#78: How to lose 2 1/2 stone in 6 months: an intro to the best non-fiction book I've ever read
14th March, 2022
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter's 18-month-anniversary special! This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that, with the right intention and attention, brains wired for mindless consumption can be rewired.
Because it’s often easier to get to the wallet-brain through the stomach-brain (because we can’t as easily hide from the effects of eating like an idiot as we can from earning and spending like one?), because it’s this newsletter’s 18-month anniversary, and because it’s just more fun than diving into the deep-and-meaningfuls every week, herewith a hopefully mind-expanding story about expanding one’s waistline in Vegas with a not-very-subtle application to why we fail to make more of the money in our lives.
My stomach is an idiot. I’m sure it means well, but then so do enthusiastic but untrained folk performing CPR.
Given half a chance, it will lay down stores for a nuclear winter, despite having never gone truly hungry a day in its life. Believing itself a gastric Hercules, it mistakes digestive labours for heroic deeds. I digest, therefore I am, it pleads, while projecting its existential anxieties into the bit of my brain that controls access to Open Table and my Oyster card.
Some addicts look for meaning in the bottom of a glass. My stomach heads for bottomless brunch, where its behaviour leaves the rest of me reeling in embarrassment and praying that belts don’t feel pain.
‘So what?’ my stomach protests with laissez-faire air.
‘It’s not like “we” eat a load of shit. We just eat shitloads. It’s not my fault you don’t have a satiety response.’
‘Besides, you love a burpee. Our universe is in balance. Don’t rock it. Making 10,000 calories disappear is more than a magic trick, it’s a life skill! Embrace it!’
I’m not sure where this claptrap comes from. Perhaps the parenting tactic that cites starving African children when praising the spoilt Western child for cleaning its plate would not be praised by psychoanalysts in turn.
But with neither blame nor resignation having the best track record of improving one’s lot, it doesn’t really matter. I need a cure, not an explanation. A re-education, not a reassurance.
Unlearning something this hardwired can’t be taught in a normal classroom.
I need something more extreme.
Which is why I took my stomach to Vegas.

Terrible times can be terrific teachers

The irredeemable abomination that is Vegas is the perfect learning environment. The truly terrible moulds memories in a way the merely awful can’t match. And it being impossible to eat properly in Vegas, you may as well try to eat purposefully – to build your character as well as your belly.
We were welcomed to the Bellagio’s buffet with posters championing exuberance and reminding the queuers that excess was not, as you may have thought, too much, but just the right amount.
The décor inside – a perfectly ordered wreckage of bright lights substituting for bright ideas – advertised what happens when people with no class try to be classy. It’s a vain endeavour at the best of times, let alone when the management have demanded wipe-clean surfaces.
The Bellagio buffet, like everywhere else in Vegas, is not a nice place to be. The city laws forbid such a thing. Nice places encourage people to stay there. And wherever ‘there’ is, it has a much lower profit margin than the Blackjack table.
My stomach didn’t care about the lack of hygge. It was excited. For it knew what the chefs had prepared for it, while knowing nothing of what my brain had.

A cunning plan

‘I shouldn’t,’ the strangely spherical man at the barbeque counter said, with the sincerity of a despot’s press secretary, ‘I’ve probably had enough already.’ Given he looked like Mr Potato Head’s big-boned cousin, he may have had a point.
‘Sir,’ replied a man cheery in the way only Americans with serving tongs in their hands can be, ‘there’s no such thing.’
The pork-dispensing prophet’s words proved persuasive. I too was sold. And, being an equal-opportunities glutton, requested he bless my plate with everything he had.
The plan was underway.
I first heard about neuroplasticity tricks long before I knew what neuroplasticity was.
It was from reading the bit about associating bananas with vomit in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. (The idea being that if you repeatedly made the association, you’d eventually be a bit disgusted by the idea of eating a banana, in a slightly more Radio-4-friendly version of the experiments in A Clockwork Orange).
I didn’t know then how it worked, but I knew that it did. In the six months after Thinking, Fast and Slow came out, I lost the 20% of my bodyweight that was made out of cocktails and tasting menus, and my bodyfat fell from over 20% to under 10. And, having got better at listening to what my body wanted, rather than what it was addicted to, over a decade later, it’s stayed effortlessly there.
With a short burst of sufficiently intense intention and attention, you can do all sorts of mental magic.
(The intensity is the key, of course: you’ve got to really believe it; luckily, because your body wants broccoli more than biscuits, momentum quickly builds on the back of the initial blind belief.)

Enter the Zombie

The problem with mindless eating is that it’s, well, mindless. My plan was to override this.
With every bite, as my mouth consumed calories, my eyes consumed my fellow consumers: bedraggled beasts sweating from the strain imposed on skins stretched far beyond historical limits of anatomy, let alone decency. The best behaviour-change efforts build bridges between short-term actions and long-term intentions. You become a portrait of your present-moment choices. I was training my brain to see the bigger picture.
I was not merely idly observing the carnival of consumption, but breathing it in so deeply that the memory of the scent would come to substitute for my lack of a sane satiety response.
And what a scent it was. A stench worse than death. The stench of the undead.
The brainlessness of a Vegas buffet is the natural habitat of zombies. And the Bellagio was full of them. Mumbling not talking? Check. Shuffling not walking? Check. In company, but not together? Check. No care for personal appearance? More animal than human? Insatiable? Check, check, check.
Poor sods, zombies. Everything they eat seems to go straight through them. They’re desperately searching for security, and foolishly believing psychological needs can be met by material consumption.
(<- hi casual scrollers! That’ll be the point, if you were wondering what this had to do with money 😊.)
Both insatiable and insubstantial, ‘the zombie,’ the authors of Zombies in Western Culture tell us, ‘represents raw consumption’.
In taking my insatiable stomach to a Vegas buffet, I felt like Frodo returning the one ring to its source in order to destroy it. To touch a zombie is a death sentence. And I had an appetite to kill.

Paradise lost and found

Leaping out of my corner for the fifth, or maybe sixth, round, I was held up by a couple arguing over what to go for next.
‘I prefer pizza,’ spluttered the male, ‘but we’ve got to get our money’s worth… so maybe the lobster is better.’
‘Oh, let’s just have both,’ said the female with lusty aplomb, albeit blind to the fact that if you’re consuming everything in one go, buying in bulk isn’t necessarily the best deal.
I didn’t mind. I felt like Rocky. Just keep slugging. Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear bibs. Which is basically a cape if you squint a bit.
I followed suit with feverish rapacity.
Screw you, dignity! I thought, as I strutted back to my throne to make a toddler-like mess of a lobster shell before stabbing a chunk of its flesh into a quattro formaggio. It is not a recipe I can recommend.
I made it through the round all the same, and celebrated by loosening my belt.
A man two tables over pronged a forkful of future heart complaints into his maw and looked at me with pride, like I was his son and I’d just slugged my first baseball over the garden fence. I had no time to rest on such laurels, though. There were twenty different types of sushi to sample before pestilence and his buddies rode into town.
Another round or two into the lesson, and the background white noise of sealions struggling to breathe, eat and talk all at the same time was pierced with a foghorn remonstration sent in my direction. Nibbling on a bagel, and distracted by my new neighbours, I was walking with the directional awareness of a supermarket trolley with a gummy wheel and nearly collided with one of the serving (or rather table-clearing) staff, who informed me that one was allowed to eat only at one’s table. Quite right. Where were my manners! Wouldn’t want to appear indecorous.
I scuttled back to my seat and continued to scoff and spy.
A woman entombed in the undead’s favoured attire, a faded US college sweater with the institution’s name marred by a mosaic of stains, was modelling what happens when you pamper something so much it decays into mush.
She waddled along, balancing two plates on one arm, while gulping from a soda in a manner that suggested she’d die of thirst if she waited until sitting down to have a slurp. Steeling herself with another swig, she entered the orbit of her husband, and together they danced the slow dance of beleaguered sit bones – thighs squirming and squishing themselves together in beautiful, practised, harmony.
I, meanwhile, ripped through another zoo full of flesh and tore down a forest of token-gesture greens, before going to war with a Terracotta army of tiny squares of tiramisu.
Unconscious consumption and conscious disgust were becoming one. I was undead, and primed for resurrection.
*
It took another six months to be certain, but it worked. I was cured. Two-and-a-bit years later, and being able to buffet without becoming a beast is one of proudest life achievements. Bless you, my brainless, brain-changing, and profoundly unforgettable feast.
There’s a tremendously important wider point to all this, which will become clear next week, as we dive into the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read, and come up clutching a treasure chest full of lessons for becoming wiser with money.
(And if you want more on performing brain surgery on yourself, here’s one I made earlier.)