Geeking Out To A Better Diet

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Don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into some preachy tract on healthy eating or how I “found” the latest diet fad. I’m pretty tired of food-as-religion-of-the-day myself. No, this is basically how my geek inclinations helped me get healthier, mostly via eating better – in a way I enjoyed.

I’ve thought about writing on this subject for MuseHack on and off but let’s face it, the site is “Applied Geek” and applying geekery to health fits that vein. Besides, whenever we hear the latest news about how awful people’s diets/habits/exercise/etc. it’s constantly bad – so maybe we should do something.

Do it our way.

The Situation

So here’s what happened. About four years ago my regular checkup with my doctor pointed to signs I’d let myself go. Or as I liked to put it “the numbers say you’re a fatass.”

In reflection it wasn’t a surprise. Stressful job. Sedentary hobbies. Letting my diet go a bit due to said stressful job. Life stress. Good thing I was and am adamant about regular checkups, because otherwise I may not have caught this.

What it came down was this –  yours truly was 20-40 pounds overweight and the doctor pointed out the long-term consequences of this.  So, I decided to do something about it.

I just did it my way.  I’m not big on cultic health practices and so on.

No, There Wasn’t A Plan – Originally

Let me note right here I did not start with plan to do this. I didn’t sit down and create a strategy. Really I just tried some stuff over time that seemed to work. On reflection the results may not have been the fastest, but at least they were mine.

Most changes took place over 3-4 years as I figured out the best things for my diet.

So what I’m going to share with you here is the things I learned, so you can have more of a plan if you want to geek out for health. These are the things I wish I’d known (some quite obvious) that can help you.

Besides, writing it up made it conscious.

OK, But What Exactly Did You Do?

You’re probably wondering about the specifics of my diet and health. I want you to find your own way, but what worked for me is:

  • I went mostly vegan/vegetarian. I found removing animal products (mostly) cuts calories and diversifies your diet.  I still do pizza or something “fun” once or twice a week.
  • I cut out highly processed ingredients –  no refined sugar or flour etc.  I also cut out oils most of the time. Another way to cut out potential crap and eat more naturally.
  • I didn’t go “low fat” and enjoyed nuts, seeds, etc.
  • No artificial sweeteners.
  • I made it myself. Processed foods are pretty killer (literally) and you can do far better.
  • I got moderate exercise – walking 30-60 minutes a day, running 3 times a week at high speed.

Not really revolutionary. Early on when I was stumbling around and just exercising a bit more and eating less processed crap I started loosing weight and getting healthier. It just went up to eleven when I really applied myself.

The end result of my actions?  I lost over 40 lbs, feel better, and in some cases my health is better than it’s been in a decade.

Best of all I did it my way. No fad diets or plans, just my natural inclinations, interests, and some research. I went totally geek for my health, I went totally me.

And here’s how I did it – nicely condensed so you can move faster than I did.

Steve’s Principles For Healthy Geek Eating (And More)

Here’s what it comes down to – I used my natural inclinations and interests to do it right and have fun with it.  You can too.


Set Goals

First of all, know what you want to do so you can work towards it. I didn’t start out with particularly good goals, and had to refine them.

We’re goal-oriented people, we geeks, so set your sites on some measure of success and then get there your way. X less pounds, X/Y blood pressure. Whatever works – and is needed for your survival.

This gives you direction and measurable direction at that – simply, you’ll know if you succeeded by checking against your goals.  Simple, obvious, and often something we forget.

I do recommend not going overboard and overly specific on goals. It can leave you stuck in paralysis through analysis as you have to get X, Y, and Z all aligned just right. Let your goals evolve.

For myself?  My goals were:

  • Reach a normal weight.
  • Make sue my various test numbers were healthy (cholesterol, etc.)

A  good doctor and online resources can probably help you find your numbers.


Start With What You Know

To eat healthier look to what you know and get into for a starting point.

Science geek? Go to the data. Into history? Look at historical diets. Futuristic idealist? Ask what we should be eating.  Once you have a starting point, you can branch out to take action – and reach those goals.

A science geek may calculate the best foods.  An amateur historian may try and duplicate an ideal diet.  A futurist may start with the most ecologically responsible choices that provide proper nutrition.

You start with what you know to eat and live healthier because it focuses on you ideals, your interest, and your knowledge. It leverages what is there, it appeal to your inclinations so you stick with it, and it builds on existing knowledge.

Sure it may be wrong, but its a start.

What helped me?

  • My interest in science, so I paid attention to scientific knowledge on the subject of diet.
  • My interest in history and food history – so I learned about what people ate. I knew a lot anyway, this just helped.
  • A specific interest in Japanese culture led me to understand about diets during the Edo period, which was pretty informative- and led me to learn more on ecological responsibility.

Was all this useful?  Yes, as a starting point, but over time I found some dietary advice in one culture or period wasn’t practical, or a particular cuisine didn’t appeal to me.  But it got me going.


Use The Knowledge Out There

If you’re going to get into healthy eating and other good habits, then get into the science and history and whatever else is out there to help with your diet. We’re people of numbers and knowledge and information, we geeks.

Now that also means running into conflicting information and total bias and B.S. – but hey that’s why you do this. To learn. You’re a natural learner anyway.

When we know about diet and health, then we can take action. We avoid pitfalls and fads. We know why we do the things we do or why we should do things. We also make it fun as we’re leveraging our natural interests.

For myself:

  • I’d read up on dietary findings, food trends – and conflicting research. Learned quite a bit about how money talks in food research.
  • I read up on different diets and diet ideas. I found my aforementioned research usually fit the trends of reliable diets. (Though man, people still argue over olive oil and whole wheat bread).
  • I follow news on issues in diets and food so I was more aware.

There’s a wealth of knowledge to put to use out there. Dive into it.

It’ll be fun.


Follow Your Own Muse

Don’t just start with your inclinations, follow them with a goal of living healthier.

Maybe you want to try out that one diet and monitor your numbers for six months because you’d treat your own body as a science experiment. Perhaps you want to try traditional cooking of “X” time period for awhile because you’re a history geek and that sounds healthy. Or you just want to eat efficiently and healthy so you try and calculate the perfect low-effort, high nutrition meals taste be damned.

This doesn’t mean your various dietary experiments will work. It just means you’ll start with what you like and follow your interests with a passion. You start with geek and see where it evolves.

It also means when you have to do a 180 on your plans you do it your way – having tried something, decided it was wrong, and refocused.  It’s more internally driven than feeling the specter of The Latest Diet Plan hovering over your shoulder.

For myself:

  • After a few experiments, I went vegetarian/vegan based on scientific reading, historical interest, and the aforementioned interest in Japanese culture making me think about ecological responsibility.
  • I started with various Asian cuisines that provided good vegetarian ideas, then quickly branched out. Most of my diet is “fusion cuisine” now.  The most used “Asian” food in my repertoire is Japanese Curry and my Brown Sauce (which I use to make vegan mabo tofu)
  • I played with all sorts of recipes to see what worked – I went mad scientist. I like trying things. What worked I kept.

Oh and speaking of experiments . . .


Get Experimental

We geeks love trying new things, so experiment with your health and diet. Try stuff out and have fun with it.

This helps keep your interest, helps you keep exploring, and helps you keep growing. It also lets you experience failure and moving on, which gets you used to trying out new things. By experimenting, failing, and succeeding you learn what works for you – and again, on your terms so you’re less likely to loose interest.

It also makes it fun. If we’re going to do this health thing le’s get a little crazy with it.

For myself:

  • I experimented with all sorts of vegetarian and vegan food and learned a lot. I made sausage from wheat gluten, various chilies, and of course Japanese Curry. I found healthy variants of things I loved and had fun making them.
  • I tried out various ingredients (often they came up in my readings on diet or historical interests). I got to learn a lot from that, and of course I had a ball.
  • I tried out historical recipes (history is a thing with me as you noted) and also learned a great deal. One of my favorite experiments is discovering how to make cake without eggs, flour, or sugar. The core components are chickpea flour and stewed raisins for sweetener, basically making the cake a nutrition bar of fruit hummus wearing a cake costume.

Crazy?  Sure.  Do I care?  Not really.  I’m having fun.


Write This Stuff Down

Your various health and diet experiences should be written down, organized, and stored.

Why? Because it lets you track your experiments, efforts, successes, and failures. This lets you get better at what you do, stay organized, and keep it a fun project. Remember, this is a project – and we love projects.

Beside, you probably can come up with some pretty unique ways to store information, like a personal wiki, or database, or what have you. It can play to your other geek inclinations.

For myself, what I do:

  • I keep a personal cookbook both electronic and physical. I keep notes in it on my experiments until I get things right. This way I have one source of information and I can keep improving my cooking.
  • I used to keep notes on each major recipe and extensive notes on given experiments (like Japanese Curry). This might not be for everyone but if you’re dedicated to certain recipes, it may be the way to go.
  • I’d track health measures over time to make sure my changes ad an impact.

Oh that cookbook? Could also be self-published as a great Christmas Gift. So sometime in the next few years I just spoiled your present if I know you.

On that subject . . .


Share Your Culinary And Health Efforts

We geeks connect, despite the still-prominent, still-false image of us as antisocial. So share your efforts.

Post recipes on your blog, start a geek cooking tumblr, or share recipes at a cooking site. Take your latest creations to the next RPG session and get feedback. Drop off food in the office kitchen and see how people react.

This helps you get feedback from people on what you’re doing and gets people involved in your healthy efforts. The feedback, reinforcement, questions, criticism are fun, social, and help you grow – and help others.

For myself:

  • My gaming group pretty much expects my latest experiments to be dropped on them. It’s useful for feedback.
  • I serve meals now and then to get people’s opinions on the taste. If non-vegetarians, non-vegans can like my stuff, score.
  • I swap tips with friends who cook. In fact, that’s often taught me a lot as one of my friends who cooks uses some different dietary approaches, so I learn a lot.
  • I share recipes on my blog and social media.
  • I’m now starting to speak on cooking at conventions, which gives me new feedback, new insights, and new inspiration on how to share.  Last time I did my curry panel I learned more about people who avoid MSG, for instance.

The End Result: Do It Your Way

Want to be a geek with a healthy diet?  Do it your way. You’ll be happier, you’ll stick with it, you’ll build on current knowledge, you’ll involve your social sphere – and it’ll probably work better.

This means of course you have to do it. You have to make sure your weight goes down, your cholesterol goes down etc. You have to make changes, you have to face challenges. You need to get active and achieve results.

But by leveraging what we do naturally – our obsessions, our focus, or intellectual curiosity – we stick with it and find our own unique path. That stays with us and makes healthy eating not just what we do but part of who we are.

I think the huge failure of many diets – even reliable ones (and they are out there) – is become they come from “outside” a person. It’s “outside” them, so it’s hard to make it part of who they are. When your results come from inside then it’s a more intimate, more personalized, more effective experiment.

So start where you are and build a healthy eating plan from there.

You’re a geek.


Steven Savage