Not a lot of people online know this about me, but I’m a numbers guy at heart.
The only time it really comes out nowadays is in posts like my randomized plan to quit coffee (before I embraced the habit of enjoying a single, delicious cup of the stuff each day) and in the mindset to create formulas instead of recipes.
But prior to starting No Meat Athlete, numbers were my life: I was in grad school working on a PhD in Applied Math (I decided to stop with a Masters after No Meat Athlete took off), and spent my free time — when I wasn’t running or cooking — building models for sports betting and poker-playing, or reading books about randomness, artificial intelligence, and game theory.
Not even three years removed from that life, I still have a soft spot for numbers, and that’s the reason for today’s post.
You may have heard of Lift; it’s a habit-change app that uses coaching, group accountability through check-ins and encouragement, reminders, and other tools to help people reach goals — but it gets especially interesting when you consider the information that so much activity creates. With all of this user-generated data about what works and what doesn’t, Lift is in a unique position to discover new things about how human beings change habits.
Their first major attempt to do so is in the realm of diet, with the new Quantified Diet Project. The project, open to anyone, asks users to choose one of ten popular diets and stick to it for four weeks (they’ve already started, but you can still join in). You’ll get help from Lift and their diet plan contributors (including myself) along the way to help you get healthier, all while being a part of what could turn out to be a milestone project.
With this blend of statistics, habit change, and diet — three topics I love — I was thrilled to contribute as an adviser on their vegetarian/vegan plan. Tim Ferriss and Leo Babauta each advised on other plans, and so did my friends Steve Kamb (from Nerd Fitness) and Sarah Stanley, among several other well-known bloggers.
Lots of good people, a great platform for changing habits, and prizes from wellness companies make this an experiment I’m happy to get behind, so it is with pleasure and excitement that I share this quick interview with Lift CEO Tony Stubblebine about the Quantified Diet Project. Enjoy!
Interview with Lift CEO Tony Stubblebine
Matt: For those who haven’t heard of Lift yet, can you tell us what it’s about?
Tony: Lift is about providing daily coaching. We all want to be super human in some aspect of our lives. The question is how do you get there?
We’re looking at brain science and packaging that up into a mobile app (iPhone, Android) that acts as an always-with-you coach. The keys are getting a prompt for what to do, having a community that can answer your questions, and having simple one-tap tracking so that you can see your progress.
M: In the time that Lift has existed prior to this project, have you and the team at Lift noticed any interesting patterns about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to diet, from a habit-change perspective?
T: We ran an experiment with Tim Ferriss that blew my mind — people that followed his advice for four weeks had an 84% success rate and 8.6 pound weight loss. It made me wonder if we should be giving more respect to all the great advice out there.
But there’s also the problem of actually making a change. Diet change is hard because it effects so many aspects of your life. It’s a combination of many habits. What do you buy at the grocery? What do you order at the restaurant? What sort of food do you cook? What do you do when someone offers you a treat that’s off your plan?
What’s been interesting to us is when we hear stories from people that started with much smaller changes, like low-carb lunch, no sweets or drink more water. Usually the rate of people who stick to that change is much higher.
M: What makes the Quantified Diet Project so significant?
T: The Quantified Diet is a chance for people to get daily coaching for one of ten approaches to diet. Joining the study is free, so in that sense, the project is a great way for you to get really, really healthy.
After that, it’s an opportunity to contribute to science.
I’m shocked at how little we know about popular diets. Do they work? More importantly, are they possible to follow?
We’re going to share the data from the study so that we can answer these basic questions about these diets and eventually all diets. This is the first time anyone has been able to validate these diets while they were still popular.
M: For someone who doesn’t care about the significance of the project — and just wants to finally stick to a diet — how can this help them more than a typical diet book or plan?
T: We’ve been teaming up with great diet experts, like No Meat Athlete, so that we can coach people in each of these changes. All of the diets we are offering are healthy and worthwhile. Then, by joining the study you’ll get great initial coaching, as if you read the book, followed by a community of people giving tips and answering questions.
The Lift community has really been amazing. If you get stuck, they will answer your questions until you get unstuck.
M: For the data nerds out there, can you give us an overview of the methods? Is weight loss the only goal or are you looking at other metrics? Anything longer-term, like incidence of certain diseases or longevity?
T: For outcome we’re focusing on immediate changes in weight, mood and energy. We’ve set the experimental design up with feedback from researchers at Berkeley. There’s a control group and randomized assignment of diet (although you can opt out). The goal is to eliminate bias from the results (for example, the people who are most motivated or heaviest gravitate towards one diet making that diet seem outlandishly successful).
M: Are you controlling for effects of ethical motivations? It seems feasible that someone might start the vegetarian plan for ethical reasons, with little concern about how healthy their food choices are. (There are plenty of junk-food vegans out there.) Is that going to make us look bad when compared to diets where people’s only goal is to lose weight or become healthy?
T: We’re getting at these topics through our survey work. Each diet has a few gotchas like this. Hopefully we’ll be able to publish intra-diet research as well. For example, I think we can answer your question directly. Do new vegetarians who eat mostly beer and french fries lose weight?
M: Can someone who is already vegan or vegetarian, but wants to lose weight or get feedback about their eating habits, participate?
Anyone can participate, even if they’re already vegan or vegetarian. Most of the diets are flexible and you can opt out of any that aren’t. People should start from our website: http://lift.do/quantified-diet.
Thanks to Tony for taking the the time to answer my questions. I hope you’ll get involved!