Geeks who go low-carb see it as more than just taking off pounds -- they're reengineering the human organism, overclocking their own bodies.
Topics: Entertainment News
For Dave Sifry, 35, attending LinuxWorld in the summer of 2002 meant more than just a chance to luxuriate in the latest insider buzz about Red Hat, Suse and Debian. It also was an unexpected chance to learn about a body-reengineering hack increasingly popular with computer programmers and affiliated geeks.
When Sifry, now the co-founder and CTO of Sputnik, a wireless device company, saw Cory Doctorow, the boingboing blogger and science-fiction author, at the conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, he almost didn’t recognize him.
“I hadn’t seen him in a while, and he had lost so much weight with Atkins — maybe 35 or 40 pounds — that he just looked like a changed man,” says Sifry, who founded the Bay Area Linux Users Group and co-founded Linuxcare, a start-up aimed at providing support services for Linux users. But Doctorow, a self-described “renaissance geek,” wasn’t the only slimmed-down figure among the usual crew of techie conference-goers. Doc Searls, coauthor of “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” was also looking svelter, from his own regime of low-carbing.
“To be perfectly frank, I thought it was nuts,” says Sifry. “OK: You can eat as many bacon cheeseburgers as you want, and you still lose weight? Why doesn’t this sound healthy? But when I saw two people who I respect do it, it really forced me to take a second look at it.”
“We see people when we go to conferences that used to be a lot wider than they are now. Now, they’re down to, like, one chin,” says Searls, who lost 25 pounds last year in time for the Linux Geek Cruise in October, and has kept it off. “Cory blew my mind when I saw him. He looks like a skinny kid.”
Picking up dieting tips at a computer conference could sound like the setup for a real groaner of a bad joke. Fairly or not, computer geeks have become cultural stereotypes for their embodiment of the modern-day version of the classic mind/body split: Many geeks tend to live their “real” lives in the virtual domain, while their bodies become forgotten blobs, crouched behind a monitor in some featureless room. Even the iconic penguin that reigns over all things Linux has a bit of a cuddly paunch.
But while there’s nothing particularly bleeding-edge about eating the hamburger but not the bun, now that low-carb dieting has gone mainstream, the diet does appear to hold a special attraction for hackers, programmers and other close-to-the-machine dwellers. For some geeks, the low-carb diet is itself a clever hack, a sneaky algorithm for getting the body to do what you want it to do, a way of reprogramming yourself. Programmers, who are used to making their computers serve their will, are now finding that low-carb diets enable the same kind of control over their bodies.
Advocating eating protein in the form of burgers and eggs, while avoiding bread and pasta, as a way to lose weight is a diet plan that’s drawn ridicule and sneers from mainstream nutritionists since the early 1970s, when the now-deceased Dr. Atkins started promoting the idea. But Dr. Atkins and other low-carb adherents argue that without an influx of sugar and carbohydrates for quick energy, the body is forced to burn off its fat. And the zealous advocates of the diet make this controversial claim: that when your body gets into this fat-burning state, dieters can actually eat more calories than they could on a low-fat diet, and still lose weight.
Doctorow, who lost 75 pounds by cutting out carbohydrates, sees a natural affinity between his brethren and the diet: “Read the alt.support.diet.low-carb FAQ, and you’ll find people attacking their bodies like they would attack a logic board,” he says. “Substitute ‘faster bus speed’ for ‘metabolism,’ and you’ve got something pretty close to an overclocking FAQ, he adds, referring to a practice popular with hardware hackers in which computer processors are tweaked so that they run faster than their out-of-the-box speeds.
“The low-carb thing is essentially a way of forcing control over the metabolism much like coders, geeks and hackers tweak their code and config files to make their machines run smoother,” writes Sean Sosik-Hamor, a 27-year-old systems administrator for Pepper Computer, a wi-fi start-up in Lexington, Mass., in an e-mail. Sosik-Hamor says he lost more than 100 pounds through such dietary tweaking, a feat that took him down from 330 to 222 pounds, and which he blogs about here.
As digital-rights attorney Mike Godwin, who lost more than 80 pounds by cutting carbs, says, “It’s like you’re exploiting a security hole in your own body.” He’s quoting hacker Ian Goldberg, who should know — Goldberg is famous in hacker circles for breaking the encryption on Netscape Navigator 1.1.
Since the LinuxWorld conference last year where Sifry caught the low-carb virus, he’s lost 70 pounds, his blood pressure has dropped 30 points and his overall cholesterol numbers have gone down. And while he’s reluctant to declare victory prematurely — “I don’t know where I’m going to be in a year” — he’s glad he’s discovered this “backdoor” into his own body’s workings. “All of a sudden,” he muses, “[I've] found a new metabolic pathway.”
Chat with low-carb dieters about their regimen, and they will soon bring up “ketosis” — the state where your body is forced to burn off its fat reserves. On dieting message boards, they trade strategies about how to get to ketosis faster, stay in ketosis longer, and get back into it when you get off track, with all the ardor of teenage stoners on a quest to achieve and prolong the perfect high. Ketosis is their version of dieter’s nirvana, where the weight is just steadily falling off, when your body is getting its energy from stored fat reserves instead of carbohydrates.
“Atkins makes this connection between reducing the amount of carbs and reducing the amount of fat storage,” says Searls. “It works very cleanly at a conceptual level. Technical people like technical prescriptions, and Atkins offers them a pretty good technical prescription.”
But look up “ketosis” in the dictionary, instead of on a dieting Web site, and you’ll find all sorts of uncomfortable words associated with it, like “pathological” and “starvation.” Oddly, the negative connotations of the concept perversely make it more attractive to hackers, who delight in using unexpected means to achieve a solution.
“The true definition of hacking is that of simple problem-solving, and making something do a task that it wasn’t designed to do,” writes Sosik-Hamor. “Ketosis is not a natural body state so the sheer thought of intentionally utilizing ketosis for weight loss is appealing.”
There’s also a subversive element. Go low-carb, and you’re going against the dietary establishment, against the conventional diet wisdom from the USDA’s food pyramid. You’re doing something that you’re maybe not supposed to do.
Mike Godwin started low-carb dieting back in 1998, when he weighed more than 300 pounds. He says he was “a little bit ahead of the curve” on the low-carb thing, since back then, all the dieters he knew were “still cutting their steak into 3-ounce portions” and avoiding fat like it was the blubbery enemy. He’d tried that, but found that the low-fat regimen of the likes of diet guru Susan Powter “was like eating grass,” and it wasn’t working for him.
“I’m perfectly willing to believe that what everyone knows is true is wrong, or at least might be wrong for me,” says Godwin. “I had known about Atkins’ popularity in the ’70s. Because it was so counter to what everyone was saying I should do, I thought: I’ll try it.”
Sure, if you eat fewer calories and exercise more you’ll lose weight, but if, like so many dieters, you’re unable to follow that advice, who cares if it’s an airtight theory? “If that’s science, then it’s science that has yet to produce a lot of results because American asses grow rounder every day,” says Doctorow. “If you ask people to reduce their caloric intake and increase their exercise, you won’t get a lot of good results. It’s like going around complaining that people have crappy passwords.”
“The hacker ethic is not necessarily being a formally trained engineer, not necessarily being someone who understands the science. It’s a reverse-engineering perspective: Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong, but it’s based on empiricism,” says Doctorow. “That’s kind of the low-carb approach, which goes against the conventional wisdom about how you do nutrition and weight loss.”
Scientific studies sanctioning the approach are just starting to appear, but there’s a still a sense that one is tinkering with one’s own body to somewhat unknown ends. “Maybe it will make us all grow third arms and go blind in 20 years,” quips Doctorow. “It’s sort of hard to tell. It represents a kind of hacker’s approach, grounded as it is in jack-legged engineering rather than science.”
The most controversial aspect of low-carb dieting — which is only now being studied — is the claim that you can actually eat more calories on a low-carb regime than you could on a low-fat one, and still lose weight. To borrow some jargon from the world of engineering: There’s the possibility that you can actually run your body at a “specification” it wasn’t designed for, in order to burn off more fat.
“I firmly believe that the low-carb system used by Atkins is a perfect example of hacking your body,” writes Sosik-Hamor. “Massive reduction of carbs and carefully designing a balanced diet allows you to safely push the body into a state of ketosis and excrete fat out of the system faster than the standard burn rate of 1 pound per 3,500 calories. When in full induction mode I can eat 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day and lose up to 4 pounds per week.”
But Searls warns against taking the hacking metaphor too far. Overclocking a computer processor has negative aspects that he believes don’t have parallels in the low-carb dieting world.
“I think on the downside of what that metaphor suggests is that you are operating your body out of spec,” says Searls. “Overclocking says that your body is specced for a certain performance speed, and overclocking it gets you a tradeoff between performance and heat, essentially.”
“In a way, you are in fact burning off some of your body fat, and in that respect the metaphor is accurate. It’s not accurate in the sense that you may be damaging your body in some way. It raises the suggestion that maybe you’re doing something a bit unhealthy. And I don’t think that’s the case.”
Godwin goes even further: “It might be that we’re designed actually to operate that way, instead of eating a whole bunch of processed carbs. [With a low-carb diet] it actually may be that we’re gearing our diets to how we should be eating. It might be a feature, not a bug.”
But it’s also useful to remember that no matter how attractive the metaphor, or the algorithm, dieting, like programming, is about doing what works, not the latest hot theory.
“We are not machines,” says Searls. “It helps techies sometimes to think of their bodies as a machine, but it really comes down to whatever works for you.”
More Related Stories
- Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal music video
- Actually, Beyoncé is a feminist
- Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black's epic Twitter battle
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
- Amazon set to launch fine-art gallery
- Twitter torches Dan Brown's "Inferno"
- Brad Pitt keeps breaking his silence on how boring marriage to Jennifer Aniston was
- Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" to use porn star body doubles
- New Beyoncé single leaked
- The sweet, sure to be short-lived "The Goodwin Games"
- Damon Lindelof admits barely-clothed scene in "Star Trek" was "gratuitous"
- Justin Timberlake: I'm a mediocre folk singer!
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Katharine Mieszkowski is a Bay Area journalist, who covers science and
the environment. A Salon senior writer from 2000 to 2009, she
chronicled the dot-com boom and bust as a technology correspondent and co-founded the Broadsheet blog.
Her Salon stories have been anthologized in "Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity,"
A Yale grad, Katharine has also written for the New York Times, Mother Jones, MS, Rolling Stone, Glamour and Reader's Digest, while her commentaries have appeared on National Public Radio's "All Things
Considered." In 1994, she joined her first Internet start-up, Women.com, then known as Women's Wire. Since then, she's also been a writer for Fast Company magazine covering Silicon Valley and a columnist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian investigating local subcultures. In 2001, she was named one of the Top 25 Women on the Web by San Francisco Women on the Web.
Katharine, who grew up near Houston, now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter. You can sign up for Twitter updates from her here.