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To good health!

January 10, 2018

So enrolment sessions start soon for our incoming Master of Data Science students.  I know its a stressful time for some students in terms of “life”.  I usually talk briefly about staying healthy, and Monash offers various services to support this.  But for PhD students I think its important to take this on as a lifestyle objective.  They are undertaking a knowledge intensive career path and brain health will be critical for their future career.

Disclaimer:  Now, this page is full of opinions and pointers to, in some case, controversial material.  I’m just a little old computer science professor, so my opinions have no real backing, and I have no recognised expertise. All care but no responsibility for what I say! 

The fact is, health in the modern world is an issue fraught with challenges.  To understand this, consider the following:

  1. The official Australian government position on colds and flu prevention, and the official USA government position:  hygiene and vaccines.  What’s missing:  discussion of healthy diet and exercise to strengthen and repair the immune system.
  2. The Time magazine reports extensive research shows vitamin D helps prevent colds and flu, so some sunshine is also important.  No mention of this in the official government positions above!
  3. Believe it or not, in the USA prescription drugs are the third leading cause of death!  There is a larger issue here in that most published medical research findings are false.
  4. Tobacco science is a term used to describe fake science protecting an industry.  Read about the Tobacco Institute and see the movie The Insider.  How much of this goes on in the food industry?
  5. Sugar is now known to be very damaging to the health.  Here is a hard hitting discussion about it, though note quite a few of these claims are considered controversial.  But it is known that sugar suppresses the immune system.  Figuring out your sugar consumption is challenging.   There are rumors (in movie form) of tobacco science going on here too.
  6. Artificial sweeteners are not a substitute, in fact evidence suggests they have poor health impacts, and they mess up the brains analysis of your food intake.
  7. Fats are the subject of a massive onslaught from advertisers.  For years we were told to avoid butter and use margarine instead, but now it seems butter is good.  Current conflicting advice is being broadcast about the humble coconut.
  8. The health of organic produce is currently a propaganda battleground.  Hint:  organics are also lower in toxic pesticide residue, but no mention of that.
  9. The commercial world has taken on healthy eating big time, and it is the fastest growing segment of the food industry.  Monash University has done a wonderful job of getting really good fast food vendors at the Caulfield campus food court.

Summary:  There is lots of conflicting and bad advice out there!  Heck, even the government websites seem to have errors of omission.

Now, if we consider the specific position of someone who wants their brain to function well, then consider the following:

  1. Short term exercise is known to boost mental performance.
  2. Meditation and mindfulness is also known to boost performance in exams.
  3. Long term sitting is considered to be as bad for health as smoking!  Here is a poster of the dangers.
  4. There are also lifestyle recommendations about studying from scientists:  don’t cram for subjects, learn slowly over the semester.
  5. Recent studies show the brain can be encouraged to grow new cells.
  6. The brain is mostly fat, so we need healthy fats to work well.  Don’t believe a lot of what you read about fats!  Cholesterol is also important for the brain.
  7. Sugar consumption (e.g., soft drinks, commercial juices, commercial cereals, flavoured yogurts, etc. etc. etc.) is bad for the brain, as well as the immune system.
  8. Energy drinks rot the teeth, like soft drinks.  Its due to the high acid content.
  9. Canola oil is bad for the brain.  This one is important because most cheap salad oils, margarines and many food products are loaded with it.
  10. Deep sleep is the basis for memory, learning and health.   In particular, without deep sleep, your brain will not be functioning properly and your memory will be impaired.  See this TED talk on sleep (which is a sales pitch … sorry), but there are many articles on this.

Note, for each of these, there are 10’s-100’s of good articles and scientific literature to back it up, though oftentimes conflicting scientific literature as well.  I’m just giving generally readable and somewhat respectable accounts.  A lot of these issues remain controversial, and possibly there is some tobacco science going on, but its hard for us non-experts to really know.

Anyway, I hope from this you understand the complexity of trying to stay health, and trying to keep your brain functioning well in the modern world.

I’m probably a bit extreme but I say,

About eating and food:

  • Try and cook your own meals from real ingredients.  After a while, it becomes easy and its a great way to wind down with friends.
  • If someone’s great grandmother (anyone’s, Fiji, Vietnam, Sweden, …) didn’t make the food 100 years ago, its probably not good for you.
  • Don’t take dietary or health advice from Big Food.  In fact, looking at the government advice (listed above) on the flu, I’d say their’s is missing the major points too!
  • Try and avoid packaged meals, fast food, and canned and bottle drinks.
  • Go low sugar and healthy fats.  Its a lifestyle thing, not a diet.  Once you do, you’ll discover all the amazing subtle flavours you’ve missed from traditional foods and realise how horrible standard breads, sweet deserts, snack bars and cakes really are:  the sugar masks the real flavour, and it gives you a longer term bad after taste.
    • Healthy fats is challenging to maintain because Big Food likes to put unhealthy canola oil in everything:  most salad oils, hummus and deli mixes are mostly canola oil, as is margarine.
  • Just avoid artificial sweeteners.  Once you’ve gone cold turkey and got off the sugar addiction you wont be craving it and you’ll feel better for it.
  • Health slogans on food products, “low fat”, “low cholesterol” often mean its bad for you!   Low fat usually means high sugar, for instance.

About other aspects of health:

  • Get exercise, and make it a lifestyle thing.  When you’re older, you’ll discover you cannot function well as a knowledge worker without it.
  • Don’t sit at your desk for long hours.  You need to get up and move around every hour!  Also, become aware of your posture.   Don’t become a hunchback!  Some 2nd years are already heading that way.
  • When you’re mentally worn out, a quick nap or a brisk walk does wonders, and both have scientific backing.
  • Make sure you are getting proper sleep.  That can mean organising your assignments and study properly so you don’t need a to do a bunch of all-nighters to get through.  But it also means setting up the right environment at home for sleep.
  • I know of few cases where drugs and alcohol support good health or brain functioning, including so-called smart drugs or nootropics.  Most are dangerous to the liver, as are many medicines.  Headache and pain medicine is far more dangerous and damaging than many other things!
  • Routine … that’s what the body needs.  For sleep, for eating, for study, for exercise, routine is critical part of making it function well.

Anyway, I have said too much already.  In case you’re wondering, I am now on holidays.  No time for a Data Science professor to talk about this stuff during semester!

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