First principles are all the rage these days. At least 50 different bots(real and bot like people) regurgitate Feynman’s wisdom on First Principles Thinking daily. To be fair it is for good reason.
There are 2 issues — first principles of many areas are hard to tease out and if we do know them, applying them is incredibly difficult.
Health — a Rant!
What are the first principles of health? Should everyone be fasting and lifting? How about running 10k everyday? What about a really good breakfast? How about 0 carbs?
The more time I spend on this problem — and I have spent about 2 years now — I find, myself slipping into rabbit holes that lead into one another.
Sadly most health related information on the internet is self-serving. Bodybuilding pages/influencers/websites tout gymming as the right way to approach health. Runners claim enormous mental health benefits of running long distances! Fasting apps cite research about how fasting is what the body evolved to do. Some influencers will dance in an Instagram reel to say its only calories that matter.
BUT, as I’ve discovered, the problem is that
- you start to go to the gym to build muscle
- you eat more(mostly protein) to aid recovery
- if you eat based on hunger, you gain muscle but also fat
- so you start eating in a deficit
- which makes you feel fatigued and not up for working out all the time
- so strength doesn’t build as fast
- you add more protein but get too gassy
- and by god, running will bore me to death before cholesterol ever gets me.
There’s all these things that I have experienced. I have found no way to use these constraints to arrive at a (sub?)optimal solution.
Some arrows in the dark that hit a mark
Just to be clear, I define health here as having relatively less fat — at least not enough to be classified as obese — and having enough strength in the body to perform average and above daily tasks without risk of injury or tiring myself out. Needless to say good numbers on biomarkers like cholesterol and sugar are obviously an integral part of health.
Last year, I tracked work outs of different kinds to have accounted for some 25 weeks. Assuming some 2–3 weeks on top of that of ad hoc work. I worked out almost half the year. That’s a big jump in consistency from before. I also tried a calorie deficit diet with a nutritionist and lost a little weight. What I did gain was a lot of strength and core mobility which I never had. I feel great in what my body can do now. But I am also 10 kgs heavier than the previous year.
Past 2 months, not having worked out and gorged on wedding related feasts and sweets, I’ve kept the same weight but increased fat, I assume at the cost of muscle.
The only time I lost fat in the past 2–3 years has been when I have tried keto. But it was incredibly hard for me to sustain. I also tried using Ultrahuman’s useful sensor only to find out that a lot of foods that I thought to be healthy, were also spiking my blood sugar.
From this, I can only surmise that my fat is really the result of insulin spikes caused by eating — to put it mildly — shit! Ultrahuman frames this problem as that of poor metabolic health.
Search for first principles
Thanks dear reader for bearing with me through my extremely frustrated rant. With a cooler head, I’m listing out things I’ve found to have the most amount of truth in them. These are clues that I have, hopefully pointing toward the direction of first principles. If you have any refinement or even disagreement on any of these, PLEASE reach out to me. I need to get this right
- We need to train muscles for movement under load. That simulates the environment our body evolved for and recruits adaptations that make us healthy. Muscles are incredibly useful in keeping movement related disease and injury at bay. Plus, their metabolic advantage seems to be well documented.
- We can’t eat all the time. There have to be some restrictions. This one’s fairly obvious. Not sure HOW much fasting is right. Maybe the idea is to have some discipline around it. But it seems like eating at odd hours can’t be good!
- We sure as hell can’t have all the carb and sugar we are having. Unless we consume it in physical labor. If you’re working on a farm 8 hours a day. Fair, have yourself 500gms or rice for lunch.
- We have to train to be able to sustain elevated levels of cardio effort over time. Heart is a muscle too!
- We need to cut most food-like substances that are produced via processing. This one’s hotly debated. But I have a feeling we will find out this one’s true eventually.
- As far as excess fat is concerned — in so far as it is categorizable as an unhealthy amount on you — metabolic health maybe the hood to look under instead of calorific imbalance.
- It can’t be that there’s no way to stay healthy in the modern world without tracking calories. Hunger is a well established mechanism to regulate how much we eat per how much we need. The issue must be that hunger is ridiculously hacked like dopamine pathway is hacked by nicotine and infinite-scroll apps!
Un-hacking the system
Again, under the assumption that health is poor today — of course, save infectious disease — owing to our systems being hacked by poor habits, we would want to search for good habits and remove bad ones.
For those familiar with Taleb, the process applicable here is Via Negativa.
“The principle that we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Also, it is easier to know that something is wrong than to find the fix. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have unseen, complicated feedback loops.”
In other words, you at least remove the stuff that is harmful rather than trying to find the next superfood. For instance, it will be hard to find someone who would argue against removing(reducing a lot) sugars from one’s diet. Doing that is more reliable than adding kale or quinoa as the magical fat cutting thing in your diet.
The idea is, by repeated culling of poor things, the hunger and satiety feedback look that is hacked by processed and sugary foods, is restored to its regular sensitivity, giving us access to evolution’s 100,000 year old machinery designed to keep us healthy.
Where is body positivity
I won’t lie, I don’t like looking at myself being fat because I’m conditioned to find it unattractive on me. There’s an aesthetic component to this pursuit. In fact, I do sometimes feel dysmorphia around my body. But this pursuit isn’t solely about that. It is about my higher genetic predisposition to heart disease, which already shows up as high LDL levels.
It is also about the incredible high I get when I’m able to lift things around the house without hurting myself or breaking a sweat. It is about the lovely feeling of strength I feel when I’m able to perform a movement I wouldn’t have been able to do before. It is a LOT about significantly reduced frequency of hyperacidity and other flare ups of IBS after reducing carbs and increasing protein.
In that sense, this is a pursuit of body positivity. The dilemma is identical to that of regular life. Do I accept myself as I am and be at peace with myself or I fret over my short comings and work toward becoming better. I have to be comfortable in my body today but also be uncomfortable enough to want to change it everyday because growth feels damn good too! Fruits of labor, taste damn good!
Phew! This has been a therapeutic thing to write because I felt like I was losing motivation to soldier on my pursuit of health. It is hard to remind myself regularly that all good things, come at the expense of efforts. There is a strong current of genetic, cultural and civilizational waters that one has to swim against to find health. But in the end, it looks like it will be worth it!
Please write to me about what you have found to be true about health. What have you found to be truths about the pursuit of health?