#38: The best diet advice and the best financial advice are the same
7th June, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that denies nothing.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that telling (yourself) a wiser story renders clever tactics redundant.
Diets don’t work for the same reason relationships with money are so screwed up: because selling magic beans is easier than editing life stories.
If you’re ever in the mood to really piss someone off, I know a fabulously reliable way, which I shall demonstrate with a little rant about dieting.
Empathy-inducing Emily (EE) is dining with Virtuous-bastard Ben (VB).
EE: ‘You’re so lucky. You don’t like dessert. I, however, have such a sweet tooth.’
VB: ‘You know that, biologically, there’s no such thing. I know you know, because I’ve told you before.’
EE: [grouchy mumbling; translation: ‘fuck you’]
VB: ‘I know nobody likes to hear that, but it’s true. And it’s also the key to understanding why diets basically never work, despite the “best” intentions of the dieter, especially the one that’s “tried everything” and concluded that they’re just one of the unlucky ones.’
VB: ‘For what it’s worth, once upon a time, I too believed I had a “sweet tooth”. Basically everybody does. Parents are suckers for shutting little bastards up by stuffing them and their malleable minds with sweets. And while those glucose-hungry prediction machines we lug around inside our skulls are pretty damn smart, a bit of them is still essentially a geriatric granddad raving away in the corner, living in a black-and-white world that’s still at war, and where sugar is still scarce.’
EE: [here-we-go-again eye-roll]
VB: ‘Eventually, however, I grew out of that belief. It wasn’t as easy to overwrite as some other infantile bullshit like being scared of strangers or an American-esque division of everything into “awesome” or “evil”, but eating is important, life is long, and I am lazy… so of all the things worth caring about, learning to like the sort of food the body actually wants made a pretty compelling case.’
VB: ‘A sweet tooth isn’t special; it’s just an addiction like any other: an unhelpful pattern of wiring that leads us to “choose” something to make the next 30 seconds easier at the expense of making everything after that 30 seconds harder. Did I mention that I’m lazy?’
EE: ‘You’re not la—'
VB: ‘The day it really sunk in that everything is a choice was the most wonderful day of my lazy-ass life. You’re right, in that it’s “lucky” to genuinely favour broccoli over banoffee pie, but you’re wrong that the luck has anything to do with my unconscious biology. Rather, it’s about conscious manipulation of my neuroplasticity (not that I had a damn clue what neuroplasticity was when I began exploiting it).’
VB: ‘I remember reading somewhere that if every time you thought about a certain food you could vividly conjure up the sight, smell, and taste of vomit, you’d very quickly not want to touch said food again. So I tried it. And it worked. Stupidly, I tested the theory on bananas, so had to undo it. But it was a lesson well-learned. I then started thinking about what else I could do with this new-found ability to very literally change my mind about stuff.’
EE: ‘That may be easy for you, but—'
VB: ‘You don’t overcome addictions by clicking your fingers, of course, but a few elimination diets here and there – experimenting with avoiding a particular suspect food for a day, then two days, then four days, then a week, two weeks, a month, etc. – leave far fewer scars than the psychological bloodbath that happens when your will, your guilt, and your addictions clash swords.’
VB: ‘The great thing, of course, is that you’re fighting your addictions, not your wants. You can’t win a fight with your wants, and nor would you, er, want to. If something’s genuinely good for you – if you do really ‘want’ it, then if you go without it for two months, when you eat it again, you’ll feel fab. If, however, it isn’t good for you, your energy will plummet and you’ll want to throw up. Feed me sugar now, and within a minute, I’ll do a good impression of a ghost who’s been socked in the stomach by an angry bear.’
EE: ‘Like that time in Morocco—’
VB: ‘Precisely. If I really “wanted” the sweet things still, I’d’ve reacted just fine. The better you are at remembering such reactions the next time a craving arises, and consequently acknowledging them without acting on them, the quicker those cravings will simply stop arising. Took between a couple of weeks and a couple of years for me, depending on the food, but they’re all gone now.’
VB: ‘Whichever one of the infinite ways of exploiting it you pick, the main point is that you can’t win a battle that never ends. Diets based on denial not only don’t work, but cannot work. Yes, you can summon up enough will – or environment-controlling psychological tricks – such that you never eat granulated poison again, but a) you’ll probably crash almost on schedule, and b) even if you don’t, the demands of the denying will ensure it’s no damn fun along the way.’
VB: ‘If you never change the story you tell yourself that you have a “sweet tooth” then however long your diet lasts – however “well” it goes – it won’t work. Because it turns life into a constant fight that’s so hellishly fatiguing that you’ll be making dumb-ass decisions all over the place. Having to “deny” yourself every time you’re presented with dessert, because you still believe it’s what you “want” is no way to live. Far better to just align what you believe you want with what you actually do. This is the only way that really works.’
The moral: the same is true of the bullshit stories we tell ourselves about money. This is why cravings for the ‘just tell me what to do’ answer, from the ‘I want money so I don’t have to think about money’ crowd are so sodding stupid. Because however ‘well’ you can kid yourself they ‘work’, your story remains in need of a damn good edit, and given you are your story – your centre of narrative gravity – it is the quality of your story that determines the quality of your life, not your capacity for joyless constant cognitive discipline.