The Coder Diet

A college friend of mine randomly decided that nutritional guidelines were bullshit. At the time, he was deliriously lost in a pipe dream of being rich before 30.

This may or may not have been the same time frame when he bought a house in California and rented it out to too many roommates at once. The theory was, California real estate value was only going upward – so buy, have some other fools pay the mortgage, and then sell for complete profit.

My friend was the extremely frugal sort, and a nerd, like myself. He examined his RichBy30.xls spreadsheet and tried to cut as many corners as he could expense wise. One evening, knee-deep in RichBy30.xls data, my friend decided he didn’t believe in nutritional advice – all his body needed was calories to consume, so why not optimize for the most cost effective calories there are?

Thus, the Ramen Diet.

For several weeks, perhaps a month, my buddy ate nothing but ramen and drank nothing but water.

We were in our early 20s, and we’d practically “lived on ramen” while on college from time to time. I was incredulous of the idea, but if nothing else, the Ramen Diet sounded like a worthy experiment.

After all, in your 20s, you’re immortal.

After about a month on the Ramen Diet, my buddy landed in the hospital for several days due to malnutrition. He came out okay, but his hospital bills were ten times more expensive than the monthly food expenses he had just cut. One month on the Ramen Diet costed my buddy one year’s worth of food expense, and nearly his life.

The Ramen Diet is, in many ways, a parable for the last decade of my life.

When my youngest brother was born, my body was on fire. Chickenpox was making the rounds at my school, and it was my turn.

During chickenpox week, our house was a scene from the movie E.T., this child quarantined in that room, the younger child in yet another room, and the baby a safe distance from everyone involved.

As my fever rose one evening, I began to hallucinate – my bed was an island in the midst of a room spinning like a top. When mother came to check on me I was covered in sweat, sobbing, hyperventilating, and holding onto the corner of my mattress as an anchor in the madness, as if my life depended on it.

Mother brought a cold rag for my head, and she told me of a magic trick: Focus on the nightlight in the corner of the room, if I do that, the spinning will stop.

The magic trick worked.

A few years after The Ramen Diet, a coworker of mine confided that when left to her own devices, she’d eat a can of beans or corn, unheated, for dinner. My coworker was 10 or more years my senior, and had her shit together in all the possible ways to have your shit together.

Another coworker, managing a very large high visibility project I was working on, offhandedly remarked on April 14 that he always waits until the evening of April 14 to do his taxes. In my humble opinion, that guy did not have his shit together.

Thus, it follows quite logically, that I tricked myself into a slower paced version of the Ramen Diet, but still did my taxes in February.

Nutrition was never a thing in our household. I mean, it was in the same way it is in every household, where your parents cook good-for-you dinners, and you stuff the broccoli in your milk so you can be the first to get the nintendo controller.

Vicious lesson in capitalism and being the first to market, being in a household of three boys with a nintendo that only had two controllers.

Our parents would buy sodas and fruit rollups (oh god, gushers fruit snacks!), four boxes at a time, intended to be rationed out over a month. The previously mentioned free market / first-to-market system we operated under would demolish those four boxes in two days, and we’d suffer with good-for-us sandwiches for the rest of the month. It was the worst.

Those two days when the nectar of the gods (various forms of corn syrup) would flow like rain at the beginning of the month were the greatest days of our childhood. Pure sugar-high delirium, with a high-stakes competitive game amongst ourselves to hide or consume more than our competing siblings.

There is nothing sweeter in this existence than eating the last fruit roll-up and staring right into your brother’s teary little eyes, watching a little piece of his soul slip away as the realization of the impending 28 days of sugar-free hell sets in.

Anyway, our parents taught us about food pyramids, but my takeaway was the same as my friend with the Ramen Diet, more or less – my body needs calories and if I eat the right amount I’ll be fine – got it.

Very strange, hallucinating, sitting in an ice-cold bath you logically know to be ice-cold, and yet your little body says the bath water is in fact boiling.

Cold baths for fever, and steaming hot showers running with closed bathroom doors for congestion, these were our family remedies that worked a charm, every time.

My chickenpox fever was dangerously high off and on through my week of hell, and every time it reached a certain point, the cold-water fever bath was necessary. Never in my life had I felt my skin boiling, and, fortunately, I haven’t again since.

The boiling ice water fiasco was my first personal brush with the concept of mortality and true pain. I tried very hard to forget about it, and believe instead that I was immortal.

“I don’t want this fucking fire truck.”

I probably didn’t know the f-word at the time, but the sentiment was the same, the last thing in the world I wanted was that fucking fire truck toy.

My youngest brother and I were spending hours that felt like years playing in a playroom, typical set of hospital toys – the one with the bendy wires that kids move blocks along from one end of the the wire to the other. We did that a thousand times, adding to the bacteria farm those toys were, like a bug light for every germ on earth, we were making our contribution with a sense of duty.

We were young, and confused. Our brother had a cough, then it got worse, and then he was staying in the hospital for a few days with a case of croup.

I’ll never forget seeing my middle brother laying in an oxygen tent – forever cementing the sheer horror of the movie E.T. I had seen years earlier – no contact, no touch, only tears as you watch your brother do battle.

Watching him there, struggling to breathe, helpless, I hoped in vain that his personal hell was somehow easier than boiling ice-water baths. I could not stand to watch him suffer.

When the wire bacteria farm gave way to worry and occasional hyperventilating and tears, someone, (my parents? my grandparents?) gave me this impressively large fisher price fire truck. I remember thinking this was easily the biggest and thus in some way the best gift I’d ever received, and I didn’t want it.

I might of (probably did..) thrown the truck against a wall in a tantrum, that would be classic Jason, unable to bargain with or contain overwhelming fear. I didn’t want that fucking fire truck, I wanted my brother to be better and out of this hell.

It wasn’t the fire truck though, it was mortality, suffering, and helplessness.

By the time the chickenpox vaccine came to market, I was already enamored with western medicine.

Doctors had saved my brother’s life with an oxygen tent, and stitched up little terrifying wounds for all three of us boys half a dozen times.

Grape flavored corn syrup with a pinch of medicine miraculously put us back on our feet from time to time. And who can forget the bubble gum flavored antibiotic we’d always get? Why couldn’t broccoli taste like bubble gum antibiotics?

When I heard the chickenpox vaccine was a thing, I remember thinking kids born after this are lucky little bastards, never needing to take a ride on the bed in the midst of the spinning top, or feel ice water boil their skin – incredible, really. Modern magic.

The cholesterol fad hit somewhere in my early teens, right around the time medicine for cholesterol was coming to market, funny how that works.

Our mother’s side has high cholesterol in the genes, and, bonus, not the type of high cholesterol that’s tamed by the previously mentioned cholesterol medicines.

For years my various doctors would prescribe lipitor, or zocor, or whatever the latest patent-protected big-pharma-pushed non-generic/full-cost cholesterol med fad was, and it’d never work.

I’d graduate from my high school doctor to one where my college was, and we’d have the same conversations repeated ten thousand times. No, doc, this shit really doesn’t work on me. Sigh.

I still trusted western medicine at that point, but I internalized the cholesterol battle as a personal curse, another checkmark on a very short list of perpetual health defects. Oh well, you can’t win them all. I guess I’m dying early then. Hopefully I make it to thirty, I guess?

I remember telling my wife about my coworker friend who would eat a can of beans for dinner sometimes. This was a justification on my part, and it worked. My wife continued to let me eat spaghettios and sugar cereal for dinner from time to time, and we happily and thoughtlessly called it “The Coder Diet”.

I didn’t ever tell my wife about The Ramen Diet, for obvious reasons.

After a few years of doctors threatening my 15 year old body with early death over cholesterol, I started losing faith in medicine. My previous naive trust in pills faded into a hazy grey middleground – to this day I feel there’s many things we can cure, but there’s still a ways to go, unfortunately.

I remember taking a day off of school once a year or so to go with mom to the children’s hospital – already a terrifying event in itself forever due to oxygen tent memories, and running on a treadmill for a few minutes, playing legend of zelda on a hospital NES, then later that day hearing yet another confirmation that yep I’d be dead really early in life. Cue metamucil fiber drink from hell, cut the eggs, we bought the entire cholesterol marketing machine hook, line, and sinker.

All of those times mom and I went to do treadmill tests, all of her fretting over her personal health and mine due to these damn genetics – so much effort all for naught.

During my first year of college, my mother caught a solar ray wrong, or some other factor caused a cancerous mutation in her body. She found a lump, a scan found nothing, six months later she was stage 4 all over her body, 4 years after that, she was in the ground.

When cancer’s aggressive, you’re often fighting a losing battle. She was terminal the minute she was diagnosed, and she endured 4+ years of hell – chemo and surgery galore, all the while just trying to buy more time to be a mother.

Every year there’d be some massive surgery, followed by two blissful weeks of not knowing if it was all over or not – not unlike those blissful days with fruit rollups in the family pantry.

We’d always hope for the best, and six weeks later some scan would tell us some new terrible.

While our mother was fighting these cancer battles, she tried anything and everything, drinking copious amounts of green tea, cutting sugar completely, exercising when she could – a thousand lottery tickets in vain.

At several points she participated in clinical trials for drugs coming to market – something I’d never heard of previously, indeed at the time I didn’t understand that the big-pharma marketing machine existed, or how drugs are made, or how studies are ‘sponsored’, and so on.

When she passed, I was angry. Extremely angry, facing boiling bath water oxygen tent mortality constantly in my thoughts. Angry at western medicine for failing my mother, for bullshit scans not seeing what was already there at the very beginning.

In that grieving process, someone somewhere told me exercise was a good way to deal with anger, so I started running on a treadmill. I was in my early 20s, and immortal. Within weeks of starting I was jogging fifteen minutes straight every day. I lost weight, and for the first time in my life, my cholesterol dropped dramatically.

Naturally, my pharma-bought doctor wasn’t happy with results and insisted I should still be striving for even lower cholesterol. It was about that time I quit the meds and started thinking I knew better than doctors.

Fast forward a decade, through several spells of running on a treadmill with my 20-something immortal body at random. Stop. Start. Never stretch, my immortal body, smarter than doctors, smarter than trainers – that 20-something body just keeps on going. No matter the nutrition or lack there of.

My delusion increases. Maybe I really am immortal, I almost never stretch, and I do only a couple of exercises, maybe gyms and trainers are a ruse, maybe they’re bullshit like nutrition food pyramids and all I need is time on the treadmill with calorie counting?

Around this time, I find myself a doctor who proudly hangs this informal certificate of membership for a group of physicians who steadfastly refuse big-pharma evangelists – the “free” lunches, the “free” latest-drug-fad branded swag, the “free” conferences in Hawaii about said drugs, etc. Finally, a doctor I can trust.

In my late twenties, I stop going in for routine physicals, because I know what the bloodwork says – my cholesterol is high, and I need to lose weight – tell me something I don’t know. I’m immortal, and starting to think cholesterol is a marketing machine.

Maybe it’s all bullshit and marketing. I start to think, maybe I can just eat Ramen for life, you know?

Around 32 I get the big payoff – the reward for sitting in front of computers 12 to 14 hours a day for more than half of my life – lower back pain that comes and goes.

At first, running on treadmills helps the back pain, then it doesn’t.

I start to think, I wonder if I should have paid attention to my gym teachers, and done leg-lifts and stretched in my 20s, rather than just running and doing bench-presses?

The months roll onward and I endure awkward phases of foggy brain and decreased energy levels, often looking at my work week as a shitty version of the lottery, will I make it through this week without any back pain?

This goes on for years.

One time my wife and I cut sugar for an entire week. We had heard that if you do that, then eat normally after about a week – wine tastes better, indeed everything tastes better. That first day after the week without sugar we binge like mad, worst sugar coma / headache of my entire life – not recommended.

A year or two later paleo became a thing, and our friends took part in the facebook gym post crossfit marketing machine. I collected an arsenal of memes to post in response to said posts, it was a glorious glorious day when facebook started allowing images in comments – not unlike that last-fruit-rollup moment staring in your sibling’s tearful eyes with your cold smirk fronting a mouthful of sugar.

My wife and I were incredulous of paleo diets and non-stop crossfit testimonials. “26.2” bumper stickers started popping up on cars everywhere and all I could think was “oh come on, fuck off.”

The Coder Diet, my decade long version of the Ramen Diet, persisted.

Right around the start of the crossfit marketing machine, the back pain starts, karma for a million gym post meme comments, no doubt.

At the time I wouldn’t say I was at the height of my irrationality, but I was climbing that hill.

My wife would recommend a deep tissue massage to loosen leg muscles leading into the back, I’d try it, it’d work like a miracle. My back pain would disappear, then I’d try to jog like a 23 year old again.

A month or two later I’d be in my doctor’s office with lower back pain again. He’d recommend muscle relaxers to get me through the current bout.

Next I went to physical therapy, that was fun, the unattentive gym rat physical therapist, costing me $100 a throw to watch me do some exercises that didn’t appear to help, no advice for improvement – too busy facebooking on his phone and chatting up every bro and ladybro in the joint.

Finally, I go see a trainer friend of ours, she sets me up with a set of exercises that sound logical. I start doing them, intending to meet her again in a month. We don’t meet up again, I was watching some netflix marathon as soon as the back pain went away, instead of exercising.

Back pain comes back, I half-heartedly try a standing desk for a week. A week later I’m just sitting in the living room working on the couch instead.

I start to realize I’m not an immortal early-20s guy anymore – and I cling for dear life to a childish delusion, maybe I can’t jog anymore and if I’m even lazier (no working out at all) my back will stop hurting – this works. Then it doesn’t.

In the midst of on/off back pain my wife constantly encourages me to really get serious about fixing my back. She pushes doctors, another physical therapist, regular visits with a trainer – she advises me to really work the problem and start acting like an adult and taking this seriously.

Instead, I think of my pocket book. Yeah, my back hurts, but I don’t want to pay for a gym membership or a regular trainer, and the doctors will just prescribe a pain pill for today, and the physical therapists won’t whatever.

The whole ordeal starts to remind me of my mother’s lottery tickets against her cancer battle, is green tea going to help my back? How many lottery tickets do I have to give a half-assed try? Oh god, is this my version of cancer screenings being bullshit?

Besides, I know better. I am smarter than doctors and trainers. Everything is marketing, everything is bullshit. Clinical trials exist precisely because of this problem. Back in the 19th century people could put anything they wanted on a bottle and sell it as medicine.

I am excuses, and my wife waits patiently.

We try a fad diet of sorts for 30 days. The goal is to see if we’re allergic to various types of food. Like the week without sugar, but this time its no grains, sugar, beans, or anything really. Lots of cashews, chicken, and carrots.

About two weeks into this food allergen experiment, my energy returns and my foggy brain is suddenly clear skies consistently. There’s something to this diet.

The annoying thing about the fad diet was that I learned some stuff I didn’t want to know. I learned that not every calorie is the same, and that nutrition isn’t bullshit. I learned various things that made my delusions of The Coder Diet and immortal 20s lifestyle just a little bit harder to believe.

My favorite take away from the book about the diet was a comparison of the human body and a car’s gas tank. Different foods send different signals to our brain, some of these signals indicate we’re full and it’s time to stop, while others (oreos, etc) tell the body never stop eating. You can think of this as filling a gas tank on a car. When you put gas in the tank, a sensor in the tank indicates your tank is full on the car’s dashboard. Eating oreos is not unlike putting the gas in the tank after first drilling a massive hole in the bottom of the tank.

The problem with calorie counting as a nutritional guide is that you’re using the wrong tool for the job. Counting calories is comparable to filling your gas tank with water. The full-tank indicator is lit on the car’s dashboard, but bad things will happen if you try to run the car on water instead of gasoline. An ounce of protein is not an ounce of rice. A hundred calories of broccoli is profoundly different nutritionally from a hundred calories of a snickers bar.

The diet ends. We’re not obviously allergic to anything. Eating right was a lot of work.

Three days later I am mentally early-20s immortal again: Fuck it. Oreos and pringles are worth it. Right? Right.

At 32, one year into the back pain chronicles, I give running another go. It’s always worked before, so why not? I do my same old slow-paced ramp up from walking for several weeks to jogging. For several months I’m jogging like I was able to as an immortal early 20-something, but all the while my back pain is coming and going.

Every iteration of the back pain gets worse. First it’s mild discomfort by Friday of a work week, then a month or two later it’s Wednesday, then another few months pass and I bend over wrong doing yard work and my back’s intolerable for the better part of a month.

After a half-month of pain, I start my “never work out again” plan, then that doesn’t work, then I half heartedly go to a trainer, then I never exercise, rinse, wash, repeat.

All the while I’m thinking more and more often on boiling ice water baths, oxygen tents, and cancer screening gone wrong. I build an impressive house of cards, each card some bullshit excuse to not man up and face the realities of being an adult and taking care of my body.

The fad diet kicked the first cornerstone card out from under the house, I just didn’t know it. The diet was an unexpected curve ball in my delusional quest to remain the 20-something immortal, living on the Ramen Diet. Not even two weeks of eating healthily cleared my brain fog and concentration troubles up for months afterward. Nutritional science is most definitely NOT bullshit.

Now I’m starting to wonder if there’s something to all of that advice about stretching and doing more than one type of exercise. Maybe the Nth chapter in the quest against back pain will do the trick. Maybe it’s time for a lifestyle change. A little less ramen, computers, and delusional immortality blanketed in denial.

My current programmer living in a chair for a career back-pain lottery tickets, that you may also consider if any of this hits close to home:

  • Walking for 15 minutes every two hours during work days, rather than sitting in a chair for 6 hours at a time.
  • Walking outside rather than on a treadmill, working different muscles as I walk on uneven terrain.
  • Consulting with a gym trainer regularly.
  • Trying the standing desk again, remember not to lock the knees!
  • Yoga.
  • Various tips from /r/fitness threads.
  • Learning how to lift weights correctly, the book Starting Strength keeps coming up on various threads I’ve been reading.
  • Regular calisthenics exercises, you know, all those exercises you were taught in elementry school. (Thanks, Nick.)

Finally, I’m not a doctor, but here’s some possible bullshit I’ve heard recently, maybe some of it’s true:

  • Our bodies aren’t made to run long distances, but they are made to walk long distances. Walking as a recommendation for back pain relief is common.
  • My doctor says every 10 pounds of weight over your ideal weight puts 100x the stress on your back, so being 30 pounds overweight is 300x more stressful on your back than being your ideal weight.
  • Lower back pain is often attributed to weak core strength. Crunches, squats, etc help this.

Music: R.E.M. E-Bow the letter, and Leave.