Max pointing at a white board chart

The Bell Shaped World

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In this post/video I shine a light into the gray areas of life.

One of the most confusing things about nutrition and health advice is all the conflicting information out there. On one day the news is reporting how coffee, alcohol, or even eggs, extends your life; the next day about how it is killing you. It often seems like everything is both good and bad for you, it’s enough to make most people give up trying to be healthy. But today I am going to clear up that confusion for you: it’s all true!

a green line rises steadily, a red line drops at the same rate
Fig. A

So how can that be? Well people tend to think that there is a linear relationship between the amount of something and the effect it has on your life, if a little of something is good for you then more is better, and vice versa (Fig. A.). But that is not true: everything you do or consume has both positive and negative consequences on your life; if we were to graph out the effect any one thing has on your life we would actually get a bell curve (Fig. B.).

a blue line forms a bell curve

Eating a cake will make you happy, but isn’t good for your waistline. Being obsessive about your health lessens your chance of developing disease, but can limit your social life and diminish your enjoyment of life. The list of possible examples is endless because it applies to everything you do and consume. This even applies to the essentials of life such as oxygen, not enough in the room and we suffocate, too much and we burst into flames. The trick to having a good life is to stay at the top the curve for everything you do, the “Goldilocks zone”; the only problem is finding where that is because the scale of the graph is different for every item, and every person.


A green line plateaus, a red line goes down exponentially
Fig C.

So why do the effects things have on our lives form a bell curve? They do so because in reality the positive effects grow quickly at first but then plateau, while the negatives grow slowly at first but after a certain threshold grow exponentially (Fig C.). Combining these two effects will produce the bell shape. Let’s talk about the positive side first, why do they plateau? The economic theory of diminishing marginal utility neatly covers it: each unit you consume of something is less useful than the last one. Take your monthly budget: if you are being smart you first spend money on the most important things, such as rent, food, utilities, etc…; after that you spend money on things that have less of a positive impact on your life dollar for dollar, such as a car, internet, phone etc…. Eventually you will reach a point where life cannot get much better by spending more money. It works the same in your body, your body will use nutrients first for whatever function is most vital for keeping you alive, and then whatever is left is put towards getting you into optimal health.

The negatives work a little bit differently: everything has two different kinds of negatives effects. The first are the problems caused by the thing itself: for example the more you run the higher your risk of injuring yourself. We do not feel these intrinsic negatives at first because we have strategies and ways of negating the harmful effects: such as how our liver is able to process and remove alcohol from our blood stream so that it does not kill us. But at some point you cross a threshold where the strategies you have are no longer able to cope with the amount of abuse being hurled at them, and cannot clear it fast enough and the toxins begin to accumulate and cause damage, e.g. the liver diseases of alcoholics. Now not everything has high levels of intrinsic harms and risks, and it is common to think that things without them and harmless and can be done in any quantity, but this is because people fail to realise that there is a risk that is common to every single thing: displacement, also known as opportunity cost. So every single thing you do consumes some kind of limited resource: money, time, effort, will power, etc… Whatever you spend on one thing is used up and cannot be used for something else. Now at first displacement can be useful, you new activity can prevent you from doing something that was either harmful or of lesser value: if you start drinking a glass of water at every meal it will displace the soda you were drinking before. However if you continue you will eventually be replacing things that were of a higher value; you cannot survive forever on water alone; you still need food as well. These two kinds of negatives combine to turn what was once a positive force in your life, into one that is pulling you down!

Ok, so as interesting as this all might be; why does it matter? First off it helped me to stop obsessing over perfecting certain parts of my life, when I would have been better off focusing on my weak links. It also matters because there are probably many things in your life that you are continuing to do, even though they are now making your life worse. A common one is chasing money: when you are first working all that money is great, and when you get a raise or a better job that additional money is even better as there is so much more you can do! This teaches you that “more money = better”, so you start working harder and for longer and longer hours, until you never get to see your wife and kids anymore, and you still are unhappy, so you think “maybe I need more money?” So you work some more, when really you needed to work less so you can enjoy the things that are important to you. Another common one is from the athletic world: over-training. People often see rapid improvements when the first start training, but they soon slow down and plateau; more training is then needed to see greater improvements. However if you are training too hard and often your body is not able to fully recover between sessions, and your performance will actually start to decline as you become more and more damaged. Since up to that point more exercise has always been the cure for declining performance many people start to train even more frequently even though the exact opposite was what they needed. So the first thing for you to do is to take stock of your life and work out what things are you are still doing even though they are no longer taking you where you want to go.

Like I said earlier, the curves are different for everyone, so I cannot give blanket advice for how much of this or that is good for you, and your curves will change over time as well, so even if you found the goldilocks zone once you may shift out of it. But this is good news: the benefit curves being unstable means that with some forethought you can actually change them how you want. You can change the positive curve by adding value to an activity: listening to a podcast or audio book on your commute adds value to your time in the car; if you go for a walk with your family you are all getting the same benefits from the exercise as if you walked alone, but by going together you are also bonding and growing closer as a family. You can also alter the negatives by adopting new strategies to negate the harms: with the over-training example I just gave, rather than training more, the athlete could adopt a new recovery regimen, such as foam rolling, and adopting better sleep habits. This would allow them to recover faster, and therefore be able to train harder before over-training. You can also alter the negatives by being purposeful and choosing what an activity is displacing, is going on your phone displacing time you would have spent playing video games, or time you have spent with your family, or working towards the life you really want? Now that you are aware of these curves you will be able to take back control of your life and ensure that you are spending your resources on high value actions that will keep you in the Goldilocks zone and on the path to your perfect life.:


  1. This is a very interesting concept and puts a lot into focus regarding how one should perceive health and maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Love it and I'm glad I stumbled upon this article. It certainly makes me feel less bad about peddling my desserts across the internet seeing as how there is still a small place for them in the world ;)

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