Diet System

2021-04-26 hacking-humans diet weight loss

I recently lost 20 lbs, and have now kept it off for just over a year, which I’m told is uncommon. Several people have asked how I did it, so being the opinionated person that I am, I’m happy to talk about this.

Did I exercise? No, not at all. Did I take a weight loss product? No, never. Did I give up my favorite foods? No again. Did I go to bed starving? Not really, but we’re getting closer now.

Am I Hungry, or Just Bored?

The essense of my technique is to distinguish between hunger vs entertainment. In the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones there is a parable about a zen master who is challenged to produce stunning, supernatural miracles like another local preacher claims to do, and the zen master simply replies, “perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but my miracle is that when I am hungry, I eat, and when I am thirsty, I drink.”

That is the key: to only eat when I’m hungry, not when I’m bored or just seeking an emotional boost from food (or if I really want some caloric entertainment, I’ll go for a salad).

What makes this technique relatively easy and sustainable for me is that unlike exercise, it doesn’t require any work. Committing to a “work out” routine would never work for me; in fact I’ve noticed that whenever I happen to exercise (eg a day of skiing or biking), I actually gain weight rather than lose it. Some might say I’ve gained muscle mass, which is heavier… yeah maybe, hard to know or measure, so I certainly wouldn’t plan around that as a weight loss plan. And anyway it is not sustainable unless I’m willing to completely upend my life to ensure that I continue doing that activity routinely, which I just don’t think is a realistic or enjoyable game plan.

It’s of course still not easy to give up food as a source of entertainment, but I didn’t give it up, I’m just moderating it, and I think ultimately that’s the essence of any successful plan: to moderate and eat less than you want to.

But what makes this plan sustainable for me is that I don’t actually go uncomfortably hungry, and I don’t change my life much at all. I mainly just have to live with some boredom, which I believe is actually a healthy thing to learn to cope with in your life (people who never experience boredom never develop the creative tools to cure it).

Follow Your Own Schedule

There is also a social challenge in following this plan: it means that when everyone’s having breakfast/lunch/dinner, if I’m not hungry, I must abstain. That old adage about breakfast being the most important meal of the day is complete nonsense to me – my own body knows better than any wivestale or timetable. Job number one for me is to listen to my own body, which is quite clever in knowing what it needs (and quite hard to fool with silly tricks like Diet Coke and fake milkshakes).

That’s why I also am horrified by admonishments from parents to their children to “finish their plate” – it is teaching kids early to ignore their body signals of when to eat in favor of a fixed schedule and quantity, which I believe is a perfect recipe for weight problems later in life.

Also, incidentally, the classic wisdom about “balanced meals” – I believe in a balanced week, but individual meals I think are better unbalanced, which closer mimicks the conditions we likely evolved in, and avoids triggering multiple satiation points for different food categories (“I’m sick of the potatoes, but I could go for another helping of stuffing”). If I’m sick of the potatoes, time to stop!


In summary, I still ate whatever I felt like eating whenever I felt like eating it, as long as I was hungry when I ate it. As a practical matter, I did somewhat reduce consumption of snacky foods like chips and candy and cake, simply because I normally reach for those foods as entertainment more than hunger satiation. But if I wanted to eat chocolate cake for dinner, I never hesitated to do so.

And of course, the process of losing weight required a little more hunger than maintaining the loss afterwards. But I never sat around suffering in starvation, I just felt at most mild hunger, which really is not such a bad feeling. And once it progressed to moderate hunger, I ate, and let me tell you, eating when I’m actually hungry makes for some of the best meals I’ve ever had.

So that’s what has worked for the past year now. Will it still work in 5 years? I’ll post back and let you know!