I always begin my challenges by mentioning what happened in the previous challenge. The challenge I ended this month was trying a positive diet. When reporting how it went, the post got a life of it’s own, and I decided to publish it as a meditation on dieting.
The original challenge was that I would, for a month, only purchase above ground vegetables, lean chicken and fish, nuts, and Chai lattes.
For two weeks it worked, until it failed. Again. Maybe my 10th, 20th intervention to lose weight or avoid weight gain. When I started writing, my mind was beaming with energy and needed to talk about the experiences I’ve had so far in this domain. So I’ll write the actual challenge post tomorrow… and meditate on diets now.
has ended. During the second half of the month my attention to this goal was sparse at best. It isn’t that much that I failed while trying, but I failed to even try. The initial weight loss of 3.5kg remains, which is good, but new strategies need to be assembled if I want to go back to having a healthy diet.
Dieting is very annoying
It is very annoying to try dieting. Dieting has all the most complicated features for habit acquisition.
It is not all or nothing, you have to eat, period, you can’t just be done with it and stop eating. Eating is very much regulated by context and conditions.
When in a restaurant, it is much more convenient to store food in the stomach than bring it back home.
There are moral triggers in the brain that make us think some things are sacred ok in terms of food (like sushi and chai latte for me) and some things are devilish and out-group (peanut butter, mexican and vegemite for me). They are as irrational and as unavoidable as aracnofobia.
Eating is a social activity, and it’s fun to eat with people.
Cooking takes a long time for above the ground vegetables which are the healthiest candidates on the block.
Cooking is complicated for lean chicken (it also stinks) and for fish, the healthiest meats.
The time it takes to cook stuff creates incentives for eating eggs, bacon (bad fats), bread and pasta (bad carbs), yellow cheese (bad dairy), mealsquares (healthy-ish and super effective, but sugary dry and not meal tasting).
A guest that refuses food is considered a bad guest in some cultures, and moral constraints of all sorts make us eat extra – or do you hate my cooking?
Sugar is addictive.
High glicemic index is also addictive.
Chocolate is great.
Giving chocolate is a good gesture.
Chai Latte is full of sugar, and is sacred.
Unlike the other challenges, its a thing you have to find executable policies for life, not for a month.
Cheesecake, Lasagna, Salami.
Dieting is very important
So dieting is very annoying. It is also extremely important. It correlates with biometrics of aging, fat content in arteries, heart attacks and cancer, death in general, and is by far the most important factor in being thing, average or fat.
Meta-Dieting transforms failure into learning
When an intervention is important enough and hard enough, the appropriate way to think about it is not that you are trying a specific thing, say, the LubaBuba diet, what you are trying is a meta-level thing, in my case, I’m trying to discover which types of strategies, diets or not, are useful for me to avoid being fat in the future. There is no failing at the meta-level, only learning. I have learned many things that don’t work, every strategy is an improvement over the previous set, merely by not consisting on the previous set.
No one knows how to fix this
A reasonable case could be made that dieting is the intervention in my life I should be willing to pay more to harmonize my desires and my values (what I desire to desire). But nutrition science hasn’t figured this out either! The only thing that helps mildly for non-obese people seems to be being mindful and eating when you are hungry, and only then.
Moloch wants your fat deposits too, not just your money
Valentine’s day was transformed into a holiday to give presents by the capitalist incentive structure. Christmas was transformed into giving presents by the same structure of incentives and advertisement. It’s no one fault in particular, the system, in form of Moloch, generates the conditions of it’s own awfulness.
Meals are a symptom of civilizational inadequacy
I begin to suspect that one of the worst inventions of modern civilization may have been the apparently harmless invention of these concepts:
Are these the demons of the modern era?
Beware of other-optimizing
I have an obese family member who has fought dieting battles many times, and lost every one of them so far. Seen from the outside, of course it is super easy for me to design policies that would help they. They never stopped eating red meat and cheese. Never attempted to eat when hungry instead of “during meal time”. They had a concept of meal time. They never said “I’ll eat salad, lean chicken, fish and nuts”.
I have not succeeded, yet – growth mindset!
But I have, and that drove my weight back only so much. I wanted to go from X8 to X3, but I get stuck between X4 and X5. That’s probably near the lower limit of my base level.
How Santa Claus is like randomized intermittent breakfast
I don’t have the problem of thinking that meal times exist. It must be hard to disconstrue that notion. If you had dinner for 50 years every day, you probably believe that dinner time is as robust a prediction as dawn or sunrise. It’s a part of nature. But it isn’t. I only had lunch and dinner for 26 years. Gladly I only randomly had breakfast. Just like Santa Claus gives people the opportunity of noticing that God does not exist, not having breakfast most days but not all days made me able to realize that “meal times” does not exist. This permitted me, from 26 to 28, to let go of lunch and dinner. In that, I was lucky.
Isn’t diet X super weird?
Notice that there are people/tribes/societies out there that eat very different things in the morning as well. Salmon is one. Beans another. Bread butter, honey nut cereal and orange juice is what as a kid I thought the Platonic breakfast was.
For me there is one tribe that exemplifies above all the weirdness, the Snacirema of the north. This tribe doesn’t know much about geography, they are also the only monolingual tribe in their region. Their Platonic breakfast actually consists of frying, concommitantly, the fatty disgusting ugly looking part of a pig’s belly and the ooze that comes out of eggs when they crack. This would guarantee blocking the arteries, but not necessarily the aging, cancer and hypertension, so the chubbiest members of the tribe eat sugar attached to compressed industrialized corn drowning in milk.
This diversity of suicide attempts – let’s call it shotgun approach – contrasts with the diets of the !Kung or the Eskimos. The former just eat one fruit, mongongo. The latter eat just butter and whale fat.
What have I become?
There’s also tribal perceptions that determine identity and belonging, and are completely irrational. For instance, I have become a vegan recently. Whoever you are, wherever you live, no matter whether it’s windy or placid where you are now. No matter if the light of day is shining or the moon is outside your window. It does not matter if you are sitting down or standing while reading this text. I have generated an emotion by saying that I became a vegan. An emotion was just infused into you, one that is hard to erase. But I’ll try anyway. I actually am not a vegan. Some of you are now sad, but some of you are not only relieved, but have regained confidence in the worth of reading through this article. I have temporarily entered the outgroup, but then I said I was joking, and you can now respect me as a human being and an eater again, you can share a meal with me, and maybe what I say about diet can be good for you. Or the reverse. The important thing is to pay attention to the trigger, the strength and quality of the emotion you felt.
Imprinting, Stockholm syndrome, and God.
Try getting someone raised as a Jew to desire to eat shrimp. A vegan to eat stake. Some Snacirema – whom by the way are the backwards Americans, to eat salmon at breakfast. You are fighting a lost battle. Tribal considerations were a matter of life and death in the environment your emotions were designed in. To try to change someone’s dietary preferences when they are associated with the brain areas that determine in-group and out-group, or sacred versus permissible, is as easy as convincing a female peacock to desire a tailless peacock: they don’t speak your language, are not your species, have no reason to hear you and are driven by an instinct stronger than anything you could possibly say which determines if their grandchildren live or die. Good luck trying.
Be humble and surrender
I digress, the important points here are:
It takes an overwhelming amount and complexity of rationality to lose weight. Yudkwosky, one of the most rational beings alive, took many years to start succeeding in losing weight. and who knows for how long it will be kept. And he invented a whole art of rationality (centered around lesswrong.com) with thousands of followers.
Dieting isn’t hard. It is much worse than that. It is hard to run 10 miles four Thursdays from today. Dieting isn’t very hard. It is very hard implement a schedule to run 10 miles 5 times a week for a year. Dieting is as hard as coordinating a group of teenage boys between 13 and 19 to run 10 miles 5 times a week for a year. Dieting is extremely hard. The first step is to be humble and surrender to the possibility that it may be impossible.
Then the second step is to start planning at the meta level. How are you going to know which interventions didn’t work? How different the next intervention should be? How do you know when to try the next thing? How long will you try each thing before deciding. How do you make sure that you are not trying the intervention itself, but training your environment so that it trains you? How are you going to make sure that your intervention is something that treats future you as what she is: a mix of a rational being, an immediate reward monkey and a panic monster, all fighting to take over the wheel?
Next possible actions
The only intervention known to prevent weight gain is to kill Plato and eat only when you are hungry, destroying the concept of meals, and eating only until you anticipate if you stopped eating you’d no longer be hungry. What is called mindful eating.
Besides addiction to substances that increase neural activity, no intervention is known to cause weight loss except stomach reduction surgery, it is unclear if that lasts over a decade. (Disclaimer, I’m not a doctor or nutritionist, don’t do anything stupid, don’t believe my personal opinions, etc…)
- My guess at the moment is that morbidly obese people, or obese people over 60 years old, stomach surgery is the way to go.
- For people who are less fat, mindful eating seems good enough to be worth trying.
- For people who are less old, taking some drugs may be less damaging than not taking these drugs (I have in mind in particular drugs like caffeine, piracetam and modafinil).
- Conversely, avoiding drugs that induce hunger – birth control pills, anti-psychotics and others – is fundamental to not increase your baseline level weight.
- Having an automatic healthy bi-weekly delivery from supermarkets to home with only healthy stuff that is one or zero clicks away seems valuable.
- A rule of thumb is that one should be at least 10 minutes away from the closest sugary or bad fat food when one is at home, and there should always be above ground vegetables and other healthy foods accessible in less than 10 seconds, preferably within arm’s reach and in the field of vision.
- It seems that like there are two natural sleep cycles, there are two healthy diets for people who aren’t naturally healthy. One is protein and starches, no fats. The other is fat and protein, no high glycemic index. The grim reaper is the marriage of fat and high glycemic index. Deciding on one and sticking to it (and then switching every 6 months or whenever you can’t take it anymore) seems to be a smart strategy as well.
Staring into the void
I don’t know much about diets, but I know an unusual amount about rationalizing strategies that don’t work, and how to control the irrational parts of ourselves. I hope other people can benefit from my meditations.
I won’t make any claims about how I lost X or Y kilos and show pictures of before and after. As far as I know, I have at least eliminated many strategies from the scope of what looks like it could work, but doesn’t – I have assessed some stuff that does not work. I have tested many interventions, and noticed those few that don’t obviously don’t work. This seems about as good as the state of knowledge of Google Scholar on the topic these days.
So my leftover message to future self me is: try these interventions above. They are very likely to not make you fatter. They have some chance of making you less fat. That is as far as my confidence goes.
And if you see someone else being more confident than this when it comes to diet, I recommend taking it with a grain of salt – while keeping in mind that maybe, just maybe, salt absorbs water and increases hypertension risk.