Monday, July 19, 2010

Dieting and other endeavors doomed to fail

This is my attempt to clarify my last post with a story.

About two years ago I was having dinner with my mom and one of her friends. Her friend, Sarah, was on the Atkins diet while my mom was on a diet of her own.

Fast forward to now and my mom is on her third different diet (now a vegan) while Sarah is still on the Atkins. 

I'm going to ignore the relative health merits of different diets and just focus on one thing:

Why was Sarah able to stick with her diet?

Notice that both of these diets had the same goal: LOSE WEIGHT. But Sarah stuck with her diet while my mom moved on. It could be a personality issue (perhaps) or it could have something to do with the results each one was seeing (not in this case).

However, I think there's a larger issue that relates to my last post.

Sample of my mom's diet instructions:
1400 calories per day. No more than 15% daily fat intake. No more than 6 oz of (non-fish) meat per week. No added sodium. No more than 5 ingredients in a packaged food. All grains must be whole. Start every meal with a salad. Drink a full glass of water at every meal.

Sample of Sarah's instructions:
Don't eat carbs.

I think the implications are clear and feel free to stop here. I'm going to go on because I'm a chronic over-explainer. (mansplainer?)

Clear goals are not enough. Lose weight. Quit smoking. Start exercising. Be a good student. Pay attention. Those all are clear goals.

Motivation is not enough. Although I didn't actually ask my mom, I'm going to go ahead and assume that she wanted to lose weight.1 Also, despite what they might tell you, every student wants to feel successful.

Too much instruction is as bad as too little. I am in hate with goals given without any direction on how to achieve them. However, it's just as bad to legislate every step. Look at what my mom had to do. That is not sustainable. Your brain gets tired of dealing with all of that.

Successful completion of each step is ambiguous. Short of carrying around a scale, you're eyeballing weights all the time. Is that a full serving? How many calories are in there? How many ingredients do you think that has? You're basically guessing most of the time.

Imagine my mom seeing an appetizer spread at a party.2 She's got to figure out the nutrition content and the ingredients. She's got to figure out the weight of the meat. She has to do some mental calculations to figure out how that fits into her daily caloric intake. She does this for everything that's going on her plate.

Sarah, on the other hand, walks up the appetizer spread. She asks, "Is this a carb?" and grabs whatever is appropriate.

Now imagine that both my mom and Sarah had to factor a quadratic while doing all that.

If you want to change, having a goal is not enough.  Motivation is not enough. You need a few, specific steps to take and it should be clear if you're doing it right.3

If you need to think your way through every meal, your diet is going to fail. You'll revert back to your old eating habits because your brain simply gets tired of dealing with it all the time.

If your student needs to do the equivalent of calculating calories for every action they take in class, they're going to fail and revert for the same reason.

Next time you're planning on creating change, just remember: No carbs.

Extension question:
What does this have to do with standards-based grading, err, whatever Cornally and Cox want to call it?

1. That would have been a good convo. "So..Mom...Did you even WANT to lose weight?"
2. Hopefully that's the last time I ever type the words "Imagine my mom."
3. Some of the best moments occur while negotiating gray areas. You just can't spend your entire day in the gray areas and expect to sustain your momentum. Usually, gray areas should be targeted, not stumbled into. 

Final note: I STILL haven't finished Switch yet but there's a definite possibility they may use this as an example later on. I did a Kindle search and couldn't find "Atkins" anywhere, but if this example pops up I'll be sure to credit it later. Either way, most of the ideas here can be found in that book. I can't give a full recommendation until I finish it but it has at least given me some food for thought and a really nice study on radishes and cookies which I hope to blog about later.


  1. "mansplainer"? ack! My blog-worlds are colliding! ;)

  2. It goes both ways. Rhett Allain just linked Frank Noschese. One of the SBGBorg!

  3. Ha! I get your point, but have issues with your analogy. Eliminating an entire food entity (carbs, protein, you name it) from your diet may be simple to execute and therefore easier to maintain, but is in fact a) unhealthy, b) and doesn't address the host of healthy good habits your mother's approach did-- even if she didn't stick with it.

    I would argue that even if your mom bit off more than she could chew, her ultimate goal-- physical health-- is far more clearly outlined than Sarah's, who may still be smoking and eating nothing but bacon. (Veggies have lots of carbs! :) )

    Simplicity is certainly a powerful means. That being said, I don't think it should be the end.

  4. Oh I agree with the problem with the analogy. I probably should have made a "I don't endorse the Atkins diet" statement at some point.

    The point is not so much that simple is good, but that simple is doable. I think they had the same "end" though. Lose weight.

    What I was hoping to communicate was that a series of small, doable steps has a better chance of accomplishing a larger more complex goal. So telling someone "Lose weight" is not getting anywhere. Telling someone "Lose weight by eating 30% fat, 30% carbs, don't eat it if there's more than x mg of sodium, only eat meat if it weighs less than 6oz and has less than 20% saturated fat..etc" is only marginally better.