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Lance Armstrong, and The Biology of Cheating Your Body

January 25, 2013

 

 

Lance Armstrong is a cheater.

 

For some, it was a shocking revelation. For the French cycling world, it was a classic I-told-you-so moment. (Or rather, a "Je te l'avais dit" moment--thank you, Yahoo! Answers.)

 

Armstrong said in his quest for victory he really didn't think about what he was putting into his body. What's interesting is how well blood doping (replacing your existing blood with super oxygenated blood)  and the other drugs worked. For that matter the same can be said of steroid use by professional baseball players like Mark McQuire and Sammy Sosa. Good players already, the steroids made them home run gods in a sport had never seen records fall like matchsticks before.

 

In a very real sense, our fallen sports heroes have shown us that you are what you eat. Alter the chemicals in the body and brain and you win the Tour de France seven times, or set new home run records. But even if you're never discovered and humiliated before a scandal-hungry public, nothing comes for free. The side effects of steroids are legion and unappetizing, including acne, liver malfunction, bloating, unwanted body hair--oh right, and uncontrollable, explosive rage.

 

Fewer know about the harmful effects of blood doping--yes, even your own blood can harm you if you monkey around with it too much--but it's no picnic either. We're talking kidney damage, blood clots, jaundice, and blood infection. Let me repeat that: blood infection. It's a decent name for a heavy metal band, but not something you want to hear from your doctor.

 

If we were truly rational beings, we would think long and hard about every single item we ingest. We wouldn't knowingly put fuel in our cars that had sludge in it, and repairing our bodies is a lot harder than a trip to the mechanic's for new parts. But even aside from athletes stuffing their bodies with performance-enhancing drugs, our daily choices often have nothing to do with logic. Quick, when's the last time you knowingly consumed something that was bad for you? Last night's beer and chicken wings? This morning's triple espresso shot?

 

So what's wrong with us? The fact is we are not rational beings all the time. We have two decision making processes, according to Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. One process is designed for contemplation and tends to be more analytical. The other process is designed for quick response. When something big and mean is chasing you, you don't stop to analyze its fur and bone structure. You make a run for the trees.

 

Our ancestors were on the move. It is believed that ancient people walked as many as 12 miles a day and had a bodies closer to that of an Olympic athlete. To fuel those bodies, they were constantly consuming anything they could find, with very little need for the analytic. Because aside from the occasional poisonous plant (the end results of which were pretty obvious--that kind of news travels fast), so many things they came across in the wild were edible and provided some level of nutrition.

 

As a species, we are basically designed to ingest without contemplation. And without that level of constant self-analysis, it's easy to find yourself reaching for a chemical crutch from time to time.

 

I was disappointed on so many levels to hear about Lance Armstrong. His poor decisions can not be overlooked or rationalized away. But what's striking is that to a large extent, when it comes to feeding our bodies and brains, it turns out we truly are what we eat, and most of us are cheaters.

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