The ad lib diet
What’s the best way to lose weight? In some ways, it’s a meaningless question: every individual’s needs, goals, and situation are different, and the variables involved make it hard to come up with a recommendation that works for everyone. But there are a few tantalizing clues, many of which point to reducing carbohydrates. A recent meta-analysis of seventeen clinical trials—funded, it must be said, by Atkins Nutritionals, although its methodology seems sound—showed that low-carb diets were generally more effective than low-fat diets when it came to weight loss and cardiovascular health. This squares with a Stanford study of four diet plans that concluded that the Atkins diet, which had the lowest carbohydrate intake, also resulted in subjects losing the most weight. Low-carb diets remain controversial, but they do seem to work, even if there’s little consensus as to why. One paper lists multiple possible factors, including “limited food choices leading to decreased energy intake,” which I think is on the right track. But it’s worth noting that the lead researcher of the Stanford study explicitly credits the simplicity of the low-carb approach: “It’s a very simple message. Get rid of all refined carbohydrates to lose weight.” All else being equal, a simple plan is preferable to a complicated one, and this applies as much to diet as to anything else.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, after cutting most of the carbohydrates out of my diet over the last couple of months, mostly out of curiosity. Instead of following a strict Atkins menu, I’ve cobbled together a routine that fits my own tastes and lifestyle. (I found that the hardest part, since I want my meals to be easy to prepare, was finding suitable convenience foods.) At the moment, I’m getting through most of the day on scrambled eggs, tuna, avocados, almonds, cheese, and dark chocolate, with more or less the same dinners that I’ve always eaten, but without the accompanying starches. The results so far have been gratifying: I’m slimmer around the waist than I’ve been in a long time, and I’d like to think that I’ll stick with it. But I’ve come to suspect that the most important factor is a psychological one. A low-carb diet enforces a kind of gentle editing of my eating habits: I’ve got to think just a little bit before I decide what to eat, and the mental pause that ensues when I look at a restaurant menu or scan the contents of my cupboard prevents me from acting entirely on impulse. It doesn’t hurt that most prepackaged snack foods are built around carbs anyway, which removes them from the equation completely. And it’s that crucial pause, combined with the clearly defined constraints that such a diet imposes, that seems to have made the difference, rather than any physiological cause.
What interests me about this, and the reason I’m discussing it here, is the general principle that one or two big rules, even if they’re imperfect, are more effective than a long list of prescriptions. Cutting out carbs is usually what they call an ad libitum diet, meaning that it doesn’t try to restrict caloric intake or otherwise limit what the dieter eats. Ad libitum, of course, is more commonly known by the abbreviation ad lib, and what all forms of ad-libbing have in common is their reliance on a few simple guidelines. Improvisation, as I’ve noted here before, is rooted in proven structures and formulas, like the rigorous logic of the chord progression, and the performer’s freedom is paradoxically enhanced by the presence of a rock-solid foundation on which he or she can always fall back. (As Lee Konitz once observed, the name of the game is “to use this very obvious structure, and make it less obvious in some way.”) Too many rules, and you’ll freeze up when you try to keep them all straight; too few, and you lack the thematic spine that you need to give the improvisation a shape and direction. Similarly, if an ad libitum low-carb diet turns out to be more effective than its calorie-counting competitors, my hunch is that it has less to do with ketosis or glucose levels than with its relative simplicity and ease. A rough rule of thumb like “get rid of all refined carbohydrates” might be lacking in nuance, but it allows you to improvise within the menu without having to memorize a lot of details.
I’m not out to change anyone’s eating habits here, and the long-term health effects of a low-carb diet are still a matter of debate. But if this approach continues to work for me, it’s for much the same reason that I try to follow a few simple rules in my writing. As Stanislavski said:
A certain pilot was asked how he could ever remember, over a long stretch, all the minute details of a coast with its turns, shallows, and reefs. He replied: “I am not concerned with them; I stick to the channel.” So an actor must proceed, not by a multitude of details, but by those important units which, like signals, mark his channel and keep him in the right creative line…
Figuring out which units are important is the work of a lifetime, and the answers inevitably differ from one person to another—which is why there are as many writing books as there are diets. But the idea that you should focus on getting a few big things right, rather than consciously trying to manage a myriad of tiny details from first principles, seems reasonable enough. Given enough time and attention, the small stuff will take care of itself, and specific problems are best addressed as they arise. As David Mamet put it: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” That’s true both of dieting and writing. And when in doubt, it helps to have a strategy that allows you to ad lib your way through it.