In Eliezer Yudkowsky's recent post he discussed SlimeMoldTimeMold’s research into possible causes of obesity, and how he thinks SMTM’s theories are more convincing than the Hyperpalatable Food Hypothesis (HFH). SlimeMoldTimeMold theorizes that some kind of contamination is more likely, potentially lithium contamination in water. His work can be found here: https://slimemoldtimemold.com/2021/07/07/a-chemical-hunger-part-i-mysteries/ 

Matthew Barnett's comment supporting the hyperpalatable food hypothesis was strongly upvoted, so I’m interpreting that as indicating a decent amount of support for it among readers here. Personally, I find the HFH the most compelling of the existing theories. Why I’m posting is I think we could run our own study to test this hypothesis.  

As a group, we could have 3 months where we only eat meat, fruit, vegetables and spices. We track our weight, pool the data and see what happens at the end of it. 

Instructions would be along the lines of:

  • Eat only meat, fruit, vegetables and spices. 
  • Eat to satiation. Eat how much you feel like eating. 
  • Do not alter exercise habits greatly during these months if possible. Report if you do. 
  • Rather than record everything you eat, only record when you have broken the diet. Obviously, this diet will be very difficult to follow in certain settings, and we’ll all break it at some point. This is fine. Being allowed to break this diet for a few days at a time, or for a few meals here or there will be necessary. As long as you restart afterwards and record how much you deviated over the 3 month period, I think we'll still have a good sense of its efficacy. 

This would only make sense to do if enough people were interested, so I thought I’d make this post to see if anyone was. If it is something you'd be interested to participate in, please comment below or send me a message. 

Also, if you see any issues/improvements please comment. 

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I can actually speak to a variation of this theory, since I used Huel (a nutritionally complete powder) as my primary food source for, like, two years

I can also speak to the "losing weight and keeping it off for 5+ years" thing, because in 2014 I hit my all-time weight high of 138 lbs (at 5'3", this is the point at which the scale tips to overweight). I started calorie counting with a food scale and lost 15 lbs in a little over a year, which tracks with what the research claims will happen if you try to lose weight at a consistent small caloric deficit.  

The end of this weight loss adventure coincided with the beginning of my Huel journey, and I continued weighing my food, weighing the ingredients that went into foods and dividing by the number of portions that I cut foods into, doing the guesswork that comes with eating meals that you cannot weigh, tracking all of the related numbers, and so on.

It worked, in the sense that I had the willpower to do it, and it wasn't particularly time-consuming. But it didn't work half so well as what happened next.

In the second half of 2020, I moved in with the great love of my life and he was all "what are you doing eating Huel when the world is full of delicious food?" He is a very capable home cook, and I quickly learned how to be a capable home cook, and between the two of us we ate meat and cheese and homemade bread and potatoes and vegetables cooked in butter and all of the things that people who are weighing their food and trying to get the maximum food volume for the fewest number of calories try to avoid.

It's worth noting that we ate very little processed food. Obviously steel-cut oats are processed; Brie is processed; wine, if you want to think about it that way, is processed. But when we wanted cookies, we made our own. When we wanted naan, we made our own. When we wanted hamburgers, we made our own. 

This could mean that we ate very little "highly palatable food," although the food we eat seems to be extremely palatable.

The point of this story is that I assumed I would gain weight on this diet.

I lost ten pounds in a year, without tracking calories or increasing my exercise or anything like that. 

This took me from "healthy weight for my height" to "slim end of healthy weight for my height," and for what it's worth being slimmer has demonstrated benefits. Aggressive, sustained piano practice is easier, for example, when you're lighter. So is biking.

But that'll take me off-topic, so let's get to the actual thing of the thing:

WHAT DO I THINK HAPPENED HERE?

  1. French Paradox. We were eating high-quality, home-cooked foods in small portions -- and including a variety of foods at every meal. Three bites of a casserole next to three bites of baguette next to three bites of a salad next to three bites of dessert and so on. We spend roughly 30 minutes every night on food cooking and prep, so this kind of food is not overwhelmingly time-consuming. It does take planning ahead, in terms of grocery shopping and what not. 
  2. I was optimizing for equilibrium, not calories. After I got interested in the French Paradox thing I read French Women Don't Get Fat, which still remains the most sensible thing I've ever read about "how to eat" (and I have read all of the Michael Pollan books). Basically, Mireille Guiliano says "eat so that you feel the same way all of the time." Excessive hunger is just as distracting as bloated fullness. A meal that causes your body to change shape in a visual or palpable sense isn't great; neither is trying to force your body into a particular shape by withholding food. Intoxication and abstemiousness are two incorrect solutions to the same problem.
  3. Eating good food is the side dish to the main course of my life. I am very sure that I put on extra weight in 2014 because I was lonely, understimulated, and didn't have anything else to do. If food is your primary source of dopamine, etc. etc. etc.

Anyway, what I am saying is 

DON'T EAT BLAND MEALS FOR SCIENCE

IT WILL MAKE YOU SAD

WHICH WILL MAKE ME SAD

IT WILL ALSO CAUSE YOU TO AGONIZE OVER CALORIES, BINGE-RESTRICT, AND SUBJECT YOURSELF TO EXTRA MISERABILITY EVEN IF YOU MAKE IT WORK BY GETTING THE MATH RIGHT (oooh I ate 3600 cals yesterday so today I'll only eat 1400, never mind how either of these eating experiences make me feel physically/mentally/emotionally).

~also read French Women Don't Get Fat even if you are neither French nor a woman~

Eating good food is the side dish to the main course of my life. I am very sure that I put on extra weight in 2014 because I was lonely, understimulated, and didn't have anything else to do. If food is your primary source of dopamine, etc. etc. etc.

The body-mind connection should not be underestimated. I started (very slowly) losing weight after I quit my last job. (No, it's not because I would be too poor to eat.) The primary source of dopamine + the rest of your day sucks = almost impossible to resist temptations.

(Next time someone makes an UBI experiment, please also measure the impact on obesity.)

I feel like there's too much interpersonal variation to make much of a single case like this. It might very well be that hyperpalatable food is a major factor for obesity in general, even if it didn't affect you.

Oh, very true. The point of my narrative was to make an argument against "bland food being the solution," while acknowledging that hyperpalatable food could still be part of the problem. 

When I ate bland food nearly exclusively, I was focusing on metrics that allowed me first to lose and then to maintain weight, even though those metrics were high effort (not overwhelmingly high effort, but still), encouraged binge-restrict cycles (if I eat 3600 cals today and 1400 cals tomorrow, I'll still be on target) and added anxiety to food-related cultural rituals that could not be measured and tracked.

When I focused on maintaining equilibrium during meals (mindful eating, as the kids say) instead of following preset rules, my body also lost and maintained weight without the associated stress.

Plus I got to eat tasty foods.

If you hate the diet it's not for the long term, just 3 months. And quitting's fine. It's also not meant to be necessarily bland, just not hyperpalatable 'cafeteria' food. It's meant to be as close to an approximation of what a hunter gatherer tribe would be eating, except in this case you have much more variety with respect to what's available to you in each category. Have you tried fried cinammon pineapple?

Yours is the dream situation and I agree best for happiness. But I think a tighter approach for research is justifiable to get a clearer understanding of if it works. 

The French paradox is interesting, because it's basically the above plus grains and dairy (and sugar). Higher saturated fat and lower PUFAs (which is another interesting theory). Do you add much/any sugar to your cooking? 

I eat honey every day, probably a tablespoon's worth on my morning oatmeal.

We don't avoid sugar but we don't go out of our way to add it. None of the food we ate today had sugar in it, for example. 

Breakfast: steel-cut oats, fruit, nuts, honey, butter, egg, milk, coffee

Lunch: Rice, homemade mango slaw, homemade guacamole, smoked sausage (we didn't make that, but it has no sugar, no HFCS, no nitrates/nitrites, no MSG), grapes, cheese

Dinner: Rice, homemade naan, homemade dal, vegetables cooked in butter and various Indian-influenced spices, red wine

Dessert: 100% dark chocolate square (Ghirardelli), segmented orange

the one thing I do avoid is HFCS, that stuff is not allowed in the house ;)

but I will make some kind of fancy-pants dessert once a month or so, I have an old-fashioned pound cake recipe that is just delightful, we are also good at making pie (crust from scratch)

The obvious question is "what were you eating in 2014 and how was it different," and the answer is "I was still doing most of my own cooking because I wanted to save money, but I was terrible at it (one of the reasons I switched to Huel was because I didn't have the skills to make food taste good) and most of my meals would have been embarrassing to serve to anybody else." 

Then, when I felt badly about not having anything good to eat in the house, I would order takeout or walk to the local Walgreens and buy candy and cookies. (Huel effectively stopped that habit, fwiw.)

Do we naturally eat more when there is something missing in our foodstuff, whether it's flavor or nutrient or the experience of sharing a meal with people we care about? 

I came across the slime mould article some time ago via the Marginal Revolution blog. I do not find it in the least convincing. It seems to me they have their theory, then cherry pick and misinterpret all evidence to fit.

My personal thoughts on their theory here: https://www.livenowthrivelater.co.uk/2021/09/is-the-obesity-epidemic-a-mystery-part-1/

https://www.livenowthrivelater.co.uk/2021/09/is-the-obesity-epidemic-a-mystery-part-2/

This is what I thought when I read the SMTM papers too. "People are eating more calories but that's not why they weigh more" okay hmmmm...

Not that I think CICO is the only factor, and that's important! The leptin resistance and the insulin resistance hypotheses both make sense, for example.

Here's another compounding factor (pun intended): 

We know that it takes more energy to sustain greater mass, which is part of why people get really excited about CICO ("if I just consume less energy, my body will naturally resolve to a smaller mass") and then disappointed when it doesn't work out quite as planned ("wait my body is naturally resolving to tired?").

And yes, when my body weight was 22% more than current, I was hungrier. Full-stop. 

But here's where the numbers get interesting. We know that many hyperpalatable foods have been hyperengineered to hit ever-increasing bliss points (go read Salt, Sugar, Fat), which means that an Oreo Double Stuf gives you 70 calories per cookie vs the original Oreo's 50 calories per cookie. 

So it compounds -- you're hungrier because you have more mass to maintain, and the food you're eating has more calories but you don't realize it first because the size of the food is the same as it's always been and second because the food has been engineered to not feel rich/heavy/filling (so you'll eat more of it, go read Salt, Sugar, Fat again).

Then mass increases, then hunger increases, and if you eat 4 Oreo Double Stufs instead of 3 you're getting 280 cals instead of 210 whereas if you'd eaten 4 Original Oreos instead of 3 you'd have only gotten 200 cals instead of 150.

Cycle cycle cycle.

also any discussion of CICO is incomplete without Vi Hart's video of how food companies juke the numbers: 

I love this video. Other commenters who aren't familiar: you might really enjoy this video; give it a shot.

I may be out of the loop here, but would somebody mind catching me up on the abandonment of the "fructose explanation"?

Fructose has been the be-all and end-all of my hypothesis for the last little while. I find that when I avoid fructose in its many forms, including "invert sugar syrup", sugar feels like it has a more natural effect. It "does what it should", i.e. provide me with a quick burst of dopamine, rather than leaving me suddenly hungry again when I just ate. 

For those without the context for this, fructose suppresses leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite in our brains, causing a "bottomless" feeling. This makes sense: for a wild animal, fruit gluts are a great time to store calories for winter.

As far as I can see, knowledge of this is relatively widespread, so I have to assume people noted it and moved on. 

Is there an argument against this I haven't heard? 

I'm not sure why you pick "meat, fruit, vegetables and spices" as the rule. I'd pick something like "only eat unsatisfying food" as the rule.

I feel like I could make some highly palatable food under these restrictions. Mashed potatoes with something akin to beef stroganoff?

Well the point isn't meant to be that the food is inherently unsatisfying. The point is meant to be that the food is stuff that is within the normal range of palatability we are adapted for. 

There's reasonable justification for adding rice and traditional bread too given their long history of consumption before obesity was common. 

If you can make nice tasting food from that, that's a good thing. If you can achieve genuine 'cafeteria food' hyperpalatability I'll be seriously impressed. It seems like it would be very hard to do without a fat like butter/oil or a sweetener like table sugar/honey. 

As a Christmas present I got a rice cooker, with the recommendation to use for things other than rice.

For those unfamiliar with this kind of device, it basically heats the water until it evaporates, and then it automatically turns itself off, so the food is actually cooked in the vapor rather than in hot water. (With the rice it provides instructions on how much water for how much rice to get it right. With other food, you are on your own, but in my experience 1 dl water was enough for everything.)

Turns out, vegetables cooked this way are super delicious. (Also, according to doctors in my family, more healthy than vegetables cooked in water, because the nutrients stay inside, and fewer vitamin C is destroyed compared to traditional cooking. Of course, raw vegetables would be even better, but whatever.) The recipe is to take some subset of {potato, carrot, beetroot, onion, celery, broccoli, cauliflower}, peel and cut to smaller pieces, sprinkle with salt and oil, add 1 dl water, and turn the cooker on. Twenty minutes later, the meal is ready and delicious. (I typically eat it with some meat or yogurt, for proteins.)

For the last month, I am using this almost every day. Never before I have eaten so much vegetables. Not only I have eliminated sweets from my diet (I used to eat sweets a lot), but I even mostly stopped eating bread and pasta (not on purpose, I just like the vegetables more now).

And... uhm, my weight remains exactly the same. (Too bad, because I would need to lose about 20 kg.)

This is not exactly what you wrote, because I use the oil, and the yogurt also contains fat. Perhaps I should go further in this direction, e.g. eliminate the oil from cooking (not really needed in the rice cooker). There would still be oil in the yogurt, but hey, you need some to dissolve vitamins A and D.

I guess I wanted to make the following points:

  • you can make surprisingly tasty meals from mostly vegetables;
  • switching from very unhealthy diet to a diet consisting mostly of vegetables can have surprisingly little effect (in my case, zero) on your body weight.

Turns out, vegetables cooked this way are super delicious.

Remember: under the hyperpalatability hypothesis, it is the "super delicious" that's the enemy when it comes to weight loss. So it's not surprise that this wouldn't help.

Very interesting anecdote. This is exactly the sort of change I would expect to have some immediate and noticable effect. Oil might be the culprit but probably not. One reason to do it for 100% of food is just to get rid of the confounders. 

Well the point isn't meant to be that the food is inherently unsatisfying. The point is meant to be that the food is stuff that is within the normal range of palatability we are adapted for. 

IMO you either want to go the 'French women' approach as described in another comment, or you want to select a food that is 'bland'. The specific property I mean is a psychological reaction, and so it's going to fire for different foods for different people, but basically: when you're starting a meal you want to eat the food, and then when you've eaten enough of the food, you look at more on your plate and go "I'm not finishing that." [This is different from the "I'm too full" reaction; there have been many times that I have put MealSquares back in the fridge when I would have eaten more bread.]

One thing that I've tried, but not for long enough to get shareable data, is having the 'second half' of my day's calories be bland food. (That is, cook / order 1000 calories of tasty food, and then eat as many MealSquares as I want afterwards.) This is less convenient than a "cheat day" style of diet, but my guess is it's more psychologically easy.

It's also helpful to put less food on your plate to begin with, as a tool to recalibrate how much is "enough" for you. It is always possible to take food off your plate and put it back into a Tupperware and then into the refrigerator, but the easy, default choice is to convince yourself to clean your plate -- especially when the alternative is putting a spoonful of whatever into either a shared leftovers container (which could be an issue depending on the hygiene standards of the people you're living with) or in a separate bin to be consumed on the day you're hungry for a partially-eaten bit of pork loin with a smear of mashed potatoes still attached to one end (which will never look quite as appetizing as properly-plated leftovers or a fresh meal). 

Starting with less food to begin with makes the default habit (clean plate) more likely to result in a win condition.

I worry that overtly bland is too hard to follow and French is so generous you can still make extremely palatable food.

Very small point here that I'd like clarified for my personal curiosity:

Do you find MealSquares bland? I really enjoy eating them, and I think it's because they're "normally palatable" or something, but not bland.

When I tried them (about six years ago), I found them to be quite bland. Partly the density and texture took away from any flavor enjoyment that I was getting out of them.

That's interesting to me, thanks for replying. I wonder if I just like the chocolate more, flavorwise, or if there was less before. I think without the wetness that comes from me microwaving it and melting the chocolate, it would be pretty damn dry and hard to eat.

I enjoy my first MealSquare. My fourth (I eat one meal a day) is generally "fine." Whether or not I eat a fifth (or sixth) depends on how hungry I am in a manner much more pronounced than it is for other foods.

Oh geez, I have one in the morning before work and it's perfect for me, but 5 or 6 would probably burn me out no matter what they are. I can totally see now why they would taste bland after that many, and I'm amused to think that anything you can comfortably eat that amount of is probably required to be bland.

Thanks for clarifying!

Well the point isn't meant to be that the food is inherently unsatisfying. The point is meant to be that the food is stuff that is within the normal range of palatability we are adapted for. 

I mean it's fair enough that the restrictions needn't be too high. But still, the restriction should be on palatability itself, not on the inputs to the food that may sometimes contribute to palatability (unless you have a highly precise set of restrictions to the inputs that are sufficient to match the tradition).

Extra fats and sweeteners do help a lot with palatability. But to some extent, fat could be extracted from other means; to some extent, palatability could be improved by changing proportions; etc.. Even things like careful optimization through large-scale experimentation will help with palatability, and so should probably be avoided.

Let's say people didn't used to be obese in the 50's. Ok, what did people eat back then? How palatable was it, on average? That seems like what one should aim for. Maybe one can contact a food historian or something to figure out more?


I should also add: assuming some sort of monotonicity, it may be helpful for the statistics to exaggerate the unpalatability compared to the past, because it increases the expected effect if palatability matters, and so makes it easier to detect. But obviously it comes with the downside that it's not as clear whether it really matches what you'd eat on a medium-palatability diet.

You can compare both ingredient lists and serving sizes if you look at cookbooks from the 1950s-1960s and recipe sites today. My Betty Crocker cookbook from 1969 (where I get most of my dessert recipes) has a brownie recipe that calls for 2 cups sugar, 4 oz chocolate, 2/3 cup butter; it's meant to bake in a 13x9 pan and yield 32 brownies.

The brownie recipe on Betty Crocker's website (that is, "today's brownie recipe") calls for 1 3/4 cups sugar, 5 oz chocolate, 2/3 cup butter, but is meant to bake in a 9x9 pan and yield 16 brownies.

hmmmmmmmm...

You can compare both ingredient lists and serving sizes if you look at cookbooks from the 1950s-1960s and recipe sites today.

In principle yes, but the question is also the distribution of recipes they ate. I'd assume some of their recipes are more palatable than others, and if you disproportionately ate the more palatable ones, presumably the diet wouldn't work. I don't even how popular recipe books used to be back then. It seems like one should put some serious historical effort in to ensure that it gets properly replicated.

My Betty Crocker cookbook from 1969 (where I get most of my dessert recipes) has a brownie recipe that calls for 2 cups sugar, 4 oz chocolate, 2/3 cup butter; it's meant to bake in a 13x9 pan and yield 32 brownies.

The brownie recipe on Betty Crocker's website (that is, "today's brownie recipe") calls for 1 3/4 cups sugar, 5 oz chocolate, 2/3 cup butter, but is meant to bake in a 9x9 pan and yield 16 brownies.

hmmmmmmmm...

In addition to the distribution question, 1969 is a bit on the late side.

I should have just stated explicitly I don't think you can achieve hyperpalatability with those as inputs, which is what I'm assuming. 

I agree exaggerated blandness would be a better test, but then doesn't generalise to something you could actually follow for the rest of your life. 

I should have just stated explicitly I don't think you can achieve hyperpalatability with those as inputs, which is what I'm assuming.

I would be wary about making too big assumptions about what cannot be achieved when optimization pressure is applied. But maybe.

I agree exaggerated blandness would be a better test, but then doesn't generalise to something you could actually follow for the rest of your life.

I wouldn't predict past blandness to be something that one could actually follow for the rest of one's life. Though I am not familiar enough with the quality of the foods back then, so I don't know.

I should probably add: I think it's a good idea to try this experiment, and I am considering whether to volunteer for it, but I just think one needs to properly ensure that the food is not too palatable.