When I watched her video on Youtube first time, it caught my attention: a neuroscientist talking about health. Unlike usual diet methods, her idea is incredibly logical, which takes advantage of brain functions. We talk a lot about which foods are good for your health but rarely discuss about how we can deal with the brain function, which is the source of our life. It took me no time to start visiting her website Summer Tomato and reading her book Foodist.Her mission is to change the perception of “health, diet, and eating” through her methods based on her research: changing habits instead of relying on willpower. We found that this method is to not only having healthy eating patterns, but also to change your way of thinking to achieving your goals and missions. Do you want to form positive habits and change your life, or stay as it is?
-----To begin with, let us know more about who you are. How did you get interested in neuroscience and why did you decide to invest your time in taking Ph.D.?
That’s a great question. I didn’t have a lot of guidance from my parents in terms of my career. All I knew when I was in high school was that I just needed to go to college if I wanted a better life than my parents had. I got into Berkeley finally. I didn’t know what to study; I was sort of interested in Psychology, so I was taking some Psychology classes. I randomly ended up taking a class about neurochemistry. I don’t know why I decided though; I could do that after studying English and I was studying Italian as well.
-----A big change.
Yes, I know. I took a neurobiology class, and I found it so cool! I learned about the brain, how the neurons in the brain fire signals, how drugs impact the brain. I felt “oh I was more interested in the biology side of psychology”. So I started taking more courses and thinking I was just going to study neurobiological psychology. When I started taking biology and hardcore science, I started getting As and A+s every single course. Then I realized I like Biology more than Psychology and that I like the brain and neuroscience. I was interested in neurodegenerative diseases, and I wanted to help those people.
However, then I learned that there is no cure for those diseases, and there is nothing you can do except diagnose them well or maybe give them medicines to delay it a little bit. To me, that sounded very unrewarding. So I decided to go into research instead, and tried to find cures or prevent those illnesses. That’s how I got into neuroscience, and that’s why I decided to do a Ph.D. in neuroscience. In general, I’ve always been very curious about everything and interested in finding the truth in everything.. That’s why my blog is all over the place. I used to be a ballerina. I used to study calligraphy. I used to do gymnastics. I love NBA basketball. I was just sort of all over the place.
-----That’s an interesting story. I have never met someone who has experience in ballet and decided to take a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Your profile is very different from typical scientists.
You know that’s probably why I didn’t stay in academics. I felt it to be very limiting. You have to super super specialize. You work and work, and finally you get a paper published. It’s like this tiny little thing. I like to make faster progress than that and make a bigger impact on people. I just didn’t feel like that was happening when I’m sitting in a microscope room looking at interneurons in mice.
On top of that, I was in Silicon Valley. Everyone around me is changing the world every day and they can do it at a much faster pace with the new technology. So I thought I should do something on the Internet. That is how I sort of shifted to thinking bigger. I always wanted to think bigger, but I finally had a way to do it and to reach a lot of people very easily. Basically, it’s free to start a blog. I was like, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” I might waste time but at least I’m trying something new.
-----Did you think about monetizing or did you just want to share your ideas and to connect people with the same interest?
I never expected to make money, but I knew that some bloggers made a lot of money. I had friends who could pay rent with a blog, and that for me was good enough. My number one goal was to do something that I felt was impacting the world more than I was doing before. This has been my goal from Day 1 at Summer Tomato. That’s what I want to change. When you ask anybody how to get healthy, they will say some version of dieting: eating less, moving more. The reason that diets trick you is that they do work for a little bit. You think, “If I could keep doing it then, I could solve the problem.” But that’s not true. It’s like an illusion. I need more people doing what I’m doing to succeed and tell their stories, and so that’s my new focus. The next year or two, I will be working specifically with that goal.
-----I think you can change the perception of the consumers first.
Yes Exactly. And you can do that by showing what I do. One of the things that I do, for instance, is show quality over quantity. I can give you strategies that you will still get to taste the food and enjoy it, and you won’t overeat because you’ll know what to do to stop. And most people would say yes! Give me that. I want that strategy. It’s just that right now people don’t know it.
-----So it is not just about what to eat, but also how to deal with your desire and mental issues?
Huge! That’s a huge part of it. So the first step is changing what you eat because what you eat can actually really impact how satisfied you are. Vegetables require much more chewing than McDonald’s meal. Then you will eat slower, you will eat less, you will enjoy the food more. Once you have real food with real flavor that actually tastes amazing, that’s actually good for you, it becomes silly to choose the bad thing. And so once you sort of overhaul what you’re eating, for most people that is what will change their lives. But some people will still overeat because we have a lot of bad habits that have been developed over decades.
-----I’m wondering how do you convince people to start hearing about your method and opinion
Well first of all I tell my story. That’s how I get their attention. Then they listen. That’s Step 1. Step 2 is saying that you’ve been focusing on deprivation. You’ve been focusing on willpower and NOT doing things. Let’s try to start doing things. You would run into different complaints like “I don’t like vegetables”. I’m like “well okay, have you tried this kind? Just give me chance”. Then, they go “well I don’t know how to cook”. “Well neither did I, I didn’t know how to cook either”. But when you start with good ingredients, they already taste good. So you just add a little salt, little garlic, little olive oil. So they’re like Okay “I can do that”. Then suddenly people start changing. It’s not like you have to eat less sugar or go torture yourself at the gym.Start with positive things people can do. Show what they’re missing out on. Then you can start layering in other things. You start shifting before you know it.
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-----So they unconsciously experience a dramatic shift in their minds, especially their eating habits.
Yes, it’s just that you need to do the steps in the right order. You know when you win the body, then you win the mind. And that’s when nobody goes back at that point. I couldn’t just say “hey shop at the farmer’s market, everything will be better” because they didn’t really know how to change their habits as they were so stuck in the ways they were already behaving.
So I started studying human behavior and behavior change and habit change. I realize the reason people think they don’t have time. We all have the same number of hours in a day. There’s not a single person on earth who doesn’t think that they’re too busy to do something new. The reason for that is anything new feels hard, and anything you do all the time feels easy. And that’s habits. That’s just habits. So what I try to tell people now, is to stop using your will power to try to stop eating sugar. But try to use your will power to change habits. Because once a habit is formed; it only needs willpower in the beginning, and then it doesn’t need willpower anymore. It’s automatic. It’s going to be hard a little bit at the beginning. But eventually it’s not going to be hard. It’s going to be rewarding and great because that’s how habit works.
Habits work with reward that is a totally different model than depriving yourself, which is punishment. You switch the whole paradigm of getting healthy from doing stuff you don’t want to do, to doing stuff you do want to do. And that’s why it works because it’ll last forever once you do want to do it. Because it becomes a habit and good habits are just as hard to break as bad habits, you just need to form them.
-----I think it can be applied to many different fields. Not just, about eating habits, but also business and life.
Bingo. It’s how humans work. It’s exactly how humans work. It’s just that I focus on food because that’s a complicated one. Because it’s not just one habit, it’s about 20 habits. And so I help people to form habits. But you’re right. I use these same exact strategies for everything I do, for getting my work done, for dealing with my family, for dealing with my friends. Just about all the things in life that are hard. Also with money it’s very similar. You know financial stuff. It gets hard to start to get saving, to invest and things like that. It’s just work in the beginning but once you set it up, it’s automatic. It’s exactly the same principles.
-----Definitely. You can use it for many different things. Perhaps, you are good at making system that would be beneficial for you which is difficult for most people.
I think you’re right. I think that’s something that I do naturally. I think that’s why I help people with that. I think one of the reasons I am good at that is because I don’t mind failure. It’s like I try something new, and it doesn’t work, I’m like oh that didn’t work. And I try something different. I very much remove myself emotionally from what I’m trying to accomplish. So if I don’t get it right the first time, I don’t give up. I keep plugging. I just try something new. I am a scientist, right? I keep testing my hypothesis until I get my result.
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-----It’s very interesting because you started your blog when you were still taking Ph.D. right? I have some scientist friends, and they are working around the clock. So I was wondering how did you manage your time? I don’t think you worked 24 hours. I think you managed yourself, and you had a very effective and efficient system.
Yes. You’re not allowed to have any other thing in your life when you’re in grad school. They make you sign a contract saying you can’t have any other job. But you know, part way through I was like I want to try this other thing. I read a book called ‘The Four-Hour Work Week’ by Tim Ferriss. And I love the book, and it changed my life.
Two things I learned that help me a lot. One, it helped me solidify my ideas about health. His idea was why we are working so hard for a future distant retirement that may or may not come? Why should we care about money in the future? We are young now. We should be happy. And I feel like I had been thinking about this sort of idea before in terms of dieting, but it struck me. I was like, “Why are we in this fear? Why are we depriving ourselves now and unhappy now? What’s the point of life? We should be enjoying life, not dieting.” That helped me.
The other thing that helped me is that he applies this to business. He talked about 80/20 Principle, Pareto’s Law. He said 80% of the results you get come from the 20% of the work you’re doing. So look at your system, your workload and ask yourself from where your benefits are coming. And what is the 80% that is wasting your time. So I went to my workflow at lab, and I realized that I was spending a ridiculous amount of time reading emails and a lot of papers. I just decided to stop doing all those things. I stopped. I gave two days a week where I would check my emails from my school. I completely stopped reading papers that were not relevant to exactly what I was working on, and I stopped reading news altogether. If something important happens, my friends will tell me. Also, I went from working from 9am to 6pm to working from 9am to 2pm. I cut 4 hours from my day by just eliminating email and news, and it worked well. Tim Ferriss is a friend of mine now, and I told him when I first met him that I owe him a nice bottle of wine for getting me through my Ph.D. program.
-----I will definitely read his book. I think it’s very interesting because you can be whatever kind of person you want to be by using technology and the Internet. However, it’s still hard for most of the people to take some actions.
My whole thing in life, just do what works. If something is not working, figure it out. For example, when I was in graduate school it was very busy but I refuse to not work out at the gym. For me, it’s meditation. So I decided to go to the gym 5am before class. It was hard and exhausting but eventually I learned a trick. Why don’t I want to get out of bed right now?
First of all, bed is cozy and warm and outside it’s freezing and not cozy. What I did was pack my gym bag the night before and putting everything in my bag right by my bed. Thinking, “I have to go to the gym, I have to commute by train for like 30 minutes and then go work out” sounds horrible. But thinking, “Can I slide out of bed and put these pants on?” Yes, that’s fine. “Can I put those shoes on?” Yes, that’s fine. “Can I grab my bag?” Yes that’s fine. “Can I walk out the door?” Yes, that’s fine. I broke them into small steps that I couldn’t say No to and then by the time you get to the gym, you’re never mad that you’re there. For me, it just comes down to identifying the small barriers that tell you “this is impossible” and proving that they’re not impossible, making it so small and so easy that you can’t say “No” and that’s how I approach everything. Every success is a process.
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-----What do you mean by that?
People don’t magically become successful. Most people that are successful do it in slow incremental consistent changes. They just tackle little things one at a time. It’s just so simple. However, most people can’t implement it.
Instead of saying I can’t, I can’t for 10 years, how about you say “I can do this small thing, I can do this other small thing, I can do this other small thing”. You read about like Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and business successes all the time. These people are just relentless and just making sure they get results. They do the small works that seem insignificant but when you add them up over 10 years it becomes a success. People often look at the sky and they think they have to be up there but really they just need to go get the ladder.
It’s like they keep looking at the problem wrong. It’s called framing, it’s the psychological term for that. It’s basically saying instead of creating a story where it says it’s impossible, let’s create a story where you have to succeed. What would you do? If you had one day to make a huge change, what would you do today? Refocus and reframe your behavior, as opposed to thinking it is impossible. This is far more effective to actually get you there.
-----And how did you come up with it? I don’t think any education system tells you to think like that. Everybody tells you what to think, and they never teach how to think like you.
Yes, I know. Some people do, and this is what Tony Robbins teaches. Nobody teaches it but at the end of the day, everything we do, these little-automated scripts that run in our brain. The problem is thinking your way through the world takes a ton of energy.
Our brain uses 20% of calories every day. That’s an energy intensive process, so our brains naturally want to do that as little as possible. It wants to store energy whenever possible and so you need to understand that your brain is doing that automatically, and that is called habits. So your brain automates systems to make it easier, so your brain doesn’t have to think through everything you do. And so what I’ve focused on is understanding things that drive my habits. I have this excellent quote at the beginning of my book from Aristotle and it says ‘You are what you repeatedly do; excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.’
And so it’s the same thing, to get success you have to do things to get you there and because most of the stuff you do is automatic and triggered by your environment and your internal stresses, you need to manage that if you want to consistently change your behavior and consistently do things to create success. Because it takes us so much energy to do something outside of our habits. So we don’t naturally want to do it. Most of us form habits completely unconsciously.
We are just at the whim of our environment, and most people have this mishmash of very random habits. Some are very productive, and some are not very productive. Once you realize this is how we are, and we all are like this, you can work consciously to create those habits that are way more beneficial for you. So it’s not a matter of being lazy.
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-----I totally agree and everybody can apply it to his/her life. What is your ultimate goal?
Yes. That’s interesting. Until I turn on TV or listen to people talk on the streets and they stop talking about diets, this is still going to be my goal, to change the way everybody thinks about health and weight loss. I hope to create some kind of system or something where I feel confident that anybody who really cares, anybody who really wants to be healthy and to feel good about their body and have good relationships can do what I suggest and have a truly profound, long-term change of their lives.
I’m not interested in a three months success story. I don’t know how long it’ll take. I hope it doesn’t take 20 years. Another thing I’m really interested in nowadays is female psychology. Because I’ve known one of the things that makes me unique is I’m really systematic and not very emotional. So when I tackle problems I don’t get hung up on a lot of things that a lot of people can get hung up on. I’ve noticed that it’s much more common in men than it is in women. So I am interested in helping women specifically and learning to manage their psychology and get better results in that way. That’s more of a fun side project, not a business plan.
-----Last question. If you could make a call to 20-year-old Darya, what would you say to her? What advice would you give to her?
I think I would tell Darya, Well first of all, don’t diet. Stop dieting right now. Second I would let her know that she should start working on people skills. Because one of the problems when you’re like me and you don’t have tons of emotions is that it’s hard when other people do have a lot of emotions and it’s hard to understand their point of view. And I would tell that Darya to study empathy and people skills.
I wish I would have known earlier how much work it was for me in particular. Because I don’t require much empathy and it’s hard for me to understand why other people require so much empathy. For instance if I’m having a tough time, a terrible thing happens or whatever. And someone comes up to me and goes, “Oh my gosh that’s so awful. I’m so sorry.” For me, I’m like I don’t care. Like obviously it sucks, but do you have advice? What should I do? To me, I just want to know what to do. And I’m learning that most people just need you to be there and say, “Oh my gosh I understand that’s horrible.” It’s very strange for me. So that’s been a skill I’ve had to learn, and it doesn’t come to me naturally because I don’t need it. And I wish I had learned that 15 years ago when I was 20.