Monday, September 05, 2005

Hacker's Diet;The only diet book I ever read

Many years ago, I read an on-line copy of John Walker's The Hacker's Diet. It takes an engineering approach to dieting. You need to understand the problem in order to affect a solution. He starts out by pointing out that the hard part about dieting isn't deciding what to do, it's sticking to the plan. And sticking to the plan is a problem of motivation and feedback.

One of the first steps is to realize that the reason it's hard is that in order to lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories than your body is using each day. Your body has a natural mechanism designed to correct this deficiency: hunger. In order to succeed, you need a motivation stronger than hunger, and a feedback mechanism stronger than the one that evolution provided you with. The book helps provide the motivation, but you have to maintain it on your own once you've finished reading the book.

The main contribution of the book is that it proposes some techniques for tracking your weight that can act as the feedback you need in order to be know each day how much you can eat and how it will effect your goals. Without it, the most constant reminder you'll get is your body's built-in reminder system that you haven't eaten recently. The most important of the techniques is weighing yourself every day, and keeping track of your weight. If your tools let you know your weight and how it has changed over the last few days, and you pay attention to what they say, you can take that into account when deciding when or how much to eat. If you don't know, then hunger will be the likely driver, and your body has a different motivation than you do.

When Walker wrote the book, he supplied a set of Excel spreadsheets to use. I used them for several years, tracking my weight (nearly) daily on paper, and occasionally transfering the numbers to Excel. But then Walker released a program for the Palm called EatWatch around the same time as I started carrying a Palm Pilot all the time. Now I record my weight in EatWatch every morning, and immediately know how the trend is moving, and whether it's time to cut back for a few days.

Most of the time, my weight stays in a fairly narrow band, and I can eat by habit. I have cold cereal for breakfast, and Janet plans most of the dinners. I pay a little more attention at lunch, ordering more or less depending on whether my weight has been trending up or not recently. But after a vacation or a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas (no bathroom scale, and bountious meals on someone else's schedule), I know to be a little more careful until I reach the target band again. If you don't weigh yourself every day, you don't know to correct until your clothes fit too tightly.

With this tool, I can tell whether I can have desert with no consequences, or how long it will take me to get back to where I want to be. Sometimes I splurge, knowing that I have the tools to gradually work it all off.

Hacker's Diet also contains some advice and suggestions about exercise and the part that can play in losing or maintaining weight. That hasn't affected me as much, since I'm active by choice. But people who need a reminder to be active might find EatWatch's tools for monitoring your exercise to be useful as well.

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Clifford said...

Like yourself, this is the only diet book I've ever read (and the first time I've gone on a diet), and so far I've lost about 40 lbs on it... I posted some tips on my blog about thoughts I've had since I've been losing weight...

Glad to hear someone else found it as useful as I did. I keep meaning to send Mr. Walker a thank you e-mail...

Clifford said...

As an update, I've not lost about 60 lbs. See my most recent posting here.