Epistemic status: Seems to be working so far, but I’m in the honeymoon period.
Content note: Food, diet, weight loss, etc.
I’m currently attempting to change my diet a bit. My goal is some mix of fat loss, energy levels, general health, and an irrational indoctrinated belief that eating healthily is a moral good that it is easier to succumb to than feel guilty about.
I pretty much treat most nutrition research and reporting on it as pure noise – it’s not that I disbelieve its conclusions per se, it’s just that the problem is so hard, the incentives so poor, and my level of expertise in the area so weak, that I’m not sure of my ability to extract signal from it. I mostly trust the information on examine.com, but am still pretty default sceptical even there.
Nevertheless, I believe the following two radical nutritional principles:
- Eating more vegetables is probably good for me.
- Eating less refined sugar is unlikely to be bad for me and maybe good for me.
(Doubtless there are people for whom either or both of these are false. e.g. if you have some major digestive problems then increasing the amount of fibre in your diet may be something you desperately need to avoid. Nevertheless I think these are true for me, and probably for most people)
I currently don’t feel like I get enough vegetables in my diet and, particularly in this hot weather, have a bit of an ice cream habit, so those are the two obvious things to address.
The vegetables issue is complicated – when I cook “properly” it tends to have a lot of vegetables in it. The issue is not that I don’t know how to cook with vegetables, it’s that my default cooking for myself is not especially proper and tends to involve a relatively low investment of effort. Thus the question is not “What can I cook with vegetables?” but “How can I make sure as many of my meals as possible have a large vegetable content?”.
The answer is not “try harder”. Trying to change behaviour on the strength of willpower alone is a mug’s game. Life inevitably settles into a local optimum, where you use the resources (time, energy, cognitive capacity, emotional cope, etc) to achieve the best outcome available to you (in terms of happiness, satisfaction, ethics, etc) with the resources available to you (skills, knowledge, possessions, people you can rely on, etc) – over time habits gradually erode and your life basically performs a hill climbing algorithm to put you in something close to the optimal configuration available to you. Trying to change your behaviour on the strength of willpower alone is constantly fighting against this process, and as a result eroding your capacity and generally making your life worse.
The thing to do instead is to change where the local optimum is. There are roughly three ways to do this, in order of increasing difficulty:
- Add new capabilities which change the cost of achieving various improvements.
- Change your value function so that what you are optimising for becomes different.
- Find a new local optimum that is globally better.
My current diet changing strategy is mostly option 1 with a little bit of option 2.
The little bit of option 2 is roughly that I’m attempting to change my conception of what the correct proportion of vegetables in a meal is. I wrote about my standard meta-recipe a while back, and its proportions are roughly 3 : 2 : 1 carbs, vegetables, protein. I’m attempting to convince myself that the correct proportions are something closer to 2 : 1 : 1 vegetables, carbs, protein – i.e. vegetables should make up the bulk of the dish.
The easiest way to make this change is to just do it until it becomes natural. This is something where running on “just try harder” does work, because it’s not much harder (the difficulty is remembering to do it, not forcing myself to) and it’s for a bounded amount of time – after a while either this will become natural and I’ll stop having to remind myself, or I will turn out to have been wrong about there being a local optimum in this area and have to try something else.
The bigger part of the diet change though is to find ways to make it easier to include vegetables in my diet.
The easiest way of doing this is to have vegetables that I will basically always have to hand and can easily and happily add to everything:
- Frozen vegetables are great. In particular frozen peas, green beans, and corn are all easy to find, cheap, and tasty. Frozen vegetables seem to be about as good as fresh (or rather “it’s complicated”), but even if they’re not you can solve that by just eating more of them and if they’re substituting for something like rice, pasta, potatoes etc then they’re going to be strictly an improvement.
- Pickled things. I have big jars of sauerkraut and pickled beetroot. Both are tasty and go well with most things. I am unclear on the interaction between pickling and nutrition (the answer seems to be “mostly worse than fresh veg but does some things better. Also, again, this is not substituting for fresh veg but instead for other parts of the meal.
- “Snacking” cucumbers – the small ones – are tastier than regular sized cucumbers, keep better, and you can just chop one up and put it on the top of a dish and that’s some extra veg right there (this isn’t much different from making a side salad, but the problem is that I don’t like most of the vegetables that people put in salads – I think leaves are a pointless vegetable, and tomatoes that have ever seen the inside of a fridge are a thing of sadness).
The nice thing about all of the above as a solution is that they work even for meals where I have zero energy. If I’m tired at the end of the day and have absolutely no motivation to cook then I might be inclined to do something lazy – fresh supermarket pasta, rice with eggs, mac and cheese, etc. I can still do that, but I can also just cut the portions in half and add a pile of veg to provide the other half with not substantially more effort.
The second category of thing is to have a repertoire of vegetable dishes that make for good leftovers. The ones I have right now are:
- Cauliflower cheese (which also fits into a side goal of mine of getting my body better able to deal well with brassicas again. Also frozen cauliflower florets make this a much easier dish).
- Cooked lentils with onions (I tend to do this in a home made chicken stock, but this could easily be made vegetarian)
- Roast carrots.
The other thing to do is to identify specific habits that I would like to change and figure out replacement habits for them.
- I’ve discovered that frozen cherries are tasty and cheap and work entirely well as a substitute for ice cream cravings – rather than having ice cream I just pour out half a mug of frozen cherries and eat them directly. Not a 100% healthy habit, but a hell of a lot better than ice cream. Also yes I am aware that cherries are a fruit and not a vegetable, thank you.
- Often when I am feeling very very lazy my fallback meal is some sort of filled fresh supermarket pasta. I can just cut these packets in half (they’re already slightly too much food for one meal) and top it up with a large quantity of frozen peas and corn. As well as being healthier, the result is actually more interesting.
It’s also good to have easy dishes I can just lazily throw together. I’ve been using sweet potatoes with cheese on top for this (sweet potatoes totally count).
So far all of these seem to be pretty good – they’re mostly habits that I don’t think I’ll have any trouble sustaining, as long as I don’t forget they’re an option, so after a month of two of deliberately sticking with this I think my diet should slip into the new equilibrium rapidly.
Like I said, this is early days, I’ve only really been keeping this up for a week or so so I’m not really sure how well I will be able to sustain it, but it seems promising. Certainly parts of it seem like things I’ll have no trouble keeping up – preparing dishes in advance is the only one that becomes energy constrained during bad periods. The rest are largely a matter of changing my defaults to something that really I like just as much.
Is it helping? Well, hard to say. Changes from improving your diet don’t really show up that quickly, so I can’t say that this new vegetable heavy diet feels amazing and wonderful, but at the least it doesn’t feel bad – I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything and it still feels like I’m getting enough food – and it’s helping in the sense that I feel much happier about what I’m eating.