These So-Called Vices Are Good for Your Health
Simple pleasures can go a long way to increasing well-being
If your doctor told you to stop taking your medication and not come back for a checkup so soon, you’d be confused. If she followed up by telling you that it’s okay to eat some chocolate and fatty foods, enjoy a glass of beer or wine, or have lots of coffee, you might reconsider her expertise. But in fact she would be doing something far too few medical professionals do: advising patients based on the latest available science.
Much of the health advice people receive today is misguided and based on old conventions rather than the latest research. We are led to believe that to be healthy, we must spend half our lives in doctors’ offices, ingest a constant stream of narcotic-strength drugs, consume a spartan diet, drink so-called health elixirs that look like witch’s potions, and exercise with the intensity of an Olympic athlete and the joy of a KGB recruit. We must worry about the food we eat, the tests we don’t take, and the pills we don’t swallow. Above all, we must worry. And all that worry costs us dearly — monetarily, emotionally, and physically.
But over the years, mainstream medical studies at respected institutions have repeatedly shown that many of the foods and behaviors we’ve been warned to avoid all our lives may not really harm us, and when consumed or engaged in properly, they may actually be beneficial. The list of good vices includes beverages like coffee, which research suggests can lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes and possibly protect from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; foods like chocolate and whole-milk raw cheese; lifestyle choices like sleeping late and laughing a lot; and downright shocking practices like going to the doctor less, taking fewer medications, and avoiding many prescribed but often unnecessary medical procedures.
We don’t necessarily understand the reasons some of these vices can be good for us. It’s possible the joy we get from them is partly what makes them healthy. Feeling happy diminishes stress and seems to supercharge the immune system, which, among other things, may lead to better resistance to certain illnesses. The good news doesn’t stop there. Studies have even shown that being happy can help you live longer. Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of medicine, famously said, “Let food be thy medicine.” Too often, contemporary medicine says to let worry and overprescribed drugs be thy medicine. But in our experience — as a naturopathic physician with nearly 40 years of experience, as well as a food and health journalist — we say let good friends, family, food, nature, and happiness be thy medicine.
We don’t necessarily understand the reasons some of these vices can be good for us. It’s possible the joy we get from them is partly what makes them healthy.
Though we celebrate good vices, by no means do we advocate wanton hedonism. Our point is not to encourage people to eat and drink bad foods and smoke and gain weight. The point is for people to be happier and healthier by being freer and following truth. Alas, not every vice is good for us; your parents were right about the wisdom of avoiding many of them. Cigarettes are as bad for you as your mother told you they were. A little sugar may be fine, but excessive consumption of candy and sweets shouldn’t be part of your daily routine, and bacon, we’re sorry to say, appears to be good only for your soul. And if you come across a vice with potential upsides that you don’t already engage in, do not start it for health reasons. If you don’t enjoy it, it might not provide the same health benefits for you that it does for other people.
We regularly tell patients that no matter how busy or stressed they are, they should do something that they look forward to each day. It could be something seemingly virtuous—a short walk with the dog, a quick bike ride or swim, a delicious dinner—but it could also be a quick game of poker or blackjack, or a single malt scotch or cold beer. What’s important is that it provides joy. Even if we haven’t discovered the “meaning of life,” when we look forward to something each day, it gives that day a little more meaning.
When he was over 70, the late great comedian Rodney Dangerfield told an audience that he had just come from his doctor, who told him that if he ate right, exercised, and got plenty of fresh air, he’d get old, sick, and die.
Our fate is set, and as far as we know, no one avoids leaving the earth when the time comes. What we want to do and can do is to have fun, live well, enjoy ourselves, and share health and happiness the best we can, for as long as we can.
If we stretch our time on earth a little longer and live a little better, so be it. We do this not by making life more rigid, restrictive, and boring, but more colorful, enjoyable, and fulfilling.