Reinhard Engels – The No S Diet

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Jonathan: Hey, everyone, it’s Jonathan Bailor with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Today is a great show because we have someone who really has a special place in my heart for two reasons. One, he was one of the original, let’s call it, collaborators on the early, early version of The Smarter Science of Slim, gave me the time of day when few people did, and so for that, much love; but also shares my sentiment for simplicity, and is also a software engineer by trade.

He is a software engineer based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts; worked at MIT, now is over at Harvard. His name is Reinhard Engels, and he is also the author of a wildly popular diet book, but I think we’ll learn it’s not really a diet. It’s called the No S Diet. And he just said, “Hey, engineering can be applied to any area of life, why not apply it to eating and exercise?”

And I, to that, say, Reinhard, I love it. Welcome to the show.

Reinhard: Thank you very much. I really appreciate being on here.

Jonathan: Reinhard, just to back up, from the very get, people might say, “What in gosh name is a software engineer doing writing a diet book?”

Reinhard: It started off as an attempt to solve a personal problem. This was back in, I think, late 2001 that I first got this idea. I tended to be overweight most of my life, and I love food. And sort of traditional off-the-shelf diet programs that involved restricting whole categories of food or requiring you to be sort of a full-time calorie accountant, they just did not seem acceptable to me. I think I would have rather just stayed overweight than resort to that.

I came up with a sort of jokey little mantra that I call the No S Diet, which is no snacks, no sweets, no seconds except on days that start with S, so Saturday, Sunday, and special days like holidays. I actually came up with the rules before I came up with the exception, and my wife was the one who came up with the exception. I was very thrilled that, wow, I have no snacks, no sweets, no seconds; I tried this for just like a week.

I was amazed that, a, it was surprisingly not difficult, and, b, I actually sort of saw results right away. Then I sort of despaired because I was like, All right, there’s no way I’m ever not going to be able to have a sweet again.

So my wife suggested, Well, you have this first half of this jokey system, why not make a jokey exception, except on days that start with S. That’s really what transformed it from something that could last for a few weeks to something that has now lasted well over a decade for me, and I think it’s going to last for the rest of my life.

Jonathan: Reinhard, why do you think this is? You have some wonderful sentiments; I would very much encourage folks to check out your website, which is nosdiet.com. You have some wonderful let’s call them talking points about your various thoughts on the traditional diet industry. One of the favorite things you have that I would love to talk about is you say, “Is there any scientific evidence that this diet works?” and then you write, “Absolutely none, but I’m not aware that I have any competition in this regard.”

Reinhard: Yes, it’s a funny thing. There’s so much pseudoscience sort of floating around out there, too. I like to think what perhaps is different about my system is that I don’t pretend there’s a whole lot of science behind it. Actually, at first, it took me a little while because it sort of started out as a joke. I mean, it sounds sort of ridiculous this sort of mantra could possibly be effective.

I was surprised that it worked for me. So being a software engineer, I put up a website. At the time, the website was very short when it started, but I started getting comments from people like, “Hey, this is working for me,” or, “Hey, like what do you mean by a snack?” or something. Or, “Does this count as a sweet?” I started responding to these and building out the website, and it sort of turned into a kind of essay now.

The initial, tiny little mantra now has several pages of exposition on there. And it kept taking off. I kept on getting… I added a bulletin board and started doing a podcast myself. Eventually I got offered this book deal in 2008 with a reputable publisher I’d actually heard of. So one thing just sort of led to another, and that is how this software engineer with no special credentials in this field wound up publishing a diet book.

Jonathan: Well, the thing that I think actually fits perfectly with engineering is in the field of engineering, my perception is results matter a lot. I know that sounds stupid, but if you build a bridge and it falls down, that’s a problem. If you build a piece of software and it doesn’t boot, that’s a problem.

However, for example, a physician can tell you to do something and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter, right? So I think engineering is actually a really interesting field to look at when thinking about how to design systems, as you call them, that we can maintain for the rest of our lives.

Reinhard: It’s interesting that you mention results too, because I think that a lot of times people get fixated on the wrong kinds of results. Like, for example, I find very quickly with diet, people are fixated on immediate losses. They sit there and they stare at the scale in the morning and they stare at the scale at the evening, and they are distraught if there is some unaccountable difference there.

What I recommend instead is to really just focus on, my favorite metric is days on habit or, even better, years on habit to try to build these strong habits over a long course of time. Focus on that as your primary metric rather than the weight-loss results you achieve. Not because those aren’t important, but because the behavior is primary, and it’s something that’s directly within your control.

I even like to frame the problem a little differently than it tends to be framed. People often come to diet and exercise and they think, My problem is I’m overweight. I like to sort of break that apart and turn it into behavioral problems, two problems: One, I overeat, that’s one problem; and the other problem is, I don’t move enough, I don’t exert myself enough. When you look at it that way, these are problems that are guaranteed to be soluble.

No matter what your genetic disposition, you don’t have to overeat. You don’t have to not move. So I think that’s very encouraging for people to focus on that. I think motivation is the big problem for both of these fields, and lots of other fields of self-improvement, and so I like to keep the focus on behavior.

Jonathan: I like how you also keep the focus on… And this is a corollary to behavior, but the focus on the ability to stick with something. This is referred to popularly as lifestyle change, but that word has become so flaccid. No one really… “lifestyle change,” just throw it out; goodness, it’s like it means nothing.

What you explain so well is that the data is clear that 95%-plus of dieters “fail,” and in some ways, studies consistently show that if you stick to any conscious way of eating, that it is healthy. Even a little bit, that is the key, just finding a system that works and sticking to it.

Reinhard: Right. That’s exactly the part of the problem that I’m focusing on, which is not how do I maximize the effectiveness of whatever caloric intake that I’m doing, but how do I get myself to actually continue to practice these good behaviors over time. Psychologically, what kind of structures can I set up to make it easy for me to succeed and hard for me to fail.

Jonathan: What have you found? This resonates with me so much not only in the, let’s say, personal-lifestyle arena but also in the professional arena. I’m sure you’ve noticed this in the diet-and-exercise arena. It’s very easy to talk and to get hung up on, Let’s just argue about approaches.

Same thing even in the work environment; we might have meetings and we might discuss work we want to do, but when it comes to actually doing it, when it comes to actually choosing what we put in our mouth and how we move our body, and when it comes to actually doing work, that is the more challenging part. In many ways, that’s the part we need to focus on, not who is right or wrong, but what is right for us that we can actually do. How do we do that? What are some of those systems?

Reinhard: One thing that I think is very critical and a big stumbling block for people is – you may be familiar with this quote, it’s a great piece of wisdom in the software world. “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.” I think it was Donald Knuth who came up with this. It basically means don’t focus on the fine-tuning until you’ve solved the basic problem. It’s another way of expressing that sort of famous 80% solution, except with emphasis on the risks.

When you look at the problem, for example, of overeating and you start fixating on sort of little details, little tiny optimizations like, “Oh, if I eat 18 times a day and my metabolism is like slightly tweaked, or if I get this many antioxidants, that will be optimum.” You can even hear it in a lot of the titles, sort of optimum well-being. You don’t need optimum, you need good enough, you need the 80% solution.

That part of the problem for most of us is sheer quantity, the sheer mass of food that we are taking in. On the other end is just a giant lack of exertion on the physical end. If you step back, don’t get into these little religious wars about antioxidants or different biochemicals; stick with these big behavioral issues. That will solve 80% of the problem.
And then if you want to, you can go and optimize. You can optimize once you’ve solved the basic problem, but don’t be distracted from the basic problem by these arcane discussions about how to go from good to perfect.

Jonathan: Reinhard, one thing you mention that I really, really like is having these systems and rules in place so that the actual execution is simpler. What I’m wondering is a lot of people have found, at least in my experience – and the scientific literature seems to back this up – that if we eat certain types of food, it’s much easier to overeat than if we eat other types of it.

It’s well established that different sources of calories have different satiety responses both in our gut as well as in our brain. Certainly you mention overconsumption as a problem. What do you think about overconsumption being a symptom of a deeper problem, which is the type of food you’re eating? A simple example… again this is ridiculous, but just to illustrate the point. If all you were to eat is spinach, it is physically impossible to overconsume that food. Your stomach would explode.

Reinhard: I think there’s certainly an element of truth to it. My question is how practical is that truth? What I like to focus on rather than the stuff that you’re eating – not because it’s unimportant – is the structure. What is the pattern that you’re eating?

To me, the biggest change in our diet is not the stuff that we’re eating but that we no longer eat meals; that we’re sort of constantly perma-snacking.
This is historically very weird, strange behavior. It’s very novel, and I’m sort of surprised at how little play this gets.

There’s actually a wonderful study by David Cutler at Harvard called, Why Have Americans Become More Obese, where he gives data showing that 90% of the increase in caloric intake in the United States since the ‘70s – so basically the whole obesity epidemic – has come from snacking. In women, it’s over 100%, because calories from meals have actually gone down. So you can look at this as sort of a “stuff” problem; yes, people are snacking on bad kinds of foods.

I prefer to look at it as a structural problem, when are people eating, and how to fix that. Then the “stuff” problem will fix itself. Because when you have these limited input opportunities, it forces you to take them seriously. You’ve got only three chances a day to eat each meal right, and so you’re not going to blow it on something ridiculous because you’re not going to tell yourself, “Oh, I’m going to eat this pizza and Big Mac with nary a vegetable in sight, because I can make up for it later with healthy snacks,” or something. The problems that you mentioned, I do think they are real, but I think you can address them as a side effect of attacking the structural problem, which I think is primary.

Jonathan: I can certainly see how, being a software engineer myself, this perma-snacking, as you described it, is certainly endemic of professions where you sit at a computer all day long. I’m curious to get your thoughts on this. Oftentimes, people think that someone who has a very, very desk-based job is gaining weight because they’re sitting all day.

My observation is actually that those types of jobs seem to lend themselves to exactly what you described which, of course, you’re sitting every day, and that’s fine. But if we actually look at surveys across the country in terms of, for example, manual laborers who are not sitting all the time, in fact the opposite is true; they have no less incidence of obesity than desk workers. The difference seems to be that there is this, let’s call it, Mountain Dew and chips problem, where you just drink Mountain Dew and eat chips all day.

What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that because of your background in engineering you saw that, for example, this elimination of snacking at the desk – which in my own experience in engineering is a big problem – makes such a big difference? The question is basically, how much do you think your background as an engineer influenced that particular take on solving this problem?

Reinhard: I think the term I like to use for this kind of practical approach to self-help, I call it habit engineering. Basically, as with my code, I try to reduce a problem to a few simple, clear principles and get rid of everything extraneous. I think that aspect has certainly helped. I have to admit when I first thought of the No S Diet, it was a bit of serendipity. I just sort of stumbled onto this thing and then thought long and hard about why the hell this was so effective, though it kind of was backwards.

Jonathan: That would be my intuition as well. If I just look at the people around me, for example, when I’m in my engineering profession, you’re very correct that there are two ways to approach this. One is to say focus on food quality. The other is what I hear you saying, which is focus on the eating occasions that seem to lend themselves to horrific sources of calories.

And that is this constant desk-based, unconscious snacking. If you were to just eliminate that and you were to focus on your meals, meal-based foods, for lack of better terms, are naturally higher quality and less fattening than these snack foods by definition, right? We all know that.

Reinhard: Right, right. One of the reasons that snacking was not endemic formerly is because, yes, you could eat a carrot or an apple, but who really wants to, right? The reason you snack is because you want to eat the Chitos or the bars or whatever. At meals, you are going to feel ridiculous, you know, putting a plate of Chitos on your plate or something.

There is that sort of spotlight that each meal has, which I think will – and I have experienced, and people report this – adequately address this issue of nutrition. Although what’s nice about the No S Diet is that you can easily overlay it if you feel the need. Like, you know what, if you are concerned about whatever antioxidants or I don’t know what, you can easily overlay that with the No S Diet. You can do No S Vegan, you can do No S Low-Carb. I personally don’t find it that necessary. But if for whatever reason maybe it does work for you, it’s very compatible with pretty much every other diet out there as well.

Jonathan: I’m so glad you brought that up. What you have set up, it is a system. It is if you approach eating this way. You are in many ways ignoring the inputs and you’re just saying, For whatever input you’re going to give me, if you consume them in this pattern or in this structure, there’s a good chance you will be even more successful.

Reinhard: Yes. It has another wonderful side. It’s funny, because it’s almost like the best thing about this is all these weird side effects, which are not like directly correlated with or whatever involved with weight loss, which is the reason most people come to the No S Diet.

But then they report, you know, I’m actually eating healthier in terms of quality. I’m actually gastronomically eating better. I enjoy my food more. For people who like to eat, and presumably most of us who are overweight are in that category, this is a huge boon.

A lot of people, it’s almost like the sort of hellish torment that we have because we love eating, yet we can’t enjoy the food because we feel so guilty and disgusted at the fact that we’re overeating. Once you get that under control, it’s a fantastic benefit to realize, Wow, I actually enjoy this now. I can go in with a clear conscience. It’s Saturday, I can have this delightful whatever, chocolate mousse truffle thing, and it’s fine. Whereas before, even though you might have eaten that kind of thing a lot frequently, you never really enjoyed it.

Jonathan: I love that, I love that: Psychological side effects. I’m curious, speaking of psychology, Reinhard, both of us are engineers so maybe genetically we look at things extremely logically and, at least for myself, can sometimes need to over-index on the emotional side, because I would naturally just be like Spock logic. You have a heading on your webpage, which is nosdiet.com, and I’ve certainly gotten this question, and you frame it as, in this sense: Please tell me EXACTLY, in all caps, every single food I can and can’t eat! Can you tell people exactly?

Reinhard: Right. It’s amazing, and despite this, I still get asked this all the time. I think this is exactly the premature-optimization thing. What the No S Diet does… Where this particularly comes up is also the No Sweets rule. You’ll notice it’s not No Sugar.

There’s a sort of subtle but important distinction there, because no sugar can become complicated very quickly; you start having to check ingredients and so on. But No Sweets, something that tastes sweet enough for it to register as a sweet, I call this the dessert test.

If it’s sweet enough to count as dessert, it’s a sweet, avoid it. Instead of focusing on all these borderline cases, just focus on the really egregious offenders, and that will probably be enough to solve your problem. If it’s not, you can always move further from there. Get that down first. That’s what these rules try to help you do. I try to insert a little humor around it to help you sort of laugh at yourself for the ridiculous excuses you’re going to come up with not to do this.

Jonathan: This section of your website really, for me, hit home, the complementary nature of our respective messages. One is my message of approaching it first from if you focus on what you eat, overeating can potentially take care of itself; and you focusing more on if you control how you eat, overeating can take care of itself. If you overlay them both on top of each other so you’re conscious about how you’re eating, you’re not just unconsciously putting food into your face, and you also put some thought into what you’re eating within that system, might you get the best of both worlds?

Reinhard: Absolutely. I have to admit I don’t have rules that specifically address nutrition. To me, they are sort of taken care of adequately as a side effect. But certainly, there is no reason you couldn’t combine them both and, as you mentioned, that might take you to the next level. There’s different psychologies out there.

Jonathan: Reinhard, one of the things I love about the No S Diet structure is the sentiment that meals naturally afford, for lack of better terms, let’s call them saner eating choices. The question though, is if you look at grade-school children, for example, or the up-and-comers or people under 18 right now, I don’t know if this has been your observation, but it seems that a totally reasonable breakfast is Pop Tarts and/or sweetened cereal, totally reasonable. A totally reasonable lunch is a hamburger and French fries. And a totally reasonable dinner is pizza. That’s three meals, no snacking, no sweets. What do we say to those people?

Reinhardt: I’d say it’s possible to game this system. You can go and you can eat that kind of meal every day. Then if you come to me and say, “Hey, why isn’t it working?” I’m going to say, “Come on, that’s ridiculous.” I think that the biggest problem people have is not these tremendously obvious things. The biggest problem people have is the self-deception. It’s that they manage to fool themselves into thinking like, “I don’t understand. I have been eating these healthy snacks and whatever, why am I getting so heavy?”

What this does is provide sort of a shortcut to make any excess very obvious. For example, if you’re eating like that, duh. You know why you’re overweight. But if you were, let’s say, eating healthier than that but you were allowing yourself snacks, sweets, and seconds, it can be easy to sort of be surprised like, “Whoa, I don’t understand. How did this all creep in?” If you limit it, then, to these three meals with the No Sweets provision, the No Seconds provision, so essentially three plates, you force yourself to visually confront everything you’re going eat.

When you do that, your eyes are actually pretty good at eyeballing excess; at least they will become so once you’ve trained yourself a little bit about this. If you eat a lot, it’s going to look like a lot. And then it kind of… it’s embarrassing, it’s uncomfortable. Even if there’s no one around, you feel sort of like, This is a lot of food. And that sort of gentle pressure will be enough, I’ve found, to whittle down your portions and to boost them qualitatively over time.
Jonathan: Reinhard, that is just excellent. Because I think the real key, the thing that I really like about your approach, is studies consistently show that with calorie-counting, which we both despise, if it is effective, the reason it’s effective is just because it makes you think about what you’re eating.

So if you are going at the office to grab a cupcake just randomly and eat it while you walk to a meeting, you won’t do that or you will feel guilt for doing it because you’re like, Okay, now I have to write that down. In many ways, I see the No S Diet as a much simpler, sustainable, reasonable way to just make yourself conscious about your eating choices rather than having to carry around a calculator all day.

Reinhard: Yes, that’s really what it is, and it’s a way to do it as unobtrusively as possible. You can sort of fit this as easily as possible into your existing routines. It’s not going to be like every time you visit someone, go over for dinner, that you have to have a separate meal or something.

You have continued… in fact, it encourages social meals because it’s meal-based. All you have to keep track of is what day is it today and how many meals have I had. So it’s a kind of a good-enough shortcut to controlling excess and nudging you towards better nutritional and gastronomic choices.

Jonathan: Folks, if you have the opportunity, which I would highly encourage you to dig more into Reinhard’s work, which the book is The No S Diet and the website has the same name, nosdiet.com. One thing that he does very well, which I appreciate, is distilling things down to as simple as they can be, adding some levity to the subject, and also sometimes shining a light on things like, as Reinhard mentioned earlier, this premature optimization, or sometimes we can all get a little wrapped around the axle focusing on things that really don’t matter if we take a step back.

A good example of this, Reinhard, which I would love to close on, is you have this awesome question on your website which, if you don’t mind, I’m going to share. It is: What if I’m an idiot and insist on following the letter of the law but breaking in spirit by, say, eating a gallon of ice cream every S day and counting my second cousin’s hamster’s birthday as an S day, what do I do then?

Reinhard: Yes. Again the point is if you make excess obvious, if you do that. People aren’t really going to do it, it’s sort of a rhetorical question. Because people I don’t think are going to be surprised, if they do that, that they’re not losing weight. This is the sort of thing people pick at when they are sort of intellectually evaluating the system without taking human nature into account.

Jonathan: That is such a key, is that I’ve noticed the longer I’ve been in this field that it’s that intellectualization of some of this stuff. It can seem so complex when we, for lack of better terms, let it become complex. As you outlined here through these systems, it’s very simple systems you can put in place about when you eat. When I talk about what you eat, it becoming complex seems like it’s really a choice. What do you think about that?

Reinhard: I think complexity is a negative, you really want to avoid it. It’s like the tax system, you know, having this complex tax system that theoretically is just but is so complex that there are all kinds of ways to scam it. You have the same kind of thing with self-improvement systems. Plus, just the cost of compliance.

Even if you are doing this tax system correctly, this complex self-improvement system correctly, the cost of complying with these rules is so high that it’s unsustainable. For most of us, we don’t have a whole lot of extra bandwidth to devote to this. A lot of us think we do. When we’re evaluating some diet, we’re like, “Oh, this is so exciting. I can’t wait to like set up an Excel spreadsheet and track like five different metrics about my physical performance.” That is fun for like three weeks, maybe tops. And then it becomes a chore and then people just give it up.

Jonathan: I love it, I love it. Well, Reinhard, what’s next for you? You’ve got quite an interesting dual life here. What’s next? Are we going to see you in some spandex in a workout video or what?

Reinhard: You could see me in my pajamas in a workout video. I have, actually, a couple of exercise-related systems as well, the more notable of which is something I call Shovelglove, which is a workout that you perform in your living room, not necessarily in your pajamas, but if you chose, using a sledgehammer. You mimic kind of traditional manual-labor movements, shoveling and driving fenceposts. I think there are about ten canonical movements, as I call them, that I have posted video of on my website.

The idea is, as with the No S Diet, it taps into the psychological part of the problem to kind of turn it into something that’s sort of fun, something you kind of look forward to, as opposed to something that you dread, and to optimize it for habitualization.
Instead of focusing on… I happen to think that swinging around a sledgehammer is awesome exercise, but that is almost secondary to the psychology of it. The most important part of that is just the timing, the temporal aspect of it.

I used the same sort of weekday-S day versus non-S day – or N day as I call it – dichotomy to divide when you should exercise. So every week day except on holidays, except on S days, I do Shovelglove for 14 minutes. That’s also significant, because 14 is one minute less than the smallest unit of schedualistically significant time, right?

You never have a meeting that starts at like 9:05 or 9:14, right? You know it’s always… 15 minutes is the smallest increment. That is sort of a humorous reminder, when you try to come up with some excuse to get out of this, of how ridiculous you’re being.

Jonathan: I love it.

Reinhard: I think you could swap out the sledgehammer part for other kinds of exercises. There was recently this article in the New York Times about a seven-minute workout, right, just doing body-weight exercises that supposedly is very effective. That sounds promising, and I’m all for body-weight exercises.

When I travel and can’t take around my sledgehammer on the airplane, I will do pushups and so on. What’s lacking there is sort of the fun part of it. Because everyone thinks, “Oh, yeah, I can torture myself for seven minutes every day, that’s no problem.” But it turns out it is a problem. So having the actual movements be somewhat fun is important as well.

Jonathan: Reinhard, where can individuals learn more about Shovelglove?

Reinhard: Shovelglove.com. It’s all one word, shovel and glove. The story about why it has that somewhat strange name, you can read all about it there.

Jonathan: I love it. Well, Reinhard, thank you so much for joining us. Folks, again, his name is Reinhard Engels, and the book we talked mostly about today is The No S Diet, which also has his Shovelglove, as we have been talking about now. You can learn more about his approach to eating and also learn a bit more about his approach to life in general. He’s got a lot of cool stuff at nosdiet.com. Reinhard, thank you so much for joining us today.

Reinhard: Jonathan, thank you so much for having me on the show.

Jonathan: Folks, I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation as much as I did. Another awesome look at the diversity of options out there and really us each finding something that works with our minds, with our lifestyles, and with our bodies. No shortage of information; we’ve just got to take that action. So remember, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon. Reinhard, thank you so much, that was wonderful.

Reinhard: Thank you. I sort of rambled a bit at times but thank you. I really enjoyed it.

Jonathan: My pleasure, and Reinhard, is there any time in particular when sharing this show… and of course, we’ll just provide a link to the mp3. You can do with it whatever you want. We’d encourage you to put it on your site, share it, it’s yours.

Reinhard: Absolutely.

Jonathan: Is there a time that would be more helpful, or are you flexible?

Reinhard: I’m flexible, anytime, whatever’s convenient for you.

Jonathan: Okay. Great. Thank you so much, Reinhard. And I was also just going to mention as well, I don’t know if you know, but I have the sequel of the Smarter Science of Slim, which you took a look at, coming out. And I would love to get you an advance review copy if you are at all interested.

Reinhard: Yes, definitely. That would be great, thank you.

Jonathan: Cool. What address would you like it sent to?

Reinhard: I can email this to you, maybe it’s easier.

Jonathan: That would be great, and I’ll mention that in my email. If you want a digital copy, that’s fine too, but either way we can make it work.

Reinhard: Excellent.

Jonathan: Awesome. Well, Reinhard, thank you so much and have a great rest of your week, okay?

Reinhard: You too. Bye.