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Guest Post: Fat and Simple

By skepticlawyer

[SL: This great piece by our redoubtable admin, Jacques, came up on my facebook news feed this morning, and I thought it deserved wider prominence. Yes, it's about food and dieting, but gets there by means of a great deal of interesting industrial technology and very cool diagrams. In the meantime, I will be back on deck once I've recovered from the extraordinary realisation that I now have a suntan. In Scotland. From Scottish sun.


Originally posted here.

In my trade we commonly mention the truism that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I bring this up because I’m about to do what every smart person likes to do: drastically simplify a complex phenomenon.

Specifically: If all you have is systems thinking … everything looks like a system.

Today’s subject is: how do people get fat?

A long, winding discussion of an analogy which may eventually be relevant, in which Control Systems are introduced

One of the great tributaries of systems modelling is control theory, which grew out of the study of steam engine governors.

Suppose you have a steam train. You want it to move at a more or less constant speed. To do so, you need to ensure that the right amount of steam is admitted into the pistons on each stroke.

In comes this elegant act of engineering genius:

Centrifugal Governor at the Science Museum London. picture by Mirko Junge.

What you see here is one of the innovations that made the industrial revolution possible. It’s a “Centrifugal Governor”, and it means that the right amount of steam will get into the pistons on each stroke. So important is this particular invention that it, along with some other clever innovations, is why the unit of power in physics is known as the Watt.

The shaft in the middle is connected to the drive axle of the steam engine through some gearing or chains. As it spins, the brass balls spin around the shaft (hardy har har). As they spin higher and higher, they compress a little pair of arms which, through a lever, adjust a valve on the piston’s steam inlet.

Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, the whole mechanism looks a bit like this:

When more steam is let into the pistons, the engine speeds up. The shaft spins faster, the balls rise higher, pushing the lever, which pushes the valve further closed.

The steam rate coming into the engine lowers, the engine slows, the balls spin at a lower height and the valve opens a bit.

After a while, this reaches an approximate equilibrium. But adjusting the gearing, the weight of the brass, the length of the arms, the length of the lever and so forth, it’s possible to use this simple mechanism to select how much speed you want from a steam engine.

This forms a feedback loop:

Feedback loop of centrifugal governor. Train clipart by gazzaPax.

More specifically, a “balancing loop”. A balancing loop pulls the overall system towards some equilibrium when it strays too far in one direction.

Now it’s obvious that I will be talking about control systems a bit more generally in just a second, but before we leave steam trains behind, I have one observation I want you to keep in mind.

The governor ignores the internal state and configuration of the steam engine.

The governor works regardless of how the engine is currently configured. It need not account for the amount of coal in the firebox, the pressure of the steam, the friction of the pistons, the grade of the track, the amount of water on hand, the kind of coal being burnt … these are largely irrelevant. They all disappear because ultimately, all the governor needs to do its job is to observe one output of the system: the speed of the drive axle.

Courtesy again of the Wikimedia Commons, here is a classic example of a control system feedback loop:

In our train analogy, the Controller was the steam valve on the pistons; the System the was the steam engine and the Sensor is the centrifugal device.

This is about the simplest possible system. Happily, it’s also the same shape as the centrifugal governor: a loop with three parts. Simple loops like these can be composed into ever more elaborate systems. Every part of the diagram can be replaced with subsystems, and subsystems of subsystems, until people start staring at bowls of spaghetti and wondering where the sauce is hidden.

The dietary control system

The simplest possible model of weight loss and weight gain is this: weight is affected by calories in minus calories out (strictly I should be talking about joules in versus joules out, but people are used to talking about calories).

Notice that we have two of the elements needed for a control system: we have a System (our body) which can be measured with a Sensor (a scale or the Mark I eyeball). What’s missing is a Controller.

The Controller is us: it’s own own selves. You look at the scale weight or yourself in a mirror, decide it’s no good, and can then change the inputs of the system (what you eat, what you do).

I am not the first to think of this analogy. Probably the best expositor of this way of thinking about the body is John Walker. In his book The Hacker Diet, Walker spends the first section discussing body weight as a control system. In fact, he does such a thorough, readable job of it that I recommend this book to anyone who wants a serious look at the bottom line of weight loss.

But … insulin! Starvation mode! Carbs! Zones! That study I saw written up in the New York Times!

Various authors have come forward in the past few years to say that “calories in minus calories out” is wrong. More subtly, they say it’s too simple. A number of additional mechanisms are then discussed that affect this or that element of body weight. For example:

  • Satiety
  • Fat storage and release
  • Energy system utilisation
  • Hormonal responses

And on and on it goes. Most problematically, these tend to become all-or-nothing Deep Truth About Weight Control.

In a particularly widely-read example, Gary Taubes developed a hypothesis about the relationship between dietary carbohydrates, insulin releases, satiety and fat storage that he thinks accounts for the “real” cause of obesity. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite stand scrutiny from sciency scientists.

I want you to notice something interesting: that while the internal mechanisms of fat storage and release are enormously complex, with hundreds of interacting variables, the inputs and outputs are simple.

You control what you eat and what you do.

Forcing elements

A better diagram for bodyweight control will resemble a great big mess:

All of the hundreds of factors involved in body weight control have an impact. Sometimes quite a significant impact. But not one of these factors can overpower the simple fact that a body can’t burn dietary calories it didn’t receive.

Net calories is, therefore, a forcing element in this system. It is not the only element, but by itself it can force the overall system into a different configuration. And it’s not as though this is hard to prove. Controlled starvation studies have shown it; history has shown it (look at photos of Changi POWs) and — though it distresses me to draw a connection between acute human misery and chronic diseases of abundance — current events in Niger show it.

So final is the forcing power of caloric balance in this system, that we can potentially ignore the entire mess of subsystems in weight control and treat the whole thing as a black box. That is, we can reduce it to the first feedback system diagram above: inputs, controls, system, outputs, sensors. Calories in, calories out, weight and appearance.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Just like the centrifugal governor, caloric balance requires no consideration of the underlying system apart from inputs and outputs. Calories in minus calories out, ultimately, settles the body weight balance.

Psychology and evolution

Obesity is, as I said above, a disease of abundance. It’s a disease of civilisation and particularly of capitalist civilisation, being as it is so spectacularly capable of producing calories far in excess of those required to sustain every human alive.

As Mssrs Penn and Teller observed, that we are alive today is evidence that our ancestors liked two things: “eating and fucking”. Those primeval life forms which did not avidly eat and bonk were replaced by those who did both whenever the opportunity arose. The entire mechanism of fat storage is a quantum leap forward in survivability for higher organisms, presenting as it does the ability to average caloric inputs over time and to decouple the organism from short-term fluctuations in food availability. Without fat storage animals could not have evolved to their current level of complexity, because that complexity imposes a very high cost in calories. And humans are no exception.

Eating and fucking!
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

So it’s understandable that people don’t want to control their eating. Or rather, it’s understandable that the abstract, long-term promise of weight loss is swamped by a hindbrain screaming “EAT THE CAAAAAAAAKE, ALL OF CAAAAAAAAKE”. Much in the same way that cars pit a visual-motive system adapted to running speed in the African savannah against tons of steel moving at dozens of kilometres per hour between buildings only metres apart, weight control pits us against our own adapted nature.

Nevertheless, we are not automatons. We have higher brain centres, which have evolved to the point where they can exercise abstract reasoning and suppress our instincts. Diet is no exception to this happenstance. Unless you have diminished psychological functioning (been there, done that, got the pills), you are in theory capable of taking this step. You are not a victim: you are a master of your own destiny.

The key to weight control is finding the dietary template that you can stick to for the rest of your life. That will be different for different people. Some folks are happy with calorie counting a la John Walker. Some people are happy with paleo, primal or ketogenic diets. Others swear by zones or low fat and so on.

Worrying about why a diet works for you is irrelevant. That it works and that you can sustain it indefinitely is what matters. If you can sustain a caloric deficit for the time it takes to drop to a healthy weight and then stabilise, then that’s the diet for you. Crash dieting or yo-yo dieting is not OK.

Special Pleading

What about people with thyroid disorders? What about this low metabolism thing? What about … and … also … but!

I say, good fellow, have you considered that Taurus, Gemini and Aries have to overcome the baleful influence of Jupiter in the 4th house?

Every time you point out the simplicity of the net calories model, somebody comes up with special pleading.

I distinguish special pleading from non-caloric causes of obesity because they tend not to be theories about how obesity occurs. Rather, they’re virulent memes which allow us to turn that powerful, higher abstract reasoning onto the path of justifying what our hindbrain wants us to do.

My objection is that very few people have a genuine reason why simple calorie counting won’t work. Very few people. Yet everybody is quick to self-diagnose. “Oh!” they say when they hear the latest health journo blurb. “I must have that condition. I guess I’ll never be able to lose weight. I should just accept it. Pass the gravy, my glass is empty.”

Well look. Maybe you do have Schnitzengrüber Syndrome. But do you know what? You probably don’t. And until you see your doctor and check, you can probably assume that you don’t and that putting the fork down is the bottom line.

And … even if you do have a medical condition which affects your particular biochemical reaction to food or exercise, it doesn’t change that net calories is still a forcing element. People with every metabolic malady known to science, and a few more that aren’t, will have died throughout history through simple starvation. No disease can create energy from nothing.

Self control

One thing I liked about the Hacker Diet is that Walker teaches you how to control yourself. Make frequent measurements and then adjust your system inputs. No need to make dramatic changes, folks. Weigh yourself daily, perhaps take weekly photographs for visual comparison, and gently reduce your calorie intake.

Because you’ve kept the records of weight and appearance, you can see what your metabolic system is doing. Why speculate about how you will respond to food? Measure! Verify! You are a control system.

Caveats and Conclusion

What annoys me about models like Taubes’s is that on the one hand they complicate (“It’s not just calories in minus calories out!”) and then over-simplify (“It’s caaaaaaarrrrrbbsssss!”).

Well, if it please the court: I’m guilty of this too. I’ve simplified enormously. Abstraction is the basis of my profession (software engineering). But that doesn’t change the fact that the model I’ve outlined above is true, by any serious empirical standard. Cut calories enough and you’ll lose weight, add enough and you’ll gain. How much those inputs affect weight and appearance will vary wildly from person to person, but the underlying relationship will always be there.

If you have one, and only one thing that you take away from this screed, it’s this: calories in minus calories out is a forcing element. It will always, in the end, force body weight in one direction or the other.

But there are caveats! Simply bludgeoning the body into submission with help from that pitiless prick, Mr Physics, may be counterproductive. For example, cortisol is a hormone which inter alia mediates fat release. But it also mediates protein breakdown in muscles and the density of bones. Crash dieting tends to kick cortisol up a lot and well, it’s not too picky about what receptors it plugs into. Crash dieting isn’t healthy because as well as losing fat, you can lose muscle protein and bone density also.

Another caveat is mental health. As has been raised by people I’ve argued with on Reddit, depression can affect the will to seek help or the effectiveness of “tough love” advice. And, of course, for some people, calorie counting or crash dieting spirals off into serious health issues such as anorexia, bulimia or (less seriously) orthorexia. In such cases professional help should be sought first of all for the mental health issue. Weight can wait.

So. Here’s the moderated view of what I want you to take away:

  1. Calories in minus calories out is the ultimate, unavoidable arbiter of body weight.
  2. But don’t crash diet. Lose weight gradually over time. Pick a diet you can enjoy and sustain for the rest of your life. There’s lots to have a go at.
  3. Don’t lie to yourself. Keep weight and photo records to know you’re making progress. If you get thoroughly stuck and your records show you’ve been doing it right, see your GP and/or a registered dietitian (not a nutritionist, these are frequently unlicensed quacks) to see if you have something interfering with your metabolism.
  4. Do some exercise, and in particular do some training with weights to prevent muscle and bone weakening.

Patience, friends. Patience and consistency can achieve amazing things. Trust me.


  1. Posted May 27, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    As an overweight person I find it excessively irritating no, not irritating; distressing – to read these kinds of diatribes that ‘blame’ fat people for their condition. Fattism is the last acceptable form of discrimination and, to tell you the the truth, it brings me to tears.

    Sure, you can get fat by stuffing your face with doughnuts all day, drinking litres of Coke and never getting off the couch because you’re addicted to Days of Our Lives and the Young and the Restless. But, that’s the stereotype.

    How about asking why people are doing this? Depression? Sexual or domestic abuse? Other psychological problems?

    Apparently when we do this it’s ‘special pleading’ and we’re made fun of for being hypochondriacs.

    No-one wants to be fat, so why would people who eat astronomical amounts of food DO this? That’s where you need to start! Not by just blaming people for being pigs and chiding them that fixing their problem is ‘simple’ – just eat less calories.

    For others, there are physical health issues – sometimes piled on top of the mental health issues. Anything from thyroid to chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and menopause and, yes, genetics can effect your weight.

    For the record, I do not eat like a horse. In fact I eat less than most of my skinny friends. I am appalled and embarrassed when fat people are portrayed on television ‘chowing down’ on packets of biscuits, truckloads of chips, and tables’ full of fast food.

    Is that what people think I do? Do you know how mortifying that is? And that’s what this article perpetuates! Can you imagine what that image does to someone’s self-esteem and mental health? It sure doesn’t help them to lose weight!

    There is also the suggestion that fat equals unhealthy. Of course, there is good evidence that being obese increases your likelihood of contracting certain diseases. Of course I worry about that. But skinny people get diabetes and cancer and drop dead from heart disease, too!

    I happen to be overweight and comparatively physically healthy. Many people who are overweight are health conscious, and don’t suffer from high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other fat-related issues. In fact, my GP once handed me my test-results and told me to take them home and frame them!

    I am so sick of being portrayed as being a fat, lazy over-eater who only needs to reduce her calories and get out and walk in order to conform to what society seems to want me to be.

    For physical reasons I simply can’t get out and walk or jog for any distance. I do what I can. For that I’m called lazy. How many people who spend 6 hours a day in a gym but never read a newspaper or a book are called ‘lazy’ because they don’t exercise their minds to the extent I do? Errrr, none?

    The fact is, I am comfortable with my weight. It is not causing me undue health issues. What health issues I have arose before my weight problems. I do not stuff myself with food. I eat moderately and healthily but I do not diet, fad diet or crash diet.

    Please, please, please. Stop ‘simplifying’ obesity. It’s not simple. I’m not simple. My issues are not simple, and nor are those of other overweight people. It’s not just calories. It is so much more.

    I’m sorry, Helen, but I find this article pompous and patronising.

  2. Posted May 27, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink


    You missed my point.

    At a physical level, obesity is simple.

    At a psychological level, it’s more complex. To the point where I say genuine psychological problems should be addressed first.

    I talked about both levels and I said, quite clearly, that it does not much matter how you come to impose a caloric deficit; only that any effective method of weight control will eventually do so. Otherwise E = mc^2 doesn’t hold, and a Nobel prize in physics awaits the person who works out why.

    The background for this article is less about “fat shaming” and more about arguing with the numerous adherents of Gary Taubes et al, who have convinced a whole lot of people that insulin has magical physics-breaking powers that are unrelated to the deliberately simplistic model I outlined above.

    I’m glad that you’re happy with your weight. Many people are desperately unhappy, but also don’t want to face the spare, physical reality of net caloric balance. It is important that we do not lie to such people, that we don’t deceive them that somehow they can avoid having to take in less calories and/or burn more (in my experience, it’s far easier to eat less than to exercise more).

  3. Posted May 27, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Missed the point? I particularly like this caustic little barb: “.. everybody is quick to self-diagnose. “Oh!” they say when they hear the latest health journo blurb. “I must have that condition. I guess I’ll never be able to lose weight. I should just accept it. Pass the gravy, my glass is empty.”

    Well look. Maybe you do have Schnitzengrüber Syndrome. But do you know what? You probably don’t.”

    People are desperately unhappy because of thoughtless jibes like these. Because people write articles titled ‘Fat and Simple’ – gee thanks! Because people pompously assume that people who are overweight don’t understand that calories have an impact on their weight. It’s just another assumption that fat people must be stupid.

    I’m sorry, I do take offence at your article and its tone. It is not a matter of peple ‘not wanting to phase … net caloric balance’. And telling people it is ‘simple’ is misleading, deceptive and incredibly hurtful for those many people whose lives and issues are not ‘simple’.

    I stand by my comments.

  4. Posted May 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations on getting a big dose of calcium enabling Vitamin D. Scotland in summer must be just lovely.
    My hindbrain is screaming at my steam governor to find those crisps in the pantry as soon as I go offline to walk around the block in the freezing cold.
    Has everyone seen the reports of the house in Wales that had a wall excavated to remove the 60-stones occupant to a hospital? I can’t blame my 12 stones on an Enabler, just me and choc biscs.
    wish I could lose an ounce for every book published on weightloss.

  5. Posted May 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    As do I.

    I don’t think we’re going to come to an understanding here.

  6. Adrien
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    James Watt in relation to weight loss. That’s so very…

  7. Adrien
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Chrys, Jacques has not written anything pejorative about people who have weight issues. He’s merely demonstrated a basic fact that exposes a whole library’s worth of charlatanical preying on those who are having a hard time losing weight.

    The fact is to lose weight and exercise more. That’s it.

    As to why we can’t do it. Jacques alluded to that as well. We live in a civilization of abundance. We can consume destructively. Weight’s just one phenomenon amongst a plethora. Drug addiction is another.

    He’s just saying that. Not having a go at fat people.

  8. Adrien
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    That’s to lose weight: eat less and exercise more. And drink less… definitely drink less. :)

  9. Posted May 27, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, many people do have a go at fat people. The gravy barb was probably a bit harsh, but I’ve honestly met people who made arguments of that sort over lavish dinners.

    This is one of those issues which is at once simple (calorie balance) and complex (human nature).

  10. kvd
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I must admit when I saw the term “Centrifugal Governor” I thought this was going to be yet another post on Mitt Romney, so was quite relieved to read further.

    Jacques, you don’t mention fluid retention as a factor. I only raise it because of a family experience with quite dramatic weight gain during cancer treatment.

  11. Posted May 27, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink


    Sure. I can fluctuate daily by kilos based on what I’ve eaten and basically it comes down to water. If I have a delicious salty, carb-rich dinner I will probably weigh an extra two kilos next time I weigh in. I also use creatine as a training supplement, which adds several kilos to my average weight through fluid retention.

    But fluid retention can’t overcome the influence of calorie balance in the long run.

  12. Posted May 27, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Disclosure, so this doesn’t get dumped into the “special pleading” trash: I happen to be slim. I’m about 165cm tall, and I weigh about 60kilos, I think. I don’t really know. This is after two pregnancies, and being in my mid-forties. Ok…

    I don’t think the governor analogy quite works, because unlike steam engines, we know that bodies react to periods of starvation by adjusting how they use calories. So someone who has tried to reduce their calory intake, and succeeded, resets the way their body operates, so that it now takes less calories to maintain the same weight. If they continue to eat the same amount of calories, then they will gain weight.

    I’ve read this in many places, and a quick google search brought up this page verifying the weight reset theory: Some dieters are set up to regain weight.

  13. Mindy
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Jacques I could spend the rest of my life worrying about my weight, or I could tell society to f off and just worry about being healthy – as Chrys states above. Obesity in and of itself is not an issue – it is the underlying health problems that obesity is either a symptom of or in conjunction with. Being fat doesn’t kill you, as lots of healthy fatties can attest.

    Calories in calories out is not correct. People who have been overweight and dieted have found that their calorific output is less than someone who has never had excess weight – even when eating exactly the same foods. It is still not known why this occurs but it does, so your simple govenor theory falls over here. Sure these people could spend the rest of their lives carefully measuring out every scrap of food and doing increasing amounts of excercise to maintain their weight loss, or they could ignore what society says about body image, focus on health rather than size and still enjoy life – unless they are the type of person who enjoys measuring everything out, keeping records etc in which case they would probably be very happy doing what you suggest. But they are a minority.
    95-98% of diets fail but it is the one industry where you blame the person purchasing the product not the product.

  14. Posted May 27, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink


    Nothing about what you’ve said changes the underlying physical reality: net calories determine weight in the long run.

    The problem with studies like those (apart from small samples and unrealistic crash diets followed by self-reported food logging) is that they give people the wrong idea.

    The impression people take away is that “yes, of course, calories in – calories out. But in my case it’s harder because X and Y and Z, so therefore it’s too hard and I won’t try”.

    I don’t say it’s equally easy for all people, or that the calorie balance / weight relationship is strictly linear. It clearly isn’t. But the relationship is causal and it’s important to never lose sight of that.

  15. Posted May 27, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink


    Calories in calories out is not correct.

    It is absolutely correct. To say otherwise requires you to explain how matter and energy are no longer conserved due to the operation of human biology. Nobody has so far done so.

    Note that I never said calorie counting is the only way to achieve deficit. It doesn’t much matter what works for you personally: low fat, high fat, low carb, high carb, keto, palo, primal, south beach, zone, blah blah blah it’s beside the point that all such dietary templates ultimately work by creating a caloric deficit.

    What works for me personally is intermittent fasting. Not everyone’s cup of tea.

    Being fat doesn’t kill you, as lots of healthy fatties can attest.

    The comorbidities of subcutaneous and visceral fat are real and show up in study after massive study. I personally have good blood work, good blood pressure and a good resting heart rate. However when these are controlled for, the surplus fat I store raises the probability that I will die younger than otherwise.

  16. Posted May 27, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    If which calories you eat affect how much energy you expend and how many calories you crave then caloric balance is true but not enough information.

    I suspect people aren’t quite hearing the verify part. As someone with a mild blood sugar problem that is deeply affected by my level of exercise and what I have been eating, I am very conscious of the interaction between diet content and both caloric intake and caloric expenditure. Including food cravings.

  17. Posted May 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    the comment by KVD above, makes me think there may be a link with the modern obesity rise and the rise of BigPharma. Now that everybody is taking medication of some kind, and the ‘possible side-effects’ warning always includes Weight Gain.

    Much of the obesity criticism is directed at poor choice by uneducated people but every time I watch those cleverdicks on ABCTVs Insiders, it is clear they are all over the recommended BMI.

    If you want to see feral fat attacking, the dailymailonline is the mother lode.

  18. kvd
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Jacques, really this really is a bit simplistic. Your ‘calories in, calories out’ equation ignores at least the very basic reality that there can be large differences in an individual’s effective, or efficient, processing of same. Without getting too basic, does your ‘calories out’ measure what’s not processed – i.e. rejected – by the body?

    The steam engine example – coal in, coal consumed>motive power, is almost “perfection” when compared to the variation even within a family, let alone a population.

    I prefer Mindy’s take. Not that you called for a vote or anything ;)

  19. Posted May 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Next time I’ll remember to invest in a rather superior air-raid shelter before publishing a piece on dieting :) incoming!

    I published this piece for the following reasons:

    1. It is well-written.

    2. It makes its oversimplifications clear and upfront. This is something that very few articles on this issue ever do. I think Greta Christina’s articles on weight loss are the only other pieces on a similar topic I’ve ever read that do this. Greta is a skeptical author I admire.

    3. I am a skeptic. I do not like attempts to fleece people using bad science. ‘Science’ that purports to comfort people by pretending that the laws of physics don’t exist is bad science. Is it as bad as creationism or antivaxx? No, it’s not, but it still kills people, at least in the long term.

    On the wider point about pathologising things that are very difficult to change, I have considerable experience, and can offer some salient advice. It’s free, so feel free to ignore it, but it has its origins in careful, systematic thinking by someone who tends to engage in careful, systematic OVER-thinking:

    1. Almost all of the time, someone who criticises you personally does not have your best interests at heart. How do I know this? Because most people care only about themselves. If they stop to criticise you personally, it is actually about them. See these grey hairs? Making whoopee with the intelligentsia is how I got them.

    2. Most general advice that is not personally targetted exists to make the writer or publisher money. That does not make it all bad or wrong, but it does suggest ‘treat with caution’. I have no problem with the existence of things entirely to make money (hello, classical liberal), but it means that I am not shocked by all the bad advice out there, from dieting to dating. You shouldn’t be shocked either; if you are shocked, then perhaps I have inadvertently stumbled upon one of those Jonathan Haight style realisations that disclose why people are politically different. I never assume that people are automatically on my side. It would be nice if I could, but I have a far more tragic view of human nature than that.

    3. Ever wondered why articles that purport to provide legal information not tailored to an individual’s set of circumstances are covered with disclaimers? It’s because lawyers (paid, professional and generally capable arguers) have enough clout as an industry to make sure that this basic reality is acknowledged. All the time. In print. It’s why IANAL as a disclaimer evolved on the interwebs, too.

    When a for-profit magazine publishes health advice without a similar disclaimer, insert one silently as you read, just as you do when reading articles on how to do your own conveyancing or draft your own will. Seriously.

    Also, don’t draft your own will. Bad idea.

  20. Posted May 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Also Ann: apologies for leaving you trapped in the spammer.

  21. Posted May 27, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink


    I suspect people aren’t quite hearing the verify part.

    Absolutely. You can’t observe the inner workings of the body’s response to different foods and activities. But you can observe your scale weight and visual appearance.

    That’s how the analogy with the centrifugal governor came in.

    Weighing every time I train has taught me more about how I respond to food (and how “noisy” the system is) than anything else. It’s been quite fascinating.

  22. Posted May 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Continuing on from my previous comment, being in the situation where you don’t want to eat more food, but your hunger cravings will not let you sleep and finding that it makes a difference which things you eat because the wrong things either (1) don’t help or (2) make things worse makes you really aware that food content matters.

    Calorie counting reminds me of naive growth theory in economics. Since capital increases correlate with growth the recommendation was to increase capital. This turned out not to work since it is how (and whether) you use the capital that matters.

    So, yes, capital matters but …

  23. Posted May 27, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Jacques, really this really is a bit simplistic. Your ‘calories in, calories out’ equation ignores at least the very basic reality that there can be large differences in an individual’s effective, or efficient, processing of same. Without getting too basic, does your ‘calories out’ measure what’s not processed – i.e. rejected – by the body?

    I talked about how the “real” system of weight control is very much more complicated than the simplistic net calorie model. I didn’t address individual variation except tangentially as special pleading.

    Individuals vary a lot in how they take in, store and spend dietary calories. But short of obvious exceptions like severe juvenile diabetes, amputations, intestinal failure and so forth — nobody has ever lost weight without first having a net caloric deficit.

    It will occur differently for different people, which is why I advocate monitoring your reaction to different plans. It can be as detailed or as simple as you like, so long as you perform the observations.

  24. Posted May 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink


    Continuing on from my previous comment, being in the situation where you don’t want to eat more food, but your hunger cravings will not let you sleep and finding that it makes a difference which things you eat because the wrong things either (1) don’t help or (2) make things worse makes you really aware that food content matters.

    Yes, all true. But as I say: the bottom line is that how you achieve the caloric deficit is less important than the fact that you will have to impose one.

    My beef is with people wishing that this weren’t so and coming up with complex theories about why it doesn’t apply to them. It does, I’m sorry. It always has.

  25. Posted May 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    And I was chatting and hadn’t realised folk had posted between my two comments! Which is a way of saying that I really like your point about regular measurement.

    But, I am in Venice, just heard the gun starting the annual boat race go off from my third floor apartment, so perhaps am a bit distracted :)

    I was in the Piazza San Marco yestereday at dusk and that morning I had seen the Giotto chapel in Padua. I am a bit place-and-beauty bedazzled.

  26. Posted May 27, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m jealous!

  27. Posted May 27, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I mean, of course, this chapel.

    Just to rub it in ;)

  28. kvd
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Almost all of the time, someone who criticises you personally does not have your best interests at heart. How do I know this? Because most people care only about themselves. If they stop to criticise you personally, it is actually about them.

    Most depressing view on life I’ve read for a few months. Maybe, perhaps, possibly, they care enough about you to offer ‘advice’ in the form of ‘critique’ – which for whatever reason is unacceptable, which is understandable. Oh, well.

    But I like your shoes ;)

  29. Kitty
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Skeptic Lawyer, this is my first comment (off your FB wall that is) in a very long time – I just couldn’t wield enough of that precious self control not to get involved. If this were just a polemic on personal responsibility then fine, but it ends by giving dietary advice that wasn’t properly qualified by evidence or explicitly stated qualifications. “It worked for me” is precisely the argument used to sell all manner of fad diets. Also being upfront about oversimplifications doesn’t give someone carte blanche to use straw men and go on a cherry picking excursion. The simplified version still needs to hold up to the evidence.

    Of course Jacques is right in that, at some point, restricting sufficient calories will lead to weight loss but it isn’t actually very helpful as dietary advice and shouldn’t be positioned as this amazing solution to all the quackery that abounds in this area. At some point in the real world, the advice to impose such self restrictive control can lead to some people eating too little (as anorexics and bulimics do) or to perceived failure and weight gain for others.

    A real problem obesity experts are trying to grapple with is that diets (even including exercise) aren’t particularly effective for weight loss in the long term. Hence why many scientists are looking beyond the simple calories in and calories out model.

    Exacerbating that problem, people aren’t very good at sustaining diets in the long term. It’s no good telling people that they just need to control themselves, that just doesn’t seem to work. In response, some researchers are now looking at whether inventions that encourage activity and healthy eating rather than deprivation and self-flagellation have a better chance of long term follow through. It still requires some self control (e.g. I’ll make a casserole with lots of vegetables rather than eating this chocolate bar and drinking this 2L bottle of diet coke) but the framework is far more positive and proactive (and the food is much more interesting!). It also rests on a more complex understanding of the nutritional value of food beyond calories. Time will tell if those inventions are more successful in the long term for overall health if not for weight loss.

    In my experience, most nutritional hucksters aren’t peddling complexity, they peddle simplicity. Complex explanations and solutions don’t sell diet books or pills. I’m not saying that people should be discouraged from making simple changes (though the “control thyself!” method is far from a simple change in reality), but an appreciation of the difficulties involved may at least help to set more realistic expectations for those seeking to lose weight.

  30. kvd
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    most nutritional hucksters aren’t peddling complexity, they peddle simplicity. Complex explanations and solutions don’t sell diet books or pills

    Has my vote for most perceptive comment in this thread.

  31. Posted May 27, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure the oversimplification argument holds, Kitty (btw I don’t know who you are in blog land; sorry, please don’t make assumptions like that). I’ve read plenty of dietary advice that is outstandingly elaborate and outstandingly wrong, in large part because it makes the error that Jacques has identified. This error is made for all sorts of strategic reasons, many of them not particularly pleasant if one goes into them too much (which I alluded to in my earlier comment), but it is an error nonetheless.

    For those interested, Greta Christina’s excellent writing on this issue starts (by and large) here:

    She has written more since, over at her new freethought blog, but less regularly (and I am less good at finding the relevant posts, too).

  32. conrad
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    “In response, some researchers are now looking at whether inventions that encourage activity and healthy eating rather than deprivation and self-flagellation have a better chance of long term follow through”

    On a broader scale, this has been tried and failed in Aus (think Life Be In It, and whatever that new campaign is with the balloon and the dog). I imagine the reason for this is that campaigns usually target negative stuff since it works better (as Kahneman noted all those years ago). I’m surprised we’re yet to see horrifying ‘don’t-be-fat or you’ll die a nasty death’ ads.

    One of the things I find interesting is actually how big cultural factors are. There is a nice graph of obesity rates thanks to the OECD here: At least to me, this suggests that all this stuff about genetics and differences between people and so on is probably not the best argument since most people can eat whatever they want in most places, but the obesity rate varies widely. I think the moral is don’t live in English speaking countries.

  33. Mel
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading Jacques’ post and I thank SL for reposting it. Jacques states a fundamental truth; in order to lose weight energy out must exceed energy in. This is true. But the rest of his argument fails because this is *not* true:

    “Diet is no exception to this happenstance. Unless you have diminished psychological functioning (been there, done that, got the pills), you are in theory capable of taking this step. You are not a victim: you are a master of your own destiny.”

    What Jacques is saying in the above para boils down to this: “We all have free will but this may be impaired by psychological problems, therefore unless we are psychologically damaged we can lose wait if we want to badly enough.” This argument fails because, like Taube et al’s elaborate theories that set out to show how weight loss is somehow not ultimately reducible to energy in minus energy out, Jacques seeks to override everything we know about physics to argue that some magical thing called “free will” exists.

    In truth, humans are a (very complex) system that operate in a (very complex) environment, and thus at the macro scale the same rule that applies to Jacques’ steam train engine applies to humans; that is, what the system does is determined by, *and only by*, the internal parameters of the system and environmental inputs into the system. There is no mysterious third factor that operates outside the laws of physics and that can somehow override these laws called free will. To believe in such a thing is to believe in fairy tales and fantasy and to eschew reason.

  34. Peter Warwick
    Posted May 27, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    My General Practitioner, when he heard my wails about my weight, and my pleading that I know I eat less (and I do) than he (he is normal weight), answered that “no Aussie came out of Changi Prison fat !”.

    I was a bit stumped, and his statement shut me up.

  35. TerjeP
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    I didn’t really like the article but my comments are over on the original.

  36. TerjeP
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Here is what I wrote on the original article:-

    I was 101 kg a year ago but then I lost 17kg in about 17 weeks and I’ve kept it off since. I did so whilst increasing my calorie intake quite significantly. I’ve also studied systems theory formally as part of my Electrical Engineering degree.

    In crude terms you are right. Weight is a function of calories in and calories out. However in practice your insight is not very complete. It is the calories out side of the equation that generally needs adjusting more so than calories in. There are two primary ways to burn calories. One is exercise the other is with a higher metabolic rate. Burning calories via exercise is really tough work and few people have the time or motivation. However burning calories with a higher metabolic rate is almost effortless.

    Of course there is the challenge of boosting your metabolic rate. This is where diet can be so important. The foods we eat not only stoke the engine with calories they also determine the burn up rate via metabolism. Two diets equal in calories can have radically different outcomes in terms of metabolic rate and thus weight loss or weight gain. The other way to boost your metabolic rate is via increased muscle mass. It is hard work keeping muscle alive and the body will burn a lot of energy doing so.

    Weight loss via calorie restricting diets or hours on the treadmill is folly. I’m not saying that weight loss doesn’t require discipline but you need to be strategic. But with the right techniques it is nowhere near as difficult as I once thought. That said I did seek professional assistance from somebody specialised in the area.

    I did ditch carbs. I eat meat for breakfast where I used to eat raw oats. Sometimes it’s kangaroo, sometimes bacon and eggs, sometimes tinned fish. I don’t eat bread. I don’t eat rice or pasta. I love a good roast, a piece of steak, a nice fish and all the green veggies I can eat. I avoid fruit and sweet juices. When I was losing weight (rather than maintaining it) I was eating five protein meals a day. One day a week I have a high carb meal (cheat meal) just to avoid the body going into starvation based metabolic slow down. I never count calories.

  37. TerjeP
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    LE – my story was similar and for a while I was becoming resigned to being a porker. My advice is don’t become resigned. Seek out knowledge and strategies.

  38. Mel
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Crud, I sound a bit pompous in @33. That’s what happens when I write something after drinking two litres of iced coffee.

    Another thought is this, Jacques’ post has a tough love aspect to it and that can actually motivate change in some people. So whilst Jacques’ argument fails because it relies on the fantasy of free will, it nonetheless constitutes an environmental input that may stimulate positive change in some human systems. OTOH, it may depress other human systems and cause them to binge on comfort foods.

    The world makes much more sense when we ditch the fantasy of free will. However, we if we subscribe to the fantasy, then obviously, just like everything else, this is caused system output. So don’t feel guilty, mmkay.

  39. Posted May 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Two things I’d add (and btw, H1 in 3rd year nutrition under my belt) …

    The reward systems stuff gets messy – not just serotonin rewards, but special appetite-related neurochemicals like leptins (look it up in wikipedia) interacting with all sorts of things including “neuropeptide Y” … and when you get “substance P” (receptors for which I was taking pretty pictures of) or “neuropeptide Y), you know you are in an area where scientists have as much of a clue about the gory details as Duck Dodgers did of Planet X … you don’t even know enough to give it a proper name.

    The other complicating factor is that even if you could somehow organize two individuals with exactly the same gene sequence, but different grandmothers, the grandmothers having a different diet when pregnant (1930s depression), any recommendations for weight and diet would be different for the two individuals because of epigenetics.

    So … one hint to body composition control – make sure your grandparents are free of economic constraints that limit their food supply, especially unemployment that means they’ll be hungry and the cheapest way of amusing themselves is to make your parents!

    Actually, the best advice I can give is learn to listen to what your body wants – like a pregnant woman short on minerals who starts craving the right type of chalk or dirt. Listen to whether your stomach is full, to what type of foods you want more than others, and how this varies.

    Best example of how accurate the “what I want” sense can be was done in Melb Uni – sheep, given two buckets to drink from, one plain water, one salty, would, regardless of the varying concentration of the salty one from day to day, take JUST the right mix of the salty and plain water to balance their sodium inputs and outputs. If sheep can do that, surely we can learn to do the same?

  40. TerjeP
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Mel – For changing behaviour (especially my own) I always start from the assumption that we have free will but that it is pretty puny and that it isn’t the only force pushing on our decisions. The trick is not really about having free will push harder but rather in using free will to push on a long lever that provides it with the necessary advantage. Free will is best engaged seeking out that lever rather than pushing harder without a lever.

  41. derrida derider
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Sheesh, OF COURSE some people find it much harder to keep their weight down than others do. Just as some people find it a lot harder than others to give up smokes, or to limit their drinking – it’s a quirk of physiology, probably with some genetics in there too. If you’re one of the lucky ones for whom all this is easy the correct attitude is “there but for the grace of Darwin go I…”, not blaming and shaming.

    Yet that doesn’t mean all those overweight, smoking, drinking, or whatever would not be better off without it and in their own interest and the interest of those who love them should make what effort they can. It’s not a MORAL issue but a health one.

    And if you’re making an effort the “constant monitoring” approach and focusing on aggregate calorie balance is probably the right one.

  42. Kitty
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    SL, sure there are plenty of people who do provide wrong information that is complex (especially in science where complexity can be a form of obfuscation), however, most popular diet books become popular precisely because they sell simple fixes.

    Greta Cristina’s piece is very upfront about it being her personal experience and she doesn’t readily dismiss other people’s circumstances as special pleadings which seems to me to acknowledge complexity. Acknowledging complexity doesn’t have to mean putting on the blinkers of the more extreme elements of the fat-positive movement.

    Conrad, public health campaigns are notoriously ineffective especially in the area of nutrition/exercise, they are hardly a judge of the merits of any type of intervention (calorie restricting or otherwise). Also scary public health ads that are beloved of big governments certainly do raise awareness for a while but the problem is in their long term effects – they can trigger a whole of psychological defence mechanisms ( and if the extreme threat doesn’t eventuate, the message loses credibility or worse, it can create the illusion of invincibility. It’s one of the few things that I’ve remembered from my health psychology classes…

  43. Posted May 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    K@43 There was an EU anti-racism campaign that follow up surveys suggested had increased racism; so yes, public attitude changing campaigns are unreliable.

    On the general weight issues, this possibly provides a case to put people’s issues into perspective, sort of.

  44. conrad
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    “public attitude changing campaigns are unreliable.”

    Although many campaigns in Australia have worked well — smoking, AIDS, drink driving, sunscreen usage, speeding, breast cancer. Failures include, weight/excersize and drugs.

  45. Posted May 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Look, I suspect experiences on this can be so individual that any sort of diet advice is a bad idea. I am going to tell readers what I did, but with the proviso that if I hear that any of you are copying it, I will personally kick your backside.

    I got up to 93 kg while I was practising in Qld (in 2007) and responded by exercising more and doing the 6 small meals a day thing. I got very fit and strong (as I always do), but I lost about a kilo.

    I then thought about how I’d been raised. My mother was a ‘fridge locker’. I got nothing between meals except water. I seldom ate lunch as a kid. Just a light snack at breakfast and a big meal at night. So I started doing that. A croissant and coffee at breakfast, and a big, satisfying meal at night. I was weighed at Edinburgh uni’s NHS clinic a month ago. I am now 73.2 kg. By way of comparison, I was 72 kg at 18 (when I finally stopped growing at 181.5 cm).

    This is contrary to every bit of dieting advice there is. Yes it represents a cut in calories, but it also involves fitting in with the way I relate to food. I don’t care much. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t mind being slightly hungry as it keeps me sharp. I do eat a lot more meat now, and a lot less carbs. I also have daily walking duties to a large black Labrador. If I don’t do these, the results are ugly (and smelly – British back yards are small).

    I don’t weigh myself, although the NHS does whenever I have my annual ‘roadworthy’ (called MOT over here). But I did cut calories, and did Dave’s thing about listening to my body.

  46. mel
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Kitty @43:

    “Also scary public health ads that are beloved of big governments certainly do raise awareness for a while but the problem is in their long term effects – they can trigger a whole of psychological defence mechanisms ”

    You clearly didn’t read your own link very closely. It actually says:

    “It appears that strong fear appeals and high-efficacy messages produce the greatest behaviour change …. ”

    I’m with Conrad @45; many public health campaigns have been hugely successful.

    I’m surprised Lorenzo hasn’t thrown a hissy fit about Jacques’ post given his previous hagiography of Gary Taubes, who according to Lorenzo overturned the scientific consensus in regards to weight loss by virtue of his apparently penetrating intellect in the book Good Calories, Bad Calories.

  47. Posted May 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Mel, here is Keynes on that point: ‘when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?’

    A lot of bad diet advice these days is based around defying the laws of physics, and Taubes turned out to be wrong. There is nothing amiss with that: it’s how scientific (and other) progress happens.

  48. mel
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I was about 78 kgs bean pole as a teen and I’m about 15 kgs over that now with an approx 50% combination of fat and muscle adding to the bulk. I’m happy with that.

    I feel fit because I do 5-10 hours labour almost every day on my acreage and I take great pleasure in doing most things by hand. For instance at the moment I’m moving 140 cubic metres of sandstone boulders by hand to create a garden feature. I also make it a rule to never have junk food, soft drinks, cakes etc in the house although I do eat these things when I go out. Furthermore, I gave up alcohol when I moved to the country 4 years ago and my diet is 90% Asian. This has stopped me turning into a porker but technically I might be a couple of kilos over the optimum BMI. I can live with that.

  49. kvd
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Look, I don’t care if you’re short, tall, fat, thin, atheist, Christian, Liberal or Communist, vegan, pot smoking, gay or Welsh. Call me facile, but I’m more interested in what you think than how you define yourself.

    And I’m even less impressed by anyone who would insist that ‘their way’ is ‘the right way’ to address any particular issue by which they may define themselves, or they consider affirming, or from which they gain personal comfort.

    Paraphrasing Mel from yonks ago: I don’t care what you believe, just don’t attempt to impose your belief upon me. And ffs don’t ever suggest ‘the solution is simple’. To anything.

  50. John H.
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    There are sufficient variations in individual metabolism to make any single solution for all and sundry problematic. Changes can include dietary considerations like foods that impede fat absorption(compounds in coffee, or increase fatty metabolism( ALcaritine), to levels of brown adipose tissue(recent research suggests this can be increased), to variation in PPAR(liver), to CORT etc etc. Hence there are some people who can eat all they like and never get fat, then there are people like myself who have to be very careful about their caloric intake. There is even evidence to suggest that fasting can increase mitochondrial function and thereby reduce total caloric intake requirements. This may relate to autophagy(clearing the crap out of cells) which in turns improves mitochondrial function. Recent research claims that even lack of sleep can promote obesity.

    Another issue that is prevalent in the recent endocrine journals is the presence of obesogens in our foods. These compounds, BPA being a prominent example, appear to impact on PPAR function and thereby promote obesity. To what extent this constitutes a problem in humans is as yet unknown but it is known that levels found in humans do mirror the levels in experiments which induce obesity. There are even some striking studies suggesting these levels, combined with obesity, are major driver of type 2 diabetes. At least one study asserts that the levels of these compounds are more determinative of type 2 than obesity itself. I don’t think this is a major causative factor but it is something we need to keep our eyes on.

    Being overweight, within limits, may not be such a big problem as supposed. Overweight people who good aerobic capacity can be quite healthy, regular exercise may be the critical variable here.

    Nonetheless there is are very good reasons why the medical community is pushing this issue so hard. Obesity consistently correlates with poor health outcomes. The most striking example of this was a paper I read many years ago which found that middle aged obese women had very much accelerated brain aging, this being consistent with obesity increasing systemic inflammation.

    BTW, if you are aggressively losing weight pump up the antioxidant intake because toxins are stored in fat and are released with weight reduction increasing oxidative loading.

    Be practical, if you want to lose weight lose the stimuli the promote eating. Keep food out of sight. I have learned during my fasting periods how sensitive we are to these stimuli, smell something and immediately the stomach starts growling. My stomach is a famous growler because it is typically empty. It is surprisingly how little food one can survive on after practicing fasting for a few years. I now have to take a multi-vit because I know my nutrient intake is way too low … .

  51. Posted May 28, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Great post Jacques!

    But yes, dieting is apparently a controversial issue.

    There is a lot of junk science floating around about weight loss, and beyond ‘calorie in, calorie out’ I have yet to see anything else in the literature which works as a weightless program.

    Things like ‘starvation mode’ or ‘no carbs after 7′ etc are hypothesis that are pretty clearly debunked as tactics for weightloss . That doesn’t mean that the science underlying these programs doesn’t have some merit, it just isn’t helpful health advice.

    One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have is that they can just ‘burn off’ the calories. Not realising that exercise has a limited role in balancing the equation.

    Also, dieting is not a pleasant experience.. even if it is a “lifestyle change” it will still be a less pleasurable one. You will feel hungry and miserable, at least until you are used to the new caloric intake.

  52. Posted May 28, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    ^ Oh I should note. I say this 25 kg lighter after always being a big child and teenager.

  53. Posted May 29, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    There’s a lot of confusion about what I wrote.

    Or rather: people are projecting other debates into what I wrote.

    The bottom line is that, no matter how complex the internal operation of body weight, it always yields to net calorie balance. In fact, every dietary template ever that has actually worked has, one way or another, imposed or created a net deficit.

    There’s a lot of hocus-pocus advice about diets that tries to either deny or conceal this physical reality. And that really irks me.

    I never said that the relationship between diet and net calorie balance is linear or that the correlation is 1.0.

    Which will be the basis of my next post on the topic, currently in gestation.

  54. TerjeP
    Posted May 29, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    There’s a lot of hocus-pocus advice about diets that tries to either deny or conceal this physical reality.

    I haven’t encountered any that deny the basic notion of calorie input and calorie burn up. Even the scotch on the rocks diet uses a calorie argument (scotch has calories but melting the ice consumes calories).

  55. Ripples
    Posted May 29, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I tend to be simplistic in my thinking and prefer ideas such as this article where a complex system can be reduced to a simplistic idea.

    I enjoyed this article (though the spinning balls reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s observations in Small Gods)

    For me I have no issue with the premise of the deficient leading to weight loss. The trick is then finding a way to do this that works in the individual circumstances. It can be less in or more out. Some foods in may be harder to get out. There is nothing in the article from my reading that suggests the simple premise is going to be easy.

    I apply something even simpler in the case of smoking. I know that for 20 plus years I smoked and smoked heavy. I blamed everything for me not quitting and tried everything including woo to quit but in the end the solution was quite simple. I managed to stop smoking using a simple premise.

    The trick to not smoking is to not smoke. That’s the most basic you can get. You either smoke or you don’t.

    The issue is managing the transition to non-smoking such as the withdrawal effects, changing habits and all the baggage that comes with quitting the smokes. Yet that for me was the basic lesson in not smoking: if you don’t wish to smoke then don’t. I am still managing the side effects and I have friends who gave up a long time ago and still fancy a smoke. I likely will have to manage the craving for the rest of my life but the base state remains the same; complexity in the personal circumstances but simplicity in the underlying premise.

  56. Kitty
    Posted May 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Jacques, you might like to know I heard today that a high level research collaboration looking at the complexity of obesity related diseases is considering framing the overall problem as that of more energy going in than going out. I’m not sure how that will then capture the connections that might have nothing to do with excess energy inputs or insufficient energy outputs (e.g. depression and anxiety appear to have causative links with cardiovascular disease that may be related to an imbalance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems – plenty of thin people die of heart attacks) but I can appreciate its use as a simplifying tool as long as it isn’t used dogmatically and connections outside of the model that may arise aren’t dismissed. Though in practice, I don’t think they will be.

    Mel, you are right that it did say high fear campaigns were more persuasive but it goes on to qualify it with: “The results also indicate that fear appeals motivate adaptive danger control actions such as message acceptance and maladaptive fear control actions such as defensive avoidance or reactance. It appears that strong fear appeals and high-efficacy messages produce the greatest behavior change, whereas strong fear appeals with low-efficacy messages produce the greatest levels of defensive responses.” That meta-analysis has its limitations as meta-analyses do, I only used it to illustrate the existence of the defence mechanisms. I don’t think it can say a whole lot about long term effects because time between campaign and effect measurement didn’t feature as a point of analysis as far as I can tell – and relative time of effect measurement is a big problem with properly evaluating these campaigns. That’s not to say all high fear campaigns don’t work, just that many of them don’t work particularly well and can cause more problems – all things to consider before spending a bucket of money rolling them out.

  57. Posted June 2, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    This is why people who have lost a great deal of weight are not likely to tell someone — a new employer — about it.

    It is only our thirst for stories (published in magazines that want to sell us things) that sees this kind of mawkish narrative reenactment.

  58. Posted September 23, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Hey! I realize this is sort of off-topic but I needed to
    ask. Does managing a well-established blog like yours require a massive amount work?
    I am completely new to running a blog but I do write in my
    journal on a daily basis. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my own experience and thoughts online. Please let me know if you have any kind of recommendations or tips for new aspiring bloggers. Thankyou!

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