TIME Exercise/Fitness

Lack of Exercise Is a Bigger Risk Factor Than Obesity in Premature Death

A short daily walk could literally save your life

A brisk 20-minute walk a day may be enough to reduce an individual’s risk of early death by up to 30 percent, according to a new report published this week.

In a study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on Wednesday, researchers claim that at least twice as many deaths may be attributable to a lack of physical activity when compared with the number of deaths linked to obesity.

According to their research, which was based on data from 334,161 European men and women, a 20-minute daily walk or a comparable exercise, in which at least 90 to 110 calories are burned, will reduce the risk of premature death by between 16 and 30 percent.

“This is a simple message: just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive,” said Ulf Ekelund from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge.

[Science Daily]

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Here’s How to Get Kids to Eat 54% More Vegetables

TIME.com stock photos Food Healthy Vegetables Chard Carrots
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

A simple schedule change can make produce seem way more appealing

There’s a way to get school kids to eat more vegetables at lunch, and it has nothing to do with what’s on the menu. Just mess with their schedule, finds a new study published in the journal Preventive Medicine: Kids who have recess before lunch are more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables than those who play after they eat.

The study looked at 2,500 kids in seven Utah elementary schools who participated in the National School Lunch Program, which serves balanced lunches that must include a serving of vegetables with each meal. Three schools switched their schedules to hold recess before lunch, while the other four schools kept recess after lunch. Researchers stood by the garbage cans and measured how many children threw away fruits and vegetables and found that the schedule swap boosted produce consumption by an impressive 54% for elementary school children.

That’s because young students tend to rush through their meals and skip the most nutritious parts when lunch is held before recess, the authors say. “Recess is a pretty big deal for most kids. If you have kids [choose] between playing and eating their veggies, the time spent playing is going to win most of the time,” said study author Joe Price, an economics professor at Brigham Young University, in a press release.

The effect may not hold for children who bring their own lunch, since these kids skip waiting in lines and feel less rushed to get to recess, the authors say.

Previous research has shown that children in the United States throw away nearly $4 million in fruits and vegetables every day, so an easy schedule swap may be a cheap way to reduce food waste, increase students’ focus in the classroom and improve the diets of American children.

“It’s a very simple solution, and it doesn’t cost all that much,” said David Just, study author and Cornell University Professor, in a video. “It’s just moving recess before lunch.”

Read next: Let Your Kids Sleep More For Better Grades

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The More Hours You Work, the More You Drink, Study Says

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People across the socioeconomic spectrum use alcohol to unwind

People who work more than 48 hours a week are more likely to drink at dangerous levels than their counterparts who work fewer hours, according to new research. The link between alcohol misuse and long work hours suggests that employers have a role to play in stemming alcohol abuse, according to the study in the BMJ.

The study, which reviewed data from more than 300,000 participants, defined risky drinking as the consumption of more than 14 drinks per week for women and 21 drinks for men.

“If people are [engaging in] risky drinking, they don’t sleep well, they’re not as socially engaged,” says Cassandra Okechukwu, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who wrote an editorial to accompany the study. “It’s really important for work places to pay attention to the productivity of their workers and work environment.”

MORE Alcohol Kills 1 Person Every 10 Seconds, Report Says

The study found the connection between long hours and increased alcohol consumption to be consistent across socioeconomic groups, so a fast food worker who works 60 hours at two jobs is just as likely to consume more alcohol as a banker who works the same hours. People across the spectrum use alcohol to unwind, says Okechukwu.

While the study identifies public health issues associated with working long hours, it offers little policy guidance on how to solve the problem. In Europe, the European Union Working Time Directive encourages employers to limit their workers’ weeks to 48 hours on the job, but many people still work longer. Enacting labor laws would be even more difficult in the United States, where few policies regulate working hours.

“I don’t want to make policy recommendations,” Okechukwu says. “In the U.S., we’re not even there yet.”

TIME Research

Duke Researchers Hail Breakthrough After Growing Muscle Tissue in Lab

Advancement may form bedrock for future personalized medicines

Scientists at Duke University announced this week that human skeletal muscle has been successfully grown in the laboratory that is able to react to stimuli just like native tissue.

The lab-grown muscle will allow researchers to study the effects that drugs and disease have on muscle tissue without having to endanger the health of a potential patient, reports Science Daily.

“The beauty of this work is that it can serve as a test bed for clinical trials in a dish,” says Nenad Bursac, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University.

Bursac said the development would hopefully allow doctors to begin prescribing personalized medicine to patients in the future.

“We can take a biopsy from each patient, grow many new muscles to use as test samples and experiment to see which drugs would work best for each person,” he explained.

[Science Daily]

TIME Research

Why the U.S. Is Losing Its Edge on Medical Research

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The United States may no longer be the leader in medical research due to lack of funding

Funding for medical research in the United States is in a sorry state, but other parts of the world are experiencing the opposite, according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal JAMA.

Limited funding is one of the reasons there was no Ebola vaccine approved when the current outbreak got so bad and it’s why already hard-to-fund research for infectious diseases and addiction don’t often make it to clinical trials. For decades the U.S. was responsible for over half of the world’s total funding for medical research. But looking at funding for U.S. and international research from 1994 to 2012, the study authors found current trends are telling a different story.

Research funding from the United States dropped from 57% of the global pool in 2004 to 50% in 2012. Asia on the other hand tripled its investment in research over the same period, from $2.6 billion in 2004 to $9.7 billion 2012. America also experienced a drop in its share of life science patients, with its share of highly value patents filed by American inventors dropping from 73% to 59% from 1981 and 2011.

Overall, research funding in the United States has dropped 0.8% every year from 2004 to 2012.

The data shows that globally, most countries are cutting back. But the United States used to have a unique edge when it comes to science innovation and funding.

MORE: 1 Million People Have a Disease You’ve Never Heard of

The researchers argue that the United States needs to start looking for other ways to fund research, whether it be through taxes, tax breaks or the adoption of bonds for biomedical research, in a similar way to how bonds have helped build environmentally sustainable infrastructure. In a corresponding editorial, Dr. Victor J. Dzau, the president of the Institute of Medicine, and Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, the presidential chair of University of California, San Francisco, say researchers themselves need to be part of the solution too. They write: “It is the responsibility of the research community to ensure that money for research will be used effectively and efficiently. A first step is to reduce redundancy and duplication of research through better grant selection and coordination.”

MORE: Why You’ve Never Heard of the Vaccine for Heroin

Ultimately, if the United States wants to maintain its standing as a leader in medical innovation, it needs to start considering non-traditional approaches to research funding, the authors say. They add that even public support has dropped for biomedical research, being replaced with concerns like domestic security, immigration and the economy, possibly due in part to the fact that in the public eye, there haven’t been many breakthroughs in areas like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Given global trends, the United States will relinquish its historical innovation lead in the next decade unless such measures are undertaken,” the authors conclude.

TIME animals

Dogs Arrived in the Americas Only 10,000 Years Ago, Research Suggests

That's several thousand years after humans first migrated to the region

They may be man’s best friend, but new research indicates that dogs arrived in the Americas thousands of years after humans did.

According to a recent study, dogs only came to the region about 10,000 years ago, NBC News reports.

Researchers arrived at this conclusion by testing 42 D.N.A. samples taken from taken from ancient dog remains and comparing it with the same number of samples from previous studies. Their findings indicate canines came to the continent with a second wave of human migration, long after humans had initially settled in the New World.

The study’s lead author Kelsey Witt said in a statement that dogs were one of the earliest species to accompany human migration to every continent. “They can be a powerful tool when you’re looking at how human populations have moved around over time,” she said.

[NBC]

TIME psychology

How To Stop Procrastinating: 4 New Steps Backed By Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna. It’s awful and horrible. I hear it causes cancer. I’ll do it when I feel better. I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll do it when I’m taller.

Procrastination plagues us all. We always think there will be more time tomorrow and research shows that’s just not true.

No, you won’t do better work by waiting. In fact, studies show leaving things unfinished makes you stupid.

To be honest with you, dear reader, I should have started writing this hours ago. So how can both of us finally banish procrastination for good? I decided to call a guy who has answers.

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times and author of the bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Here’s a quick video of Charles talking about habits:

Here’s what you’ll learn in the post below:

  1. Why your standard response to procrastination never ever ever works.
  2. How turning habits into “personal starting rituals” can make beating procrastination easier and fun (believe it or not.)
  3. Why the most powerful habits are all about how you see yourself.
  4. Why eating chocolate with friends might be the secret to beating procrastination — and every other bad habit you have.

No more putting things off. Rather than doing this “eventually” let’s do it now.

1) You Don’t Need More Willpower. You Need To Build Habits.

You don’t have a willpower problem. This wouldn’t all be better if you could force yourself to do that dreaded task.

As I talked about when I interviewed the foremost researcher on the subject, willpower is a limited resource.

Relying on it to get things done is a really lousy strategy. As Charles says, you really only have the willpower to muscle yourself to do about three to four things a day.

Yeah, three or four. (So basically I’ve used up all my willpower by the time I get out of bed.) So what’s the answer?

Building better habits. In fact, 40% of the things you do every day are habitual.

So if you can just move those awful, horrible mom-don’t-make-me-go-to-school tasks into the habit territory, you’re far more likely to get them done. Research shows we’re wayyy more productive when we automate tasks by making them habitual.

Here’s Charles:

When people make hard tasks into habits, it tends to use less willpower. You’re thinking about it less. Think about brushing your teeth. Anyone who has children knows that getting your kids to brush their teeth is like fighting demons. Everything about it is hard. When you think about it, it’s not hard for us as adults to brush our teeth. The reason why is because as that behavior becomes a habit, it requires less and less willpower. It starts drawing on different parts of the brain than the prefrontal cortex where decision-making occurs and activities that require willpower occurs. That’s the lesson. If there are some things that are hard to do, that you want to make them more automatic and less demanding of willpower, then by deliberately making them into habits, by paying attention to cues and rewards, you gain a strength over how to influence that.

(For more on how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

So habits are the answer. But how do we use habits to beat putting things off?

2) Turn That Habit Into A “Personal Starting Ritual”

I’ve posted a lot about the research and solutions to procrastination. What’s a common theme we see again and again?

Getting started is where the war is really won. This makes sense intuitively. Often it feels like something is impossible… but then once we get going we find it’s actually not that bad.

Finishing things isn’t as much of a problem as just getting started in the first place. Here’s Charles:

One way to use habits to fight procrastination is to develop a habitualized response to starting. When people talk about procrastination, what they’re usually actually talking about is the first step. In general, if people can habitualize that first step, it makes it a lot easier.

So don’t make this some terrible grind of a habit. Make this a habit that’s a “personal starting ritual.” Get your coffee or whatever energizes you and turn that into a visceral signal that always means I’m getting going.

And here’s the best part: your starting ritual can be fun. As in doing some of the stuff you’d do when procrastinating.

Seriously. A little bit of that forbidden fruit can actually make you more productive. Here’s Charles:

For instance, I’m going to set a timer for five minutes. I’m going to surf the web for five minutes. As soon as the timer goes off, I’m going to do “X”. Whatever “X” is, for the first step. One of the things that’s important, is to recognize that you can’t simply extinguish this craving for entertainment or novelty — the things that drive procrastination. Instead, what you need to do, is you need to indulge that craving but indulge it in such a way that the recovery is very easy. Pete Gollwitzer calls this “Implementation Intentions.” He says, “Let yourself procrastinate for five minutes but set the timer. As soon as the beeper goes off, you know that you’re immediately going to start writing the memo or start answering emails.” The lesson there is, “Don’t just try and power through not procrastinating.” Instead, come up with a plan where you allow yourself to indulge this craving you have, which isn’t going to go away, but do it so the recovery is encapsulated.

And Charles isn’t the only one saying this. We’re hearing about the power of rituals all over the place.

In my interview with the bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss he said a morning ritual was essential. The awesome Dan Pink recommends a starting ritual and a finishing ritual when you work.

Recent research from Harvard professors Michael Norton and Francesca Gino shows that rituals have many positive effects. Francesca explained in my interview with her:

What we studied in this project was whether these rituals are really of beneficial effect in terms of bringing you confidence and potentially impacting your performance positively. That is actually what we found. What is interesting about the studies is that we also have physiological measures. What we find is that if you engage in a ritual prior to a potentially high anxiety task, like singing in public or solving difficult math problems, you end up being calmer by the time you approach the task, and more confident in what you’re about to do. As a result of that, you actually perform better.

(For more on the rituals that geniuses use to accomplish great things, click here.)

Building habits and turning them into personal rituals can help you get things done and make you perform better. But what type of habits should we build? Are some habits more effective than others? Absolutely.

3) The Most Powerful Habits Change How You See Yourself

So what kind of ritual should it be? Something at work? One that helps you get boring chores done? Which one is going to have a nuclear bomb style affect on how you behave everywhere?

Charles calls these super-habits “keystone habits.” Exercise is one example. Here’s Charles:

There’s this fundamental finding in science that some habits seem to matter more than others. When researchers look at how people change their habitual behaviors, they find when some changes occur, it seems to set off a chain reaction that causes other patterns to change as well. For some people, exercise is a good example of this. When you start exercising habitually, according to studies, you start eating more healthfully. That makes sense. You start feeling good about your body. For many people, when they start exercising, they stop using their credit cards quite so often. They procrastinate less at work. They do their dishes earlier in the day. It seems to be evidence that for many people, exercise is a keystone habit. Once you start to change your exercise habits, it sets off a chain reaction that changes other habits as well.

So why are some habits keystone habits and others aren’t? Keystone habits change how you see yourself and that’s what causes the cascade of positive change. Here’s Charles:

The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self image. Basically, anything can become a keystone habit if it has this power to make you see yourself in a different way.

So what’s the task that really makes you feel accomplished? What makes you feel like “someone who gets things done”? That’s probably where your keystone habit lies and the first place you should attack.

(To learn the six things the most productive people do every day, click here.)

Keystone habits make the best rituals to create change and that’s the way to stop procrastinating. But what tips do you need to know to really supercharge habit change?

4) The Secret To Good Habits Is Eating Chocolate With Friends.

Okay, I’m oversimplifying. But there are two powerful lessons here.

First, rewards (like chocolate) are utterly essential when trying to build habits. Bad habits are easy to acquire because they usually have very immediate rewards. (Maybe heroin addicts do have a “personal starting ritual” but they probably don’t need one.)

If you add a reward after a good habit you want to build, it’s a powerful reinforcer. So treat yourself to a piece of chocolate after you close the tab on Facebook and get to work. Here’s Charles:

The research shows that every habit has three components. There’s the cue, which is a trigger for an automatic behavior to start. Then, a routine, which is the behavior itself. Finally, a reward. The reward is really important because that’s how your brain essentially learns to latch onto a particular pattern and make it automatic. Chocolate, after running, is an obvious example of a reward that many people enjoy. It doesn’t have to be chocolate. What matters is that if you want to make a behavior into a habit, you need to give yourself something you enjoy as soon as that behavior is done. It could be a piece of chocolate. It could be having a smoothie. It could be relaxing for 15 minutes and taking a nice shower. What’s important there is that people give themselves a reward.

When you muscle things through willpower instead of developing a habit and rewarding yourself, you’re probably teaching yourself not to accomplish things.

By making important tasks feel unpleasant you’re training yourself that doing these things is bad. Here’s Charles:

Compare that with how most people try to add an exercise routine to their schedule. They wake up in the morning. They go for a quick run. They get home and they’re behind schedule. They have to get their kids ready for school and out the door. Rush through a shower. Then, they’re late to work. They’re anxious about getting to their desk. What they’re effectively doing is punishing themselves for exercising. Your brain pays attention to whether you had something you enjoyed or something you didn’t enjoy afterwards.

Duke researcher and bestselling author of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely agrees: rewards are powerful for beating procrastination.

So that’s the chocolate part. But what about friends?

A support network shows us that change is possible. In fact, tons of research says that the people around you might be the key to lasting change in life. Here’s Charles:

One of the big important things is that when you’re trying to change a habit, there’s this key important ingredient, which is that you have to believe that change is possible. Particularly, at an inflection point, where there’s some kind of crisis or challenge to the change. You need to have some level of belief that you have, what’s known as an internal locus of control. The ability to change your behavior. Part of getting that belief, oftentimes, comes from participating in change in a group environment.

Mom wanted you to hang out with the smart kids in school because they provided good examples. Mom was right.

But friends also give our ego a kick too. For instance: Jim’s an idiot. You’re way smarter than Jim. But Jim manages to avoid procrastination. Well, if Jim can do it, you definitely can too, right? Now that’s motivating. Here’s Charles:

The first reason is that you get positive reinforcement from other people. Friends tell you, “You’re doing great! It seems like you’re making some progress.” They help positively reinforce it. The second part of it is that you see other people achieve changes. There’s this basic comparative psychology that says, “Jim across the room; Jim has been sober for four months. I think Jim is a moron. If Jim can do it, I certainly can do it.” That’s very important to making change seem feasible and possible.

(Need a more thorough step-by-step explanation of how to build new habits? Click here.)

Okay, Charles has given us a lot of good info. Let’s round it up and also learn why this system may be far more important than merely beating procrastination.

Sum Up

Here are some takeaways from Charles about how to stop procrastinating:

  1. You don’t need more willpower. You need to build a solid habit that helps you get to work.
  2. Getting started is the tricky part. Turn that habit into a “personal starting ritual.” It can even have some fun to it as long as it signals that in a few minutes, it’s time to get cranking.
  3. The most powerful habits change how you see yourself. Think about what makes you feel like someone who gets things done and make that a part of your starting ritual.
  4. Eat chocolate with friends. Maybe not literally, but it’s a good reminder that you need both rewards and a support network to build rock solid new habits.

The coolest part is that if you follow these steps you’re on your way to a lot more than beating procrastination — you’re on your way to a better life.

Build one new great habit per month with the above steps and in a year you can be a totally new person.

You can become someone who is way more conscientious and as the research shows, that’s the secret to a longer, more successful life. Here’s Charles:

If you try to transform everything at once, it tends to be very, very destabilizing. In general, what people should do, is they should think of change as a project. It’s a project that takes a while. That means you do little experiments to see what new routines work. If you say, “This week, I’m going to focus on this one habit. I’m going to run a different experiment every single day to try to change my behavior. Then, I’m going to give myself another week or two to actually implement this plan.” We go through this in the book very explicitly. That’s very, very powerful. That gives people a lot of opportunity to change. Now, it might feel frustrating to say, “If you have ten habits you want to change, that means it’s going to take eight months or nine months.” The truth of the matter is if this is a behavior that’s really important, changing it will have this huge impact on your life. It’s worth spending a month to change one behavior permanently. You’re going to be reaping the benefits of that for the next decade. The way to think about this is, “I’ve got a plan. I’m on a journey. It’s going to take a little bit of time but when the change happens, it’s actually going to be permanent and real.”

And don’t beat yourself up if this doesn’t work immediately. Research shows forgiving yourself when you drop the ball is key to overcoming procrastination.

It’s hard, but by investing some energy into building good habits you’ll make progress with time. Stay positive.

While doing my homework on procrastination I came across this line in a research study:

Continued research into procrastination should not be delayed…

Looks like even procrastination researchers have a sense of humor about the subject. And you should too.

I’m putting together a PDF that will round up a number of other hardcore strategies for overcoming chronic procrastination. It’ll be in my next weekly email. Sign up to get it here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Heart Disease

How Optimism Might Be Good for Your Heart

New research links a positive attitude with cardiovascular health

A new study finds that an optimistic outlook on life might be good for your heart—and not in the metaphorical, warm-and-fuzzy kind of way.

People with an upbeat, can-do attitude also have significantly better cardiovascular health, according to researchers at the University of Illinois.

“Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” said lead study author Rosalba Hernandez. “This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”

The study analyzed the mental health, physical health and levels of optimism of 5,100 adults ranging from 45 to 84 years of age. Heart health scores—based on American Heart Association-approved metrics including blood pressure and body mass index—increased alongside levels of optimism.

This isn’t the first study that has linked overall positivity to heart health. In 2012, Harvard researchers found associations between optimism, hope, and overall satisfaction with life with reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.

Read next: 6 Signs You’re Not Working Out Hard Enough

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Research

What Your Online Persona Says About Who You Really Are

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Does who you are online match who you are in real life? A new study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that avatars, the little icons you can customize in video games and Internet forums, are pretty good depictions of the people who created them.

Since more and more people meet and develop friendships and relationships online, researchers at York University in Toronto looked into whether the impressions people get from avatars, like the kind you use on Nintendo Wii and World of Warcraft, are true reflections of the real-life players they’re interacting with. To measure this, the researchers had about 1oo people create an avatar representation of themselves, and then asked nearly 200 others to rate the avatars on openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

The results show that traits like being outgoing or anxious are pretty easy to assess, but other traits like conscientiousness and openness to new experiences are more difficult. People with agreeable traits were better able to get their personalities across through their avatars than narcissists.

Example of avatars used in the study Katrina Fong

Specific physical traits of the online characters helped translate personalities more than others. Smiles, brown hair, sweaters and open eyes were more likely to come across as friendly and inviting, compared to avatars with neutral expressions or those that didn’t smile. Avatars with black hair, a hat, short hair or sunglasses were less likely to come across as friendly or desiring friendship.

Interestingly, the people in the study didn’t seem to apply usual gender stereotypes to the avatars, though avatars made by females were rated as more open and contentious over all. The researchers speculate that perhaps the digital realm has gender stereotypes that differ from the ones we more commonly experience offline.

“The findings from this study suggest that we can use virtual proxies such as avatars to accurately infer personality information about others,” the study authors conclude. “The impressions we make on others online may have an important impact on our real life, such as who becomes intrigued by the possibility of our friendship.”

TIME Research

Why One Company Invested $30 Million to Grow a Vegan Egg

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Their goal is to create something finer than an actual egg

A group of Silicon Valley investors, scientists and chefs are close to debuting a plant-based egg. Omelet-maker extraordinaire Emily Kaiser Thelin investigates.

When I first met my husband, Josh, at a July 4th potluck barbecue in 2009, I had a strict rule against dating vegetarians—too much time spent defending my carnivorous ways. So I was crestfallen when the dashing stranger with whom I had been getting on so well suddenly plopped a veggie dog on the grill. I sighed and pulled out my bone-in rib eye. But as that steak cooked, with smoke swirling and fat spattering, Josh never flinched. When I carved into the medium-rare meat, he even asked how it tasted.

He explained that he’d never renounced meat—he’d just never eaten it. Ever. Since before he was born, his parents have eschewed meat and eggs. His father, Jay Thelin, cofounded the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street in San Francisco in 1966. Jay was a rigorous idealist (he hoped LSD could expand the collective consciousness and end the war in Vietnam). Later, he discovered a spiritual path that convinced him that meat and eggs (and drugs and alcohol) hindered access to the divine. Out of a mix of habit, loyalty and pride, Josh has remained a vegetarian his entire life. He’s always been curious about omelets and steaks—just not enough to try them.

When we started dating, it felt good to eat more vegetarian meals. If I was missing meat, I ordered a roast chicken or braised pork shoulder when Josh and I ate out. Eggs became our only point of contention. On weekend mornings and at the end of a long day, I crave an omelet. Josh valiantly tries to win me over with his scrambled tofu, but, well, come on. Maybe I’ve succumbed to Francophile propaganda, but omelets, soufflés and other classics of egg cookery have always represented the ne plus ultra of independent adult living to me. And I make good omelets. When we got married, we joked that our lives would be perfect if only someone would build us a plant-based egg.

Last year, we learned that our absurdist fantasy was coming true. Big investors in Silicon Valley put $30 million into a start-up called Hampton Creek, where R&D scientists are building a vast database of legumes and grains (including often-overlooked ones like the Canadian yellow pea and sorghum) to determine which plant proteins can mimic—indeed, outperform—the properties of eggs.

The fact that the company’s founder, Josh Tetrick, is vegan has nothing to do with it. A former lawyer who’d worked in international development, Tetrick started Hampton Creek in 2011 to make sustainable food choices easy. “I fully support free-range eggs,” he says. “But my dad won’t buy them because they cost more. We’re looking for better and cheaper alternatives.” Industrially produced eggs seemed an obvious first target, he said, because of their many inefficiencies: food-safety scares, animal cruelty, high production costs.

But how do you top an egg? As Auguste Escoffier wrote in Le Guide Culinaire “Of all the products put to use by the art of cookery, not one is so fruitful of variety, so universally liked, and so complete in itself as the egg.” Eggs poach, scramble and fry. They emulsify dressings, structure cakes, even clarify wine. There are vegan substitutes that can replicate certain facets, but can plant proteins mimic them all?

Just Scramble, Hampton Creek’s whole-egg alternative, is the company’s most ambitious project. As food scientist Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking, when raw, a real egg’s proteins float like tiny coiled ropes in watery suspension. When cooked (or whipped), the coils unwind and collide with one another to form a three-dimensional web. This web traps the air in a soufflé, thickens the milk in a custard, or suspends the egg’s own water in the curds of scrambled eggs. For a proper scramble, a plant-egg needs to create identically elastic and moist curds at the same pace.

Hampton Creek has hired three former chefs from Chicago’s avant-garde restaurant Moto who collaborate with its scientists on prototype after prototype. Their goal is to create something finer than an actual egg, with better flavor, more protein and less environmental impact. Recently, they found an iteration close to the real thing; it consists of a half-dozen ingredients, but contains no gums or hydrocolloids and nothing genetically modified. I wrangled an invitation to the facility so I could cook my husband his first omelet.

I was nervous: What if my husband just didn’t like eggs? I heated an omelet pan with a dab of oil, then poured in the liquid plant-egg. It looked just like a beaten whole egg, pale yellow and perfectly smooth (it’s only a coincidence—the plant strains are naturally yellow). I missed cracking egg shells one-handed, but didn’t miss cleaning a whisk and bowl.

As it cooked, the plant-egg gently and slowly transformed from liquid to solid, just like a real egg. I nudged aside the cooked curds with a spatula, and the uncooked parts pooled right in. A few curds on the bottom lightly caramelized but never turned rubbery or dry. I took the pan off the heat when the omelet’s center was just this side of runny. I added mushrooms I’d sautéed with garlic and white wine, shook the eggs to the edge of the pan, and then upended the omelet. Airy and elastic, it folded in on itself and slid onto the plate, a perfect package. “I can’t believe how quickly it cooks,” Josh said. “Scrambled tofu takes an age.”

I took a bite. Texturally, the omelet was spot-on. Flavor-wise, it tasted a bit grassy, like olive oil. If I was judging it as an egg substitute, I might have given it a 7 or 8 out of 10.

“We’d probably give this a 5 out of 10,” one of the chefs said. “Ours will have to be better than an egg.”

One thing I’ve learned about tofu scramble: It’s always better with cheese. I sprinkled grated cheddar on the omelet—the grassiness vanished. Now it tasted fantastic.

It may be months before Just Scramble is ready for market, but I’m happy to pass the time brushing up on omelet recipes: Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire has 31 pages of egg dishes, 11 for omelets and (real) scrambles alone.

This article originally appeared on Food & Wine.

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