How I Used the Peasant Diet to Lean Out

Last November, I outlined the Peasant Diet in the post Designing a Modern Peasant Diet. At that time I had the plan I needed to lose weight, but I didn’t start losing weight until this March. I believe the reason for this was a false belief about metabolism that was having me over consume calories on my non-peasant meals. I explained this in the post Overcoming False Health Beliefs to Lose Fat.

This false belief on metabolism led me to create The POWS Food Pyramid. I still think this is a solid food pyramid for healthy eating on a budget, but I was getting too many calories from the World Cuisine tier. Not enough to gain weight, but too many for the Peasant tier and Bodybuilder tier to take me into a caloric deficit.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Fully Adopting the Peasant Mindset

At the same time, I was rejecting the delicate metabolism thesis, I was becoming more aware of how powerful stories can be in shaping behavior. I explored this topic in the post Using the Power of Story for Fat Loss.

You may not need a story, but I’ve discovered they can be extremely motivating and powerful. They work. But we can’t lie to ourselves. Calories do count. Willpower is not unlimited. We live in a world of endless food choices, many of which have been designed by food chemists, that know you better than you know yourself.

Stories work because they provide the simple framework we can use to navigate our modern world without having to think about the details. Good stories should also be visual.

I decided to strengthen the Peasant story. Not just the details, but fully embrace the mindset.

  • A peasant would experience hunger. They might miss a meal or two.
  • A peasant can not afford to go out to eat.
  • A peasant doesn’t snack between meals.
  • A peasant would consume many of the same meals over and over again. There is far less novelty.
  • A peasant would need a low budget way to deal with cravings.
  • A peasant would feel bad about spending too much of the family’s savings on food indulgences.
  • A peasant walks a lot. (this story connects to the 10,000 Steps thesis)
  • A peasant is not time rich. Meals must be assembled quickly or in bulk.
  • A peasant does not eat for entertainment. Food is for survival.

I thought about being a peasant. What it meant. How other behaviors might be impacted. As I started losing weight, I didn’t buy new clothes. I did laundry twice a week with the clothes I had that fit me. I even learned to sew a little to mend older clothes.

Before I made any decision regarding food, I envisioned being the peasant. I wasn’t always perfect, but I was most of the time and that was enough to drop my weight from 222 to 200. Recently, I spent a whopping $17 on a meal with friends. As I was walking away from the restaurant, I calculated I could have spent $17 on 60 pounds of potatoes at the restaurant supply store. At 4 pounds a day, I realized that was 15 days worth of food to the peasant.

My Values

The Peasant Diet works for me because it lines up with my values. We all want to eat healthily and be at our ideal weight. And most of us know there are many paths to achieve our goals. Some paths are harder and more expensive than others. Some methods are effective and some are not sustainable.

One of the things I dislike about health advice is it often costly. Not just costly in ingredients, but costly in time to prepare meals. The people in North America with the worst health are the people with the least amount of money and often the least amount of time. Becoming lean and healthy on minimal money is inspiring to me.

Someone asked me about organic food. My response is that a peasant can’t afford organic and while I’m on my Peasant Diet, I will only buy organic is the price is about the same. After I’ve achieved a perfect weight and held it for a satisfactory period, I may decide to change my diet, but while I’m a peasant I am frugal with money spent on food.

Why the Peasant Diet Works

The Peasant Diet is the story that I use to cover up the details on why it works. The reasons it works are:

  1. No processed foods. A peasant is not the same thing as a modern poor person. A peasant consumes boiled potatoes and black coffee. A poor person eats french fries and drinks Mountain Dew.
  2. High volume, low-calorie food. Foods with high volume and fiber reduce hunger at a lower calorie level.
  3. Missing meals. Since willpower is not unlimited, many find it easier to skip breakfast or dinner rather than reduce calories at every meal. Plus being exposed to missing the occasional meal teaches you how to respond better to hunger and make better decisions. This is why so many people have success with intermittent fasting.
  4. No snacking. A peasant isn’t sitting around snacking. Snacking can make you heavy or reduce the odds you are able to lose weight.
  5. Very little flavor novelty. Reducing flavor novelty reduces the entertainment value of eating, which lowers appetite.
  6. Financially rewarding. My waist gets smaller and I have more money left over at the end of the week. It is like I’m being paid to lose weight. I win twice.

The power of the Peasant Diet story to me is that in my weakest moments I don’t need to think about the nutritional science, I just think about the Peasant.

Published by

MAS

Critical MAS is the blog for Michael Allen Smith of Seattle, Washington. My interests include traditional food, fitness, economics, and web development.

21 thoughts on “How I Used the Peasant Diet to Lean Out”

  1. This rings very true, MAS. Thinking back, I have always done better with training and diet when I had a story to latch on to. Case in point, the Warrior Diet. I managed to stick to that for quite a long time, and when it got challenging, the story of being a warrior was there to carry me through. Later, doing plain, scientific IF, I could never make it last.

    You’re turning out some quality posts these days. I don’t always find the time to comment, but I do enjoy reading your work.

  2. good stuff!
    this perfectly compliments Ari Whitten’s lastest podcast on lessons from the “blue zones” which I just listened to this morning (or rather read as he now has podcast transcripts on his site as well).

  3. @Øyvind – Thank you! The Warrior Diet is an excellent example. Great visual and simple rules.

    @norlee – I did not know Ari had a podcast. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Hi Michael,
    On a completely unrelated topic, do you still do Foundation Training? Or more generally, how have you managed your back pain recently and have there been any changes?
    Cheers,
    Ben

  5. I love the Peasant Diet outline, and think that these basic tenets will lead to weight loss and maintenance at a much lower weight, but think a couple of them are perhaps at the root of our eating problems, especially:

    A peasant doesn’t snack between meals. [Or maybe peasants would snack continually between meals on non-perishables like bread crust, dried meats, nuts, hard cheese, etc… And any time food was available throughout the day, you can bet a peasant would devour it. I’m thinking a chance encounter of the raspberry bush kind.]

    A peasant would feel bad about spending too much of the family’s savings on food indulgences. [But would spend mucho dinero on a beer with the guys.]

    A peasant does not eat for entertainment. Food is for survival. [But you can bet that bounties of food were treated as an all-out celebration.]

    I think that the peasant’s tendencies to splurge when confronted with food and to eat whatever you can find, all day long (“snacks”), are hard-wired in us. So, possibly rather than avoid these two things, you can work it into the Peasant Diet, ie. Keep lots of low calorie snacks on hand and pig-out on occasion. And have a mocha frappe now and then.

  6. Eating whole, nutrient dense, filling foods and occasional bursts of high intensity activity with similar low intensity activity level as today’s “sedentary” population works for today’s tribes, as nothing else is available, and they remain lean.

    It is also true that eating tasty”junk foods” really helps with anxiety and stress, and is mostly eaten in large quantities for this purpose. Also, just knowing unhealthy foods are in close proximity or even exist (TV ads) motivates brain to prefer them. Only some people develop obesity from this, though.

    Forced control in one area (eating healthy food) also worsens cognitive performance and patience in solving other problems.

    There is also a study where restrained and unrestrained eaters had to drink 1, 2 or 3 milkshakes and then were offered unlimited ice cream. Unrestrained eaters autoregulated and the more milkshakes they had, the less ice cream they ate. Restrained eaters ate more ice cream the more milkshakes they had before. (The “I already blew the diet, I might as well take advantage of this opportunity” effect)

    So, the question is whether a stressed engineer or doctor is best served adhering to healthy eating or letting go, given that our wider environment is full of milkshakes and ice cream.

    I don’t know.

  7. Tim – Thanks for the reminder about Jack. I listened to him some awhile back, but ‘forgot’ about him over the years, until I came across your post. I’m planning on watching through some of his videos again. I think he is a fountain of knowledge on health, and it would be smart of us to take advantage of his wisdom. I think, over the years, we got distracted by the excitement of new claims, and got led far away from the basic wisdom of human health from the likes of Jack. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that all of the ‘million and one roads to health’ advice out there is really just about making money. A new idea has to be regularly generated in order to continue to get people’s attention, and money. I’m done traveling down that road.

    MAS – I tend to agree with Tim about peasants eating whenever they had the opportunity to. Human nature is human nature. I think anybody, who hasn’t been poisoned with all the dietary nonsense that is out there now, would simply eat whenever they wanted, whenever food is available. I also think it’s wise to work with our hardwired nature than to fight it. The fighting it part is what’s exhausting. It makes more sense to work with nature than to fight against it.

  8. Ondrej, I understand what you’re saying, except that the man-made food that is out there is engineered to make us want more of it. It would be unwise of us to simply “give in” to such an artificial scenario. We know that we are designed to eat what nature provides for us to eat; that’s how we survived before processed foods came along. We need to respond in an intelligent manner to what we know is the lure of companies selling us, essentially, unnatural, highly palatable/addictive foods. Of course, we can chose to eat those foods from time to time, instead of creating a neurosis around eating “clean”, but, again, we need to do it with intelligence, and the understanding that it’s not meant to be a regular part of our diet.

  9. MAS

    You touched on this in your “Story” post, but the comments here raise a question in my mind: From the perspective of weight loss, does it matter if “the story” is an accurate representation of reality? Isn’t the effectiveness of Paleo, the Warrior Diet, the Peasant Diet and other “stories” the product of the narrative’s hold on the imagination despite their inaccuracies? The more sensible versions of Paleo do not attempt to recreate a hunter gathere existence (or, truly, even diet). So does it really matter if real peasants actually snacked, actually feasted, or actually ate primarily low reward foods, as long as the dieter’s “willful suspension of disbelief” enables behaviors that we know actually result it weight loss (i.e. calorie intake less than expenditure)?

    If so, then while a dieter is pursuing weight loss, then would it not be wise for the dieter to avoid questions or resources that may cause doubt in the story’s narrative?

  10. “If so, then while a dieter is pursuing weight loss, then would it not be wise for the dieter to avoid questions or resources that may cause doubt in the story’s narrative?”

    I suppose that depends on the person, and whether, or not, they feel that they need to “trick” themselves into a certain pattern of behavior. I personally do not like to operate in that way. I like to function, and make decisions, based in reality. I do understand people needing to “fake it until they make it”, especially if they are dealing with deeply rooted addictive/harmful behaviors/thinking. Changing the pattern of thinking can help a person break thinking patterns that are not helpful to them. I think it comes down individual needs.

  11. Kit: Sure, this is the position of many. They are under pressure to come up with a solution. There are good examples – Doug McGuff, James Steele II, Skyler Tanner, Clarence Bass – that this can be done with excellent results. But all these guys are highly motivated and their life revolves around fitness, including their schedule. So they do this sacrifice of focusing on diet and living in perfectly designed home with no unhealthy food, fasting at work.

    And regarding “designed” to eat…I get it that the old environment worked better, but we are also “designed” to eat these hyperpalatable foods. As was pointed out, these tribe members also become fat when exposed to our environment, even more so than us. The environment changed. But that doesn’t mean we can go against hypothalamus, dopamine signalling etc. and fight against those structures. Sure, perfectly designed environment may be the answer for some, but there is a cost. And next time I see KFC logo, I’ll have hard time not buying Strips or Twister, and maybe that restraint means I’ll accomplish very little work related that afternoon or I’ll lash out at my relatives:-)

  12. @BK – I don’t get back pain. 4-5x a week I do forms of yoga from YouTube videos. The days I go to the gym, I do this Foundation move I altered.
    https://criticalmas.org/2014/08/merging-foundation-training-hillfit/

    @All – I decided to make the Peasant story personal to me. I picked all the attributes that supported the nutritional science I want to be the background of my plan. It is not a historical representation. I think this is where PALEO got torn apart. I could probably do a post on that topic alone.

    @Kit – I was thinking about creating an old-school bodybuilder story as I shift to more protein. For me, I imagined Venice Beach, CA in the mid to late 1970s. The music, the fashion, the haircuts. Guys with very little money eating a clean higher protein diet. Jack L is a great icon but would be less motivating to me, as I know far less about him.

    @Geoff – Your questions are ones I’ve thought about. This is how PALEO got picked apart. In my first post on stories, I said: “…we can’t lie to ourselves. Calories do count. Willpower is not unlimited.” I think if this is the foundation we use to build our story, then we can’t be too wrong.

    Also, a story is a tool to help us reach a goal. Once the goal has been reached or the story stops working for us, we are free to adopt a new story.

  13. I don’t want to just bitch about how impossible it is, so here is my current strategy:

    High effort – in my case bodyweight, which is great for adherence and simplicity – resistance training of 3 to 8 mostly compound exercises one set to failure once every 4-9 days depending on individual response in terms of hypertrophy and cardiovascular fitness.

    Sleep 8h in a dark, quiet room with optimal, rather cool temperature, and avoid stimulants like coffee, chocolate, alcohol, tv, computer before sleep.

    This strategy has only two pillars, but it increases lean body mass, increases NEAT and EPOC, improves cardiovascular fitness, mood, lowers calorie needs and increases preference for healthy foods, lowers stress, prevents osteoporosis, shifts hormonal battle of fat vs muscle towards muscle etc.

  14. “And regarding “designed” to eat…I get it that the old environment worked better, but we are also “designed” to eat these hyperpalatable foods. As was pointed out, these tribe members also become fat when exposed to our environment, even more so than us. The environment changed. But that doesn’t mean we can go against hypothalamus, dopamine signalling etc. and fight against those structures.”

    Hmmm, I’m not sure that we are “designed” to eat hyperpalatable foods. My understanding is that hyperpalatable foods are addictive triggers. I don’t think someone who is trying to recover from a drug or alcohol addiction would say that we were “designed” to have these things be a part of our everyday life simply because our body is strongly desiring them. When our senses are essentially being hijacked by an addictive substance, regardless of what that substance is, I don’t think it qualifies as being “designed” in the sense of it being a good/intended thing.

    Having said that, I fully appreciate that everyone’s struggle is unique to them, and if someone wants to live off of McDonald’s for the rest of their lives/decides not to fight back against a hyper-state of hypothalamus, dopamine, etc. signaling, because the environment is not likely to change anytime soon, and it’s truly exhausting to fight it, I respect that. My body does not respond to hyperpalatable food as strongly as it does for others that I know. So, I’m the last person that will tell you that you “should” do anything. I know the struggle is real. At the same time, there is the option, for those who want it, to deal with it in the way that I mentioned. We are all so unique, so the answer will not be the same for everyone. That’s just impossible, when, like you said, we are all living in an altered form of life in regards to food options, and how that affects each individual will be unique.

  15. “I decided to make the Peasant story personal to me. I picked all the attributes that supported the nutritional science I want to be the background of my plan. It is not a historical representation.”

    It makes sense – doing what works for you. My mind got confused when you stated, in a fact like manner, that peasants didn’t snack. I get what you’re saying though.

    Please, do yourself a favor and get to know JL. 🙂 There are a lot of videos for you to get to know him. He was amazing. He is considered the Godfather of modern fitness. The old school bodybuilders (and modern day bodybuilders) learned so much from him. Heck, non-bodybuilders, like me, learned from him, and have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I just think it would be a real loss for you if you didn’t take the time to get to know him.

  16. Kit:
    Sure, I do in fact implement nutritional strategies like increased protein and fibre, mostly real food…I just put this out there because I believe sleep and training are maybe less important than diet, but way way easier to stick to, so they’re first on my list. Also they are prerequisites for diet to work, maintain lean body mass, stop metabolic adaptation etc. I even think for many they can work alone without dietary changes, or that they lead to spontaneous dietary changes that are enough.

    Btw I recently talked to a diabetic doctor (I’m a med student) and for older type 2 diabetic patients, they don’t even recommend weight loss, as it almost inevitably means muscle mass loss, and increased/maintained muscle mass is now number 1 priority officially.

    But yeah, done right – high protein, fibre, nutrient density – diet can be very benefitial and obesitologists of course say it can prevent 80% diseases;-)

  17. @Kit – I have seen Jack L for years on video clips. He is inspiring, but I would not personally construct a story to motivate me with him in mind. 1970s Venice Beach is the image that jumps into my mind. I know the area and the time period well.

    @Chris – Thanks for sharing. The thing I learned from my grandma (upper 90s) is to avoid the doctor if you can. Her lack of trust in the medical indu$try has served her well.

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