the maximum recommendation for exercise. Around noon I wake to the sounds of thousands of bicycle bells. Bikes cycle past for about an hour in what I learn is a show of support for government investment in cycling infrastructure. The world is taunting me. I would join them, but I need some lunch.
These trend diets are masochistic: If there’s no pain, your audience moves on. And those that work are all inevitably life-changing, affirming, and rewarding. They let onlookers live the changes through other people, and think, “Since they can do it, so can I, at any time. Like right now! Or tomorrow.”
It’s one of the hottest days of the summer, and I bet I’ve already sweated enough calories for the day even before waking up. I could scoop the humidity onto a plate and serve it with half a plate of fruit or vegetables. (The question is, would it count as protein or fat?)
But after shopping in the sun, not even exercising, I’ve got a headache, maybe sunstroke, and so it’s sugar and fats that I really want. What do healthy people do when they’re sick or hungover, craving sugary soda and greasy, salty, rejuvenating beef? That’s the paradox: Unhealthy habits hit you quick, whereas healthy stuff is long game, requiring a lifetime of smart choices. While I felt at the start of this month that the only benefit from healthy eating might be not getting cancer, or living a little longer, I do feel less sluggish and mentally more alert. But I’m not convinced that will be enough to keep this thing going.
It’s still early in the second week, and already guilt has set in. I haven’t exercised enough, storing it up for the end of the week. I want to plan meals, but knowing I have little to reward myself with after exercise, I avoid making plans that will demotivate me further.
For dinner, though, I eat a veggie burger better than anything from a McDonald’s. Even better, it doesn’t give me the McSweats, the McTwitches, or the McSpew that Spurlock endures in his first run through a super-size Big Mac meal.
If obesity were a water-borne disease, there’d be outrage. Instead, we welcome it into our restaurants, sell it cheap in our supermarkets, and stock it in our fridges.
This health month is a burden. Every diet requires commitment and lifestyle changes, so it’s no wonder why it’s so easy to fail. These recommendations cannot be followed by anyone, at this extreme, for a long time. But the softly, softly approach to diet management doesn’t work either. Health nuts are nutty because they do this all the time. And for what purpose?
When meat makes a true return to its culinary throne after this month is over, I will have a newfound respect for it, but only until I shove it in my face.
Following health advice from anyone, even the government, requires a spiritual leap of faith. I can tell you after 11 days of experience that adhering to every letter of the U.S. government’s food commandments is no way to live.
In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs follows the rules of the Old and New Testament in succession, at one point even trying to stone an elderly adulterer, but he eventually realizes that it’s dumb to think anyone should take it literally. The payoff for him is simply that there’s some stuff—thankfulness, reverence, open-mindedness—that you can learn, even when the rules you’ve set out for yourself are dumb. Maybe after another two and a half weeks of this I’ll be evangelizing, too.
I cycle around an abandoned airport for 90 minutes because the regime compels me to, not because I want to. And so I don’t enjoy it. Again, it’s yogurt and muesli in the morning, cherries, banana, and an apple through the day, like most every day so far. Fruit is the king of my colon, vegetables the emperor of my gut. Really I want meat in my stomach instead. That’s the evolution talking, I guess. I’m unable to take the final step as a sentient being and stop eating other animals. Maybe I’ll reach enlightenment the next go round? When meat makes a true return to its culinary throne after this month is over, I will have a newfound respect for it, but only until I shove it in my face.
After returning plastic and glass bottles to the supermarket, my girlfriend and I spend the money we’ve earned on fruit, and I notice how my mood is better and energy levels are higher. I don’t need to force myself to eat fruit; it’s enough just to accept how delicious it is.
Money is tight, so we’re having potatoes and kale for lunch. We’re also defrosting the red meat from the freezer. It’s not healthy, and the USDA says to eat chicken or fish instead of red meat, but it’s healthier to eat something than nothing, so red meat and potatoes it is!
Tomorrow, I’ll eat whole-meal spaghetti to atone for my sins. Two hours of tennis, plus an hour cycling, and 90 minutes walking around the city. I’m thankful for it all, but this regime is like taking Bible study class every day.
A bunch of sunflower seeds for protein. But they’re covered in salt, so I stop lest I break the 2300 mg daily limit, and then my girlfriend and I argue about the dangers of salt. At a barbecue later, I choose the healthiest option available: a steak we defrosted.
My body tells me it’s good, and I presume that’s the hunter-gatherer in me wanting to stock up while fresh protein is on offer. I whip the meat off the grill while the blood is still dripping onto the coals.
I’m behind on the week’s exercise requirement, and right now I don’t want to be even a little healthier, if it stops me from being free. There is a balance somewhere, but I’m hanging-ten on the wrong end of the scale.
After food and a long walk, my mood has changed completely and my pores are sweating sunshine. Unfortunately, I won’t remember these moments, because my brain, which I blame reflexively for lots of deep problems that I assume are evolutionary, is programmed to remember pain much more vividly than happiness.
At the start of week three, I play tennis to catch up on exercise. My playing partner and I sprint around the court when changing ends, rushing in hopes of avoiding a coming downpour, which arrives during the tie-break in the final set. But it was a spiritual match (perhaps because I came from behind to win), and cycling home in the rain through the old airport, now a park, seeing the clouds pierced by beams of sunlight, was a moment perfectly made for this type of experiment, moments that make it worthwhile.
“We were not counting down the days until the end, because we didn’t want to go back,” Barbara Kingsolver noted toward the end of her tale of her year-long experiment living on her own home-grown produce and what she could buy locally in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I will absolutely go back, but she’s making an inevitable but also important observation: While I am counting the days eagerly, I don’t want to go all the way back to where I started, because minus following rules so closely, this is a good way to live.
Days 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 27
Some uneventful days pass: tennis, cycling, salad, a day trip to Copenhagen. Then I am sick for a few days. Eating fruit helps, but I yearned for as much exercise and fresh air as I have become accustomed to. I eat lots of chicken soup. I don’t think the sickness is the oil and dirt leaving my body, but it makes me feel better to assume so.
Morgan Spurlock also got sick during his experiment, vomiting at the start and in dire straits by the end, with a doctor noting, “The results for your liver are obscene beyond anything I would have thought.” So despite our opposing methods, we are both suffering.
I’m still sick, but I’ve stocked up on fruit, and I’m sticking to whole-meal bread and trying to let nature takes its course. Homemade frozen lasagna for lunch, instead of healthy-but-expensive fruit and vegetables, and frozen pizza for dinner. It all makes me feel terrible: It’s not satisfying like a healthy meal would be, and it’s also against the rules.
My health month has finally been trumped by my need to get healthy, but I’m lethargic and completely lacking in energy. I guess today marks the part of the experiment where I see exactly what the effects are if I drift back into a glut-rut. I managed four whole weeks, so now I’ll binge and see where it takes me.
But here’s the thing: I woke up this morning and wanted to eat healthily and then exercise. And I wanted fruit afterward. I wanted soda, too, but water won because of the heat. And then, for lunch, I am craving something that’s going to make me feel good, make my body work better, not kill my mind. Something like a green pasta salad or open salmon sandwich on rye.
This isn’t working out quite as I expected. While I fully expect to eat duck, fried rice, and spring rolls for dinner, maybe I’ll take the tofu soup. With the pressure off, I still want to exercise, because it’s fun, and I want to do a wider range of exercise to see how that feels, too.
In the end, I do in fact choose the tofu soup for dinner. And then the duck, too, followed by seven types of alcohol.
In the end, I do in fact choose the tofu soup for dinner. And then the duck, too, followed by seven types of alcohol. In this portion of the experiment, the findings are clear. It stinks to be unhealthy. That is not a judgment but a scientific observation: My body’s only way to express its displeasure is by speaking out of its ass.
Have I inspired you to take up the diet, too, or just you grossed out? Eliciting a response is important in this genre of experiments, and simply saying that nothing was learned is not possible, because that’s not compelling reading. It’s inevitable that something is “learned” or that the writer becomes inspired: masochism and pain require a payoff, lest the whole thing seem like a waste of time.
Perhaps I’ve seen the opposite though. Making such a dramatic change is impossible, and if you don’t accept that really becoming a better person is a long process, then you’ll fall on your face trying to follow your rules to the letter.
I got through five beers, because I wanted booze, and a second dinner. I’ve not forgotten the month’s lessons, but I’ve learned that it’s counterproductive to follow a strict regime if it’s the very authority of the thing that makes you hate doing it, hate your own lack of self discipline, hate not being able to be occasionally gluttonous, and therefore makes you unable to make the change you seek.
Now that the experiment is over, I am obliged to reveal the following things: I drank more alcohol than revealed above, and at one point I got a McRib sandwich due to said alcohol. But (remember, we must learn from the process!) I needed that release to give me the impetus to get through this, which tells me that orthodoxy is alienating, not motivating or sustainable. But overall, my performance was good. Setting aside the beers and the McRib, I managed to follow the rules, even though the more I followed them, the more I hated healthy eating.
In this month-long drill of health in the U.S. government’s boot camp, despite screaming at myself to follow the rules and also hating them simultaneously, I’ve come out stronger, happy to eat healthy food more often. But only because I’ve realized I needed to establish a built-in pressure-release valve to allow the beer and grease to flow, to let my slob hang out.
This sort of diet is less about willpower and more about realizing that healthy stuff is more than a means to an end (albeit one that is rarely in sight), but it does require you to want to find some kinds of exercise you can simply enjoy, and a desire to learn about what makes healthy meals, and to see how you like doing both things. If you don’t like exercise and healthy food, then maybe you do need a nuclear option, but for me these are enough. I’ll follow these rules in the future because they make me feel happy, not in order to always feel at my mental peak, be a champion athlete, avoid ill health or weight problems, or to live forever. Those other things will surely follow.