Harry Smith

The Stairstep Diet

I've given up more 'bad' foods this year than any other and it's been easy. Learn how to take the 'stairstep approach' to a healthier life.

I think about diet more than any other personal challenge. The high availability and variety of food options is a foundation of modern society. But with it we face a challenge unique to our times - how do we stop eating so much crap?! Our lizard brains were not designed for unlimited buttery pastry and sticky caramels. Given the oppurtunity, it will ignore our better intentions and get to feasting.

Why care about diet? Because what we put into our bodies determines what we can get out of them. If we want to perform well we need the right fuels. And I’m not only talking about professional performance. But our hobbies, relationships, friendships, interests and sex lifes as well. A good diet isn’t about looking good (an all to common fixation of diet). It’s as foundational as sleeping and breathing.

Bad diets lead to aging, depression, sickness, obesity, disability, discomfort and every other negative trait you can name. You can not understate the importance of diet.

There are some very complex ways of thinking about diet and nutrition. And there are some very simple ways. They both lead to the same boring answers for most people. Less sugar, less meat, less carbs, less often. Abundance is the problem. Restriction is the solution.

I’m no food hero. I’ve struggled to eat the right things for my whole adult life. I’ve tried and failed at a lot of different systems. This year I’ve been developing a new technique, and so far - it’s working.

The Stairstep Diet

Here’s how it works.

  1. For each month of the year list a food to give up
  2. During that month, focus all your mental energy on not eating that food. All other foods not yet given up are fair game
  3. At the onset of the next month, you give up that months food in addition to all the others

There are some extra rules that I developed to account for common real life scenarios:

  1. If the food is a new experience but in a banned category then you can try it once. Variations do not count (donuts from a new donut store are still banned).
  2. Make exceptions for special occasions - Birthdays, Christmas, Easter etc.
  3. The focus is on not eating banned foods, not how much food to eat. As the banned list grows longer over the course of a year the diet trends towards healthy

The gensis of the idea came from ‘stairstep entrepenuership’. Building a business that sustains your full time employment is hard. So in a stairstep approach you first build a small business, to fund a bigger business, to fund a bigger business. And so on. This is the same thing, but with food.

Here is an example list:

  • January - Sweets
  • February - Crisps
  • March - Pastry
  • April - Fizzy Drinks
  • May - Fried Foods
  • June - Cakes & Biscuits
  • July - Fast Food & Takeaways
  • August - Processed Meats
  • September - Bread
  • October - Frappucino’s
  • November - Frozen Fast Foods
  • December - White Carbs

There is (obviously) no need to start in January. You can start next month, next week or now. There is nothing stopping you but the psychological need for a clean slate.

It’s important that you find a list of items that is personal to you. We all have our own vices. Some people will find it easy to rattle off twelve things. Others will find it hard. If you can’t think of twelve it doesn’t matter - use what you have.

Why it Works

It’s habits all the way down. This method reveals the real habit, a meta-habit if you will, of good diet. That is, thinking carefully about what you put in your mouth. By focusing on one food type at a time the motivational burden is low. In the crucial first 30 days all you’ve got to do is avoid one food type. It’s so easy it feels like you aren’t doing anything at all.

By the time the next food type comes around, the challenge of avoiding the first one has faded. It has gone from concious effort to automatic refusal. The list of banned foods grows longer but the challenge level stays the same. Unlike trying to give it all up at once - where the mountain of pain is often too much to bear.

It takes a long time, much longer than many methods or diets. It delays the rewards. If you were looking for weight loss, it’s going to take a little while before it starts. But this extra time is no bad thing. We are trying to produce real change that lasts a lifetime. A diet that doesn’t peter out but changes our relationship with food forever. Sustained small efforts over a long period of time produce huge results. It’s tiny steps fowards.

By stairstepping our way to a healthy diet, rather than jumping in deep, we trick our lizard brain into doing the right thing. Through a slow but steady stream of increasing restrictions we create a ‘new normal’ for food preferences. This in turn, gives us what we wanted more than any mars bar. A long, energetic and healthy life.

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