August 4, 2006

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Nonlinear Dieting

Motivation is a powerful force. Take dieting, for example. Now I'm not going to blather on about how you need to be motivated to lose weight, and I'm certainly not in any position to offer weight loss advice. But I am interested in the motivations of people who give diet advice.

Searching on Google, I'm struck at how many people offering advice on how to lose weight tend to - how shall I put this - underplay the need for regular exercise. Indeed, some diet advice makes a big point of the fact that their particular diet works without the need for exercise. If you're out of shape and get out of breath just from looking at stairs, then this is probably music to your ears.

But if you look more closely, you might notice that the person or organisation offering that advice is trying to sell you something - usually a diet book or a DVD or a self-hypnosis-holistic-crystal-healing-new-age-of-aquarius audio cassette. (Isn't it interesting how they don't seem to do them for iPods yet?) If you want to sell a product based on a diet, then I guess the three things you're probably not going to list as major selling points are:

1. "Following this diet, you will not reach your ideal weight for quite some time"
2. "This diet will involve a significant amount of huffing and puffing (of the non-sexual variety)"
3. "This diet will not realign your chakras or buff up your aura" - that's for the crystal huggers, of course

All the commercial diet advice seems to work on the basis that it will be quick (almost immediate in many cases), and that you will still get to spend your entire day sitting down - possibly covered in lavendar oil next to a couple of burning josticks, depending on what kind of quick-fix diet you've opted for.

Like I said, I'm certainly no expert, as anyone who knows me will attest. But I can't helping feeling it's a little more complicated than that...

Or do I mean "simple"? Because some of these quick-fix diets look jolly complicated. They have all sorts of rules about what you can eat, which way up you should be standing, what position the sun should be in the sky and which particular member of Destiny's Child you should be thinking of while you do it. What happened to the "eat sensibly and get plenty of exercise" diet? Now we have to combine our carbs and our proteins with our salts and our sugars while we "eat the right kind of fat", and it's all set to music.

But do these complicated quick-fix diets actually work? The majority view seems to be "yes, for a while". The problem might be homeostasis, which is the tendency for complex open systems to revert back to their original form after being disturbed. (A fancy term for "negative feedback"). It's the same mechanism that causes our heart rhythym to return to a resting rate after vigorous exercise (or after receiving a particularly hefty phone bill). The diet works while we stick with it - and often sticking with these diets is one hell of a chore - and when we stop, and we have to stop dieting if we don't want to die of malnutrition, our bodies eventually get back into their old patterns and we pile all the weight back on. Indeed, often we pile on a little more weight than we started with, probably because a restricted diet with no exercise allows our muscles to atrophy and reduces our metabolic rate - i.e., our ability to burn calories. So the quick-fix diets seem to actually make things worse in the long term.

Some of the other dieting advice looks much less attractive and seductive; they don't promise fast results, and they do promise that it will involve significant amounts of huffing and puffing. Worst of all, they actually seem to suggest that this new regime must be permanently applied for as long as you want to stay in shape. A diet is for life, and not just for after Christmas!

I am currently on a diet that I have invented. It's called the Three Golden Rules diet. It differs from the quick-fix diets I've researched in these key ways:

* It is very, very simple - just 3 simple rules
* It is holistic (and not in the crystal-hugging sense) - it isn't just about calories, or fat, or exercise
* It is sustainable - I could probably do it until I'm too old to care

I've been thinking along the lines of nonlinear systems and how very small changes in their very simple underlying rules can add up over many iterations to massive changes in the system's shape. So instead of making radical changes in the short term and then being a victim of negative feedback in the longer term, I'm making small changes to the rules and relying (well, hoping, really) on positive feedback to generate a significant and sustainable change to the overall system.

My pathetically simple - but nevertheless useful - feedback model contains a handful of interrelated factors, and my three golden rules are designed to slowly push this system out of equilibrium until it finds a new equilibrium that will become the new me. (Like the old me, only with less risk of the chair coming with me when I stand up in swanky restaurants).

The 3 Golden Rules are:

1. Never skip a meal, especially breakfast
2. Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day on at least 4 days each week - actually there's a little more to this rule, but that's the gist of it
3. Savour your food - chew each mouthful properly and wait for it to go down before you take the next bite

And that's it. I can eat what I like. Just as long as I don't go hungry for too long. I think I can cope with that for a while - maybe indefinitely. It's certainly no sacrifice. I'm not a fan of exercise, but 30 minutes at my local gym or swimming pool, the occasional walk to the shops or even walking up a few flights of stairs - I could certainly manage to fit that in on a daily basis and the prospect doesn't fill me with dread. The final rule is designed to give your body time to know when it's full. When we eat too quickly, we can get a lot of calories down our gobs before the signal goes out to say "hey, you can stop eating now". I also think it helps in a more subtle way. A wise man was asked about how the French tend to be so slim when they're so much more obsessed with food than their North American cousins, to which he replied:

"The French love their food, of that there's no doubt. But American's love to eat. There's a big difference..."

I suspect when we eat quickly we can barely even taste the food, let alone appreciate it. I'm learning to slow down and take the time to appreciate what's going into my mouth. Living in Britain, this means of course that I am now realising that much of what goes into my mouth tastes like cardboard, so this final rule is also having the effect of changing what I like to eat. A lot of junk food actually doesn't taste so good - if you actually taste it. Junk food vendors are, of course, relying on the fact that it won't be in contact with our taste buds long enough for that to ever be a problem.

The diet works because it balances some key factors - fitness, muscle mass, metabolism, sleep, calorie intake. It creates a positive feedback loop that exploits tiny changes in each factor over many, many iterations. It is designed to slowly dislodge my internal systems from their current equilibrium - the strange attractor that defines my shape according to the current rules (those being "beer", "chips", "TV", "desk job" - not a diet I recommend, I should add) - and as the days, weeks and months roll by I will be slowly transformed into The New Me, a new state of equilibrium that just happens to look good in tight-fitting pants.

My diet also takes a novel approach to measuring progress. There are no scales. You do not weigh yourself - ever. Why? Well, because I could be all muscle and the scales would tell me I have to lose weight. Or I could be my "ideal weight" and still have a body that looks like somebody stuffed all my internal organs into a pair of tights in a bit of a hurry. Progress is measured entirely by shape: waist size, chest size, neck size. These should eventually reach a pleasing proportion. I'm also measuring my cardiovascular fitness with one of those digital pulse-taking doohickies. I should probably throw in blood pressure, too. Indeed, my diet scorecard will eventually include three key indicators - size, fitness & health. The pull of gravity between me and the Earth is not important in this equation. My aim here is not to get more people into an elevator or to reduce my share of the carbon emissions on a short-haul flight.

So that's my approach to getting in shape. It's got to be simple. It's got to be sustainable. And you've got to measure what really matters.

And call me Mr Stupid, but I can't help wondering if this approach might also work for other kinds of complex open systems. Like, oh, I dunno - software development organisations?
Posted 14 years, 5 months ago on August 4, 2006