Why Can’t We Be Good When We Know What’s Bad?

I’ve been reading about how our western diet is spreading around the world and bringing obesity, diabetes, hypertension and a host of other non-infectious degenerative diseases to people who used to eat differently, and lived healthier.  It’s quite obvious that our high fat, high sugar, high salt, high calorie diets are bad, so why don’t we eat better?  Why can’t we be good when we know what’s bad?

We just can’t seem to resist sweet, salty and fatty foods when they are in abundance.  Generally, where humans are thinner, more active, with little diabetes and hypertension its because they didn’t have a whole lot of food choices to begin with.  The western diet is really one of abundance and variety, and people around the world if given the opportunity to eat like us, become pigs like us.

My question is:  Why can’t we say no?

I have no answer.  I weigh 240 pounds.  I certainly can’t say no.

Actually, that’s not completely true.  I’ve given up many favorite foods over the years, and I still gained weight.  I do eat healthier, but I don’t eat less.  I am driven by hunger.  I can’t say yes to being hungry.

I keep eating more than I should knowing that I will suffer degenerative diseases in the future.  That’s insane.

I find this philosophically fascinating.  Obviously the rational mind has little influence over the physical body and the hormones that regulate it.

What if science could create a pill that makes us shun desserts, fatty foods, fried foods, salty foods, etc., and made us crave just the right amount of healthy foods, would you take that pill?  What if this pill made food a non-issue, so you just ate exactly what your body needed to be healthy.  Would you take that pill?  It might kill off gourmet eating, fast food, candy, pastries, soft drinks, and all the other stuff we so love.

Yeah I know, you’re thinking, “Why can’t what’s bad be good?”  See that opens up another philosophical question.  What if bad food is what we want.  What if bad food is what makes life good?   That’s easy to believe, but remember the heart disease and diabetes?  Remember all the obese children and young adults?  Brownies and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream are evil.

What if our current stage of humanity is a paradigm shift like going from hunter and gatherers to an agricultural society?  Humans have always pretty much eaten anything they could put in our mouths that didn’t kill us.  That’s why we’re called omnivores.  But what if we’re moving into a new phase of existence where we must become healthyvores?  Can our species make the transition?  If I had a time machine and could jump ahead a hundred years, or five hundred years, would I find homo sapiens 2.0 living a much longer and healthier life?

I don’t know.  It’s something to think about.  I’m not sure we can always change, to always evolve.

JWH – 2/18/13

Is Dieting a Test of Free Will?

Ever since I read The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker I’ve been obsessed with the concept of free will.  I’ve read enough books on brain studies in recent years to doubt the existence of free will.  Now I’m not saying we’re all robots, but I question whether or not we’re making decisions on our own, as if we were independent souls sitting in our heads driving our bodies around, and making impartial decisions based on weighing all the evidence and facts.

red-pill-blue-pill-matrix

I remember a freshman philosophy course I took in 1969 and my professor challenging us to come up with an example of free will.  That class inspired many arguments between me and my friends.  Free will is a philosophical concept that few people think about in normal life – mostly because it feels like we do make our own decisions so why even ask about free will.

When Neo makes his choice between the red and blue pill in the film The Matrix, is that an act of free will?  If he’s the One, wouldn’t that make him born to take the red pill?

Everyone assumes they have free will and they are acting on their own volition, but the older I get the more I assume that’s just an illusion.  So I’ve been wondering if I can come up with a test for free will.  I think I’ve found one with dieting.  Our bodies and hunger represent the power of nature and the hardwired programming of genes.  The need to diet comes from our environment, where we constantly learn that fat is sexual unattractive, unhealthy, and like Pavlov’s dog, we’re constantly conditioned that being fat is bad.  Without that nurturing my nature would run wild.

If we have free will we should be able to evaluate all the outside data and decide to diet and lose weight because of its own philosophical merits.  Then why do so many people have trouble dieting?  Is it because our bodies, genes and physiological wiring program us to eat and free will can’t overcome that?

I started a diet today and at this very moment my body is already nagging at me to eat something fun.   “What a puss,” my mind tells my body.  I say no, it says yes.  If I can keep saying no, is that proof of free will?

Now there are two factors here:  free will and will power.   Scientists are throwing water on the concept of will power too.  And what’s the difference between free will and will power?  Deciding to diet might be an act of free will, but failing to diet might be a lack of will power.  And if I succeed in losing weight is it really because I have free will, or has outside stimuli overcame my genetic programming and reprogrammed my eating habits?  Where is the me in all of this activity?

Or is it a case of “I diet, therefore I am.”  (I wish I knew the Latin equivalent to cogito ergo sum that includes the word diet.)  Is thought good enough to prove the existence of free will?  Without thought I’d just eat anything I wanted and never think to lose weight.  However, all those thoughts about losing weight come from the outside world.  If I really had free will, wouldn’t it have been my idea to lose weight? 

But who comes up with original ideas???!!!  Einstein and the theory of relativity comes immediately to mind.   Imagining the concept of space-time had to be an act of free will.  Do we discount the billions of years of cosmological and biological evolution that produced Einstein as not part of the equation, or is Einstein’s discovery of space-time really the universe’s act of free will?  Einstein couldn’t have made his discovery without a long history of other scientists and thinkers.

When I choose to diet, is it my decision, or society’s?  Like Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Can we ever separate our will from the world’s?  The urge to eat is genetic.  How much I want to eat is probably genetic too.  Choosing to eat between steak and veggie burgers would seem like a free will choice, but is it?  If I had never read about vegetarianism would I ever considered the choice?

That’s the weird thing about asking ourselves if we have free will.  Genetics might be our hardwiring, but the environment seems to be doing all the software programming, so where is there room for free will?  Would that be self programming?  Even if I could write my own personality programming, wouldn’t the “free will” writing the programming been created by outside programming or genetics?

If I really had free wouldn’t even the urge to eat be my choice?  Is thwarting the urge to eat free will, even thought he idea didn’t originate with me?  Is free will the ability to choose among the various outside impulses we get from society?  Society tells me not to eat, but advertising on TV is doing a major brainwashing job to get me to eat.  Every time I see a Sonic commercial I want one of their shakes.

Dieting is a test of will power and maybe even an example of free will.  It’s a shame I always flunk it.

JWH – 12/15/12

Lose It! versus MyFitnessPal

I want to lose weight and my Google research tells me keeping a food diary is essential to this goal.  My wife said they taught her at Weight Watchers:

If you bite it, write it.
If you nibble it, scribble it.
If you drink it, ink it.
If you snack it, track it.
If you steal it, reveal it.
If you sneak it, leak it.
If you chose it, disclose it.
If you hog it, log it.
If you grab it, blab it.
If you indulge it, divulge it.
If you ingest it, you guessed it!
If you imbibe it, inscribe it!
If it goes in your smacker, it goes in your tracker!
If you lick it, bic it!
Grab your pencil before your utensil!

I’m not a joiner, so Weight Watchers isn’t for me.  I’m a do-it-yourselfer, so I found a couple of apps to help me out.

Loset It! and MyFitnessPal are both great programs that help you lose weight by tracking what you eat.  They both work from a web site and/or mobile device.  Both have barcode readers to quickly look up calorie and nutritional content.  Both help you track calorie intake and calories burned through exercise.  Both programs are essential for fighting weight loss.  Both programs have social networking features.  Both are easy to use.  Both work with iOS and Android.  Both are free.

So how to pick one?  Since they are free you could just start with both and see which one you liked.

However, my basic characterization is Lose It! is best for non-techies and MyFitnessPal is best for power users.  Lose It! has an elegantly simple user interface that goes deep with features with the minimum of thinking.  MyFitnessPal is a tiny bit harder to learn, but you can do more customization.  MyFitnessPal gives more nutrient information and it’s barcode scanner seems to recognize slightly more foods, but it’s program menu structure is a touch more cumbersome than Lose It!’s menus.  I like proportion control in Lose It!, but MyFitnessPal can be more accurate if you like math.

You sign up for each program and answer some questions about your height, weight, age and your weight loss goal.  The program then tells you your daily calorie goal and what date you’re reach your weight loss goal if you follow their routine.

My goal is to get down to 180 pounds by July 25, 2013 by losing 1 pound a week.  I get 2,271 calories to work with each day.  I can eat more if I exercise more.  For years I’ve felt like I was dieting all the time because I wasn’t eating all the food I wanted and had given up all my favorite junk food.  But tracking calories closely clearly shows I was still eating too much.  Well, duh!  I’m still fat.

The Math of Weight Loss

I want to lose 1 pound per week.  1 pound is about 3,500 calories, so that’s 3500 / 7 days = 500 less a day.  Lose It! asked my age, height and weight and told me 2,271 calories is what it takes for me to lose 1 pound per week, which means eating 2,771 calories maintains my weight, and eating more means my bodily universe expands.

It’s extremely important to honestly record everything you eat and use accurate proportions, otherwise you are fooling yourself.  Don’t cheat, or you won’t loose weight.

Both programs work in almost an identical way.  You track calories by adding food or exercise to a diary that’s broken down by:

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Dinner
  • Snacks
  • Exercise

You add calories to your diary by selecting food items by:

  • Scanning the barcode
  • Searching a database
  • Selecting from items you’ve already added
  • Selecting from complete meals you’ve already recorded

You decrease your calorie count by adding an exercise from:

  • Menu of exercises
  • Exercises you’ve already listed

You can use both of these programs from the web if you don’t have a mobile device.  I don’t have a smart phone but I do have an iPod Touch that I carry with me everywhere.  It’s the current generation with a camera, so I can scan barcodes.  It’s extremely easy to keep a food diary with these programs and a mobile device.  It’s pretty easy to just use the web version, but it will be a bit more work because you have to run find a computer after you eat each meal, or jot down what you eat during the day and enter it at night.

Here’s what the daily diary looks like for the two programs:

Lose It! (the program I use)

LoseIt-daily-diary.jpg

MyFitnessPal (the program I’m testing)

MyFitnessPal-daily-diary.jpg

Neither program had physical therapy exercises on their list, so I used yoga as a substitute.

Once you’ve looked up most of the common foods you eat, recording a meal or snack in the diary takes seconds.  I make up menus of my favorite meals and just add the whole menu with one click.  I tend to eat a lot of the same meals.  In Lose It!, breakfast is one item that’s a stored recipe, but lunch is from a restaurant.

Eating out is a big problem.  No barcode to scan, or label info to read.  Both programs lists items off of chain restaurants, but if you go somewhere else you have to make the best guess you can, or build an approximate recipe.  This restaurant guide at CalorieKing is very helpful, but I wished they had photos of the food, with dimensions.  At CalorieLab you can search 70,000 foods and 500 restaurants for similar meals and hope you get close.  The FDA is rolling out a law that will require all restaurants with more than 20 locations to list nutritional information.  It would be great if the menus had little barcodes to scan.

More than Counting Calories!

These programs are about more than counting calories, they provide overall nutritional information, like this my current information from Lose It! (I haven’t had dinner yet):

nutrients.jpg

I eat too many carbs, and too much salt, and I need to eat more protein in relationship to the carbs and fats.  I’ve seen all kinds of recommendations for the proper ratio for Carbs/Protein/Fat.  Moderate is 50/25/25, but the Zone diet recommends, 40/30/30.  I’m a vegetarian, and not a particularly healthy eating vegetarian so my protein is low and my carbs high.  As I work on my diet I want to get close to the Zone diet ration of 40/30/30.

Not only do these programs help me watch calories, they help me watch the kind of foods I eat.  When it comes to nutrition data, MyFitnessPal is superior to Lose It!  Here’s what MyFitnessPal shows for Quaker Oat Squares cereal:

MyFitnessPal-nutrition-data.jpg

Here’s what Lose It! shows (but for 1 and 1/2 cups – Lose It! is easier to adjust proportions):

LoseIt-nutrition-data.jpg

I find Lose It! a breeze to use and adapted to it quickly.  I’m tempted by MyFitnessPal because of the extra nutritional information, but for now I’m going to stick with Lose It!  When I want to know more I just add the foods to MyFitnessPal.

My wife and two friends use Lose It!  This helps us stay on track and gives us stuff to discuss and argue.  My friend Peggy nags me about my carbs.  I nag her about her cholesterol and protein.

I’ve just started using these programs.  I wished I had discovered them years ago, or I wished they had existed decades ago.  Back then I tried keeping a food diary.  It involved a pen, a notebook, and a nutrition fact book.  It was tedious and I gave it up after a couple of days.  I’ve adapted very easily to Lose It!  But it’s too soon to see if I’ll stick with it for a whole year.  However, I feel closer to dieting success than ever before.

JWH – 6/16/12 (Happy Birthday Susie)

UPDATE: 8/21/12

I ended up picking MyFitnessPal for my standard app.  I preferred the look of Lose It!, but MyFitnessPal had way better barcode scanner and nutritional database.  And being able to scan the barcode for information is just too handy.

After losing 10 pounds I started getting lazy with recording my food intake.  I thought I could remember my good habits, but I was wrong.  If I don’t record everything I don’t lose weight.  I’m now back to using MyFitnessPal, but it’s hard.  I try to tell myself I can’t eat anything unless I record it first.  Or it’s not worth eating if I’m not willing to record it.

I hate having to control what I eat, but the act of maintaining a food diary helps that control.

MyFitnessPal makes it about as easy as possible to record what I eat, but it’s still a pain in the ass.  I’ve even thought of eating the same meals every day so I won’t have to record.

JWH

 

The Soul Torture of Dieting

I need to lose weight for health reasons.  I have arthritis in my back that makes it hard to stand or walk for long.  I’ve bought Z-coil shoes that have shock absorbing springs in the heels that help tremendously.  They make me look silly wearing them, but those bouncy shoes proves that my weight is related to my degenerative back disease.  Even with the incentive of pain, for the life of me I can’t make myself lose weight!

Dieting is torture.  Craving fun food is hormonal tyranny.  Drug addicts argue over which drug is the most addictive, well I say the junk that’s the most addictive is junk food.  I can force myself to go months without eating my favorite desserts, but then bam, something snaps, and my will power breaks.  Dieting is the absolute test of mind over matter, and carbs beats the crap out of my gray matter every time.

Just because my mind lives inside this body doesn’t mean its cozy relationship affords any influence.  Actually, I think it proves that the mind doesn’t just occupy the our skulls, but the whole hormonal system.  Insulin affects my thinking just as much as any mind altering drug.

ben & jerrys chocolate therapy

A carton of Ben & Jerry’s can bring me such happiness, energy and creative stimulation that it’s torture to resist.  But I have resisted!  I haven’t had any B&J’s for months, but the desire for it never goes away.  But it doesn’t have to be anything as fabulous as ice cream for my hormones to torture me, sometimes I just crave an ordinary peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Just losing eight or ten pounds seems to trigger something that makes me lose all mental control and resolve.

I used to come home from work and stoke up on M&Ms, Coca-Cola, pies, cake, cookies and candy.  All those calories would jazzercise my neural activities so I felt like doing after being burned out from work.  When I diet I want to come home and veg out.  In the last ten years I’ve discovered that a nap after work will rejuvenate me like my surgery loves, but it doesn’t do away with the craving.

cake-and-ice-cream-1

Why isn’t eating simple and logical?  Shouldn’t it be a Mr. Spock like decision.  These foods will make me healthy, those foods are poison.  Okay, I’ll take the poison.  What sane person thinks that way?

Now scientists are telling us sugar is toxic.  That’s probably perfect true, but I’ve been developing a tolerance to sugar my whole life, and I can take on some high levels of that poison.

There is something incredibly unfair that desserts are evil.  We seldom get what we dream, but a carton of Ben & Jerry’s is something dreamy that’s easy to obtain.  Of course, now that my teeth are going, well just one, but another is feeling poorly, I feel I should have listened to those warnings against sugar all those years ago.  It’s like that old joke of Woody Allen, where his mother tells him that masturbation will make him go blind and he asks if he can do it until he needs glasses. 

I’m afraid I’ll be needing choppers and still wanting to eat sweets.  Or they’ll be cutting off my feet while I eat M&Ms.  Why is it so hard to say no?  On the news tonight they reported that there’s an epidemic of skin cancer among young women because they love tanning bed tans.  Will that news stop them?  What a silly question to ask.

Why aren’t we smarter?   Or to ask it another way, why do our urges trump our brains, because we do know the answers, and we even believe what we’re told, but we still do the things bad for us like lemmings heading for the edge of the abyss.  I suppose it’s the same thing with global warming – we can’t give up fossil fuels any easier than sugar or cigarettes.  We’re like one cell animals heading directly to the stimulus we love the most.  Becoming big brain beings didn’t overcome those basic instincts.  What good is a neo-cortex when it can’t control the mammalian and reptilian parts of our brains? 

Have they ever considered lobotomies for the lower brain functions?  Or would being healthy and logical like Mr. Spock feel like being a zombie?

JWH – 4/2/12

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