I couple years ago I discovered a lecture on YouTube about fructose called Sugar: The Bitter Truth
. It’s an hour and a half, but I promise you it is well worth the time commitment. It is the single best video I’ve ever watched. It completely changed the way I think about food. The lecture is presented by Dr. Robert Lustig, who begins with the thesis that your weight is not determined by the simplistic calories in – calories out formula that most of us have accepted as fact. Instead, he argues that there are biochemical processes going on within your body that make some kinds of calories worse than others, namely fructose.
This video is fantastic and filled with a ton of amazing information, but I want to focus on one part of it: the role of exercise (1:11:15). (This is actually an incredibly small part of the video, and a bit tangential to the main point, but very important information and quite relevant to both health and personal finance.)
The common belief is that if you eat an extra 100 calories, you have to burn an extra 100 calories or you’ll gain weight. And it’s true… mostly. But “20 minutes of jogging is one chocolate chip cookie, you can’t do it!” says Dr. Lustig. It’s true that exercise is very important for weight loss and good health, but when you look at it in such simplistic terms as calories in – calories out, it seems impossible. “One Big Mac and you’ve got to mountain bike for 10 hours,” jokes Lustig. It can be incredibly discouraging and many people give up on their exercise routines because they think they just can’t burn enough calories to make it worthwhile. That’s why Lustig highlights the other benefits of exercise, including stress reduction (helpful because stress is correlated with over-eating and obesity) and an increased metabolism (which helps you burn more calories while at rest).
Ready for the tie in to personal finance? It’s the old saying, “nobody got rich by saving.” Saving can only get you so far toward your financial goals. The real wealth building comes from earning more money, either by increasing your earned income or increasing your investment income. Calculating the effect of compound interest over a lifetime is an eye opening exercise. If you start with nothing and invest just $100/month in an account yielding 6% for 40 years, you’ll end up with approximately $200k, but you only had to contribute $48k. The rest came from interest. Your money is doing the work for you.
Exercise is making an investment in your health. You might not be able to do enough exercise to work off that Big Mac, but the residual effects of that exercise will continue to benefit your body for several hours. In the same way that your initial monetary investment builds on itself, your initial exercise increases your metabolism and reduces stress, helping your body to keep itself healthy without you having to actively do anything.
This is not a perfect analogy, of course. And the difference is what makes exercise (in my opinion) harder than building wealth. If you make one monetary investment today and then completely stop adding to it, it will continue to grow indefinitely. It’s obviously better if you consistently add to that investment yourself, but even if you don’t, it will still keep growing on its own. The benefits of exercise don’t last as long. If you exercise once and then completely stop exercising for the rest of your life, your body will not just magically keep you healthy. The effects of a workout only last for a few hours, so you do need to regularly exercise to keep those benefits.
Since I started out with a recommendation to watch a lecture about sugar, I can’t resist the urge to give a final plug for it, just in case you need more convincing to watch it. The main focus of the lecture is on fructose, and how your body processes it differently than glucose. In essence, your body is terrible at processing fructose, but thanks to the government subsidy on corn, high fructose corn syrup is in everything, making us get fatter by the year. Yes, fructose exists in nature, but as Dr. Lustig so poetically puts it, “when God made the poison, he packaged it with the antidote.” He’s talking about fiber, which is always present in natural sources of sugar, such as fruit or sugar cane. The fiber helps your body process the fructose more efficiently. But fiber reduces the shelf life of food, so all the foods that are packed full of high fructose corn syrup are also depleted of fiber. Dr. Lustig challenges you to look at the labels of packaged foods. Nearly all of them will have fructose as one of the main ingredients, but no more than a gram of fiber. That is why our country is growing fatter, and that is why I do my best to avoid high fructose corn syrup like the plague.