On “being the best person you can be”

The trick is to stop worrying about the future, which is so full of unknowns.

Be the best person you can be right now, today, this hour, this minute. If you do that—if you succeed at that only some of the time—you will find yourself equipped to deal with whatever life brings you, and to create the future you have imagined when the opportunities arise.

At certain moments, however, “being the best person you can be” means being someone who is exhausted, run down, discouraged, out of ideas, completely lacking enthusiasm or inspiration.

At such moments, you need to stop and take care of yourself.

Drink water!

The evidence against sugar has become overwhelming, and anyone who pays attention will want to stop drinking sugar-laced soft drinks and juices. Learning (or re-learning) to drink water, however, can be a challenge. Are you drinking enough water each day to be healthy and hydrated?

Here’s a simple idea that might help:

Every time you eat something, drink a glass of water.

That should be plenty of water.

Two more tips:

  • If plain water is too plain for you, add a slice of lemon or lime, or a few drops of lemon juice concentrate.
  • In China, people don’t drink cold water—they regard it as unhealthy. The huge difference of temperature between cold water and your stomach lining means that the water is absorbed much too quickly. I found it strange, at first, to be offered a warm cup of water every time I was waiting in a shop, but gradually I got used to it, and now the coldest water I drink is room-temperature . . . and I prefer my water almost hot, like tea but with nothing in it. Habits can change!

Sitting is killing you! Maybe.

A very useful infographic on the dangers of sitting, here:


and a BBC piece on the same topic:


Vox.com chimes in:


and the New York Times, from 2011:


The studies cited in these reports may be overturned or reinterpreted, as studies often are, but it seems clear that standing up every 20-30 minutes, even briefly, is simple good sense. If your school is forward-thinking on this issue, it will have at least some stand-up desks with high stools or chairs, so that students can alternately stand and sit as they like without disrupting the class in any way. If your school has no such desks, talk with your teachers and your principal and see what they say. With or without your school’s support, make a point of moving and changing positions throughout your day. You will feel better, and your brain will work better, if your body is kept in the best possible condition.

Athletes: drink water, not sugar water

Gabe Kapler, former Major League baseball star, explains clearly in this brief post that the claims made by sports drinks like Gatorade are bogus. Even professional athletes do not need sports drinks; for athletes and everyone else, they are just long-term invitations to rotten teeth, obesity, and a host of diseases caused by sugar consumption.

Gabe Kapler

Gabe Kapler is a former Major League baseball player who is now in charge of the L.A. Dodgers’ minor league operations. He has lots of interesting thoughts about health, diet, exercise, and workplace relationships that he shares in brief snippets on this blog. Worth a look. (Note: Kapler does, very occasionally, use salty language that may offend some people.)


Sleep and memory: more evidence

From the BBC:

The mechanism by which a good night’s sleep improves learning and memory has been discovered by scientists.

The team in China and the US used advanced microscopy to witness new connections between brain cells – synapses – forming during sleep.

Their study, published in the journal Science, showed even intense training could not make up for lost sleep.

Experts said it was an elegant and significant study, which uncovered the mechanisms of memory.

It is well known that sleep plays an important role in memory and learning. But what actually happens inside the brain has been a source of considerable debate.

Read the full article here: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27695144 .

How to feel okay

1. Everyone wants to feel okay.

When we don’t feel okay, we do something to make ourselves feel better. There are good ways, and not-so-good ways, to do this. Good ways include going for a walk, calling a friend on the telephone, eating an apple. Not-so-good ways include making somebody else feel bad, gorging on sweets, or . . . sticking a needle in your arm. Just about all of us make ourselves feel better by using our strengths. If we are good athletes, we go with that. If we are very beautiful, or handsome, we rely on that. If we are very clever, we use that. This natural tendency to go with our strengths can, however, cause problems. For example, the star athlete may stop working at her studies because she doesn’t find the sort of easy, immediate success in class that she does on the playing field. Or the very clever person may alienate the people around him by constantly reminding them how smart he is. How do you make yourself feel okay?

2. Pain is your friend.

Pain is that little guy jumping up and down, waving his arms, trying to get your attention. “Hey, you! Look at me! You’ve got something to deal with here, and something to learn! Pay attention!” People who are not really our friends will give up on us. If we push them hard enough, even people who really love us will finally give up on us. Not pain. You can try to ignore him, run away from him, drown him in booze (or any other distraction you prefer) but he stays right there until you pay attention to him. He is trying to make you pay attention to some sort of problem, to fix it if you can and to learn from it so it doesn’t keep repeating itself. So then the question is . . .

3. What is your problem?

We all have problems. What’s yours? How can you fix it? How can you stop yourself from running into it again and again and again? This is the real work of being human, of growing and learning and developing. Think of a baby, just learning to walk. His problem is, he can’t stand up. Or if he does manage to stand up for a moment, he loses his balance and falls down. Once, twice, three times, ten times. It frustrates him, makes him angry, makes him want to scream, makes him want to cry. If he stops trying and just cries, it will take him much longer to learn to walk. The solution to his problem is patient, determined effort; the only way he can fail is to stop trying. Lots of other problems are just like this—but not all of them. In other cases, doing the same thing over and over again will get you nowhere. In still other cases the problem may be something we cannot change or control. So, what is your problem, exactly, and how can you best deal with it? That’s what you need to find out.

4. We can all use help.

That baby will learn to walk a bit sooner if somebody gives him a hand to hold onto and keep him steady on his feet. You and I will learn from our problems and move on, instead of staying stuck on them, if we get some help from someone who has been there before us, who can see the situation more clearly than we can, who can point us in the right direction. It might be a friend, a family member, a counselor or teacher or therapist or doctor, or a neighbour. Find someone who can help you, and ask for help. If the first person you ask is not the right person, keep searching: someone out there is able to help you and will be happy to do it. Because we all want to feel okay, and one of the best ways to feel okay is to help someone else.

Have a problem? Tell your teacher! [book excerpt]

Not every teacher will be sympathetic every time. But most will listen sympathetically if you speak with them—in advance, or as soon as you know—and explain the situation. Students who communicate with their teachers usually get the benefit of the doubt. If you have trouble talking with a particular teacher, find another teacher or school administrator who will listen, and ask for his or her assistance.

Teachers are not mind readers. It may be obvious to you that you have a problem, but your teachers may have no idea. Let them know. If it’s something personal, you don’t have to go into great detail. “Mrs. Johnson, I’m sorry if I’m not my usual self today, but I’m having some personal problems, and I’m kind of upset.” Most teachers will be sympathetic, and quite willing to offer special accommodations, if you need them. Students who have been reliable and honest in the past will almost certainly receive sympathetic treatment in such circumstances. (Those who have not been reliable may have more trouble earning their teachers’ trust—another good reason to develop the habit of being reliable!)

In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again . . . . We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us.

—William James, American psychologist and philosopher (1842-1910)

Having trouble with homework? The same rule applies. Let’s say the assignment is due, but yours isn’t ready to hand in. What do you say when the teacher asks for your homework? If all you say is, “I don’t have it,” what is the teacher supposed to think? Unfortunately, teachers will often assume the worst: that you were lazy, or disorganized, or inattentive—and maybe even that you don’t really care about the class, or about school in general.

If you’re reading this book, then you do care about school and want to do well. So how do you let the teacher know?

You probably don’t want to have a conversation with the teacher during class. First, it will take up valuable class time. Second, it will probably be overheard by your classmates, and that might be a bit embarrassing—or very embarrassing.

A better approach: if you don’t have a good excuse for not completing the homework, write a note of apology and give it to the teacher at the start of class, or earlier in the school day if you can. (Apologize, fix it, and move on.) If you usually hand your work in on time, your good track record will encourage the teacher to go easy on you. Then finish that homework, and hand it in!

If you do have a legitimate reason for not completing the homework on time, write a brief note explaining the circumstances, letting the teacher know when you will be able to hand in the work and asking if that is okay.

Finally, if you know in advance that you won’t be able to complete the assignment on time because of some unusual situation, speak with the teacher in advance, explain the problem, and ask if you could have a time extension. If you’re going to have the same problem in several classes, speak with your homeroom teacher or advisor and ask him or her for help in informing your teachers.

If you’re honest, reliable, and responsible about communicating openly and courteously, you will have few problems with your teachers. Occasionally you’ll meet one who’s just mean. In that case be as polite as you can and walk the other way whenever possible.

Book excerpt: “Have a question? Ask your teacher!”

Good students ask questions.

Are you shy? Find a way to ask questions. Sometimes after class or after school is best. Sometimes a note to the teacher works well. Learn to tell when it’s the wrong moment to ask a question, and ask it later. But never leave a question unasked!

Many students are reluctant to ask questions. Sometimes the reasons are personal, but often it’s about what other students might think of you if you ask a question. This takes us back to moral courage. Be brave enough to ask questions, and brave enough not to care if some people put you down for it. Many others will respect you, and in the long run you’ll be better off.

Occasionally, a student will ask too many questions, or ask questions at the wrong time. If you’re not sure when or how to ask questions in class, find a classmate who earns good grades, and watch the way he or she asks questions.

The questions your teachers ask are often good models for you to imitate and learn from. Some questions are about the literal or factual meaning; some involve interpreting or reading between the lines; and others involve making judgments. A good student understands these different kinds of questions and knows when to ask each kind. Asking questions is a skill, perhaps even an art, that takes practice and experience to master.

Strange as it may seem, the most important questions are not those you ask the teacher: they are the ones you ask yourself as you think about the subject you’re studying. Good students, even when they aren’t asking questions out loud, are asking themselves questions and making notes about them. This is what is meant by active learning: the student’s mind is actively searching for answers, not passively waiting for them. And since all learning is active, if you’re not active, you’re not learning.

In some cultures, students rarely if ever ask questions in class. If you come from such a culture and are now going to school outside your home country, you’ll have to decide whether you want to try to change your own habits in this area. When it comes to the questions you ask yourself, however, you should definitely be an active learner who is constantly questioning what you are hearing and reading in class.

So start asking questions!

Kick the sugar habit—or it will surely kick you

Update, January 2020: Sugar addiction is no longer a metaphor.

The sugar that is added to processed food and beverages acts as a slow poison that disrupts normal liver functions in the same way that alcohol does. It leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, pancreatitis, liver disease, fetal insulin resistance, and, of course, obesity.

That’s the bad news from Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, where he runs their obesity clinic for children. You can hear it straight from him in a 90-minute presentation that has been posted on YouTube.

The good news? All of this damage is 100% preventable. Here’s how:

  • First, eliminate all soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, and other sugar-flavored beverages from your diet.
  • Second, eliminate all commercially-processed food products, including “fast foods”, of course, because these are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that slowly kills your liver, makes you fat, and eventually kills you.

To put it more simply: Forget all that complicated stuff about calories, low-fat diets, and good cholesterol. Just cut out the added sugar.

Your only source of sugar should be fruit, where it is mixed with a lot of fiber—essential to a healthy diet—and other important micro-nutrients.

In Dr. Lustig’s obesity clinic for kids, the patients

  • drink only water and milk—no sugared liquids
  • eat high-fiber carbohydrates (i.e., not fast-food carbs, which have little or no fiber)
  • wait 20 minutes before eating a second portion
  • and must “buy” video/computer time minute-for-minute with physical activity.

This program, if followed, is successful. I know: you are not surprised that eliminating junk food and exercising would lead to weight loss. Here’s what is surprising: in studies conducted at Lustig’s clinic, kids who gave up sugared liquids still lost weight, even if they ignored the other three rules. But kids who did the other three—ate high-fiber carbs, waited 20 minutes before taking a second portion, and exercised—failed to lose weight if they kept drinking sugared liquids.

Conclusion? Above all, it’s the sugar.

Here are some other highlights from Dr. Lustig’s presentation:

Obese babies

Worldwide, there is now an epidemic of obese 6-month-old babies. Why? Because they are being fed commercial formulas that are loaded with sugar—”milkshakes for babies.” Popular diet and exercise theories cannot explain obesity in 6-month-olds—only the sugar in baby formula can.


High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was invented in Japan in 1966 and introduced to the American diet in 1975. Since then its use has exploded. Why? First, it costs half of what sucrose (table sugar) costs. Second, it is added to processed foods and soft drinks—and baby formula—to make them taste good.

Competing diets

The Adkins diet is all fat, no carbohydrates. The “Japanese” diet is all carbohydrates, no fat. If followed correctly, they both work. Why? Because they both eliminate fructose. On the other hand, if you follow either of them but keep your sugar consumption constant, neither of these diets work. In other words: it’s the sugar!

Why fiber is important

Over-production of insulin—one of the effects of fructose in the liver—leads to Type-2 diabetes. According to Lustig, fiber in the diet slows the speed at which food is absorbed in the intestines, and inhibits the absorption of some free fatty acids, both of which reduces the insulin response. Pre-industrial people consumed 100-300 grams of fiber each day. Today the average American consumes just 12 grams of fiber per day. Fiber is removed from processed foods and fast foods because it takes too long to cook, takes too long to eat, and won’t store well.

Why exercise is important

The common notion is that we exercise to “burn calories”, but Lustig ridicules the idea that we can overeat sugary foods and then burn those calories off with exercise. Just one cookie, he says, would require 20 minutes of running. So we simply cannot exercise enough to compensate for a sugar-soaked diet.

Instead, here are the benefits of exercise. First, it improves skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity—i.e., like fiber, it helps prevent Type-2 diabetes. Second, it reduces stress, which in turn reduces our appetite because stress makes us feel hungry. Third, it increases our metabolic rate, which again improves insulin function in the liver.

Why everyone is fatter than they used to be

Americans of all ages are eating more than they did 30 years ago. Why? Because sugar in the liver screws up the normal processes that make us feel full when we have eaten. We eat, but we are still hungry. The biochemical system in our bodies that tells us when we have had enough to eat has been disrupted: it doesn’t work anymore. And this is a direct result of sugar consumption. And it’s not only in America. All over the world, wherever soft drinks and fast food are replacing traditional diets, we see the same effects: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

Why Coke makes us fat

What is in Coke? Caffeine and salt. Caffeine is a stimulant and diuretic, i.e., it makes us urinate. There are 55mg of salt in a can of Coke—the equivalent of drinking a pizza. So if you take in salt and lose free water, you become thirsty, and want to drink more. Why is there so much sugar in Coke? To hide the taste of the salt. (This is like sweet-and-sour pork in a Chinese restaurant: the sugar disguises the saltiness of the soy sauce.) “New Coke” has more salt and more caffeine, and therefore makes people even thirstier than old Coke. So they drink more and more, and their sugar consumption skyrockets. No wonder kids who drink soda pop get fat. In just five years, 1989-94, soft drink intake by American children increased 41% and fruit drink intake increased 35%.

Sports drinks

Gatorade was invented in the 1970s. It works very well for elite athletes who exert themselves to the point that their glycogen is depleted. The original formula, however, tasted terrible, so when the Pepsi-Cola company purchased Gatorade in 1992, they added loads of HFCS to it to make it taste good. Then they began marketing it to kids whose glycogen levels were just fine. Result? A generation of fat kids sucking down sports drinks.

I urge you to watch Dr. Lustig’s presentation. I used to take the view that a little sugar—or even a good whack, once in a while—was harmless, but Lustig has convinced me otherwise. If you don’t have time to watch the video, however, that’s okay: just stop consuming added sugar. Now.

UPDATE: June 1, 2011

Dr. Lustig’s thesis seems to be borne out by this news report from Shanghai, China:

Shanghai schoolchildren getting very fat very fast: survey

UPDATE: February 2014

Another link: 25 reasons to stop eating sugar.

UPDATE: April 2014

More evidence against sugar (including the high amounts found in canned and dried fruit, and fruit juice) in this article from the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/mar/31/refined-sugar-real-villain .

UPDATE: June 2014

Vox interview with Robert Lustig: http://www.vox.com/2014/6/6/5786974/the-war-on-sugar

“Our Year of No Sugar: One Family’s Grand Adventure”: http://www.everydayhealth.com/columns/my-health-story/year-of-no-sugar-one-family-grand-adventure/

UPDATE: February 2015

Sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine; it can take six weeks to kick the habit and overcome the craving for sugar. And why is pizza so addictive? —it’s all the added sugar in the tomato sauce.


Plus: activist group in the UK calls for ban on sales of energy drinks for kids under 16.


UPDATE: March 2015

This excellent summary of the case against sugar is written by The Iowa Clinic, “the largest physician-owned multi-specialty group in central Iowa.” 


UPDATE: April 2015

How to Break Your Sugar Addiction in Ten Days (from Dr. Mark Hyman and the Cleveland Clinic).