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The Physics Diet?

There are at least four possible positions on the thermodynamics of weight gain:

1. Weight gain does not depend on calories in versus calories out, even in the loosest sense.

2. Weight gain is entirely a function of calories in versus calories out, but calories may move in unexpected ways not linked to the classic “eat” and “exercise” dichotomy. For example, some people may have “fast metabolisms” which burn calories even when they are not exercising. These people may stay very thin even if they eat and exercise as much as much more obese people.

3. Weight gain is entirely a function of calories in versus calories out, and therefore of how much you eat and exercise. However, these are in turn mostly dependent on the set points of a biologically-based drive. For example, some people may have overactive appetites, and feel starving unless they eat an amount of food that will make them fat. Other people will have very strong exercise drives and feel fidgety unless they get enough exercise to keep them very thin. These things can be altered in various ways which cause weight gain or loss, without the subject exerting willpower. For example, sleep may cause weight loss because people who get a good night sleep have decreased appetite and lower levels of appetite-related hormones.

4. Weight gain is entirely a function of calories in versus calories out, and therefore of how much you eat and exercise. That means diet is entirely a function of willpower and any claim that factors other than amount of food eaten and amount of exercise performed can affect weight gain is ipso facto ridiculous. For example, we can dismiss claims that getting a good night’s sleep helps weight loss, because that would violate the laws of thermodynamics.

1 and 4 are kind of dumb. 1 is dumb because…well, to steal an Eddington quote originally supposed apply to the second law of thermodynamics:

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against…thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

But 4 is also dumb. We have a long list of things that affect weight gain – for example, patients on the powerful psychiatric medication clozapine usually gain a lot of weight – fifteen pounds more on average than people on safer antipsychotics. Other medications are known to increase weight to a lesser degree, and some medications even decrease weight, though you wouldn’t like the side effects of most of them. Certain genetic diseases are also known to cause increased weight – Prader-Willi syndrome, for example.

One could try to rescue 4 by saying that people with rare genetic diseases or taking powerful prescription-only medications are a different story and in normal people it’s entirely controlled by willpower. But first, this is an area where possibility proofs are half the battle, and we have a possibility proof. And second, there are more than enough studies about genetics, microbiome, and, yes, sleep showing that all of these things can have effects in normal people.

So 1 and 4 are out. And although I do sometimes see people pushing them, they mostly seem to do a thriving business as straw men for people who want to accuse their opponents of saying something absurd.

The most interesting debate to be had is between 2 and 3. 3 says that all of the interventions that we know affect weight – certain pills, certain recreational drugs, changes in gut bacteria, whatever – do it by affecting appetite and exercise drive. 2 says that basal metabolism is also involved. 3 seems to at least leave open the possibility of just starving yourself even when your body is telling you really hard to eat. 2 says even that won’t work.

There’s room for a little bit of gradation between 2 and 3. A lot of people suggest that one way “fast metabolism” presents is by people fidgeting a lot, which is sort of the same as “your body increases its exercise drive”.

But in general, I think 2 is an important issue that does cause at least some interpersonal weight differences.

We’ll start with the “possibility proof” again. MRAP2. It’s a gene. Scientists can delete it in mice. These mice will eventually develop excessive appetites. But when they are young, they eat the same amount as any other mouse, but still get fatter.

Likewise, 2,4-dinitrophenol is a cellular uncoupling agent which increases metabolic rate and consistently produces weight loss of 2-3 pounds per week. It would be an excellent solution to all of our obesity-related problems if the papers on it didn’t keep having names like 2,4-Dinitrophenol: A Weight Loss Agent With Significant Acute Toxicity And Risk Of Death.

So what about everyday life?

A study of individual variation in basal metabolic rate found very significant interpersonal differences. A lot of that was just “some people are bigger than others”, but some of it wasn’t – they state that “twenty-six percent of the variance remained unexplained”. The Wikipedia article puts this in context: “One study reported an extreme case where two individuals with the same lean body mass of 43 kg had BMRs of 1075 kcal/day (4.5 MJ/day) and 1790 kcal/day (7.5 MJ/day). This difference of 715 kcal/day (67%) is equivalent to one of the individuals completing a 10 kilometer run every day”

Dr. Claude Bouchard and his team stuck 12 pairs of male identical twins in isolation chambers where their caloric intake and exercise could be carefully controlled, then fed them more calories than their bodies needed. All sets of twins gained weight, and in all twin groups both twins gained about the same amount of weight as each other, but the amount of weight gained varied between twin pairs by a factor of 3 (from 4 to 13 kg).

A lot of the sites that talk about this thing are careful to say that people “can’t blame” genes for their obesity, because obesity levels have been rising for decades and genes can’t change that quickly. I think this is wrong-headed. True, genes are not the source of the modern rise in obesity levels. But it’s entirely possible that a globally rising tide of obesity has disproportionately affected the people with the wrong genes. Just as Bouchard fed the same amount extra to all his study participants but some of them gained more weight than others, so if you put an entire civilization worth of people in an obesogenic environment, some of them might be genetically predisposed to do worse than the rest.

A more practical question – can individual people’s metabolism change?

I am personally predisposed to answer in the affirmative. In my early twenties, I ate a crazy amount every day – two bagels with breakfast, cookies with lunch, a big dinner followed by dessert – and I stayed pretty thin throughout. Now I’m thirty, I eat a very restrained diet, and my weight still hovers at just above the range where I am supposed to be. I know that people are famously bad at understanding how much they’re eating and exercising, but seriously if you try to convince me that I’m eating more now than I was then I’m going to start doubting my own sanity, or at least my autobiographical memory.

But there’s not much evidence to back me up. Metabolic rate is well-known to decline with age, but linearly and predictably. And it changes with muscle mass, but only minimally – and I don’t think I used to be any more muscular.

The sites that talk about drastic and unexpected ways to change metabolism seem mostly crackpottish. This isn’t to say their methods don’t work – green tea, for example, has a statistically significant effect – but it’s all so small as to be pretty meaningless in a real-world context.

So my own story seems to be on shaky ground. But as far as I can tell, the people arguing that they’re trying just as hard as anybody else but still unable to lose weight because of their metabolism are very possibly right.

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290 Responses to The Physics Diet?

  1. FullMeta_Rationalist says:


    (For the phatics. I promise to never do this again.)

    • Anonymous says:

      This comment is neither true nor necessary!

      (Truth-inapt things can’t pass through the truth gate, right?)

      • Daniel says:

        Surely “FIRST!” means “I made the first comment, and I’m happy about this”, which is not only truth-apt, but in this case even true.

        • Anon here. “FIRST!” doesn’t mean that, because “FIRST!” is neither a declarative sentence nor a shorthand for one. Saying “bless you.” or “do you want a tissue?” or “put on a face-mask!” when someone sneezes isn’t a declarative sentence either. Propositions play a relatively small role in human language. Utterances like “Happy birthday!” do imply some factual statements in ordinary contexts, but they aren’t identical to those statements.

          I conclude that ‘YAY GREENS’ and its ilk must always fail to pass the truth gate, because it’s not the kind of thing that can be true or false. All such exhortations have to be both kind and necessary. 🙂

          • llamathatducks says:

            I completely agree with Daniel’s interpretation of “FIRST!”, which is to say that the way I understand it, it is shorthand for a declarative statement.

            And “YAY [X]” pretty clearly means “I am happy about X”, which absolutely has a truth value (and which we can generally assume to be true when someone says it). Just because an utterance doesn’t have the form of a traditional English sentence doesn’t mean it lacks a truth value!

      • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

        Have I not passed The Gate of Truth?

    • Nornagest says:

      Now I’m sorry I mentioned that.

    • Anonymous says:

      One time Scott put up an essay — I rushed to write a constructive comment AND I was first. 😛

  2. John Schilling says:

    I think I’d parse this differently, given that we are throwing out options 1 and 4 right off the bat. Instead, how about a process like this?

    1. Weight gain/loss is calories in minus calories out, period, because thermodynamics.

    2. Calories in is a linear function of diet, plus some other stuff, e.g. gut microbiome affecting digestion.

    3. Calories out is a linear function of exercise (positive Y-intercept, obviously), plus some other stuff, e.g. age-related decline in base metabolism.

    4. Diet is a function of willpower applied to dieting, plus some other stuff, e.g. appetite-suppressant drugs.

    5. Exercise is a function of willpower applied to exercise, plus some other stuff, e.g. inherent fidgetiness.

    6. Willpower is simplistically constant, but really also has a “plus some other stuff” appended, e.g. psychiatric medications.

    In the case where all the “other stuff” is negligible, this reduces to You’re Fat Because You Don’t Have Enough Willpower. Since that’s clearly not the whole story, we need to find where the “other stuff” is hiding, quantify it, and see if any of it is stuff we can usefully apply. And I think that, thermodynamically, it has to all fall into categories 2-5, which may help guide the search.

    • Tracy W says:

      You need appetite in there too somewhere. The amount of willpower you need to conquer an urge depends on how strong that urge is. For example, the longer you hold your breath, the stronger the urge to breathe again.

      I don’t think appetite is necessarily constant, eg pregnancy and its aftermath has done weird things to my appetite, even setting aside morning sickness. And I’ve found doing hiking that appetites tend to be much larger the day after a very tough day.

    • Shenpen says:

      Diet is a function of leptin depletion and leptin resistance. This why clever diets have cheat days or play with feast-and-fast cycles like when you run out of leptin, you eat, when you don’t eat, you reduce your leptin resistance.

      Exercise is a function of:

      – insuline sensitivity: can you use those calories in your muscles, or it is stored as fat and your muscles are tired and you cannot exercise, lacking muscle fuel?

      – Exercise Induced Asthma, most people who have it don’t even KNOW, they just think they run out of breath because they re in a bad shape, NOPE, it is a thing

      – dopamine, i.e. fun factor of exercise or your general dopamine levels (can be reduced by depression)

      – Testosterone makes you want to exercise:

      – Testosterone inhibits adipogenic differentiation in 3T3-L1 cells i.e. if you are Rambo, you cannot store excess calories as fat, either you shit it out or it is brute-forced into your muscles and you feel the need to exercise, as above

      – Human Growth Hormone also plays a role

  3. Anon says:

    I’d thought that the accepted wisdom was that men’s metabolism generally changed radically in their mid-twenties (as yours did). I would be very surprised to find this contradicted by studies.

    • Randy M says:

      But accepted wisdom doesn’t necessarily mean supported by studies, either, although it’s one of those things that I’d likewise be hesitant to disbelieve, being about the same weight (+/- 5%) over 15 years or so, despite varying consumption dramatically and exercise slightly. (iirc, of course)

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m just gonna say that people are REALLY bad at knowing how much they eat and how much they move, particularly fat people. See, e.g.:

    This seems like it might explain a lot.

    • Pete says:

      In anecdotal support of this, the only weight loss strategy that has ever worked for me is obsessive calorie tracking. Whenever I stop tracking, I find myself putting weight back on even though it doesn’t feel like I’m eating any more.

    • Justin says:

      Anecdotally this has also been my experience. I’ve never known an obese person well enough to know their eating habits who didn’t severely underestimate them. I’ve had people tell me “I haven’t eaten anything all day,” or “all I’ve had to eat is a couple pine nuts” as an excuse to eat an insane amount of food, in spite of the fact that I watched them eat two Whoppers, fries and gigantic soda not three hours earlier, and they really believed it!

      On the other hand, differences in metabolism are definitely a factor. When I was young I could eat literally twice what I do now without weight gain, and I actually weighed less and has far less muscle mass.

      This also could be a bit of a chicken and egg scenario too though, as eating lots of food alters the epigenome in ways that increase appetite and enable weight gain. Definitely some metabolic feedback loops involved.

      • Anonymous says:

        Consider the possibility that fat people are also shamed for eating, so they’re less likely to remember and/or tell the truth about what they’ve eaten. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that everyone tends to underestimate what they eat, but I haven’t checked this.

        — Nancy Lebovitz

        • Kiya says:

          It seems a lot more likely to underestimate what you’ve eaten than to overestimate, because if you forget anything, that leads to an underestimate. I’ve had the experience of giving a list of things I’ve eaten and remembering something else five minutes later. I’ve never given a list of things I’ve eaten and in retrospect realized that I didn’t eat one of them.

          I am a bit underweight, find eating a necessary chore, and mainly give lists of things I’ve eaten in order to complain that I shouldn’t be hungry now because I have totally eaten a reasonable amount of food.

        • Anonymous says:

          IIRC, underweight people overestimate how much they eat and overweight people underestimate how much they eat, although I can’t find the source right now.

  5. Wirehead Wannabe says:

    Is there any evidence regarding the efficiency of calorie absorption? Ever since I heard about the role of gut microbes in weight gain, I always wondered whether it was just of matter of how many calories actually made it into your bloodstream.

    • Just? Isn’t that exactly what’s implied by the argument about guy microbes?

      • llamathatducks says:

        I just want to say that I love your typo.

      • Wirehead Wannabe says:

        I guess I maybe didn’t expand well enough on that.

        A) I was assuming that there might be other possible mechanisms for gut microbes to cause weight changes (chemical signals, etc.)

        B) I was also attempting to speculate that things other than gut microbes might result in fewer calories being taken in. Maybe digestive enzymes vary in efficiency, or food travels at different rates through the digestive system and therefore has different amounts of time to be absorbed.

    • Jaskologist says:

      It additionally seems very likely to me that we wouldn’t have the same efficiency in extracting calories from protein, fat, carbs, sugar, alcohol, etc, but I haven’t seen much talk about what those differences are. Our body processes certainly aren’t the same as literally burning the food to heat water.

      • CaptBackslap says:

        I’ve heard that alcohol’s calories are quite poorly absorbed, but in general I think this line of thought has been under-explored. The ideas that (1) the digestive system has exactly the same efficiency as a trash incinerator for all types of food, and (2) said efficiency is unvarying at all times and places, seem pretty implausible given the unending layers of interactions that affect other biological systems.

        • Anonymous says:

          Actually I believe that this has been rather thorughly explored in the field of endurance sports research. At least there is an insane focus on developing diets, supplements an drugs that will give people on the Tour deFrance or RAAM enough calorie uptake.

      • kass says:

        The typical calorie factors for macronutrients are not just bomb calorimeter values. These Atwater factors were determined by subtracting energy lost in feces, when consuming a mixed meal. These are inexact, and change with different foods, fiber content, probably gut flora, etc. but they average around the 4/4/9 Cals per gram. Years later it was found that each macronutrient induces a different thermic effect than the others. Proteins typically induce a thermic effect of around 25%. Carbs are maybe 6%, Fats are around 0%. That’s energy lost as heat. This is one reason that isocaloric comparisons between high-protein diets and low-protein diets favor the high-protein diet, regardless of the fat/carb content. Fun fact: The process of discovering the differing thermic effects originally led scientists to posit the beneficial effects of eating multiple small meals to “stoke the metabolic fire” that you still hear about in horrible, horrible nutrition articles.

  6. Scott says:

    On the topic of changing your metabolism, this is as much an effect of your behavior as it is your age, because both diet and exercise habits change your epigenome (I’ll dig up some links when I’m off mobile). What’s interesting is that this throws the typical advice of ‘you’ll see results 2-3 months after you start an exercise program’ in a new light. It’s firstly that it takes a while for you to physically grow muscle/lose fat, but secondly that it takes a few months for your body to change its genetic expression to suit a new body composition.

  7. Janne says:

    One practical factor is habits. We humans don’t come equipped with bomb calorimeters and the indirect indications (sweet flavour and so on) are very imprecise, so we really have no direct measurement of our moment-to-moment caloric intake. So a lot comes down to habit, or a “sensory set point”: “I’m supposed to eat about this amount”. And we do. We will for instance generally eat the same amount for lunch whether we had a very early breakfast or a late one. I’ll feel hungry around dinnertime whether I should be or not.

    At least part of our appetite and of feeling hungry seem to come down to habit – something rather hard to change over the short term. And, I suspect, if you don’t eat at regular times, the habit-based regulation will tend to break down. You can effectively lose track of how much you eat every day, and easily fall into a habit/set point that makes you ingest more than you actually need.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      We will for instance generally eat the same amount for lunch whether we had a very early breakfast or a late one.

      Speak for yourself!

    • Justin says:

      And, I suspect, if you don’t eat at regular times, the habit-based regulation will tend to break down. You can effectively lose track of how much you eat every day, and easily fall into a habit/set point that makes you ingest more than you actually need.

      Actually, I think the opposite is true. If you don’t accustom your body to eating at specific times during the day, it is easier to eat when you’re hungry as opposed to when you are used to eating.

      I found myself extremely confused when you were talking about how natural it is to eat the same size lunch regardless of breakfast, or get hungry at dinner time regardless of need for calories. Then again, I don’t have any set eating times. I eat when I’m hungry (and I usually wait until I’m extremely hungry), which means I almost never eat breakfast, and often don’t eat lunch.

      Of course, after reading the literature on intermittent fasting, I also realized that hunger is an extremely healthy feeling, and attempt to push it when I can. As a result, I’ve stayed at less than 15% body fat as I push through my mid-30s, in spite of an exercise schedule that varies radically (I’ll exercise heavily for a few months, then almost never for a few months when injury or other aspects of my life prevent it.

      I do think a big part of the equation is people eating to avoid hunger, rather than eating when hungry.

      • Anonymous says:

        >If you don’t accustom your body to eating at specific times during the day, it is easier to eat when you’re hungry as opposed to when you are used to eating.

        Based on my experience with diets, if you are losing weight you are hungry all the time.

  8. gneal says:

    Based on personal experience, I lean towards 2. They’ve done studies feeding people the same number of calories but different amounts of fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Diet content — not calories — determined weight loss. This means, at least, diet and weight loss interact in ways we don’t entirely understand.

    Low carb diets are based on a partial understanding of these effects. By eliminating spikes in blood sugar, you minimize insulin levels. High insulin levels are linked to increased appetite and increased hormones that convert blood sugar to fat and store fat in the body.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      I used to believe this, but Guyenet has convinced me otherwise. There are just too many examples of cultures that exhibit good metabolic health, including low fasting insulin, on extremely high-carbohydrate diets.

      WARNING: I’m not an expert, and everything below here is based on my incomplete understanding of the research. I’m not just making it up out of whole cloth, but I haven’t run it by a biochemist, either. At least some of this is probably wrong. But it’s the mental model I have, and it fits well with the data I have and isn’t contradicted by any evidence I know of.

      De novo lipogenesis from glucose is quite rare, and basically happens only when you exceed your energy requirements with carbohydrates alone. That is, when you exceed your energy requirements on a mixed diet (CHO + fat), the body will preferentially burn the glucose and store fat, because it would be inefficient to burn the fat and then convert the glucose.

      This doesn’t necessarily mean low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets make you fat. You absolutely will burn all the fat you eat and then some if you aren’t meeting your energy requirements. It just means that “carbohydrates convert to fat” is not an accurate description of how you gain fat while on a low-fat diet.

      Fructose is a special case. You don’t want fructose circulating in your bloodstream for long, so the liver pulls it in and converts it to glucose and then to glycogen. As a rule, the liver does not export glycogen to muscles, so it stays in the liver until it’s needed by your brain and whatever else runs on liver glycogen. If your liver receives fructose while its glycogen stores are full, it has no choice but to convert it to fat.

      The liver exports fat as triglycerides wrapped up in VLDL. In lipid screenings, triglycerides are basically a measure of fat being synthesized in and exported from your liver, which is why low-carbohydrate diets make them drop like a rock.

      Your liver can export fat only so quickly. When it gets backed up, you develop hepatic (liver) insulin resistance. This is probably why there’s been some success in alleviating type II diabetes with fasting protocols—they allow the liver to dump its excess energy stores and make room for more. There’s probably something similar going on with muscular insulin resistance—as muscle glycogen stores fill up, they’re less and less eager to accept glucose—but I’m even less informed about that.

      Anyway, that’s what I’ve pieced together. If any of you actually know what you’re talking about—unlike me—I’d be very interested in hearing which parts are bullshit.

      • Richard says:

        According to the course I took in human physiology a couple decades ago, all fructose is converted to fat by the liver, and the bad thing about fructose is that the molecule is similar enough to glucose to trick the body into producing insulin (fructose is essentially the mirror image of glucose). The insulin can not actually do anything about the fructose and just sloshes around in your blood stream increasing insulin resistance. This tracks well with just about everything I have read about low carb diets in that they work primarily by reducing fructose, not necessarily carbs in general.
        Not sure if there has been new and improved research this millennium that proves me wrong

        • Brandon Berg says:

          Google turns up several sources (some of them peer-reviewed papers) saying fructose does not promote an acute insulin response.

          Also, why would having insulin in your bloodstream cause insulin resistance? Is there a mechanism by which insulin receptors wear out through overuse?

          Edit: I also found several papers finding that the liver does use fructose to replenish glycogen stores, and that fructose is actually more efficient than glucose for this purpose, since fructose goes straight to the liver while glucose is shared with the muscles. I’m pretty sure de novo lipogenesis happens primarily when glycogen stores are full.

          • Richard says:

            Commenter Null hypothesis has a rather excellent explanation below.

            Has a significantly longer explanation that says about the same

          • Richard says:

            In reply to the edit:
            After browsing Google scholar for a while, there seems to be a much larger controversy around fructose these days than in my old textbook. I seem to find that there are about 50/50 among the articles finding an effect and not finding one. This is confounded by the fact that studies done in both animals and humans show vastly different results among the two groups and that most studies have examined only one or the other.
            More reading is needed to find the current state of the issue, and possibly more research in order to find the actual truth

          • Anonymous says:

            No, there’s no mechanism, but the standard theory of (type 2) diabetes, to the extent that such a theory exists, is that insulin receptors do wear out from overuse.

    • Shenpen says:

      Low-carb works, but makes you unhappy and harder to stick to:

      Low-fat has the advantage of not hating it very much and thus easier to stick to.

      Ultimately, low-calories, moderately low fat and moderately low carb may be easiest combo of working and also being able to stick to it.

      Anecdotal: my alcohol cravings are triggered by carb cravings. After work I need to drink 2 beers. However they can also be non-alcoholic beers. If they are normal beers, I proceed to get drunk, if they are non-a, I am fine.

      • Brandon Berg says:

        Unless I’m misreading, they restricted fat and carbohydrates by far more than either Ornish or Atkins recommended, to as close to zero as possible. Almost no one is actually recommending either of those, so extrapolating from their experience to popular low-carbohydrate or low-fat diets is untenable.

        • Anthony says:

          Atkins does recommend, at least for the initial (“induction”) phase, restricting carbohydrates to as close to zero as possible. That’s supposed to last no more than two weeks, after which you can have limited amounts of carbs, preferably from vegetables.

      • Anonymous says:

        >Low-fat has the advantage of not hating it very much and thus easier to stick to.

        Don’t do low-fat. Healthy hormone functioning requires some fat.

    • kass says:

      In protein-matched comparisons between low-carb and low-fat, the results are highly similar, with a decent amount of individual variability. Diet content matters a lot, and there is a ton we don’t know, but the specific macronutrient breakdown isn’t a central issue. When dieting, benefits to higher protein are robust enough to recommend, but it’s not necessary. In terms of broad strokes, its the calories.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      The study I remember seeing concluded that starting out weighing the same, eating the same number of calories, and exercising the same amount will end up weighing about the same regardless of diet composition, but the ones eating more proteins will end up with more muscles and the ones eating more carbs and fats will end up with more body fat.

  9. Forge the Sky says:

    There’s a lot of things involved. Whoever says this is simple is selling something. Naturally thermodynamics isn’t broken. But to expand upon what some people say above already, ‘calories in’ isn’t synonymous with ‘calories eaten,’ nor are ‘calories out’ synonymous with exercise or even (in the commonly-understood sense) metabolic rate. Gut microbiota and gut health effect absorption. Liver function can effect excretion. I’ll pull in a random wildcard – some people think the exploding rates of obesity and diabetes in Vietnam are in part caused by all the Agent Orange we sprayed there during the Vietnam war (I haven’t looked into this claim personally, but am assured it’s a concern by an expert in the field).

    This is a hard problem! It can be affected by so many aspects of a person’s life. From the willpower angle, it’s not even just the overweight person’s habits or addictions, but their family’s as well. I work in a clinic that often deals with trying to help people make lifestyle changes, and you really do need to attack it from all angles, with two eyes open, to have much of a success rate.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      Does Vietnam have a particularly high rate of diabetes that requires explanation? I’m finding conflicting numbers, but all sources I found suggest a low to middling rate that can easily be explained by westernization.

  10. BD Sixsmith says:

    Whenever I hear “calories” I hear “Cal or Rhys”. Cal or Rhys in. Cal or Rhys out. These sods are complicating food for everyone.

    Anyway, caloric intake and obesity rates are correlated pretty closely which (3). While I am sure that biological factors are involved, you might be interested in this study that tracked the spread of obesity through social networks. According to its authors one’s chances of becoming obese rose if one’s friends or siblings gained weight. Were it just the latter I may be inclined to attribute it to genes but the former is intriguing.

    • FNB says:

      The study on obesity being spread through social networks was somewhat flawed.

    • Tom Richards says:

      My brothers and I like to joke that there’s a Law of Conservation of Richards, whereby our total mass remains constant, such that if one of us loses weight, one or more of the others must inevitably gain it. In the most extreme example, I lost 5 stone in a little under five months a couple of years ago. Henry in particular got fat fast.

      So totes debunked, basically.

  11. JT says:

    Wait, I feel like we’re leaving out all sorts of ways potential energy you consume can leave your body. Did I miss something?

    This isn’t an energy equation. You can drink all the kerosene you want but I don’t think you’ll get any energy from it.

    Chemical potential energy could be exiting your body through muscle exertion, but also body heat, body waste, etc., etc. Perhaps some people are just pooping more?

    • John Schilling says:

      Pedantically speaking, depending on where we draw the control volume either the kerosene never enters the system in the first place, or it counts as “energy in” when you drink it and “energy out” when it comes out whatever orifice it’s going to come out.

      Usefully speaking, we are talking about the energy content of digestible fats, oils, proteins, carbohydrates, and alcohols. Those things, to the first order, the human digestive system transforms to a common set of energy-carriers with high efficiency, to be used for all metabolic functions interchangeably. Once all other metabolic functions are accounted for, there’s always fat-synthesis to soak up the excess. Or vice versa if there’s a shortage. In either case, there is usually very little available energy in poop.

      To the first order. The second-order effects are potentially interesting, of course.

  12. Hainish says:

    Scott, which increases metabolic weight (weight s/b rate)

  13. ASR says:

    I liked this post. As a matter of writing, I have one small editorial suggestion. It took a while before I understood the distinction between possibilities 2 and 3; if you want to polish this, you might revise the way you introduce possibility 3 to clarify how it differs from 2.

    When we say that metabolism declines linearly with age — how sure are we that it’s linear and orderly for each person in the population, rather than just as a statistical average?

  14. J. Quinton says:

    I was 180 lbs throughout my 20s. It was actually kind of frustrating because I’ve always wanted to get bigger (I was *really* tall and skinny in elementary/jr high school; to the point that people teased me by calling me Skeletor). I did almost all I could to gain weight: At one point I was forcing myself to eat like 2 Big Macs from Burger King for lunch (on top of large fries/soda) and 2 20 ounce T-bone steaks for dinner (on top of veggies or fries for sides). Plus copious amounts of the healthy dietary substitute Ensure. Nothing worked; remained at around 180. Granted, this was on top of lifting heavy weights at the gym 3-4 times a week.

    Maybe 3 months before turning 31, I started gaining weight. My girlfriend at the time noticed it and was starting to complain that I was getting too big. So my contribution to the anecdata is that there’s definitely something hormonal or metabolic that controls how much you weigh and it’s not simply calories in/calories out (CICO?).

  15. Anonymous says:

    I know that people are famously bad at understanding how much they’re eating and exercising, but seriously if you try to convince me that I’m eating more now than I was then I’m going to start doubting my own sanity, or at least my autobiographical memory.

    Doesn’t matter. You don’t know how much you move now vs then. If we stuck you in a lab where all movement and calorie input was scrupulously recorded, we’d find the role your “metabolism” played – and it would probably not be much.

  16. roystgnr says:

    When my father’s thyroid went hyper, the most pronounced effect was that he lost ~25% of his already-not-excessive weight in a matter of months despite a greatly increased appetite. “Compulsion to exercise” was not on the symptoms list, unless “constantly twitchy” counts as exercise. So put me squarely in the “theory 2” camp, at least in exceptional cases. (although I do wonder, now that he’s irradiated his thyroid and replaced it with pills: is nobody investigating those pills as a weight-loss drug?)

    The average cases must clearly be in at least the “theory 3” situation. Imagine that you didn’t have any subconscious feedback loops. How tightly do you consciously control your calorie consumption and expenditure? To within 5%? That’s ~100 calories a day, ~10 pounds of fat a year, ~100 pounds a decade. Anyone who took the drunkards’ walk one way would have to make a determined effort to avoid starvation; anyone who went the other way would be grossly obese in no time.

    • Anonymous says:

      Levothyroxine isn’t touted as a weight loss drug per se, but it is used. Hypothyroidism is a pretty common diagnosis for middle aged women with vague complaints of weight gain and lethargy. While it is an easily tested lab value, the “normal” values can be somewhat open to interpretation. Supplementing thyroid levels to the high side of “normal” can alleviate some of those symptoms that may just be a natural part of human aging.

      In men of the same age, the more popular treatment is testosterone replacement therapy.

    • Anonymous says:

      > is nobody investigating those pills as a weight-loss drug?

      Thyroid drugs are fairly common in competitive bodybuilding.

    • Jared says:

      You don’t need a behavioral feedback loop to explain a minimal level of weight stability, because there is already negative feedback just from higher body masses requiring more calories. A bog standard BMR calculator says that my BMR would be roughly 100 calories higher if I gained 10 pounds. Therefore, in a simplistic model, if my mean calorie consumption were 100 calories higher than my current mean calorie expenditure and nothing perturbed the former, my total weight gain would asymptotically approach +10 pounds. Similarly, at equilibrium, the drunkard’s walk would not be a problem due to negative feedback. A small imbalance will not snowball without bound unless there is some positive feedback mechanism to offset this.

      • Jared says:

        I should clarify that I agree with Scott’s theory 3 (that there are tons of biological knobs and dials affecting hunger and activity and metabolism), but I found roystgnr’s argument for it highly unpersuasive.

    • Tracy W says:

      I’ve never dieted and certainly don’t calorie count as I have no will power, and yet my BMI has mostly remained a little below 25 through my adult life (excluding pregnancies and even then I didn’t gain any fat despite massive hunger, and about 8 months after the second baby’s birth when my appetite went into over-drive).

    • Anonymous says:

      “Compulsion to exercise” was not on the symptoms list, unless “constantly twitchy” counts as exercise.

      Why would you not count twitching as exercise?

  17. Maybe the people with the willpower needed to lose weight didn’t get fat in the first place.

    • Given that all children have little to no willpower whatsoever, I doubt this.

      • Shenpen says:

        Except for super “modern” parents, children don’t get to choose what, when and how much to eat. So it is the willpower test of their parents, to not give in no matter how hard they wail for chocolate.

        • James Miller says:

          Yes, lots of kids would be on all candy diets if they could eat whatever they wanted.

        • Anthony says:

          Children will eat anything they want to if they can get to it, despite the parents’ instructions otherwise. While some threat of punishment can change the child’s desire for particular foods, putting the foods out of reach is generally more effective.

          Children can also be incredibly stubborn about not eating something they don’t want to eat.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Willpower is visible even at a very young age. See the marshmallow experiment, then try it on your own kid!

        • Shenpen says:

          The experiment did not measure how much the child subjectively wanted / liked / was tempted by the marshmallow, they just assume all kids like it exactly the same amount, all kids are equally hard tempted by it! This is a horrible methodology and belongs to the annals of shame.

          What if the “high willpower” kids simply don’t like marshmallows that much? What if the “low willpower” kids really like them?

      • Nestor says:

        That test leaving them with the sweets and the reward for not eating them while the examiner is gone indicates the opposite.

    • Shenpen says:

      Willpower is moralistic bullshit and should have no place on a rationalist forum: given that we don’t know how hard temptations other people subjectively feel, we don’t know how much strength they require to withstand them. It is entirely possible that a carb craving feels for one as a mild annoyance and for another like killing for it.

      What we, can, objectively know is when some people’s subjective temptation exceeds their subjective willpower, that is all really.

      I am overweight, borderline obese, and I don’t even like sweet stuff. Just not. My wife needs to make special sour cherries and sour cream pies for me or else she could not exercise her baking skills on me, as I am entirely untempted by chocolate cakes, unless made from 96% dark chocolate. I am the kind of crazy who eats grapefruits rather than grapes. So I could easily say I have higher willpower the people who gorge on muffins but the thing is, actually the temptation is very low. OTOH the temptation to beer, vodka, bread, and lard (Eastern European Peasant Diet) is high, hence my girth.

      • Nita says:

        I love grapefruits too, but they do contain almost as much sugar as oranges — and a lot more than broccoli, for instance.

      • onyomi says:

        I do not think willpower has no place on a rationalist forum unless free will itself has no place. Certainly one can’t objectively measure the strength of temptation, but it seems pretty well established that will power functions like a muscle, which has endurance, gets depleted, and so on.

        What’s interesting is that, willpower, like a muscle, can be built up over time, so, assuming we have free will of some kind, we may not have control over how strongly things tempt us, or how much willpower we have to begin with, but we do have some measure of control over whether or not we choose to “practice” and thereby build up our willpower.

        Look up the “Marathon Monks” of Mt. Hiei. They are basically guys who walk 25 miles a day through the mountains for a few years, living on about 1500 calories a day and only a few hours of sleep. They finish up this procedure with seven days of seated meditation with no food or sleeping allowed (theoretically no water, either, but I think they get a little when they are bathed). Now maybe only those who have high willpower to begin with will even attempt this, but it seems also clear that they are going to have more willpower at the end of this training than at the beginning, to cite an extreme example.

        • Nornagest says:

          What’s the dropout rate?

          • onyomi says:

            They are expected to commit suicide if they fail during this practice, which is called the kaihougyou–so there’s some motivation for you! How many diets would fail if failure meant obligatory suicide?

            That said, this particular training is not something all the monks undergo, by any means–just a subset of the most hardcore of this one particular group of this one particular sect, so one could argue it’s self-selecting for people who already have high will power. Still, I don’t think anybody is born with that kind of will power. It’s cultivated over years, and, I think, may correlate highly with the type of spiritual liberation these monks are seeking.

            I do know that becoming a monk in Japan in general has a decently high attrition rate toward the beginning, though I wouldn’t say that it’s always due to a failure of willpower. It may just be people deciding the lifestyle is not for them.

          • Anonymous says:

            Your link answers the selection question: very few are selected for this task (1 per 3 years), and only from those who have already completed 10%.

  18. Null Hypothesis says:

    I work with biological control systems a bit. And to point you in the right direction, I’ll suggest you look at Insulin for effecting weight gain.

    But if you want what I find to be the most dominating answer (as in, people I talk to and give this advice, and then apply it, see very positive results) is that you are as fat as you need to be.

    Every cell in your body needs energy to function. It doesn’t matter how much (or little) you cram into your mouth – if the energy doesn’t make it to the cells, you starve at the cellular level.

    Energy is released from fat cells at a certain rate. When you eat carbohydrates, your body wants to make use of this sugar (because its easy to use, and also because high blood sugar will kill you). So your body releases insulin. Insulin directs most of your cells to utilize the glucose, and it directs your fat cells to SLOW DOWN on releasing lipids.

    The problem is that insulin doesn’t disappear as fast as the sugar does. So after consuming a large candy bar, or a lot of bread, you’ll feel hungry. Because the sugar’s all gone, and your fat cells are still being told to hold in their lipids. If you didn’t eat any proteins or fats with the carbs, which should be making their way into the blood stream right about now – then your cells will start to starve and you’ll feel hungry. This is why snacking begets snacking.

    Now we combine that short-term explanation of hunger and fat with metabolic syndrome.

    Overtime, especially with a high carbohydrate diet, your cells will become insulin resistant. It’s not digital – it’s an analogue response. In short your body needs to release more insulin, and have a higher resting insulin level, to get the same effect.

    More resting insulin means that in-between meals, your fat cells are being told to release lipids slower than they’re used to. Which is not enough to keep you fed. You start to starve. So your body fixes it – it makes your fat cells larger. Like muscle, you more or less don’t grow new fat cells. Getting fatter just means fat cells are getting bigger. And bigger fat cells release lipids faster. So your body takes all this information and decides the best course of action is to make you fatter. And surprise – your cells starving makes you feel hungry, and eating more lets you grow your fat cells. On top of that, it’ll do you the favor of making you feel sleepy and tired and slow down your metabolism, so you don’t starve in the moment and you can dedicate more new calories to fattening up.

    It’s like it’s all one big complicated, very robust control system or something.

    So don’t think of it as getting fat because you’re eating more.

    You’re eating more because you’re trying to get fat. You’re trying to get fat because your fat cells are too small. They’re too small because at their current size, and with your current blood chemistry, they don’t release enough lipids continually to keep you fed in-between meals. And your blood chemistry is the way it is because you’ve overdone it on carbohydrates and your body is producing more insulin as a result.

    This is by no means an end-all be-all explanation for weight gain. But it’s the first order cause. “Calories-in, Calories-out” is correct, but useless. Your body can decide to utilize calories or not. So “calories-in” isn’t a fixed value. And your body will alter its metabolism in response to excess or shortage of calories, so “calories-out” is also a moving target. How fat you are is how your body controls the continual fueling of your cells in-between meals. You’re precisely as fat as you need to be to accomplish this. And you will continue to be that fat unless you change an underlying factor that reduces the need for such large cells.

    The people that are fat today, that weren’t 50 years ago, have screwed up their system and gotten fat because they’ve induced an increased insulin level, and won’t see good success in losing their weight unless they bring it back down.

    • Anonymous says:

      Which, if I’m reading you right, means “eat fewer processed sugars and more fats/protein/complex carbohydrates” ?

      • Null Hypothesis says:

        In general, yeah. But I love my starches too much, and it’s not like people didn’t eat tones of potatoes and other delicious sugars before everyone started getting fat.

        I think the main thing causing it is while we still eat about the same during meals, we snack a lot more than people used to. And snacks (preferably being packaged and dry for convenience) are crackers or potato-chips or cookies.

        So what I did was make sure to roast a ham every week, and then instead of snacking on chips and pretzels and cookies, I’d just grab a cold piece of ham. No limits or anything – I’d still snack until I was full, but used ham instead. Did that two years ago, mostly on whim, and I lost about 12lbs over the course of three months.

        So, in short, more moderation is good. This logic alone would suggest you do away with all starches together, but I’m not sold on that idea. I have no idea where the happy balance point is – I just know we’re eating more sugar than we ought to right now.

    • BD Sixsmith says:

      The people that are fat today, that weren’t 50 years ago, have screwed up their system and gotten fat because they’ve induced an increased insulin level…

      Are you applying this to refined carbohydrates or the lot? I can see how it might be applicable to the former but not the latter. Americans, for example, eat more simple sugars than their great grandparents but fewer whole grains.

      Another possibility is that something in Western diets has damaged carbohydrate metabolisms but that’s beyond me.

      • Richard says:

        See my comment above about fructose. This seems to fit nicely.

      • Null Hypothesis says:

        I’m a biomedical engineer, not a nutritionist, so take this all with a grain of salt.

        My understanding is that:

        1) we snack more in-between meals than our grandparents. And those snacks are almost entirely processed foods

        2) processed carbohydrates like breads and breakfast cereals have a higher glycemic index than candy bars. Glycemic index is a scale of how fast a starch is digested, with pure glucose at 100, and table sugar in the mid 70’s. Breads and breakfast cereals are often in the 80’s, which we eat a lot of now. Conversely, you can eat fruits and vegetables all day until you puke – you’re not going to digest them fast enough to spike your blood sugar (GI ~ 5-25).

    • chaosmage says:

      Thank you for this understandable and concise writeup. So are there ways to reduce insulin resistance, and how well do they work?

      • Null Hypothesis says:

        Medical or medicinal methods? Not that I know of. But again this isn’t exactly my area of expertise.

        My understanding is if you lower your sugar intake though, over time your resting insulin levels should drop, and the low-carb diets tend to reflect that result.

      • Richard says:

        According to exercise and reduced carb intake works

    • Shenpen says:

      This is all correct, however. You are hinting at a low-carb diet. There is one thing wrong with that – it makes you feel bad, hence you won’t stick to it.

      There are other ways to reduce insuline resistance. Intermittent fasting, exercise, and and overally low-calories diet.

      Weight loss has a complicated psychology with many factors. For example the keto-paleo large steak with vegs does not work for me, because it puts my mind into a spoiled mode, I want to treat myself with every kind of bad food and drink. Something like a religious fast where it is only 3 slices of bread a day and water, while it is carb focused, works for me, because it puts my mind in a “be proud of your self denial” mode and I eat even less.

      So I think while this is correct, the psychology of it also needs to be researched.

      I had one truly succesful weight loss attempt and I did eat some carbs. It was like: 1 roll + 1 yoghurt breakfast, 1 roll + 1 yoghurt lunch, little meat and little vegs in the evening and a virtuously abstained from getting shitface drunk.

      Similar psychology must also be applied to exercise. Biology may say lifting weights works better than cardio. But if lifting weights is boring and you won’t do it, and playing frisbee is fun and you will do it, then that wins.

      • onyomi says:

        Insulin resistance is an important issue, but I’ve seen some studies claiming that a lot of the things we habitually assume are the insulin culprits may not be as bad as other things we assume don’t stimulate insulin:

        According to this, for example, a steak stimulates more insulin production than a bowl of white pasta.

        • Shenpen says:

          I don’t understand how a glycemic index can fail to predict insulin production…

          • Null Hypothesis says:


            Thanks for the link. An insulin index seems like it would be a much better guide for altering your diet, if this really is the main mechanism at play.

            And Shenpen, the Wikipedia link he gives notes that they’re highly correlated, just not identical, which makes a good deal of sense.

          • Shenpen says:

            Thanks for the link! The insuling index is scary! My go-to weight loss meal is 1 wholemeal roll and 1 yoghurt. Surprisingly they are not a good idea. WTF is then something simple that I can eat that requires no preparation (we don’t have a full kitchen at work, so I just buy ready stuff in the grocery store, like rolls, yoghurt, sandwiches or salad). I don’t want to live on all-bran.

        • Anonymous says:

          The difference here is that protein also stimulates glucagon.

          • onyomi says:

            What I just have to ask of all the high-protein, high-fat, low-carb proponents is: why are the Japanese, who eat three bowls of bleached white rice a day, and whose sweets are almost pure carb with no fat, skinny, even when they sit in an office all day, while we, who routinely eat pieces of meat the size of which few Asians could afford, and whose sweets almost always include a stick of butter, so fat? And what of our farming ancestors, who, for 5-10,000 years ate tons of wheat, rice, potatoes, and the like, but who couldn’t usually afford a lot of meat? There’s a reason hypertension and the like used to be called “diseases of kings.”

            And it’s not genetics (at least not entirely), because when I, of European descent, have lived in Japan, and eaten a high-carb, low-fat diet by default, I have lost weight, despite seeming to be eating all the time.

      • Steve says:

        Shenpen: Is there strong evidence behind the generalization of “it makes you feel bad, hence you won’t stick to [a low-carb diet]”? All I’ve seen is that one twin “study” which doesn’t seem particularly strong and has been contradicted by my anecdotal experience.

        I agree that willpower and, more generally, ability to conform is a generally underappreciated aspect of exercise/diet. I’d just add that, if it means enough to you (and I’ve found that both overall fitness and frequency of hard exercise have a ROI for me exceeding anything else in my life save a good night’s sleep, which is correlated), it’s worth thinking deeply about whether you can affect what you hate doing in addition to finding things you don’t.

        I despised the idea of going to the gym and doing heavy lifting after work. I’d sit on the couch and immediately give it up. Several small, non-willpower-intensive things helped me change that: changing into exercise clothes immediately after getting home without seeing it as a commitment to working out; spending the time to construct the absolute best music playlist I could; mentally separating the steps toward exercise (i.e. if I might want to work out, just go to the gym, it has TVs and isn’t unpleasant, OK then just get on the elliptical and warm up for 5-10 minutes while listening to music, that really isn’t bad at all, and then hey if you want to do hit some squats during commercials of this program of choice, the rack is right there). I found I didn’t have the willpower to “go lift weights after work,” but I did have the willpower to drive to the gym in exercise clothes, watch TV and listen to music, and allow weightlifting to happen. In that sense, I think looking at “willpower” (or behavioral responses/some similar, less-loaded term) as a fixed external variable that allows or prevents a certain pattern of behavior can be a bit misleading.

        • Shenpen says:

          And you could have avoided the million attemps to hack your brain into wanting something you don’t want instead of just choosing a sport that is fun and has a trainer who pushes people.

          I chose boxing.

          Sure, it is 90% cardio and 10% lifting (i.e. we do some push-ups) which may not be 100% ideal but I don’t think the difference is that big. Only for young and thin guys who care about looks, otherwise, from a health angle, not so much.

          I never understood why from the 90’s on weight lifting became such a fad. People now confuse being big with being fit, and lifting with the million sports.

          Sure, it has advantages over low-intensity cardio, bur hormonally lifting and HIIT cardio are largely the same (testosterone and HGH) and almost every real fun sport,martial arts, soccer, basketball etc. are basically a HIIT training.

          • Steve says:

            Lifting provides an irreplaceable benefit for sports performance, which is nice even though I only play recreationally. Also, most people enjoy being strong. The weightlifting “fad” is because it’s tremendously efficient exercise with significant and quick athletic and aesthetic benefits. I feel much happier day-to-day when I’m regularly doing both lifting and HIIT (via sports or otherwise).

            I didn’t find the million attempts to hack my brain to have been an unpleasant or taxing experience that I would have preferred avoiding, and I feel I benefited from the process.

      • drethelin says:

        You (or others) keep saying this on this post, but Low-carb (to the point of ketogenic) makes me feel a lot less bad than calorie counting. When I was counting calories I would have headaches, tiredness, and constant irritability.

  19. Anonymous says:

    What mystifies me is the degree to which nutrition is an ideological debate not in the political sense but in the sense that there are high emotions and passion.

    I’d like to understand what exactly causes certain issues to become ideological in this way.

    • Anonymous says:

      I mean, 2 and 3 aren’t even theoretically opposed or mutually exclusive. Why and how did “camps” ever form around this issue?

      • Null Hypothesis says:

        In a word, it’s because the Federal Government is in charge of nutrition.

        They issue guidelines on nutrition, they enforce an opinion of “healthy eating” that many don’t agree with, and they use fat kids as justification to regulate food – again according to their opinion of what constitutes a healthy diet.

        This gets into not only obesity, but cardiovascular health, and healthcare in general.

        But what constitutes a healthy diet is of great dispute, and many argue it’s the Federal Government’s guidelines themselves responsible for a lot of the epidemic.

        The government took a side on the issue and started doing things based on that opinion. An issue becoming political doesn’t tend to precede government action. It’s normally in response to it (or in responses of calls to action).

        • Harald K says:

          There are also other sides with a keen interest in telling you what you should eat, e.g. farmers, the food industry, book authors, literal gurus etc. I’m not sure it would make much difference if the government had an official opinion or not, and if it did, I’m pretty sure it would be for the worse. Except when directly coopted by private interests, government has no reason to push poorly supported advice, and they have plenty of incentive to get it right.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            Harald K wrote:

            government has no reason to push poorly supported advice, and they have plenty of incentive to get it right.

            How do you figure that? What incentive do you think regulators have to get it right? I would have thought regulators do have some incentive to push plausibly supportable advice, but essentially no incentive to get it right. Bureaucrats and politicians keep their job and power by being seen to “manage” a problem, not by actually fixing it. In fact, if their advice makes the problem get worse they can then argue for more resources to fight it – bigger budgets! more staff! – whereas if the advice works and problem diminishes or disappears it’s hard to defend the continuing budgets of the regulators who fixed it – they’d have to scramble for some new way to redefine that problem as still existing, or branch out into solving other vaguely-related problems (aka “mission creep”).

          • Anonymous says:

            The easiest way for a bureaucrat to push “plausibly supportable” advice, is to push advice that’s actually good. They have very little reason to do otherwise. And to find out what’s good advice, all they have to do is pay people who are studying it scientifically.

            This is not true of e.g. the meat industry, because they have a product to sell.

            Nor is it true of private health gurus: they have strong “anti-inductive” incentives, to use a SSC neologism. If you preach roughly the same diet that the government has recommended for 50 years, that’s probably not optimal for your book sales.

            “In fact, if their advice makes the problem get worse they can then argue for more resources to fight it – bigger budgets! more staff!”

            This is a standard anti-scientific talking point. You can’t trust scientists to solve a problem, apparently. If they solved it they’d be out of work! So scientists can’t be trusted to solve problems.

            Looking at the concrete situation, I find it extremely implausible that government-employed scientists such as Ancel Keys deliberately gave bad nutrition advice in order to secure more funding. One indicator of that is that they followed their own dietary advice (Keys lived to the age of 100, incidentally).

            What incentive scientists have to aggravate/fail to solve a problem in order to secure funding, is mostly hypothetical, and in any case tiny. The incentives in the private sector are an entirely different beast.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            The easiest way for a bureaucrat to push “plausibly supportable” advice, is to push advice that’s actually good.

            Finding out what advice is actually good would involve work (We arguably still don’t know what advice is actually good). No, the easiest way to provide defensible advice is to arbitrarily pick one of the more recent theories pushed by one high-profile scientist or another, assume it’s correct, and make that our new Schelling Point. Which seems to be what happened.

        • David Moss says:

          I don’t see any reason to think that the government has anything to do with this. People have a keen ideological interest in the rightness or wrongness of things that are generally deemed important- like whether what you are feeding yourself and your family is making them live well and be healthy and is wise and virtuous or whether it is foolish and slovenly and making you and your kids obese and sick. Also, people have long tied up their sense of identity with particular foods.

      • Anonymous says:

        There are opposing camps because fat people don’t want to be told they might be lazy, and fit people don’t want to have it suggested that they might not be as virtuous as they think they are.

        Basically, because people don’t want to own their shit.

        (I was going to note that you can easily replace fat/fit with poor/wealthy, more interesting given the American correlation of obesity with poverty.)

        • Izaak Weiss says:

          Not kind. And not something that is clearly true, though I’m not sure if that counts. I will report it, though.

          • Anonymous says:

            Not kind to whom? People who don’t want to examine their own biases?

            Also, I’m fairly certain that if “clearly true” were the standard, our gracious host would have but a tiny fraction of the comments he currently receives. Which would be unfortunate, as I find the SSC comment sections to be as interesting, and occasionally moreso, than the original posts that spawn them.

          • This doesn’t seem unkind to me… he’s not talking about in present company. Surely we are allowed to speculate that some people out there have self-serving biases? That seems like one of the core tenets of what we do here.

            It also seems obviously true to me at least. The reason this issue is politicized is identity politics. Also the debate of whether certain groups of people lack willpower or are victims of circumstance stuck in an impossible situation seems to clearly play into conservative vs. liberal paradigms.

          • caryatis says:

            I thought the comment was pretty much a universal truth–people don’t like to be told unflattering things about themselves. It’s frank, but not unkind.

    • Another Anon says:

      I wonder if the part of whether obese folks are “to blame” for their obesity is what made things ideological. (Blame is a bit of a misconcept in my opinion… even willpower differences are due to differences in the way you’re constructed, only this time it’s at the level of your brain. You’re ultimately a biological robot.)

      • Leit says:

        A robot perhaps, but I refuse to believe that our programming is deterministic. We’re heavy enough on feedback mechanisms that we’re able to mould and overcome our programming.

        Which is to say, software is more important than hardware in this case, and I honestly believe it’s a cop-out to suggest that some people have a lower threshold of willpower and that’s just too bad.

    • LRS says:

      Being fat is low-status in mainstream western culture. If it’s easy to become less fat with simple behavior changes, this implies that fat people are low status because of their own failure to implement simple and easy behavior changes. Being fat then can start to look somewhat like a failure of character.

      Consider how a fat person might find this conclusion deeply threatening to their positive self-image, and how fat people and their allies might therefore argue heatedly against the view that it is easy to become less fat with simple behavior changes.

      Does this illuminate the issue for you at all?

    • llamathatducks says:

      This issue has every ingredient (whoopspun?) for high emotion and passion.

      1) Affects a lot of people: a very large portion of Americans is fat or near-fat, and nutrition itself involves choices that pretty much everyone has to make all the time.
      2) Can be literally a matter of life or death.
      3) Involves bias and discrimination (against fat people), status/privilege, and lots of shaming. (My impression is that the dominant common experience of fat people is one of being shamed.)
      4) Is related to beauty standards, therefore to sex, romance, and feminism (all high-emotion topics).
      5) There are policy debates to be had related to this topic. Not just federal guidelines, as Null Hypothesis mentions, but also any kind of health policy discussion is likely to be at least somewhat related to nutrition and/or fat.
      6) Large national trends showing change that people are afraid of = so many media worrying opportunities! Moral panic!!
      7) The question is, in part, where to assign blame.

    • chaosmage says:

      Food, like everything else, signals status. But I suspect it does so in a special way: I think it’d be much harder to eat well in front of a hungry person than it is to be well clothed in front of someone in rags.

      I find it difficult to imagine how something so literally visceral as food could not trigger all sorts of deep neural circuitry that gives rise to strong emotions.

      Food is (and especially was) usually consumed communally, so any signalling going on around food is likely to be particularly noticable.

      So food rules are particularly convenient as tribal association markers and indeed every culture has them. Every single traditional religion has explicit food rules and taboos of course. Then there’s vegans and vegetarians and other food-based identities, which sprang up (in Europe and the US) in the early 20th century, i.e. when removal of the threat of famine created a potent signalling channel.

      But of course everyone else has implicit rules, and the food they eat positively reinforces these at least as well as it reinforces the explicit ones.

      • Randy M says:

        “I think it’d be much harder to eat well in front of a hungry person than it is to be well clothed in front of someone in rags.”
        Food is more of an immediate need. Now, if it was freezing and you saw someone in rags, I think that would be harder.

    • Shenpen says:

      Fitness experts, trainers, dieteticians have a lot of money in appearing being right.

    • onyomi says:

      I have noticed that nutrition (along with nearly everything else these days, unfortunately) has gotten caught up in the tribal hopper. I notice my Blue Tribe friends are much more likely to be vegetarian or vegan, probably because it seems friendlier to the environment, to animals, etc. and therefore they are also more prone to believe the research saying plant-based diets are superior for health. My Red Tribe friends are more likely to be actively carnivorous in a way that seems at least partially a reaction against the growing popularity of vegetarian and veganism and the sort of “wimpy,” “prissy” attitude they seem to represent. Grey tribe members like myself are disproportionately interested in things like paleo and crossfit, probably because we tend to be skeptical of conventional wisdom, sometimes to an almost perverse degree.

      I tried varying degrees of paleo and Atkins for years, most likely because of the contrarianism which makes me a grey tribe member. I eventually realized they weren’t working for me and switched to the more pro-vegan view (I’m not a vegan, but I think the best diet for health is probably a mostly-vegan diet with a little oily fish thrown in for omega 3 and protein). This is also the view which seems to be supported by the largest percentage of the nutrition establishment, which, as a contrarian, kind of pains me, but it is what is is.

      Puts me in a weird position, though, because when my libertarian friends post about how stupid high-carb, low-fat diets are, I’m tempted to post something like “I guess that’s why the Japanese are all so fat,” but I feel like I might be viewed as a commie or something, even though there’s no logical connection.

      • Tom Richards says:

        I suspect there’s a fair amount of interpersonal variation: high protein diets with relatively low fat and carb intake have worked far better than alternatives for me (and for my younger brother), but I have no very good reason to think that’s true more generally.

    • My short answer is that people have gone collectively insane on the subject.

      People care about food. People care about how they are seen and treated by other people. These don’t have to be tightly linked, but currently, they are.

      Food and fatness have become intensely moralized and status-linked issues in recent decades.

  20. Jared says:

    It seems like the actual calorie-counting debate is not 2 versus 3, but rather, “Calorie counting would work for almost no/few/some/many/most/almost all people,” and then, “Calorie counting should / should not be advocated to overweight people”.

    As someone in the “ZOMG losing weight via calorie counting is awesome [source: personal experience]” camp, here’s what I would tell the general public if a genie gave me an effective PR campaign for this purpose.

    “Calorie counting works if you are sufficiently fastidious (but it’s getting easier thanks to smart phones!). In particular, you must be careful about the amount of food you are eating, not just the type of food you are eating.”

    Framing this as “willpower” is completely atrocious. This pointlessly adds a moral component so that people will decide that you were lying if they have trouble counting calories. I want people to think that this is something that they can probably/maybe do (because thinking that you can’t lose weight is a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one), but certainly not that failure is moral weakness, as that serves no useful purpose. I don’t know if “fastidious” is the best word (I might be off base on all the psychology in this post), but it sure as hell beats “willpower” (and, on the flip side, it beats, “calorie counting works if you have borderline anorexia”).

    • Anonymous says:

      There are two components to calorie counting: determining how much to eat, and resisting the desire to eat more. Fastidiousness is only relevant for the first; willpower is the key to the second.

      • Jared says:

        Someone who always washes their hands before they eat is more fastidious than someone who always remembers to wash their hands before they eat but doesn’t always wash them.

        “Fastidiousness” can be used to mean “ability to meet a behavior goal” as long as there is a connotation that the goal is a bit fussy. I’m fine with this because it’s much better than the moral connotations of “willpower”.

      • Shenpen says:

        Willpower doesn’t exist, merely conflicting incentives. You always have the will to do what you want, it is a true tautology. However, ther eare some cases when short and long term will conflicts. When people eat more then they should, in that moment they want eating more in the short run than being skinnier in the long run.

        Please replace willpower with time preference.

        A low time preference -easily delayed gratification – is largely what you call willpower.

        There is no one study I can cite, but it seems economics and social psychology seems to suggest that the key thing to low time preference is a predictable environment: you do shit, and whatever you expect happens. So you can assess the consequences of your actions and you feel empowered: whatever you do, matters.

        To train this, you need to put people into situations where they do stuff and whatever they expect, the logical consequence, happens.

        Parents know this. They know the key to child-rearing is brutal consistency: if you promise a reward or a punishment for an action, it must be surer than death and taxes. That way kids learn that what they do matters, that you, the parent, the most important part of their environment, react 100% predictably to the levers pulled.

        Part of the issue is that the poor don’t have this kind of predictable environment. E.g. they break the law often, like, by smoking pot, but getting caught or not is a matter of luck. It is not consistent. If you smoke pot 100 times but get a sentence only once, it is not your action but your luck.

        This is why sports are a good idea and similar activities. If you take people bowling and they realize that if they throw the ball just right it knocks out all the pins, they gain exactly this empowerment, and thus this low time preference.

    • Tracy W says:

      Can we get away from moral connotations that quickly? I have my doubts that just avoiding words makes the concept go away (see euphemism treadmill).

      And, with calorie counting, that’s something you need to remember to do every single time you eat, which is very tough for many people, including me, to do in and of itself. I’m currently trying to make a one sentence diary note every single day, and even with a reminder on my phone, that’s tough and I often don’t do that.

      • Shenpen says:

        Because the concept has always been bogus. Moralism is a mind-killer, it stops the thinking process, instead of digging deep “why” people just say “because I am / he is bad”.

        Willpower doesn’t really exist, merely conflicting desires, conflicting incentives. Often, a short-term one conflicts with a long-term one. Moralism is the part that says you must always choose the long-term one or else feel really bad about yourself.

        A more practical outlook is making short-term stuff less tempting and making long-term stuff less hard.

        • Tracy W says:

          That a concept is bogus doesn’t mean it will necessarily go away.

          And, it’s not always easy to make the short-term stuff less tempting. Eg seeing your ex-partner who treated you terribly crossing the road in front of the ten-ton truck you are driving and being awfully tempted to hit the accelerator, may have been something you never even thought of guarding against up until you were right in the moment. (No, I have never killed an ex, with or without an auto-mobile, but I have struggled with the impulse.)

      • Anonymous says:

        >And, with calorie counting, that’s something you need to remember to do every single time you eat, which is very tough for many people, including me, to do in and of itself.

        After some time you get a general intuition of how many calories are in a food item. This happens very quickly if your diet is predictable.

        • Tracy W says:

          This happens very quickly if your diet is predictable.

          If my choice was between a predictable diet and a BMI of 30+, I’d pick the 30+ option.

          • Anonymous says:

            As a calorie counter: I total up all the calories while I cook. Slightly easy because I cook for myself (saves the multiplication / division for splitting and leftovers). And my diet is chaos, so no worries there.

    • caryatis says:

      Jared, how does calorie counting actually work? Wouldn’t you have to either eat only processed food with calories on the label, or like weigh every ingredient of food you cook? It sounds like a lot of work.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Download My Fitness Pal onto your phone.

        Anything with a barcode can be scanned. Most basic items like fruit can be found. You don’t have to be 100% correct; ballpark figures will probably do.

        Worked for me, at any rate.

        • caryatis says:

          Thank you. But how would that work with home-cooked food? Would you have to use recipes that provided calorie counts and not deviate from them?

          • Jaskologist says:

            You can add recipes in there by specifying the ingredients. So there’s some initial setup involved, but you only have to do it once for each new recipe.

          • Noumenon72 says:

            Also, if you eat a mishmash tortilla or salad every day, you can copy that meal to the next day and only alter the new ingredients.

          • Anonymous says:

            Home-cooked food is just a collection of distinct ingredients, each of which has some caloric value.

          • chamomile geode says:

            jaskologist–food changes in caloric composition as you cook it. an apple pie does not have the same number of calories as its raw ingredients.

            but a slice of home-baked apple pie (calories unknown) is probably better for you than a slice of mass-produced apple (calories stated on the box)–if only because the home-baked slice probably has fewer calories.

            calorie-counters are disincentivized from home cooking by the extra work of calculation. however, a high ratio of home-cooked food consumption to prepared food consumption is a reliable predictor of health and fitness. so it’s a perverse incentive. and the gray tribe in particular, when it does get into calorie counting, encourages people to eat frozen meals rather than home-cooked meals to be more sure about calories. (see ‘the hacker’s diet.’)

            i think all of this is my main problem with the idea of calorie counting: not an insistence that weight shifts and energy consumption are unrelated, but an acknowledgment that we aren’t very good at measuring energy consumption (at least, not in ways that are accessible in daily life), and an acknowledgment that the system creates perverse incentives.

          • Pete says:

            chamomile geode – The way I deal with it is when I home cook, I search for the meal I cook in the MFP database and use the highest calorie version of the meal I can find. What I have cooked is likely to have fewer calories than this.

            This only works while I don’t allow myself to cheat by saying “well I overestimated those calories so I can get away with eating this extra bit of food and not count it” which is something I occasionally do.

          • Jaskologist says:

            @chamomile geode

            You don’t have to be perfectly accurate. The main thing is to have an idea of just what it is you are putting in your body throughout the day.

            When I started I did indeed measure out how many cups I was putting on my plate, because I quickly developed a feel for it which got me close enough. The value value came from the following:

            -Observation changes the results in a positive direction. I actually thought twice before reaching for a snack, because I could see how that would impact my budget for the day.

            -It took advantage of my desire to game the numbers.Once I was able to put numbers to what I was doing and what I was aiming for, I usually came in under the daily goal.

            This does have to be tempered with enough honesty to not *lie to yourself* about whether or not you ate that candy bar. If you, like my wife, take up an intense flossing regimen two weeks prior to seeing the dentist (and only then), this may not help you.

            tldr; don’t worry about precision.

          • caryatis says:

            I agree with chamomile geode that this would not work well for someone who gets most of their calories through home cooking. (Especially in my situation: someone else does the cooking, without a recipe, and would not have the time or inclination to weigh and record every ingredient every time.).

            When I tried calorie counting, it worked for breakfast and snacks (either packaged food or something very simple like oatmeal or a bell pepper) but with lunch and dinner, my guesses were completely untethered to reality.

          • chamomile geode says:

            pete/jaskologist: i would be willing to bet that calorie counting is great for people who are mostly eating packaged food already (and i’m not trying to knock packaged food too much: it’s super convenient and there are lots of situations where it’s worth the tradeoff), and also great for people who are good at math/willing to research/high-willpower enough to figure out the calories in their meal, but there’s probably a middle ground of people whose diets will worsen as they turn to calorie counting bc they’ll start to replace cooking with packaged food for convenience of counting.

      • Jared says:

        I agree with Jaskologist.

        I should explain that you don’t need to be super-accurate. “Fastidious” is one of those things where telling same thing to everyone doesn’t work. Most people are extremely inaccurate at it (an anon posted a bunch of studies to this effect at 8:44pm), so you need to be “fastidious” relative to the human baseline, but naturally you can also be too fastidious.

        It is useful to be measuring all over the place at first before you have any intuitions about portion size, but then you can ballpark. The real failure modes are more like, “look up everything you ate and assume that you ate ‘1 serving’ of each dish and/or snack” or “ignore calories from drinks”.

        I also personally highly recommend doing calorie counting as a feedback process. Increase your calorie target if you are losing weight too fast, decrease it if you are not losing weight fast enough. To maintain, increase your calorie target if you go below target weight and decrease it if go above target weight. Obviously leave a little wiggle room to avoid being crazy.

        This is very useful because accurately estimating your expenditure is a lot harder than accurately estimating your consumption. I think another common failure mode is to estimate expenditure based on population averages, set a consumption target based on that, and then fail because your metabolism is lower than average.

  21. Jared says:

    To elaborate on why the 2 versus 3 distinction isn’t key for the calorie counting debate: 2 is less of a problem for the pro-counting side than 3. To calorie count, you don’t set your calorie goal based on some general purpose BMR linear regression, but rather you count how many calories you eat normally, and then eat less. You can then calibrate how much you need to eat based on the first derivative of your weight. Having highly abnormal calorie requirements compared to the general population doesn’t make sense as a failure mode. Things that make sense as failure modes are:

    A. Lack of correlation between how many calories you think you’re eating and how many calories you’re eating.
    B. Failure to reduce the number of calories that you think you’re eating.
    C. Adaptive change in energy expenditure.

    Of course, C is allowed for by 3. While I don’t think it’s enough to mess most people up, it certainly seems like more of an issue than metabolic rates differing between people, as the latter doesn’t seem like a problem at all.

    Possible better attempt to explain why I don’t understand why 2 is broken apart from 3 with 2 being the more “anti-calorie” position. EVERYONE agrees that some people can eat a lot more than others without exercising and nonetheless stay thin. They’re called tall people.

  22. Brandon Berg says:

    3 seems to at least leave open the possibility of just starving yourself even when your body is telling you really hard to eat. 2 says even that won’t work.

    I don’t see how that follows from 2 at all. A low BMR just means you require fewer calories to maintain your current weight. There’s no magic here. Eating less than the sum of your BMR and other expenditures will still necessarily produce weight loss. It’s just that your “less” is less than the average person’s.

    • Anatoly says:

      People who believe 2 often also believe that when they try to starve (more realistically, semi-starve) themselves, their BMR lowers significantly, cancelling or diminishing the caloric imbalance.

      Whether true or not, this belief helps as an excuse and as a demotivator: screw you for arrogantly telling me it’s all about my willpower, because even when I try with the utmost willpower, my body won’t let me lose weight.

      In my experience, this demotivation factor is so strong that many people are better off believing 3 even if 2 is partly true, just because it’s so tempting and easy to overestimate the 2-like effects. Who believes “the distinct makeup of my metabolism is a factor in my weight gain, but it’s a 1.5% factor”? If you blame your metabolism, you tend to go all the way, and it’s a dead end.

      Having said all that, is it actually true that BMR changes significantly or some other version of “your body adjusts”? When I tried to look for papers on this, I found at best a very small effect. But I do think that plateaus cry out for explanation.

      Plateaus in sustained weight loss seem to be extremely common, and not easy to explain without some sort of “change in your body”. I commonly hear two explanations: 1) something changed in the diet/exercise 2) the ongoing weight loss lowered the BMR to match the diet, so you’re at caloric balance now. But here’s a typical narrative where both explanations seem hard to fit: someone extremely obese finds a reasonable diet and exercise regimen that they can follow and that produces good results week after week. They’re very happy to religiously follow the regimen without any change because results. Many weeks in (so “initial water loss” etc. doesn’t apply) they hit a plateau and stay on it for weeks. Ongoing slow weight loss and BMR changes due to it can’t explain a jump from significant loss each week (indicating significant imbalance) to zero loss. This sort of plateau seems to pop up inevitably in a sustained weight loss story of extremely obese people, and personal experience confirms it too. It’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that somehow “the body adjusts”. What else could be happening?

      • This was my experience, FWIW. About five years ago I dropped from 230lbs to 170lbs with a strict diet+exercise regime. After going off my strict diet, I bounced back up to around 185, and I’ve been between 185-190 ever since. The height-weight charts tell me I should be around 160, but further efforts have mostly been useless at getting my weight lower than it is right now.

        (I’m not very upset by this, since at 190lbs I look and feel fine, but anyway.)

  23. Pasha says:

    To be super-duper technical, weight can’t be a function of calories in, calories out because
    weight is a function of

    weight of food you eat + water – weight of poop – weight of pee – weight of breathing out

    Now, that’s a silly model, you say, because what kind of food really matters, not just the weight of food, right?

    well right. For the same reason, calories in, calories out is another silly model because what matters is
    a) calories absorbed
    b) how the food itself affects hunger. Sugar crashes will cause hunger and avoiding them is a good idea for weight loss.
    c) actual composition of food. If you are missing some amino acids, they are hard if not impossible to synthesize, so where the weight goes (fat vs muscle vs bone) might depend a lot on availability of necessary building blocks.
    d) actual weight of food and how much of it gets “stuck” either in the digestive tract, inside cells, between cells, etc

    also a note on exercise that fascinates me. Basic thermodynamics suggest that there are two types of exercise from the perspective of heat transfer: 1. the symmetric up and down lifts transfer your energy into heat, almost all inside the body, or 2 swimming or hiking only uphill transfers your caloric energy into heat outside the body.

    • Jared says:

      The “conservation of mass” diet is stupid because you need to predict how much of the food will be retained as fat before you eat, which in no way correlates with the mass of the food. Calories as measured by a bomb calorimeter are not a perfect measure, but they are literally a zillion times more useful than mass, and the perfect is not the enemy of the good.

      a) How significant is this really?
      b) Eating foods that satiate your hunger well on a per-calorie basis is important, but counting calories helps you know whether you’re accomplishing that.
      c) Yes, you still need to make sure you’re getting proper nutrition (and exercise!)
      d) What the actual fuck. Constipatation is a problem that normal people think of as completely tangential to weight gain and loss.

      • Brandon Berg says:

        I think Pasha’s point was that just as the conservation-of-mass model is flawed because it doesn’t account for important ways in which meals with the same mass may differ, conservation-of-energy model is flawed because it doesn’t account for important ways in which meals with the same number of calories may differ. Obviously the former model is much more deeply flawed, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room to improve on the latter.

  24. onyomi says:

    I highly recommend a book called “The Pleasure Trap,” by Lisle and Goldhamer. It basically argues for 3 and mostly blames the food itself: the appetite is amazingly well calibrated to give you almost exactly the amount of nutrition you need, no more, no less, but evolutionarily, it is obviously better to err on the side of a little too much rather than a little too little, and different genetic groups have erred more to that side than others. This was not a big problem for them in the past, or may have been an advantage, but today’s food is almost perfectly designed to fool the appetite into underestimating the number of calories actually taken in: most of the methods of food preparation that concentrate and intensify flavors do this to one degree or another: drying, smoking, baking, frying, bleaching, blending, etc. they basically all remove the fiber, water, and other non-caloric bulk stuff in order to concentrate the yuminess. Almost miraculously, some people’s appetites are able to remain right on track even in the face of all this, but many people can’t.

    It’s kind of like myopia, I think. If you look at people who live outdoors and never read or look at computers or anything, almost none of them will have serious myopia. Yet there are some people who can read and stare at computers all day and maintain perfect vision.

    Lisle and Goldhamer basically recommend everyone should be vegan, or nearly so, and also use no added sugar, salt, or oil–in other words, eat very boring food. And I think this probably is the “best,” most “natural” solution, in some sense (in that it gets at the root of the problem, which is food which fools our appetites–also, why I do feel justified in saying there is nearly always some aspect of willpower involved, because I defy anyone to become a salt-free, sugar-free, oil-free vegan and remain fat). Yet this also does not seem a very reasonable solution to people like me, for whom cooking and eating are one of the major pleasures in life, and salt, sugar, oil, frying, drying, and roasting our favorite tools.

    And this is why I get a little annoyed sometimes about the vilification of diets. I, personally, have an appetite that, if heeded, and assuming I eat modern, cooked food, will cause me to slowly get fatter and fatter. Not rapid weight gain, but just the kind of gradual thing that, if left unchecked for years will eventually result in my being really fat.

    Though some things I do to combat this, like regular exercise, may fall under the category of “lifestyle change,” I also just have to go on a diet periodically to lose some of the extra that has begun to accumulate. Thus my weight is always fluctuating within a range of about 10 or 15 pounds: I notice I’m reaching the upper acceptable limit (my pants get tight, basically), and I go on a diet for a week or so until I’m back within a decent range. I know most dieticians would view this as less than ideal, but to my mind the only other alternatives are: gradually get fatter and fatter, always feel a little deprived, adopt some sort of spartan diet of extremely fibrous and raw unprocessed foods, or eat like I want to and periodically go on a diet to make up for the habitual overshoot.

    • Tracy W says:

      I read once, years ago, a comment by someone written I think in the 1890s, to the effect that a doctor’s job is not to stop their patients from committing vices that will shorten their lives, but to support their patients living as long as possible with whatever vices they want to keep.

      Unfortunately my google fu is not good enough to find the original.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I also think a lot of modern life is about finding ways to compensate for the deleterious effects of new conveniences without completely foregoing those conveniences, sort of like finding ways to keep factories and cars, but clean up pollution, rather than just eliminating factories and cars, but on a micro scale.

        For example, besides eating delicious food, I know there are at least a few, if not many modern conveniences that are slowly damaging me. Among them are reading and staring at computer monitors (slowly worsens my myopia) and sitting at a desk (bad posture, weakens core muscles, puts pressure on the spine and organs, etc.). Now I could go “natural” and eat only raw, unprepared, unseasoned food, remove all the chairs from my house and squat or stand, and stop reading or using computers. If I did these things my weight, eyesight, and posture would undoubtedly improve, but at the cost of me being miserable.

        The other option is: compensate. Compensate for the richness of the food by going on a fast or a diet periodically. Compensate for the eye thing by taking regular breaks, wearing a weaker than full Rx sometimes, doing exercises to reduce eye strain, etc. and compensate for the damage of sitting by stretching, specifically exercising my core muscles on a regular basis, buying a chair that encourages good posture, hanging upside down periodically, etc.

        Sure, paleolithic man didn’t need to stretch, do planks, or watch what he ate, but then he also didn’t get comfy furniture or delicious food.

    • R. says:

      Lisle and Goldhamer basically recommend everyone should be vegan, or nearly so, and also use no added sugar, salt, or oil–in other words, eat very boring food.

      I’d basically recommend Lisle and Goldhammer go and eat their fucking vegan food, meanwhile, I’ll be eating tasty food in reasonable quantities.

      People can eat normal, tasty food and not get fat. Almost everyone managed that in the first half of the 20th century.

      Though some things I do to combat this, like regular exercise, may fall under the category of “lifestyle change,” I also just have to go on a diet periodically to lose some of the extra that has begun to accumulate.

      Couple more things: exposure to cold also raises metabolic rate, IIRC through the same pathway as exercise and has other benefits. Not widely known but some anorectics, being the overachievers they always are take ice baths. So do some people who want to lose weight. It has a lot of other benefits too, cold shocks works as an anti-depressant.

      have an appetite that, if heeded

      Welcome to the human condition – we don’t do what our lizard brain tells us, because it’s just not optimal. If I heeded my appetites I’d be likely dead, because my lizard brain says “thou shalt not suffer an asshole to live”.

      • Tracy W says:

        People can eat normal, tasty food and not get fat. Almost everyone managed that in the first half of the 20th century.

        Not amongst the rich, who didn’t have to engage in hours of strenuous manual labour. (Ever washed clothes by hand?)

        • R. says:

          Were the rich that fat? Some of them were, but it was not by any means as common as it’s now, judging from photographs.

          (Ever washed clothes by hand?)

          Yup. Scouting camp. We had a hand-operated washing machine, you had to turn the drum by hand. A lot.

          • Tracy W says:

            Drat it, I thought I read a study of portraits that did imply a lot of excess weight but now I can’t find it. There certainly has been however a lot of dieting books around since the 19th century.

      • OCS says:

        But my lizard brain is so good at so many other things! It reliably tells me when I’m too hot or too cold, when something is sharp and hurts, when I should take another breath, when the milk is sour, the sun is bright, my bladder is full, etc.

        It’s frustrating that my appetite for food is one of the few bodily signals I can’t rely on.

        • onyomi says:

          It’s the food. If you only ate stuff you could find in the wild, i.e. tough, gamey, juicy, fibrous things, you could probably count on it. We’ve gotten really good at creating food that fools our appetites.

          But I agree with you: it is very annoying. On the other hand, I’d say it’s pretty impressive how close to achieving homeostasis the appetite usually does come, considering how far we are from the environment we evolved to deal with.

  25. zslastman says:

    The HBD guy Jayman has a very good faq on the genetics of obesity – probably some other commenters will point this out, but you’re kind of treating willpower as causally privileged, rather than just another special aspect of biology, which it is. Sleep and medication could act on weight gain *via* willpower, which is actually pretty plausible.
    As I recall though, the covariance of willpower with obesity is relatively low.
    Tangentially, as an endurance athlete, I’ve seen that most people lose weight over the course of months with heavy exercise, while a minority, often older people, simply cannot, or rebound quickly. I worry that studies of exercise don’t use anything like a high enough dose – just because our modern world is sedentary, doesn’t mean our biology agrees with.

    • Tracy W says:

      My brother competed in an Ironman competition, which I went along to watch. There were several older-looking men with pot bellies, who were knocking out the miles in the marathon and looking more comfortable than some of the ultra-fit-looking types. So presumably ultra-fit, but still fat.

      • James James says:

        I read an anecdote once about soldiers in the Falklands War. Those with a bit of fat on them could keep yomping for days, whereas those with none ran out of energy pretty quickly.

        • Tracy W says:

          I shouldn’t exaggerate. All the professional Ironman athletes were incredibly trim.

          But I recall that an outdoor first aid course instructor once told us that young fit men could be the most vulnerable to hypothermia because of their lack of fat.

        • R. says:

          I think the US Army knows. If you look at pictures of deployed infantry, they never have that pointless chiseled look.

          Those with a bit of fat on them could keep yomping for days, whereas those with none ran out of energy pretty quickly.

          True. But fat reserves are used up too slowly to be in use in something like Ironman.

          Heh. I’d love to see someone finish that without eating or drinking anything energetic 😀

          • Anonymous says:

            Deployed soldiers are not required to meet the body composition standards they are held to the rest of the time.

            Also, their meals are extremely energy dense. Something about having to transport them in austere and/or hostile environments…

            Also, exercise is a lot harder in austere/hostile environments where you are working fourteen hours (or more) a day…

            Also, morale is highly dependent on getting fed promptly with “good” food…

            It seems that in sum those factors would have an obvious consequence.

    • Shenpen says:

      Willpower cannot be objectively measured, because it would require first measing how high is the subjective temptation the subject feels, and that is fairly impossible. Or if possible, not done. We could try measuring temptation by e.g. heart rate or sweating. But it is not done.

      • Jaskologist says:

        We overcome this in all sorts of other areas. I can measure the velocity of a car even if I don’t know the friction imposed by the road, wind, etc. All I really care about is how fast it takes the car to get from point A to point B. And if it doesn’t hit point B soon enough, I know that adding more horsepower to the engine will help, even if I don’t know all of the countervailing forces.

        We can similarly model willpower. Suppose I encounter a woman with a beauty of 1 milliHelen. I will be tempted to launch a single ship. However, I possess a certain amount of willpower. We will measure this resistance to temptation in Oms, and to make it easy, we’ll say that 1 Om cancels out 1 mH. If I have 1 single Om of willpower, I will not launch any ships.

        Paris, on the other hand, encounters 1000 milliHelens of temptation. Let us say he is 999 times as saintly as I. Alas, this is not enough. He launches a ship, and starts a war.

        We can truthfully say that Paris did not have enough willpower, and that just a little more would have saved him.

    • Richard says:

      There has been studies that use a high enough dose, but it’s been mostly focused on how to get enough calories, not as a means of weight loss. The conventional wisdom when training for things like RAAM is that the body is capable of absorbing roughly 8000 Calories per day, while it is possible to burn just below 1000 per hour in a sustained effort. Thus, if you exercise for more than 8 hours per day at lactate threshold, you will lose weight whether you want to or not. This wisdom seems to fit me very well, though I suppose overweight people will have some problems doing the training regime….

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  28. Anonymous says:

    People don’t harp on about caloric balance because they believe it can’t be affected by anything else. The importance of diet and exercise is precisely that they affect caloric balance in very obvious ways, and that they screen off (nearly) all other contributing factors – appetite can affect the caloric balance, but its effect must be mediated through diet.

    People harp on about caloric balance because, even as obvious as it might seem, people keep forgetting that their fanciful weight loss theories must ultimately be grounded in caloric balance, one way or another. For instance, far too many people dream up a theory where they will eat supposedly healthy foods, ultimately hoping to lose weight, but without bothering to count calories and make sure that this new regimen is actually reducing their caloric intake.

    There is much more to weight regulation than applying willpower directly to diet. In theory, there is some merit to more indirect weight loss methods, such as trying to reduce your appetite by eating specific kinds of food. In practice, though, they often serve to distract from the simplest and most effective method. You will hear ten claims of extremely rare metabolic conditions before finding the first person who counted his calories, realized that he failed to actually reduce his intake by sheer willpower and needs something more novel.

  29. Tracy W says:

    I had an odd time recently after the birth of my second child. I didn’t gain any fat while pregnant, but afterwards I developed this massive hunger, which lasted for about 8 months – if I didn’t eat about every couple of hours I just couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Unsurprisingly my weight crept up despite breastfeeding. And then, it just went away again, for no obvious reason (still was breastfeeding). And now I can tolerate my stomach feeling less than full and the excess weight is falling off.

    But that was amazing hunger. If I’d tried to fight it, I’ve had had an utterly miserable life.

  30. Shenpen says:

    Dear Scott,

    One of my pet projects is reforming the fitness industry. They need to adopt a psychological approach.

    – Exercise is normally boring, sports / activies are fun.

    – Exercise is tolerable as a PART of sports: e.g. trainer saying “before I let you in the boxing ring to spar, you need some abs or else you can’t take a punch” is MUCH more motivating than “you need some abs because girls like them”.

    – Unless you are already fat, in which case sports / activities are not fun either.

    – Eating and drinking (teh booze) is usually fun

    – If you are very active, overeating and overdrinking (booze) is normally not fun, it interferes with activity

    – It appears there are two self-reinforcing psychological loops:

    A) Being active is fun. Play frisbee, climb rocks etc. You are happy. You don’t need to boost your happiness with food and booze. You eat when hungry but not much, you don’t like to feel too full, it interferes activity. A random sandwich then party on.

    B) You are fat. Being active feels bad, wheezing, hurting knees. You are depressed. You need happiness. You find it in food and booze.

    How to go from the B-loop to the A-loop? The fitness industry does it WRONG – this is why people don’t follow it: they say do exercise (no fun) and eat healthy (no fun) and if you are unhappy? Just deal with it!

    Well, nope. People rather want to be fat than unhappy. The trick is to maintain the happiness while changing lifestyle.

    The fitness industry needs a way to induce weight loss in fatties WHILE KEEPING THEIR HAPPINESS LEvELS CONSTANT OR HIGHER!


    – Add easy and fun activity, which generates happiness, while slowly removing the part of food and booze that contributes little to happiness, but contributes a lot to the weight. Here, low-fat is better than low-carb. Yes, for health, low-carb is better. Psychologically, low-fat is better. You crave that bread more than that butter on it, that is clear.

    – Chemicals. You need a chemical that makes you happy, makes you want to move more and makes you want to eat less. So, find a safe and legal alternative to m*th? As m*th is the ideal here, except how horribly unhealthy and illegal it is: 1) it makes you happy, so you don’t seek happiness in food and drink 2) makes you want to eat less 3) makes you want to move more. Perfect!

    Unfortunately, there are hardly any safe and legal central nervous system stimulants. Fuckers even banned e**edra (at least here in Europe). E**edra was the magic trick to weight loss (eat less, move more) while it was available.

    Some people experiment with geranium oil and suchlike, it doesn’t work.

    I use caffeine and l-theanine combo. It kinda does something but not too strong.

    • Tracy W says:

      Exercise is normally boring, sports / activies are fun.

      I find sports much more negative, even scary, than exercise.

      • Shenpen says:

        You literally like squats better than throwing a frisbee with friends? I did not mean competitive level sports.

        • Tracy W says:

          Seriously squats are much better than that. No embarrassment factor if I drop the frisbee and trip over my own feet.

          Pentaque I like.

          • Shenpen says:

            But how don’t you get bored? It’s repetitive.

          • Richard says:

            I’m with Tracy here, though the definition of sports is a bit fuzzy. I do mostly long distance cycling, indoor rowing and kettle bells. All activities are solitary. The only exercise I do that involves other people is the odd marathon, but even then you don’t really need to pay much attention to any of the other runners except maybe as obstacles

          • Anonymous says:

            >But how don’t you get bored? It’s repetitive.

            At the risk of giving you the courier’s reply: If you’ve never done heavy weight training, you can’t understand how it could be so fun.

          • Shenpen says:


            >But how don’t you get bored? It’s repetitive.

            When I was younger, like 20 years ago, I did the standard body building routine. Not this contemporary power-lifting fashion of deadlifts and squats, but the less movement oriented, more muscle oriented “do 1 composite and 1 isolation movement for every muscle”.

            It was not really fun. Doing it right (warm up, slow movements without momentum, stretch) was especially tedious and doing it wrong (just go there, throw weights around with momentum, go home) was less tedious but it made me feel like stiff like a rock.

            It made me feel incredibly fake. I had the muscles but no idea how to use them. I looked like a sportsman, yet I had no idea how to throw a punch, climb a tree, or hit a tennis ball. I felt like faking, I felt like merely wearing the body of a warrior but totally not being so. So I had quit.

            I think it would have been better if I do some actual sport and use strength training for actual sport goals but I did not. My life was computer chair and weight room nothing else.

            When this later deads-and-squats power lifting fad came in, I went back to the gym. I enjoyed it even less. Good form was much harder to keep, due to the need to concentrate hard on form the exercises were a whole lot more stressful than body building stuff, and I felt stupid because I was training that kind of strenght I would never use, namely to pick up heavy things, so short-burst strength, while not training the kind of strength I would use, like muscle endurance in the thighs which is useful for skiing for example. Again it felt very fake. Like imitating an old-time worker who carries bags of wheat.

          • Tracy W says:


            But how don’t you get bored? It’s repetitive.

            I do get bored. I just prefer the boredom to the embarrassment factor, and particularly the fear of the embarrassment factor.

        • Anonymous says:

          I’m pretty much with Tracy on this one. Hate frisbee, hate pickup sportsball, hate tag, and have held those opinions pretty much since I was old enough to have opinions. The only sports I’ve ever enjoyed competing in are cross-country in high school and powerlifting now, which the sportier people I know tend to think of as more competitive exercise than sport.

          On the flip side, 1) I’m pretty sure I’m unusual in this respect, and 2) now I think about it, I’ve also enjoyed wrestling. Not enough to stick with it, but that may have had more to do with being by far the worst on the team (college club, I was the only one without high school experience) than with the activity as such.

        • fermion says:

          As Tracy says, the issue with any kind of group sport is the massive social anxiety it induces. Throwing Frisbees with friends is embarrassing if you’re bad at it. Participating in a team sport is embarrassing cubed because people are depending on you not screwing it up, and the pressure will inevitably make you screw up more and also feel guilty about it.

          I mean, obviously a lot of people don’t have these anxiety issues with sports, but I expect they’re pretty common among the subgroup of people who comment on this blog. Squats (or whatever) at least don’t have that major negative, and can be enjoyable in a meditative kind of way.

    • Head Stomp says:

      Why no mention of sex? I would argue that sex is the single best motivator to get people to bounce around in the push-up and squat positions for extended periods of time.

      I also suggest you investigate the role that forcing children and adults to stay in the seated position for the majority of the day has on reducing hip mobility and how that negatively affects the enjoyment of physical activity. Particularly with children, who as toddlers, are naturally good at squatting due to their relatively large heads acting as a counterweight. It’s a shame that society essentially trains the ability to squat out of children and it should be no surprise that many then go on the prefer sedentary lives. Blacks unintentionally created a great hack that helps alleviate this. You might have heard of it, it’s called twerking.

      Other things that I think have played a role in the reduction of human physical fitness: reduction in the amount manual labor work, use of baby strollers/playpens over carriers, dancing becoming primarily a stylized performance act, and mattresses making sex less physically demanding due to the conservation of kinetic energy.

      • Anonymous says:

        Why no mention of sex?

        There was a mention- the negative “people aren’t motivated to get abs because girls like them!”

        • Tom Richards says:

          I would disambiguate: “because I think girls in general like them” has only ever been at best a fairly weak motivator for me to diet or undertake forms of exercise I find boring; “because I hope Specifically Interesting Girl X might be more likely to be attracted to me if I had them,” on the other hand, has proven an extremely powerful (if not necessarily altogether healthy in other ways) source of motivation. Which is ironic, because experience leads me to conclude that the practice is very effective indeed as regards girls in general and utterly worthless as regards Specifically Interesting Girl Xs.

    • chaosmage says:

      I think the goalposts have been moved, perhaps with good reason, from temporary weight loss (where amphetamine-like stimulants help a lot, obviously) to permanent weight loss (where they don’t, according to lots of studies).

      Maybe lots of sex would be better. I for one have definitely done most of my push-ups naked. It fulfills the criteria you mention, and instead of those unhealthy side-effects, it has lots of healthy ones.

      • R. says:

        “I for one have definitely done most of my push-ups naked. ”

        I kind of envy you women. You can do pushups naked., no balls slapping around while running, no external, vulnerable genitalia, no chance of testicular torsion, no problems with toilets etc.

        • Anonymous says:


          This is like that time I learned that a “wrench” is just a spanner. So much has become suddenly clear. And I’m embarrassed.

        • chamomile geode says:

          everyone feels pain in their dangly bits when exercising, unless said bits are exceedingly well-supported. breasts slap around painfully during running the same way you’re describing balls doing (even in the average bra), it’s hard to do pushups (especially naked pushups) with sensitive fat sacks attached to your pecs. and for some godawful reason women still manage to piss on the toilet seat in public restrooms!

          i say all this because until i read your comment i had not considered that testicles might hurt during exercise in the same ways and for the same reasons that breasts do, and it’s nice for people to learn they’re more similar than they thought.

          also, i think the “naked pushups” thing was a sex joke.

          • R. says:

            >>everyone feels pain in their dangly bits when exercising,<>also, i think the “naked pushups” thing was a sex joke.<<

            Was it? I can't tell, sex is a closed book for me.

          • Protagoras says:

            Looked like a sex joke to me, R. But then, I’m the sort that sees sex jokes everywhere; I believe that the use of the form of the bed as an example in Plato’s
            Republic was a sex joke.

          • caryatis says:

            Have you tried a better sports bra? I don’t think breasts are supposed to hurt while running.

          • Anonymous says:

            caryatis–for whatever reason i have a really hard time finding one that fits! but it’s not a regular problem in my life bc mostly i just do low impact cardio–i really like ergometers

    • Nita says:

      “before I let you in the boxing ring to spar, you need some abs or else you can’t take a punch” is MUCH more motivating than “you need some abs because girls like them”

      I suspect that many men would rather receive a blowjob than a punch. Glad it works for you, though 🙂

    • There’s a lot of individual variation in how well people tolerate low fat vs. low carb, though I think the majority tolerate low carb better.

    • ilzolende says:

      I remember being told that I was supposed to exercise for an hour per day to increase my lifespan by 3 years. An hour per day of an 82-year lifespan (average US female lifespan) amounts to 3.41 years. I decided at the time that, considering how painful exercise was, 3 extra years of being in extreme pain was not a good tradeoff for a few months of lifespan.

      However, I’ve heard that creatine makes exercise easier, and that vegetarian diets like the one I’ve been eating for my whole life are often low in creatine, so maybe exercise does not have to be inherently torturous, which would make the expected utility of exercising better.

  31. Shenpen says:

    Shit like insulin sensitivity / insulin resistance is actually a thing: you cannot use food energy to exercise, because you muscles won’t take it, it is stored as fat.

    Testosterone also affects this. So does leptin. And dopamine is crucial for wanting to exercise. I.e. fun sports -> dopamine spike -> wants to do them.

  32. SUT says:

    > Green tea effect size is small

    Maybe for the average of the whole population. But what if there’s ~10% of people who (because of some gene perhaps) see huge metabolic improvements through green tea? Until we can classify that subset, it will be difficult for studies to demonstrate the effect, only “it worked for me” diet advice will continue to be the truth.

  33. onyomi says:

    Scott, re. the issue of “I could eat a ton of food when I was younger and not get fat, but now I can’t, therefore I probably have a slower metabolism now,” I wonder if you also find your energy level to be lower now than then? Like, do you need more sleep, more naps, or do you find yourself with less energy for exercise, etc. as compared to before?

    I ask because I also find it easier to gain weight now in my thirties than I did in my twenties, but I think I’m also kind of lazier in my thirties. I still have decent energy, but I also take naps, for example, which is something I never did when I was younger. That is, maybe it could still be an issue of pure calories-in vs. calories-out, but that those who perceive themselves to have “high metabolisms” may actually have more energy to do things (and not just exercise, but, say, tap your foot impatiently while waiting–I find I have less nervous energy than I did when I was younger; when I was a child and teenager I actually annoyed people with the fact that some part of my body seemed nearly always to be tapping, swaying, or otherwise in motion) and so actually be burning more calories? Like, how often do you see an old person impatiently pacing or tapping their foot as compared to young people?

  34. pgbh says:

    I’m not sure your dismissal of option 4 makes sense. It is certainly true that factors other than “willpower” affect weight gain. However, it doesn’t follow that weight is not entirely determined by your decisions. This is because you have the ability to adjust your decisions to changing circumstances.

    To see what I mean, consider the following analogy (which I borrow from Paul Krugman).

    Suppose that I’m driving on the highway when a strong headwind comes up. Necessarily, this will slow my car down by some amount. Does this mean that I’ll be late to my destination? Not at all, because I have the ability to choose my speed. If it gets too low, I’ll simply add more gas.

    In this case, my speed is a function of two things: wind and gas. Changes in the wind affect my speed, but I can still reach a target speed by changing the gas level in response.

    In my view, the situation with weight is similar. Your weight is affected by external factors, which you don’t control. But given certain such factors, you can use willpower to reach a target weight. However, either more or less of it may be required, depending on your target.

    • Peter says:

      If what you saw was practially everyone at their ideal weight, but some people griping about how hard it was to maintain that weight, and some wondering what the issue was, that would be a good analogy. A better analogy would be some people with their foot to the floor failing to reach the target speed because headwinds, and a whole bunch more people with their foot not to the floor saying, “target schmarget, if I keep using petrol at that rate I’m going to be broke, I’m not going to try for the impossible, I’m going to cruise at a speed that won’t break the bank, and just put up with spending more time in my car than I’d like.”

      I lost more than 30kg in 18 months. Since then I’ve put it all back on again and some more besides, I’ve had a few goes at replicating my original weight loss and failed (some with lesser short-term success). And I think my experience is far far far from unique. If it’s all about willpower, how could my first attempt succeed, my maintenance attempt fail, and subsequent weight loss attempt fail?

      • onyomi says:

        Were your life circumstances at all different during the time when you gained back the weight and tried, but failed to lose it, as compared to the time when you successfully lost it?

        I ask because willpower is a fungible and finite resource, meaning that it’s harder to do something hard, like lose weight, when you are already doing other hard things, like being really busy at work or stressed about other issues.

        I, for one, find it much easier to diet and exercise when I’m on vacation. Paradoxical as it sounds, when I’m in a particularly busy spell at work, I feel like I’m “too busy to not eat,” by which I mean, I’m too busy to deal with feeling deprived on top of everything else I’m dealing with.

        • Peter says:

          On the one hand, yes. In my case the weight regain is overdetermined – the onset was roughly co-incident with me going onto citalopram[1], which apart from the pharmaceutical effect should tell you that my mental state etc. had changed. There was a change of jobs 6 months earlier (pretty much when I’d reached “Mission Accomplished”), various identity crises, it was all a bit mixed up.

          OTOH my flatmate had a pretty similar loss-and-regain experience, and I don’t think any of that happened to him – certainly not at the time he did his weight regain. And lots and lots of people have had similar loss-and-regain experiences.

          [1] They say that people often put on some weight on citalopram, but when they quote numbers it’s usually a lot smaller than 30kg. At least the numbers I’ve seen are.

      • pgbh says:

        It seems like you acknowledge my model as mostly valid, but are making some additional claims:

        1. Some people can’t reach a target weight given any amount of “willpower”.
        2. Some people can’t readily give the amount of “willpower” that reaching a target weight requires.

        Either one of these could result if, in the simple model, the contribution of factors other than willpower to weight is relatively large. And this may be true.

        However, statement 1 is obviously false. This is because in the case where someone chose not to eat at all, they would obviously lose weight over some period.

        In the case of statement 2, it might be true. Everyone is welcome to their own priorities. All the same I will mention that, in my experience, what most people consider to be an “impossible” amount of effort is not really that much.

        As for your personal experience, I sympathize, and don’t want to imply a judgmental attitude.

        That said, I wonder if you really understood the analogy I made. Your comment is similar to someone saying “if the speed of my car is determined by the gas pedal, how come I keep going so slow?” To me the answer is obvious – you are not pressing hard enough on the gas pedal.

        • Peter says:

          All I said was that I had a better analogy. Of course, your analogy can be extended to include all sorts of effects – even if someone had a magical metabolism that caused a few extra calories to appear from nowhere or disappear to nowhere in defiance of the first law of thermodynamics, then if everything else was more-or-less in balance they could still maintain an ideal weight.

          It’s worth looking more into weight cycling because lots of people do it; I’m sure if you look into stats you’ll find rather more people weight cycling than people losing weight and keeping it off. This I suppose is the thing I’m most sure of; I’m less sure about why.

          All that said, of course, actually knowing what to do about one’s weight is difficult, because just about everyone involved is motivated to behave in an unhelpful manner – myself included. The weight loss industry is… well, the clue is in the name. There’s a Fat Acceptance Movement who I sort of have some time for but as far as I can tell too much of it is infested with SJW tendencies. People busy losing weight just love to swap tips and congratulations[1], people who like me who are fed up with weight cycling like to spread defeatist messages, some of the smug slim like to make out that it’s all them being virtuous, some of the other slim people like to parade a different virtue by denying that it’s anything to do with the first sort, there’s loads of people I haven’t mentioned, it’s all doom for anyone actually trying to find out what to do.

          [1] Actually these people are one of the bright spots of the whole thing.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          However, statement 1 is obviously false. This is because in the case where someone chose not to eat at all, they would obviously lose weight over some period.

          It’s true that they would lose some weight, but it’s not obviously true that they would (while remaining alive) lose enough to reach their target weight.

          As a counterexample: I believe it has been possible to create in the lab obese rats who when underfed will starve to death while still obese because their fat – while present – is not sufficiently bioavailable – their body consumes muscle (including heart muscle) to meet dire immediate needs, leaving the fat intact.

    • Tracy W says:

      Not at all, because I have the ability to choose my speed. If it gets too low, I’ll simply add more gas.

      The truth of this depends on how strong the wind is and how strong your car engine is. As most cars today have ample power, to make the analogy more vivid, say you were cycling instead of driving, you might well not be able to ramp up your leg speed enough to meet your target speed in all likely wind conditions.

  35. Inducing fullness is probably the best approach to weight loss

  36. Davide says:

    Sorry if this post is naive or blatantly wrong, but:

    While 1 and 4 may both be stupid, I think 1 is more so;
    You mention both mostly being used as strawmen, but while the 1 is obviously so- Who really believes you can gain/keep weight while eating nothing, other than breatharians? – 4 seems is more common by quite a bit in that a lot of people just dismiss metabolic components.

    As for the ‘hunger is genetic’part : I have seen this relatively often and it seems reasonable to me.
    This is sometimes used ‘morally’ or mixed with the willpower argument BTW: in theory most people MIGHT be able to become thin (I don’t like the word, though, perhaps it should be ‘non overweight’) but then they would be hungry (and suffering) all of the time, so it’s not fair to ask them to constantly exercise willpower (which might also be genetic).
    So it’s not really ‘some people cannot be thin’ but ‘some people cannot be thin and non-suffering’
    (Leaving aside the question of whetever people’s weights/health are ‘our business’, which I generally think they are not.)

    Also, it seems to me that ‘common wisdom’ on the exercise-appetite relationship might be wrong: a lot of people seem to believe exercise->more hungry is wrong (which would mitigate the weight-loss component, even if they understand the ‘higher base metabolism’ part of exercise), but there is also data (which matches my limited, personal experience) suggests that exercise can make you LESS hungry.
    If that is the case, it might be good to popularize this notion, as it might make some people more likely to start an exercise habit;

    Admittedly, the above part (hunger suppression) seems to mostly (only) apply to cardio, at least from what I read on the internet; but on the other hand, isn’t cardio most strongly associated with weight loss in popular belief…even when, sometimes, a mix of that + weight training/muscle building works better?

    (My understanding is also that while cardio DOES suppress hunger, the effect might go away in a few hours. Which isn’t too bad, though.)

    • Davide says:

      Sorry there, I meant ‘a lot of people seem to believe exercise->more hungry’, the ‘is wrong’ changes the meaning.

  37. Tom Scharf says:

    Ummmmm….basic observation.

    Eat more = poop more.

    So calories in that are just passed out without being absorbed aren’t really calories in the equation that matters. This is just a personal observation. I suppose one could measure the calories of…you know….the material output….to do some actual science here. Some people will absorb more and others will absorb less. I suppose we might call this metabolism?

    Anybody know the answer here?

    • Nornagest says:

      The standard approach to measuring food energy does take into account both input and output, so to speak: you take the chemical energy available in a quantity of food and subtract the chemical energy available in the feces produced after eating the same amount and type of food. Chemical energy can be determined e.g. by burning and measuring the heat produced; obviously that’s not the same as the reactions going on in your gut, but it turns out to be a decent approximation.

      See for example the Atwater system.

    • Davide says:

      Don’t people actually lose a lot (most of it?) of weight through breathing, actually?
      You can measure that too, of course, but it’s harder.

      (‘Poop’ is definetely important though; as is dietary fiber, which, I understand, is going to turn into exactly that rather than fat while keeping you full/satiated.)

  38. John Schilling says:

    OK, pet peeve time, now with statistics:

    The proposed simple equation is “Weight gain = calories in minus calories out”. Two independent variables.

    And, while quite confident there are substantial complexities on top of that, I’m also certain that the simple equation, can simply work. I have personally lost about 65 pounds using the proven “Eat less and exercise” weight loss program, no bells or whistles.

    When I discuss the subject, or more likely these days just listen to other people talk about it, the responses are entirely predictable. Healthy food isn’t sufficiently available, calorie counting is impractical, all the psychological factors, and then basal metabolism goes into starvation mode and negates everything, and if you do somehow push through all that by sheer willpower you’ll probably just wind up a neurotic anorexic. Oh, but wait, if instead of eating less we eat smarter, maybe no-fat or maybe no-carbs or whatever, maybe that will work…

    And I won’t argue about any of that, except maybe the smartness of exotic fad diets. Eating less to lose weight, is theoretically possible but impractically difficult. Which is why the technique that actually works is, “Eat less AND EXERCISE”. Calories in, MINUS CALORIES OUT.

    So here we are, all smart rationalists and all that, and we know better. Calories in, minus calories out. Yet the title of the post is “The Physics Diet”. And of the responses that explicitly address either issue, I count 39 that talk about diet/nutrition only, 13 that at least touch on both diet and exercise, and only eight that deal with exercise alone.

    Why is it that, even among smart and knowledgeable people, there is such a reluctance to accept that exercise might be an equally necessary part of the discussion? Because I’m pretty certain that without it, almost nobody is going to be losing weight.

    • Anonymous says:

      Generally agree. Some comments:

      -Rationalism very often veers into overthinking – rationalists want solutions that are better and more clever than common sense. When being polite and pleasant is reframed as phatic speech, signalling and status assessments, it is hardly surprising to see weight loss get a similar treatment.

      -Dieting tends to get more focus than exercise, in part because it is mostly about not eating quite as much. Exercise takes time you might not have and tends to involve a non-trivial investment before you can get started, even if it’s only some shoes and an outfit for running. That said, they obviously work best in combination.

      • Nornagest says:

        Rationalists don’t reframe politeness as phatic speech etc. because they want a clever, unusual way of thinking about it. They do it because they don’t natively get being polite and pleasant, and phatic, signaling, and status gives them a way to think about it that doesn’t come off as superstitious gibberish.

        Disdain for the physics diet might actually be a case of overthinking, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that there are very many, very loud voices saying it’s bullshit. They might even be right; I don’t know, I’ve never had to diet.

        • Anonymous says:

          Rationalists fundamentally hate conforming, because they value (their own powers of) reasoning over received wisdom and traditions. The results are a mixed bag.

          It’s not that most people naturally understand the ins and outs of social conventions. It’s that they are more willing to play along regardless, and that it’s easier to learn them from the inside than the outside.

          Are the voices any louder than, say, 911-was-an-inside-job, creationism or crop circles?

          The sensible thing seems to be to listen to successful dieters and avoiding marketers. Among them, I have seen very little disdain for a keep it simple-version of the physics diet.

          • Nornagest says:

            Are the voices any louder than, say, 911-was-an-inside-job, creationism or crop circles?

            Yes. Well, they’re probably comparable to creationism in terms of volume, but they enjoy way more credibility: the default is still “eat less, exercise more”, but that’s surrounded by a vast space of fad diets, non-fad but heterodox advice, and misplaced activism.

            9/11 truthers and crop-circle enthusiats aren’t even in the same ballpark.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Do you think that changing your diet and exercising is sufficient for long term weight loss in most obese people? Long term meaning more than 5 years.

      • Anonymous says:

        I would suspect that changing your diet and exercising are the only sufficient things for long-term weight loss in most people.

      • John Schilling says:

        It worked for me, at least 65 lbs worth – there’s a bit more I’d like to lose, and that may take some cleverness if it is to be sustainable. But, yes, was obese, lost it, kept it off, eating less and exercising more, no herculean effort required.

        I don’t think there is anything else generally known and understood that A: actually works and B: is realistically sustainable for most people. I do not rule out the possibility that something unknown or at present poorly understood might do better. This would be a great boon for mankind. For now, live with what you have got, sign up for medical experimentation, or eat less and exercise more.

    • no one special says:

      First, I shall include the obligatory link to The Hacker’s Diet:
      How to lose weight and hair through stress and poor nutrition
      , which is required reading for any dieting geek. (And any non-geek that can stand a tiny bit of math. Like pre-algebra level math. Read it.)

      To address your point directly, I shall quote Chapter 5: What, Me Exercise:

      Don’t kid yourself into thinking that exercise, by itself, will make you lose weight. Consider the following activities, and the number of calories an average person burns per hour in each.

      Walking: 300, Bicycling: 300, Aerobics: 400, Swimming: 400, Tennis: 500, Basketball: 500, Jogging: 700

      Compare those numbers, remembering that they’re for a full hour spent nonstop in the exercise, with the calories in the following food items:

      Peanut butter sandwich: 275, Pizza (3 slices): 500, Big Mac: 560

      Clearly, even an hour a day of exercise doesn’t account for much food. And what’s the likelihood you’ll find the time to spend a full hour, every day, month after month, year after year, doing those exercises?

      Basically, It’s a lot easier to cut 500 calories per day (Switch to diet soda, cut snacks) than to burn 500 calories a day (You have an hour every day for basketball? I want your schedule.)

      • John Schilling says:

        Cutting 500 calories per day is not in fact easy. It is, yes, easy to sketch out a diet that has 500 calories per day less than you are eating now. When real people try living by such a diet, they tend to end up eating as much as they did before while imagining that they are down 500 calories, because they don’t notice all the ways their consumption patterns have really changed. The clever monkey brain really, really doesn’t like being put on a diet, and can outsmart the calculating hacker brain when sufficiently motivated.

        If you’re willing to settle for 250 calories per day, that’s a bit easier to achieve on the diet side.

        And 250 calories per day of exercise, that’s maybe 3% of your waking life. It’s also at the level of things most people can accomplish through opportunistic multitasking, rather than exercise-as-chore. And it’s something the monkey brain doesn’t mind so much, once you get in the habit.

        There’s low-hanging fruit on both the diet and exercise trees, and synergies between the two. In my experience, and in pretty much every other success story I have seen or heard, this is what actually works in practice.

        • satanistgoblin says:

          Wouldn’t exercise also cause you to be more hungry though?

          • Nornagest says:

            I haven’t noticed that it does, on the 250 calorie scale. Now, a few times a year my dojo does intensive workouts that last for about seven hours, and after I’m done with one of those I feel like I could eat a horse, but that’s probably burning at least an order of magnitude more calories.

          • John Schilling says:

            Right. Body and brain seem to be pretty well calibrated in this direction; if you’re doing a lot of hard work, it must be hunting season or something like that, and an extra twenty pounds of blubber would just slow you down. You’ll be hungry enough to eat what you need to be healthy and strong, no more.

            But in the opposite direction, if you’re eating 1500 calories a day and sitting around doing nothing, then it’s winter and there’s not going to be anything to eat for another three months, so you’d best go into starvation mode and burn as few calories as possible. While craving any morsel of food that does come within reach.

            Empirically, people whose lifestyle involves lots of hard work are underrepresented among the obese, and it isn’t because they are dieting and counting calories.

        • Scott H. says:

          Yes, a successful diet is probably 70% proper strategy and 30% will power. I wanted so badly to go with 80/20, but I know what it’s like to be hungry.

      • Glen Raphael says:

        I used The Hacker’s Diet (using his palm pilot app for tracking) to lose about 30 pounds over about 6 months. By the theory of the Hacker’s diet, having *lost* weight by maintaining a caloric deficit one should be able to *stop* maintaining a deficit and not jump right back up again. In practice, as soon as I stopped actively maintaining that deficit I regained the weight. And eventually more still. I stayed near my low point for about a year.

        Maintaining enough of a calorie deficit to keep at the lower weight was too hard – it made me depressed and reduced my mental ability. In short, my experience was perfectly normal for people who try to lose weight via diet-and-exercise – it seemed to work at first, didn’t work *that* well (I never reached my “target weight”), and within 5 years I weighed more than when I started.

        • John Schilling says:

          But the Hacker’s diet isn’t weight loss via diet-and-exercise. The Hacker’s diet only mentions exercise as an optional thing that you might want to do for general health reasons but that won’t help you lose weight.

          I, obviously, disagree. Especially if the goal is to maintain the reduced weight.

          • Anonymous says:

            The problem with the Hacker’s Diet* is that you’re never allowed to get off of it. The whole concept of the book is that your appetite is broken and won’t do right by you, so you should replace it with a spreadsheet. This is all kinds of horrible; You have to really believe that to make the kind of lifestyle changes necessary to stay with it.

            * The diet, not the book. I think reading the book is great for anyone who wants to diet, if only for the “moving average of your daily weight” technique. Understanding the math of dieting is really useful. I’m much less enthusiastic about the “replace your stomach with a spreadsheet” plan.

      • Tracy W says:

        3 slides of pizza or a Big Mac is a lot of food.

    • Shenpen says:

      >Why is it that, even among smart and knowledgeable people, there is such a reluctance to accept that exercise might be an equally necessary part of the discussion?

      I think it is people think exercise is exercise. That is, it requires the boring repetitive stuff like weight lifting or running. They forget that totally fun stuff like playing tennis is also exercise.

  39. David N says:

    My pet theory of the rise in obesity is that a major cause was the advice, from decades ago, that eating fat caused obesity and heart disease. People were told to eat low-fat and minimize the fraction of total calories from fat. The food industry experienced growing demand for low-fat versions of everything. Many foods taste terrible if you take the fat out of them. To keep their products palatable, the food industry replaced fat with things like corn syrup. If you had the habit of eating a lot of processed foods during this period, you likely experienced a large increase in carbohydrate intake without realizing it.

    I read a lot of great comments above and would love some help poking holes in this theory.

    • Shenpen says:


      1) obesity is fastest rising amongst the poor and uneducated, who are not into fad diets, but much into not exactly low-fat fast food. which is also carb-laden. but not low fat.

      2) there is a world outside america. Currently Hungary topped the obesity rates of the EU. I am from there originally. We are kinda conservative, rarely care about fad diets and still eat a traditional peasant diet that consists of stuff like smoked lard:

      2/B) you should also look at the top 10 countries per obesity. Do you think Spain and Mexico bought into low-fat fads? I think they are too conservative for that too.

      3) carbs are bad but fat is quite calorie-dense too. if you need 200g of _anything_ to fill your belly, choosing 200g lard will pack 1800 kcal in it.

      4) look at alcohol consumption rates. this is only a hunch, but over here the new normal would be considered formerly alcoholic. My intake tends to be about 3 vodka and 3-4 half liter beer a day and nobody bats an eye or calls it abnormal over here. That is around 1000 kcal in itself. My father in law drinks more, much more.

    • Anonymous says:

      You point to a particular change in policy. When was this 1970? 1980? Have you looked at a time series of average weight? There was a lot of increase before that and I don’t think much changed around there.

    • kass says:

      There was a shift to prescribing a lower-fat diet…but there were never really LOW fat in the first place…just to a lower, totally healthy amount. Not that it matters, because people didn’t listen to them anyway. We eat more of every macronutrient than we did in 1970, and no where near the recommended intake of fruits/vegetables/fiber.

      • Anonymous says:

        Meat consumption has fallen in absolute terms since 1980. I’m not sure about protein, but I think it has fallen.

        • Kass says:

          Calories per day for an american adult has increased about 400kcal since the 70s. At least some of it is thought to come from protein. The majority is carbs, about a quarter of it from fats. In percentage terms protein and fat are down a hair, but the absolute increase offsets that.

  40. AlphaCeph says:

    I expect that genetic testing of nuclear DNA and of the microbiome will reveal that different humans respond very differently to the foods we eat, and I expect that a lot of the disagreement we see today will turn out to be because of unexplained variance from these sources.

  41. Anonymous says:

    in re your statement about 2,4-dinitrophenol being”…an excellent solution to all of our obesity-related problems…”.

    That presupposes that our obesity-related problems actually are obesity-CAUSED problems. I’ve seen lots and lots of studies that show correlation of obesity with everything from atherosclerosis to cancer, but I’ve yet to see one that shows causation.

    One interesting theory about the cause of obesity is inflammation in fat tissue; inflammation as the root cause of atherosclerotic plaques is also getting some attention these days. Inflammation and cancer are also linked. If it turns out that all are caused by systemic inflammation, or a lower trigger point for inflammation, etc, resulting in inflammation in multiple places, then the magic weight loss bullet isn’t going to do a thing for reducing heart disease.

    Perhaps the real question is ‘why are people in the 20th century so susceptible to inflammation’. My own (current) favorite working theory is that it is the same root cause as the big upswing in asthma and allergies in the same time frame: a drastically decreased incidence of water borne pathogens, especially parasites, resulting in an improperly trained immune system, way too hyperviligent. Cities in the western world started cleaning up their water supplies about 1850, so the time frame is about right.

    It would be nice if that was true, since presumably they could train the immune system fairly easily, maybe with chopped up bits of dead helminths. (Although excuse me while I go urp at the thought of eating some)

    • Nornagest says:

      If it turns out that all are caused by systemic inflammation, or a lower trigger point for inflammation, etc, resulting in inflammation in multiple places, then the magic weight loss bullet isn’t going to do a thing for reducing heart disease.

      IANAD, but that doesn’t make any sense to me. If obesity is caused by inflammation in fatty tissue (which seems like a bit of a Hail Mary to me given observed differences in e.g. eating habits, but I’ll run with it for now), then treating obesity precisely means treating systemic inflammation and all the bad stuff that ordinarily comes with it — at least if we rule out surgical methods and unless we imagine some magic narrow-spectrum anti-inflammatory drug that only targets fat. And even if we do find ourselves working with surgery or magic anti-inflammatories, it’d still reduce load on the joints and the cardiovascular system, make it easier to shed sedentary habits, etc, all of which I’d expect to be good for heart disease.

      Fortunately this theory is easy to test: get some fat people to take a long-term course of NSAIDs and see if they get less fat. Even more fortunately, a lot of people already do take low-dose aspirin for its cardiovascular effects, so the data’s probably already there if you can figure out how to mine it.

      • Nornagest says:

        Update most of a year later: it has come to my attention that “inflammation” is more of a catch-all category than I was treating it as. NSAIDs wouldn’t be a silver bullet. They would, however, narrow down the types of inflammation we could be dealing with.

        I still think the theory’s more than likely bull.

    • Anonymous says:

      >One interesting theory about the cause of obesity is inflammation in fat tissue

      Obesity, depression — is there anything inflammation isn’t suggested as a cause for?

    • R. says:

      it is the same root cause as the big upswing in asthma and allergies in the same time frame: a drastically decreased incidence of water borne pathogens,

      Don’t think that’s the entire story. Rural people even now rarely have allergies, due to more time spent outdoors as kids and thus more exposure to stuff, so their immune system always has stuff to worry about. At least around here it used to be that way, could be that computers and all that might change that.

      I believe most of the problems that correlate with obesity are not caused by the excess weight(unless it’s really over-the-top), but rather a sedentary lifestyle which often causes obesity.

  42. Jatudrei says:

    I’ll throw out the thought that the cause of obesity might be a combination of 1) the tremendous abundance of food in developed countries today, compared with impoverished countries today and virtually all countries in 100 years and more ago and 2) the tremendous diminution in physical activity in our contemporary lifestyles.

  43. RJMeyers says:

    Is there a possibility beyond these, having to do with calorie/nutrient absorption in the digestive system? Could there be people who have slow metabolisms, are very skinny, yet eat tons of food every day? They would have inefficient digestive systems. I suppose this would be a bad trait in any place that experiences a famine, so in evolutionary terms I don’t consider it too likely… but you never know.

    Anecdotally, I know someone who weighs roughly 2/3 as much as me (lean body mass), is about as physically active as I am, and who eats at least as much food as I do.

    And re: metabolism slowdown in the early 30s not seeming linear, I’ve experienced the same thing. However, I think its a problem of perception. Imagine that your metabolism is on the high side and you can pretty much eat whatever you want and always burn the excess calories week-to-week. You don’t gain extra pounds. At some point, your metabolism slows enough that there are weeks when you gain and weeks when you lose, and they roughly average to zero–but you’re still eating like you used to. Still no apparent change. Then, you reach another point where the balance is on average that you gain a little bit each week–and suddenly, despite your metabolism slowing down at a linear pace for years and you not ever having to worry about what/how much you eat, you’ve hit a special point where the slowdown becomes immediately real to you. Instead of the extra calories disappearing, they start to accumulate. The linear system has tripped a threshold for another system in your body, and you suddenly start gaining weight. To you it looks highly nonlinear, and I suppose you could say the resulting effects appears that way–discontinuous, at least. But the underlying driver, your metabolism, could still be linear the whole time.

  44. TomA says:

    New here, but a quick comment on this topic.

    For most of our species’ history, excessive weight gain wasn’t a reality. It’s a relatively new phenomenon and likely tracks with food abundance and availability. Evolution has programmed us to store energy when food is abundant, because that helps us survive periods of famine. Modern agriculture has nearly eliminated famine.

    We might evolve toward becoming obese beings, or we might invent an artificial means of circumventing our evolutionary inheritance. To be determined.


    Basically a claim that various sorts of processing make calories more bioavailable. Anyone know whether this is sound?

  46. jph says:

    related to medicine, but completely unrelated to this post i spent the morning enjoying the Duke/Potti scandal:

    even more in general, cough, for fascinating academic carnage:
    or just


  47. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    My own piece of anecdata is that I went from 300 lbs to 250 lbs by switching from a regular ad libitum diet to a low carb ad libitum diet. I haven’t followed any specific low carb diet in particular, but mostly just stick to the general principles of embracing animal fat and avoiding anything made with flour, sugar or, God forbid, high fructose corn syrup. The weight loss has held for several years.

    Now, the people who believe in the strong version of Calories In, Calories Out will probably make up some bullshit about how the foods I am eating now are less calorie-dense that the foods I was eating before, or else they will claim that I am eating less than I was before because a high fat low carb diet is less palatable than a regular diet. But I am pretty damn sure that my body reacts differently to the same amount of calories depending on whether they are natural animal fats or refined carbohydrates, whether that means letting them pass unabsorbed, radiating them off as heat, or some other subtle effect like that which has nothing to do with eating less or exercising.

    I also managed to lose another 25 lbs by actually clamping down on the amount I ate and doing exercise, but this was really hard to do. I’m not talking about walking 30 minutes per day and not snacking, I’m talking about months of running and weight lifting and killing hunger by chugging water all day and shit. And as soon as I stopped, the weight came back again. Maybe if I had a generous trust fund and complete freedom to design my life as I liked, I could arrange some sort of environment in which this was a realistically sustainable approach, but I don’t and I can’t.

  48. irrelevant says:

    I think we come up with a whole bunch of ways of complaining about specific nutritional issues or food industry practices, but the net cause for increased obesity in America is simple: people don’t scratch-cook the majority of their meals anymore.

    On the historical plausibility side, that theory’s backed by the tight correlation between women entering the workforce and childhood obesity rates rising. On the personal side, it’s backed both by my family’s notable weight increase growing up when my mother went back to work, and by the success of my own weight loss strategy of never buying any food that doesn’t require preparation before I can eat it.

    This of course isn’t a plan without cost, since it relies on my being able to sink significant amounts of my time into cooking. But it’s easier to cook than exercise, and I’d rather change my purchasing habits than pay attention to diet or nutrition. And it’s sufficient.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      never buying any food that doesn’t require preparation before I can eat it

      You can also make exceptions for bulky but not-so-calorie-rich foods such as apples.

    • onyomi says:

      I had this same idea a while back, and I think it’s very plausible. It’s the only thing that really explains the difference between now and fifty years ago. Fifty years ago we ate carbs and protein and fat, and now we eat carbs and protein and fat, but it’s much more conveniently delivered to our mouths.

  49. CPAD says:

    Why are people getting fatter – restaurant prepared food in one sentence. Restaurant food (especially fast food) is professionally designed to be tasty so you eat more of it beyond your normal appetite. I mean food scientists spend a lot of money to figure these things out in labs. The restaurant chains would not employ them unless it worked. Its not carbs, or fats, or what ever, its total calories. When you see what they put in restaurant food you will be amazed by the amount. People used not to be able to afford to eat out much, now everyone, poor included, eats out maybe 2 or 3 times a week. That’s the change.

    Now to lose weight, don’t eat out so much, cook more of your own food. It will be less calories due to the ingredients you choose, you will eat less, plus you will make less than the regular restaurant serving. Commit to this 6 times a week. Don’t shop hungry. Always eat before food shopping. Don’t buy cakes/candies/muffins etc. If you want sweet stuff, learn to bake.

    On exercise, your body has evolved (thanks to the starvation risk) lots of ways to persuade you not to bother unless absolutely necessary. So you have to come up with strategies to overcome this. I was successful by setting my alarm clock 1/2 hour earlier and going for a 5K run the instance I got up. My sleepy brain, plus the need to get done before work, mean I am not able to procrastinate. After a few months, this becomes a habit, like flossing (you do floss don’t you). Good habits are just as easy to catch as bad ones. Plus exercising in the morning meant that if I stayed at work late, or decided to catch a few beers or had a crappy day, not a problem exercise already done. Then you don’t get into the “what’s the point of exercising today, when I missed the last two weeks” death spiral.

    On gym, you only need to go once per week I find to get definition. And squats and pull ups are the most important. I also like the kettle overhead snatch. 1 hour out your week. Plus muscle uses up energy.



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  57. JayMan says:

    Great post!

    Tom Naughton also had an excellent post which distilled the problem with “calories in-calories-out”:

    Fat Head » Toilet Humor And The HOW vs. WHY Of Getting Fat

    And of course, everyone should see my page on the matter:

    Obesity Facts | JayMan’s Blog

  58. Mars says:

    “And it changes with muscle mass, but only minimally”
    Scott, can you provide a source for this? Because I’ve always heard the exact opposite (in fact its nearly an article of faith among followers of Rippetoe that even a few pounds of muscle gain can increase metabolism and fat burning substantially) and I’d be very interested in reading any studies that contradict the idea.

  59. For the record, my personal experience of the difference between my twenties and thirties exactly matches your own. And I ate in the same room with a certain individual for many years, with him constantly eating far more than me. He obviously weighs much less than me, stays extremely slender, and never exercises.