Saturday, May 10, 2014

Overhauling the Body: Choosing a Diet

 Alan Cleaver Start diet today

Our understanding of a healthy human diet changes constantly. Diet theories abound. Should I use the low carb Paleo Diet, the no meat Vegan Diet, the Low Fat Diet, the Gluten Free Diet, the Blood Type Diet? Each diet theory claims to safely improve health and reduce weight. And, each diet theory warns of the health risks of the other diet strategies.

I decided to use common features from many different theories and to incorporate balanced nutrition with a program of moderation. The daily macronutrient breakdown for my diet is as follows:

2730 Calories
45% (307g) from Carbohydrates
30% (205g) from Protein
25% (76g) from Fat[1]

I limit saturated fats and cholesterol to always being below the recommended amounts:

Saturated Fats < 16g
Cholesterol < 200mg[2]

Documenting everything I consume is the only way I have found to keep my diet honest. Prior to keeping a record, I was certain that I was a healthy eater. I ate lots of fruit, low fat broiled meats like chicken breast and fish, some vegetables, and hardly any sweets (but lots of crackers and pretzels). The problem was not so much what I ate, but how much I ate and how severely lopsided my macronutrients were. When I started keeping track, I found that my carb intake was through the roof. I consumed excessive saturated fats and cholesterol. And, I didn’t take in enough protein.

The process of recording everything you eat is tedious, but there are numerous apps and internet resources available to make it a little less so. [3] Search the internet and find diet tracking resources that work for you. Shoot me a message if you want to know about the one I chose.

The foods included in my diet are fairly simple:

·     Dairy:  Skim Milk, Low Fat Cheeses, and Eggs
   Mostly egg whites and no more than one egg yolk per day.
·       Meat: Boneless Skinless Chicken/Turkey Breasts or Fish
All meats are broiled or baked.
·       Fruits, Nuts, and Vegetables: Any and all
Try to take in lots of leafy greens and be sure to eat a wide range of colors
·       Fats: Olive Oil
 I always substitute olive oil for butter, margarine, or other cooking oils
·       Grains: Whole Grains Only
·       Supplements:
Calcium Citrate with Vitamin D (for bone density)[4]
Fish Oil (healthy fat)[5]
Glucosamine/Chondroitin (for arthritis)[6]
Resveratrol (anti-aging)[7]
Pro Biotics (promotes gut health)[8]

I cleaned out my kitchen and removed any foods that aren’t included in the list above. I found that if I have unhealthy, delicious foods around, I will eat them 100% of the time.

Do not be a food Nazi! One stumbling block that gets in the way of any self-improvement plan is perfectionism. As humans, we are intrinsically imperfect and that is as it should be. Diet should be a lifestyle change. Set your goals for the long game, not a quick fix. If I meet my diet goals more days than not, then I am a success!


Friday, May 9, 2014

Overhauling the Mind: Why "Gut Feelings" Can Be Unreliable

A “gut feeling” is an automatic, cognitive, short-cut that provides a crude, organic, meta-analysis of the culmination of one’s entire life experience relating to a given concept.

Life experiences are three-fold. First, they involve sensations,  real and/or imagined sensory stimulation from the environment such as light, sound, fragrance, texture, etc. Second, experiences require cognitions and perceptions. These are your thoughts about the sensory stimuli. Your eyes and brain may sense a light, and then your mind interprets, “Oh, the car in front of me just put on the brakes.” Third, experiences are bathed in varying levels of emotion. So, the car in front of you suddenly hits the brakes and you feel a quick tinge of fear that you may rear end the other car. Emotions are the body’s security system. They evolved as a mechanism to aid us in survival. Emotions warn us of danger and reward us for behaviors that have historically resulted in increased odds for survival of the species.

In the course of a lifetime, you have countless experiences covering innumerable concepts. Some of these experiences are available to the conscious mind, but most are not. It would be impossible to function if you had to process your lifetime of experiences every time you had to answer a question, make a decision, or assess a situation. So, the mind provides the short cut we call the “gut feeling.”

If I ask, “Do you like raisins?” the answer will lie in an overview of every life experience you have ever had with the concept called, “raisin.”

…raisins are dehydrated grapes
…the dancing California Raisins
…raisin bran cereal
…raisins look like flies
…raisins are high in antioxidants
…as a kid, I threw up after eating a box of raisins
…raisins are sweet
…raisins have a funny texture
…I got raisins in my lunchbox when I was in grade school
…raisins smell bad
…and on and on and on and on

But, since filtering through these millions of experiences would be impossible and impractical, your mind makes a snap shot using the most dominant, overshadowing emotion related to the concept called, “raisin.” This provides your gut feeling and your answer… “No, raisins are gross.”

The gut feeling is necessary to navigating the complex terrain of human life. Without it, we would be paralyzed. However, it is also the fundamental cognitive error that interferes with human advancement. Our nature, like all animals, is to accept gut feelings as “truth.” If I approach a squirrel with the intention of giving it a walnut, the squirrel’s gut feeling may be that I am a threat, so the squirrel runs away. The truth is that I intended to help the squirrel by giving it food. 

Intuition "feels" like truth, but is not truth. Truth is based in fact and possess objective reality. Gut feelings only sometimes coincide with truth. When a gut feeling is occasionally validated as actual truth, our nature is to interpret this as evidence of accuracy. However, we tend to ignore the more frequent occaisions when our gut feelings have been proven wrong.

So, if I am interested in finding actual "truth," then I must understand that my intuition is an extremely fallible resource, completely dependent on my very limited and unique fund of life experiences. To find “truth,“ I must test my gut feeling against objective litmuses like logic, mathematics, physical properties, etc. The gut feeling is a necessary place to start, but it can be a foolish place to end.

The ability to override “gut feelings” is the characteristic that enables the human to operate beyond the confines of biological and environmental programming. Every animal on the planet is a slave to gut feelings. Throughout the majority of human history, we have operated exactly like every other species in this respect. However, the advent of logic, mathematics, and the scientific method, has provided a means for humans to break the bonds of our animal nature and rise above superstition and intuition. It is a tragedy that so few take advantage of this magnificent opportunity.

Overhauling the Spirit: Finding Purpose in Childhood Memories

Freud emphasized the influence of early experiences on personality development. Recently, I explored memories of my own solitary, fantasy-play themes from childhood. Solitary play, when a child is playing alone with only simple toys and his/her imagination,  is a pure reflection of the child's inner world. What I found was a fascinating consistency in patterns that have endured throughout my life! I discussed the phenomenon with my girlfriend who was, likewise, able to recognize play themes that became woven into the very fabric of her personal identity and sense of purpose.

I grew up on the coast of South Carolina. My parents took me to the beach as regularly as parents from other places might have taken their kids to the park. After swimming, body surfing, and feeding some of my snacks to the seagulls, I always built an elaborate sand castle with multiple walls and moats to protect the it from the incoming tide. My failure rate at this game was 100%, but I gained huge satisfaction from re-fighting this losing battle of frantically fortifying my creation against ever advancing waves. The theme of the underdog, bravely taking on impossible odds and fighting until the end resonated inside of me.

At home, I liked to play smash up derby with my toy cars. I would repeatedly crash two cars together in head on collisions until one of the cars capsized. The winner would be the car that landed with all four tires on the ground. Some cars were “good guys” others were “bad guys.” My favorite car was the oldest, most beat up vehicle in my collection. The dilapidated car was an old veteran of the game, battle worn and over the hill, but with such heart that, win or lose, it would fight with its last ounce of strength.

Fighting for the underdog continues to provide a deep sense of meaning in my life. For good or ill, I equate suffering for a good cause with nobility. I have always considered myself peculiar in that, while “winning” in a challenge is nice, it has never been my top priority. For me, "fighting the good fight” takes precedence above all else. Giving my best effort and enduring whatever difficulties that might emerge, represent my gut level measures of success. Winning and goal achievement are wonderful, but of much less importance than demonstrating fortitude and being on the side of protecting the vulnerable.

My girlfriend's early fantasy play involved pretending to organize elaborate fashion shows. Her role was always to provide support and encouragement to aid her imaginary friends in successfully “starring” in the shows. For my girlfriend, her own inner knowledge of the importance of her contributions and NOT recognition from others, defined nobility of character. As an adult, creativity, fashion, and working “behind the scenes” continue to shape her personal sense of meaning.

What were the themes of your fantasy play as a child? Do those themes continue to play out in your adult life? I would love to hear your stories.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Overhauling The Mind: 4 Steps to Improving Thinking Skills

1. Accept Being Wrong
  • In order to effectively navigate life the human mind is designed to constantly take shortcuts. The brain uses tiny bits of data, a few pieces of a given puzzle, and then compensates for the missing pieces with its “best guess.” The result is a tendency for humans to be wrong… a lot!
  • Optical illusions are possible, because the brain automatically fills in the spots where visual information is missing by using patterns and expectations from past experience. [1] In other words, what you think you see may not be what is actually out there!
  • If you blindfold someone, hold and apple under her nose, and have her bite a piece of raw potato, she will be fooled into thinking she bit a piece of apple. The brain takes a small amount of information, smell and texture, and makes a judgment, "I must have bitten an apple." [2]
  • This also happens when we meet new people. We know very little about the new acquaintance, but quickly judge his character, "He seems dishonest." When we get to know him, reality fills in the blanks and we find that he is extremely trustworthy.[3]
  • There is a direct correlation between how easily you overcome your own biases (traps that lead to being wrong) and IQ level. The smarter you are, the easier it is to overcome your biases (accepting that you are wrong).[4] 
  • Critical thinkers examine issues from many different angles, so the world operates more in shades of gray, than of black and white. Being wrong feels exactly like being right... until someone PROVES you are wrong.[5]
2. Beware of Cognitive Traps
  • There are many ways we fool ourselves into believing in things that are absolutely not true. Many cognitive traps are just side effects of how humans are wired. Because they tend to crop up in all people, these traps require diligent work on our part to overcome. 
  • Confirmation Bias is a trap wherein you believe that you have determined a "truth"  based on rational thinking, but in actuality, you have simply dismissed all evidence disputing your pre-existing belief and accepted all information confirming said belief.
    • Example 1: You don't believe in global warming, so you disregard the 97% of climatologists who support global warming and accept the 3% who dispute this phenomenon. You may reason that there is a conspiracy in the climatology community. Conspiracy is a catch-all explanation that is very rarely accurate.[6] 
    • Example 2: You think immunizations cause autism, so you disregard the avalanche of research supporting the efficacy of immunization, but believe the one flawed study linking vaccines to autism. You may reason that there is a conspiracy in the medical science community.[7] 
  • Hindsight Bias is a trap based on the idea that people should be able to predict the future. Have you ever been stumped by a riddle and after hearing the solution you thought, “Wow, I should have easily figured it out something so obvious”? In truth, since you do not have the ability to predict the future, the solution to the riddle was certainly NOT obvious.[8] 
  • Empathy Bias is similar to hindsight bias, but is projected on others rather than self. If a friend is in a bad relationship, it may seem obvious to you that your friend should end the relationship. You may consider her reluctance to do so, as “stupid.” However, when you, yourself have been in bad relationships, this “obvious” solution of breaking it off was not so obvious. Why was your friend’s relationship problem so simple for you to solve, but your relationship problem so complicated? The answer is a failure on your part to develop an empathetic understanding of your friend's situation. Real empathy requires setting aside your own egocentric nature and taking the time to cognitively experience things from the other person’s perspective.[9 This skill requires a lifetime of practice and a very high level of emotional maturity.
3. Trust Evidence Over Emotion
  • In some ways, humans are not very different from lower animal species. We almost always operate from “gut feelings,” or emotions. After making an emotional judgment, we create rationalizations (poorly reasoned arguments) to justify why these feelings, and resulting beliefs, are accurate. 
  • To whatever degree possible, critical thinkers start from a neutral position and do not invest their respective egos in pre-existing beliefs. Good critical thinkers allow the evidence to determine the accuracy of a piece of information. Ego, “because it is my thought it must be true,” is by far the biggest obstacle to rational thinking. 
  • Overcoming the ego obstacle requires that truth, as determined by objective evidence, always take precedence over our instinctual need to be right. All it takes is a lifetime of practice.
4. Learn to Metacognate
  • Metacognition means, “thinking about your own thought processes.” Most of us have the tendency to allow our emotion thoughts to lead us around by the nose. Dumb animals operate in this manner. This tendency to attach our egos to the accuracy of our gut feelings is a root cause for ignorance.
  • If our fail safe is to assume that our thought processes are always accurate, we remain trapped in a bubble of ignorance. 
  • Fortunately, if we consistently apply humble skepticism, logic, and metacognition, humans can escape the intellectual prison created by the blind trust of gut feelings.