Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why Do We Care About Diet, Lifestyle and Health?

Why Do We Care? 

I think there’s a worthwhile question to ask ourselves: why do we care about diet, lifestyle or health? 

To answer this question we need to back to basics and indulge in a little philosophy. 

The cliché: ‘what is the meaning of life?’ doesn’t really ask ‘what is the definition of life?’, because that would be fairly simple, but rather asks ‘what is the purpose or significance of life?’.  The purpose of life is quite simple too, it’s reproduction: the passing of our DNA to the next generation.  Beyond that is that there are no other inherent purposes and no inherent significance.  If we want purpose and significance we have to create our own (but then to go into semantics I think that would be better described as ‘the purpose/significance in life’ rather than ‘the purpose/significance of life’). 

Purpose can be defined as: 

1.      The reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
2.      An intended or desired result; end; aim; goal. 

I’ll going to repeat myself: beyond reproduction there are no other inherent purposes in life.  I think this could be a reason why humans are inherently religious, because religion tries to add purpose to our lives.  The problem is most religious purposes assume an afterlife and at least one deity that you essentially ‘suck up’ to (if they are omniscient they know your intentions).  I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe in free will so that idea makes no sense to me.  Morality is another purpose on the Wikipedia page for ‘the Meaning of Life’.  I like morality, but to what end?  Is life merely a checklist of: ‘yes I have been honest, compassionate, forgiving, etc’? 

Sometimes I prefer to take a simple and reductionist approach with otherwise complex problems to cut through all the noise.  I see the goal in life as being to make this equation positive and then to make it as high as possible: 

Quality of Life   x   Years Lived 

Quality of life isn’t about lots of money, a big house, a fast car, etc (although if that’s what makes you legitimately happy, then go for it).  Rather it’s about how you feel on average at each moment of every day.  Years lived simply multiplies the average quality of life 

* In this basic model the goal of morality would be to improve other people’s quality of life

** If you’re feeling utilitarian simply multiply the equation by the number of people.  Utilitarianism is a very logical set of ethics that’s very difficult to do ‘perfectly’.  One criticism could be that it neglects individual freedom, so if you’re feeling libertarian you can add that condition. 

What’s The Relevance? 

What does this have to do with diet, lifestyle or health?  Everything. 

The only logical reason I see why anyone would care about either is to improve their quality of life and/or years lived (assuming quality of life is positive).  In this respect diet, lifestyle and health are means to an end, and not the end in themselves.  There are many lessons to taken from this:

  • Chasing any diet should not interfere with health and chasing health should not interfere with quality of life.
  • You are not a slave to your diet, your diet is a slave to you.  Paleo or any other diet is a tool, a means to end, rather than end in itself.
  • Don’t eat just to improve your health, eat delicious foods that make you feel good for the whole day (and don’t starve yourself to lose weight).  Don’t exercise just to burn calories or improve your health, exercise to improve self-confidence.  Don’t just reduce stress and improve sleep just to improve your health, reduce stress and improve sleep to improve your life
  • It’s important to also realise that health has more inputs that just diet and lifestyle.  And that quality of life has many more inputs than just health.  In our goal to improve quality of life we shouldn’t ignore these other factors. 

There are probably others, but I’ll leave it there.  In the modern world it’s easy to get distracted from our long term goals.  We should try to actively remember them and make decisions with them in mind

* I like Robb Wolf’s phrases of ‘health, performance and longevity’ and ‘look, feel and perform’ as a guide to how you’re going because all of them are ultimately inputs into quality of life (except longevity) (whereas stuff like BMI and cholesterol, not so much) 

Further Reading:
(1) The Meaning of Life - Wikipedia
(2) There’s more to health than food, and there’s more to life than health

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