Choosing Well in a World of Ultra-Processed Everything

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A 2018 ​study​ from Stanford University found that, surprisingly, diets can actually work.

What kind of diet? All different kinds, so long as—and here’s the key—the participants stuck to it. ​What doesn’t work​ is when people either adopt way too rigid diets or have no constraints on what they eat and lack nutritional education. (Personally, I have a general menu of options I try to stick to during the week and then allow myself exceptions—eating out, getting pastries, carrying in—on the weekends.) That’s because we now live in a world where there are endless choices of ultra-processed foods, all of which taste great in the short term, but are awful for health in the long term. The same thing is happening with our attention.

We are awash in ultra-processed stimuli, and with the introduction of artificial intelligence, it is bound to increase exponentially. Many of these stimuli are engineered to make us feel good in the short term but are unhealthy for our mental and cognitive health in the long term. TikTok is like an endless bag of Skittles. Reality television is like fast food. Trending topics on the internet are akin to cheap whiskey. The videos that play at many gas stations—these days you can’t even fill up your car in peace—are like second-hand smoke.

Eating too much ultra-processed food wreaks havoc on your body, resulting in obesity and other metabolic diseases. Consuming too much ultra-processed attention stimuli wreaks havoc on your mind, resulting in anxiety, lack of focus, and the sensation of languishing. If the last seventy years have been marked by an increase in rates of obesity and metabolic disease, the next seventy may be highlighted by an increase in rates of mental health disorders and cognitive disease.

This brings us back to the fact that we need constraints for our attention just as we need them for our diets. The writer and podcast host Ezra Klein recently ​called​ this attentional health. Examples include setting aside specific spaces that are digital device-free, removing certain apps from your phone, protecting blocks of time for deep-focus work, limiting options on your television, restricting time for social media, deleting internet subscriptions to junk content, and so on.

Much like with food, there are endless constraints that could be effective. Also much like with food, different people have different susceptibility to unhealthy choices based on their unique genetics and upbringing. For instance, I have little problem limiting my use of Instagram, but I can get sucked into Twitter for hours on end if I am not careful. This is no different from my ability to have endless chocolate in the house and still consume it in moderation, but my utter inability to do the same for potato chips.

Just as you cannot live without eating food, you cannot live without paying attention. A too-stringent constraint on the former may result in a deadly eating disorder—a too-stringent constraint on the latter may result in removing yourself entirely from modern life. But without any constraints, it is becoming impossible to have a healthy diet in a world of ultra-processed crap, be it with food or attention. It is imperative to find ones that work for you.

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