A.J. Jacobs’ new book, Drop Dead Healthy, chronicles his efforts to become as healthy as possible over the course of a year and provides plenty of laughs along the way. Jacobs, the author of previous best-sellers The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically, recently spoke with RELEVANT and provided a revealing look at a
man who’s learned nearly everything imaginable about improving one’s mental, physical and spiritual life—and isn’t afraid to share it.
Q The new book is a continuation of what you call “immersive journalism.” What does that mean to you?
A Basically, I take a topic and dive right in and turn myself into a human guinea pig. For my first book, I tried to improve my mind by reading the Encyclopaedia Brittanica from A to Z and learn everything I could. Then after that, I decided to work on my spirit and took a crash course in religion because I knew nothing about religion—I’m Jewish, but in the same way Olive Garden is Italian. I dived in to learn all about the Bible by following every single rule over the course of a year. Now I’m trying to improve my body. This book is about the two years I explored all the medical advice in the world to see what works.
Q You’ve really hit the zeitgeist this time—people obsess on how to lose weight. What’s the strangest thing you learned about dieting?
A The book isn’t just about food and the belly but about exercise, stress, sleep, sex and feet—any part of the body we’ve tried to improve. In terms of dieting, it’s quality and quantity in eating that matters—to keep quantity down, it turns out Mom is right: chew your food. There’s a movement online called Chewdaism. They believe we should chew all our food at least 50 times per mouthful to get all the nutrients and slow down our eating. That’s excessive because if you do that, you’ll spend a day and a half eating a sandwich. So I’m now a reformed member of Chewdaism. I chew a lot, just not as much as they do.
Q You learned all sorts of strange things, like drinking coffee especially before you work out.
A I tried all the crazy diets. The raw food diet—thought it would be less time-consuming than cooking, but quite the opposite. It actually took more time not to cook because you had to prepare more ways and clean a juicer and dehydrating. I did the paleo diet, like cavemen, where there’s all meat—no greens, potatoes or dairy. They all work in the sense that you’re more aware of what you’re putting in your body, so you put in less. In the end, everyone agrees refined carbs like white bread and sugar are the worst, even worse than fat.
Q What other insights did you gain?
A I went to Central Park for a workout where they believe we should work out in nature. We went out to the park, took off our shoes and shirts, and tossed boulders, climbed trees. It looked silly but felt great. Then we went to Philadelphia, the home of smell and taste research. I learned there that smell is linked to your mental health. People who lose their smell tend to get depressed. They say it’s important to keep your sense of smell sharpened and exercise it like anything else. Do stop and smell the flowers—it’s good for you! They also recommend a game to play where you get out your spice rack and try to guess the smell without looking at it.
Q How did you decide to get into this kind of thing? Were you overly curious as a child?
A I’ve always been curious. I’ve been obsessed with trivia forever and would read trivia books more than other books. I eventually became a journalist, which is great because you get to learn about a different thing every day. But I also want to experience things, and I think on-the-job training is the way to do it. The first thing I did getting into this was that I look like an actor named Noah Taylor. He was in Shine about 15 years ago, and his movie did great, so he was invited to the Academy Awards, and it turned out he did not want to go because he doesn’t like the publicity machine. So everyone said I had to go in his place, and I was working for Entertainment Weekly at the time. Noah set me up for it, and I had people asking for autographs, Will Smith telling me what a fan he was, and it was astonishing. It gave me insight into the life of a celebrity. It’s great because people are kissing your a– nonstop, with no negative feedback. I can see why celebrities can become monsters, because I was a diva and I was only doing it for four hours. That feeling lasted a couple weeks, even back in New York. At drugstore lines, I’d be thinking, “Don’t you know who I am?”
Q What was the most difficult thing you’ve ever done in this vein of journalism?
A Probably an article for Esquire about radical honesty. It was a movement started by a psychologist in Virginia who says we should never lie and we should let our mouth operate without a filter. I tried it for a month, and I’m lucky I’m still married and have a job. It’s like a real-life version of the movie Liar Liar with Jim Carrey, but at the same time it was very liberating in some ways.
Q What was the worst truth you had to tell?
A I was in a restaurant with my wife and kids, and she saw some friends from college, and the friend said, “We should get together and have a playdate.” I had to speak the truth, so I said, “You seem nice, but I’d really rather not. I don’t see my own friends enough, so no.” My wife was horrified, and the two of them stormed out of the restaurant.
Q The book that really put you on the map had to be The Year of Living Biblically. You scored with Christians, even as a guy who was culturally Jewish. Why do you think that was?
A I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction, but people seemed to respect it and like it because I didn’t go in with an ax to grind, like Bill Maher in Religulous. I wanted to know what religion was about and what was I missing by not having it in my life? As long as you take it pretty seriously overall, you can have fun with anything, even that.
Q People often assume big media is godless and doesn’t care about traditional values. As someone who’s worked at some of the biggest media outlets in the country, do you feel that’s accurate?
A There are people in media with faith, but I do think there’s a big gap in worldview between left and right, faithful and unfaithful. So it was an anthropological trip to try and understand that other mindset. It made me more thoughtful and I hope a better person because it is important not to just dismiss people as crazy.
Q How did that experiment, in particular, impact your life? Do you have a belief you follow right now?
A It’s had dozens of impacts. It made me grateful and thankful for everything. I’d be thankful for hundreds of things a day, and it was weird, but it made me realize how we ignore the hundreds of small things that go right each day rather than the few that go wrong. We joined a reform synagogue, though we don’t go often. We feel it makes us a little more spiritually elevated. I want my kids to have a taste of the spiritual so they can accept or reject it later, but at least they’ll have that knowledge.