Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection

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Overview

From the bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All comes the true and truly hilarious story of one person’s quest to become the healthiest man in the world.

Hospitalized with a freak case of tropical pneumonia, goaded by his wife telling him, “I don’t want to be a widow at forty-five,” and ashamed of a middle-aged body best described as “a python that swallowed a goat,” A.J. Jacobs felt compelled to change his ways and get healthy. And he didn’t ...

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Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection

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Overview

From the bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All comes the true and truly hilarious story of one person’s quest to become the healthiest man in the world.

Hospitalized with a freak case of tropical pneumonia, goaded by his wife telling him, “I don’t want to be a widow at forty-five,” and ashamed of a middle-aged body best described as “a python that swallowed a goat,” A.J. Jacobs felt compelled to change his ways and get healthy. And he didn’t want only to lose weight, or finish a triathlon, or lower his cholesterol. His ambitions were far greater: maximal health from head to toe.

The task was epic. He consulted an army of experts— sleep consultants and sex clinicians, nutritionists and dermatologists. He subjected himself to dozens of different workouts—from Strollercize classes to Finger Fitness sessions, from bouldering with cavemen to a treadmill desk. And he took in a cartload of diets: raw foods, veganism, high protein, calorie restriction, extreme chewing, and dozens more. He bought gadgets and helmets, earphones and juicers. He poked and he pinched. He counted and he measured.

The story of his transformation is not only brilliantly entertaining, but it just may be the healthiest book ever written. It will make you laugh until your sides split and endorphins flood your bloodstream. It will alter the contours of your brain, imprinting you with better habits of hygiene and diet. It will move you emotionally and get you moving physically in surprising ways. And it will give you occasion to reflect on the body’s many mysteries and the ultimate pursuit of health: a well-lived life.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

A.J. Jacobs might be described as a compulsive extremist. In his recent acts of obsession, he has devoured knowledge omnivorously (The Know-It-All) and lived the fine print ofvarious religious laws to the letter (The Year of Living Biblically). In Drop Dead Health, he dives with equal abandon into the ever-growing arena of total well-being. Almost no health and fitness regimen escaped his attention: He followed a dizzying number of diets (including raw foods and extreme chewing), consulted sleep specialists and sex experts, and tossed himself, sometimes literally, into workouts of every imaginable type. The resulting read is hilarious, even though it also reminds us that we Americans have become a driven people.

Jules Herbert

Janet Maslin
…bright, funny and even useful…Drop Dead Healthy is a one-book sampling of conventional wisdom on health and fitness.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
With three bestselling titles in his One Man’s Humble Quest series, Jacobs decided to become “the healthiest man alive,” first consulting medical experts, making a list of outré diets, and putting himself in unusual situations. To try out the Paleo movement’s Caveman Workout, “which is all about being natural and savage and out in the wilderness,” he ran bare-chested through the wilderness of Central Park. He investigated the antiaerobic “slow fitness movement” that requires exercising only 20 minutes a week. With a 70-page to-do list, he tried everything from acupuncture to Nature’s Platform, a metal stand for squatting on top of a toilet since “there’s bona fide evidence squatting is better for you.” Each body part gets its own chapter; in “The Gonads” he recalls a urologist who told him, “When I do a prostate exam, it’s easy. I use one finger. Maybe two if I want a second opinion.” Jacobs achieves an instant intimacy with the reader, making his family life as much a part of the narrative as his many meetings with medical theorists and health gurus. He’s a clever humorist who successfully takes his readers on a round trip from reality to absurdity, dispensing solid, valuable health information along with fascinating oddities. (Apr. 10)
From the Publisher
"A.J. Jacobs is very, very bad for your health. He will keep you up reading til 2 a.m., disturbing your circadian rhythms, making you sleep through breakfast and overeat at lunch. He is delicious. He's habit-forming. He will give you infectious titters and terminal glee. Don't let that stop you. Indulge."—Mary Roach, author of Bonk and Packing for Mars

“We can become healthier by learning from AJ's discomfort in this very funny book. He moves us from theory to practice by dragging his body through all the longevity practices.”—Dr. Mehmet Oz, host, "The Dr. Oz Show"

“I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book, and once again, the brilliant A.J. Jacobs had me laughing out loud—and also deciding to change the way I live. Drop Dead Healthy is a rare mixture of the hilarious, the absurd, and the scientifically sound. Who knew it could be so entertaining to read about broccoli puree and shoeless jogging?”—Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

"Can one man go from a 'python that ate a goat' physique to perfect specimen? From Roman soldier workouts to Areca palm plants, from the sublime to the absurd, A.J. has tried it all. I laughed my ass off the wholeway and learned a ton ... including about my ass."—Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek

"Who wouldn't want to be fitter, happier, more productive? In this riotous, madcap book, A.J. Jacobs sets himself an ambitious goal: to become the person we all wish we could be. It's vintage A.J. Do your future self a favor and read this book." —Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein

"You'll burn calories laughing out loud."Shape

“While Jacobs’s attempts at health enlightenment can be hilarious, visits with his grandfather, famed labor lawyer Theodore Kheel, provide the most revealing glimpse into the secrets of aging well.”More

"Jacobs' light touch camouflages the impressive amount of research that goes into each chapter. He reads books and medical reports, interviews experts and scientists as well as enthusiasts on the fringe, then tries everything himself. He brings a skeptic's eye to each point of view, but he remains respectful of even the wackiest ideas... Yes, the results are funny, but this is, at heart, a serious book, with an underlying poignancy: As Jacobs works to get healthier, his beloved grandfather begins his slow decline, reminding us that no matter how healthy we are, it's all going to end the same way."—Laurie Hertzl, The Minneapolis Star Tribune

"You'll exercise your abdominals laughing over his adventures."Entertainment Weekly

“Why go to the gym when you can sit and read a funny book about it instead?”USA Today"Bright, funny and even useful... Jacobs is methodical and savvy..."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"An entertaining guide to the skinny on a healthy life."—Jay Jennings, The San Francisco Chronicle

“His pursuit of perky pecs is sure to enlighten, but read it at your own risk: Side effects may include involuntary fits of laughter.” —Spirit (Southwest Airlines Magazine)

“You’ll learn fascinating facts, but really this book is a testament to the joys—and benefits—of moderation."People

Library Journal
Jacobs (editor at large, Esquire; The Year of Living Biblically) returns with another delightful look at self-improvement. His newest quest? A two-year project to be as healthy as possible. To do this, he consults with health experts in various fields and restructures his daily life and habits around recent health and wellness trends, incorporating new behaviors with each chapter. For example, in "The Quest To Avoid a Sedentary Life," readers are introduced to Jacobs's new treadmill desk. Reading this book is like having a conversation with a friend about his or her latest health kick, albeit one who has thoroughly researched the trends and has health experts on speed dial. VERDICT Not to be read as a how-to manual, Jacobs's account of his journey is engrossing and will have readers chuckling at the measures he takes in pursuit of perfect health. Readers with health and fitness interests will eagerly devour this book; it may also provide inspiration for those attempting to make healthier lifestyle choices. [See Prepub Alert, 10/28/11.]—Rachael Dreyer, Univ. of Wyoming, Laramie
Kirkus Reviews
The bestselling author of The Know-It-All (2004) and The Year of Living Biblically (2007) stretches the experiential journalist shtick to its limit with a cockamamie fitness quest to become the "healthiest man alive." Jacobs, an affable everyman with a ready supply of reliable one-liners, offers a moderately entertaining literary stunt. Some might spend 10 years or more dabbling in this or that fitness craze; the author runs the entire gauntlet in a period of months. One month he's running bare-chested through Central Park like a caveman. The next he's eating off kiddie plates (to reduce portion size) and squatting over the toilet (to facilitate smoother excretions). The author tests a variety of differing health prescriptions but quickly settles into a rut of conflicting information, unsettled medical consensus and eye rolling from his wife. He dedicates each month to a different part of the body--the stomach, the heart, the teeth, etc. By the end Jacobs has donned a bicycle helmet for simple walks around town in order to protect his fragile skull. Any hope of gaining a leg up on the Grim Reaper evaporates into a mist of futile perspiration. Despite his labors, the best advice the author offers is eat less, move more and try to steer clear of pollutants. Periodic visits to his 94-year-old grandfather (who has "the relentless energy and hearty build of Theodore Roosevelt") are welcome detours, alleviating the drudgery and providing much-needed authenticity to an otherwise contrived exercise. The story of granddad's long and rich life as a crusading lawyer (he helped bring "The Gates" art installation to Central Park) lends sharp perspective to Jacobs' somewhat myopic quest. Maybe the goal shouldn't be becoming the healthiest man alive, but to live life to the fullest. Unobtrusive reading material for your next trip on the treadmill.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416599081
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 11/13/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 270,433
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

A.J. Jacobs is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Guinea Pig Diaries. He is the editor at large of Esquire magazine, a contributor to NPR, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly. He lives in New York City with his wife and kids. Visit him at AJJacobs.com.
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Read an Excerpt

Drop Dead Healthy

Chapter 1

The Stomach


The Quest to Eat Right

I’VE MADE A LIST of more than a hundred diets. The Mediterranean diet. The USDA diet. The Michael Pollan eat-what-your-grandparents-ate diet. The Blood-type diet. The Paleo diet. The Okinawa diet. Veganism. Raw foodism. Not to mention the more outré ones, like The Cookie Diet. The Rastafarian diet. The Master-Cleanse diet.

I want to try them all. Well, maybe not The Taco Bell Drive-Thru Diet (it exists). But most of the others. Eventually, that is. The thing is, studies show that if you switch habits too rapidly, the changes don’t stick. So my plan is to wade into my new diets slowly, like my five-year-old son entering a chilly pool.

Which is how I’ve decided on my first dietary reforms: more chocolate, booze, and coffee.

“Salud,” I say to Julie as I pour a cup of Starbucks Gold Coast on my first morning.

That night, our friends Paul and Lisa—who are visiting New York from D.C.—come over for an informal Thai dinner. Before the meal, as we wait for the delivery guy, I hand out glasses of Pinot Noir, and dig out a Toblerone bar from the fridge.

“So when does your health thing start?” Paul asks.

“It started today,” I say, breaking off a triangular chunk.

Paul gives me a questioning look.

“He also had two cups of coffee this morning,” says Julie. “That’s his new health plan: chocolate, coffee, and wine.”

“All very good for you,” I say.

“Huh. Sounds like you’re really committing yourself to this project,” says Paul.

“How about heroin?” asks Lisa. “I hear that it’s loaded with antioxidants.”

Everyone has a good laugh.

Clever. But Paul and Lisa have to acknowledge, science is on my side. Consider:

• As the Mars Corporation gleefully and regularly points out, dark chocolate is, in fact, loaded with antioxidants and has been shown to cut the risk of heart disease and stroke. It also might be good for the eyes: According to at least one study, chocolate improves contrast sensitivity.

• A bunch of studies has shown that alcohol is good for your heart in judicious amounts (one glass per day for women, one to two for men) and that moderate drinkers live longer than both teetotalers and heavy drinkers. That includes drinkers of beer or liquor, not just the highly trumpeted red wine, though red wine does contain the much beloved resveratrol, which might have age-resistant effects.

• Coffee lowers the odds of several types of cancer (bladder, breast, prostate, and liver) as well as Alzheimer’s. It has some downsides (more than two cups can cause sleeplessness and raise cholesterol), and isn’t quite as healthy as its cousin green tea, but drunk in moderation, coffee’s benefits outweigh the risks.

Sadly, I do understand my Vice Diet won’t lead me to everlasting health. Chocolate, alcohol, and coffee are outliers. In general, food that tastes good is bad for the body. As Jack LaLanne liked to say: “If it tastes good, spit it out.”

Which is a bizarre situation. Evolution has betrayed us here. The human body—as miraculous as it can be—is in many ways a malfunctioning machine, a biological version of a 1978 Ford Pinto.

If evolution worked perfectly, healthy food would taste delicious and unhealthy food would make us gag. On Halloween, kids would fill their pails with quinoa and cauliflower. Dairy Queen would sell millions of bok choy Blizzards.

The problem is, we live in a modern world, but we’re stuck with caveman taste buds. When our ancestors roamed the plains, our preferences actually did make sense: Our tastes aligned with healthy foods. We evolved to like sugar because it’s in fruit. And fruit—which is rare in the wild—is high in nutrients, fiber, and calories. We evolved to like salt because the body needs salt to retain water. Salt—also rare in the wild—was an occasional lifesaving treat.

But then we figured out how to extract sugar from plants and put it in pastries and Frappuccinos. We mined salt and stuck it in our soups and burritos and neon-orange cheese snacks. And in large quantities, sugar and salt are not so good for you at all.

We also started to live longer. We cured a lot of infectious diseases, but this presented a new problem. Foods that were healthy in the short run—like those loaded with fat to allow the caveman to survive the famine until the next kill—turned out to be damaging in the long run.

My question is, can I reprogram myself to love healthy food? And can I figure out how to prepare and buy healthy food that doesn’t taste like a roll of double-ply Bounty?

The answer, it turns out, is yes. Sort of. But not yet.

Right now I’m still comforting myself with my holy trinity of chocolate, coffee, and booze—three of the rare foods that are both tasty and healthy.

At least somewhat healthy. The more I research, the more I realize the situation is complicated. Consider chocolate. What’s really healthy is the 100 percent cacao chocolate. No sugar, no butter.

I click onto rawcacao.com and order a bag. The mouthwatering write-up says it’s “certified organic, raw, low fermentation, non-fumigated, fair traded, strict farming standards, training and equipment provided, fair wages, profit reinvestment plan, purity testing.”

My bag of certified-organic-raw-low-fermentation-etc. chocolate arrives three days later. I take a pinch of the sprinkle-size nibs and pop it in my mouth. I can taste the chocolate I know from Hershey’s Kisses, but it’s faint and muffled, like a clock radio stuffed under a heap of pillows. Mostly I taste the bitterness.

“What’s that?” Julie asks, walking into the kitchen for a snack.

“Natural chocolate,” I say.

Reflexively, I offer her the bag. She takes a handful and puts it in her mouth.

I probably should have mentioned the tastes-like-detergent part, but, well, it happened so fast. Also I was curious to see her reaction.

A second. Two seconds. There it is: the same face she made when our friend showed us an Internet video of two women violating several cultural and hygienic taboos.

Taming the Portion


In my quest for healthy eating, I know I’ll have to do better than my Vice Diet. But I still haven’t committed to veganism or Atkins yet. I’m still too overwhelmed by choices.

I do, however, notice that there’s one thing almost every nutritionist agrees on: We eat too much damn food.

We have a size problem. You can see it in the puberty-like growth spurt of portion sizes. In 1916, a bottle of Coca-Cola was 6.5 ounces. Today, it’s 20 ounces. A hamburger used to be about 300 calories. Now you can enjoy Hardees’ Monster Thickburger with 1,420 calories, not counting fries. (The average man should eat about 2,500 calories a day.)

So I’ve decided to split up my food reforms. First, I’ll deal with quantity. Then I’ll take on quality.

How to eat less? One idea is to suppress my appetite. I’ve read reputable studies saying a glass of water before a meal reduces the average number of calories people consume. Same goes for cayenne peppers. And an apple. And a handful of walnuts. So that’s my breakfast this morning: cayenne peppers, water, an apple, and walnuts.

I won’t be hungry for days! Or at least until 10 a.m. when I get the urge to snack again.

I’m going to need some professional help. Which is why, on a Sunday afternoon, Julie and I drive to a house in secluded hilltop Westchester.

I’m here to meet the leaders of the Calorie Restriction movement. You might have heard of CR, as it’s called. It’s the most extreme diet you can find that isn’t technically a psychological disorder or human rights violation.

The idea is that if you live on the edge of starvation, you will increase your life span. If you can survive on 30 percent fewer calories a day—say 1,750 instead of the usual 2,500 for an adult male—you’ll slow down your metabolism and be free of disease. You can easily break the century mark, maybe even the 120 mark or more.

It’s not an insane notion. Actually, there’s a good amount of scientific data behind it, going back to a Cornell University study in 1934. Researchers were able to double the life span of mice when they fed them extremely low-calorie diets. Similar results have been found for worms, spiders, and monkeys.

Scientists still aren’t 100 percent certain why calorie restriction lengthens animal life spans. One theory is that the famished animals produce fewer cell-damaging free radicals. Another says that their bodies sense starvation and switch into a defensive state, slowing their metabolism.

Does it work on humans? Studies are under way, but it’s too soon to tell. The prospect, though, has attracted thousands of Calorie Restrictors, folks who weigh their food on digital scales, plot precious calories on spreadsheets, eat two meals a day, and treat their mouths like an exclusive SoHo VIP club where only the most deserving morsels can enter.

The house is perched on a steep hill atop a series of perilous turns that leave Julie frazzled. “If they want to live forever, they might want to move to a safer street,” she says. Julie drops me off, and drives away to visit some friends nearby. She says I can fill her in later.

A man answers the door. He’s Paul McGlothin, the director of research for the nonprofit Calorie Restriction Society, and coauthor of the how-to book The CR Way.

He’s skinny, but not the POW skinny I was expecting. More like lead-singer-of-an-emo-band skinny.

“Welcome,” he says. “Would you like some tea?”

I agree to some naturally low-calorie dandelion tea. We’re in a room with minimal decorations and a huge window overlooking a forest of oaks. An event organizer by day, Paul is slope-shouldered but sprightly for a man of sixty-four years. He’s got piercing green eyes, a deep voice with a little twang from his native Tennessee, and is partial to wearing tracksuits.

We sit at the table with his wife and coauthor, Meredith Averill, sipping our tea.

“The goal of calorie restriction is not to lose weight. It’s to be as mentally and physically healthy as possible. But you will lose weight.” Paul went from 163 pounds to 136.

Paul eats a big breakfast (e.g., salmon, barley, lots of vegetable soup), a smaller lunch (e.g., veggie smoothie, veggie spread, and sprouted grain bread)—and no dinner.

I have to restrain myself from making the same joke I know they’ve heard a thousand times. Yes, maybe you’ll live longer, but without lasagna and waffles, who the hell wants to? (Or the alternate: You may not live longer, but you’ll sure feel like you’ve lived a century and a half.)

Paul shuts down that cynical line of questioning before I get to it. He loves his gorge-free life. Loves it. “I literally get high from it,” he says. “Calorie restriction makes me feel better in every way—physically and mentally.”

His hand is resting on his chin, the wrist at a sharp ninety-degree angle. I can see a road map of blue veins in his arm.

Among other things, says Paul, the diet clears him of brain fog—he competes in chess tournaments against people half his age. “I played this one guy—a grand master—who was overweight and scarfed down three pizzas. I knew if I could just hold on, his body would crash. So that’s what I did.”

But I’m still puzzled as to how they can sustain the diet in a world that is so food-centric. Humans organize our very lives around meals.

“There’s such an unbelievable myth that eating a lot is a way to have fun,” says Meredith. “But of course, it isn’t. When you’re around CR people, they’re usually quite active and elated.”

Paul jumps in: On Christmas and Thanksgiving, he likes to fast instead of feast. No eggnog necessary: “If you’re on CR, you’re kind of high because you’re feeling good in the first place. You feel like interacting with people and that brings out great conversations.”

When you’re doing CR, you have to make every bite count. Which is why Paul invented something called “savoring meditation.” I had read about the practice in his book, and ask if we could try it out.

Paul obliges, and gets a bowl of blueberries from the fridge.

We close our eyes and breathe in and out for a few minutes, like “leaves blowing in a wind.” Then he starts.

“And can you imagine in your mind’s eye that someone has left you a gift.”

Paul speaks soothingly, in a Mr. Rogers–ish tone.

“And that gift is going to nurture your body in very special ways. And as you enjoy breathing in and out, you’re coming to know that gift is a blueberry. Can you imagine reaching into a bowl and taking just one blueberry, just one, and putting it up to your lips? You begin to smell what that blueberry smells like. And how does it smell? Would it be musty?

“And so in your mind’s eye, you take that blueberry and put it into your mouth . . . and imagine how it might get from your lips to your teeth. And without biting into it, just have it there on the tip of the tongue . . .”

By this time, Paul has me salivating. He’s a tongue-tease.

“Could you taste it on the back of the tongue? On the roof of your mouth? Can you let the taste sensation permeate your entire brain, your entire mouth, your nose?”

I. Want. That. Blueberry.

“And now, can you actually put one blueberry into your mouth in slow motion, just like they do on those instant-replay cameras in sports? And hold it there without biting it? And your brain and your tongue and the roof of your mouth and your cheeks are all participating in the experience. And when you’re ready, can you begin to bite into it? Just very slowly. Can you taste the very subtle skin of the blueberry and how it meshes with the fleshy inside?”

Oh man, can I.

It went on like that for several minutes. I tell you, a blueberry never tasted so good. It’s an odd and goofy ritual, if not bonkers, but if you can’t appreciate a blueberry after doing twenty minutes of savoring meditation, you have a tongue made of stone.

I leave Paul’s house with this lesson: I need to be mindful of what I eat. Maybe I don’t need to spend fifteen minutes contemplating a blueberry. But focusing on what I put in my mouth is a key to health. As Cornell psychology professor Brian Wansink points out in his book Mindless Eating, one of the major causes of the obesity epidemic is that we thoughtlessly shove omnipresent food into always-open maws.

We love to multitask while eating, a sure way to get fat. Studies show that we eat up to 71 percent more when we’re watching TV. (And the number also varies depending on what we’re watching; one study showed that subjects who watched Letterman ate more than those who watched Leno, which seems a good marketing opportunity for NBC.) We eat more when we eat while driving, and working, and walking.

I know whom to blame for this epidemic, incidentally. When I read the encyclopedia, I learned about the father of distracted eating. He was an eighteenth-century British gambling addict who invented a food he could snack on without interrupting his card game. His name was John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. So the humble sandwich, much as I love it, has caused a whole lot of trouble.

The Most Mindful Eater in the World


I get home, determined to be the most conscious and aware eater in America. That went to hell the next day.

I was busy with an article for Esquire magazine—where I work as a writer—and at about 11 a.m., I noticed an empty plastic container and spoon on my desk. Somehow, I had managed to consume an entire cup of syrupy peach slices. It wasn’t me, actually. It was some semisentient, high-fructose-loving, zombified version of me.

I need help. What I need to do is treat myself like a lab rat. I need to work from the outside in. I need to change my food environment. I call up several behavioral scientists—including Sam Sommers at Tufts University, who wrote a book called Situations Matter—to figure out how to design a fat-fighting apartment.

On Wednesday night, I invite—or force—the family to join me for a special dinner. It’s my wife and I, and our three sons—Jasper, who is five, and his twin brothers, Lucas and Zane, who are three.

“That’s quite a setup you have there,” Julie says.

“Thank you.”

My place setting consists of:

• My son’s plastic dinosaur plate, since it’s only nine inches across. (We tend to eat whatever’s on our plate, so smaller plates mean fewer calories.)

• A cocktail shrimp fork, since that will make me eat more slowly than if I had a big fork. (The more slowly we eat, the less total food we stuff in. This is because the body, God bless it, is dumb and slow. It takes twenty minutes for the “I’m full” message to go from the stomach to the brain.)

• A small makeup mirror propped up by my place mat. (Studies show you eat less if you watch yourself doing it.)

Tonight’s dinner is whole-wheat pasta with tomato sauce and carrots. I’ve plated my food in the kitchen so as not to have extra on the table, tempting me.

We’re not a religious family. We don’t say grace. But I want my kids to realize the food didn’t spontaneously generate on their plates.

“Should we talk about where this food comes from?” I ask.

“The grocery store,” says Jasper.

“Well, yes. But even before that, someone had to grow the tomatoes. And someone had to pick them. Someone else had to put them in a box, and someone had to drive them in a truck. So we should appreciate how much it takes to get food on the table.”

My sons pause.

“And after we eat it, it will go in the toilet,” Jasper says.

For the five-and-under set, this is a bon mot worthy of George S. Kaufman. They are off and laughing.

“And after it’s in the toilet, it goes into the ocean,” adds Zane.

I’m still amazed at my sons’ ability to convert any topic—not just food, but airplanes, LEGOs, Australia—into scatology. I guess it’s better than nothing. Food mindfulness doesn’t have to stop in the stomach.

I take a bite and chew. And chew some more. I’ve been reading these pro-chewing websites on the Internet. It’s a surprisingly passionate movement. One member calls it “chewdaism.” They quote Gandhi (“chew your drink and drink your food”) and pro-chewing poems (“nature will castigate those who don’t masticate”). They sell chewing aids, such as a CD that chimes every minute, directing you to swallow. They revere the grandfather of the pro-chewing movement, a nineteenth-century health guru named Horace Fletcher, who counted John D. Rockefeller and Kafka among his followers. They say chewing will cure stomachaches, improve energy, clear the mind, cut down on gas, and strengthen the bones.

Those claims are overblown. But chewing does offer two advantages: You can wring more nutrition out of your food. And more important, chewing makes you thinner, as it forces you to eat more slowly.

Julie wants to ask me something, but I keep my finger in the hold-that-thought position. I chew thirty times, until my noodles are so liquid they slide down my throat.

After fifteen minutes, the kids have abandoned the table. Julie is in the other room checking her e-mail. But I’m still here, alone, chewing my food and watching myself in the mirror. Slow food and children under six—that’s a tricky combination. Something to work on.

Eating for Longevity


Maybe I’ll have better luck with a meal with my grandfather. He’s ninety-four, so I figure perhaps he’s got more patience. And better yet, I can learn a thing or two from him about longevity.

He lives in a small apartment on Sixty-first Street, where I have visited him every couple of weeks for the last ten years. I open the door, and find him in front of his huge computer screen, glasses perched on the tip of his nose, tapping out an e-mail. The font size looks to be seventy-two, about two characters per page. But the point is, he’s approaching the century mark and still typing e-mails.

He gives me his usual raised-fist salutation. “Give me one second to finish this up,” he says.

My grandfather is a remarkable man. His name is Theodore Kheel, and he has the relentless energy and hearty build of Theodore Roosevelt, for whom he was named. If I want to feel insecure, I need only think about his CV.

His job was a lawyer. But that doesn’t begin to describe his range. He worked as a labor mediator, helping to resolve hundreds of strikes—transit workers, bakers, conductors, you name it. He supported the civil rights movement and threw fund-raisers for Martin Luther King, Jr. He owned a midget-pony dealership. Well, that last one didn’t work out so well.

But the point is, he continues to be involved in an absurd number of projects. He promotes education in rural areas via computerized lectures. He’s investing in an eco-friendly hotel in the Caribbean. He encourages sustainable cuisine and fights overpopulation (though he did have six kids before he converted to that cause).

Naturally, in the last couple of years, he’s slowed down. But not totally. At age ninety-two, he started a campaign to make the New York subways and buses free, arguing in op-eds that it would ease traffic congestion.

He is not going gentle. And that’s no doubt one of the secrets to his longevity. The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging—a respected eight-year-long study of more than one thousand New Englanders—concluded that one of the keys is to stay active, connected, involved, and cognitively challenged. You can retire, but you must find something you’re passionate about in your retirement. You need some reason to wake up in the morning.

My grandfather shuffles over to join me at the table. He’s stooped over, but he still has a full head of hair. His eyebrows are thick, shaped like arrows that point to the ceiling.

We eat our meal unhurriedly. I’ve brought my shrimp cocktail fork, which I use to spear a salad. Usually, when he’s finished with lunch, my grandfather smacks his hand on the table. But we’ve been chatting and dining for an hour, and so far there’s no hand-smacking. We would make those slow-food Europeans proud.

We talk about mass transit and the legacy of highway booster Robert Moses (my grandfather is not a fan). We discuss the movie he watched last night: one of his all-time favorites, Inherit the Wind, based on the life of another accomplished lawyer, Clarence Darrow.

“Did you ever meet Clarence Darrow?” I ask.

My grandfather shakes his head.

“But I did see him speak once at City College,” he says.

“You remember anything he said?”

“I do remember.”

“And?”

“Well, it was about the sheer improbability that we even exist. The strange fact that out of millions of people in the world, your mother and father met and decided to get married to each other. And out of the millions of sperm, that the one with your genes was the one that made it to the egg and fertilized the egg. I’ll never forget it.”

It’s a little weird to hear your ninety-four-year-old grandfather talk about sperm. But it’s still a great point. We should be amazed we exist at all. We ought to be in a constant state of wonder. Maybe we should spend fifteen minutes on a blueberry after all.

Checkup: Month 1


It’s been a month since I began Project Health. Here’s where I am: I’ve lost three pounds. The blue digits on my bathroom scale stop flickering at 169. In Julie’s estimation, I’ve gone from looking four months pregnant to three and a half months. This mindful eating is working, at least a little.

Mindfulness has been the big theme of the month. It’s invaded every part of my life. Thanks to reading piles of books about health, I’ve become excruciatingly aware of all my body parts.

When I breathe, I picture the tiny alveoli sacs in my lungs swelling with air. As I type, I visualize the stringlike flexor muscles tugging on my finger bones. As I eat, I imagine the pancreas squirting out its enzyme-filled juice, which swarms the peanut butter in the small intestine.

It’s a mixed blessing, this mindfulness. Because with it comes anxiety. Lots of it.

I’m more aware of all the horrible ways my body can malfunction. The Centers for Disease Control lists hundreds of diseases, running alphabetically from abdominal aortic aneurysm (a ballooning of the aorta) to zygomycosis (a fungal infection). I watched a TED talk from a doctor who said that our bodies are made of 300 trillion cells, and each of these cells is constantly replicating, and it takes just one of those replications to go slightly awry and a cancer could be born. My mother warned me this would happen. She told me the story—which is only half apocryphal—that med students panic their first year when they learn all the diseases. It’s not until the second year that they learn the cures.

I’m more aware of my body’s many imperfections, the aching lower back, the receding gums, the posture of an exhausted marathoner in the twenty-fifth mile.

I’m more aware of all the many, many changes I have to make to be optimally healthy. That fifty-three-page to-do list I keep on my desk, it haunts me.

My overall strategy is to emphasize one body part at a time. That said, whenever there’s an opportunity, I’m also checking off items on the list—no matter which body part is my focus that day.

Last week, for instance, I passed by a plant shop, and stopped in to buy an Areca palm, a task on the fourth page of the list. It’s supposedly good for air quality. Unfortunately, its fronds engulfed our entire living room. The boys had to eat dinner hunched over to avoid the branches. Julie made me return it. I replaced it with five smaller plants known, poetically enough, as mother-in-law’s tongue (they got their name because of the sharpness of the leaves). Mother-in-law’s tongue also effectively cleans the air, according to a NASA study.

But there are hundreds of things left to do. I have to start sleeping longer. I have to eat better and stop swiping mac ’n cheese and pizza crusts off my kids’ plates. And exercise. Aside from an occasional quarter-mile jog in the park, which wipes me out for the next two days, I haven’t yet begun to sweat. That’s got to end. Or to start.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 The Stomach 13

The Quest to Eat Right

Chapter 2 The Heart 29

The Quest to Get My Blood Pumping

Chapter 3 The Ears 53

The Quest for Quiet

Chapter 4 The Butt 63

The Quest to Avoid Sedentary Life

Chapter 5 The Immune System 75

The Quest to Conquer Germs

Chapter 6 The Stomach, Revisited 87

The Quest for the Perfect Meal

Chapter 7 The Genitals 101

The Quest to Have More Sex

Chapter 8 The Nervous System 113

The Quest to Hurt Less

Chapter 9 The Lower Intestine 131

The Quest to Go to the Bathroom Properly

Chapter 10 The Adrenal Gland 139

The Quest to Lower My Stress Level

Chapter 11 The Brain 165

The Quest to Be Smarter

Chapter 12 The Endocrine System 183

The Quest for a Nontoxic Home

Chapter 13 The Teeth 193

The Quest for the Perfect Smile

Chapter 14 The Feet 203

The Quest to Run Right

Chapter 15 The Lungs 213

The Quest to Breathe Better

Chapter 16 The Stomach, Revisited 223

The Continued Quest for the Perfect Diet

Chapter 17 The Skin 235

The Quest to Erase Blemishes

Chapter 18 The Heart, Revisited 247

The Quest for the Perfect Workout

Chapter 19 The Inside of the Eyelid 257

The Quest for the Perfect Night's Sleep

Chapter 20 The Bladder 269

The Quest to Figure Out What to Drink

Chapter 21 The Gonads 279

The Quest to Get More Balls

Chapter 22 The Nose 293

The Quest to Smell Better

Chapter 23 The Hands 303

The Quest for Magic Fingers

Chapter 24 The Back 313

The Quest to Stand Up Straight

Chapter 25 The Eyes 325

The Quest to See Better

Chapter 26 The Skull 335

The Quest to Not Be Killed in an Accident

Chapter 27 The Finish Line 343

Epilogue 349

Appendix A Guerrilla Exercise 353

Appendix B How to Eat Less 355

Appendix C Five Tips on Treadmill Desks 357

Appendix D My Five Foolproof (for Me, at Least) Methods of Stress Reduction 359

Appendix E The Ten Best Pieces of Food Advice I've Gotten Ail Year 361

Appendix F How to Live the Quiet Life 365

Appendix G Five Toxins I Now Avoid 367

Author's Note 371

Acknowledgments 373

Index 377

Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays

Book Recommendations by AJ Jacobs

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
By Joshua Foer


For my health book, I wanted to improve every part of my body - including my brain. So to help with my memory, I read this wonderful non-fiction book by Josh Foer. It's been several months since I finished it, but in keeping with the book's theme, I'll try to write about it from memory. If I recall, Josh entered the USA memory championship as a journalist - and, to his surprise, after months of training, ended up winning. He used mneumonic devices that have been around since ancient Greece - tricks that are fascinating and, in Josh's hands, often hilariously naughty. (To memorize a deck of cards, he once visualized Kareem Abdul Jabar and Rhea Perlman in a compromising position).

The book is many things: A Gladwellian look at the science of memory, an adventure story, a how-to, and a meditation on the meaning of memory in this age of terabyte hard drives. By the way, it wasn't Kareem Abdul Jabar. I misremembered. I looked it up and it was Manute Bol. I should read the book again.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think
By Brian Wansink Ph.d.


While researching my book on health, I had a meal with the most mindful eaters in the world. These folks practice something called 'savoring meditation' in which it takes ten minutes to eat a single blueberry.

Most of us are the exact opposite. We shove food thoughtlessly into our ever-ajar maws. Brian Wansink - a professor of psychology at Cornell - has been studying how we eat for years, and summarizes his findings in this excellent book. We are not rational eaters. We eat more when watching TV. We eat more when we think the accompanying wine is from California as opposed to North Dakota. We don't stop eating when we're full. In one of his more ingenious experiments, Wansink created a soup bowl that was secretly replenished through a pipe in the table, so the bowl never became empty. Guess what? The test subjects just kept on spooning up that soup. If he hadn't ended the experiment, they might have exploded.

This book is enlightening, and will make you thinner as well.

Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart


Gary's brilliant satirical sci-fi novel begins like this: "I have made a major decision: I am never going to die." The narrator of these words is Lenny Abramov, a middle-aged shlub who works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator for an Indefinite Life Extension Company. Through the story of Lenny, Shteyngart takes our current health obsessions, and magnifies them to ridiculous extremes. In this near-future world, we are judged by our LDL to HDL ratio, we load up on resveratrol on dates, we bicker about our friends' testosterone levels. The book is also, as the title indicates, a love story. So even if you don't like health-themed satire, you'll probably be charmed by Lenny's attempts to court the woman of his dreams, the much-younger and equally hilarious Eunice Park.

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 10, 2012

    Fans of AJ Jacobs, a long-time writer for Esquire, will recal

    Fans of AJ Jacobs, a long-time writer for Esquire, will recall that improve his mind he read the Encyclopedia Britannica from Aardvark to Zygote and then wrote "The Know-It-All", to improve his spirit he wrote "The Year of Living Biblically" and now, in his humble quest to achieve bodily perfection, he has written "Drop Dead Healthy". This third of his "humble quest" series is a lot more amusing than the stieg Larsson trilogy (and moreover, it doesn't contain all those confusing Swedish names).
    Drop Dead Healthy takes us through two years of Mr.Jacobs life during which he experiments with the pros and cons of a myriad of health fads, from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. He goes "caveman" by running through Central Park with members of the Paleo movement and sharing their diet of nuts and berries (but passes on the crushed insects, notwithstanding their high protein value). He consults with experts of all stripes and takes to heart a study in the journal Neuro Report showing that volunteers could hold their hands in freezing water longer if they uttered expletives. He reads books like "Slow Death by Rubber Duck" which argue that such toys are made from endocrine disrupting plastics "that will cause my boys to grow breasts the size of Katy Perry's when they're twelve". And in an attempt to combat the "Crimes of Excessive Sedentary Behavior" and expend extra calories while at work he bypasses the webpage advertisements for a $400 treadmill desks by jury-rigging his own, with his laptop teetering atop four cardboard boxes that rest on an end table, and he dares to include a photo of it.
    Once again the writer's wife Julie is there to serve as both a lightning rod and a reality check to his over-the-top excesses, but this time his three sons are also there to bear witness to his eccentricities. One of many memorable moments occurs when Mr. Jacobs surprises his family with an attachment to the household toilet seat that requires a third world squatting pose, which he had read is healthier than than the conventional sitting position.
    All of this is not for naught. After two years of following his regimen and despite some quirky detours, Mr. Jacobs has lost 16 pounds, gone down two belt sizes and more than halved his body fat percentage. His physician congratulates him that his lipid panel numbers "are so good they'll give you a heart attack".
    Amidst the insightful humor and seriously valuable health tips, the book has some poignant and bittersweet aspects as well. We appreciate the writer's attentive visits to his 94 year-old grandfather and we come to know his self-described "eccentric Aunt Marti" who, despite her over-the-top preoccupation with living her life by following all things healthy, passes away at a relatively early age. There is a lot of wisdom among the book's wit, all of which makes for a most enjoyable read and a perfect gift for Mother's Day, Father's Day, National Secretary's Day (April 25), Arbor Day (April 27) or any other occasion one can think of.

    15 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2012

    Interesting, but could have done with more info and less ramble

    Good premise, and an easy read. Slightly depressing though and I didn't learn as much as I wanted to. Frequently I wanted to know where he got a factoid from, but except for the bug sections, there's no info on that and no endnotes. Often the writing was disjointed, makung me wonder if I was missing pages. Lots of abrupt ends! And I could have done without tge constant references to his last book. I guess being agnostic ups your credibility, since he mentions it in almost every chapter? Got tired of that - please talk about health, not religion.

    Basically, if you read this, do it for the random mildly amusing stories, not the health information. And don't expect too much.

    5 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 13, 2012

    Wonderful, funny, informative, I think!

    This book gives this nations obsessiveness on getting healthy, a good and humorous evaluation. From the ridiculous to the possible, A.J. Jacobs explores and attempts to live the many and often contradictory ways to achieve health. I laughed all the way through. I may even try some of the things he found helpful.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 18, 2013

    Highly recommended!

    This book is lough out loud funny. His wife must be a Saiint
    to put up will all his "experiments". You need to read this one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2012

    All this book is about is one person venture into eating healthe

    All this book is about is one person venture into eating healtheir and living a healtheir lifestyle. This is one persons point of view that doesn't cover a lot of areas in the health industry. A complete was of time to read. I learned more watching the new.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2012

    I'm a fan

    I have read all of AJ Jacobs books and they are fun to read, informative, well researched, funny and well written. I highly recommend them all. Can't wait to see what his next challenge will be!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2012

    Fun. At first I thought the style might be a little much, but I

    Fun. At first I thought the style might be a little much, but I soon got into the flow of it and enjoyed it. You learn quite a bit too.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 13, 2012

    Funny and informative

    I am an avid reader of health related material. This was a very funny and thought provoking book. I am now interested in reading some of his other books.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2013

    Forevermore Downfall

    "Yay I'ma punch Photo Finish in the stomach too!" <br>
    Real Fluttershy: "S-she wasn't really that-t bad." <br>
    Pinkie: "Yay we get to kill Chrysalis again!" Takes out her party cannon. <br>
    Vynx: Takes out a walky-talky. "Agents Gordon Freeman and MiCheLLe JoHnsON report to Ponyville immediately." <p>
    But really, continue now or IWILLFALLOFFACLIFF!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2013

    RD

    YAY IMMA MEGA PUNCH HER!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2013

    Nightmare Rarity chapter 21

    Fluttershy shuddered at the words. Twilight tryed zapping Crysilis." Oh. So the itty bitty ponys wanna fight, huh?" She sneered." We'll give you a fight!" Suddenly the Changelings, Timberwolves, and their two leaders were rushing at the ponies. Before they reached them, however, the Elements of Harmony appeared on the ponies. Not Spikes element, though. Nightmare Rarity went for Twilight first." Snap out of it, Rarity!" She yelled as the wrestled on the ground. Twilight punched Rarity in the stomache, but it hardly had an effect. Dashie punched waaayyyy harder. Nightmare Rarity growled and levitated Twilight in the air." Put me down!" She screeched. Laughing at Twilights weak attempt at escaping, she threw her across Ponyville. The others were busy fighting Changelings and Timberwolves. Soon the hiding ponys came out to fight. The Cutie Mark Crusaders, The Cake family, everypony. Finally Rarity found who she was looking for: Photo Finish. Making Fluttershy a model, but not her a designer? That was uncalled for, and Nightmare Rarity wanted to teach her, and everypony else who had wronged her, a lesson.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 8, 2013

    Enjoyed it very much.

    I always enjoy A. J. Jacobs' books. Like his others, this isn't a "how to" type of book. He enjoys experimenting, using himself as the guinea pig, and reports what he finds. There are gems of information as you read and a wonderful sense of humor that makes the book highly readable.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    Funre Fun read

    Informative and entertaining

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2013

    Drop Dead Healthy:

    Hilarious read

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2013

    Couldn't put it down!

    This book, as all other A. J. Jacobs books I've read, has been both hilarious and fascinating. I now have a great mental archive of cool facts to annoy my husband with, ha!
    Honestly, I really enjoyed this book and definitely learned something along the way.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2012

    Ivyheart

    I see no kitty. *grabs his scruff and brings him to the next result*

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2012

    Brownkit

    Ok whats that smell grandma look a bad kitty

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2012

    A stump

    100 mice

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2012

    Very enjoyable read

    A.J. makes this quest of his an entertaining and informative story. His wife and kids have a lot of patience with him as he goes through his "transformation". Great read.

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  • Posted May 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A fun read

    This book was a fun if somewhat scatter-shot approach to being fit.
    Worth reading for the entertainment value, and I did pick up a few interesting health tips along the way

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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