It’s been called the “Inuit paradox”: Inuit Eskimos get more than 50% of their calories from animal fat. Yet their cardiac death rate is half the U.S. average.
Why do people on a high-fat diet have such low rates of heart disease?
In recent weeks we’ve heard that eating a high-salt diet may help us lose weight. A report by the American Heart Association says coconut oil may be as unhealthy as beef fat or butter. Going in a sauna and temporarily starving ourselves may be two of the best things we can do for our bodies (more on this below).
It’s been said 50% of what we “know” about health is wrong-we just don’t know which 50%.
From my work advising leading U.S. healthcare companies, I’ve seen a radical shift in how we think about diet, exercise and lifestyle. New advances in science and technology are redefining what it means to be healthy today.
1. Go with your gut
The microbiome — the community of beneficial microorganisms inside our bodies — has become one of the hottest research areas in health.
With an estimated 100 million nuerons, the gut has been called the “second brain.” Micro-organisms in our gut produce mood-regulating chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This means poor gut health could be related to depression or anxiety.
The health of our gut bacteria has been linked to a wide range of chronic illness. Inflammation in the intestine is seen as the root cause of all neurodegenerative disease: Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s.
How can we maintain our gut health? It starts with diet. Foods like turmeric and black pepper help reduce inflammation.
Diets high in refined sugar are harmful to the gut, causing inflammation and reducing microbiota diversity.
An Israeli study showed that consuming artificial sweeteners like Splenda was linked to gain weight and higher risk of type 2 diabetes, due to the sweeteners’ negative effects on gut bacteria. So replace that Diet Coke with a green tea.
Probiotics, found in foods like yogurt, can improve gut health. Consumer health startups like Mother Dirt are delivering beneficial probiotics via a line of skin products, cleansers, and shampoo. There’s growing awareness of how bacterial imbalances can cause acne, eczema and other inflammatory skin conditions.
New companies like Viome are measuring gut health to deliver personalized recommendations for diet and lifestyle.
The better we take care of our microbiome, the better we’ll be able to prevent illness.
2. Reverse engineer longevity
The Cilento Coast of Italy, 140 kilometers south of Naples, is one of the world’s five “Blue Zone” regions — places inhabited by the highest ratio of centenarians. These communities are largely free of chronic illnesses like heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes.
What do Blue Zone people have in common?
They move their bodies every day. They stop eating when they’re 80% full. They belong to faith-based communities and have close-knit families. Their diet consists mainly of grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables, with little to no refined sugars.
Want to live to 100? Steal a page from the Blue Zone lifestyle.
3. Sweat it out
I was a bit surprised when my friend suggested we catch up in the sauna. I’d never been one to sweat away life’s problems in a baking-hot wood-paneled room.
Then I spent 15 minutes in the sauna. And I felt like a new man.
A 2015 study showed that sauna use two to three times per week was associated with increased longevity and 24% lower mortality. It’s been shown to improve blood pressure and reduce risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The principle of stress-response hormesis explains why high heat exposure, along with other stresses like fasting and exercise, may increase life span. Scientists believe the heat of a sauna may activate heat shock proteins, which prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s by helping proteins maintain their proper three-dimensional structure.
4. Take a cold shower
Cold exposure has been shown to improve cell health and reduce inflammation. It’s why pro athletes use ice baths after a game.
I’m no NFL lineman, so I’ve been following a less extreme approach: cold showers. For the last 30 seconds of my shower I turn the water as cold as I can. It stings at first, but I’ve gotten used to it — and I feel great after.
5. Embrace the mind-body connection
I went to a talk recently by Amy Cuddy, a Harvard psychologist known for giving one of the most-watched TED talks of all time. Cuddy explained how simple things like breathing and posture impact our health in profound ways.
First piece of advice: Smile. The mere act of smiling makes us happier. Laughing, too. The physical act of laughter stimulates our brain to make us feel better.
The field of “embodied cognition” describes how the mind reacts to the body. Our body is literally shaping our thoughts. Our emotions are linked to our facial and postural expressions.
Adopting dominant “power poses” can increase testosterone by 20% and decrease the stress hormone cortisol by 25%. The “victory pose” stimulates a relaxation response in the vagus nerve and down-regulates epinephrine release, making us feel more confident.
Even when we sleep, posture matters: People who wake up with arms and legs extended feel happier and more optimistic than the ones who start the day in a fetal position.
As Cuddy explains, “If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully.”
6. Eat good fats and cut the sugar
When experts studied the “Inuit paradox,” they identified omega-3 fatty acids in wild fish as the key to Eskimos’ cardiac health. These “good fats” reduce inflammation, thin the blood and prevent clotting.
We used to think a low-fat diet was essential for healthy living. This idea is now widely seen as untrue. Fat is an essential nutrient for our bodies. Mother’s milk, nature’s “perfect food”, is 50% fat.
Sugar has emerged as the super-villain in our diets. (Yes, even the natural sugar in fruit juice). Sugar negatively alters gut microbiota and spikes blood insulin levels. Some scientists think we should consider treating sugar addiction like the abuse of alcohol or cocaine.
Nutrition advice can be boiled down to three words: avoid insulin spikes. Our body isn’t designed to process sugar in large quantities in a short time. Anything that sharply raises our insulin levels contributes to insulin resistance — a metabolic condition linked to hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
Fortunately, we can reverse insulin resistance naturally through diet, exercise, and nutritional supplements.
Use fat as your body’s primary fuel, not protein. Only 15% of your calories should be from protein. Eat high-fiber foods that help slow down glucose absorption: vegetables, avocados, berries, nuts, and seeds.
Take omega-3 DHA and EPA fish oil supplements. The Eskimos were on to something: These super-fats are an essential tool for lowering risk of heart disease, inflammation and even cancer. They may even improve cognitive function.
Vegan? Check out Ritual, made with an algae-derived omega-3 oil, to get all the health benefits without the fish.
7. Fast for slower aging
If you live in New York, LA or San Francisco, you probably know at least one person who’s tried intermittent fasting. What began as a cultish fad is hitting the mainstream: Fasting is one health trend that’s here to stay.
Going without food for 24 to 48 hours has been shown to reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and eliminate pre-cancerous cells. Along with exercise, fasting might be the closest thing we’ve got to a fountain of youth.
Bio-hackers in Silicon Valley have experimented with fasting for years. New apps like Zero provide tools to help align your eating schedule with your body’s natural circadian rhythms.
What do we gain when we temporarily starve ourselves? Fasting results in a dramatic increase in autophagy (clearing away damaged cells to use for energy) and apoptosis (causing damaged cells to self-destruct). Both of these processes prevent damaged cells from becoming cancer cells.
The first time I tried fasting, I skipped breakfast and had six ounces of salmon for lunch. (It turns out you can have up to 400 calories and still get the health benefits of fasting.)
How’d it go? I was a bit grumpy at night. But I slept well. And the next day, I felt amazing. I was noticeably sharper, more alert and cheerful.
You don’t need to go all day starving yourself. Simply eating within a 10-hour window has been shown to improve sleep, increase weight loss and reduce cancer risk.
This could mean eating your first meal of the day at 8 a.m. and your last meal at 6 p.m. (No late night snacks!)
Try doing a short fast (24 hours) to see how your body responds. It’s a great way to lose weight, improve overall health and stay mentally sharp.
8. Hack your mitochondria
Another benefit of fasting: it can renew and strengthen your mitochondria.
Mitochondria are the cell-level energy centers for your body. Energy-intensive cells in the heart and brain have about 10,000 mitochondria per cell. If your mitochondria stay healthy, they’ll produce more ATP, and you’ll have more energy.
Just like cells, mitochondria accumulate damage with age, and this can accelerate the aging process. Declining mitochondrial health can cause fatigue, shrinking brain tissue and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease.
The good news: You can maintain your mitochondrial health with diet and exercise. High-intensity interval training and yoga turbocharge your mitochondria. Nutrients like zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 fats help preserve mitochondria for brain health.
Your mitochondrial health is one of the most important biomarkers for aging. It can make you look five years older — or younger.
9. Know your genomic profile
I got a cheek swab at my doctor’s office. A week later we reviewed the results. I had a gene variant called MTHFR that affects how I metabolize folic acid into methylfolate. My doctor suggested I take methylfolate supplements.
For most of human history, our body’s unique genetic code was a mysterious black box. No longer.
Today, $100-$200 will get you a basic genetic screening from a company like 23andMe. A quick cheek swab is all it takes to get a detailed report on your genes and associated health risks.
Genetic sequencing represents a paradigm shift in healthcare. We’re moving from a one-size-fits-all approach toward true personalized medicine based on our unique genetic profile.
The potential benefits include better, more precise medical treatments based on your genetic code; genetic counseling to help you make better life decisions; and someday, gene editing to fix mutations that may cause illness or impairment.
New services like Promethease will give you a personal DNA report with your health information including genetic risks for certain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
Soon genetic testing will be an essential part of everyone’s healthcare. Doctors will use genetic data and analytics to track your health over time and deliver personalized recommendations based on your individual genetic code.
We’re still early in the genomics revolution. For now, do a cheek swab and get a copy of your personalized genetic report. Your future health will thank you.
10. Take control of your health with new digital tools
The old healthcare model was controlled by doctors and hospitals. Today’s healthcare is moving toward patient-centered care.
It’s never been easier to take control of our own health data. Wearable devices let us generate continuous, real-time health data: blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose levels.
Digital health companies like Omada Health and Livongo offer “digital therapeutics” — tools that process our health data and recommend lifestyle and behavioral changes. They’re becoming more widely used for chronic illnesses where behavioral change is at the root of the problem.
Can wireless digital scales and online courses be as effective as medications? For some disorders, the answer may be yes. A recent study showed patients using Omada Health’s program lost weight and reduced their risk of diabetes.
Digital health’s promise reflects the vastly increasing data we’re starting to gather on our personal health. The more data we have, the better preventive care and treatment we can provide. A JAMA study showed that for cancer patients, digital tracking of patient-generated data might improve survival rates.
New research shows that the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor can detect an early sign of heart disease with 97% accuracy — before any symptoms develop.
Mobile health tools let us take a more active role in our overall health and wellness. As they get cheaper, smaller and more powerful, they’ll become an indispensable part of what we consider a healthy lifestyle.