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Observability and Iteration in Nutrition

For the last four years I was lucky to be coached and trained by Trevor Toy, a great friend and the best Personal Trainer I’ve worked with. I wanted to share with you one of the most important lessons he taught me.

Although most of our time was spent together in the gym, this lesson was about…how to relate to food. It was particularly striking to me, because what he taught me was similar to the kinds of stuff I already shared about in Software Engineering. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

We are seldom conscious about what we eat. When we are, it’s often because we’re on a diet. And to the average dieter, this translates to feeling hungry all the time.

A sufficiently determined person can deal with that feeling for a while. If you are an athlete and have a competition ahead for example, there’s no end to what you’ll do to reach your target weight. But for the majority, this feeling predetermines failure.


Because our weight isn’t the only priority in our life. If you’re feeling hungry all the time your mood is affected, and it’s likely that you experience periods of low energy throughout the day. If you’re focused on performance in any other area of your life, you’ll notice detrimental effects immediately. Now you have a choice to make: continue your diet and sacrifice your other priorities, or sacrifice your diet and deliver on your other priorities?

For me, this was never a choice. I looked at my work as my art, and I couldn’t sustain anything that I believed would lead me to perform poorly. This often lead to scenarios like this: I start dieting, and within days I notice my cognitive ability decline in the middle of the day. One too many days, and I would resort to what I knew would work — if I just had some sugar right then, I knew I could continue performing. Goodbye diet, hello micro kitchen [1].

Within the problem lies the seed for the solution. Why did I go for the sugar?

Because the sugar had purpose for me. It was a muddled purpose: a combination of stress-relief, with a certainty that it would help me perform for the next few hours. But, purpose it was. And that’s the key phrase.

Trevor showed me that the only time I looked for purpose in food was when I was making mistakes. But in reality, everything you eat throughout the day serves a purpose. For the practitioner on the path to advanced fitness, the main purpose of food is to give you ample energy throughout the day.**

So Trevor challenged me to expand my view and start to look at all the food I ate, and seek their purpose. By unraveling that, I could begin to address root causes.

So, how do you find it?

In the beginning we’re rarely aware of what we eat. We need to bring that to the forefront, and add observability. Just as an in Software Engineering, this usually means logging.

tail -f mfp

As you log what you eat, it’s time to look at the output: how are you performing and feeling throughout the day?

The key insight to ingrain as you go through this, is that feeling tired or sluggish is not the natural consequence of eating healthy. As soon as this happens, it’s time to analyze why. When did you last eat? What was the nutrient breakdown of what you ate? How many calories have you had so far? How does this day compare to a different day where you felt better? What’s changed?

All of a sudden, you’ll come across realization after realization. You’ll notice foods that help you feel more full. You may end up eating an apple right before a workout, and notice the difference that it made to your performance in the gym. Bam, that’s very valuable information.

The best way to systematize these wins, is to have a cadence where you identify novelty, address it, and integrate it back into your diet. A sort-of weekly review certainly helps. Of course this may already sound familiar — it is one of the best ways to prevent outages from recurring in Software Engineering!

A common counterpoint with what I’ve written, is that it seems like a reduction to look at food solely for nutrition. What about the pleasure of experiencing the works of a great chef?

I think there’s validity here, but the ideal of this vision is often at odds with reality. How many times does one experience such gastronomical delight? If they experienced it daily, would it have any meaning that point? Unless delight was the highest priority, what would people do when second-order effects materialized, and interfered with what’s most important in their lives?

I’d argue that for the average day, the purpose must lie in nutrition. The more you do this, the more you begin to enjoy the simple, clean elements that make up your meals. And for the occasional meal for the enjoyment — as long as it’s planned — can be made to work with your goals.

The more you continue on this journey, the more surprises you’ll find. For example, you’ll realize much of the unhealthy food serves for neither nutrition or enjoyment. For example, what’s the purpose of a drink at a party? Though it’s a lubricant for some, for me I realized, it was simply to “hold something in my hands in a relatable way”, while I socialized with others.

After every iteration, you’ll work out solutions that help you address the real problems your choices are trying to address. The more aware you become, the more your relationship with food changes. It stops being a hinderance, and reverses into an enabler: Now, you have the awareness to use nutrition to help you perform at your best.

Thanks to Trevor Toy, Daniel Woelfel, Joe Averbukh for reviewing drafts of this essay

Note: This kind of iterative cycle is exactly what we're doing with consistent. The cohort is now closed and we're iterating, but feel free to sign up on the waitlist -- based on what we learn we may open future cohorts!

Thoughts? Reach out to me via twitter or email : )