Internal Diet Crux

Dieter: Dude, we’re fat. We should do something about it. Anything at all, really. How about we stop eating refined carbs from animal sources between 2-7:15 pm each day?

Dad bod: How about we don’t do that? We’re spending so much energy thinking about diets you’d think that activity by itself should make us lose weight. And yet, like everything else we’ve tried, it doesn’t. Maybe we should face reality and accept that the pounds are there to stay.

Dieter: You mean give up like a lazy fat loser?

Dad bod: More like optimize allocation of self-improvement effort to more fruitful pursuits.

Dieter: I was going to start calling you names, but that’s not going to help us have a conversation. How about we introduce ourselves instead? I’m the part of Jacob that hates being overweight and thinks we need to take dieting more seriously.

Dad bod: And I’m the part that thinks dieting involves a lot of suffering with no payoff, and that it’s perfectly OK for Jacob to keep living inside a portly dad bod.

Dieter: “Portly”, huh? Curious that you didn’t go for any of the less dignified synonyms, like “pudgy” or “chubby”. Let’s start with the facts: Jacob is 185 lbs at 5’9″, which comes out to a BMI of 27.3. That’s smack in the middle of the “Overweight” BMI range.

Internalized Scott Alexander: You know BMI isn’t very scientific, you should measure your body fat composition and lean muscle mass…

Dieter: Shut up, Scott. Jacob is of average height, has an average body type, and his bones aren’t made of adamantium. We’re right in the middle of the range that BMI is calibrated on. We’ve been avoiding doing body-fat measurements because we’re afraid of seeing the results. Would anyone here not press a button that would make Jacob weigh 165 pounds tomorrow?

Dad bod: I would press that button, but it probably doesn’t exist. Jacob was 165 lbs at age 18 at the end of combat boot camp, and since then has been steadily gaining 2 lbs a year. There has been almost no variation around this slow trend-line. Diets, exercise plans, changing countries, dating super fit girls and curvy ones – none of that has made any measurable impact at all. Since hitting age 30 we seem to have stabilized around 185 lbs. So why do we keep wanting to “do something about Jacob’s weight”?

Dieter: Have we ever really tried a diet plan? Communism has been tried and found wanting, but dieting has been found difficult and not tried. At best, we half-assed things like calorie counting and carb restrictions for a few weeks at a time. An every-other-day diet is no diet at all, since all gains are immediately reversed. We must stick to something at least long enough for the expected weight change to be measurable.

Dad bod: But a diet we can’t stick to is, in fact, a failed diet. There’s no dial in Jacob’s head he can turn up to increase willpower. If our track record is half-assing diets for a few weeks, then the outside view says we should predict future diet attempts to follow the same path. Even worse, we’ve tried most of the really obvious things and have grown more skeptical. We should expect to have less dieting willpower in the future, not more.

There are two more reasons why I don’t believe we’ll find a diet that works. First of all, nutrition science is a hot mess. There seems to be an equal number of arguments on each side of any dieting question. Is sugar the enemy or is every calorie a calorie? Should we cut carbs, cut fat, or cut interesting food? Snack to maintain metabolic rate or fast twice a week? Eat food, not too much, mostly plants or eat meat, not too little, mostly fat? Any signal is overwhelmed by the noise.

Another reason for diet-skepticism is observing people around us. Jacob’s friend Charlie weighs around 100 lbs but eats more calories than he does each day. I think that she started escorting not for the money but just to try all the steaks and lobsters in Manhattan, and she quit escorting when she got bored of ordering three entrees at Michelin restaurants.

If we ate like she does we’d assume a perfectly spherical shape. 185 lbs is probably as thin as this metabolism gets.

Dieter: Sure, let’s talk other people. Have you noticed that practically no one you hang out with is obese? Jacob doesn’t really care, and all his social circles filter heavily on cognitive ability and intellectual interests, not on appearance. And yet by some mysterious process, every person you meet in those circles isn’t fat. Were you really born with the slowest metabolism of any person in your social class, or do other people actually take this more seriously?

Dad bod: Fair point. But if our social life doesn’t depend on being skinny, why bother? It’s not clear that a BMI of 23 is healthier than 27, and Jacob is in decent shape functionally. When we play soccer, Jacob not only has the energy to run back on defense every time but also to yell at his teammates for not doing the same.

Dieter: Imagine playing soccer with a 20-pound weight strapped around your stomach. That’s what we’re doing right now. Doing a ton of sports while fat probably built up some impressive muscle underneath the adipose tissue. Let’s unleash it!

And speaking of soccer: I don’t feel the extra pounds while running back on defense. I feel them when we decide to play shirts vs. skins and I get that sudden rush of panic thinking I may have to take my shirt off.

Dad bod: That panic is just in your head, nobody else really cares. What if you just stopped worrying about how you look like with your shirt off?

Dieter: If we “just stopped worrying”, how soon would it be before I hit 205 lbs? When that happens, the panic will be there every time I undress to take a shower and have to see myself in the mirror, instead of every other week.

Dad bod: It’s hard to argue when you have both hope and fear on your side. Let’s deal with them one by one. What would make you give up on dieting?

Dieter: If we actually full-assed a diet for a long enough period of time and didn’t see any improvement at all, I’ll probably give up. If we make an unusual effort I’ll know that in case we fail we’ll never be able to summon the same effort again.

What would convince you that dieting is possible?

Dad bod: I think if we ever actually saw a result, that would give me all the motivation and belief I need. Until we see it on ourselves, in the mirror and on the scale, our System 1 will never believe that dieting works no matter how many people tell our System 2 about their slow-carb-paleo schemes.

Scott: Sounds like you’re both ready to stake a bet on a scientific experiment! Dieter, what do you predict?

Dieter: I think that we can lose at least one pound a month by committing to a reasonable diet. A 4-pound shift should be visible over a regular day-to-day fluctuation of 1-2 pounds, so we’ll need to diet for four months.

Dad bod: Fair. I predict that doing a diet for four months isn’t going to make Jacob lose 4 pounds. What should we try?

Dieter: We’ll do intermittent fasting: only eating within an 8-hour window every day, plus counting calories to stay below our total daily energy expenditure. People also say that sugar is bad so we’ll try to avoid sugary foods, especially in the morning. And full-assing means we’ll have to actually do the thing at least 6 out of 7 days each week.

Scott: Wait, are we doing intermittent fasting just because a couple of friends and a podcast mentioned it? That’s not rigorous! We should do a meta-analysis of nutrition approaches, cross-reference them with how well the subjects match Jacob’s variables…

Dad bod: Shut up, Scott.

Dieter: Yeah, if there’s anything Dad bod hates more than doing dieting is researching diets. If we start digging into books, we’ll never get to the actual thing. Hopefully, this is the sort of diet that can establish some healthier habits even after we no longer track it.

Dad bod: Also, intermittent fasting does seem easier to implement. It’s not hard to lie to yourself about portion size, but 8 pm is 8 pm.

How do we make sure we actually stick to the diet for four months? I would currently bet on us making it 6 weeks at most.

Dieter: With Beeminder, of course! Here’s the diet tracker goal, with an explanation of the point system. I get a point for each day that we stick to the 8-hour window and the calorie limit, and lose points for going over. The goal is also public, so all readers including my mom can see both my weight and how well I’m sticking to the diet. If on August 1st I weigh more than 183 lbs, I’ll be ready to give up on the enterprise.

Dad bod: And if we go below 181 for several days straight, I predict being excited enough to keep at it. If we fail to actually implement the diet or end up at 182.5 lbs after four months of suffering, I guess we’ll be back to square one.

I’m still not sure we’ll be able to stick to this plan for four months, and I don’t feel internally surprised when I visualize us utterly failing and giving up with a bunch of excuses around early June. On the other hand, the combined incentive of social pressure, scientific rigor, and the chance to shut you up once and for all is motivating enough that I won’t be shocked if we succeed. 

Good luck, psycho!

Dieter: And same to you, fatso!


I conducted this conversation between parts of myself during a mentor’s workshop at the Center for Applied Rationality, and it involves a few applied rationality techniques developed by CFAR. CFAR workshops are also where you meet awesome people who help you tackle the biggest obstacles in your life. I don’t know if they want their names published, but I’d particularly like to thank:

  • Mr. Q, who encouraged me to write more vulnerable things on Putanumonit instead of just building models for fun.
  • Mr. A, who talked with me about dieting and also encouraged me to dive into topics I’m uninformed on and could look stupid writing about.
  • Ms. L, who transcribed this conversation as I was having it out loud. Ms. L misheard “Dad bod” and thought that I named the anti-diet voice “Dead body”. She stuck to her job as facilitator even as she grew increasingly confused about why I’m talking to a corpse.

13 thoughts on “Internal Diet Crux

  1. Best of luck to you. It’s always fun to hear about how dieting goes for people. I hope there’ll be updates on this as it progresses.

    1) Stay hydrated and try to avoid drinking calories.
    2) Log your food/calories before you eat it to avoid switching to a more tempting option.
    3) Make sure to count calories all the time, even if you’ve already passed your threshold, and avoid things you can’t count like the plague

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  2. Thanks for posting this! It would be pretty interesting to see more people transcribe their IDCs like this. (I’m Mr. Q in case anyone was wondering.)

    On the object level I want to suggest a third option, although it’s somewhat tricky. The third option is “mindful eating,” where you learn how to calibrate and then pay attention to your body’s natural mechanisms for doing reinforcement learning on food. It goes something like this: eat a thing, preferably a thing without too many ingredients, while paying a lot of attention to how your body feels as you eat it (particularly your mouth and stomach). Even better, before putting the thing in your mouth, make a prediction about how your body will feel eating it. Then set a timer for 1-2 hours later, and pay a lot of attention to how your body feels then too. Also possibly make a prediction before doing this. The idea is to gradually get more attuned to which foods actually make your body feel good on the scale of hours, then just eat those.

    One of the tricky things is that I think a prerequisite to really making this work might be to go through a withdrawal period for any foods you’re addicted to first, because addictions will overwhelm the real signal you’re trying to pay attention to. The most extreme way to do this is to fast for a few days but avoiding junk food / processed carbs might also work. I did this by drinking only ketolent for 4 days, which has its own problems but had a great effect on how my body felt before I started getting screwed by electrolyte imbalances.

    Another tricky thing is that you need to have access to a pretty broad variety of foods, but once you do, you can learn how to ask your stomach which foods it anticipates feeling good (e.g. “do I want chicken? no… do I want a pear? yes!”) and eat the best ones. You can wander around a supermarket and just see which foods your body is most viscerally drawn to. This “diet” when done properly should both require zero willpower and be incredibly healthy, because it’s personalized to what your body actually needs.

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  3. My own dieting experience: what worked for me (that is, took me from slightly overweight and feeling like my body was very good at homeostasis to feeling good with my shirt off) was tracking calories, cutting sugar intake specifically and eating more vegetables, and doing what my army friend told me to do at the gym. The middle one might not even be necessary. Tracking calories definitely helped me calibrate things like portion size and what foods were satisfying and nutritious – I also set a calorie target, but I didn’t worry about it too much.

    More different from anything else I’d done was going to the gym and actually building muscle. I had “gone to the gym” before and just sort of done things, and am an active dancer, but it turns out that if you want to become stronger, you do a few specific varieties of lifting heavy stuff for 45 minutes 3 times a week, then come back next week and lift slightly heavier stuff. I basically didn’t see reduction in fat until I could squat 180 pounds. Plug: http://liamrosen.com/fitness.html

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  4. First of all, good luck, and thanks for sharing!

    I had a few reactions reading this that may or may not be helpful to you and / or anyone who stumbles across this comment. I write in full knowledge of my “stranger on the internet, doesn’t know full context” state of being.

    Reaction one: Dieter doesn’t sound like he’s being super honest. Why does he care so much? Some hypothetical reasons people want to lose weight:

    -they stay up at night afraid they might have a heart attack

    -they look at themselves in the mirror and feel unsexy

    -they don’t feel energetic and physically able in their day to day lives

    -etc.

    I think Dieter sharing motivations at that level is important because it leads to a much realer conversation with Dad Bod about motivation and commitment. Or maybe there isn’t a strong passion behind Dieter’s desire, and Dad Bod can have a real conversation about why Dieter is putting him through this.

    It’s also important because losing weight is a better proxy for some of these goals than others. For instance, for many people, the feel good when they look at themselves in the mirror goal is better served by building muscle than by losIng weight.

    Reaction two: this conversation doesn’t seem to be grounded in a solid understanding of current food habits. What does Dad Bod eat today? Does he cook for himself? Do others cook for him? Does he snack? On what, and where does he get his snacks from? Is Dad Bod proud of his food choices? Ashamed? Of some more than others? Does he eat emotionally? Is eating with others important to him? How does the menu and context in which he eats get determined?

    These questions seem important because often the best way to make sustainable positive change is by making small habit changes, by identifying one concrete choice and doing it slightly differently.

    Sometimes a top down, totalitarian “rip your diet out by the roots and replace it wholesale with ” is a good strategy, sometimes it isn’t. But even when it is, success depends on having a comprehensive plan, which involves a deep understanding of all the little decision points throughout the day that have to go differently for the new regime to succeed.

    I had that reaction especially because of the part of the plan involving trying to eat less sugar. That level of vagueness suggests that maybe Dieter hasn’t fully thought through why, when, and how sugar-eating happens, which implies that the intent to eat less sugar is not yet actionable.

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    1. I don’t mind people posting their own diet advice in the comments, although I doubt that I will personally be much moved by those. This is also the reason why I didn’t waste words spelling out in full every detail of my food habits. My readers should be more interested in the mental alignment technique (Internal Double Crux) than in what I have to say about sugar.

      Dieter is motivated to a large extent by feeling unsexy when looking at the mirror. After many years of trying, I am 90% on both the system 1 and 2 levels that I cannot gain muscle without eating a lot more after each workout, and I don’t want to do that at 185 lbs. If everything goes according to plan, I hope to lose 15-20 pounds of fat and muscle while doing mostly aerobic sports to stay in shape and then gain ~10 lbs of muscle back with significantly heavier lifting and eating than I currently do.

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      1. On the internal double-crux bit, did you feel like everything before the “agree on an experiment” bit was worthwhile? It might just look easy from the outside, but “let’s really try a diet and move on if we can’t make progress” seems like a pretty simple place to get to.

        After the “let’s try an experiment point” is the internal double-crux format adding anything?

        From my perspective it looks like a more reader-friendly way to get to an obvious conclusion. But maybe the conclusion isn’t obvious without the technique, or maybe there’s some motivational benefit to feeling like conflicting parts of oneself are unified in a particular goal.

        Would you recommend other people try to do internal double crux? For what sorts of decisions/problems?

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        1. “Let’s do an experiment” is the default shape of an answer, but it’s not the answer. What sort of experiment will you actually succeed at conducting? What sort of experiment will actually make all the voices in your head come to an agreement depending on the outcome?

          As with external DC, this is about getting at the deep motivations and objections of each party, to find out what would actually convince them to change their mind. A lot of time the voices don’t even know why exactly they want to do one thing or another, and it takes some goal/aversion factoring (another CFAR technique) and some compassionate listening (I’m less good at this) to draw it out.

          I don’t feel like I really understood IDC deeply which is why I focused on practicing it at my second workshop. Now I feel like I’m getting a glimpse of the what and how of it, and also every person takes CFAR techniques in their own personal directions. I have two recommendations:

          1. IDC is useful for cases when you have a longstanding internal conflict on an issue, when you feel like different parts of you can’t align behind a single strategy.
          2. Don’t confuse a written-up example of IDC on the internet with the sort of deep understanding you can achieve by actually going to a workshop and practicing each technique with skilled mentors. My post was meant to give a taste of what’s possible, not to teach IDC.

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  5. If its of any help to you:

    It sounds like I was in a somewhat similar “dad body” situation as you.

    For 15+ years I went on and off of diets without much effect. The Outside View says I should have no further success.

    Then one day, I managed to stick to a diet. Then I stuck to it another day. Then another.

    Eventually they stacked up and I lost the 20-25 pounds I wanted and I’ve kept them off for 5+ years.

    I do not know in any rigorous sense why I finally stuck to a diet. It was not a special diet, I basically just kept eating the same stuff…I just counted my calories. I’m not advocating for you to try that or any particular diet.

    My best introspective idea of why I stuck to it is that I happened to find a combination of foods that didn’t leave me too hungry throughout the day.

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  6. If you do bother to calorie count, it might be worth putting money on the table. dietbet.com is a good way to bet and win from people less conscientious than you.

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  7. For what it’s worth I’ve been doing intermittent fasting for about 6 weeks now and am losing at a rate of about a pound a week. I do an 18 hour fast 6 days a week and don’t count calories or otherwise restrict what I eat. I never lost weight before in any attempt so this has been pretty surprising!

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