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Diet and Lifestyle: A Change Experiment

This post is not explicitly related to education, but is something I found particularly fascinating as it is related to how people change and - as I'm known to espouse - that learning is change, and the more we understand about how people change, the more we understand about how people learn.


BACKGROUND


For the weeks of May 19th to June 17th, I wrote down how many grams of carbs, proteins, and fats I consumed, as well as the total calorie of each food consumed. I wanted to know how food influences lifestyle, and how changing what I eat might change aspects of my lifestyle.


I had done a lot of reading on the types of carbohydrates in different kinds of foods, the purpose of different kinds of proteins, and the benefits of different kinds of fats in a wide variety of diets and its impact on different people with different diet goals. I knew that limiting my experiment to macro-nutrients was limiting the kind of conclusions I'd be able to make, but I felt it was a reasonable start to experimenting on the impact my own diet may be having on my own lifestyle.


I consider there to be seven elements to a lifestyle (or culture), and I'll address only three of these elements here. The first has to do with Structural Relationships, or the power dynamics of defined relationships in specific groups of people (e.g. families, schools, community groups, etc.) - who makes decisions for a group is a primary indicator for this kind of power dynamic and is often based on how we define a particular relationship (e.g. parent-child, teacher-student, preacher-congregation, etc.). The second element has to do with Government, or decision-making structures for a group of people. This element in smaller groups often overlaps with the element Structural Relationships and becomes more distinct as you apply it to larger groups and organizations. The third element has to do with Customs and Traditions - the habits we form based on the ideas we value about how people should or should not behave.


When I began this experiment, I had a fairly consistent basis for these elements. My relationships with those I had immediate and constant interaction were well-defined and decisions made between myself and those individuals were mutual and beneficial to our particular relational connection (e.g. wife, cousin, friend, brother, etc.). The governmental perspective by which I typically chose to engage in group decisions was primarily more democratically egalitarian, where executive decisions were to be made based on consensus rather than the preference of the person making the decision. As for customs and traditions, I had developed fairly consistent habits related to my diet that included morning rituals and tendencies for certain behaviors that favored work over healthy food choices, and times of play allowing for higher rates of indulgences (e.g. fast food and candy).


THE BEGINNING


For the first few days, I didn't change what I ate and simply tracked the macro data of my existing diet. I quickly found that I was consuming about 2200-2400 calories, which was relatively appropriate for my age, height, and weight. The data showed I consumed about twice as many carbs as proteins and about as much if not more fat than protein. This was primarily due to my eating handfuls of various nuts, huge chunks of cheese, and large amounts of milk I would consume randomly throughout a given day. I'd also occasionally purchase random processed foods (fast food and candy) while out driving around or at a social activity with friends.


Based on that initial data, I decided that the change I would make to my diet, in order to see if it would impact my lifestyle, would involve consuming about twice as many carbohydrates as proteins, and about twice as many proteins as fats. I would also set no limit on the number of calories to see how this particular balance of foods impacted my calorie intake, in addition to what impact (if any) such a change would have on my lifestyle.


It's important to note that nearly all food includes some amount of carbs, proteins, and fats. It was no surprise that limiting my consumption of nuts, cheese, and milk would result in less fat but also less protein, so I had to find sources for low-fat protein. I still consumed nuts, cheese, and milk - just less. However, I had to increase the amount of protein without increasing fat, which I did by increasing the amount of lentils and other legumes that are high in protein and higher in carbs, but virtually no fats. I also cut out nearly all random processed foods since spikes in my data were on those days I caved to high-carb/high-fat foods (very addictive substances apparently!). One more intentional change was to the amount of animal flesh ("meat") I consumed, and since meat is the indisputable champion of vitamin-B and other important micro-nutrients, I intentionally chose to replace that with plant-based meats and vitamin-B supplements, in addition to increased high-protein carbohydrate options (e.g. legumes).


RESULTS


The impact to my lifestyle was subtle but significant.


First, making these kinds of changes meant I was placing mental energy toward decisions I previously wasn't interested in making, which had small yet meaningful effects on a number of different aspects of my day. I had to make time to plan, prepare, and store specific meals that included things like lentils and leafy greens, and not just eat whatever pre-packaged foods were available. This meant more time dedicated to diet than work, play, or exercise (a balance model I'm designing) and caused me to re-evaluate the importance of those other aspects of my life, in comparison to whatever impact diet would have by the end of this experiment. That impact would prove to be significant, as I describe in the next section on elements of lifestyle.


Second, I now have way more energy. In order to increase my protein without increasing my fats, I ate way more fiber and starch, consuming about twice as many carbs than protein. This meant I was more able and willing to get up and get things done, which caused not only my dopamine "reward" systems to activate but also my oxytocin "relationship" systems to engage, because the things I'd get done had positive impact on my relationship with others. A lot of the fibrous and protein-rich foods also tend to have high amounts of B-vitamins (in addition to a B-Complex vitamin supplement) which engages the serotonin "mood" systems in my body. All of this meant my attitude toward cravings improved since I knew processed foods would throw off this chemical balance I've created for myself. I knew the temporary spike in sugars and fats from things like fast food and candy would cause a spike in my "reward" system, but would also negatively impact my "relationship" and "mood" systems, so I was able to convince myself - more often than not - to acknowledge a craving and decide not to indulge (which is really hard but I was more willing to make that hard choice by the end of this experiment).


Finally, I lost weight! Prior to this experiment, I wasn't exercising at all and maintained a fairly sedentary lifestyle. However, about halfway through the experiment, I was more willing to exercise and did slowly introduce myself to various cardio, strength, and mobility exercises, which did impact my calorie intake slightly. It turns out I have a "Basal Metabolic Rate", which is how many calories I need to burn to function at a resting state - about 1800 calories, give or take. With moderate activity, the amount of calories my body needed didn't increase all that much - about 2400 calories total. And since I was getting nearly that already, my "Total Energy Expenditure" was generally higher than my "Total Caloric Intake", and my body weight began to decrease, even as I was gaining a little bit more muscle and visibly losing fat. It was especially visible in my face, neck, and limbs, but eventually I began to see minimal changes to my waist and gut areas as I increased my physical activity.


(A lot of good information on this aspect of calorie to weight ratio is explained in the book, Burn, by Herman Pontzer, published March, 2021.)


CHANGE TO LIFESTYLE


I consider there to be seven elements to a lifestyle (or culture), but I'll be addressing only three specifically.


Structural Relationships. Food is integral to relationships. How we eat with people is often indicative of the kind of relationship we have with a person, or group of people. Since I work from home and spend nearly all my time with my wife (who is also my best friend and also works from home), the sharing of responsibilities related to food was a conversation we've had before and were open to having again. However, time I spent with others did mean I had to make conscious decisions about what kind of food I wanted to eat with different people, turning down certain offers for food, while indulging in other offers which I would occasionally do, but always with intention and willing to accept the bio-chemical consequences related to my "reward", "mood", and "relationship" systems. Ultimately, this aspect of my lifestyle was not adversely affected.


Government (Decision-Making). The decisions behind who, how, when, and why food is bought, prepared, cleaned, and stored is also a part of my lifestyle and, fortunately, I was already part of a fairly egalitarian household. The responsibilities related to food are decisions those in my household make together. Previously, cooking and cleaning were offset with one person cooking more and the other cleaning more. This balance shifted as decisions over food responsibilities shifted. As for the decisions made among other friends and family, the responsibility fell more on my own ability to govern myself as I had to decide which foods I wanted to eat, rather than allowing offers from others to make those decisions for me. I would consider this aspect of my lifestyle only slightly affected, and not adversely.


Customs and Traditions. Food is also a big part of a person's daily behaviors and ongoing (weekly, monthly, yearly) habits. I kept some daily food habits like brewed coffee with milk every morning, but a lot of other habits had to change. Making time to shop, prepare, clean, cook, and store food caused other habits to have to change. I could no longer work for hours on end to the point of obsession - I had to take more meaningful breaks to think about what I needed to eat and actively stop myself from simply eating store-bought, pre-packaged, high-processed foods so I could get back to my work more quickly. The time it takes to prepare meals and snacks that are easy to grab-and-go is time I have to dedicate elsewhere in my schedule in order to maintain my particular work schedule - this often meant less play time but also more efficient and prioritized work time. Additionally, adding exercise also affected how much time I had for work and play and impacted how much of different foods I needed to consume, even foods I previously had little interest in preparing or consuming (e.g. leafy greens). This aspect of my lifestyle was most significantly affected.


CONCLUSION


Tracking macro-nutrients was an intervention that raised my awareness of existing elements of my lifestyle and allowed me to make conscious decisions to make positive changes which I personally valued.


Prior to this experiment, I had concluded a separate (but related) six-month endeavor actively pursuing the opposite of the goals of this current experiment. That earlier endeavor allowed me to eat whatever, whenever, with no conscious focus on benefit or detraction. What I eventually found myself eating most often were simple sugar foods (little to no fiber or starch) which often overlapped with foods high in fats and oils, and protein being the lowest macro-nutrient being consumed. This allowed me to consume high amounts of calories without feeling overly full, which also allowed me to eat more of that kind of food in a day than I otherwise could have with a more diverse balance of carbs, proteins, and fats. Foods high in sugar, fats, and oils cause huge spikes in dopamine ("reward") systems which only further motivated my desire for that narrow range of foods. Without a balanced amount of protein to sugars/fats/oils, I had a reduced level of B-vitamin intake which negatively impacted my serotonin ("mood") systems, and subsequently my oxytocin ("relationship") systems, as I had less desire to engage in social engagements. I feel this is an important aspect of the current study as it highlights more clearly the impact intensity of the current experiment, related to diet and its impact on lifestyle.


Since the current experiment concluded, I stopped tracking macro-nutrients and have been able to maintain many of my new habits. For example, I've maintained a decreased dairy intake and increased legume intake while also consuming a majority of (up to) 2400 daily calories with a focus on a majority carbohydrate consumption including sugars, starches, and fibers. I believe the benefits from this informal experiment can continue without the "tracking" intervention in place, as long as I am able to:

(1) maintain a reasonable and adaptable balance of diet, exercise, work, and play; and

(2) maintain a ratio of more carbohydrates than protein and more protein than fat with a calorie limit of up to 2400 calories; and

(3) maintain a perspective that allows for the subtle and significant changes to my lifestyle to be folded into and guide how I approach new experiences and meet new people.


The purpose of this experiment was to see if changing what I eat would have significant changes to my lifestyle. Although some aspects of my lifestyle (relationships, decision-making, and customs) were individually impacted to varying degrees, I would not consider my lifestyle overall to have significantly changed.


IMPLICATIONS / FINAL THOUGHTS


Any implications or extrapolations of my conclusions must be in context of the personalized nature of this informal experiment I conducted on myself. There are many variables and limitations to address when engaging in changes to lifestyle and it is important that such changes are not made lightly or without proper preparation and discussions with those who may be most greatly impacted. It is highly recommended that experts in fields related to behavior, diet, exercise, and the like be consulted before making major life changes.


I personally consider my conclusions to be motivational in that that changes to a person's lifestyle can be made through the act of making dietary changes. I believe diet can be a remarkable entry point for a person looking to reflect on how change can occur in both body and mind.


From an education perspective, I would consider a person's willingness to engage in this experiment comparable to the willingness of a person willing to change some aspect of themselves, whether that means learning a concept or skill, or changing a habit or aspect of their lifestyle. As a classroom teacher, I view this capacity to tackle change in oneself to be a far greater capacity than a person's ability to recall and reproduce facts and procedures. I consider this informal experiment as a symptomatic feature of what I would call a Self-Directed approach to Schooling. By providing a person opportunity to explore and reflect on their capacity for change, we are allowing them to explore and develop their capacity to understand *how* they learn by understanding *how* they might be able to change. This directly connects to the kind of Growth Mindset approach to education that has become increasingly popular and is a concept I fully endorse.


If you are interested in these kinds of ideas, I encourage you to explore the rest of my blog posts here and visit the rest of my website for more information on Self-Directed Schooling.


[Image: tracked macro-nutrient data for this informal experiment on myself.]



Posted June 25th, 2021.


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