Previously: Mainstream Nutrition Science on Obesity, Atkins Redux, Did the US Government Give Us Absurd Advice About Sugar?, What Causes Obesity?

If you've been wondering what these posts are doing on LessWrong and you haven't read this comment yet, I urge you to do so. Thanks to commenter FiftyTwo for suggesting I say something like this.

To recap: so taking in more calories than you burn will cause you to gain weight, though calorie intake and expenditure are in turn controlled by a number of mechanisms. This suggests a couple of options for losing weight. You can try to intervene directly in the mechanisms controlling food intake, one of the most well-known examples of this being gastric bypass surgery, admittedly a bit of a drastic option. But intervening at the point of calorie intake is also an option.

Now it turns out that it's relatively easy to lose weight by dieting. That catch is that it's much harder to keep the weight off. A commonly cited rule (for example here) is that most people who lose weight through dieting will regain it all in five years. However, it's important to emphasize that some people do lose weight through dieting and keep it off long-term. An organization called the National Weight Control Registry has made an effort to track those people, and have published quite a few studies based on their work (many of which can be easily found through Google Scholar).

Unfortunately, the NWCR is working with a self-selected sample and asking them what they did after the fact. They're not randomly assigning people to treatments. So for example, a high percentage of the NWCR group reports successful long-term weight loss following low-fat and/or calorie-restricted diets and exercising a lot. And the percentage following low-carb diets was originally small, but it's risen over time. But both of these observations may just reflect the relative popularity of those approaches in the general population.

We may not be able to conclude anything more from the NWCR data than that a significant minority of dieters do succeed at long-term weight loss, some through calorie-restricted diets, some through low-fat diets, and some through low-carb diets. Remember, though, that as discussed in previous posts there's little reason to think low-fat or low-carb diets could cause weight loss except by indirectly affecting energy balance.

And now, one last time, I'm going to talk about what Taubes has to say about this issue. I'm going to quote from Why We Get Fat (pp. 36-38), though Good Calories, Bad Calories contains similar comments, including about the Handbook of Obesity and Joslin's. Taubes begins by citing a review article covering calorie-restricted diets that found that "Typically, nine or ten pounds are lost in the first six months. After a year, much of what was lost has been regained." He also cites a large study that tested a calorie-restricted diet and reached a similar conclusion: participants "lost on average, only nine pounds. And once again... most of the nine pounds came off in the first six months, and most of the participants were gaining weight back after a year."

Based on this, he concludes that "Eating less—that is, undereating—simply doesn't work for more than a few months, if that." Then it's time to really lay in to mainstream nutrition science:

This reality, however, hasn't stopped the authorities from recommending the approach, which makes reading such recommendations an exercise in what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance," the tension that results from trying to hold two incompatible beliefs simultaneously.

Take, for instance, the Handbook of Obesity, a 1998 textbook edited by three of the most prominent authorities in the field—George Bray, Claude Bouchard, and W. P. T. James. "Dietary therapy remains the cornerstone of treatment and the reduction of energy intake continues to be the basis of successful weight reduction programs," the book says. But then it states, a few paragraphs later, that the results of such energy-reduced diets "are known to be poor and not long-lasting." So why is such an ineffective therapy the cornerstone of treatment? The Handbook of Obesity neglects to say.

The latest edition (2005) of Joslin's Diabetes Mellitus, a highly respected textbook for physicians and researchers, is a more recent example of this cognitive dissonance. The chapter on obesity was written by Jeffrey Flier, an obesity researcher who is now dean of Harvard Medical School, and his wife and research colleague, Terry Maratos-Flier. The Fliers also describe "reduction of caloric intake" as "the cornerstone of any therapy for obesity." But then they enumerate all the ways in which this cornerstone fails. After examining approaches from the most subtle reductions in calories (eating, say, one hundred calories less each day with the hope of losing a pound every five weeks) to low-calorie diets of eight hundred to one thousand calories a day to very low-calorie diets (two hundred to six hundred calories) and even total starvation, they conclude that "none of these approaches has any proven merit."

But look at the actual sources and it turns out that, surprise surprise, mainstream experts aren't idiots after all. The second quote from the Handbook of Obesity comes from a paragraph explaining that given how hard obesity is to treat, doctors face a "Shakespearean" dilemma of whether to attempt to treat it at all. The Joslin's article is even clearer (p. 541, emphasis added):

Successful treatment of obesity, defined as treatment that results in sustained attainment of normal body weight and composition without producing unacceptable treatment induced morbidity, is rarely achievable in clinical practice. Many therapeutic approaches can bring about short-term weight loss, but long-term success is infrequent regardless of the approach.

Suppose for a moment that this is true, that long-term weight loss is rare regardless of the approach. If it is, no "cognitive dissonance" is required to recommend treatments that sometimes work. Furthermore, Taubes commits a serious misrepresentation here. Taubes final quote from the Joslin's article, in context, says that, "There are also many programs that recommend specific food combinations or unusual sequences for eating, but none of these approaches has any proven merit." It's pretty obvious in context that the bit Taubes quotes refers only to the programs that recommend specific food combinations or unusual sequences for eating."

It's also worth mentioning that neither of these sources ignore the debate over low-carb diets. The Handbook of Obesity criticizes Atkins-style low carb diets at some length, but also says that, "Moderate restriction of carbohydrates may have real calorie-reducing properties." And the Joslin's article ends up being fairly positive towards low-carb diets in general (p. 542):

Dietary composition may play a role in long-term success in weight loss and weight maintenance. For example, a study comparing a moderate-fat diet consisting of 35% energy from fat and a low-fat diet in which 20% of energy was derived from fat demonstrated enhanced weight loss assessed by total weight loss, BMI change, and decrease in waist circumference in the group on the moderate-fat diet. Retention in the diet study was greater among those actively participating in the weight loss program in this group compared with 20% in the low-fat diet group.

Recently, increased interest has focused on the possibility that diet content may affect appetite. For example, diets with a low glycemic index may be useful in preventing the development of obesity; subjects given test meals with different glycemic indexes and then allowed free access to food ate less after eating meals with a low glycemic index. Some data suggest that diets with a high glycemic index predispose to increased postprandial hunger, whereas diets focused on glycemic index and information regarding portion control lead to higher rates of success in weight loss, at least among adolescent populations. Low-carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins diet appear to be associated with significant weight loss. However, this diet has not been systematically studied, nor has long-term maintenance of weight loss.

I assume the author of the Joslin's article would say, however, that low-carb diets haven't been shown to completely solve the problem of long-term weight loss being really hard. But would they be right about that? 

To the best of my knowledge, there have been only two randomized, controlled trials of low-carb diets that have covered a period of two years (and none covering a longer period than that). Taubes has cited both in support of his claims. The first, an Israeli study published in 2008, also also included a group assigned to a Mediterranean diet. Here are the results in terms of weight loss: 

So on the one hand, subjects on the low-carb diet did initially lose more weight, about 6.5 kg (14 lbs.) compared to about 4.5 kg (10 lbs.) for the low-calorie diet. On the other hand, both groups started regaining the weight after six months. If, as Taubes claims, data like this shows that low-calorie diets "simply doesn't work for more than a few months," does this data justify saying the same thing about low-carb diets?

Furthermore, if you believe the rule about weight lost to dieting coming back in five years, it seems likely that would happen to both groups. Intriguingly, though, while participants on the Mediterranean diet didn't initially lose as much weight as those on the low-carb diet, the weight regain didn't seem to happen as much on the Mediterranean diet. That makes me wonder what a five-year study of the Mediterranean diet would find.

Note that the Israeli study also found that that participants in all three groups significantly reduced their caloric intake, supporting the hypothesis that even diets that don't explicitly restrict calorie intake work by reducing calorie intake indirectly.

What about the other study, published in 2010, which Taubes has hailed as "the biggest study so far on low-carb diets"? Here are its results (note that the low-fat diet was also a calorie-restricted diet):

That's right, this study found no statistically significant difference between low-fat and low-carb diets in terms of weight loss, and again show the typical pattern of people losing weight in the first six months and then slowly gaining it back. Together, these two studies support the picture painted by Joslin's: low-carb diets may work somewhat better for weight loss, but they don't appear to solve the problem of long-term weight loss being really hard.

One other relevant detail: the second study found that "A significantly greater percentage of participants who consumed the low-carbohydrate than the low-fat diet reported bad breath, hair loss, constipation, and dry mouth." As Taubes' fellow science writer John Horgan has noted, this reveals an apparent inconsistency in how Taubes judges different diets. He goes to great lengths to play up the unpleasantness of calorie-restricted diets, but tells his readers that if they just stick to their low-carb diet theunpleasant side-effects will go away eventually.

So given all this, what should you do if you want to lose weight? I think depends a lot on who you are. I have ethical qualms about consuming animal products, including and in fact especially eggs, which is one strike against low-carb diets for me. Also, while there's some evidence low-carb diets may be better for hunger, my personal experience is that what foods I find filling is kind of random (lentils, black beans, and baguettes all rate highly on the filling-ness measure for me). So maybe just experiment and try to figure out which foods let you personally eat in moderation and not feel hungry. Keep Eliezer's advice in Beware of Other Optimizing in mind, and if one thing doesn't work for you, try something else.

A final point: the truth about weight loss sucks. If your case isn't bad enough to justify something drastic like gastric bypass surgery, your main option is diets which sometimes work but usually don't. Regardless of the approach. Unfortunately, this is not an exciting message to put in a popular book on nutrition. This creates an excellent opportunity for someone like Taubes: imply that if the experts admit they don't have a great solution to the problem, then clearly they don't know what they're talking about, and therefore your solution is sure to work!

Long-time readers of LessWrong, however, will realize that the universe is allowed to throw us problems with no good solution. That's something that may be especially worth keeping in mind when evaluating claims in the vicinity of medicine and nutrition. In a way, Taubes' readers are lucky: following his advice won't kill you, and won't lead to you missing out on any wildly more effective solution. It might have some unpleasant side-effects you could've avoided with another approach, but also might have some advantages. However, I've read enough of the literature on medical quackery to know Taubes' rhetorical tactics can be used for much more dangerous ends.

Just imagine: "It's doctors and pharmaceutical companies that caused your cancer in the first place. That chemotherapy and radiation therapy stuff they're pushing on you is obviously harmful. Don't you now there are all-natural ways you can cure your cancer?" If someone says that to you, then knowing that the universe is unfair, and that sometimes the best solution it gives you to a problem will have serious downsides, well knowing that just might save your life. Or not. Because the universe isn't fair. 

Early on in the process of writing this series, I said when it was over with I'd do a post-mortem to look at how I could have broken it up better. However, Vaniver has given me what seems like good advice on that issue, which I plan to follow in the future. (Unless someone else comes along and persuades me otherwise. You're welcome to try that).

But there are other issues here, the big meta-issue being that downvotes don't help me distinguish between people thinking the posts were completely off-topic for Lesswrong vs. not liking how finely they were broken up vs. me not realizing what a hot-button issue obesity is for some people vs. other things. So suggestions on how I could best solicit anonymous feedback would be especially appreciated.

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I have been following this series with muted interest. While I am very interested in nutrition and have done much reading on the topic, I'm not a huge fan of Taubes', in spite of that fact that I think low-carb dieting actually is superior for most people and that many of the points he makes about the conventional wisdom are correct. I think this is the first article in the series that appeals to me at all, with its greater focus on the actual available state of our knowledge and a lesser focus on Taubes specifically.

One element which I think is somewhat misleading is the seeming equivalence you are drawing between low-carb and low-fat diets. While you note that low-carb diets have higher prevalence of side effects, they also show statistically significant benefits in areas other than weight loss, including relative improvements in blood pressure, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, and insulin sensitivity. Notably, in 6 month and longer studies low-carb had better attrition rates, which is the key to the long-term weight loss conundrum if you are making decisions for yourself (source). I recognize that it is rude to say so, but I can't help but suspect that your moral position with re... (read more)

Huh, yeeeeah, that's definitely not a self-selected sample at all. Even a few days of not eating much pasta or bread or rice or potatoes or legumes or beer or fruits feels very unnatural to me; conversely I actually get tired of eating meat if I eat lots of it for a few days in a row. (YMMV.) And anyway, that's a false dichotomy.
Of course it's self-selected. That's part of my point. A gigantic number of people have been able to select themselves for losing truly massive amounts of weight. If you are making decisions for your own weight loss, that is highly relevant information. The studies that have been done show people losing on average 10-20 pounds. If you need to lose 200 pounds, it may just be that those studies don't capture every relevant fact. There never will be large randomized studies on the weight loss of people who need to lose this much weight. Feeling tired after eating low-carb for only a couple days is an extremely well-known temporary side effect, so I'm surprised you weren't aware of it if you were actually intentionally going on a low-carb diet. It's not really a false dichotomy because the difference between those two modes of weight loss is precisely what I was making a point about, what Gary Taubes is talking about, and what all the researchers have studied. From a public health perspective, the diets that you prescribe can only be of limited complexity and time-cost. The intersection between people who can successfully count calories and explicitly track macronutrients for years and the people who are overweight is small. The intersection between people who are overweight and can successfully eat low-fat or low-carb diets is still apparently small (based on the studies), but larger than those who can track calories.
So, what's wrong with the National Weight Control Registry mentioned in the OP, which is self-selected for persistent weight loss but not for diet used to achieve it? I can't see how prescribing a low-calorie diet is that much more complex than prescribing a low-fat one or a low-carb one. (And what's up with everybody treating “carbs” as if it was a terribly useful category? If we abolished that word so that people who actually mean to talk of both sugars and starches had to explicitly say “sugars and starches” and everyone else would have to decide which one they actually mean, the amount of nonsense in these discussions would probably be reduced by half an order of magnitude.)
There's nothing wrong with the National Weight Control Registry. I never said anything was wrong with it, so I'm not really sure what you'd like me to address about it or how it relates to my argument. Low-fat dieting and generic calorie restriction can definitely work to lose weight. According to their research, the percentage of people that have lost weight through low-carb dieting has increased from 5.9% in 1995 to 17.1% in 2003, which is ambiguous with respect to the question of whether low-carb dieters are actually more successful, and is only a measure of the increase in popularity of such diets. Low-calorie diets are complex because you can eat any food, but you have to track the calories of every item you eat to ensure that you don't go over your daily calorie budget. Low-fat and low-carb diets tend to simply disallow the dieter from eating categories of food, which requires no record-keeping and no-math. The most damaging foods for a dieter are those that are hyper-palatable, generally consisting of high levels of both fat and carbohydrates (think cookies, french fries, doughnuts). Because they are so rewarding to consume, it's very easy to eat an excess of calories. Both low-carb and low-fat diets restrict these foods, one because of the fat content and one because of the carbohydrate content. When I say carbs I mean both sugars and starches, all carbohydrates. All of the research trials I've read on low-carb diets specifically state the total number of grams or Calories from carbohydrates in the diet. If someone is using low-carb to refer to low-sugar diets they are probably confused themselves, and spreading it to everyone else.
Has there been a comparrison done of the relative micro-nutrient levels of low carb vs low fat diets? I think its very plausible that nutrient deficiency could manifest as hunger, generating weight gain as the body compels oneself to eat enough to fulfill nutrient requirements despite the excess of calories.
Interestingly, I saw on article on the topic of micronutrients and hunger just a few days ago here. He cites two studies on multivitamins that show in one case no impact on appetite, and in another case an increase in fasting desire to eat but no impact on hunger, fullness, or prospective food consumption. With respect to the relative micronutrient levels of low-carb vs. low-fat diets it depends critically on the composition of such diets, and all of the studies that I've seen comparing them have a complete profile, as far as I can remember.
That makes sense. I mean, whether you cut fat or carbs you still have access to a variety of meat and vegetables, and people would want to study one variable at a time.
I don't know if it's been studied, but I don't find it plausible at all. Under the micronutrient theory, you could arguably control your weight by eating micro-nutrient fortified doughnuts for breakfast. Or eat a hamburger, french fries, and a micro-nutrient pill for lunch. If it were that easy, surely word would have spread around by now.
Or there's multiple needs that play on the same mechanism, making it harder to tangle out specific causes, rather than simpler. You need calories and nutrients from food to function properly, why should hunger only arise from one? And also, you are assuming we have identified every micronutrient are are capable of adequately fortifying a donut with them.
Well there are a lot of possibilities, but if there are multiple micronutrients in play, then doughnuts could be fortified with all of them. Not necessarily. If excessive eating results from a deficiency of 10 micronutrients, it's reasonable to expect that supplementing 5 of them would have a marked impact. Besides, it's also reasonable assume that these micronutrients are around in varying amounts in different kinds of foods. If the micronutrient hypothesis were correct, surely someone would have noticed by now that if you eat a serving of miracle foods X and Y every day, then the rest of the day you can eat whatever you want in the amounts you want and get and stay thin. Especially since people have been searching for foods like this for years with little success.
There was a wave of spam some years back for a type of bread that supposedly drastically reduced hunger. So if the spam is to be believed... which of course it isn't. But I'm curious to know if anyone has tried it.
Lol, of course not. People have been chasing the chimera of nutritionism for decades and perhaps more. i.e. the idea that if you simply add or subtract some component to or from your diet, you can then eat tasty food ad libitum and get and stay thin. Taubes' theory is just another example of nutritionism. The micronutrient hypothesis is another example.
If rather than keeping track of how many grams of fats (or carbs) you're eating you can just abstain from foods with lots of fats (or carbs), can't you do the same with calories too?
In principle, yes, of course. That's the "avoid junk food" diet. Unfortunately, trying to restrict total calories this way without counting gives you a relatively narrow margin of error, and most of us aren't very well-calibrated. A normal calorie deficit for weight loss means eating ~20% below your maintenance level, so if you overshoot by 25% (quite easy to do when you're not measuring portion sizes), you're making zero progress and don't even know there's a problem. It is comparatively difficult to accidentally eat bread at every meal without noticing.
Then again, if one day you overshoot by 25% and another day you undershoot by 25%, the (first-order) effects cancel out (there are second-order effects, but they are, well, second-order). Unless there's a systematic error, in which case you will notice in a couple of weeks, because you will gain/lose weight at a rate different than you want to gain/lose weight at.
No? once you know that beef has no carbs in it you no longer need to track anything about it. You can just eat it. But tracking calories involves knowing how many calories are in every food item you may want to eat and knowing how much and which you've eaten throughout the day.
And once you know that water has no calories in it you no longer need to track anything about it. You can just drink it. What's the difference?
Are you dense or just trolling? You can't live on just water. So you have to eat some food. this food will have varying amounts of calories. If you want to keep your calories below a certain amount, you need to track calories.
Can you live on just beef? (Possibly, but is it healthy to live on just beef? Is it fun to live on just beef? Is it cheap to live on just beef? Is it convenient to live on just beef?) What do you mean by “track calories”? Did pre-WW2 Okinawans track calories?
as in figure out how many calories are in each item you eat and then write it down and add it up?
I think his point is that you don't have to know the exact number of calories to lower how many calories you are eating. You can roughly ballpark it. i.e. if I want to eat 1/3 fewer calories I can eat 2/3 of my usual portion size.
Exactly. Another possibility is to look at these pictures, decide which ones look the least satiating, and avoiding those kinds of food.
I wasn't; I spent a few weeks in a country whose diet includes much more meat and less grains than mine. And I meant tired as in tired (i.e. bored) of always eating meat, not physically tired.

Gastric bypass isn't just drastic, it can be deadly or have major life-altering side effects. Weight regain isn't all that rare, either. First reasonable-looking study on the subject that I found.

I haven't seen anything I'd call a rational look at the risk/reward for bariatric surgery, though maybe I haven't been looking in the right places. The world seems to be split between fat acceptance advocates who don't want to hear success stories and will tell you a tremendous amount about the disasters (which definitely do exist) and the people who say they know a moderate number of people in their social circle who are doing well after the surgery. I do run into people who know someone who ended up dead, but that's rare.

If I remember right, gastric bypass has been mostly superseded by other, less risky techniques, like sleeve gastrectomy.

You can use Google Docs to create an anonymous feedback form, but I don't know the details of setting it up; I just know that Luke has one.

6gwern10y may be helpful.

It occurs to me that there are two separate questions:

  1. Do low carb diets work better than other diets?

  2. Do low carb diets work at all?

Even if the answer to the first question is "yes," the answer to the second question is clearly "no." In the sense that the vast majority of people end up regaining weight regardless of the diet they are on.

That's a big problem for Taubes' nutritionistic theory. Let's assume for the moment that Taubes is correct, that if you simply eliminate "refined carbohydrates" (whatever that means) fr... (read more)

Preponderance of research indicates that high carb meals (especially in form of starches) are more satiating for the same calories than high fat meals, so it is probably not even true that the urges are lessened. There are some counter-intuitive immediate effects (loss of water) and certain psychological factors (it's more fun for some people to believe that mainstream is completely wrong) which can explain the appeal of the low carb dieting. Another issue is that of health. There's no reason what so ever that the easiest to resist diet would be the healthiest one. If anything, we ought to expect ourselves to naturally avoid at least some highly unhealthy meals, and so a diet that is very unhealthy may be easier to resist overeating on. On the satiation research: and so on and so forth.
Well I suppose that Taubes' supporters would argue that protein provides extra satiation. Not that it really matters, because there doesn't seem to be a magic balance of macronutrients which lets you eat ad libitum; get and stay thin; and avoid the problem of difficult-to-resist eating urges. Yes. You know, I have wondered about the chart which shows an average long term weight loss of 5 extra pounds among low-carb dieters. How much of that 5 pounds is water? I think you mean the "easiest to stick to diet." But anyway, we need to be clear about what "healthiest" means. It occurs to me that "healthy" is multi-dimensional when it comes to food. That said, if your point is that on balance, being a few pounds lighter from low-carb dieting is not necessarily a net benefit in terms of cardiovascular health; metabolic health; etc., I would have to agree with you.
Obesity is a very recent problem, though, so there's something that could be done for majority of people - if anything, rolling back a few decades on as many things as you can (within reason of course) should work well. Sorry, I wasn't clear. I meant, easiest to resist eating too much with. On normal diets, sticking to the diet is all about resisting the slippery slope of eating more of the same things, but on a very weird diet, sticking to the diet is about merely not buying things proclaimed 'bad', which may be easier. After all we all have mechanisms for resisting the urge to eat colourful, tasty looking berries that are known to be poisonous. It could be psychologically easier to label some things as "poisons" and not eat them, than to limit the amounts.
Agreed, although that sort of subsumes the problem of difficult-to-resist urges. A few decades ago, there were not jumbo slices of pizza available for a dollar on every street corner; there were not hot dogs for a dollar at gas stations and movie theaters; and so on. It's probably also worth noting that a few decades ago, cigarette smoking was a much more acceptable diet strategy. I agree, except that I might quibble with your definition of "normal diet." Yes, and then the next questions are (1) what foods or types of foods are, if treated as "poison," likely to lead to an effective diet; and (2) what is the health cost to eliminating such foods. In my non-professional opinion, the answer to the first question is the foods which are normally referred to as "junk food" or "comfort food." The answer to the second question is (again in my non-professional opinion) that there is no health cost at all and in fact you are better off without such food in your life.
A lot of people didn't smoke but didn't get overweight either. And today people routinely consume far more potent stimulants (ADHD medications). Yeah, agreed. Ethics also works - e.g. there's hardly any overweight vegetarians. (At least none that I know)
I agree, I'm not saying that smoking is the main reason people were thinner a few decades ago but surely it played a roll. It was very common back in the 70s and 80s for people to take up smoking as a weight control measure, either intentionally or unintentionally -- it was inexpensive and no prescription was necessary. It was really common to see thin guys walking around with a pack of cigarettes tucked into their shirt sleeve. Assuming that's the case, one can ask why such an approach might be effective. Is it because meat makes you fat? Is it because eliminating meat and meat derived food from one's diet is a good way to cut out junk food? (I wouldn't think so; how hard is it to make vegetarian french fries and donuts?) I'm inclined to believe that identity is a good way to motivate oneself. If you think to yourself "I'm a vegetarian and vegetarians don't eat that kind of food" or "I'm a foodie and foodies don't eat processed crap" or "I'm a fitness buff and fitness buffs don't pig out on nachos" it seems pretty effective. It reminds me of the story of the Jewish girl who had a hard time resisting milk chocolate treats in the evening; so what she would do is eat a small piece of meat every night after dinner so that it would be non-kosher to eat the chocolate.
It's plain difficult to consume a lot of calories if you cut out meat and dairy products, I think (I tried to go vegetarian but couldn't manage to get enough calories, it's just too much work to eat enough not to go underweight. I don't eat junk food). Plus if you are changing your habits for some ethical reasons, you are not a hedonist to begin with. It seems to me that huge majority of people who are successful at maintaining their weight never subscribe to any defined diets or calorie counting. I think that works like this - as you eat, you feel more and more full. You can just stop eating at an earlier point (when you don't feel entirely full) or at a later point. Also, for the dieters slowly gaining back everything - they still succeed to maintain the weight below the level that makes them take a drastic measure. It's just that this level is quite high, probably because only a level that high can justify a measure so drastic.
Is that so? What about french fries, donuts, and soda? Those things can be made without animal products, no? Well that may be part of it. Perhaps part of it is that vegetarians spend a lot of mental energy thinking about what they are eating. My impression is that fat people tend to consume a lot of food without being fully consciously aware of it. Are you talking about former fat people or never fat people?
Haven't got a deep frier, not a fan of french fries anyhow (not to the point of eating, what, 600 grams of them a day plus other stuff), prefer to eat at home. Also, sweets are a dessert. edit: and correct me if i'm wrong but with french fries something like half the calories come from fat, which is too much fat. Then, there's silicone oil, trans fats, a wide variety of carcinogenic chemicals produced at high temperatures.... Apparently, it is a common experience Though I do cook baked potatoes quite often. Never fat or only ever fat due to a depression or the like. edit: with the presently obese, if they are to lose weight and keep it low, that would imply future behaviour inconsistent with past behaviour under same conditions, i.e. simply is not going to happen without significant psychological changes or the like.
That suggests to me that convenience and identity are playing important roles. One of the things which has changed over the last 20 or 30 years is that it's become a lot more convenient to eat junk food. At least that's my impression. As to the latter, it's hard to imagine a vegetarian walking into a typical fast food joint and ordering french fries -- even if the fries are cooked in vegetable oil. Then I agree with you. Having studied this stuff pretty carefully, I've come to the conclusion that everyone has an internal system which regulates his urges to eat or not eat. For people who are naturally thin, the system works well even in the modern obesogenic environment. If that system does not work well, then conscious effort must be applied to override that system. Which is very difficult to do day after day after day. Which is why most weight loss attempts ultimately fail. Yes, I agree with this. The fantasy is that one can make a few simple changes like reducing carbohydrate intake or eating oil every morning and thinness will naturally and easily follow. The reality is that one's psychology -- broadly defined -- must change.
I think you're looking wrong at it. Say, someone reaches the weight of X and then diets down to Y<X . At X they self regulated (consciously), at Y they didn't before, and won't in the future. There wasn't a complete failure to self regulate at all, the set point was set very high though. edit: that is to say, it is when at the weight X that they want to be at the weight Y. At the weight Y, from prior history, they don't care to be at the weight Y . I'm looking at it from the point of trying to deduce control system's properties, and it seems we can explain it by modelling the control as stateless (except for the controlled variable) over long periods of time. edit2: i.e. I see the dieting behaviour as caused by weight; the weight drops, after some time the habits are lost and the behaviour ceases.
Want is a quite tricky word. A week ago I exposed my body to physical stress. Then I ate a fat meal and didn't drink anything. When I layed down to sleep. I felt a lot of movement around my intestines and I noticed my swollen belly. It wasn't like me belly hurt but it wasn't a state in which I could sleep. After a while I went to the toilet and had diarrhea. That went for around half an hour and I was thinking about what has to happen to come to a state where I could sleep reasonably well. The idea that there was still foot in my stomach and that would probably be part of the problem popped into my mind. Shortly after that idea popped into my mind I got nauseous. Even through my reaction was "No, I don't want to throw up", my body didn't care at the point. The process was set in motion and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I did make a conscious judgement that my stomach should be empty, but I can't say that I wanted to throw up.
Well then why do a lot of diets fail after only a few weeks when the person has lost just a couple pounds? It's hard to believe that a small change in weight would have a big impact on preferences.
Indeed, but that also applies to starting on the diet as a response to increased weight in the first place. Some combination of the last few pounds and environmental change makes people decide on a diet, then the pounds are lost plus the environment restores (e.g. it was newyear and there was a newyear resolution, cultural pressure, which ceased).
Well can we agree that in late January, after our hypothetical fatty has lost a few pounds, he still wants to lose more weight? And that under your model, in late January that desire has become diminished compared to some other drive?
Yes. In my model, an action is a response to the current conditions (Markov process), meaning that in same conditions, same actions tend to be taken. I think I see the disparity between my model and conventional model. The conventional model seems to be that the individual formed a strong desire on new year, then this desire inexplicably waned a lot. My model is that usually the individual had a strong desire in early December, which got a little stronger in January, exceeding a threshold, and got a little weaker in February, dropping back below threshold.
In that case, your model does not seem to contradict my position. I assert that it's difficult to use conscious effort for an extended period of time to override intuitive eating urges. I do not dispute that various factors such as loss of initial enthusiasm; initial success; opportunities to break one's diet; stressful events; etc. are what proximately cause this breakdown of willpower.
OTOH a sizeable fraction of the ones I've met are visibly underweight.
Which fraction of the population takes such medications?
I'm just now seeing this discussion, and don't have time to read earlier posts. Has it already been worked into the model that there are different sub-types of people? Some members of my family have successfully managed our weight, but it definitely wasn't the same solution for each of us, while other members of the family are still needing a better solution. (How useful could it be to look at average results, except to determine that there is no 'one size fits all' strategy?)
Maybe you can hire someone to read them for you and prepare an executive summary :)
Sure, that's fair. :) ...curiously, if I did look, would I find that this had been addressed? I'm not saying you should look. I'm just saying, time spent is not so often rewarded, whereas anyone that has kept with the discussion would readily know. Furthermore, it helps to keep track of and repeat one's assumptions. To write, "doesn't work at all" doesn't sound right without some qualifications.
Dude, the thread has 39 comments at the moment, two of which are yours. If you are too busy to read 37 comments, then I doubt it is worth engaging.
That's very funny. I meant that I hadn't read the previous posts: At some point, it was probably discussed in which context it was appropriate to look at averaged data...I was hoping for a recap. I have composed a comment about whether I should have read the previous posts in the open thread.
Whatever, if there's anything I said which you disagree with or would otherwise like to discuss with me, feel free to quote it and respond.
Ok, I wanted to ask about this bit: If the diet should work for some people, but not most people, why should you say it doesn't work at all?
To emphasize the fact that even though it might work better than some other diet, it still (generally speaking) does not work. Anyway, your question is simply about my word choice, right? You do not dispute my substantive point?
There appears to be some substance in the disagreement. Suppose that there are many different 'metabolic' types of people, and different diets work with different efficacies for these different types. Perhaps any diet works well with a small subset of people (we already know some people don't need to diet). Perhaps particular diets work well with certain subsets of people. Maybe a particular diet works extremely well for one subset, in that they lose weight and keep it off, whereas it only works moderately well for others (they gain the weight back or must combine different diets). This model -- which seems quite likely anyway -- would imply two things: 1. the effectiveness of a diet for small subsets of people would be completely obfuscated by averaging the data -- for example, in all groups in Figure 2, dieters kept off some of the weight on average. This might mean that some people gained all the weight back, whereas some kept it off, or it might mean that everyone gained some back. (Note that showing standard error, rather than standard deviation, especially hides the role of individual variation.) 2. it would not be reasonable to expect a diet to work by working for everyone; instead, each person must find which diet, if any, works for them, and then we would say that a diet "works" if it works for any subset of people that would otherwise be overweight I'm pretty certain that this paradigm is mainstream. Increasingly, we're recognizing that medical solutions (for example, blood pressure medications or cancer therapies) need to be tailored to individual people. Here's what the authors of the 2008 paper (Figure 2) have to say about individual differences: Gender and diabetes are individual differences that are easy to recognize. Who knows (yet) how many characteristics are relevant for diet. If someone is sensitive to sugar like me (can't go long periods without eating, tends to put on weight on their belly), the low-carb diet might work for them. Anothe
Assuming this is true, I don't see how it contradicts anything I have said. Do you dispute any of the following: 1. The vast majority of people end up regaining regardless of the diet they are on; 2. In general, the central and essential problem of successful dieting is dealing with the problem of difficult-to-resist urges; 3. Taubes' approach is not a general solution to this problem.
Yes, I dispute with the first point. In any case, you can't infer this from figure 2. But that wasn't my initial point. My initial point, asked in a different way, is what fraction of people would a diet have to be effective for, for you to say that it works "at all"? This is a substantive question, not just semantics, because I would like to convince that an expectation of 100% is not reasonable -- rather 20 or even 10% would be quite good.
I'm not sure, since I generally don't use "at all" in positive sentences. Besides, it's just a question of semantics. Well it depends on how you define "reasonable" or "good." In terms of deciding whether a diet is worth trying, a 10% success rate might make it worthwhile. But that's not what we're talking about -- we're talking about whether Taubes' underlying model is correct or not. If his model is correct, one would expect a substantially higher success rate. Well let's quantify things. I assert that weight loss recidivism rates are well over 80%. What's your estimate of the percentage?
I expect that it is very high also. I think the situation could be better if we understood more. From skimming through the posts, I'm not sure what Taubes' underlying model is. Would you summarize it in a couple sentences? In your opinion, are these urges physical or cultural/psychological? (I think that a diet that does "work" must handle the ones that are physically based.) You're right, it works better to consider the negative context. How many people would the diet need to be effective for before you would not say that the diet does not work at all?
Then why do you dispute my assertion that the vast majority of people end up regaining regardless of the diet they are on? According to Jack, Taubes' position is that generally speaking, if people eliminate refined carbohydrates (whatever that means) from their diet, they can eat other foods ad libitum and get and stay thin. Apparently Taubes believes that there is some important and dominant interplay between refined carbohydrates, insulin, and body fat. I don't know the details of his model. Physical. In what context?
Now that I know what Taube's model is, roughly, I think that it is probably correct, for some small subset of people (but not vanishingly small). I think a softer version, the effectiveness of a low-carb diet, is true for a larger, significant, but still minority subset of the population. It doesn't matter what I think though – my point is the qualifier: that a model can be true (or a diet can be effective) for a population subset. This is why I agree with you that the majority of people will regain their weight - if they are trying a diet at random (like in the study) rather than systematically, and without a working model of how a diet is not a one size fits all type of thing. It occurs to me that you consider the regaining of weight as evidence that his model doesn't work, because he also said you could eat as much as you want and stay thin. But there may be some people for whom this is true, even within the study sample. It would be useful to see the individual data.
Assuming that's true, it doesn't contradict what I have said. In fact, now that you concede that the vast majority of people end up regaining regardless of the diet they are on, it seems you do not dispute any of my basic points.
I rather suspect that what's been presented to you has been made out of straw.
Take that up with Jack. Me: Jack: Link:
Good point. If we applied the same principle to drugs, very few of them would be used at all.
What examples were you thinking of?
If the criteria is that over half won't benefit, almost every drug on the planet. I wasn't exaggerating. Here's a paper that explains NNT, and on page four there are some examples. NNT under 10 is pretty good no matter what time span or endpoint of interest we're looking at. Then there's also NNH.
I see, I guess when I think of 'most drugs', I think of common drugs like aspirin and Tylenol that work pretty much for everyone. (But 'most' drugs (and treatments) doesn't mean most ubiquitously used.) I've updated, thanks.
That's not true either. I know a person who on occasion has headaches. They respond well to Tylenol and don't respond to Ibuprofen or Advil. The latter two are common drugs which do not work for her.
Advil == ibuprofen. The latter is the active ingredient in the former.
You're right -- I've meant Aleve (naproxen), not Advil.
I haven't looked at their NNTs, but if you compare them to placebo and also take into account the harm, they might seem less amazing.
Interesting, yes, I found in one place that aspirin had an NNT of about 5 for headache.

I don't think you are being fair minded at all here.

Consider your claim that Taubes "hailed" the 2010 study with the reality

“The biggest study so far on lowcarb diets came out last year. It compared a low-fat diet in which you got Not everyone gets fat from eating carbs, and getting rid of carbs might not make you lean. But it will make you the leanest you can be. 118 r e a d e r s d i g e s t . c o m 2 / 1 1 1,200 to 1,800 calories per day with a low-carbohydrate diet where you could eat as much as you wanted. The researchers kind of burie
... (read more)

I have ethical qualms about consuming animal products, including and in fact especially eggs,

The chart that this sentence links to assumes that all animal lives are equal. But that seems untenable. We already value, say, primate, dolphin, and elephant life more than most other mammals, and birds and mammals more than insects, so why should we value cows and chickens equally? Cows have demonstrated problem-solving abilities, and in some cases appear to understand that they are headed for the slaughter. Chickens, on the other hand, can lose most of their brain and still behave more-or-less the same as they did when whole.

You have a scientific source for that, anyone able to replicate the experiment? It would be incredible if costly tissue like neurons just sat there doing nothing.
4Trevor Hill-Hand10y
There was one famous chicken that was beheaded (during a routine slaughter) just high enough to keep the brain stem intact. A clot coincidentally prevented death from blood loss, and it lived for two years as a touring attraction, before finally dying by choking. It spent most of its time attempting to preen and peck.
How big is a chicken's brain, anyway? As Jadael notes, the brain stem was intact. How much more is there to a chicken's brain? Also note that it hardly needed, say, its optical processing systems anymore.

Figure 2, included from the 2008 Israeli study is very interesting. Why do all three diets show a reverse in weight loss at 5 months? (It must be a coincidence that it is at five months for all three groups, perhaps the true number would vary for the diets and be at 5 plus or minus 2, especially for the Mediterranean diet which reverses again at month 8.) But generally weight loss occurs for a handful of months and then reverses.

Maybe this is part of weight loss dynamics. A person loses some weight, and then there is a restorative force to put the weight... (read more)

But there are other issues here, the big meta-issue being that downvotes don't help me distinguish between people thinking the posts were completely off-topic for Lesswrong vs. not liking how finely they were broken up vs. me not realizing what a hot-button issue obesity is for some people vs. other things. So suggestions on how I could best solicit anonymous feedback would be especially appreciated.

Just start a comment with an anonymous poll.


On the point that "Taubes' rhetorical tactics can be used for much more dangerous ends".

"Just imagine: 'It's doctors and pharmaceutical companies that caused your cancer in the first place. That chemotherapy and radiation therapy stuff they're pushing on you is obviously harmful. Don't you now there are all-natural ways you can cure your cancer?'"

Are you criticizing Taubes method on the fact that it could be theoretically used for more evil purposes? I think that is like criticizing dynamite or nuclear power because it can be used in ... (read more)

To recap: so taking in more calories than you burn will cause you to gain weight,

Consider the sentence: "eating more mass then you excrete (plus the extra carbon you exhale) will cause you to gain weight". It is equally (in fact probably more) true. Do you think it's helpful? Taubes's point is that your version is equally unhelpful.

To recap: so taking in more calories than you burn will cause you to gain weight, though calorie intake and expenditure are in turn controlled by a number of mechanisms.

Wrong. If I have diarrhea I lose weight, even through I don't burn more calories. Burning isn't the only way calories can leave the body.

It's an effect that much easier to see in my own weight data than adding 800 kcal per day in maltrodoxin into my tea.

We may not be able to conclude anything more from the NWCR data than that a significant minority of dieters do succeed at long-term

... (read more)

Furthermore, if you believe the rule about weight lost to dieting coming back in five years, it seems likely that would happen to both groups. Intriguingly, though, while participants on the Mediterranean diet didn't initially lose as much weight as those on the low-carb diet, the weight regain didn't seem to happen as much on the Mediterranean diet. That makes me wonder what a five-year study of the Mediterranean diet would find. (doesn't mention long-term effect on weight, but only on di... (read more)

But there are other issues here, the big meta-issue being that downvotes don't help me distinguish between people thinking the posts were completely off-topic for Lesswrong vs. not liking how finely they were broken up vs. me not realizing what a hot-button issue obesity is for some people vs. other things.

I find it interesting that you refused to mention the possibility of people finding your argument essentially fallacious, despite both myself and Eliezer mentioning this in our replies to your last post, specifically here, here, here, here, here, and ... (read more)

I'm just going to point you to my reply to Eliezer, and the fact that many of your own comments have been downvoted into the negatives.