In life, I don’t try to spend too much time thinking about the mistakes I’ve made. I divide them into two categories: mistakes that matter and mistakes that don’t matter.
Peter Attia, M.D., is the co-founder and President of the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI), based in San Diego, CA. He received his B.Sc. from Queen’s University in Canada and his M.D. from Stanford Medical School in California. After his surgical residency in general surgery at Johns Hopkins he worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. He founded NuSI with scientific journalist Gary Taubes in 2012.
What are you working on right now?
I’m putting together our research program, so I’m recruiting a Director of Strategy and a Director of Research, in addition to a number of support staff. We are also actively seeking funding for our research projects – a big part of what happens in a nonprofit world.
More specifically, we are beginning to look into current studies to gauge scientific accuracy. Something NuSI will do in the coming years is hold a magnifying glass to any current study, as we believe the public deserves to know which are scientifically sound and which are not.
Where did the idea for the Nutrition Science Initiative come from?
Two years ago, after I went through my own nutritional transformation, I came across a few books by science journalist Gary Taubes. They were very provocative, especially in light of everything I believed to be true to that point. It caused me to look beyond my own health, and it made me concerned about the potential misinformation in the nutritional industry. I realized scientific misinformation was a much broader issue affecting almost everyone. Several months later, I read another article by Taubes in The New York Times. I sent him an email, and surprisingly, he responded. We wrote back and forth a bit, and he said that we should meet up next time I was in Berkeley. I made it a point to be in Berkeley very soon thereafter. During our conversation, we kept coming back to the point that it’s unacceptable that nutritional science is this bad and, as a result, millions of people could be dying prematurely or unnecessarily.
Gary spends much of his time on his journalism work, but he believes in the cause. So, if I wanted to “lead the insurgency,” he was happy to support or be a figurehead. This was the inception of the idea to create an organization to tackle the problem. Eventually, the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI, pronounced “new-see”) was formed. It’s been a long road from a discussion in a tiny café in Berkeley, Calif., in April 2011.
What does your typical day look like?
Fortunately, there is no typical day, but I could broadly divide time into days I am traveling and days I am not. I am probably on the road 12 days of the month.
For a non-traveling day, my day usually starts around 5 a.m. I do some work early in the morning. I spend some with my daughter before she leaves for school at 7:15 a.m., and then I go to the gym or the pool to do my workout. Finally, I head into the office. I usually have back-to-back meetings and calls throughout the day. These are generally about fundraising, the research program, and communication tools. I usually try to take at least one uninterrupted hour a day to read scientific papers. Generally, I stay in the office until about 6 p.m., head home to see my wife and little girl, have dinner, and then work until about 10 or 11 p.m. Then I go to bed and start again the next day. On days when I travel, it’s completely unpredictable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I believe in NuSI’s work and will work tirelessly to see it through.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I try to look for patterns. I look for evidence of things that have worked well elsewhere. Say I have an idea for a communication tool that will provide meaningful information on comparing foods. First, I will research how consumers currently get this information and whether – and why – it’s inadequate. Then, I compare another solution and see where it falls short. This goes on until I come back to what I originally started with. I then triangulate what the solution would look like.
When it comes to bringing ideas to life, I start with this exercise. I also try to work closely with others who have had success on similar projects. While success isn’t always a great predictor of future success, it’s better than failure, except in the cases where failure has taught us a lesson.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
There are a number, but one I find really exciting right now is the trend emerging around the self-experimentalist, the person who basically is no longer willing to accept that he’s a laboratory mouse who’s genetically identical or homozygous to every other person out there. This is the person who realizes that much of the advice he’s being given is incorrect or irrelevant to them. These people are voracious readers; they are looking to understand everything that science has to offer, and they understand where those gaps are in terms of what it doesn’t have to offer. Self-experimentalists will also understand how to change the way they eat, one variable at a time (which is key!), in order to measure the results objectively and understand what foods do to their bodies.
It could take a decade for us to unambiguously resolve some of these important nutritional questions in science, and I don’t expect people to sit around for a decade and continue to eat a standard American diet — we know it’s not the best diet.
Larry Smarr of the University of California, San Diego, is a great example of a person who has taken this to the next level, and many people would consider me an example of a self-experimentalist as well. It’s easy to start: Simply look at the scale, your waist measurement, your overall feeling, and biomarkers in your blood, such as glucose, insulin, and triglycerides. Make changes you can sustain over certain periods of time, and then measure how these things improve or worsen your health.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I had a bunch of lousy jobs as a kid, most of which I can’t remember. As an adult, I did have a work experience that taught me a lot. I worked at a biotech company where there seemed to be a systemic failure to pay attention to information that didn’t align to preconceived notions. I learned you’ve always got to question your assumptions, and you need to test them, constantly and relentlessly. What you start the day believing isn’t necessarily what you should finish the day believing. When companies, individuals, and nations take a dogmatic approach to things without questioning them, or they don’t revisit what led them to believe something, they really run the risk of mistakes spiraling out of control. Always ask, “Is this still a valid assumption, and if it’s not, how can I get new information?”
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
At NuSI, I can’t think of many things I would do differently — maybe new carpets. Obviously, we are still early on. Ask me that again in a year!
In life, I don’t try to spend too much time thinking about the mistakes I’ve made. I divide them into two categories: mistakes that matter and mistakes that don’t matter. I’ve made a lot of mistakes that cost me financial misery, like home investments that weren’t right or timing that wasn’t right. I think, ultimately, those don’t matter.
There are only a handful of decisions we make in life that truly matter, and in my case, the biggest ones were marrying the woman I married, choosing to leave medicine, and starting NuSI. Those are the three biggest decisions I’ve made in life that have had the most significant impact on the trajectory of my existence to date. And, fortunately, those are three decisions I have absolutely no regrets about. Regardless of how many lousy decisions I’ve made – like buying a plasma T.V. over an LED – they are completely dwarfed by these three macro decisions that have made me who I am and brought me where I am.
As a nonprofit director, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Never undertake a strategy without understanding your objective, and never put in place tactics without understanding your strategy. In other words, there is an order of operations, and I always start with my objective. Once I’m clear on the objective, I take a step back and define the strategy to make it happen, and only when that is clear do I move on to understanding the tactics that will need to be deployed. In my experience, almost without exception, everyone tries to do that in reverse. They want to start with tactics, they sort of think about strategy, and they almost never pay attention to objectives.
Tell us a secret.
One secret about me is that I am a huge introvert. I think many people who interact with me assume I’m an extrovert, and that I enjoy being in the public, talking with people, and giving presentations. It turns out I don’t, really. I’m at my happiest when I am either completely alone or only with a select group of friends or family. But I have learned a lot about myself, especially having taken about a dozen Myers-Briggs tests and variations of them. I’ve come to realize I am probably the best faker at being an extrovert, so I can be really extroverted if I need to be. The difference is that it drains my energy, rather than feeds it.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources, and what do you love about them?
One would be PubMed, which is a sort of national archive of all scientific papers. I’m on PubMed every day and can’t imagine what life would be like without it.
There are a few blogs I like to read, though I don’t have time each day to pore over them. I always enjoy the blog of Tim Ferriss — somehow, it always ends up costing me money because he’s always recommending some great new coffeemaker or something! Denise Minger doesn’t write often, but when she does, stop what you’re doing and read it. Immediately! I also find the work of Mike Eades to be really nuanced and well-thought-out.
A third resource is the Swimmer’s Guide, a worldwide directory of swimming pools across the world. If you’re in another country, city, or state, you can find information about pools in the area, including the size, water temperature, and cost information. It’s one of my tricks to stay fit on the road.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I think an important book for people to read is Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. It makes a compelling case for why the current scientific underpinning of nutritional dogma is not rigorous enough and, possibly, quite wrong. We have no idea if the alternatives proposed by Gary are correct, but it’s very hard to read this book and not believe it’s anything but essential to test many of the nutritional “truisms” we hold to.
I would immediately follow this book up with “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Unbeknownst to me, until we recently met, Carol often uses Gary’s book in her psychology lectures to illustrate the power of cognitive dissonance, so there is a huge amount of synergy between the two. This book focuses on the pervasiveness of cognitive dissonance, across virtually all disciplines, and how that prevents people from looking past blind spots, which prevents change. Of course, through my friendship with Carol I’ve come to realize how susceptible I am to the forces of cognitive dissonance. At least once a week we email back and forth about areas of my life, personal and professional, and identify where I’m failing to look critically enough at something because I don’t want to change my mental model. She really keeps me honest!
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
1. The Freakonomics duo, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner: The Freakonomics Twitter handle is fantastic, and I’m really good friends with Steve and Stephen. The type of analysis they do is really great, and it’s interesting because they illustrate another side of the same coin, namely that what you think you see is not always correct.
2. Michael Eades: I’m a big fan of Michael Eades, as I mentioned earlier. I think Mike has a really great Twitter presence, and a lot of what he says I find really helpful. His Twitter feed directs me to studies I may have missed, and he’s just a smart guy.
3. Tim Ferriss: I’m good friends with Tim, so when you’re good friends with people, you understand the level at which they scrutinize information they want to put out there. I just love Tim’s approach to basically hacking the system and being the ultimate self-experimenter.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I laughed out loud the other day, when somebody sent me a link to a YouTube video of a series of commercials for Planet Fitness. Since I don’t really do anything in moderation (other than moderation), I watched them over and over and over again, laughing like a hyena.
Who is your hero?
I don’t have a single hero. There are so many people I respect on so many different levels, and this is reflected in my office at home, where I have photos of a number of these folks. If you were sitting at my desk, looking at the wall, you would see photos of Richard Feynman, Pat Tillman, and Terry Fox, three individuals I didn’t have the pleasure to meet, but people I would have loved to learn from.
Richard Feynman was a Nobel laureate in physics. Feynman was just the most relentlessly curious character imaginable. While we were in the process of putting NuSI together, one name we contemplated for it was The Feynman Foundation, in honor of what Feynman would have probably done in the presence of our nutritional information.
Pat Tillman was a football player who enlisted in the Army after the September 11th attacks. He was later killed in Afghanistan. After I read Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory, I realized what a special individual Tillman was and how tragic his passing was.
Terry Fox was my greatest hero growing up. He had osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that required amputation, so he lost most of his leg. At the age of 18 or so, he decided he wanted to run across Canada to raise $1 from every Canadian for cancer research. He made it two-thirds of the way (3,339 miles in 143 days, to be exact) before he had to stop. The cancer had returned to his lungs, and he died shortly thereafter. I was only 7 years old at the time, but it had a profound impact on me. On the 25th anniversary of his run, I swam from Catalina Island to Los Angeles to raise money for The Terry Fox Foundation; I raised close to $12,000.
How can NuSI do what no other organization has been able to do, namely alter the trajectory of obesity and metabolic syndrome in the U.S.?
Organizations that are stakeholders in nutrition science – federal health agencies, large well-known health agencies, and others – all work from the same assumptions. All that needs to be known about combating obesity and metabolic syndrome is already known: Obesity is caused by taking in more calories than are expended and eating certain foods, such as fats. These agencies likely believe the solution is already known, and that the reason Americans are growing fatter and less healthy, and our children are uniquely susceptible to obesity-related disease, is that they aren’t paying attention to the advice that’s given.
NuSI believes it is the very science behind the advice that is inadequate to support it, right or wrong. The first step to solving the problem is to establish, definitively and unambiguously, the environmental triggers of unhealthy weight gain, obesity, and, most importantly, metabolic syndrome. If we can do that, we’ve already done what no other organization has ever done or even attempted.
What is your personal motivation for founding NuSI?
It begins with a confluence of several events. I used to be a physician, and I recall vividly when I worked with patients who were overweight and had Type 2 diabetes. You provide the best care, but in the back of your mind, you unconsciously judge them. You assume they’re not following sound advice. They’re clearly indulging too much, eating too much, not exercising enough, and committing two of the deadliest sins, gluttony and sloth.
Several years later, I ironically became overweight.
I was exercising three or four hours a day and consuming what I thought was a healthy diet in line with formal dietary recommendations. I had to struggle with radically changing my diet by doing a few self-experiments. I came to realize that if this was happening to me and I was eating right and exercising, then there were other overweight individuals who felt the same way — and perhaps it wasn’t their fault.
I was in medicine for 10 years, and I found it enormously fulfilling on a personal level. At the same time, I felt I could make a bigger difference focusing on persistent health problems outside of traditional medicine. NuSI provides profound gratification; every day, we are getting one step closer to helping everyone make the correct dietary choices for their health.