Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Weight Loss: Dangerous Cybernetics Hack

The other day I posted a video which explains (among other things) that weight loss is about cybernetics, not simple addition and subtraction. If you didn't see the video, here's the Wikipedia definition of cybernetics:

Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary study of the structure of regulatory systems. Cybernetics is closely related to control theory and systems theory.

Here's a powerful weight loss hack which illustrates how you can manipulate your body by faking out its regulatory systems. You eat terrible food and lose weight by choosing specific forms of terrible food that completely flummox your body's control systems. Specifically, you drink either olive oil or sugar water, and this confuses your appestat; the next day, you have virtually no appetite at all, and you begin losing weight.

I found it on Kathy Sierra's blog:

It is almost impossible to describe what this "diet" (it's not really a diet) does. (All links are at the end of this post.) A UC Berkeley professor named Seth Roberts claims to have found a way to trick the legacy brain into thinking it needs to weigh less. (Which means "lower your set point", for those who are familiar with that term.)

For me, in two weeks, it's been working too well. I don't have a weight problem, so I wasn't interested in losing weight. I wanted to try it because it's fascinating, seems impossible to believe, and MAINLY for the claim that by reducing cravings, it helps you make better eating choices. My goal on this "diet" was that when it was time to eat, I wanted to find carrots and broccoli as viable an option as Ben and Jerry's. That hasn't completely happened (although cravings have virtually disappeared), but within three days, I was actually forgetting to eat. For the last ten days I've had to remind myself--as a purely cognitive activity--that "this is probably a good time to eat something."

The researcher who devised this hack later published it as a book:

I want to emphasize that THIS DIET IS A TERRIBLE IDEA. Plain and simple, it will fuck you up. I mention it only to illustrate the powerful role cybernetics plays in weight loss. Don't be an idiot and measure food in pounds and calories; assess it for its cybernetic impact, that is to say, for the way your internal regulatory systems interpret it as a control signal.

I lost about 17 pounds on this diet, and of course immediately gained it back, plus a few extra pounds (whereas with Dr. Fuhrman's Eat To Live I lost 82 pounds, and I've kept my weight off for over six months). I also had heart surgery a few years after I tried this diet. It's not a direct cause, but it almost certainly didn't help anything, either - filling up on sugar water and oils is not exactly a recommended way to prevent heart disease. It increases your risk, to say the least.

But with those caveats, it's an impressive experience. I bought this book and implemented its crazy suggestions by swallowing a bunch of olive oil before I went to bed; the next morning, I couldn't finish even a fraction of my usual breakfast. My appetite simply disappeared, and I felt full after eating almost nothing. The olive oil and sugar water elements are gross, the long-term health effects are awful, but this diet, more than anything else, profoundly illustrates the importance of understanding food not just as raw materials but as control signals for the complex biochemical feedback systems that control your body and determine its weight.

(Stay tuned for the video.)

Update: got a good question from Amber Shah:


Update: I got an angry comment or two about the "this diet will fuck you up" assertion, so let me justify it a little, since I'm not taking it down. One person e-mailed me to ask, isn't it better to eat a little bit of oils that are bad for you, vs. the tons of hamburgers and ice cream you'd eat instead if you were more hungry? It's a question of a lesser of two evils there, and only if you're limiting yourself to the options of eating bad food, or eating bad food in order to prevent youself from eating even more bad food. If you just take on the option of eating good food, the whole argument collapses.

More importantly, if your method of weight regulation involves this kind of trickery, it means you're expecting your body to get things wrong. If you eat healthy food, your body gets things right. The only reason this kind of hack becomes necessary in the first place is your diet's flawed. When I say "this diet will fuck you up," I don't just mean "diet" in the sense of "dieting." I also mean "diet" in the sense of the word's real meaning: what you eat. Eating that way will fuck you up. If you eat that way only a little, then it'll fuck you up only a little. If you eat that way a lot, it will fuck you up a lot. If you're pairing bad food like hamburgers with really bad food like sugar water because the sugar water tricks your body into minimizing the harm of the hamburgers, when you could just eat healthy food and watch the weight disappear, I call that fucked up.