The Addition Culture

I often hear people ask a variation of the following question:  what food (drink, pill, etc) could I be eating (drinking, taking, etc) that would make me healthier?  It sounds like a fair question at first, right?  However, not all questions are created equal.  Before analyzing your health and lifestyle, it would thus seem prudent to first figure out if this is the right question to be asking.

What should I add questions, like the one aforementioned, immediately sound an alarm in my head.  This is because people who ask this type of question are operating (often blindly) under the assumption that health is largely gained through the process of addition.  I, however, start with a very different assumption, i.e., I believe that the key to getting healthier comes largely through the removal of things from our diets and lifestyles, not through adding things.  Now, I certainly realize that I’m in the minority with this opinion (well, maybe not amongst the regular readers of this blog, but certainly with the general public).

The reason that this opinion isn’t very popular is because we live in an addition culture. In other words, we live in a culture that desperately wants you to believe that addition is the path to health.  Why is this so?  Cynic that I am, I believe the answer is simple: people who sell magical pills (and things like healthy açaí smoothies) clearly have an ulterior motive to promote an addition culture.  To put it in economic terms, they have a financial incentive for you to believe in the power of addition because subtraction just isn’t all that profitable.

Many people the world over have lived long and healthy lives without things like açaí or goji berries. Now, these types of berries may not necessarily cause harm when eaten (and they may even be good for you), but they aren’t mandatory to eat in order to have good health or achieve longevity either. Paying absurd prices for them, then, seems foolish.

I also think it’s easy to forget that many doctors are more interested in prescribing pills than they are in making sure you stay healthy. In his online notebook, Nassim Taleb wrote that Michel de Montaigne realized (back in the 16th century) that the last thing a doctor needs is for you to be healthy. This is a variation of the agency problem, which basically means that there is a conflict of interest at play in the doctor-patient relationship. If everyone were living a vibrant healthy life, what would doctors and pharmaceutical companies charge people for?

It’s easy to forget that the human body has this amazing ability to heal itself, if we let it. Particularly when it comes to health, I believe the power of subtraction plays a bigger role than does addition. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting an extreme position here, because obviously we do need some things to live. And adding or replacing some things in your diet or lifestyle can be beneficial too. However, addition often adds complexity and increased risk without adding much upside.

Think about it this way, the most potent health advice in the last 60 years was negative advice: Don’t smoke!  Most of us, however, are bombarded with the message that addition is the path to health everyday. And sadly, even the most thoughtful and bright people in the world often mistake repetition for truth.

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5 Comments on “The Addition Culture”

  1. Anonymous says:

    My favorite version of this is the question, “what should I eat to lose weight?” It’s like saying, “what should I buy to save money?”

  2. [...] when it comes to social media, I think negative advice is more valuable.  Accordingly, however tempting it may be, there is one thing I think you should [...]

  3. [...] diet of fish and vegetables may not necessarily be what’s making him healthy. In our addition culture, however, that seems to be our first intuition, or at least its my first intuition anyway. I [...]


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