Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

A Future Without Fat

I’ve been on the Shangri-La diet long enough to convince myself that there’s definitely something to it. Yesterday, for example, I spent all morning moving furniture (we’re moving to a new apartment) and around lunch time I got invited to lunch at a favorite pizza place with a friend and I jogged all the way there. Normally, at this point, I’d be famished and devour half a pizza. This time, I wasn’t hungry at all (but I had a slice out of politeness).

Of course, there’s no reason my particular anecdotes should be more convincing than any others, but they are convincing to me, so I’d like to move from discussing the diet to discussing its implications. Weight and trying to lose it is a huge part of American culture and a system that makes doing it trivially easy will have far-reaching effects.

The most basic, it would seem, is more thin people. There’s clearly an enormous number of people who want to lose weight. A lot are so desperate that they will try any number of painful and crazy tactics, from Slim-Fast shakes to Atkins meals, that are touted as helping. Obviously these people will try the diet.

But also a large number of people (like myself) who see themselves as too skeptical to fall for a fad diet or too lazy to jump through its hoops will try this diet, since it’s both scientifically proven (or will be, after further clinical trials) and super-easy. And unlike Atkins, there are few concerns about nutritional dangers — the diet doesn’t require you to change the balance of foods you eat, just the quantitity — so a bunch more reasons not to do it disappear.

As it takes off, commercial products will soon follow — branded pocket-sized flasks of ELOO, for example. The media will do stories on this latest craze and the ideas behind it. Clinical trials will demonstrate its effectiveness and suggest areas for further research, which will lead to it being refined. And popular culture will likely try to deal with the results.

Among those results: lots of people you know getting thin. It’s difficult to imagine what this is going to be like. The fat guy at the office won’t be fat anymore. That cute-but-slightly-overweight girl you’ve had your eye on won’t be slightly overweight anymore. Social dynamics will be seriously disrupted in a way that, to my knowledge, has no analog. People have gotten taller, and thinner, and prettier over time, to be sure, but never quite this fast.

The flip side of the drive to be thinner is the discrimination against those who are fat. American culture is simply vicious towards the less fortunate. You’re poor because you’re lazy, it says, and you’re fat for the same reason. If only you got some exercise or ate better, you’d look fine. It’s your own damn fault and there’s nothing wrong with me looking down on you for it.

If the theory behind the diet is correct, however, this just isn’t so. Fat people are that way simply because their body’s set point is too high. That’s not really anything you can blame them for and it’s also something that, before the diet, was really hard to fix. They live with a burden of wanting to eat that thin people, with their lower set point, never have to deal with. And the entire time they’ve been struggling, they’ve been told it’s simply their own damn fault. (As I noted, their situation mirrors that of the poor.)

Of course, it’s unlikely our culture will ever notice the horrors its committed against fat people. Instead, the diet is likely to make it even more vicious. Now that there’s a simple easy way to get thin, anyone who refuses to use it will be turned against with serious scorn. Being fat may become as much of a social rudity as being a smoker, with strangers feeling that they can lecture you about your unhealthy lifestyle in public. It’ll be pure torture.

But, I have no doubt, it’ll work. Sipping ELOO is much easier than quitting smoking and tons of people are doing the latter. And so the last few overweight people will be pushed to join the pack. While it’s unlikely that obesity will be entirely eradicated, it’s hard to imagine the last few hangers-on (perhaps those for whom the diet doesn’t work or who can’t do it for some reason) making up a significant sect of the population.

The diet book itself saves most of its vision for future generations who, it suggests, will never have to think about obesity at all because the new science behind the diet will allow us to build it right into our foods, so that we will simply never get fat in the first place. Certainly, at a minimum, children’s set points will be regulated from a very early age (what parent wouldn’t want to spare their child from fat-kid teasing?) and they’ll likely never even consider another possibility.

To our children, obesity will probably seem like just another relatively-rare disease, like a learning disability or a speech impediment. They’ll look back at movies from our time and think— well, actually, they won’t notice anything because we’ve already removed the fat people from them.

You should follow me on twitter here.

April 28, 2006

Comments

You assume that everyone who is fat is just waiting patiently for the solution to their weight problem. There are a lot of fat people who either don’t care that they are fat, or don’t consider themselves fat. In fact, there are even fat people who are proud to be fat, and who have formed fat-awareness organizations dedicated to fighting the evil medical institution that is telling them to lose weight.

posted by mark on April 28, 2006 #

I don’t assume that at all, which is why I talk about the increasing severity of social sanctions and so on.

But I am interested in this sort of thing. Do you have any numbers on the percentage of fat people who are comfortable with their weight?

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 28, 2006 #

Well, you assume that the portion of people who don’t really want to lose weight is inconsequential, when you talk about how obesity will be unknown to our children.

I have no numbers, but google ‘fat acceptance’ to see what I’m talking about.

posted by mark on April 28, 2006 #

In case it wasn’t clear, I’m a supporter of fat acceptance.

I say obesity will be unknown to our children because a) changes in the way food is made will make it harder to become fat and b) social pressure will force parents to force their kids to lower their set point. I don’t see what either of these has to do with people wanting to lose weight or not.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 28, 2006 #

Or, if you’re looking for other intelligent and enlightened views, google “cholera acceptance”, “scurvy acceptance”, “addiction acceptance” and “ignorance acceptance”.

posted by Herbert on April 28, 2006 #

I believe fat has qualities that create the feeling of satiety. A good book you should check out is Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price. http://www.westonaprice.org/index.html. You’ll need to mentally filter out some unsubstantiated claims, but what’s underlying will probably explain what’s going on with the “Shangri-La Diet.”

posted by Gary Luu on April 28, 2006 #

Aaron, how long have you been on the diet? It takes a minimum of about five years to be sure that you don’t gain back the weight. I am on moderate form of the Ornish diet. I lost almost 30 pounds over the course of six months and kept it off for two years, but in the past year I have gained back almost 20 pounds. Very discouraging.

posted by Anonymous on April 28, 2006 #

Hi Aaron,

how much weight are you planning to lose?

I find the whole diet concept very intriguing from what I read in your blog, too bad I can’t try it myself, I’m rather slightly on the other side of the scale.

posted by felix on April 28, 2006 #

posted by William on April 28, 2006 #

It still surprises me when you so blithely substitute “when” for “if” while the idea that this premise has yet to undergo the rigorous testing that makes your analogy with phrenology-as-science so germane.

I will lay you some odds that this whole episode will be largely debunked and forgotten before it has the far-reaching effects you project.

It’s a “what if” without the requisite skepticism.

Love.

posted by William Loughborough on April 28, 2006 #

I don’t see why writing a what if requires one to prove the if. The question is still interesting (in a scifi sense) even if this particular thing doesn’t cause it.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 28, 2006 #

I understand the skepticism about Atkins. Granted, Atkins is not an exactly healthy diet. Far from it. But at least to me, personally, it hasn’t been painful at all. I decided to try it after having read the whole Wikipedia article about it. I like to do things right so I talked to my doctor first and got an OK from him. It was more of a curiosity thing (“hm, could this really work?”), I’m definitely not acting out of despair here, specially because I’ve been only, well, slightly overweight.

I actually enjoy eating meat and it’s always been a part of my normal diet, I just took out the rice, potatoes, bread and other high sources of carbohydrates. And as long as you’re having decent meals, keeping yourself hydrated and (this is very important) taking fibers and a couple of fruits a day (as a source of vitamins), it’s safe and, like I said, not painful at all. Actually this is slowly proving to be the easiest and fastest diet I ever took.

I’m sure you already did, but I recommend to anyone else reading this to read the Wikipedia article on Atkins. Definitely not a panacea of diets (like this Shangri-la diet seems to be), but worth trying for anyone who has steaks included in their regular diet. Well, Works For Me (TM).

I should also note that you don’t have to keep the “crazy” habit of only eating meat/eggs/cheese all the time. You increase carb intake by 5-10g each week by gradully adding your old sources of carbs to your diet again, always being careful to check if you’re not gaining any new weight. If you keep up regular exercises (jogging every morning, like you do), you can even have your carbs normally as you’ll be spending them all during exercise. It makes perfect sense to me.

posted by Jonas Galvez on April 28, 2006 #

s/like you do/like I do/

posted by Jonas Galvez on April 28, 2006 #

I still think ‘the Shangri-La diet’ is just the new hotness in a long line of absurd diets.

I’d like to add that the whole notion of a ‘diet’ in the first place is counter productive. Being on a diet automaticly tells you that you’re not appreciated or that you dont appriciate yourself enough. Which in turn makes you unhappy and less able to lose weight. So maybe the answer should be; improve your happyness instead of “your doing it wrong!”

posted by Martijn on April 28, 2006 #

I don’t quite get why the stigma against fat is so vicious and horrible if it ushers in a thinner, healthier populace, as your scenario assumes. I’m a big fan of such stigmas, especially since they’re working so well on tobacco use.

posted by Mike Sierra on April 28, 2006 #

I think part of the ‘fat acceptance’ movement is just plain good humanism but part of it is also apathy against too great an opponent. Once you start to realize that you just cannot lose weight for good, you begin to accept it, because it’s better to be happy and fat than unhappy and fat. And it’s totally understandable, because fighting against the set point really is hard. (If the Shangri-La diet works as advertised, it will, of course, change the whole game.)

By the way, Aubrey de Grey thinks that the same sort of apathy is at work with another big health problem: death.

See http://www.sens.org/ for more details.

(Whether or not we actually can win the War on Death is orthogonal to the apathy, so long as we don’t know for sure whether we can cure death.)

posted by Jarno Virtanen on April 28, 2006 #

As a science-fiction postulate, “What if there really were a miracle diet?” doesn’t strike me as all that great a premise, because the topic can be unpleasant to people who have tried diets and gained back the weight. But maybe it’s the execution, since I’ve read a story or two about “What if a quack medicine really worked?” (on the other hand, it might not be so entertaining to those suffering from chronic illness and have tried quack medicines).

Note that sociologically, it’s fairly well-established that your parents’ wealth is a major factor determining your own wealth. This hasn’t had much of an effect on the ideology that views it as entirely a matter of individual work.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on April 29, 2006 #

You sound like those people in the 50s who, after the invention of nuclear power, were talking about nuclear cars in the year 2000. I, like Loughborough, will lay odds that this diet will turn out to be as problematic as the rest. Which isn’t to say we will never find a magic diet, just that this probably isn’t it. You’re extrapolating far too much from a small data set, always a recipe for error. Can’t you see it staring you in the face in this sentence? “Clinical trials will demonstrate its effectiveness and suggest areas for further research, which will lead to it being refined.”[Emphasis added]

posted by Ajay on April 29, 2006 #

I guess the real question is, will Dave Winer finally slim down?

Aaron, perhaps you should post your weight and graph it on a daily or weekly basis? In fact, how about an updating mini-banner that bloggers could put in their sidebars? Maybe a picture of you and text along the lines of “Obesity cured by the scientific Shangri-La Diet. Aaron Schwartz’s weight today is 135 pounds.” In fact, this is such a good cause that I bet the WordPress and Moveble Type guys could be talked into making the Aaron Schwartz weight banner part of the default install.

posted by Matthew on May 1, 2006 #

So Aaron, how long does it take to start working, days? Weeks? I’ve been on the twice-daily sugar-water for a week now and haven’t noticed any difference (except the effect on my bladder of the extra water!). My appetite hasn’t reduced, in fact I may be a bit hungrier than before.

posted by Doug on May 2, 2006 #

Are you serious? The magic bullet huh? It was discovered long before this: exercise and responsible eating…any number of other things work, actually pretty well sometimes - starvation (people who say this will make you fat need only think of the nazis acts of atrocity, the ethopian famine, or any number of 80 pound starlets), diet pills (cough, speed), smoking, illness …but, i think you get my point, while people are different there is going to always be one thing that works: eating only what you need (differs from person to person, gotta figure it out…but some basics are obvious — like which foods are fat laden, which are nutrient rich and calorie low, which have lots of protein, and that the harder you work the more of all of this you need, the less you work the less you need) and working that food back off…you don’t move enough to burn it off it stays…people need to move a certain amount just to burn healthy food intake and not start gaining weight — your body has a natural tendency to store unused material for later — this helped in a state of nature when people often starved in lean months. it simply does come down to this. there’s your magic bullet: and if parents want their kids to be thin they wouldn’t feed them cokes and candy and would only let them eat appropriate portions — and they’d get them off the couch and outside. done.

posted by metanomi on May 2, 2006 #

My appetite reduced notably (one less meal a day) pretty much immediately. Are you sure you’re taking them an hour away from other food and drink?

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 2, 2006 #

Sounds intriguing enough to be worth a try if I ever feel like dieting. I expect that a handful of nuts would have the same effect as the olive oil, and is in fact what I will personally choose if I ever try this. (I’m not a doctor but I am someone living educatedly with an insulin disorder, and have found that nuts and other positive fats, in small doses, really do curb most and sometimes all of my cravings.)

I don’t really know if the “set point” thing could actually eradicate what our society terms “overweight” even if we wanted it to though. For many people, their bodies’ actual best healthy weight for maintaining optimal functioning is higher than what doctors today will recommend. They might not be as healthy if they lowered their set points to an extent that would result in their looking what we currently consider acceptably thin. Ex: I am chubby, but I routinely have doctors tell me I am 60-80 pounds overweight. If I weighed 40 pounds less, which might be nice someday, I’d be the same svelte weight I was the summer I was 17 and worked outside as a camp counselor all day, lifting & swimming & running & teaching dance. I can’t imagine it being possible for my body to be healthier than that. But I was curvy even then. Another ex: one of my fat close friends (she actually spent years on the board of NOLOSE, the national organization for lesbians of size), has the best cholesterol and blood pressure levels of anyone I know, eats a very healthy diet, and works out regularly. Etc. Until we as a society can wake up and stop measuring “health” as “weight” or actually, “visible appearance of slenderness,” we won’t realize how irrelevant fat can sometimes (certainly not always) be.

I certainly believe that there are points where obesity is dangerous, but there’s quite a large spectrum of weight that’s healthy that I’d hate to see us lose. I for one think chubby people are overall cuter, so the world would be a bonier, twiggier, less-sexy place for me.

And since I seem to have dissolved into a mini-rant (not aimed at you), one pet peeve - why should it matter if “that cute chubby girl you’ve had your eye on” lost weight/was no longer considered fat? If a person’s cute, and you’ve got your eye on them, the fact that other people think they’re overweight is kind of a silly thing to factor in - yet something far too many people do. (I mean the you in that general pronoun sense.)

posted by Erica G on May 2, 2006 #

I should add re the nuts thing, that I get that it’s about flavor but I also think that’s vaguely bs, in my not having read the book way, because from what little I’ve seen of people discussing the diet so far, it seems people do register the taste of the sugar and the oil anyway. I think an almond or two would hardly register more than oil or sugar.

posted by Erica G on May 2, 2006 #

Yes Aaron, I’ve made sure to take the sugar-water at least one hour away from other food/drink (I don’t even drink water in that time period, but mainly because after the sugar-water I’m not thirsty). I get really hungry (as usual for me) in the hour after eating, have the sugar-water, which fills me up a bit and reduces my hunger somewhat, and then wait at least another hour before eating again. And still, I’m eating just as much as before. I’ll keep trying it for maybe another week, but if it doesn’t start to have some effect by then I think I’ll give up and just keep up with the exercise (just wanted to hurry things along a little by suppressing my—rather large—appetite a bit).

posted by Doug on May 2, 2006 #

Are you serious? The magic bullet huh? It was discovered long before this: exercise and responsible eating. except that just doesn’t work. Unless you call 2% of those who diet taking off five pounds for a year success.

This works, and works well. I’ve tried a lot of things, exercised hard (I’m moving the maximum weights on the Cybex machines at the gym, sometimes with thirty or more pounds added on top of the stack), and been through it.

I’ve lost 51 pounds (as of this morning) on this method.

Though the mental shifts are the strangest part of it all.

People who have not been fat don’t get it.

Doug you might want to try more sugar. I had to use a quarter cup of sugar or two tablespoons of oil to get an effect, some people use twice that (they take in the equivilent of four tablespoons of oil a day in calories, split between morning and evening, often some in sugar and some in oil).

It depends on just how much weight you need to lose, among other things.

posted by Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 3, 2006 #

not sure a “2% of those dieting only taking off five pounds a year” statistic is even somewhat meaningful…as many people misreport, most people are on all different sorts of “diets”, people have different starting points — maybe all some needed to lose was 5 pounds, dieting is only one component (exercise is the other) … and i didn’t say dieting, i said responsible eating — dieting is watching calories, reading labels, weighing things…i don’t think any of that is really necessary

in any CONTROLLED environment of adults healthy enough to exercise who had an enforced eating and workout regimen you would see results…over time all members would come down to fighting weight — this controlled environment of limited food and required exercise? it’s call a state of nature, where the overweight simply don’t exist.

posted by metanomi on May 3, 2006 #

Until age 23, I was six foot one, 165 pounds.

I got into a weight training program and put on about 10 lbs of muscle over a year. So until age 25, I was a somewhat muscular 175.

I worked at a startup for a couple years, where we had free food. The stress of the startup led to a lot of beer drinking and pizza eating after midnight. When I was 27 I had ballooned up to 215.

I was pretty disgusted with myself, so I decided to get back to my high school weight. I dropped 20 pounds over a year simply by walking to work and not drinking beer or eating pizza. Thus by age 28 I was down to 195, and by age 29 I was down to 180.

Now I’m 31 and back to about 178 lbs. I plan on losing 18 more pounds by exercising more.

I’m not sure I buy the “flavorless calories” and “set point” aspects. I think what’s really going on is you just want something to make you not hungry.

I’m pretty sure you could cut out junk food and eat almonds or slim fast shakes instead of pizza and beer and soda, and you’d see the same results. However I guess I’ll try out this shangri la thing for a few months to see how it goes.

posted by chunks on May 5, 2006 #

Aaron and Stephen M, good on you both! Maybe this diet is yet another fad, but maybe not, and I applaud you who are trying it and gathering data and pioneering the way for others. It’s easy to sit and whine uninformedly that the diet might be a waste of time. It’s better (and not that much harder) to test it, and share what you’ve learned. http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/3745/tr.html

posted by Will Ware on May 5, 2006 #

My husband’s sister was an alcoholic. He decided he had enough to deal with without that problem, and so decided to never even take a drink and he’s never looked back.

People who do drink generally have two reactions to this. Some of them say, “that’s cool,” and go on with their lives. The others, especially if they’re drinking at the time, go out of their way to try and talk him into drinking. Those in the latter catagory are quick to proclaim how comfortable they are with their alcohol use and how there’s absolutly nothing wrong with what they are doing, while the former group might say that if you asked them about it, but don’t feel obliged to offer up the opinion unsolicited.

If you’re considered to be overweight by your doctor, but feel comfortable in your body and have good health and don’t want to lose weight, that’s cool with me.

But when you start going around telling everyone who says they’re on a diet how they just need to accept themselves and really it isn’t unhealthy to be fat etc. etc., you start to sound like maybe you aren’t quite as comfortable with yourself as you purport to be.

And this is coming from someone who is well into the obese catagory.

Oh, and the whole “you don’t have a problem with your weight, you have a problem with your self-esteem” canard is completely ridiculous. If someone is working at mcDonalds and decides to get their GED, do you tell them, “you don’t have a problem with your education, you have a problem with your self-esteem”? Nobody’s perfect, and trying to improve yourself doesn’t mean you hate yourself.

posted by Raina on May 5, 2006 #

Aaron, I haven’t read the book but I wonder if the taselessness of the olive oil might be inconsequential and the reduced appetite might be caused by you spreading your calorie-intake more evenly over the day.

There seems to be a theory that says that if we allow the body to feel hunger between meals, it goes into “famine-mode” - lowering its default calorie burn-rate while prompting us to gobble up more (“quick! quick! while there’s chance!) and stashes the extra calories away for later use.

The theory says that if you eat more frequently but less at a time, our body goes into more of a laisser-faire “let’s-burn-it-all-away” mode.

A friend of mine tried a variant of this eat all the time method, and said he noticed a big change in his usual appetite.

P.S. I’m pretty much ideal weight myself, so I haven’t tried any of this. However, I find the whole subject quite interesting.

posted by Már on May 6, 2006 #

I don’t think so; it appears to work even if you only take it once instead of a previous meal.

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 6, 2006 #

Mar, the tastelessness of the oil is a key component, not an inconsequential one.

Roberts is pretty straight-forward (i.e., he doesn’t bury an explanation in the appendix) that he doesn’t quite get why the sugar works, given it has a distinct flavor. He has a few theories, however.

posted by lee on May 6, 2006 #

Aaron, interesting.

Lee, yes I do know the tastelessness is a key component — assuming Roberts’ hypothesis is correct.

posted by Már on May 7, 2006 #

Jonas,

I know people who did Atkins and for most of them it didn’t work.

I did the South Beach diet because it’s less extreme & because it was designed by a cardiologist. You do avoid carbs for the first two weeks, during which time your metabolism changes. After that, you gradually start adding healthy carbs. Unlike Atkins, you also avoid bad fats (saturated & trans-fats) and only eat healthy fats. After the first few weeks, you’re encouraged to eat healthy carbs like vegetables.

That was two years ago & I lost 50 pounds and kept it off. My cholesterol was always extremely high, but I never wanted to take medication for it because I was afraid of the side effects. As of earlier this year, my cholesterol is now near normal without medication. At this point I only avoid sugar & fatty foods and eat more whole grains.

The reason obesity is so widespread is because our diet is full of empty calories that lead to overeating. Sugar is especially bad, since it immediately raises your blood sugar, causing your body to react by producing insulin, which then lowers your blood sugar, which makes you feel hungry. Complex carbs like whole grains don’t do that & keep you feeling satisfied longer so you eat less.

posted by Mike Cohen on May 8, 2006 #

Aaron and Stephen M, good on you both! Maybe this diet is yet another fad, but maybe not, and I applaud you who are trying it and gathering data and pioneering the way for others. It’s easy to sit and whine uninformedly that the diet might be a waste of time. It’s better (and not that much harder) to test it, and share what you’ve learned.

Thought I would add that the diet is still working for me. Now that I’m in size 34 pants, size 32 belts, it is probably time to taper it off a bit, but I’ve lost 65 pounds so far. It has worked solidly for me since November 13, 2005.

Wish well for everyone else.

posted by Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 15, 2006 #

Just checking back in. Bought my first size 30 pants (Dockers chinos) and will wear them today, my wife really liked the way they look.

posted by Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 28, 2006 #

I just started SLD and I think its working! I have been thinking about Seth’s theory and have starting to wonder if the inverse would also be true. If consuming Flavor-Less calories lowers your appetite setpoint then wouldnt it go to reason that consuming strong flavors with out calories would increase your appetite setpoint? What if every time I drink a diet Pepsi or chew a stick of sugar free gum Im signaling my body to raise its appetite setpoint?

For the last several years I have struggled with my weight. For that reason I eat/drink for more diet foods than I ever did in the past i.e. sugarless gum, diet soda and reduced calorie cookies, dressings etc. These diet foods could be sabotaging me efforts. What do you think???

posted by Moria on July 7, 2008 #

I dont think its gonna change the way they make our food. “The bad guys” (government/FDA/drug manufacturers and diet co.) want americans to be fat. If or when this diet gets more momentum “The bad guys” will be scrambling to debunk it. They will continue to find more sneaky ways to make us fat because they profit from unhealthy and fat americans. I just started the diet myself. After reading the book it makes alot of sense. It cant hurt to add ELOO to my diet. I think the worse thing that can happen is I just might get down to my dream weight.

On a side note though, I noticed a funny thing on amazon.com in the “customers also bought section” they had speedo nose plugs. I laughed and thought about it. We plug our noses when we dont wanna taste something nasty that we have to take. Its scientifically proven that our taste is linked to our sense of smell. If it is gonna change anything in our culture, we may see alot of people wearing nose plugs to dinner. Perhaps maybe a “shrangri la” brand nose plug lol.

Good blog GOD Bless ,Jason A.

posted by Jason A on August 12, 2008 #

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