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It’s Hard to be a Fat Transhumanist
J. Hughes   Jul 31, 2013   Ethical Technology  

It’s hard to be fat in general, but as a spokesperson for a movement purporting to advocate the evolution of humanity to greater health, ability and longevity I was always embarrassed about the weight I was carrying around.  (I have a New Yorker cartoon on my wall of a fat man telling a disappointed thin man “I’m from your future.”) Recently through cyborgification I’ve been able to get back into my recommended weight range. Knowing that some of my friends are either curious if I’m seriously ill, or how I accomplished this, I thought I’d share the story.

I was chubby as kid, but not obese. I did not want for lovers, and one described my teen tummy as “cherubic.”  I’m 5’ 8” and was probably at my skinniest, about 140 pounds, back as a Buddhist monk in 1984 at age 23.

Then I went to grad school and got married. By the time my daughter was born in 1993, in the midst of writing my dissertation, I had ballooned to over 200 pounds. 

After moving to Connecticut and getting involved in the transhumanist movement I finally realized I had to get a handle on my weight around 2003 when I reached 235 pounds. My back and knees hurt, I took pills for acid reflux, and suffered intermittent bouts of shame and depression about my body.

I exercised regularly, but in January 2003, while organizing my first transhumanist conference, I took on the Atkins diet, and got a PDA with a diet diary to start counting calories and carbs. I exercised forty minutes daily on my elliptical and ate a diet of mostly red meat and vegetables, trying to stay below 1800 calories a day and 20 carbs. By May 2003 I was down to 190 pounds, and my pants were falling off at the big Transvision meeting at Yale.

But like all crash diets this one was unsustainable, and pretty unhealthy (although my cholesterol only rose slightly).  I could maintain daily exercise and a low carb diet overall, but I stopped calorie counting and went back to drinking resveratrol-boosting levels of red wine. By 2008 I was back to 220 pounds.

This time I took on the South Beach diet, which is low carb but low fat, and ate a lot of sliced turkey and salad and got back to 195. Then I went back to my habits, and after three years I was back to 220.

So in 2011 I recommitted to keeping a food diary, and began to think seriously about self-quantification as an avenue to permanent lifestyle modification. I started using the free MyFitnessPal food and exercise diary app.  Setting a daily goal of burning more calories than I ate made sense to me as a statistician, and I loved the wealth of data the program began to provide about the content of my diet. Within six months I had lost another twenty pounds and was plateauing around 200.

But the problem with food and exercise apps is that we are prone to over-estimate the intensity of our exercise and underestimate the amount of food we have eaten. I began working my fantasy of a cyborg diet and exercise tracking system into my talks on moral enhancement technologies, pointing to the inadequacies of self-reporting compared to something that measured food content and actual calories burned.  When MyFitnessPal teamed up with the e-health device firm BodyMedia in 2012 to release a wearable sensor I eagerly adopted it.

The BodyMedia Fit is worn on a strap around your arm, and measures motion, galvanic skin response, body temperature (ambient, skin and body) as well as heat flux. It feeds all that data into an algorithm that updates every minute the number of calories you’ve burned, steps you’ve taken, amount of different kinds of activity you’ve done that day, and the amount and quality of your sleep. Then it pulls in the food diary data through cloud sync with MyFitnessPal,  and displays a real-time monitor of your progress towards your goals. You can see your activity charted minute-by-minute bluetoothed to your phone or tablet, and download day-by-day records, or weekly and monthly summaries, of dozens of measurements.

Immediately using the Fit gameified my day. Getting those progress bars to inch past my goals was a motivator for me as good as a personal coach.  I only take it off to shower since I want every step to count.  I had a daily goal of steps (currently 12,000), calories burned (2700), and minutes of activity (2 hours). Some days I would do a lot of walking around and my low intensity walking would boost steps, activity and calorie burn. Other days I would have to get to all three goals on the elliptical. I was disappointed to discover how little standing at my desk (which I’ve done for the last three years) and mowing the lawn added.  When I started with the device I recorded about 90 daily minutes of activity, and now I’m up to 170, about 90-100 minutes of which is usually on the elliptical.

So in the last eight months I’ve lost another thirty pounds, and now am down to my original target weight of 170, the technical edge of “overweight” for my height. My new goal is to reach the middle of my target BMI at about 155 pounds, and do more resistance training, body-shaping and yoga.  In the Fall BodyMedia releases their new, smaller, waterproof, and more stylish “Core 2” monitor and I’m looking forward to using that.  My son is also using the Bodymedia device and, having achieved a young Adonis look, plans to keep using it when he goes to college in the Fall.

I’ve also started recording my meditation with a Neurosky device, which doesn’t tell me a whole lot more than that I am in fact meditating, but which has given my meditation practice the same kick in the pants that the BodyMedia gave to my fitness. Seeing that steady tick of dots across the BioZen output motivates me to get to the cushion as well as the clang of a temple bell.  I’m very much looking forward to the release of the Melon headband this Fall, which promises to measure EEG more discreetly and during many more types of activities. Integrating a moment-to-moment mindfulness tracker during daily activities outside of meditation would be even more transformative than steps and calories.

The next nut to crack is the diet tracking, which I’m still a horrible liar at. If I’d only eaten what I recorded I’d have died of starvation. There are implanted and wearable blood glucose monitors in development for diabetics, and stomach pacemakers that turn on satiety for the morbidly obese, but nothing to replace manual recording in the immediate future.  So I also need to bring some of that renewed mindfulness from my cushion to improving my diet tracking.

I’m 52, and I have a pall of cancer in my family. Both grandmothers died of cancer, my mother got ovarian cancer at 38 and my father died from oral cancer at 59. So I feel the press of time and mortality, and carrying all that weight for twenty years made me feel much more pessimistic about the future. I’m delighted with my progress, and with the improved prospect that I will live to see a lot more of the exciting future I have so eagerly anticipated, whether I ever get to cross Kurzweil’s second and third longevity bridges, or take the SENS cocktail and live another thousand years. I have the outline of five more books in my computer – I’m aiming for a Cyborg sextet oeuvre –which will take about fifteen more years to write.  My kids are 17 and 20, and neither is in any hurry to breed despite my insistence that I wanted grandchildren yesterday.

So I need to stay on that elliptical, and that is now something I look forward to thanks to the rapidly improving cyborg quantification of the body.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


I so appreciate your efforts at maintaining a healthy weight/fitness schedule.  My experience is that people over-estimate the effect exercise has on weight control, and they under-estimate the effect calorie restriction has.  The first step is to count calories, the second is to make sure those calories come from health food choices, and the third step is to make sure you are physically active despite restricting calories.

I am on a severe CRdiet of 1200 calories per day, which lowers my metabolism, and gives me more energy.  I work out walking (getting pulled) my three dobermans one hour twice a day (their enthusiasm motivates me).  Finally, because of the small amount of food I eat, I must be very careful what I eat.

Let me add that your eternal life strategy ought to include a CRdiet, which is not meant to lose weight, but for longevity and health.  Food is often used as an emotional crutch, and that is unhealthy.  Furthermore, people often indulge in inhibition lowering recreation (drinking and smoking) which is counter-productive to the discipline necessary to stay on a diet.

If we can last another few decades, we have a good chance of taking advantage of emerging extreme longevity technology.  Sacrificing now to gain the great treasure of eternal life is only rational.

Good comment, Doberman fan. One comment to add—despite its being obvious—is how worrying about diet can be worse than neglecting nutrition. So many people agonise on this factor; they agonise about diet. (BTW, we don’t know what is contained in our tap water, we don’t send samples of tap water to the lab, do we?)
Wont go into psychosomatic factors.. is for an expert to write about.

Something else: a plump person has a plus:
it is considered socially acceptable to be slightly heavy whereas skinny is often considered wussy (‘twinky’) for a man. Such is a psychological aspect to consider. Someone told me something unusual: people often fear the skinny because, quote they are afraid skinny people are going to vomit on them unquote. Sounded specious at first yet it is a savvy observation. And, fat people are unduly stigmatised. If someone is grossly overweight such is health-threatening however there are exceptions. You may have heard of people who eat metal!
Have you noticed doctors have so much on their minds they don’t always have time to give good advice? Many doctors have to deal with many patients, many factors—it would be impossible to keep up with the latest medical literature. There’s a tendency to err on the side of conservatism.. which makes sense from a professional view albeit is not individualised enough.
Worrying about malpractice could be enough of a drag in and of itself.
(Good news is celebrities don’t write diet books as much as in the past. What kind of megalomania does it take for an untrained celebrity to write books on such a complicated issue? Self-satisfied well-fed celebrities.)

Thanks for an extremely honest and valuable article.

I’ll have to write a separate article about Paleo, calorie restriction and intermittent fasting. Inspired by George Dvorsky I tried Paleo, but found the strictures against dairy products and legumes impossible to keep (too may of my ancestors died of lactose poisoning so that I could be lactose tolerant to turn my back on their sacrifice).  Calorie restriction I find impossible to contemplate as a lifestyle choice, unless it really was to ward off an imminent fatal disease and get to radical longevity. Even then there isn’t really any evidence that calorie restriction works in adults. And the intermittent fasting research suggests that you can achieve a lot of the same metabolic results by doing two <600 calorie days each week, which I have been experimenting with successfully. Basically whenever the scale tips up a pound or more I’ll make that a <600 calorie day.

I am all for calorie restriction as long as I can continue to eat fatty bean soups with sausages, English breakfasts, and huge meat grills with lots of french fries.

And pasta of course. Lots of it, all types.

Almost forgot: I am an unrepentant smoker.

Too bad alcohol gives me headaches these days, I would be so happy if I could continue to drink as I did when I was a kid: huge mugs of cold beer, good wine, whiskey, vodka, grappa, tequila, sake…

Why should I want to live longer if I don’t enjoy it?

I have been a semi-vegan for a while now, and I really enjoy it.

“Semi” just means I can eat something really tasty that isn’t vegan if I’m severely tempted - I am in “farm-to-table” rural Long Island now so I felt impelled to eat 3 oysters and sheep cheese, yesterday - for example.

I support vegan because it is kind, and it promotes an environmentally sustainable future.

If you need a pep talk to be vegan, David Pearce can always provide one.

“Why should I want to live longer if I don’t enjoy it?”

This is the most thought-provoking comment so far. At any rate—to be a champion of the obvious—there are advantages to being plump: first, for males, being overweight is considered preferable to being skinny. A skinny guy is thought to be a wimp whereas a slightly overweight guy is more accepted. The man is considered to have more substance in the form of bulk.
With women the situation is different.

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