2011-08-05 § Leave a comment

Humans are habitual creatures, in no area more than our eating habits.

It’s said that it takes a couple of weeks of doing something every day to form a habit. Do it three times a day for twenty years, it becomes ingrained. We are driven by a biological need to eat, but WHAT we eat, and when, and how, and how often — these are habits. They are reinforced by cultural norms surrounding us, so they are doubly hard to change consciously, but they can be changed.

For me, the change only happened after three things came together: information, motivation, and enforced changes in body chemistry.

I already knew I was overweight. My own kids referred to me as “fat”, not as an attack but just as a simple fact. They’re too young still to make snide comments about me, so it came out as an unvarnished truth, one I didn’t try to deny. Inwardly, I’d think “I’ll show them that’s not who I really am. I’ll lose 20 pounds, and they’ll see the real me.” But I didn’t, not then.

I gained some crucial information: reading Michael Pollan, then Marion Nestle, then Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals”, then watching Lustig’s lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” on Youtube. That last was key for me, because it identified a real problem area.

Then came motivation: seeing my brother, fit and trim from long-distance bicycle riding, and seeing my dad go to the emergency room with atrial fibrillation, resulting in a stent in his right coronary artery. He’s a lot fitter than I am, so where he goes at 70, I’ll probably go at 60 — or earlier.

That did it. I made some drastic changes.

Old Habits

1. At work, I ate everything I bring with me for “lunch”. It starts about 30 minutes after I arrive, and continues until about 4pm. It doesn’t matter what the food is, I consume all of it — even if I planned to keep part of it for the next day. If I bring 3000 calories in rice, pasta, or potatoes, I eat all of it.

2. From 9pm-1am, when all regular meals are finished and I am catching up on my reading or coding, my habit was to eat freely of whatever looks good. It frequently becomes a binge in which I eat the equivalent of 5 or 10 portions of dessert-like foods: ice cream, chocolate bars, chocolate chips, granola bars, sweetened cereal, cake, pastries, you name it. At 10pm my body should need to sleep, but I stayed up, keeping my blood sugar level elevated to maintain wakefulness.

3. Over many years, “Clean your plate” evolved into “never let food be thrown away”: that meant eating everything on myplate, any small amount of a dinner dish that wasn’t worth packing into the refrigerator, any leftovers in the refrigerator if they were getting old, everything that’s left sitting in the breakroom at work, and everything I could scarf at a party.

All of these, when I really looked at them, seemed pathological. But it was hard to change. “Old habits die hard.” But it became fairly easy after (you guessed it) about two weeks.

Making the Change

The first thing I actually did was to stop eating added sugar in any form. This was total abstinence, which meant no cereal or ice cream, obviously, but also fruit juice, ketchup, soup , and anything else that has sugar, HFCS, corn syrup, etc. in the ingredient label. Lustig really convinced me, and it didn’t take too many days of abstinence before my drive for sweets diminished radically. This allowed me to redefine what “food” was going to be, in a realistic way.

I have also become quasi-vegetarian. I still eat and enjoy meat, but only about three meals a week — the total amount of meat has probably dropped by about 80%. Knowing how the animals are treated (I’ve known for years, but now I act on that knowledge) made it fairly easy to make this change. I still haven’t settled on a moral direction for myself, other than reducing the harm I do; after I’ve proven to myself that my weight is stable and my diet seems healthy for the long term, I will worry about that last 20%. It’ll probably be locally produced eggs and grass-fed beef. I’ve already found a reasonable source of milk.

New Habits

1. I still eat everything I take to work, but now I take deliberate, rational steps to (a) provide only healthy food, and (b) provide enough of it so I’m not tempted to raid the breakroom in the afternoon. I take mounds of salad, lettuce-based but with tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, bok choy, olives, cheese, avocado, and anything else I need to keep it interesting. I don’t sweat the calories, as long as it’s at least half lettuce. I also take carrots, jicama, and lots of fruit. At the end of the day, I’ve got a big mound of peels and I feel full. I don’t even feel like having dinner, but I’ve only put away 1000 calories or so at the most.

2. For about two months I only ate fruit after dinner. Occasionally I still binged, but the effects of, say, two pounds of grapefruit are fairly minor. The desire to keep eating tapers off after a while, unlike with chocolate ice cream.

3. I don’t eat food that isn’t part of my diet, except when circumstances call for it. I’ll eat cake at someone’s birthday, of course, and smile and be happy with them. But the cake left on the breakroom table at work? It’s somebody else’s problem.

4. I measure my weight every day the same way. Our old scale had broken so I was out of the habit of checking, but this tracking is pretty important. It helps to know I’m making progress. Actually, after meeting my 20-pound goal, I no longer do it every day. I can tell whether it’s going up or down by a couple of pounds, based on how my belt closes.

5. I make my own granola. (Thanks for the recipe, David). I control the proportion of carbohydrates and fiber, instead of taking whatever General Mills thinks will get me to consume more of their product. A little goes a long way.

6. I take small portions of everything, and only take a second helping if it’s really good and if I’m truly hungry.


A sugar habit is very much like a caffeine habit. I have watched people who had a caffeine addiction, and smirked inwardly at their weak-mindedness. Seeing them, I know there are some people who like the smell of coffee, the effect it has on their body and sense of well-being, the ceremony of drinking it, and the fellowship they get when they share a cup of coffee with friends. I have some of the same feelings, but I never developed a liking for coffee because my father expressed a dislike for it and I copied him. What I’ve learned is there’s nothing wrong with coffee…if you’re having a cup a day. But a cup of day, for some people, quickly develops into two cups, three, or even four. At four cups a day, you have a dependency. Your body builds a tolerance, and if you try to go without coffee for a day or two, your body insists on having its fix.

Sugar is exactly the same. Some people can enjoy an occasional pastry and think nothing of it, where other people start a habit of having a donut every day (with their coffee…) and soon they find themselves buying an extra donut every day to take back to work. Or they obey the Snickers commercial that tells them they need a 500-calorie chocolate bar when they are feeling run-down in the afternoon. (The Mars company doesn’t want them to know that their sugar dependency is the very reason they’re feeling run-down, or that the one bar contains THREE portions). This describes me pretty well. I suppose we all have weaknesses, and sugar is mine. Not everyone will handle their weaknesses the same way, but for me, abstinence worked. Now, I indulge my sweet tooth in a controlled way, once a week, in small portions.

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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