The New York City Elimination Diet

These streets will make you feel brand new, the lights will inspire you, but maybe the lights have a dimmer switch, we can dial down the noise & traffic, embrace green spaces and reinvent city life.

Hey all, greetings from Santa Monica!

I recently spent 3 weeks in New York City. My time in NYC, by the numbers: 🤣 4 comedy shows, 🎷 2 live music shows, 🎨 1 museum visit, 🧺 2 park picnics, 🌃 2 rooftop dinners, ✊🏼 1 political protest, 🍕 many slices of Prince Street Pizza.

For months I’d heard reports New York was suffering. People were leaving, businesses closing—a city in ruins.

My experience in New York was different. Yes, the city faces serious challenges. But I saw people reimagining what the city is, coming on stronger and better. New Yorkers helping each other.

That’s the hallmark of a great city. Just like after 9/11. It bounces back.

My friend Asif told me:

“This is a great time to be in New York. Rich people are leaving. Traffic is negligible. Outdoor dining is flourishing. People are marching on the streets for racial equity.

Parks are the new clubs. We’ve done an outdoor rave every month in Williamsburg. Drinks, DJs, lights. I like that so much more than a club. I like the smaller scale, the intimacy of the city.”

As I walked the cobblestone streets of Soho, I reflected on how NYC has changed. The city is quieter. There’s less traffic. There are fewer tourists crowding sidewalks. It’s less stressful.

Modern life is all about more, more, more.

How is life improved when there's LESS of everything?

I call it the New York City elimination diet. Here’s what I’ve learned these past few weeks.


Less Noise

New York City has gotten quieter.

Average decibel levels in NYC have dropped from 79 dBA (loud) to 68 dBA (quiet), according to SoundPrint. The percentage of NYC venues rated quiet or moderate has jumped from 31% to 89%.

You don’t need to shout to be heard over traffic. The city feels less stressful. People seem more relaxed.

Data from EightSleep show a direct correlation between stress and sleep quality. After the initial disruption of the pandemic, sleep quality has improved as the city has reopened.

Less Traffic

Fewer cars crowd New York City’s streets. There’s less commuting. Just 10% of workers have returned to their offices in Manhattan. Tourism is down 90%.

More New Yorkers are riding bikes. Bike traffic across the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges has increased dramatically, and Citi Bike has shattered ridership records.

NYC has an opportunity to reimagine its streets as car-free public spaces. The city’s Open Streets program is a good start. Outdoor dining tables, street musicians, people on bikes—the city truly feels like Paris.

Bikes are the best way to move through cities. People get to enjoy the outdoors and are forced to interact, which builds solidarity among strangers.

Less Stimulation

In April I published a piece on dopamine fasting. How can we free our minds by shedding our attachment to constant food, stimulation, entertainment? (You can read the original article here.)

I read about the Buddhist concept of Samudaya. It teaches that attachment is the root of human suffering. To find peace in life, we must be willing to detach ourselves and thus become free of cravings.

The pandemic has challenged us to ask ourselves: How can we use adversity to become more resilient?

Less Frequent Meals / Intermittent Fasting

I caught up with my friend Scott, a longtime New Yorker. I barely recognized him: He’s lost 60 pounds in the past 4 months.

Scott credits the weight loss to intermittent fasting (IF). He restricts his feeding window to 4 hours each day. He eats nothing from 6pm until 2pm the next day.

It may sound extreme, but there’s real science to support the benefits of this practice. Fasting promotes cellular autophagy, the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells.

Human studies of IF found that it improved such disease indicators as insulin resistance, blood fat abnormalities, high blood pressure and inflammation, even independently of weight loss.

Greg uses the Zero Fasting app to track his fasts. The app records the time of his last meal, and his current streak—100 days in a row with at least a 20-hour fast.

Zero Fasting - The World's Most Popular Fasting App

I’ve been experimenting with fasting. When I go long periods without eating, I feel mentally sharper. I sleep better. I often wake up after 5 hours feeling fully rested.


More Time in Nature

New Yorkers are spending less time in crowded bars and gyms. They’re spending more time outdoors in parks.

I went for runs each day in Hudson River Park. I did tree pull-ups and barefoot yoga. I went to a picnic in Central Park. I sat down with my journal in the charming Elizabeth Street Garden.

Getting outside in nature lets your brain shift into modes of panoramic vision, says neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman. By dialing out your vision, you relax the autonomic response that drives stress. That’s why connecting with nature helps us relax and focus.

Not all New Yorkers have access to parks. Many live in small apartments with no outdoor space. Spending time in nature can be a challenge.

(This is one reason I’m worried about NYC this winter. With the cold weather and limited indoor options, where will people go?)

On With the Arts

Broadway is closed. So are most NYC museums, live music venues, and comedy clubs.

Yet I found New York’s art scene to be very much alive. I spent a morning at the Museum of Modern Art (back open with limited capacity, along with the Whitney Museum of American Art).

I went to semi-secret comedy shows at Olive Tree Café (home of the Comedy Cellar). It’s not officially back open as a comedy club, but comics hang out at the restaurant each night and take turns telling jokes.

I met Bill Burr, who performed in front of 6 people as he got ready to host Saturday Night Live. (He was hilarious.)

The comics performed on a makeshift stage behind glass (“I feel like Hannibal Lecter at an open mic”; “I feel like a mime in a dunk tank,” etc.)

I attended a live jazz performance at Arts Alive on St. Marks Place. I saw a saxophone player perform with a mask that had a hole in it, allowing her to blow into the sax. (The indoor performance venue featured a medical-grade air filtration system.)

Museums, live comedy, live music—these things were high on my pandemic bucket list (also: karaoke). I realize not everyone feels comfortable in public spaces. For those of us in low-risk populations, it comes down to a reasonable assessment of risk. I felt comfortable anywhere with masks, distancing, and ventilation.

I was reminded why we need art in our lives. Especially now, in a crisis, as the world is changing. The arts help us connect with our humanity, build empathy for our fellow humans, and make sense of our place in the universe.

Strangers Coming Together

In one ten-minute span, I saw the best and the worst of New York City life.

I was sitting outside at a café on Prince Street when traffic came to a standstill. Cars started honking. One guy got out of his car, started cursing, opened his trunk, and removed a baseball bat. I was worried there’d be violence. Then the traffic started moving again.

A few minutes later, I saw an elderly woman trip and fall on the sidewalk. People rushed to help her up. I offered her my seat at the café. We got her water, helped clean her wound, and walked her back to her home. It was one of those tiny, magical New York moments—strangers coming together to help each other out.

Mental health experts say one challenge of Covid is that we have fewer chances for small exchanges. We need to recognize that it’s missing and that its absence is having a huge effect on our well-being — from the chat with the barista at the coffee shop to the water-cooler interaction with the people in the office. 

The New York Times ran a piece quoting Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University who began teaching “The Science of Well-Being” in 2018. She said:

“One of the most shocking ones for me is a study looking at how simple interactions with strangers positively affect your well-being. Even for introverts, a simple chat with a stranger can make people feel great.”

I never felt lonelier than I did living in NYC. The city can make you feel tiny and insignificant. It’s why I’ve made such an effort to build community in New York and LA.

Bigger isn’t always better. Avoiding scale is a recipe for happiness: Keep a small group of close friends, work with small teams of people. Make sure your environment is conducive to your physical and mental health.

My last night in New York City, I stopped to watch sunset over the Hudson. I felt awestruck by the beauty of the city.

If the beauty of SoCal is like a cotton-candy sunset, New York’s beauty is like a thundering rainstorm — violent and unforgiving, assaulting you from all sides, forcing you to summon your strongest spirit just to stay afloat — then suddenly, without warning, the skies clear, yielding to moments of sublime grace and beauty.

Just when you think you know every block, every street corner — it always finds new ways to surprise you.

Until next week,

By Daniel Zahler

I’m Daniel, a healthcare and life sciences consultant based in Santa Monica, California. Every week I write an email newsletter with perspectives on health and wellness trends, and strategies & tactics on how to optimize cognitive, physical and emotional health. I hold a JD and BA from Harvard, have worked at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and currently advise global business leaders as a GLG council member.

Check out my articles in Thrive Global here.

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