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The Hacker's Diet (fourmilab.ch)
45 points by jacquesm 2838 days ago | hide | past | web | 33 comments | favorite

I read "The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth" (Jonny Bowden) recently and took from it this extremely condensed diet advice: "Avoid grains and industrial processing." Grains have near-zero nutrition, and industrial processing is the source of a lot of questionable practices.

On this diet, which I've followed just a few weeks, I cheat all the time, but I feel and perform better in ways that I can quantify at the gym: more strength, better endurance. Noticeable improvements every time I've gone, so far.

This is the annoying thing about diet/nutrition advice, and why "The Hacker Diet" is really appealing to me, even if it's a little simplistic -- it's at least logically consistent and has some rationale behind it, even if it's a flawed one.

Most diet advice is vague and full of generalizations and never backed up. It makes sense, but you hear often opposing viewpoints made in the same hand-wavy fashion. For instance:

Okay, why avoid grains? Are some grains worse than others, or are they all magically bad? Either way, why, and what evidence supports it? Does this apply to any carbohydrate, or just strictly grains? What's wrong with industrial processing, and is there evidence to prove it? Does it apply to everything that could possibly be considered industrial processing, or just certain types of industrial processing that are particularly bad? Is it possible to make up for whatever negative effects it (anything one is advised not to eat) has, and does it apply to 100% of people, or a set of people that you make a set of assumptions about?

I'm not attacking your viewpoint specifically -- I think you're most likely right -- but this is just why I have a hard time believing most diet advice. It's always so wishy washy, and it always brings up more questions.

Another example: advice around drinking soda. There are many types of sweeteners used in diet sodas, and lots of studies done on their effects on humans and other mammals -- none particularly damning. But no one giving nutrition advice will say "avoid ingredient X because Y", they'll say "avoid (vague category of food which may or may not contain ingredient X)". And then someone else will come along and say the opposite. And then there's always some link to some study done in the 1940's that's since been discredited or something.

It is like a safe harbor provision. If you exclude processed foods and grains, then you are in a relatively safe place food-wise, though not perfectly safe of course.

If you do eat processed foods, then you take your chances or you must spend a lot of time educating yourself about various ingredients and the studies about them.

carbohydrates are all nothing but sugar, they do nothing for you. Grains are particularly bad because they not only don't provide anything but sugar but they also prevent the absorption of minerals(in the link he explicitly calls out oat meal but others do it as well). Studies show that cutting out grain(note some grains are ok mostly freshly processed grains are bad. Sour dough is OK) will make your teeth immune to tooth decay and any cavities you have will heal themselves.


carbohydrates are all nothing but sugar

Sugars are a pretty essential part of any healthy diet. If you're not eating sugars (complex and simple), you're not eating right.

What's wrong with industrial processing

It's going to be lower quality than unprocessed fresh food, for several reasons:

1) Food spends longer between harvest and mouth, so any nutrients that are lost over time will be reduced in the final product.

2) Food crops are of varying quality, and the highest quality will go directly to places people will see it (e.g. tomatoes in the supermarket vegetable section) and the lower quality (less ripe, overripe, blemished, part squished or bruised) will go to the industrial processing where it ends up not being noticable (e.g. XYZ in tomato sauce).

3) There's a lot of scope for badness to be included in processed foods. When dealing with trailer loads at a time, detailed checks are impractical so contaminants become more possible. Food processing is factory work which is generally low skilled, low paid and long hours, so there's more room for things like poorly cleaned machinery, accidental contamination by people, gross fooling around, a nod and a wink and sod the overbearing health and hygiene rules when workload is high.

4) Labelling laws in some countries only require ingredients of more than X amount to be included, so there is room for contents that you don't know about and therefore can't choose whether or not to eat.

5) Industrial processing is full of bizarre things. Who eats cotton? Nobody. So how come it's OK to put cottonseed oil in food? Why is nickel used as a catalyst in the making of margarine? Nobody uses nickel as an ingredient or as a material for cooking utensils.

6) It exists to make money, not to make you healthy. Food processing is better if it takes cheaper ingredients and makes a more expensive desirable product. They are hacking your perceptions, studying flavouring and colouring and mouth-feel and so on, to make something look and taste nicer, while not actually doing you more good (or even, less harm).

and is there evidence to prove it?

I think this comes under the side of "prove God doesn't exist". Humans lived for a long time without mass food processing, and now we have it it's accepted as fine and the suggestion is that we have to prove that it's bad. Surely the default state is to be without food processing, and supporters should have to prove why it's good? (Apart from the fact that it makes lots of money, that is).

Is it possible to make up for whatever negative effects it (anything one is advised not to eat) has

Who knows? Ask yourself why some 70 year olds are out hill walking, travelling, working, are healthy-albeit-old and some are demented, plagued with ill health, bedridden, seriously forgetful, suffering arthritis, heart disease, loss of balance, etc.

Is it really all luck and genetics?

I'm definitely not great with the healthy eating (I have Taco Bell leftovers sitting on my desk as I type this), but I really like Michael Pollan's little manifesto thing: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." To me, this covers the three major guidelines of healthy eating:

  1. Eat real food, not over-processed empty calorie junk.
  2. Don't eat too much of whatever you eat.
  3. No need to give up meat & dairy, but don't go overboard.

Except that human bodies are not engines. Calories in != calories out + stored energies. A healthy body will store just enough and discard the rest of the eaten food.

For a much more accurate and interesting read, check out Good Calories, Bad Calories.

You are not just wrong, but obviously totally wrong. Obesity is up worldwide. Why would this happen if human bodies just discarded unnecessary calories?

please, at least hear the quackjob out: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4362041487661765149

science mag and a lot of others thought he was worth listening to...

the argument is that it's not something simple like calorie in, calorie out (seen this argument on hn a few times), but rather how certain calories trigger certain behavior with insulin in our bodies.

After all, if he's right - it quite changes how we approach the problem, and considering the backing this research has from other reputable sources - it's quite foolish to just ignore such a paradigm shifting idea like that. perhaps it was worth ignoring before the guy wrote a giant book looking at one study after the next....before he presented such a good case for the argument...but at this point, obviously wrong is not true.

if you've got a good reference, a link to an article perhaps, to why Gary Taubes is wrong -- I'd love to see it.

Actually, that sounds OK. I know my body reacts very differently to HFCS vs sucrose, for example. My problem with GP is that Calories In == Calories Expended + Calories Stored, always (unless you have diarrhea or something). The differences in the way your body responds only changes the ratio of energy stored to energy expended, by making you hyper or relaxed.

ΔWeight = Energy in (food) - Energy out (exercise plus metabolism)

The flaw in the understanding of this equation as written in "The Hackers Diet" and many other sources is that the components on the right side of the equal sign are not independent variables. They are dependent variables. If one eats less, the rate of metabolism falls to compensate. If one exercises more, the appetite increases, and one eats more to compensate. http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/weight-loss/more-braying-...

Here's another article that explains this: http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/metabolism/thermodynamics...

I think he does explain about it in the book, or that's what I understood when I read it, that metabolism does adjust if you eat less or more - http://www.fourmilab.ch/hackdiet/www/subsubsection1_2_3_0_7_...

This is something that really irks me about people when they talk about diets.

It takes a species more than 100 odd years or so to get rid of that "eat whatever the frak you can and store as much of it as you can because there is a good chance that you're not going to find much other than grass for a WHILE".

Your body is NOT going to just "discard" (poop out) "un-needed" calories.

The other thing that bothers me is people talking about "starvation mode". That just sounds like a buzzword (because it is). If you stop eating, you're going to start getting tired. THIS is the mythical "starvation mode". If you tell your body to just fuck off, and go jogging or whatever anyway (omg free will!) you are going to lose weight really really quickly.

Your body is NOT going to just "discard" (poop out) "un-needed" calories.

Are you sure of that? I'll offer myself up as a datapoint. My weight is exactly (to the kg) the same as it was 12 years ago. I do not exercise, at all, and eat pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want (and that's a lot.) For comparison purposes, my sister-in-law runs a few miles every day, and consumes less than half the calories that I do-- and her weight has also remained constant for the past decade.

Her incoming calorie-count is much less than mine, and her calories expended is much higher than mine. If my body does not discard un-needed calories, how is it that she's not losing weight, and I'm not gaining weight?

(By the way: I worked for Ben & Jerry's for several years, and ate a pint of ice cream every single day. No weight gain, and only a marginal rise in my cholesterol count.)

Are you sure her calorie expenditure is really higher than yours? You may just have a faster metabolism.

So what is the third option? What happens to the calories that are neither calories out or stored energy?

Oh, they're calories out alright, just not "out via being burned and doing work". Out another way.

(Though I think this effect is dominated by the manipulation of the satiety set point by other mechanisms, which the naive (in the math sense) calorie-in-calorie-out rhetoric ignores.)

It's thermodynamics: Calories In = Calories Excreted + Calories Burned + Calories Stored


Change in Calories Stored = Calories In - (Calories Excreted + Calories Burned)

As someone else said, though: these variables are not independent.

If you eat less and exercise more and still aren't losing weight, I guess that means you are excreting less.

an oldie, but a goodie. A good way to keep track of your progress online here:


It will calculate everything for you and even provide the pretty little weighted graphs just like in the book.

It works pretty well for me. I also keep a rough running total of my daily calories - not hard to do after a week or so. Progress is gradual, but sustainable.

I'm posting monthly updates to flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexfarran/sets/721576162210862...

To me the most interesting part of Walkers writings on diet and exercise are the exercise bits:


Very simple and absolutely doable even without any room or extra gear.

Don't let the simplicity deceive you.

I think I'll give that a go. I do a reasonable amount of cycling and walking, but it would be interesting to see where my current fitness level puts me on that scale.

I have found that "Good Calories, Bad Calories" does a great job of pointing towards a better understanding of diets and how the body works.

If research about "diets" has found anything it's that they don't work. Any calorie counting approach is doomed to fail for most people.

This diet is straight out of the Stalinist four year plan school. Normal people have zero chance of tolerating this. The bondage and discipline rigid planning approach doesn't work in any field. People aren't machines.

Actually, it works very well.

The approach outlined here is pretty similar to what Weight Watchers uses. Theirs is a little looser, tracking calories on a weekly basis and offering incentives to eat filling foods. But it's basically the same idea.

I lost 70 pounds in about a year on a system like that, and most of the experience was simply being surprised at how easy it was. There was a bit of a fiery adjustment during the first week, but thereafter, I felt better than ever. I wasn't hungry a lot. I didn't feel overly disciplined. Really, I was eating exactly what I wanted, just subject to the full consequences of the decisions. A year of just paying attention and making informed decisions saw me at my ideal weight, and my main reaction was, "People think this is hard?"

It's not a moral/discipline approach at all. More like lifestyle engineering. You have the numbers in hand, you know what you want to achieve, you know what you're willing to part with and what you aren't. I personally incorporated a weekly pizza & pop D&D night I didn't want to part with . . . and still lost about a pound a week. When you compensate via cost instead of guilt, treats are guilt-free; pizza for lunch just means soup for dinner, pie on Wednesday means no candy bars on Thursday or Friday. It's really just a question of engineering, knowing your body, and setting up the system to do what you want.

The most curious effect of the whole affair was that my appreciation and enjoyment of food went up. My initial approach was that since I could only afford a couple ounces of cheese, I was going to make darn sure it was goooood cheese. But there was a strange feedback there; good food makes you happy faster. An ounce of fancy chocolate left me feeling treated in a way five ounces of crappy chocalate never did--and of course, neither ever satisfied hunger, so the smaller amount didn't matter. Net effect: not hungry, losing weight, enjoying food more.

It really is a total hack.

It works, but it's not sustainable. You can't go through life counting calories. I also used the Hacker's Diet for a time back in 2003/2004. I lost about 60 pounds, and then over the next 4 or 5 years, proceeded to put 40 of them back on.

This year I've re-lost those 40 pounds, and am working on losing another 40, not by counting calories or otherwise trying to find low cal versions of everything (hard to do anyway now that I'm in Norway), but by being more conscious about what I eat (trying to eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, while eating fewer processed foods and sugars) and exercising regularly, which is much easier to do. Well, the exercise part still sucks, but I remind myself that once I get to the weight I want to be at, I only have to go enough to maintain that weight.

I think it's pretty sustainable. You should approach it as a lifestyle change, though, not a diet. That means don't make any tradeoffs in the process you're not willing to live with for the rest of your life. For me, that means find the occasional space for pie, and chocolate, and pizza . . .

But once you've got the initial engineering figured out, it's just a case of knowing what things cost in unusual circumstances. A little mental effort for a healthy body weight is a tradeoff I'll gladly make for the rest of my life.

How does calorie counting not work. You put in less energy than is being used and the body makes up the rest from reserves. Or is the body somehow generating energy without burning fat?

The point is that it is difficult for people to follow the diet consistently.

Or, you put in less energy and consequently lower your metabolism and move less and feel more tired to compensate while your reserves don't change, or even increase, or the difference could be made up by destruction of muscle or organs rather than fat.

If it was as you suggest, you could eat nothing and not starve as long as you have fat reserves.

Actually the body goes in to starvation mode and starts destroying muscle to lower energy consumption not to mention the fact that going on a diet lowers blood sugar so you feel tired and stop consuming as much energy.

Supermodels seem okay with it, so it can't be that difficult. Just kidding (sort of)! It just takes A LOT of time and discipline which yeah, not many people have.

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