Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 23

Intelligent Dietary Defaults

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. Today I'm going to talk about Intelligent Culinary Defaults. Or I guess, intelligent dietary defaults, would be a better name for it. Culinary means cooking, and this doesn't necessarily have to do with cooking. It does sound better though. The idea is, you take this concept from the computer world, of a default setting, of a reasonable, useful user preference that's set out of the box. Users can override this setting if they want to, but they often won't because it makes a good amount of sense for most people in most cases. And you apply this concept of the intelligent default it to what you eat. Intelligent in the case of diet, is presumably something healthy, though there are other goods besides mere health, that you can also take into account -- like cost, convenience, taste, variety. An intelligent default is a default that balances these concerns well.

There's an analogy from government policy that I think is useful here. And I think it was inspired by the computer defaults too. There's this movement called soft paternalism. The idea is, instead of forcing people to do what is best for them (this would be hard paternalism), like putting money in their retirement accounts, you keep it optional like it is now, but you make the smart thing -- putting a bunch of money into the retirement account instead of nothing -- the default. Historically the default has been pretty dumb. People had to explicitly choose to put money in or nothing went in. Making the default smart, doesn't deprive them of any freedom, they're still just as free to override the default, it just makes the choice of not choosing (which most people, sadly, opt for) a better one. There is always a default, why not make it a good one?

So this is a powerful idea, not just with computers. How does it work with diet?

When we actively think, most of us are capable of making good dietary decisions. But most of the time we're being harried by a million external pressures, diet is pretty low down on our list of concerns, and we unthinkingly reach for whatever is most convenient -- which tends to be horrible. This unthinking reflex eating is more or less a fact of life. We can try to eat more mindfully, but to some extent it's hopeless. A smarter thing to do would be to make it so that the convenient thing we unthinkingly reach for -- the default -- is reasonably healthy.

The trick to making this work is to accept the fact that you're going to have to compromise between competing concerns. The healthiest things are in many cases not terribly convenient, or cheap enough for routine consumption, or you may find them utterly disgusting. The other trick is not to force yourself into eating this stuff every time. Default doesn't mean obligatory. It just means what you do when nothing better comes along. And better doesn't have to be healthier, it can be socially better, like a group lunch, or gastronomically better, like a delicious meal at a fancy restaurant. The default is when you are in an unthinking rush -- which is a lot of the time, for most of us. It's enough to make a significant difference. Not least because our existing default foods tends to be HORRIBLE -- fast food, cheap, convenient and not at all healthy.

I'm going to talk about one particular intelligent default that's been working well for me for years, I call it "optimize your oatmeal." Optimize is another computery term. And on one level, it's meaning is obvious, "to make better." But it also has the connotation of "optimize for what?" There's this implied question. And there's a whole science of optimization that has to do with managing and balancing competing concerns. I think optimize your oatmeal does this rather brilliantly. And I'll get into that in a minute. Let me just explain quickly what it is exactly that I do.

For one thing, I eat my "optimized: oatmeal for lunch at work, not breakfast. I'll get into why in a moment. It's rolled oats, not instant, but the way I prepare it is more or less instant. I pour some oatmeal in a bowl, mix in some kind of nuts, some kind of seeds, and some kind of dried fruits. Then I go to the hot water water spigot by the coffee machine and cover it with hot water. By the time I'm back at my desk it's ready to eat. The oats don't really cook much. They just get sort of warmed up and a little softened. I like them this way. It gives you something to bite on. In fact the kind of oatmeal I buy, "Old Wessex Scottish style oats," advertises itself as "chewy chewy chewy" on the box. And I buy it for that reason. Other varieties of rolled oats don't necessarily stay chewy enough for me, even with this very mild warming up.

OK, first off, this is quick. Most of the prep time is walking back and forth to the hot water spigot. It's so quick in fact that I have a good 45 minutes left over on my lunch break to walk around outside and practice my urban ranger system. It's convenient. I don't have to store anything in the nasty communal refrigerator at work. All the ingredients are dry, I can buy them way in advance, and store them in a drawer at my desk. I don't even have to use the nasty communal microwave, cause it's just the hot water spigot. The reason I eat this for lunch at work rather than home is because at home I've got all these great resources: a non nasty communal refrigerator (well, it's kind of nasty, but it's my own nastiness at least), an oven, pots pans. I might as well save the resource intensive eating (which I do like) for when I actually have these resources, and the quick convenient stuff for when I don't.

Oatmeal is cheap. They feed this stuff to horses. Oatmeal is horse food. I mean that's cheaper than cat food. Yes, the dried fruits and nuts can add up, but we're still talking less than a dollar a day for lunch.

Oatmeal is healthy. It's whole grain. It's relatively unprocessed. I guess the steel cut kind would be better, but it loses too many points on convenience. I tried it. I tends to explode in the microwave, which does not make you popular with the communal kitchen crowd. Dried fruit may not be as healthy as fresh fruit, but hey, it's still fruit. And I have plenty of fresh fruit with other meals.

Oatmeal with seeds, nuts, and dried fruit tastes reasonably good. It's not the most delicious thing in the world, but it's OK. Yes, it would taste better if I cooked it properly in a pot and poured in some cream or slathered it with butter, but again, consider the convenience. Does it get too monotonous? Not if you vary the fruits, seeds, and nuts, which I do. If you have a trader joes near you, they are fantastic for this. Get Blenheim variety apricots, if you do. They're much tarter than ordinary dried apricots, which can be sickly sweet, to my taste. And dried gooseberries are another unusual nice and tart fruit you can find at trader joes.

Oatmeal is filling. It's like eating cement. The first time you prepare oatmeal like this you won't be able to finish it because you'll have made too much. No S dieters in particular pay attention here: if you eat oatmeal for lunch, you will not be hungry until dinner time.

Well, I think that's it. That's all the factors there are to consider and balance. I have some other intelligent dietary defaults but this is my most regular and important.

One thing I'd like to say before signing off. There's a saying in the computer world that "premature optimization is the root of all evil." In other words, don't start optimizing until you have a good sense of the problem, until your program more or less does what it's supposed to, or you're going to waste massive effort on relatively insignificant details. Right? Get it good before you worry about better or best. In the case of diet, the issue of excessive eating, pure and simple, is the giant heart of the problem, and you shouldn't let fine tuning like this distract you from that. No S Diet first, or your preferred equivalent for managing excess, then intelligent defaults and optimization, maybe.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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