Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Fat Backlash

They told me exercise and diet
If I would try it, would cure my ills
But though I’m already past my quota
I want another load o’ those magic pills

— They Might Be Giants, “Renew My Subscription

The response to my suggestion that there might be a simple and painless way to lose weight brought some interesting responses. Many people who wrote in were excited about it or were actually trying it. But some of the rest were downright hostile.

tuomov wrote:

No pain, no loss. Forget all these bullshit weight-loss manuals. Those four words above summarise all that you need to know. The rest is just pain management and scheduling. If you don’t feel hungry occasionally, you’re not losing weight.

And Martijn commented:

But how is this healthy? This diet sounds like a trick to fool your body. […] Why not just eat well? […] Somehow people want to lose weight the easy way, pff.. just prooves how lazy this ‘McDonalds’ generation has become.

Such comments strike me as slightly odd. “Eat better” has been the diet advice for as long as I can remember and undoubtedly everyone overweight has heard it by now. And yet, as these writers clearly know, obesity is, as I understand it, an epidemic in this country. So this supposed solution clearly isn’t working. Yes, it might work in the sense that if everyone followed it they’d be fine (although even that is somewhat unclear), but plainly it’s too hard to follow. If our goal is to actually stop obesity, then we’re failing.

But I suspect for some people, that isn’t the goal. And Martijn’s last sentence hints at this. In my last piece I drew an analogy between being poor and being fat. And I think this rage at an easy way to lose weight parallels the rage we see at “government handouts” that provide an “easy way out” of being poor.

(To be clear, I’m talking about people who are opposed to easy ways to lose weight in general; not the people who were skeptical about this diet in particular or sick of fad diets altogether. Such reactions are perfectly right and reasonable.)

This is one thing I didn’t really predict in my last piece on the subject, but undoubtedly such far-reaching changes will also have their backlash. People who have spent their whole lives putting themselves through the pain of starvation and strenuous exercise to maintain their physique are undoubtedly going to be a little upset to figure out it was all unnecessary. It would be bad enough if it was some new invention that made fat disappear — after all, it hadn’t been invented yet when they’d gone through all that so there was no way they could take advantage of it. But olive oil and sugar water? That’s been around forever! How could they have missed it?

Ronald Reagan got elected campaigning against imaginary “welfare queens” in supposed-Cadillacs. Will right-wing politicians of the future rail against those who take the easy way out of being fat?

One major difference is that economics is at least thought to be a zero-sum game. Those welfare queens are taking “your money”, in the form of taxes. But you lose nothing if more people get thin. By the same token, there’s not a whole lot the government can do about this problem. The welfare payments were theirs, so they could cut them (as Clinton savagely did) but what’s the government going to do about the diet? Ban olive oil?

Perhaps instead we’ll see social pressure. The major visible difference between someone on the diet and someone who isn’t (considering that the olive oil can be taken in private) is that someone who’s on the diet simply doesn’t eat much. But eating is a major social function, around which much business and friendship is conducted. Perhaps backlash members will heap scorn on those who skip lunch or eat little, perhaps even ostracizing them until they start eating like normal (and thus weakening the effects of the diet).

I’ve seen a little bit of this myself — as a supertaster, my tastes are sufficiently strange that when eating with new people I’m often asked about my choice of food and then queried and lightly mocked for my explanation. It’s not so bad and I’m sure people mean perfectly well by it, but it is a cost and if people are actually angry about the diet, it may get worse.

So while actually being fat may go away easily, the stigma might be a little harder to erase.

You should follow me on twitter here.

May 7, 2006


I think this Shangri-La thing is pretty interesting, and I’ve tried some vegetable oil a couple hours before I run to see if it will work as “blood sugar insurance.” It’s only been a few trials, and my blood sugar crashes are sort of unpredictable, but I think it might be helping. It’s often hard for me to time meals such that they leave me in a good state for running, so if the set point trick can make my body less susceptible to food ups and downs, I’ll be very interested.

I can’t help but wonder if your “supertaster” status ups the ante for the tastelessness of the oil. Do you have to get extra, extra, extra light olive oil? :)

posted by Daniel Jalkut on May 7, 2006 #

You write: “[Already-thin people] lose nothing if more people get thin.”

That strikes me as naive. Social status is positional. A large increase in the number of thin people would decrease the social advantage that already-thin people have, in the past, either gotten for free (through genetics), or worked for (through exercise etc.), or both. Once these people lose the advantage of thinness, they’ll have to fall back on other qualities, e.g. an engaging personality or strength of character or whatever.

Although I’m a cynic, so I believe that much of the social value currently placed on thinness would simply be displaced onto other physical traits, e.g. muscle tone.

posted by Cog on May 7, 2006 #

Nevermind the bullocks, how is the diet going?

posted by Dan Steingart on May 7, 2006 #

The analogy is flawed in that wealth can easily be transfered from those who have it to those who don’t, while weight itself cannot be so easily transfered (weight - not food).

Moreover, in the affluent West, weight-loss is high-status activity, which attracts much marketing, while poverty relief is the opposite, downright stigmatized these days in the US.

You really should entertain the idea that you’re mistaken, and that people who have seen lots of fads come and go are correct.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on May 7, 2006 #

Seth, regardless of whether ‘the Shangri-La Diet’ hints at anything useful (I’d be skeptical of any ‘revolutionary diet advice’ that was published in a book before being published in a peer-reviewd journal), surely you see the parallelism in the moralism of ‘why don’t you just work your way out of poverty’ and ‘why don’t you just starve your way out of obesity’?

posted by Firas on May 7, 2006 #

Aaron, I think you’re taking things the wrong way. People are having a backlash because they are highly skeptical, something that should be regarded as a GOOD thing, not a bad one. Time after time, we’ve seen revolutionary diets that are supposed to allow you to lose weight without even trying, and from the entries I’ve seen you write about it, this Shangri-La diet doesn’t seem to be any different. Diets come and diets go, but the only thing that remains constant is the fact that when people go on these miracle diets, all they end up doing is losing a little bit of weight really fast, and then later end up putting all of it back on (if not more) because the diet really isn’t sustainable (e.g.: Atkin’s diet). The end effect of going on these diets is that people end up being worse off, not better off, because the diet just doesn’t work.

I doubt that these people care whether or not the diet actually ends up working. What they’re pissed off about is the fact that every few years, there’s another “doctor” that comes around touting his new awesome diet that’s guaranteed to work, and he gets millions of dollars of hapless people who buy his book and all the other “accessories” that go along with his book thinking that they’ll finally lose weight. And they end up spending lots of money and not permanently losing lots of weight. It’s annoying, and it’s insidious, and it’s predatory. And it angers them to think that it might happen again. It’s a neverending cycle.

Now, don’t mistake me for saying that the Shangri-La diet is another miracle diet that really doesn’t work. I don’t have enough evidence to say that it does or doesn’t work. It’s just that it has all the warnings of such a “miracle” diet. One: an author publishes a book on the diet saying that it will help you lose weight without too much effort. Two: the book is published without any scientific evidence in medical journals. Three: it has a cool name that’s supposed to inspire immediate confidence in the diet. Four: the cure does not involve eating healthily and getting lots of exercise, but it involves some “miracle” substance which in this case is olive oil.

People are not backlashing at your entries because they don’t want the diet to work. I suspect that they would love it if it did. But from all past experiences, the Shangri-La diet doesn’t appear to have any better suggestions than any of the other previous “miracle” diets did.

If the Shangri-La diet takes the country by storm and makes obesity rates drop precipitously without any bad health side effects, I will be the first to say that that would be an awesome thing. But I’ll believe it when I see it. And don’t alienate your readers, Aaron, just because you think that they’re mad at this diet because they carefully managed what they’re eating and exercised a lot — that really has nothing to do with it. They’re just seeing another “miracle” diet coming along and right now, it looks to be just that, despite your own anecdotes.

By the way, “eating healthy” and getting lots of exercise isn’t hard. The hard thing is to start out doing this in life, not get bogged down into a habit of eating unhealthy foods. For example, when I was growing up, my parents always cooked healthy food at home, used a wide variety of ingredients and always insisted that I try a little bit of each dish to make sure that I didn’t like it. As a result, I like eating a wide variety of foods, and I truly am disgusted when I see foods at fast food places which are fried and have grease dripping from the bottom. I also have ridden my bike to school consistently since I was in elementary school (it takes 30 minutes), because my parents didn’t want to be prisoner to having to drive me to school every day. Not to say that I don’t like eating ice cream or dessert, or that my parents haven’t driven me to school once in a while — it’s just that the DEFAULT is to eat well and get good exercise, and if I want to stray from that default every so often, I can easily do so.

— Simone

posted by Simone Manganelli on May 7, 2006 #

There’s a difference between ‘why don’t you just work your way out of poverty’ and ‘why don’t you just starve your way out of obesity’. Unless you are obese due to some disease, you can work your way out of obesity if you really decide to do so and can keep to that decision. Yes, I know that the latter part can be difficult, especially if you live a stressed life. But “working your way out of poverty” isn’t up to you just deciding to do so and sticking to it. Even most “rich” people as individuals have very little control over the economy, let alone poor people. But you can have full control over what enters your gastrointestinal tract.

posted by tuomov on May 7, 2006 #

Firas: Of course I see the parallelism, in the sense that it’s empty preaching to demand the problem be solved by an act of moral willpower, it’s not so simple. But I don’t think there’s a parallelism in a “backlash” between ‘Rich people resist helping the poor’ vs. ‘People who have suffered through exercise resist the existence of a miracle diet’.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on May 7, 2006 #

My problem is not with people being skeptical — I think that’s completely reasonable and admirable. What I’m writing about is people who aren’t merely skeptical but downright angry about the idea of losing weight without working for it.

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 7, 2006 #

Aaron —

Did you not read what I wrote? I quote from my previous post:

I doubt that these people care whether or not the diet actually ends up working. What they’re pissed off about is the fact that every few years, there’s another “doctor” that comes around touting his new awesome diet that’s guaranteed to work, and he gets millions of dollars of hapless people who buy his book and all the other “accessories” that go along with his book thinking that they’ll finally lose weight. And they end up spending lots of money and not permanently losing lots of weight. It’s annoying, and it’s insidious, and it’s predatory. And it angers them to think that it might happen again. It’s a neverending cycle.

— Simone

posted by Simone Manganelli on May 7, 2006 #

Frankly, the notion there’s anything significantly new to this diet deserves a lot more hostility than you’re getting. I reject sight unseen any diet named after “Shangri-la” (the Ph.D. after the guy’s name is just gravy), and I’m willing to use the H-word rather than the fallback “skepticism.”

But even assuming the mechanism of the diet is proven to work, none of these predictions about revolutionary societal change follow. What actually happens is the book attracts hordes of fickle habitual dieters who seem to get their important lifestyle changes out of cereal boxes, who are as attached to the present set of requirements as to the last one. And as soon as the highly motivated early adopters realize that their prescient counterintuitive wisdom has become devalued now that everybody is repeating it around water coolers and bridge games, they move on to trumpet some other enthusiasm, perhaps homeopathy or Twizzlers. That’s how the game is played.

posted by Mike Sierra on May 8, 2006 #

What’s more of an epidemic than obesity is fad diets. And every single one of them has had a reasonable-sounding explanation for why it should work, and most of them do help you lose weight for the first month or two (often for psychological reasons).

If you want to be more than another fad dieter, Aaron, you need to not only take rigorously regular measurements of your weight, you need to stick to it for a year or two at least, and commit to reporting back to us in this same space whether it works — or not.

posted by Jamie McCarthy on May 8, 2006 #

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all people with weight problems are lazy and should therefor work harder. All I tried to say was that if you are going to lose weight by going on a ‘path of least resistance’ type of diet you are going at it the wrong way. Because the path of least resistance is probably what got you there in the first place.

The ‘eat well’ advice is, as far as I believe, still the best way to lose weight. The point is, we as a society have forgotten what ‘eating well’ means. In a world as today it is easy to go for the ‘wrong’ type of foods instead of the stuff that is actually healthy. Lots of ‘good’ foods are being replaced by ‘digestable stuff’ (I’m not calling it food) wrapped in marketing. Eating well is not something “they” want you to do. “They” as in the fast-food/sugar factories of this world. Because “they” can’t make money of people preparing their own food instead of buying their pre-made crap. (Thats what I am being hostile towards, not the diet itself)

“They” will spend milions on marketing campaigns getting you into their ‘restaurants’ (if you can call them that). Which in turn makes our children (and the society as a whole) believe that eating fast-food, drinking sugarry water and doing as little as posible is what we do. I think that losing weight is something that should be fought with education instead of hip diets.

Then again, if the shangri-la diet helps you lose weight, go for it.. But you should also realise that its only part of the solution. Not a ‘cure-all’. Because if you want a diet to work, it should be something life-changing and most diets do not “work” the rest of your life. You should also change ‘what’ you eat instead of only changing ‘how’ you eat.

posted by Martijn on May 8, 2006 #

While I agree with the “backlash” (a notoriously loaded term, BTW), I take issue with tuomov’s “no pain, no loss” motto. It seems long-term success often involves learning to derive great satisfaction from what at first glance involves sacrifice. If you’ve been eating moderately and exercising routinely for a while now and still regard it negatively as “starvation and strenuous exercise,” you’re not getting it, and need a major reorientation.

posted by Mike Sierra on May 8, 2006 #

The only way to lose weight is to use up more energy than you eat. That means eating less than your body expects. That means feeling hunger as your body is not getting what its wants. The pain will be worse until your body starts burning the fat for energy, but the hunger will be there even after that. Maybe eating tasteless calories will help there, but I doubt it is any more efficient than simply drinking water to give the stomach something to do. Now, maintaining the lost weight is a different matter. There I agree that simply “no pain, no loss” isn’t a sufficient tactic, but no magic diet is.

posted by tuomov on May 8, 2006 #

What I want to know is: What do you folks lose by trying it, instead of foaming at the mouth about how it doesn’t work?

There’s enough information freely available online, you don’t need to buy any book. All you need is sugar and water or a bit of oil. Heck, the author made his original 60-some-odd page research paper available for free: http://www.freakonomics.com/pdf/whatmakesfoodfattening.pdf

The domain name where it’s hosted just happens to belong to a couple of rather skeptical folks — a celebrated economist and a journalist.

But of course, you don’t need to read the scientific research, or try it yourself. You just know.

posted by Amy Hoy on May 9, 2006 #

But of course, you don’t need to read the scientific research, or try it yourself. You just know. Yes, I’m all for science. I just downloaded the paper off the Internet, but I can’t seem to find it associated with any peer-reviewed scientific journal. Can you provide a link? Maybe there’s also a double-blind study out there involving human beings, perhaps even human beings other than those administering the study? That would be the minimum scientific research any responsible party would need to have in hand before flashing the phrase “Eat Anything” to a bunch of impressionable yo-yo’s.

posted by Mike Sierra on May 9, 2006 #

But Aaron, you don’t NEED to lose weight! You’re thin enough…you may need to do some regular exercise (other than sitting at the computer all day) but I believe you are actually supposed to be gaining some weight.

posted by Susan on May 11, 2006 #

I don’t think people are angry that there is a miracle cure…I just think they don’t believe it, are annoyed with the continued search for the magic pills (when a reasonable solution is right there and people just refuse it b/c its hard), and don’t buy that eating well and exercising don’t work (all these stats about people dieting/working out and not losing)…they do work, if you actually do them. The fact that most people can’t maintain healthy behavior doesn’t mean that healthy behavior isn’t the answer, it is…and the fact that people can’t work hard and prefer stomach staples and bypassing the large intestine surgeries, speed pills and sugar water tonics, etc. should just make us sad(we’ve gotten really spoiled)…but shouldn’t give credence to these methods - gastric bypass kills 1/1000 on the operating table and more later from down the road complications (as one example).

Knowing how intelligent you are I am just amazed that you are drawn in by set points and sugar water…sugar water for chrissake…this is a coke w/o carbonation and food coloring. You think coke is the answer? Maybe if you drank enough cokes so you weren’t hungry at all you might lose weight too, and health.

Olive oil has medicinal properties, and I could see it providing some weight loss aid as well…if maybe you are nutritionally imbalanced in some way, which I would assume most of us are (there was that whole Lorenzo’s Oil thing too after all). You might also try flax seed oil, shark oil, and a few others the nice folks at your local health food store can point you at.

As a matter of fact, as the logical thinker you are why not try a reasonable portions all healthy food diet vs. sugar water and olive oil set point diet test. I bet the health food and exercise leaves you with more energy, lean muscle, and general happiness with body makeup than cokes and olive oil ever will.

posted by metanomi on May 11, 2006 #

I’m lucky enough not to really have a genetic predisposition to carry lots of weight.

But I did manage to put on about 10 pounds in one year, and these days I’m eating well and riding 80-120 miles per week on my bicycle.

There are lots of fad diets out there. Atkins is particularly bad - take a look at the two case histories here (http://www.diseaseproof.com/archives/diet-myths-434-case-histories-the-atkins-diet.html).

My goal is not to keep my weight in a certain range. My goal is to be healthy, and to do that, I think you have to understand how food affects you, eat well (ie lots of fresh food, whole grains, limited processed food), and get some exercise. In other words, something that you can keep up for decades.

Of all the stuff I’ve looked at, I think that South beach is the most rational approach, as it is something you can follow for a lifetime. It is not geared towards athletes, but it can be modified.

I won’t claim that I understand what people who have lots of extra weight go through, since I’ve never been there. But I have read an article by a women who had tried diets for years, gone to weight watchers, and then one day thought, “If I want to lose weight, why am I hanging around with people who aren’t successful at being thin?” She starting looking at what the thin people did, did that, and didn’t have any problem doing that.

As for this approach, let’s see some real studies that look both at weight loss and overall health of this approach compared with other approaches.

posted by Eric on May 11, 2006 #

What’s more of an epidemic than obesity is fad diets. And every single one of them has had a reasonable-sounding explanation for why it should work, and most of them do help you lose weight for the first month or two (often for psychological reasons).

Completely wrong.

There is good, clear research that shows that changing what you eat will produce weight loss for the first 2-3 weeks. any diet will work for about a month, which, with a little publicity, is how the fraudulent diet industry works.

For people who are overweight, most of them are like alcoholics, except with food rather than alcohol, and there is no way to become abstinent (e.g. alcoholics join AA and then quit drinking. You can join OA, but unless you starve to death, you will have to eat again).

The hostility comes almost completely from one group of posters: those neo-calvinists who see weight loss as the mandate of heaven — a reward for superior virtue. If you just “eat right and exercise” you will lose weight and keep it off. Those who do not lose weight must not be virtuous because that simple forumla doesn’t work for them.

The sub-set of people (such as at Alas, A Blog) who hate all diets and diet books as a fraudulent industry that thrives on abuse and deceit, I don’t see them posting here.

But what the diet does (and it got its name from a vote by people who were using it, it got its book cover from the publicist, along with the sound bite descriptions) is it threatens the perceived mandate of heaven, the moral superiority and inherent virtue of the thin.

The real potential for societal issues from the diet, is that people who have stabilized on it seem to eat about half of what they did before.

Will we end up a nation of scrawny frenchmen (big surprises about going to Paris included the fact that the French seem to have quit smoking, they now curb their dogs, the place was wonderful with polite people, and they were all very thin, scrawny even)? Who knows. But if the diet spreads and works like it is appearing to work, we will end up a nation that uses about half the food that we did.

I guess that leaves more crop-land for alcohol production to fuel cars …

Anyway, I “ate right and exercised” for a long time without losing weight, though I got to where I was moving 30 pounds over the maximum on a number of the machines (I’d just toss 15 lb barbells on the weight stack). I was still 240.

This morning I was in the 180s (though I’ve gone myo on my workout … I’ve also added Judo).

Stephen http://ethesis.blogspot.com/

posted by Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 12, 2006 #

posted by on May 16, 2006 #

lots of great stuff here.
i’ve cited you several times in my blog. i’m writing here to tell you that i’ve uploaded an old (1997) piece of mine about dieting: http://vlorbik.com/tenpage/diet.html “vlorbik’s diet tips”. it’s short, so have a look! maybe it’ll entertain ya.

posted by vlorbik on May 18, 2006 #

Well, I have to say that I’m now in the 170s.

The system works. The best thing about the Shangri-la diet is that you can try it without buying the book.

A friend called it the “try it first for free” diet, and then noted “if it works, you can just keep doing it for free.” Not like you have to buy anything special, any light, flavor free oil or sugar will do, you can find all the instructions on-line.

It is fun to watch the diet ripple out among friends and family and hear them talk about how it changes how they feel about food.

Just an update.

Stephen http://ethesis.blogspot.com/

posted by Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 7, 2006 #

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