It’s been around ten days since I started counting calories via food-diary software. My aim, as stated before, less involves “losing weight” than it does pulling my LDL “bad cholesterol” down to a safer level. I have never before this month attempted to quantify my day-to-day caloric intake, much less journal and analyze it. A week and change doesn’t give me enough data to talk about its effects on my body, but I can start to write about other things that this practice brings to mind.

One of my favorite works of early web-native writing is The Hacker’s Diet by John Walker, which I first read in the late 1990s. (I believe I first encountered it through this Slashdot story from July 1999, whose next-article link reads “The Matrix to have two sequels”.) It presents an intentionally blunt and cartoonish metaphor for human metabolism, inviting the reader to envision the body as an opaque rubber bag that one can pour material into. The bag somehow burns its contents away at a predictable pace, according to measurable rules. The makeup of the stuff, in this model, doesn’t matter: only the fact that if the total mass of the material poured in exceeds that which the bag burns up in a given day, the bag will gain weight, and otherwise it will lose weight.

This metaphor oversimplifies an awful lot, of course, but the essentials are correct. Gaining (or losing) weight really does come down to eating more (or less) than what your body burns up through its daily activities, expressed as the heat-energy that we commonly measure in calories. The metaphor’s appeal to simplicity immediately clicked with me, clarifying a core point that a lifetime of healthy-eating information had left muddled. All the health classes, TV ads, and PBS shows about nutrition I had consumed before then had given me the notion that when you eat food it does not remain base matter that now happens to exist inside your body rather than outside it. Rather, upon swallowing, food vanishes from our universe entirely, transcending into a sort of purely theoretical realm. Transformed into mere abstractions, eaten food influences your health in ways as subtle and gradual as the moon’s pull on the tides.

The challenging idea the food you eat stays within your body and adds to its total mass — much of it permanently! — seemed radical and refreshing.

In his book, Walker carries this simpler thinking over to his overall diet plan, which essentially ignores nutrition (or, perhaps in keeping with its title, considers nutrition an important but out-of-scope problem) in favor of a focus entirely on counting calories and adopting a regular at-home exercise regimen. Over 15 years later, I’ve applied the gist of this to my current efforts: while I do pay a modicum of attention to the quality of my food, I do not fret over the makeup of each thing I eat. I care only for the sum of all the stuff I eat, each day. This frees me from choosing, say, low-calorie cream cheese over the good, fatty stuff. I spread it on my bagel thick — and then I proceed to eat only the one bagel, lest I go over my daily calorie budget, given everything else I ate today. And I feel perfectly happy with this arrangement.

Still, it did take me a decade and a half to personally realize Walker’s advice. While its philosophies stuck with me, the book’s practical advice failed to connect with me in 1999, firstly with how it presented its own workout routine. The Hacker’s Diet favors a “rung” system where exercises become more challenging (by way of additional reps) according to a strict, by-the-week schedule. Fall off that schedule, and you instantly feel behind. Get more than a day or two behind, and — at least in my case — you graduate to feeling like you have failed the diet entirely, making giving up the most obvious next step. I recall starting over from the first “rung” a few times, pre-2000, and never getting anywhere.

In retrospect, much of my more recent attraction to the 7-minute workout lies in how it fits with the philosophy of personal improvement through modest goals. In my view, the main goal of the 7MW is: just do this one short thing, more days than not. Feel like doing it for many days in a row? Feeling particularly strong (or antsy) one day, so that you want to pull two reps? That’s cool! But that’s gravy, too. The baseline, as I read it, considers it a victory if you only to get a single rep of the twelve drills in, because that means you’ve exercised today, and that is never not good for you. And if you do fall off the horse and let a week go by or whatnot, you can get back on with no particular feeling of lost progress: you’re just back to doing something good for you, again.

Looking back at The Hacker’s Diet today, I’m surprised to find an index listing calorie counts of various foods, something I don’t recall spending much time with when I first tried applying the book’s advice. The list evidences a particular leaning towards fast and frozen food, perhaps betraying the author’s preferences, and definitely in-line with my own bachelor-typical diet of the latter 1990s. The index exists to help readers total up their daily caloric intake, perhaps via one of the author’s own (somewhat archaic) software tools, since the book stresses this simple act of self-quantification as key to its method. I expect that I never even tried; likely, the effort required felt like just a step or two too far.

Today, though, where I couldn’t get over the hump while using Walker’s Palm Pilot program, I have found success with another creator’s iPhone app. I hope to write more about that after I’ve run this course for a while longer.


Next post: Stars of many stripes

Previous post: Today, I begin watching what I eat