Mental Models and Your Diet

2011-07-15 § Leave a comment

We build mental models through learning and experience. Words, phrases, and pictures are the things we use to build our models.

Consider this list of Classroom roles:

  • Mr. Smith is the teacher
  • William is the class clown
  • Jeff is the bully
  • Marcie is teacher’s pet
  • Tara is a bookworm
  • Andy is a jock

Anyone over the age of 10 has extensive experience in the classroom — years of it. You have a mental model of the Classroom, and can envision people in these roles. You have met people like this, interacted with them, perhaps been one of them. You have an intimate understanding of what is being described. If you picture Marcie raising her hand and asking Mr. Smith a question, and then picture William doing so, you will have a pre-formed idea of how those two interactions might unfold — how does the teacher’s pet ask a question, versus how the class clown would ask the same question?

Now consider a different list of labels and roles, concerning Network infrastructure:

  • a WAN connects several LANs
  • TCP/IP provides data transport
  • BGP controls the routing of packets
  • DNS translates names to addresses
  • BIND translates names to addresses
  • LDAP provides information on who’s who

Unless you’re a computer IT professional, you have a limited understanding of what these things mean and how they work together. The acronyms may have no meaning whatsoever. The more you know about them, the more effectively you can understand and use a computer network and solve problems with it.

So a mental model that your mind uses to make sense of a given set of concepts may be more or less extensive and detailed; it can also be very accurate, or less so. To succeed at a given endeavor, the mental model you use to think about it should be accurate.

Here is a primitive mental model of the way food relates to the human body:
– FAT is how your body stores energy for future use
– FAT in the foods you eat is high in calories and is bad for you
– PROTEIN helps you build muscle and is good for you; animal flesh is a good source of it
– CHOLESTEROL comes from animal flesh and is bad for you
– CARBOHYDRATES are filling and are high in calories; depending on the books you’ve read, you might see carbohydrates as normal part of your diet, or as bad for you
– CALORIES are what your body uses for energy; eating more calories than you use makes you gain weight. A calorie is a calorie, no matter where it comes from (apples, cereal, hamburgers, soda, alcohol — the calories are all the same.)
– EXERCISE uses up calories (you know this because the treadmills, exercise bicycles, and eliptical trainers at your health club measure and display your calorie burn rate)
– if you eat fewer calories than you use, you’ll lose weight
– the fastest way to lose weight would be to starve yourself and exercise a lot until you arrive at your target weight; this isn’t feasible, so following a diet plan like Adkins or South Beach or Weight Watchers is a better approach

Further, a DIET is a method used to lose weight: a system of rules about eating that aims to get you to eat fewer calories for some period of time, so that you will lose a certain amount of weight. If you’re overweight, losing weight is good. WILLPOWER is the main tool you use to force yourself to eat the right amount of the right things.

This model is not too far away from the truth, but it contains a number of inaccuracies, misconceptions, shortcomings, and oversights. In order to have a proper relationship between your body and the food you eat, the model should be improved.

  1. Fat is high in calories, true; but it isn’t all bad. Your body needs a certain amount of fat to function, and there are different kinds of fat. You need to understand saturated vs. unsaturated fats, and LDL’s vs. HDL’s. Reading about these can help you determine how much fat you should be eating, and what sources to choose.
  2. Cholesterol, similarly, should be limited but it isn’t bad for you. In fact, you need some of it. A doctor friend of mine informed me that if you don’t eat any cholesterol at all, your body will synthesize it.
  3. The concept of a calorie in your diet is a much more interesting and problematic concept than what is stated above. Not all calories are the same. If you take in 150 calories by eating lettuce, that’s not the same as 150 calories from a donut; and that’s different yet from 150 calories from a piece of steak or a glass of beer. Your body metabolizes all these foods differently, and they produce different responses and changes in body chemistry. It IS true that eating 500 calories a day more than you need from any of these sources will make you put on weight. But, for example, eating the small piece of a donut that contributes 150 calories will make your whole being want to finish the donut, and perhaps have another one; whereas eating 150 calories of lettuce will probably leave you full and satisfied. The 150 calories in the donut will be available for your body to use immediately, where the steak will take more time and energy for your body to break down. Eating an extra 150 calories of beer or donuts every day will have a much different effect on you — both in terms of weight gain, and in how you feel about what you eat — than an extra 150 calories of lettuce or steak.
  4. Carbohydrates are a topic all to themselves. Is there a difference between the carbs in a plate of pasta or a boiled potato, the fructose in a glass of orange juice, or the sucrose in Froot Loops? You bet there is. All of these are great sources of energy if that’s what you need, but carbohydrates are more than just a source of energy.

Most importantly, “Diet” is not a method of losing weight. Your diet is what you eat. You can change it temporarily if you wish; you can also change it permanently. We are not tigers, who must subsist on whatever protein-rich animals our mothers taught us to hunt. We can eat any food, and even many things that are not food (think vodka, or potato chips cooked in Olestra.) Further, the fact that something contains calories doesn’t make it a food. WE determine what is food. Unfortunately, most of us learn our diet from our parents and the culture that surrounds us, and one or both of these may give an extremely unhealthy definition.

Ask yourself: is soda a food? If you drink a bottle of it every day, then for you it is food. But for me, it stopped being food about twenty years ago. That doesn’t mean I never put it in my body, but it also means that when I do, perhaps five or ten times a year, I think of it as an entertaining and hugely expensive kind of water. I decided long ago that 100% fruit juice was a far better beverage choice, and went out of my way to support that preference; in the last year, I have changed even that opinion, finding that for me, water and the occasional glass of milk are the best beverages.

Every person is different. I find sheer willpower to be effective in the short run (3-5 days), but ineffective over any time period longer than a week. What was far more effective for me was when I considered what a reasonable weight should be (for me, I was 240 pounds and thought 220 would be fair; I remembered how I looked and felt at 220, and what I was able to do then, and that seemed the right initial goal.) Then I read information from several sources that redefined for me what kinds of food could really be called food. This redefinition started withMichael Pollan’s dictum: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.”

  • my local CSA is a good source of food (i.e. organic vegetables); I joined one and eat everything they send me, even if I don’t recognize it at first and have to learn what to do with it
  • refined sugar or HFCS are not food, and by extension anything containing them is not food (this means cereal, yogurt, ice cream, ketchup, you name it; there’s almost nothing in a grocery store any more that DOESN’T contain one or both of these)
  • factory farmed animals are not legitimate food

I don’t mean to imply that I have become a vegetarian, or that I never eat anything that isn’t on my list. What I DO mean is that I’ve redefined what is “food” and eliminated non-food items from my regular daily diet. It is no longer my habit to eat a cookie from the vending machine every day at work, and it has become my habit to make a big tub of salad every day. Habits and diet are intertwined. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take a stab at food habits as a separate topic.


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