Skepticism is Not an Excuse to Ignore Your Health

“First of all come great dreams, then a feeling of laziness, and finally a witty or clever excuse for remaining in bed.” – Søren Kierkegaard

A few years ago, I interviewed Pamela Peeke for a U.S. News piece about exercise. I’ll never forget our conversation. She had a husky voice and swore like a trucker, and I liked her instantly.

While the current mood of health advice is tender — we acknowledge that exercising and eating healthy are hard and “every little bit counts” — Peeke’s advice is to pull your head out of your ass and save your life.

Getting healthy “isn’t just to fit in your skinny jeans or run a 5K,” Dr. Peeke said during our call. “Let’s get down to the brass tacks: if the building was burning, could you get out?”

Peeke once hosted a Discovery miniseries called Could You Survive?, where average Americans were faced with “wild ass obstacles” (her wording) like scrambling up a rooftop to escape a simulated fire. All “died.”

Despite regular attendance at yoga and tango classes, I’m pretty sure I’d be among the dead.

“You can’t just kick back and expect to slip-slide through life,” Peeke told me. As we age, “everyone, sedentary or not, will need to get creative” about how we preserve ourselves.

This seems obvious — we know that continual adaptation is the basis of survival. Yet, oddly, most Americans aren’t making much of an effort to survive. In fact, we often spend more time applying our creativity to coming up with reasons to do nothing at all…

Some write off dedicated diet and exercise regimens as a superficial preoccupation with physical appearance.

Some scoff at those who flaunt their socioeconomic status and/or buy into left-wing quackery by shopping at Whole Foods.

While I’ve managed (through considerable effort) to see beyond these stereotypes (sometimes), I’m guilty of another prejudice: automatically assuming that all diet and exercise fads are stupid.

But aren’t these prejudices just excuses for laziness? Regardless of whether organic foods and CrossFit are a guaranteed golden ticket to health, they’re worth a try. Or at the very least, the possibility that they might be inessential is not a reason to buy food with chemical residues and bury your kettlebells in the garage.

And this is where my anti-inflammatory diet adventure began…

I’ve always believed that regular exercise, plus a “sensible” diet of mostly whole grains, fruits and veggies, legumes and little meat, is enough. Right Michael Pollan? We need only choose food over food-like substances in order to stay pretty healthy.

Since I was mostly doing this, and obviously doing more than most Americans, my health food endeavors ended here. I dug my heels in on this point, even as I started to feel less and less healthy. It was clear that my current diet wasn’t working.

I’m as cynical as anyone when it comes to health research. Everyone’s eager to publish a new study or report a new finding. The “final answer” flip-flops so often it seems like no matter what we do we’ll only end up back where we started, so we might as well stand still.

Besides, when any diet becomes suddenly popular, we can guess that it will soon fizzle. Atkins. South Beach. Paleo. Low carb. High carb. Low fat. High fat. No meat. All meat. And lately, gluten-free — since celiac is the “trendy disease for rich white people.” These days, anything other than a balanced diet of whole foods sounds chimerical, the prerogative of people with too much time and money on their hands.

But, like David Katz, one of my favorite health essayists, says: the fact that health is such a hotbed for doubt and debate gives way to making assertions based on what we wish were true.

It was perhaps for all these reasons — skepticism, laziness, bias and denial — that I declined to make big changes to my diet. Right up until I had a grand awakening. Or rather, a grand fire in my lower abdomen, awakened by 90% of foods, especially whiskey and Doritos.

First I saw a doctor, something I am loath to do (but after a harrowing morning on WebMD, I was convinced I had liver failure). He said my intestinal lining might be eroded and told me to cut out chocolate, coffee and alcohol. I cut chocolate.

After scant improvement, I embarked on a series of experiments, including creative ways to cut back on coffee and alcohol: I tried switching from liquor to beer. I started drinking juice with only a speck of whiskey. I watered down my coffee with milk.

As the pain persisted, I looked into several diets, including gluten-free. Ultimately I landed on Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet. I’d heard his name so many times that I cringed at first. But deep down, I seemed to know that cutting back on whole wheat flour, dairy, sugar, caffeine, processed foods and additives was something I needed to try. I’ve always been sensitive to foods. I just didn’t want to be.

In the spirit of Lindy West simultaneously mocking and trying the Gwyneth diet (this is a great read), I decided to gag and proceed anyway. So for the past four weeks I’ve been paying double for organic produce and grass-fed beef. I identified chia seeds for the first time at Sprouts Market and scooped my first bag. I now drink kefir. I take a $50 probiotic supplement.

And it all seems to be working.

It still feels new age to me. It’s also been an enormous pain in the ass. Especially cutting back on bread and dairy — they’re everywhere, and when I decline them, people either lift an eyebrow or panic at my self-torturous diet extremism. The only people who aren’t skeptical are those who’ve done it as well and realized they, too, feel much better.

By the way, I’m not saying everyone needs to try the anti-inflammatory diet. I’m just saying that for whatever (cruel, cruel, cruel) reason, it seems to be right for me.

Also, in response to skepticism over the gluten-free trend, it’s true that most people probably don’t have celiac disease (from what I hear, you’d know). But wheat sensitivity isn’t uncommon – so once again, it might be worth testing.

All in all, overhauling my diet has been frazzling and exhausting, with many dead ends and many instances of discovering I’ve done the complete opposite of what I’m supposed to do (juice, beer, milk). Despite my profession, I’ve found I still have a lot to learn about nutrition and physiology.

But the most interesting discovery has been this:

I drastically reduced my coffee and alcohol consumption and I’m still alive.

It gives me great confidence. I’m more adaptable than I thought.

I like Dr. Peeke’s blunt advice that we need to work hard and get creative in order to survive. If doing what we’ve always done stops working, we need to let ourselves see it. Especially because our bodies change as we age and so does the quality of food. Though it’s not easy to constantly experiment and work to improve our health, what other choice do we have?

I don’t know about you, but I want to live. Even if it means following a celebrity doctor-endorsed diet. And maybe even trying CrossFit.

Is there anything you’ve written off as a health myth that might be worth a closer look?

P.S. I just found a recent interview of Dr. Peeke on HuffPost Live, where she’s asked what people should do about the constant barrage of scary research claims, like the one that sitting may be linked with cancer. Her response was, delightfully: first calm down, and then stand up.

P.S.S. Here’s my U.S. News story with Pamela Peeke: Your Guide to Exercising Through the Ages

xo Chelsea


I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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