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Healthy By Exclusion
Howdy everyone! Today we’ll look at a concept that I’ll call “idea nutrition.” I find that I benefit when I break down my ideas, values, and habits (and basically every other aspect of life) into individual ingredients. It seems like an odd concept, so let’s jump in.
ONE FROM THE AGES
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
- Henry David Thoreau
ONE FROM TODAY
Author of Zen Habits, Leo Babauta on the concept of subtraction:
The tendency of our lives, businesses, art, is to keep adding: more furniture, clothes, gadgets, tasks, appointments, features to websites and apps, words to our writing. Continual addition isn’t sustainable or desirable:
Too many things to do means we’re always busy, with no time for rest, stillness, contemplation, creativity, time with loved ones.
Overwhelming customers with choices means they’re less likely to make an actual choice. They’d prefer that we curate the best.
Too many possessions is clutter, visual stress, cleaning, maintenance, debt, less happiness.
Too many tasks makes it harder to focus on any one thing or get anything done.
Too many things we want to learn means we never learn anything well.
Source: The Necessary Art of Subtraction
ONE FROM US
The above quote from Thoreau is one of those pieces of wisdom that, when I first encountered it, burned immediately into my head. It has become a leading aspect of my personal canon of “words to live by.” My interpretation is this: in any decision, conflict, or problem, look first to things that you can remove. Not feeling physically optimal? Look first at what you can remove from your diet rather than to add a new prescription or supplement. Feeling stressed or overwhelmed? Try removing commitments from your schedule or toxic relationships to your life before you try to squeeze in more meditation, a weekly massage, or a new “de-stressing” activity. Is the budget not lining up? Ask what expenses you can let go of. Well, that last one seems obvious, but I think you get the point.
We can expand this concept even further to how we judge value. We can assess everything in our lives—from foods to political ideas—based on what they leave out not by what they include.
I once reconnected with an old high school friend after many years. He was excited to tell me about his new job at a health shake store, given my reputation as the “healthy” one in our friend group. These businesses were popping up everywhere at the time. They sold only a variety of shakes from powders from a single multi-level marketing company. They made a shake for every occasion—meal replacement, pre-workout, post-workout, weight loss, weight gain, pregnancy—all providing essential vitamins and minerals. I accepted the proffered shake and hid my skepticism until I got home to research the ingredients. The shake did contain plenty of vitamins, minerals, and protein but, as expected, those good nutrients brought along several less wholesome friends: sugar, food coloring, thickeners, and hydrogenated vegetable oils (this was before the ban on trans-fat).
These wonder-shakes illustrate a critical difference in how we evaluate foods. Sure, the shakes provide plenty of “good” things, but at what cost? Vitamins, minerals, and protein are everywhere; that’s the easy part of eating well. I could match all of the shake’s nutritional benefits with a chicken breast and a handful of spinach. We need to look at the entire ledger of positive and negative ingredients. From the same list of ingredients, we could view these shakes as a healthy food with a few unfortunate but acceptable additions or see them for what they really are: a sweet treat made entirely of processed elements including the few fortified “healthy” ones.
To those of you who value nutrition and make a habit of reading labels, this might seem an obvious point. As in the practice of looking first to subtraction to solve a problem, evaluate the “health” and merit of all things by exclusion not by inclusion—by what they don’t have rather than what they do.
A piece of legislation might seem beneficial, but how many unrelated extras does it include? Often our representatives get so enamored with their proposed changes that they allow their political opponents to tack on clauses that redraw district lines, bring money to their constituency, or any number of unrelated (and often harmful) changes.
Well-intentioned ideologues can hyper-focus on solving a single injustice or protecting one specific demographic of the citizenry, that they support drastic sweeping changes to otherwise beneficial institutions.
Rather than prioritize only the promised benefits of a new idea, look at the entire scope. There are a lot of ways to improve the world. But, much like the vitamins in my shake, which ideas retain their value when we also look at their included (and often hidden) costs?
If you dig the idea of elimination as the first step to problem-solving, check out my article on subtraction. If you’re intrigued by judging value by exclusion, not inclusion, you’ll probably enjoy this look at positive and negative rights.
Thanks for being with me today and remember, life is too short to be normal.