October 22, 2009

Emily: I’m on a new diet. I don’t eat anything. Then, when I feel like I’m about to faint I eat a single cube of cheese.
Amanda: It’s obviously working.
Emily: I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.

The Devil Wears Prada

How do you know when you’ve had enough?

How do you stop yourself from having “too much” (whatever that means)?

I think that the answer to these questions will become increasingly important in a number of areas. More on that. But first, let me start with a personal anecdote and some lessons I’ve learnt about what I eat and drink:

Who ate all the pies?

On 21st October 2000 I weighed 106kg. 1

I was, by most reasonable definitions, a fat bastard.

I was talking with an old friend that evening, who was telling me about the seemingly crazy 8-week Liver Cleansing Diet that his then girlfriend, soon to be wife, was currently doing. I commented that I should probably try something like that, at which point he just about choked on his drink laughing. He bet me $100 that I couldn’t do it, which was all of the motivation I needed. It was bloody hard - my competitive spirit was probably the only reason I managed to complete it, to be honest. The thought of another Carrot, Celery & Parsley juice first thing in the morning still makes me want to puke. But I did it, and by the end was already under 100kg.

Shortly after that I got Campylobacter from some dodgy sushi and lost another few kilos. There is a silver lining to every cloud.

On 1st August 2004 I weighed just over 80kg2, and I’ve managed to stay at or about that weight since then.

During that time I made some permanent changes to my diet. I started drinking more water rather than coke and other fizzy drinks, which was a terrible habit I had picked up from my time in the Computer Science department at university. And I stopped eating food that I knew was crap - e.g. no McDonalds since 2001. Apart from that I still eat and drink most things, including many things I probably shouldn’t, I’m just a bit more mindful about it.

I also became a lot more active. I started running when I was living in London, mostly to counterbalance the stress of trying to find work after September 11. After a while it got to the point where I could run for longer than my patience could tolerate, so I mixed it up a bit with some swimming and cycling (like most people, I thought I could swim, despite not really doing it for 20 years prior, and the first time I got back in the pool I managed about 80m before I just about drowned). I set myself the challenge of running the Nike Run London 10km race and, after I’d ticked that off, the London Triathlon, mostly as motivation to keep training through the northern winter.

But, more important than either of those things in isolation was doing both - breaking out of the negative feedback loop I was in and turning it into a positive cycle.

For a while I was quite proud of this achievement. But, now I’m mostly just embarrassed that I was ever in the position to need to lose that much.3

It was all my own fault and responsibility, a result of poor choices and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle in the years prior to that.

It’s also not necessarily the end of the story. I continue to pay pretty close attention, conscious of not wanting to fall back into bad habits.

At the moment I’m teetering on the edge of 80kg - perhaps one day soon I will drop into the 70s, for the first time in as long as I can remember. That will be a nice milestone.

Things we already know

Don’t ask me about intermittent fasting, macro-patterning, cyclical ketogenic diets or meal replacements if you aren’t eating enough vegetables.

Diet Blog

If you want to be healthier or lose some weight it’s very easy to complicate things. But, in my experience at least, it’s mostly the simple things you already know you should or shouldn’t do which make the biggest difference.

I’m by no means an expert, but here are some lessons which I’ve picked up during this time, which may be useful.

All of these things are common sense, but not necessarily common.

1. Understand the maths

What you weigh is a simple function of the energy you consume and the energy you burn.

There are lots of ways to burn energy, some more fun than others. You burn some energy just by breathing, so it’s not necessarily all about sweating it out at the gym.

There are not so many ways to consume energy, apart from when you put food and drink in your mouth.

By far the easier way to tip this formula in your favour is to be more careful about the energy you consume - it’s far FAR easier to unnecessarily consume a few hundred calories than it is to burn them off on the treadmill.

The best explanation of this maths I’ve come across is The Hackers Diet.

2. Track the crap food and drink you consume back to the source

If you don’t want to eat crap food, don’t put it on your plate.

If you don’t want it on your plate, don’t put it in your cupboard.

If you don’t want it in your cupboard, don’t put it in your trolley at the supermarket

I’m not one of those people who eats a biscuit, I eat the whole packet. When I was little if you didn’t eat as many as you could as soon as the packet was opened there would be unlikely to be any left later on.4 So, perhaps this is a learned behaviour - I don’t know?

My wife, on the other hand, is the sort of person who can happily eat one piece from a block of chocolate and then put the rest away for another day. I have a lot to learn from her. But in the meantime it’s better for me to keep a safe distance between myself and the crap food I don’t want to eat.

3. Buy your quota of good food

If you want to eat good food, make sure you buy enough of it.

If you want to eat 5 “servings” of fruit and vegetables per day, and there are two people in your household, that means buying 70 servings worth per week when you shop - probably a lot more than you would think.

Your appetite isn’t going to run out when the good food does, you’ll just revert to eating crap.

Related to this:

3(b). Good food you throw away doesn’t count

One of the things I noticed when I started to pay a bit more attention to the food that we put in the trolley at the supermarket and also the food scraps we put in the bin, was that we would usually eat all of the unhealthy foods we bought but less than all of the good foods (fruit, vegetables, etc) which were much more likely to go off and be thrown away.

It’s not enough to buy good food, you actually have to eat it.

4. Measure

I struggled with this until just recently.

Firstly, you need to find something to measure which actually correlates to the change you’re trying to make.

The only reason so many people focus on weight (in kilograms etc), I think, is because it’s so easily measured. But, there are others, which are arguably more relevant.

For example:

Secondly, you need a way to track what you’re measuring that actually gives you useful results.

Jumping on the scales every now and then isn’t going to help at all. To get useful data you need to be systematic about it - i.e. weigh yourself at the same time everyday and track a moving average, otherwise your results will be skewed by normal fluctuations that occur.

If you want to understand these movements better, measure your weight at regular intervals - e.g. every 15 mins - during the course of a few days, you’ll be astounded how much your weight goes up and down as you eat, drink and poop, and surprised by how much weight you lose just by sleeping every night.

You also need to keep measuring long enough to see the trends that reveal themselves over longer periods of time.

I’ve found an iPhone app called FatWatch to be an excellent tool that I can easily use everyday.

Lastly, avoid measuring inputs rather than outputs.

The diet you’re following is an input. The gym membership you’ve signed up for and/or the expensive exercise equipment you’ve purchased are inputs. Even how often and how hard you workout are inputs.

What matters is the overall impact that those inputs have on the measures you care about.

5. Stop making lame excuses

A common excuse: “I started going to the gym, and put on weight, but muscle weighs more than fat”.

The more likely reality: because you were expending more energy you probably consumed more energy to compensate (Powerade, anybody?) and as a result likely didn’t burn much fat at all.

The reason you still weigh too much or look rubbish in the mirror is not because you all of a sudden have big muscles.

Yes, muscle weighs more than fat. But, fat doesn’t convert into muscle. When you exercise you burn fat and increase the size of your already existing muscles. The extent to which one offsets the other depends on a number of variables.

To test any excuse like this, try it in reverse: “Yes, I’ve lost some weight, but I haven’t been going to the gym so often so it’s probably just muscle reverting to fat and fat weighs less than muscle”.

There are heaps of silly excuses like this, and they don’t help.

6. Start

This is a real problem: you need to do enough to break the negative loop I described above. But, you need to start with something simple and achievable enough that you actually do it, repeat it and can build on it.

I don’t have the answer for you. In my case I was very lucky to have somebody else who was prepared to kickstart the process, by creating a competition that I was determined to win.

I know one expert who gets approached by people all the time asking for help with an exercise programme. His advice: go for a short walk every day for a week, then call me back.6 They seldom do - I suspect a combination of scepticism that a short walk will make any difference, and an inability to motivate themselves off the couch in the first place (much easier if you have somebody else kicking your ass, perhaps?)

Whatever the solution is for you, start.

It probably won’t be a quick fix, it’s unlikely to be easy, and the results to start with are likely to be underwhelming. But, what did you expect?

Shop like there is no tomorrow?

Of course, eating and drinking more than we need is not the only way we all over consume in ways that hurt us.

For example, spending more than we can afford on things we don’t really need and then complaining that we don’t have enough money to invest for the longer term or that there isn’t enough space in our house. Or, wasting hours on pointless stuff and then complaining that there isn’t enough time to do all of the things that we need to and want to.

Interestingly, the same techniques that I described above can help in these other areas too.

The same sort of maths applies - the amount of money you save is a function of how much you earn and how much you spend; the amount of clutter in your house is a function of how much stuff you buy and how much stuff you chuck out; the amount of time you have to spend on the things you want to do is a function of the amount of stuff you’re trying to do and how efficiently you work.

Tools like RescueTime and Wesabe can help you track how you actually manage your time and money, and track the trends over time. They are also starting to evolve to help you actually try and solve the underlying problem rather than just measure it.

Many of the standard self-help prescriptions you hear in these areas are simply variations on the advice for people who eat too much - e.g. a financial planner telling you to automatically saving a portion of your income each month and putting it somewhere where you can’t easily spend it, or cutting up your credit cards is no different from a nutritionist who tells you to stop putting the crap food you don’t want to eat into your trolley at the supermarket.

I don’t know, but would guess that a lot of the excuses given by people who have a problem with these things are also misguided - e.g. people who shop like there is no tomorrow blaming the amount of money they earn rather than the amount of money they spend for their financial predicament, in just the same way as somebody who overeats starting out trying to lose weight by burning more rather than consuming less; and the person who has a house that is full of clutter who thinks their problem is that they just don’t have enough space, but just needs to learn how to chuck out stuff they don’t need any more.

And, of course there are equivalent negative feedback loops created in each case too.

Less is the new more?

Fritos are cheap
Fritos are cheap

Being satisfied with less is hard, it would seem.

As the guys from RescueTime have noticed, there are lots of things that are making it harder and harder for people:

The web is getting scientific. Specifically, it’s getting scientific about separating you from your time. Entertainment and news sites are doing multi-variate testing trying to maximize the metrics that matter in their business. That is: pageviews, time-on-page, and bounce-rate. They’re getting good at these tests, and it’s costing us. Even the best of us. We’ve all experienced that moment where we look at the clock and realize, ‘Holy crap– I just spent two hours surfing when I really wanted to be getting things done!'.

RescueTime Blog

The same is true of food, and money.

The challenge is to find ways to counterbalance these things and break out of the negative feedback loops. I think this is something that people will increasingly want and need help with, and that creates opportunities.

I’m interested in your ideas.

How do you know when you’ve had enough? How do you stop yourself from having too much?

Are there other areas you can think of where less is now more desirable than more (although not necessarily easier to achieve)?

And, how can you help others with these sorts of problems?

  1. The only reason I’m able to remember this exact date is because it coincided with a rare Wellington victory in the NPC↩︎

  2. The day I did the London Triathlon. ↩︎

  3. As I recently noted on Twitter, it’s a funny thing that people who fix a problem and get themselves out of a bad position, like an addiction to alcohol, coffee, or overeating (or many number of other things), are given more credit than those people who avoided the situation in the first place. ↩︎

  4. Another related thing I’ve noticed myself doing now I have my own kids is insisting that they eat everything they are served (“no dessert unless you finish your dinner”). That’s fine as long as the serving size is appropriate, but again probably not necessarily a healthy habit to encourage. ↩︎

  5. You only have to look at the body shape of some normal people competing in endurance events to realise that you don’t necessarily have to be skinny and light to be fit. ↩︎

  6. Simple filters like this can be very effective. I use an equivalent approach when people I don’t know contact me wanting to chat about their great idea for a website. I ask them to send me a one-page summary first. So far, very few people have bothered - and keep in mind, these are all people who were asking me to spend my time on them. ↩︎