Critiquing Gary Taubes, Part 3: Did the US Government Give Us Absurd Advice About Sugar?

post by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-30T00:58:31.461Z · score: 5 (29 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 153 comments

Previously: Mainstream Nutrition Science on Obesity, Atkins Redux

Here's where I start talking about the thing that initially drove me to write this post series: Taubes' repeated misrepresentation of the views of the mainstream nutrition authorities he attacks. I'll start by going back to Taubes' 2002 article. Immediately after the discussion of Atkins, it contains another set of claims that stood out to me as a huge red flag: 

Thirty years later, America has become weirdly polarized on the subject of weight. On the one hand, we've been told with almost religious certainty by everyone from the surgeon general on down, and we have come to believe with almost religious certainty, that obesity is caused by the excessive consumption of fat, and that if we eat less fat we will lose weight and live longer. On the other, we have the ever-resilient message of Atkins and decades' worth of best-selling diet books, including ''The Zone,'' ''Sugar Busters'' and ''Protein Power'' to name a few. All push some variation of what scientists would call the alternative hypothesis: it's not the fat that makes us fat, but the carbohydrates, and if we eat less carbohydrates we will lose weight and live longer.

The perversity of this alternative hypothesis is that it identifies the cause of obesity as precisely those refined carbohydrates at the base of the famous Food Guide Pyramid -- the pasta, rice and bread -- that we are told should be the staple of our healthy low-fat diet, and then on the sugar or corn syrup in the soft drinks, fruit juices and sports drinks that we have taken to consuming in quantity if for no other reason than that they are fat free and so appear intrinsically healthy. While the low-fat-is-good-health dogma represents reality as we have come to know it, and the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research trying to prove its worth, the low-carbohydrate message has been relegated to the realm of unscientific fantasy.

I'll start with the obvious: We thought sugary soft drinks were intrinsically healthy? To quote an old joke, who do you mean we, kemosabe? Given widespread scientific illiteracy, I wouldn't be surprised if some people have believed that low-fat is a sufficient condition for being healthy, but if so, they didn't get this idea from mainstream nutrition science.

Taubes makes it sound the mainstream view and the view Atkins pushed are mirror images of each other: on the one hand, "everyone from the surgeon general on down" told us "if we eat less fat we will lose weight and live longer." On the other hand, Atkins et al. told us "if we eat less carbohydrates we will lose weight and live longer."

This rhetoric ignores a crucial distinction: as I showed in my previous post, Atkins really did claim eating less carbs was a sufficient condition for weight loss, and that no amount of fat could possibly make us fat. Mainstream nutrition experts, on the other hand, did argue low fat diets were better for us, all else being equal. But they never, so far as I've been able to find, claimed a low-fat diet was a sufficient condition for losing weight, or that no amount of sugar could possibly make make us fat.

Taubes seems unaware of this—or else he chooses to hide it from his readers. In Good Calories, Bad Calories (p. 342), for example, he attempts to rebut the suggestion that low-carb diets are really low-calorie diets in disguise that this idea "seems to contradict the underlying principle of low-fat diets for weight control and the notion that we get obese because we overeat on the dense calories of fat in our diets." This response would only make sense if mainstream nutrition scientists were saying eating less fat is the be-all, end-all of weight loss.

In these initial paragraphs, Taubes only cites one source for what mainstream nutrition experts were supposedly telling us: the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. This is an unfortunate choice, because as anyone who's actually seen the chart knows, sweets get put right up at the top with fats and oils under the "use sparingly" category. At this point in the article, I wonder how anyone reading it could avoid suspecting something was. (The same goes for the references to the Food Pyramid in Taubes' books on nutrition, both of which quote the "use sparingly" recommendation in regard to fats and oils, while carefully omitting the fact that it said the same thing about sweets.)

But then again, the Food Pyramid was first published the year I entered kindergarten, so I'm at exactly the right age to have had it drilled into my head hard in school. And maybe mainstream nutrition messaging was much crazier in the 70's and 80's. So what about the other sources Taubes cites as supposedly showing mainstream nutritionists giving giving us terrible advice about fat vs. sugar? 

Farther down in the article, Taubes talks about how the debate over the 1977 Senate committee report "Dietary Goals for the United States" supposedly tried to settle the debate over what Taubes calls the "low-fat-is-good-health dogma" with politics rather than science. Yet a quick look at the report reveals it's statements to the effect that fat is dangerous and we should eat less of it are consistently paired with parallel statements about sugar, including a recommendation to cut our sugar intake by 40 percent. Instead, the report recommends, we should be eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Okay, what about the sources Taubes cites in his books? Three important ones are summarized in the chapter on sugar in Good Calories, Bad Calories:

In 1986, the FDA exonerated sugar of any nutritional crimes on the basis that "no conclusive evidence demonstrates a hazard." The two-hundred-page report constituted a review of hundreds of articles on the health aspects of sugar, many of which reported that sugar had a range of potentially adverse metabolic effects related to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. The FDA interpreted the evidence as inconclusive. Health reporters, the sugar industry, and public-health authorities therefore perceived the FDA report as absolving sugar of having any deleterious effects on our health.

The identical message was passed along in the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health and the 1989 National Academy of Sciences Diet and Health report.

Let's start with the FDA report. If you read the executive summary (which I obtained thanks to a generous individual on r/scholar), a couple things stand out. They continually emphasize that they were interested in whether sugar was harmful at current levels (i.e. in 1986, more than 25 years ago), and whether sugar had a unique role in the cause of obesity. There's nothing to suggest that increasing our sugar consumption (which we in fact did, along with increasing our intake of calories in general) would be harmless.

The 1988 Surgeon General's report is even less impressive as an example of supposed official sanction for sugar consumption. The summary of recommendations (p. 3) recommends that people "Reduce consumption of fat (especially saturated fat) and cholesterol," but recommends replacing high-fat foods not with just any carbohydrates, but with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. It also recommends, on the subject of weight control, that people "limit consumption of foods relatively high in calories, fats, and sugars, and to minimize alcohol consumption." Similarly, the 1989 National Academy of Sciences Diet and Health report (p. 18) explicitly recommends replacing fat with whole grains rather than food and drinks containing added sugars. 

One other example bears mentioning. In Why We Get Fat, Taubes claims:

[Low-fat] logic may have reached the pinnacle of absurdity in 1995 (at least I hope it did), when the American Heart Association published a pamphlet suggesting that we can eat virtually anything with impunity—even candy and sugar—as long as it's low in fat: "To control the amount and kind of fat, saturated fatty acids and dietary cholesterol you eat," the AHA counseled, "choose snacks from other food groups such as... low-fat cookies, low-fat crackers... unsalted pretzels, hard candy, gum drops, sugar, syrup, honey, jam, jelly, marmalade (as spreads)." (p. 162)

The pamphlet Taubes is referring to can be found here. The two halves of the above "quote" ("To control the amount and kind of fat, saturated fatty acids and dietary cholesterol you eat" and the second part that begins "chose snacks from other food groups...") are separated by a dozen pages of boringly mainstream advice which closely resembles that of the Food Guide Pyramid: no more than 6 ounces of lean meat per day; 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day; 2 or more servings of dairy; and 6 or more servings of bread, cereals, pasta, and starchy vegetables.

The part that Taubes ridicules about low-fat cookies and so on comes from a section on snacks that doesn't come with a recommended number of daily servings. I suppose if you read the AHA pamphlet knowing nothing else about nutrition, you could take that as a sign that the listed snacks are wonderfully healthy and you should eat as much of them as you like. But anyone familiar with the standard nutrition advice of the time would understand that the intended meaning is "if you snack, choose the low-fat options"—not that you should necessarily be snacking much at all. That may or may not have been good advice, but it's not nearly so absurd as Taubes makes it out to be.

It's possible there's room here to criticize not the underlying science, but the science communication; not what the official reports and said, but how well that information was conveyed to the general public, few of whom are likely to have read the original reports carefully. If a significant number of people really did believe eating less fat was all they needed to do to lose weight and that Coca-Cola is "intrinsically healthy" (as Taubes claims "we" believed), we'd have an example of a serious failure of science communication.

Any such criticisms of science communication side of things would need to be tempered with recognition that science communication is really freaking hard. If you haven't seen the amount of hand-wringing that's gone on in the science and skepticism blogosphere over how to do science communication better, trust me: scientists have thought a lot about this stuff, and it's not obvious what the solutions are. Yet if bad science communication were really, say, a major contributing factor in the obesity epidemic, it would underline the need for scientists to do their absolute best in communicating with the general public.

But a failure of science communication isn't how Taubes frames his attack on mainstream nutrition authorities, nor is it the message most people seem to take away from reading his work. Taubes' irresponsible rhetoric doesn't help the problem of bad science communication—it adds to it.

Next: What Causes Obesity?

153 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2013-12-28T19:04:09.562Z · score: 21 (21 votes) · LW · GW

Taubes' concern as I remember it was that mainstream nutrition was trying to get people to eat less fat at the same time they were trying to get people to eat less meat (ie protein). Since people generally eat a constant number of calories a day and since calories come from fat, protein, or carbohydrates, effectively mainstream nutrition was telling people to eat more carbohydrates. This was accurately reflected in the food pyramid where carbohydrates form the base and are most strongly encouraged, and in guidelines that say diets should be 55–75% carbohydrate.

Your statements here sound pretty damning, but in the gestalt impression I remember from his book, I don't remember Taubes pushing a claim that the government/mainstream was pro-sugar so much as a claim that the government/mainstream was pro-carbohydrate. This is both much more plausible, and totally sufficient to form a foil to Taubes' carbohydrates-are-bad theory. The sugar angle seems like kind of a distraction here.

comment by passive_fist · 2013-12-29T09:35:05.570Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Since people generally eat a constant number of calories a day and since calories come from fat, protein, or carbohydrates, effectively mainstream nutrition was telling people to eat more carbohydrates.

Generally, when people restrict the type of foods they eat, they wind up eating less calories, so this statement is not entirely valid. As far as I recall, mainstream media was trying to get people to eat less fat and eat the minimum amount of protein needed for sustenance (which is arguably low but that's another debate entirely). If people had followed this advice, the total number of calories would be reduced.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2013-12-29T15:26:17.073Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Here I think you genuinely disagree with Taubes, who believes that people have a caloric set point of sorts and that they are never going to actually decrease the calories they take in, especially if they're not really trying to do so and just pursuing a separate goal like "cut down on fat".

comment by passive_fist · 2013-12-29T21:30:59.501Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I haven't read his book, but how does he define this set-point?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-01-01T14:37:55.017Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Defining set points isn't easy. The general observation is that cybernetic principles provide a useful model for various body processes.

Blood pressure get's for example regulated in a complex way but we have no real way to read the set point for it from the body or change the set point. It simply stored somewhere in the brain.

If you are looking at any body parameter where it's important that it stays within a certain range it's a good guess that the body uses cybernetic principles to regulate it.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2014-01-01T00:01:27.917Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't exactly remember, but I think it's whatever is a healthy weight for your height/age, plus or minus a genetic factor. And drugs/diseases/diets that make people obese do so by disrupting the set point or the body's ability to conform to the set point.

See also here

comment by passive_fist · 2014-01-01T20:43:47.897Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The explanation offered on the page you linked seems more psychological (i.e. "I want to return to the weight I'm used to") rather than having any basis in the biological needs of the body. Is this assessment correct?

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2014-01-04T16:35:27.038Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That wasn't my impression. See for example the paragraphs about the rats given foods of different caloric densities.

comment by passive_fist · 2014-01-04T22:13:58.346Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

We were talking about people. No bait-and-switch, Yvain!

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2014-01-05T17:31:37.723Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think anything in that posts suggests a "psychological" view of obesity set points. The experiments where people were fed a certain diet (whose amount of calories they didn't know, and presumably had no access to scales) yet still felt a strong urge to eat the amount of calories that returns them to their set point seems strongly against that explanation. Then the rat studies help clarify that in even more controlled conditions. It would be very strange for set points in humans and rats to have the same properties, but for the mechanisms to have nothing to do with one another.

comment by passive_fist · 2014-01-06T04:58:22.227Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Feelings of satiation are caused by many factors, including neural signals from the gut (which supposedly is not enough to explain the alleged obesity set-point), hormones due to blood levels of carbohydrates, and also blood levels of amino acids and lipids. In addition, they are caused by levels of insulin, glucagon, and cholecystokinin, among others.

The desire to eat more may simply be because the rat wants to maintain the levels of these hormones that they're used to. There is absolutely no reason to think (based on these experiments, at least) that there's a set-point that is based on 'healthy weight for your height/age, plus or minus a genetic factor'. In fact the very article you linked strongly agrees with this viewpoint and disagrees with your view.

The reason I mentioned the bait-and-switch is because the mechanisms controlling eating in humans are very likely, in my opinion, to be different from rats. Note that this isn't the same as saying the reasons are disjoint. It could be that we have the same underlyling mechanisms as rats, but also a large psychological component on top of that, that effectively prevents being able to directly compare rats and humans.

comment by katydee · 2013-12-27T23:05:49.757Z · score: 7 (27 votes) · LW · GW

This post, like the others in this series, seems much more appropriate for the Discussion section.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-12-28T06:36:49.916Z · score: -1 (21 votes) · LW · GW

Moved.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-28T08:57:30.158Z · score: 10 (20 votes) · LW · GW

Huh? These seem clearly like "Main" posts, going by the wiki's definition. These posts are extensively cited, and not just posting a link or offering an opportunity for brainstorming:

These traditionally go in Discussion:

  • a link with minimal commentary
  • a question or brainstorming opportunity for the Less Wrong community

Beyond that, here are some factors that suggest you should post in Main:

  • Your post discusses core Less Wrong topics.
  • The material in your post seems especially important or useful.
  • You put a lot of thought or effort into your post. (Citing studies, making diagrams, and agonizing over wording are good indicators of this.)
  • Your post is long or deals with difficult concepts. (If a post is in Main, readers know that it may take some effort to understand.)
  • You've searched the Less Wrong archives, and you're pretty sure that you're saying something new and non-obvious.

I worry the definition of what counts as suitable for "Main" has gotten ratcheted up over time so that now hardly anything counts as suitable for Main. Which is probably why hardly anyone posts there anymore. See this discussion, especially Yvain's comment and John Maxwell's comment about LW having gotten too focused on discouraging bad content at the expense of encouraging good content.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-12-30T00:55:14.744Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Whenever a non-meta post stays under 5, I always feel free to move it to Discussion, especially if an upvoted comment has also suggested it. I don't always, but often do.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-30T03:41:08.938Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for explaining this. I will start the next post in the series in Main, but if it stays under 5 I'll have no objection to moving it.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T18:35:51.140Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think it's a good idea to do so on a per-post basis. I think it's confusing for different posts in the same sequence to be in different section of the site.

comment by katydee · 2013-12-29T04:09:50.903Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

While certainly these posts are long and extensively-cited, that seems far from a sufficient condition for posting in LW Main. There are many Wikipedia articles that are long and extensively-cited, but almost none of them would be appropriate LW Main posts.

In general I think that Main posts should be directly related to rationality, and that posts not directly related to rationality shouldn't go in Main unless you have a really good reason to put them there, especially if you intend to write an extended series of posts. There are a lot of blogging platforms on the Internet, and while LW is an especially good one, not all content is appropriate for it.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-29T04:58:12.894Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

This is applying a standard that would have gotten much of Eliezer's original sequences kicked over to discussion had the distinction existed at the time.

In fact, if you read the old comments on those posts, you can find examples of people questioning whether they fit the subject matter of Overcoming Bias.

Is this series any less fit for LessWrong than a series on quantum physics? Or scientific self-help (which Luke has done)?

There's also the fact that main motivation for this post series was to help address the question of how far we can trust mainstream scientific consensus. Indeed, in large part it's a response to a claim made by Eliezer in "The Correct Contrarian Cluster."

comment by katydee · 2013-12-29T05:16:30.205Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This is applying a standard that would have gotten much of Eliezer's original sequences kicked over to discussion had the distinction existed at the time.

I'm not sure I agree with you. But as you point out, Discussion didn't exist back then-- it may well be that some of those posts would be more appropriate for Discussion than for Main! Discussion doesn't mean "bad quality" or "LW-lite," it's just a different board for different topics.

There's also the fact that main motivation for this post series was to help address the question of how far we can trust mainstream scientific consensus. Indeed, in large part it's a response to a claim made by Eliezer in "The Correct Contrarian Cluster."

I upvoted your original post-- I saw it as marginal for Main, but certainly interesting and potentially relevant. However, the following posts talked less and less about rationality and more and more about specific disputes in nutrition science, which made me think that the series as a whole would be better in Discussion rather than Main.

comment by Tenoke · 2013-12-29T09:08:50.628Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In my opinion it shouldn't be in Main because it doesn't meet this:

Your post discusses core Less Wrong topics.

Also to answer those questions:

Is this series any less fit for LessWrong than a series on quantum physics? Or scientific self-help (which Luke has done)?

Yup, a little bit.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-28T14:51:10.176Z · score: 2 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Seriously, I don't understand this moderation decision at all. I didn't agree 100% with your sequence, but I definitely thought it belonged in Main.

I suppose Main now (as opposed to when the wiki was written) belongs solely to MIRI/CFAR propaganda.

comment by hyporational · 2013-12-28T14:16:34.654Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Many people seem to have already voted with their feet and the quality of posts has dropped significantly. I hope you aren't next.

ETA: and as katydee pointed out, some people simply have moved on to more important tasks. I'm sure people disappear for other reasons too.

comment by katydee · 2013-12-29T04:13:30.722Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Voting with your feet" seems inaccurate here because it implies that people got fed up and left.

In practice, it instead seems to me that many of the more advanced users now post less frequently because they're out there in the world doing cool things and don't have as much time for LessWrong, which seems far from an undesirable state of affairs!

comment by hyporational · 2013-12-29T05:20:21.781Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure who you're referring to, but apparently many of those people still have the time to write in their personal publishing venues. Also many have stopped commenting too, which isn't really that time intensive.

It's great people are doing cool stuff in the real world, but LW will have little value if it consists of ducklings advising each other how to fly.

comment by katydee · 2013-12-29T05:58:38.083Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Here are several of the users I had in mind and what they're up to now:

  • MichaelVassar-- co-founder and CSO at MetaMed
  • lukeprog-- now Executive Director at MIRI
  • Yvain-- recently began medical residency
  • AnnaSalamon-- co-founder and Executive Director at CFAR
  • Liron-- co-founder and CTO at Quixey

Several of these users-- I believe all of them, in fact-- still post and comment from time to time, but less frequently than they once did. Yvain still writes his own blog, but he did that even while he was still posting on LessWrong.

This isn't to say, of course, that the only factor preventing advanced users from posting a lot on LessWrong is that they have more important things to do. But it is a significant element, and IMO one that it's important to be aware of.

comment by hyporational · 2013-12-29T06:18:32.067Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree it's an important element, and for some reason I didn't entertain the thought before you made it available. Do you agree that some people don't post here anymore because of the overly critical environment, and that we might have lost important contributors that way?

comment by katydee · 2013-12-29T07:28:13.017Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Do you agree that some people don't post here anymore because of the overly critical environment, and that we might have lost important contributors that way?

I agree. That said, established users generally have high status in the community, which can help mitigate this effect. I think that LW being overly critical is more of a problem for newer users, and even then it's important to consider that one man's "overly critical enviroment" might well be another's "high standards of rigor."

comment by hyporational · 2013-12-29T07:55:07.665Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's true that criticism deters new users much more easily than established users, but I think losing established users is orders of magnitude worse than losing new users.

That old familiar post you linked discusses karma, and I think karma has evolved to be something very different from what it was intended to be. Almost nobody has a happy trigger like that. You can't simply dictate what kinds of signals voting is supposed to send because it will acquire new meanings by usage, and stubbornly going against the grain is going to send unintended signals to people.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-29T22:03:43.892Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

There's no shortage of internet fora which lack LessWrong's highly critical environment. They also have much less intelligent discussion. I think there is a connection between these two.

comment by hyporational · 2013-12-30T20:03:36.146Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The connection is obvious. Now that I've thought about this some more, maybe some good people leaving is an unavoidable side effect. This doesn't mean you shouldn't be tactful with the criticism, unless you want certain people to leave and not change their minds, which might sometimes be an understandable goal too.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-29T21:39:12.724Z · score: 1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I'll point out that Yvain has explicitly said (in the thread I linked above) that the reason he no longer blogs much at LessWrong is because the standards at LessWrong keep it from being fun. And when he talked about those standards, the things he's talking about are things I don't think everyone agrees on - just things some people are vocal about (see e.g. Kaj's reply to him).

Because of that, I seriously think that you are harming the LessWrong community.

And having said that, I'm done replying to you in this thread, because it's far from clear to me that very many people agree with you.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-12-29T23:39:38.262Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

it's far from clear to me that very many people agree with you.

I agree with you that LW is sometimes too harsh, and that encouraging good content should be emphasized, and discouraging bad content perhaps de-emphasized. But I agree with katydee that this particular sequence seems inappropriate to all be in main. As written, the series seems to be about nutrition, with one (possibly two) rationality points as subtext. I get that impression primarily because each post is about a fairly short nutrition point- of the two meat posts so far, one has been about Atkins, and another about sugar.

If, instead of an n-post series arguing against Taubes on the object-level of nutrition, you had written one (potentially long!) post on those rationality points, I would be happy.

The primary rationality point seems to be "don't choose a side in a controversy after only listening to one side." This seems like very good advice, and Taubes seems like a good example: I haven't read him directly, but I get the impression that both what he's arguing against is wrong and Taubes's proposed replacement is also probably wrong. If I were writing this post, I would write it with the halo/horns effect and meta-contrarianism in mind- rather than defending mainstream nutrition against Taubes, I would emphasize the underlying uncertainty, that low-carb diets seem to work but Taubes is probably wrong on why, and specific underhanded tricks Taubes does (like failing to point out that the FDA recommends against both sugar and fat).

But the way I would handle the first point conflicts with the second point, which is 'trust the expert consensus.' There was a great blog post by a physics graduate student I saw ~5 years ago, which I can't find now, where he wrote up in a short post why he was convinced that dark matter was the best explanation for the observed data. He discussed three alternatives (like MOND), how each of them explained a portion of the data better than dark matter, but that when you considered all of the data together, dark matter was the clear winner because it did okay on three issues instead of great on one issue and terribly on two others. The link to "don't affiliate early" is clear- a single proponent can be very convincing (and be right!) about their belief's strong points and the weak points of other sides, but generally the experts are familiar with the weak points of all the sides, and so if they discount something it's probably for good reason.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-12-30T02:23:50.382Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I, too, thought that these posts were rather short and that it would have been better as one post. But they've generated 100 comments per post. People like talking about nutrition. Splitting it into multiple may have better organized the discussion. Or maybe it created lots of duplication. Actually, since I think the discussion has been unproductive, actions that impeded it, like stuffing it all into one post, might have been better for everyone.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2013-12-30T15:01:50.434Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Sometimes I feel LW is very harsh for Main articles, but not harsh enough for Discussion articles. It is very difficult to write a Main article, but many kinds of trivialities get posted in Discussion.

It's like if you measure quality from 0 to 10, then a typical Main article is 9 or 10, a typical Discussion article is 1 or 2 (you must get to 0 to get downvoted)... and the articles between 4 and 7 somehow don't belong anywhere.

And maybe it is this category of articles -- not good enough for Main, but already too good for Discussion -- that people prefer to take to their own blogs.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-12-30T17:52:53.175Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

One of the proposed splits for the site, to replace the current Main/Discussion split, is by subject matter- instrumental rationality, epistemic rationality, meetups, futurism, and so on. Everything related to instrumental rationality, from a one-sentence post with a link to a six thousand word detailed referenced article, would go in that subreddit, and there would probably be a 'high quality' page where you can see all of the articles that have been promoted from any of the subreddits.

It seems like that would be good at encouraging posts of medium quality- you don't have to say "I think this is Main-quality," you just post it where it belongs and either the editors think it's Main-quality or they don't, and someone sitting on a 7 post just posts it instead of agonizing over it (and eventually not posting it because of an ugh field).

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-30T03:39:35.914Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If, instead of an n-post series arguing against Taubes on the object-level of nutrition, you had written one (potentially long!) post on those rationality points, I would be happy.

In retrospect, I think I may have made a mistake breaking the series up as finely as I did. However, the idea that taking a post that would be Main-suitable, and breaking it up into pieces of no less than 750 words would turn those posts into "discussion" posts strikes me as really odd.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-12-30T04:50:07.625Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

However, the idea that taking a post that would be Main-suitable, and breaking it up into pieces of no less than 750 words would turn theses posts into "discussion" posts strikes me as really odd.

I think 750 words is pretty short, and that may be the main issue here. (I'm having a hard time teasing apart the strengths of the various reasons I think this.) My Value of Information: Four Examples was about 3k words, and the idea of splitting it up into four separate posts to Main seems odd to me. (That post is one of five (six if you count the table of contents) in a sequence which came out to something like 11k words total.) As a collection of discussion posts, sure, especially if I was posting an example whenever I came across one.

Consider Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism, since I linked to it a upthread. It's about 2200 words- it seems like a good length for a post, and in particular the right length for that particular concept. It's also got three sections- an introduction, Pretending To Be Wise, and Meta-Contrarians are Intellectual Hipsters. Splitting the post into three subposts seems like it needlessly disrupts the flow and makes the concept harder to understand and discuss- without the examples at the end, the discussion of the first section might be confused, and in the comments you'll see various people propose other triads, which are good to have all in one place.

But even if the combination is better, what should we make of a single section? Pretending To Be Wise is an about half-length presentation of another main article, and so might make for a decent main article on its own. But the last part seems more like an "here are some examples, discuss" which is suitable for discussion because it's missing the theory that makes it a compelling main post- which is in the first and second sections.

[Edit] I should also make clear that I don't think it's that odd to have a sequence that moves between Main and Discussion as appropriate- but I don't think there are many (or possibly any) examples of that yet, and so it may be odder than I think of it as being.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-31T11:51:09.555Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I should also make clear that I don't think it's that odd to have a sequence that moves between Main and Discussion as appropriate- but I don't think there are many (or possibly any) examples of that yet, and so it may be odder than I think of it as being.

I can see the point of having the main parts of the sequence in Main and appendices in Discussion, but having Part 1 in Main, Part 2 in Discussion, Part 3 in Discussion and Part 4 in Main (named that way) seems confusing to me.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-30T04:57:57.167Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is useful.

I learned long ago--I think doing high-school journalism--that 250-300 words is the limit for a letter to the editor, ~750 words is a good length for a typical article or op-ed, and 3k words is a feature article. In college and later grad school, I learned 4.5k as a typical term paper length, and I made the chapters in the two books I've written around 6k words. Obviously, academic papers and academic book chapters can be much longer than 6k words.

I've been approaching this from the point of view of "blog posts should generally be like typical newspaper articles or feature articles; a term paper or a book chapter as a blog post is usually too long." But maybe I should think of feature article / term paper as the standard?

comment by Vaniver · 2013-12-30T17:56:31.140Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think that the feature article and above (though empirically the standard here seems to be about 2k, rather than 3k) as the target for Main, and the op-ed and below for discussion, is a good split. I think that shorter articles can be worth it for Main, but the quality and relevance bars are higher (and they should be standalone).

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-30T18:24:22.625Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. I will follow this rule in the future.

comment by katydee · 2013-12-30T01:28:25.282Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

And having said that, I'm done replying to you in this thread, because it's far from clear to me that very many people agree with you.

My comment saying that this post would be more appropriate in Discussion has more karma than the actual post itself. That seems like fairly clear evidence to me.

comment by Benito · 2013-12-28T22:29:00.499Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Er, forgive me, but could you explain what you just said?

comment by fubarobfusco · 2013-12-28T22:59:21.199Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

"Voting with your feet" means "exercising your exit) right" — leaving a (business or political) situation that you believe has ceased to be to your advantage.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-29T22:15:39.666Z · score: -3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Having gotten no response from you to my previous comments in this subthread, and with few other people objecting, I've moved both of the posts back to Main.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-12-27T23:02:37.951Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

So, an old article this series is reminding me of is Beware of Stephen J. Gould. The claim there is that Gould misrepresents the state of the field, so that he can present himself as the hero triumphantly saving the day with his bold new theory, and that none of the experts in the field take him seriously. I don't think that's true of Taubes; I think the "field" is too broad to make narrow claims about consensus, and I get the impression that the best people in nutrition take Taubes seriously, even if they disagree.

I think that Taubes is right that the man in the street gets nutrition wrong, and I suspect further than many professionals who give nutritional advice (such as doctors) do no better than the man in the street. I suspect that Taubes's theory of obesity is incorrect, relying heavily on sources like this (which I've linked before) and this (which I've also linked before). But it's not clear to me that either of those represent the expert consensus in nutrition, and the overarching meta-point of "trust the expert consensus" seems suspect to me still, since the man in the street is unlikely to be good at estimating the expert consensus.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-28T00:07:39.144Z · score: 4 (14 votes) · LW · GW

You're right that there's some resemblance. In fact, I considered calling this "Beware Gary Taubes." What stopped me? The fact that frankly, I think Taubes is a lot less subtle than Gould. Portraying "low fat" advice as saying eating less fat is a sufficient condition for losing weight is more akin to the creationist portrayal of evolution as saying humans popped into existence by chance.

comment by katydee · 2013-12-28T06:14:24.016Z · score: 1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Why is this comment being downvoted so heavily?

(NOTE: parent comment was at -3 when I posted this)

comment by hyporational · 2013-12-28T06:58:18.166Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

It seems some topics prompt us to vote for truth status. I wonder if reality will bend to our collective beliefs some day.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-12-29T14:35:59.365Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A bit of history, though Taubes may not have mentioned it: When Atkins was new, there was public concern that so much protein would cause kidney damage. This doesn't seem to have been well-founded, though a friend mentioned that people on high-protein diets seemed to be more prone to kidney stones.

comment by James_Miller · 2013-12-27T20:37:33.846Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Here is a link to Taubes discussing "Why We Get Fat" on the EconTalk Podcast.

http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/07/taubes_on_why_w.html

Here is link to Taubes discussing "Good Calories, Bad Calories" on the EconTalk Podcast.

http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2011/11/taubes_on_fat_s.html

comment by Jack · 2013-12-27T20:06:31.276Z · score: 4 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Taubes is critical of the government for failing to say or do more about sugar. You seem to take issue with the fact that he doesn't give mainstream nutrition authorities props when they don't screw something up. Yes, I suppose the FDA could have encouraged people to consume more high fructose corn syrup and good on the government for not doing that. Taubes is a polemicist. He's taking a side in a debate. He is not a rationalist-- and he is using arguments as soldiers. He's also constrained by popular science book length limit.

I'm sure the direct content of a nutritional recommendation is getting conflated with the practical effects it has on what people eat, especially in the short-form article context that you start out quoting from (why, by the way is that your jumping off point? It seems totally ill-suited as a best-version of his argument).

The part that Taubes ridicules about low-fat cookies and so on comes from a section on snacks that doesn't come with a recommended number of daily servings. I suppose if you read the AHA pamphlet knowing nothing else about nutrition, you could take that as a sign that the listed snacks are wonderfully healthy and you should eat as much of them as you like. But anyone familiar with the standard nutrition advice of the time would understand that the intended meaning is "if you snack, choose the low-fat options"—not that you should necessarily be snacking much at all. That may or may not have been good advice, but it's not nearly so absurd as Taubes makes it out to be.

Wait, the American Heart Association can get away with assuming that level of sophistication in their (much more general) audience but Taubes isn't allowed to assume we know the government wasn't literally recommending people drink soda and infer that he is complaining about relative levels of emphasis-- the focus on fat over sugar?

I also worry that people who haven't read Taubes will think you're talking about a central argument of his. This entire sugar digression is basically tangential to the bulk of his critque.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-28T00:04:40.685Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Taubes is critical of the government for failing to say or do more about sugar.

Except he doesn't even acknowledge what they did say about sugar, and portrays their recommendations as a mirror image of the Atkins diet.

You seem to take issue with the fact that he doesn't give mainstream nutrition authorities props when they don't screw something up.

No. I'm taking issue with his misrepresentations of what they were saying.

Taubes is a polemicist. He's taking a side in a debate. He is not a rationalist-- and he is using arguments as soldiers.

Agreed. So why are you defending him?

...especially in the short-form article context that you start out quoting from (why, by the way is that your jumping off point? It seems totally ill-suited as a best-version of his argument).

Because in "The Correct Contrarian Cluster," Eliezer claims "Dietary scientists ignoring their own experimental evidence have killed millions and condemned hundreds of millions more to obesity with high-fructose corn syrup", and cites Taubes' 2002 article as his source.

Sorry, I should have said that earlier. I was worried about embarrassing Eliezer, but that was probably a mistake, insofar as it may have left people wondering why I was wasting my time on such an awful article. But it seemed worth addressing, insofar Eliezer apparently thought it made a good argument that crazed dietary scientists had killed millions.

Wait, the American Heart Association can get away with assuming that level of sophistication in their (much more general) audience...

Yeah, the AHA probably should have been clearer. But I'm not sure that's exactly "sophistication" they were assuming. It's stuff I've known literally since grade school. And I'm conscious of how easy it is for well-informed people to underestimate how ignorant the average person is, and I grew up with a dad for a dentist and a biochemist for a mother, and who knows, maybe my grade school did an unusually good job of nutrition education, I don't know... but on the other hand, knowing sweets aren't health food isn't rocket science. It's a message you've heard if you've seen the Food Pyramid at some point in your life.

Taubes, on the other hand, is assuming the opposite of sophistication, if expects his audience to apparently have once believed Coke was a health food.

comment by Jack · 2013-12-28T02:08:17.271Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

No. I'm taking issue with his misrepresentations of what they were saying.

I don't see outright misrepresentations. I see a focus on what Taubes thinks they did wrong.

Agreed. So why are you defending him?

Because everyone fails Less Wrong's standards for argument and discussion. Everyone here could spend 24 hours a day pointing out dark epistemology in the writings of public intellectuals and we would always have more work to do. If you're going to target a particular person it doesn't seem worthwhile unless the central content of the persons's work is wrong or dishonest-- especially with the context of a broader debate. Call it the Rationalist's Fallacy, in a world where everyone selectively emphasizes some facts to support their position someone selectively emphasizing facts that support their position provides little to no evidence about whether they are right or wrong, whether they are honest or dishonest or whether their work is net beneficial for the world.

Sorry, I should have said that earlier. I was worried about embarrassing Eliezer, but that was probably a mistake, insofar as it may have left people wondering why I was wasting my time on such an awful article. But it seemed worth addressing, insofar Eliezer apparently thought it made a good argument that crazed dietary scientists had killed millions.

Okay, well that makes some sense. But I sort of suspect Eliezer thought Taubes work in general made a good case that dietary scientists had killed millions and that was just the most convenient article he had when looking for cites.

knowing sweets aren't health food isn't rocket science.

Candy, sure. But there are tons of people who think yogurt with fruit(and corn syrup) on the bottom is health food. And juice. And Gatorade. I'll bet a lot of people have purchased a sugar filled cereal for their children after looking at the bottom of that food pyramid.

But what I don't get is why this confidence in the readers of the AHA pamphlet doesn't yield more charity when interpreting Taubes.

Taubes, on the other hand, is assuming the opposite of sophistication, if expects his audience to apparently have once believed Coke was a health food.

Nowhere does he say that. What he says is:

and then on the sugar or corn syrup in the soft drinks, fruit juices and sports drinks that we have taken to consuming in quantity if for no other reason than that they are fat free and so appear intrinsically healthy.

If we're assuming the reader has enough knowledge to understand that the government's recommendations have never been very high on sweets it's pretty clear that what Taubes is saying is that people end up drinking a lot of soft drinks (but this certainly applies even more to fruit juices and sports drinks) because they have been told that the primary thing they should do to avoid gaining weight is to avoid fat at all costs. Which, if not obviously true is certainly a very plausible hypothesis.

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-28T06:19:54.766Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Because everyone fails Less Wrong's standards for argument and discussion...

Let me put it this way: if I found distortions as bad as Taubes' in an article or book I'd previously been citing or recommending to people, I'd stop citing and recommending it.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-12-28T18:29:10.700Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But I sort of suspect Eliezer thought Taubes work in general made a good case that dietary scientists had killed millions and that was just the most convenient article he had when looking for cites.

It's not just a matter of singling out that source, but of singling out a claim. Many people complain that these posts are not representative of Taubes's work, that Taubes says little about sugar and lots of about general carbohydrates and fat. But they are representative of Eliezer, who talks only of sugar and not of fat. He makes the specific error of claiming that dietary scientists praised sugar. Going by Chris's quotes, Taubes does not make that error.

comment by hyporational · 2013-12-28T09:25:47.547Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Because everyone fails Less Wrong's standards for argument and discussion.

Would you mind tackling some of these questions? Please inform me if they're below your standards.

comment by Nornagest · 2013-12-28T02:14:12.012Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Taubes, on the other hand, is assuming the opposite of sophistication, if expects his audience to apparently have once believed Coke was a health food.

Coke was absolutely a health food, but not during the periods that Taubes seems to be talking about. Many popular soft drinks have their origins in late-19th and early-20th-century patent medicines, and Coca-Cola is no exception.

Of course, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were times when nutrition advice was almost entirely superstition and quackery, as opposed to merely substantially so. So that amusing historical factoid doesn't tell us much about the quality of nutritional science as it's been in living memory.

comment by EHeller · 2013-12-27T20:50:15.021Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I think the point is that the mainstream nutrition is just as against refined sugar as it is fats (they are in the same area in the pyramid). Taubes actually agrees with mainstream nutrition on this, but misleads his reader into thinking the opposite. Taubes and mainstream nutrition largely AGREE, but Taubes paints himself as a contrarian. To be fair to Taubes, I think its largely a ploy to sell books (everyone wants the secret information, not the standard), and if people find it useful to absorb that message, more power to them.

As an anecdote, when I was school aged in the 80s, my public school's nurse successfully got sugar-added drinks (pop,etc) removed from the school, although the cafeteria continued to serve some very fat-heavy entrees (cheap, processed burgers and what not). I was actually saddened to learn a few years after I finished, under pressure from their vendors, the school put the vending machines and soda fountain back in the cafeteria.

All my life, the sugar message has been much more central then the "fat" message (this may be unique to me, as my parents considered pop to basically be bottled poison). Walking through the grocery store, I can find as many "low-sugar" and "sugar- free" items as I can find "low-fat" and "fat-free."

comment by Jack · 2013-12-27T22:08:35.665Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Taubes actually agrees with mainstream nutrition on this, but misleads his reader into thinking the opposite.

I think that a) Taubes probably wants a more aggressive anti-sugar stance than, say, the government has taken. And b) his readers aren't actually being misled-- they know what the mainstream dieting advice has been.

To be fair to Taubes, I think its largely a ploy to sell books (everyone wants the secret information, not the standard), and if people find it useful to absorb that message, more power to them.

Sugar is one chapter in his first book and less in his second. The books' pitch has nothing at all to do with sugar: it's about the low-fat prescription.

All my life, the sugar message has been much more central then the "fat" message (this may be unique to me, as my parents considered pop to basically be bottled poison).

I definitely got a pretty strong anti-sugar message but (importantly I think) it wasn't a "sugar makes you fat" message.

comment by EHeller · 2013-12-27T23:41:19.710Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

And b) his readers aren't actually being misled-- they know what the mainstream dieting advice has been.

I think this is where you disagree with the main post (and with me). I know several people who have read Taubes that have no idea what the main stream nutrition advice is (they are steeped in paleo blogs that paint a very dismissive straw man of mainstream nutrition). Case in point: I recently won a $500 bet about whether or not refined sugar was at the base of the food pyramid.

Sugar is one chapter in his first book and less in his second. The books' pitch has nothing at all to do with sugar: it's about the low-fat prescription.

Sure, but its the focus of this particular less wrong thread. Throughout the book, Taubes style is to present his information as outside of the mainstream when much of the time, its right in line with the mainstream.

I definitely got a pretty strong anti-sugar message but (importantly I think) it wasn't a "sugar makes you fat" message.

Then what was bad about it?

comment by Jack · 2013-12-28T01:39:24.210Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Case in point: I recently won a $500 bet about whether or not refined sugar was at the base of the food pyramid.

So that's an interesting data point. If this is a common view among paleo/low-carb people than I would certainly agree that Taubes is to blame.

Sure, but its the focus of this particular less wrong thread. Throughout the book, Taubes style is to present his information as outside of the mainstream when much of the time, its right in line with the mainstream.

I didn't get this impression about his position on sugar from his books. Never thought he departed drastically from the mainstream in terms of advice about sugar consumption. I certainly get this impression from his view on carbohydrates more generally and anti-fat and anti-saturated fat messages( which is what the books are actually about!). If Chris or someone posts something indicating that he is misrepresenting mainstream nutrition science there I'll change my min.

Then what was bad about it?

It's hard to reconstruct these things, but Nornagest's comment is basically what I remember. I definitely remember thinking Popsicles were healthier than ice cream because they didn't contain fat.

comment by Nornagest · 2013-12-28T00:44:19.397Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Then what was bad about it?

Can't speak for Jack, but I remember Eighties and Nineties pop-nutrition advice associating sugar consumption (inaccurately) with hyperactivity and (more accurately, but with caveats) with tooth decay. As regards specific sugar-rich foods, I don't recall soft drinks ever being blamed for obesity during my childhood, but candy, cake, and cookies all were at times -- though this might have as much to do with fat as sugar.

comment by James_Miller · 2013-12-27T17:13:18.095Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

including a recommendation to cut our sugar intake by 40 percent. Instead, the report recommends, we should be eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

But don't fruits, especially that liquid candy also known as fruit juice contain lots of sugar?

comment by ChrisHallquist · 2013-12-27T17:21:55.815Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I assume the idea is that we were eating enough added sugar that if we cut added sugar and eat more fruits, the net effect on our sugar intake would still be negative.

comment by passive_fist · 2013-12-28T06:44:08.248Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

To add to this, fruit juice makes it easy to rapidly consume a lot of sugar, whereas if you actually eat the whole fruit it is far less likely that you will consume that much. Plus eating the fruit has the benefit of obtaining the fiber, which is important for digestion.

comment by Randy_M · 2013-12-30T17:08:28.943Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Is fiber actually important for digestion? I have seen that disputed as unfounded lately too.

comment by passive_fist · 2013-12-30T19:54:06.806Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Who's disputed it?

comment by Randy_M · 2013-12-31T04:19:43.001Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

http://www.marksdailyapple.com/dietary-fiber-is-bad-for-sex-thats-the-only-claim-about-it-that-isnt-a-myth/#axzz2p1TuXmEr

comment by passive_fist · 2013-12-31T05:40:36.546Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There are numerous misconceptions in that article. Fruits aren't a very good source of fiber; roots and bran are better sources, and don't yield nearly as much sugars. The writer claims that fiber has zero nutritional value but that's only true (if at all) for insoluble fiber - soluble fiber is digested by gut fauna and produces a host of metabolically active components. The writer further claims that fiber causes various illnesses but doesn't seem to deliver any sources for that claim. On the other hand, there is plenty of medical literature linking lack of fiber with various diseases. For instance, look at: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=77ed7da9463357d9a09892213e5c74db&rgn=div8&view=text&node=21:2.0.1.1.2.5.1.12&idno=21

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T11:22:46.362Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A large orange or apple contains about as much sugar as a Cadbury egg or half a can of Coke.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-29T01:13:19.512Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'll start with the obvious: We thought sugary soft drinks were intrinsically healthy?

That not a claim that Taubes makes in the paragraph that you cite. His claim is less strong.

Plenty of people in the real world do believe that Bionade is healthy. Bionade is a soft drink. Taubes doesn't claim that all soft drinks are considered healthy.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T11:25:22.511Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Plenty of people in the real world do believe that Bionade is healthy.

Oh God. Every day Idiocracy looks more and more like the real world to me.

comment by private_messaging · 2013-12-27T18:21:56.871Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This all [i.e. Taubes' convoluted strawmans] seem rather stupid. The way I understand the mainstream, is that human body is normally very good at absorbing calories from what we eat, and in presence of an excess, storing said excess for future use (trading decreased risk of dying in a famine for increased risk of heart disease in the later years of life). Irrespective of whenever the excess is in form of fats or in form of carbohydrates.

Thus in absence of any other pathology, if you estimate a lower risk of famine, and estimate a longer expected lifespan that would have been typical in the ancestral environment, to eat optimally you will have to ignore natural urges, and instead consume less calories, which I imagine is annoying and uncomfortable. Any circumstances where you stay skinny without having to feel any hunger seem highly suspect. (E.g. I have borderline over-active thyroid and consequently stay skinny no matter what, but it is not normal).

Somewhat orthogonally, for a multitude of reasons you need physical exercise to maintain general health.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-27T19:23:34.041Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I concur.

Further...

  • If your objective is to try and provide people with the lowest hanging heuristic for how to avoid unwanted weight gain, avoiding high fat foods is a pretty good candidate, since fat has the highest caloric content per gram (9) when compared to protiens and carbs (4). This appears to be the traditional view that the crazy government is trying to shove down our throats, so to speak.

  • Along come the carb-cutting people. My hypothesis is that the general rationale for this movement was the recognition that the average American diet was made up of some huge % of carbs (>50% of caloric intake) and so the simple math of avoiding carbs, even if you upped your fat intake, would ensure your daily average caloric intake went down.

  • Over time, even a relatively small difference in daily average caloric intake can make a relatively large difference in your body weight. For example, a 100 cals/day decrease will yield a ~10lb body mass decrease per yer.

  • Atkins, the flagship of the carb-cutting movement, advocates an extremely significant decrease in carbs, especially at the outset of the diet. It is zero wonder (to me) as to why it "works" for people. If you basically eliminate carbs from your diet, you'll have to come up with creative way to even find ways to equal your former carb-including diet. You're gonna lose weight pretty fast if you stick to the diet. (duh)

  • Cutting curbs does not preclude the logic of the crazy goverment's advice to avoid fatty foods. Though there may be some physiological benefits to either low-carb or low-fat diets, in terms of overall weight loss, the primary mechanism is the same: calorie control. This isn't a situation where one is (anything but marginally) better than the other.

  • We might expect Dr. Atkins, and every other diet-movement guy out there, to try and spin their particular brand of weight loss strategy as something unique and magical. In fact, it seems the existence of the economics of the self-help universe along with the difficult challenge of losing weight (or staying happy or having a good romantic relationship or being successful in your career, etc.) pretty much guarantees that people are gonna keep coming up with new ways of saying the same thing: Eat less calories (or any of the other basic level advice that leads to the other topics of interest often tackled by the self-help universe), and then putting a picture of themselves wearing a big smile and a lab coat on the cover of their book/website, and pretending to have discovered a Revolution in Weight Loss! that turn all the old-fashioned conventional wisdom on its head.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-12-28T19:15:18.884Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Over time, even a relatively small difference in daily average caloric intake can make a relatively large difference in your body weight. For example, a 100 cals/day decrease will yield a ~10lb body mass decrease per yer.

While that is widely claimed, it is false. Think about it for a minute: do you really think that a decade of such deprivation would kill a light person? The problem is not all the complications of metabolism that people bring up in these posts, but the very basic fact that energy consumption is roughly proportional to body mass. Under that model, a caloric deficit will not lead to linear weight loss nor a surplus to linear weight gain. Instead, the new caloric intake is enough to support a new weight and the difference between the current and new weight decays exponentially. Here is a recent model, with some testing; one of the authors is quoted claiming that a 100 Cal/day deficit will lead to a total loss of 10lb, after about 3 years.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-28T22:31:43.316Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for this. It is the first substantive comment I've seen.

I read the NYT article; the other is above my head. Frankly, I don't buy this: "Interestingly, we also found that the fatter you get, the easier it is to gain weight. An extra 10 calories a day puts more weight onto an obese person than on a thinner one."

I think they are observing (primarily) genetically slow metabolisms.

I'd agree that the 3500 calorie = 1lb of weight loss is not linear because 100 pound people don't disappear in 10 years. Conventional wisdom says that metabolism will adjust to a 100 cal deficit so that one would need to reduce cals more with time In order to achieve the same result. OR they would need to add exercise, which is also conventional wisdom.

Would you agree that this: "An extra 10 calories a day puts more weight onto an obese person than on a thinner one." is because they are looking at people with genetic abnormalities?

comment by drethelin · 2013-12-30T09:42:30.686Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

genetic abnormalities implies it's not a giant fraction of the population. I think it's very likely that either because of historic population genetics or possibly gut flora biomes that different people simply will gain different amounts of weight from the same food over the course of their lives.

comment by Dentin · 2013-12-29T21:09:43.230Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Downvoted. You understood what was meant, yet chose to 'win the argument' instead of helping correct the wording to make it easier for others to understand.

Example of proper clarification:

"Over time, consuming fewer calories than you burn can make a relatively large difference in your body weight. For example, consuming 100 cals/day less than you burn will yield a ~10 lb body mass decrease per year."

And yes, this is quite sufficient to kill most people within ten years.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-12-29T21:17:08.577Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If your objective is to try and provide people with the lowest hanging heuristic for how to avoid unwanted weight gain, avoiding high fat foods is a pretty good candidate, since fat has the highest caloric content per gram (9) when compared to protiens and carbs (4). This appears to be the traditional view that the crazy government is trying to shove down our throats, so to speak.

As a historical claim, I believe that this is false. The opposition to consuming fat is primarily about correlation with heart disease. Certainly none of the examples of government advice in this post are about weight loss.

Along come the carb-cutting people. My hypothesis is that the general rationale for this movement was the recognition that the average American diet was made up of some huge % of carbs (>50% of caloric intake) and so the simple math of avoiding carbs, even if you upped your fat intake, would ensure your daily average caloric intake went down.

They wrote down their reasons and this certainly isn't any of reasons that Atkins gives.

comment by brazil84 · 2013-12-28T08:24:02.240Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

If your objective is to try and provide people with the lowest hanging heuristic for how to avoid unwanted weight gain, avoiding high fat foods is a pretty good candidate, since fat has the highest caloric content per gram (9) when compared to protiens and carbs (4). This appears to be the traditional view that the crazy government is trying to shove down our throats, so to speak.

Seems to me that this strategy is vulnerable to munchkinism (haha) by the food industry. Which sells "low fat" this and "reduced fat" that. Although fat content used to be a pretty good proxy for unhealthy food, it may be only a proxy.

comment by Randy_M · 2013-12-30T17:21:58.970Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Although fat content used to be a pretty good proxy for unhealthy food" examples? Do you mean used to as in the 1980s or used to as in the 1880s?

comment by brazil84 · 2013-12-30T18:14:10.333Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

examples?

Doughnuts, french fries, ice cream

Do you mean used to as in the 1980s or used to as in the 1880s?

1980s

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-31T13:00:37.690Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What's unhealthy about ice cream (assuming you're not lactose-intolerant)?

comment by Randy_M · 2013-12-31T17:19:37.863Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The fat, which is debatable, the sugar, which may also debated, and the ability to eat quart of it without being hungry.

comment by brazil84 · 2013-12-31T19:33:58.729Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What's unhealthy about ice cream (assuming you're not lactose-intolerant)?

Basically it tastes too good. There is something about foods which taste really good which (for many people) messes up their internal system for eating urges. This is my lay conclusion, resulting from nearly 2 years of informal research into obesity and diet.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T17:43:39.300Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with the rest of your comment, but:

fat has the highest caloric content per gram (9)

Why is “per gram” the relevant metric? It should be something more like “per unit ‘satiating power’” (to the extent that such a thing can be defined). If drinking a half-litre bottle of Coke doesn't make me less hungry than before¹ but eating a cone of ice cream makes me feel full, if I want to reduce my calorie intake it makes more sense to forgo the former even if it weighs several times as much.


  1. Other than due to the water, CO2, and caffeine, which I could also get from a bottle of sparkling water and a shot of espresso.
comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-30T19:24:53.335Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That makes sense. I think calories per gram is a reasonably good metric, but there are probably much better ones.

I think the principle still holds: low fat or low carb diets work (when they do) because it is a simple way to help a consumer modify their diet using the lowest hanging fruit based on some reasonable logic (i.e. cut fat 'cuz generally high calories, or cut carbs cuz' Americans generally eat lots of them). You don't have to think about it, and once you form the habit, it's relatively easy to stick to.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-29T01:35:33.950Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If your objective is to try and provide people with the lowest hanging heuristic for how to avoid unwanted weight gain, avoiding high fat foods is a pretty good candidate, since fat has the highest caloric content per gram (9) when compared to protiens and carbs (4). This appears to be the traditional view that the crazy government is trying to shove down our throats, so to speak.

This assumes that the average person can meaningful succeed in his attempt to eat less and beat his hunger. What people eat has a lot to do with the desires of the body for food and if you starve a body of fat that has consequences.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-29T02:42:24.208Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

if you starve a body of fat that has consequences.

Such as? And if you just lower the fat intake?

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-29T13:08:48.706Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hunger. Jojo dieting is a huge failure mode.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-12-29T20:57:10.463Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The German word "jo-jo" corresponds to the English word "yo-yo."

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-29T20:59:58.625Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. Those words that sound the same way but are spelled differently lend themselves to mistakes.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-29T16:09:34.215Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

This is the crux of it: If you wanna weigh less, you gotta eat less.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-29T17:55:48.929Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Tell a person who"s 1.60 meter tall and who wants to be taller: If you want to be taller you need to grow more.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T17:54:41.414Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But there are adults who've lost a sizeable fraction of their body weight without any surgery, whereas hardly anybody grows taller.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-29T19:50:09.435Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Oh my god.

As I've said, losing weight is much more complex than just eating less... but the center of the issue is calorie control.

This is an issue where I think LW has collectively lost its mind.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-29T19:58:45.872Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

As I've said, losing weight is much more complex than just eating less... but the center of the issue is calorie control.

Mainstream health advice with is centered around that maxim has failed to provide people who want to lose weight with a way that performs well.

What kind of evidence makes you think that a nutrition strategy should be centered around that maxim?

comment by Brillyant · 2013-12-29T20:03:20.240Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You'll have to restate this.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-29T20:49:18.149Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

If you look at a modern home you can see that the surface area of heating equipment is important for a warm home. You could run and tell people who want warmer homes to increase that surface area.

In reality a much better advice is to turn the thermostat. You can be right about some parts but still miss the point.

There are multiple ways you can theoretically approach weight loss.

I think that calorie control is a center piece of the mainstream view.

As far as I can see preaching calorie control is not effective.

Gary Taubes focuses on reducing eating carbohydrates that raise insulin.

Another approach would be Seth Roberts set point frame. If you follow it than you give people nose clips and let them drink a bit of oil.

There are people who practice hypnosis who also operate on the set point model.

There are people who tell you that the key is about starting to listen to your body and perceive signals from it that most people ignore.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2013-12-29T21:00:38.731Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

There seems to be an anti-pattern for certain kinds of problems that involve one's habits, lifestyle, or emotions. The anti-pattern is that many people who do not experience the problem claim that the problem is easily solvable; whereas many people who do experience the problem claim that it is not easily solved.

People who have previously experienced the problem may fall into either category; whether they do seems to have something to do with how much continuity (or compassion?) they feel between their current self and their problem-having past self; or whether they have retained awareness of the specific transitions involved in solving the problem. (Kinda like some of the difficulties moridinamael recently pointed out regarding programming tutorials. Just because you've achieved X does not automatically make you a good guide for others who want to achieve X.)

This seems related to one of the things that folks who use the word "privilege" mean by it sometimes. We can probably come up with some less politically charged word for this specific anti-pattern, though.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-29T21:26:30.814Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that personal experience with the problem of wanting to lose weight is the only factor.

This is also a tribal conflict of academia vs. internet wisdom.

Stop eating so much carbohydrates isn't much more complex than, saying eat less calories.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2013-12-29T21:30:14.052Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Good point. It seems pretty common for people who study social phenomena — even heavily moralized ones, like crime — to have more compassion for the people involved in them than the "conventional wisdom" does.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T17:59:06.895Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Mainstream health advice with is centered around that maxim has failed to provide people who want to lose weight with a way that performs well.

Dunno if it's not mainstream enough for you, but FWIW as of now the average rating of The Hacker's Diet on Goodreads is 3.85 out of 5.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-30T18:47:54.924Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Dunno if it's not mainstream enough for you, but FWIW as of now the average rating of The Hacker's Diet on Goodreads is 3.85 out of 5.

I don't think that the Hacker"s diet is a mainstream work. It"s not written by a nutrition professor or by a government health agency but by a tech CEO.

the average rating of The Hacker's Diet on Goodreads is 3.85 out of 5.

I don't think that says much. The number also happens to be lower than Gary Taubnes Good Calories, Bad Calories.

As far as the Hackers diet itself goes, it preaches to measure weight with moving averages and make decisions based on that measurement.

As far as I know you can't even buy a scale that does moving averages automatically that's how non-mainstream the recommendations of the hackers diet happens to be.

I think if you ask most mainstream health folks what they think about moving averages for weight measurements they have no idea what you are talking about.

In a world where studies indicate that people who weight themselves daily lose more weight, a lot of mainstream health advice recommends against daily weighting to avoid negative emotions associated with seeing your weight.

I see nobody funding a study to see whether a scale that measures someone weight and then gives them the moving average performs against a scale that just tells people their weight directly.

Mainstream nutrition researchers focus to much on food to investigate theories like that.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T19:01:15.768Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

you can't even buy a scale that does moving averages automatically

You can, but AFAICT it costs about an order of magnitude more than one that doesn't.
comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-30T19:09:53.346Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't own one, so I can't be certain.

However I don't see in the page that you linked that Withings can be setup in a way that it never tells you your weight at a particular point in time but only displays the moving average when you step on it.

I would add that once you get rid of the idea that the body scale should display directly what it measures, you can also do things like menstrual cycle controlled weight for woman.

You could also think about simply display the difference between your weight and preset target wait for a particular day. There are plenty of different possibilities to display that information and in a sane world we would compare those difference and run studies to see which way of displaying the information actually encourages humans to make decisions that move them towards their target weight.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2013-12-30T22:00:04.858Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's an awfully specific use mode you ask for. A common mode of use of these scales, which I think is a better choice, is not to look at the display at all, perhaps even covering it. Collecting data should be a habit separate from analyzing data. And when you do analyze data, you don't just want the current point estimate, but the graph of history.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-30T22:56:08.043Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Collecting data should be a habit separate from analyzing data.

You might be right or you might be wrong. In a sane world someone would run a study to give us data to answer that question.

But we don't live in a sane world. Our mainstream nutrition researchers are not interested in answering that question. They rather fund huge studies that gather self reported eating reports and try to interpret those self reported eating reports to tell us that we should eat certain food over other food.

That's an awfully specific use mode you ask for.

I'm asking a companies who are in the business of scale production to think about optimal data presentation.

I would want a company like Withings to either make the display fully programmable. Furthermore I would want them to run a study about which way of displaying data is best.

Scientific trial setup:

2000 trial Withings. They get sold with a rabate. Each user who gets them agrees to the trial and that the weight data of the trial is allowed to be published afterwards anonymously.

There are 10 different scales modes. In the first two years of using the scale the user will be logged into the scale mode that supposed to be tested.

After a year is up you go and analyse the data. Which information display was best suited for helping people lose weight? You go and publish that information in a good journal.

Then you go and tell newspaper journalists about your new study which shows that measuring weight in a certain way helps people lose weight. Coincidentally the way to have a scale that displays weight that way you have to go out and by a Withings.

That story is good in the sense that newspaper journalists would probably be happy to write about it.

I would even do a bit of the PR work myself when I do the next QS media interview (I have done >10 in the past).

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-31T13:27:17.491Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I would add that once you get rid of the idea that the body scale should display directly what it measures, you can also do things like menstrual cycle controlled weight for woman.

(Another idea along those lines I once had was controlling for days of the week, as many people eat more on weekends than on weekdays. But the more parameters the model has the more likely overfitting becomes.)

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-12-31T16:39:03.130Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Another idea along those lines I once had was controlling for days of the week, as many people eat more on weekends than on weekdays.

If you make 7 day rolling averages you already remove that effect. In any case from the weight charts that I personally looked at that effect doesn't seem that big. Day to day changes in water content seem to produce more noise.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-12-31T02:14:44.854Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If one wants to get simplistic, saying "calorie control" is horribly wrong as a first approximation.

It's calories versus metabolism. That at least recognizes a trade off, instead of picturing calorie control as a single unopposed knob to tune your weight.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-29T21:58:49.646Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

And yet there are people who can eat a lot without gaining weight.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-28T03:47:57.288Z · score: -5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

If your objective is to try and provide people with the lowest hanging heuristic for how to avoid unwanted weight gain, avoiding high fat foods is a pretty good candidate, since fat has the highest caloric content per gram (9) when compared to protiens and carbs (4). This appears to be the traditional view that the crazy government is trying to shove down our throats, so to speak.

This doesn't explain why the government put starches at the bottom of the pyramid, thus encouraging people to eat as many of them as possible.

comment by EHeller · 2013-12-28T04:27:43.176Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you follow the food pyramid your combined vegetable and fruits should almost equal your starch consumption. Thats not "as much starch as possible."

For dinner, a 4 oz steak, 6 asparagus spears, a cup of rice and a beer, with an orange for dessert fits the food pyramid and with the exception of the beer, would probably be something paleo people would also eat.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-29T21:56:25.986Z · score: -1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, replace "as many of them as possible" with "a lot of them", my point still stands.

comment by EHeller · 2013-12-29T22:10:25.501Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, replace "as many of them as possible" with "a lot of them", my point still stands.

A lot is relative- one more serving of starch a day then your combined fruit and vegetable servings. I know paleos that eat enough rice to be (inadvertently) eating the food pyramid recommendations.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-30T21:11:27.588Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I was responding to Brillyant's claim:

If your objective is to try and provide people with the lowest hanging heuristic for how to avoid unwanted weight gain, avoiding high fat foods is a pretty good candidate, since fat has the highest caloric content per gram (9) when compared to protiens and carbs (4). This appears to be the traditional view that the crazy government is trying to shove down our throats, so to speak

And pointing out that if this were the motivation, they wouldn't have put starches at the bottom.

comment by EHeller · 2013-12-30T23:31:18.096Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why not? The pyramid says basically "avoid added fats and sugars", and then suggests a diet thats 4 servings of meat and cheese, 5 servings of fruit and vegetables and six servings of starches.

I don't see how this contradicts Brillyant.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-31T21:14:19.788Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If their motivation for telling people to avoid fats was simple that fats are highly caloric, one would expect them to not tell people that they should eat a lot of starch, which by the way was up to 11 servings (not just 6 servings).

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T17:48:17.145Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have a particular explanation in mind for why they did?

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-12-30T21:08:35.851Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Well, one explanation I've heard blames the farm lobby.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-30T22:04:02.253Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It does look like they are quite powerful, but OTOH it's not obvious to me why people eating grains benefit farmers more than people eating meat.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-12-31T12:04:53.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The farm lobby might not include all farmers equally-- grain farmers might have more of an edge.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-31T12:17:48.003Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, a large fraction of the grains grown in the US is fed to livestock, so you'd have to be thinking about something more specific than “grain farmers”.

comment by James_Miller · 2013-12-27T19:25:59.578Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

If this were true we would expect hunter-gatherers eating their traditional diets to become fat if they have had plenty of food for, say, the last seven years. Yet from what I understand hunter-gatherers eating their traditional diets never get fat.

comment by brazil84 · 2013-12-28T08:34:49.368Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If this were true we would expect hunter-gatherers eating their traditional diets to become fat if they have had plenty of food for, say, the last seven years.

I don't know a lot about hunter gatherers, but it occurs to me that "plenty of food" for a hunter gatherer might be very different from "plenty of food" for your typical Westerner.

In a typical American city, you can walk a a couple hundred feet and buy extremely tasty food equal to half your day's caloric requirements for an amount of money a typical person could earn in 10 or 15 minutes. So the cost of food, in terms of time, mental and physical exertion, inconvenience, etc., is extremely low for your typical Westerner. Even if you live in the sticks, it costs very little in terms of money and exertion to get in your car and hit the drive-thru window at MacDonalds.

For a hunter-gatherers, I doubt it's anywhere near that easy to eat -- even in times of plenty.

comment by private_messaging · 2013-12-27T19:57:15.181Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yet from what I understand hunter-gatherers eating their traditional diets never get fat.

Would be awfully hard to check if that's even true for temperate climates. Furthermore, having to go through the trouble of hunting your food adds a negative feedback (the heavier you are the harder it is to hunt).

edit: also, in what conditions would ancestral populations get fat? Getting fat may look like a disorder, but it is a complicated biological process that is not going to be preserved if it has no use.

edit2: also, there's a lot of variation between contemporary populations, e.g. between east Europe and US & west Europe. The key thing is that, well, east is poorer, and if you're gaining weight that means you can save some money on food (yay, good news). Perhaps rather than looking into paleolithic, where there's not much evidence for much anything, we can just look at contemporary populations.

comment by 9eB1 · 2013-12-28T17:11:33.457Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Would be awfully hard to check if that's even true for temperate climates.

This is a random link that shows the the extent of study that has gone into the question of hunter-gatherers, a study of the diets of 229 hunter-gatherer societies, none of which had the "diseases of civilization" which basically means obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.

Relevant to the current discussion, there were several hunter-gatherer societies without obesity that have nonetheless consumed a large percentage of their calories from carbohydrates. An often noted example is the !Kung who got 67% of their calories from plants, and 50% of that from a single source (the mongongo nut) which is plentiful year-round, and yet they are still not obese (this is in a subtropical climate).

Hayden (3) stated that hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung might live in conditions close to the “ideal” hunting and gathering environment. What do the !Kung eat? Animal foods are estimated to contribute 33% and plant foods 67% of their daily energy intakes (1). Fifty percent (by wt) of their plant-based diet comes from the mongongo nut, which is available throughout the year in massive quantities (1).

comment by private_messaging · 2013-12-30T17:34:51.437Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, what's up with this fascination with hunters-gatherers and other such exotics? Look at the epidemiology of obesity . The difference is even more dramatic through the time (if you go back 30 years).

Sorry, this recent problem has absolutely nothing to do with dietary changes thousands years in the past (guess what, I just drank some liquid that would make any of those hunter gatherers puke and have a diarrhoea. I can drink this liquid because enough evolution has happened), and everything to do with changes in the past 30 years. Basically same foods, larger amounts, cultural changes (more acceptance of obesity perhaps).

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-12-30T19:31:17.564Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sure there isn't more acceptance of obesity.

Theories I consider more plausible: larger portions, more dieting (rebound effect, including in children and grandchildren of female dieters), higher proportion of simple carbs, prescription drugs which cause weight gain, changes in gut bacteria, less sleep.

comment by private_messaging · 2013-12-30T20:11:50.109Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sure there isn't more acceptance of obesity.

I'd think at very least people accept themselves being overweight more when there are other people with that condition.

I agree with the theories except the rebound from dieting, while intuitively sensible, seems empirically dubious - there's been starvation events and/or significant under-eating events (world war 2 related for example), and they didn't seem to rebound like that. Changes in gut bacteria also seem like they should not be relevant. Can't comment on less sleep.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-12-30T20:49:03.416Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sure there isn't more acceptance of obesity.

I'd think at very least people accept themselves being overweight more when there are other people with that condition.

You're guessing.

As far as I can tell, there's more public hatred of fat people than there was forty or fifty years ago-- admittedly there's more public hatred in general.

Worries about being fat are being reported in young children. I don't have a timeline for that, but I don't think it used to be that bad.

As far as I can tell, there being more fat people doesn't lead to more acceptance if practically all of them are blaming themselves for being fat.

So far as rebound from dieting is concerned, you've got a point about starvation events. On the other hand, a lot of people do report gaining about twenty five pounds after each diet, so there may be something new involved.

Recent research is finding that gut bacteria affect how nutrients are absorbed.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-31T12:58:53.483Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I can tell, there's more public hatred of fat people than there was forty or fifty years ago-- admittedly there's more public hatred in general.

Yes, but I've recently read some comment on some blog stating that in the US, even if you tell people you're on a diet, people will often pressure you into eating high-cal stuff “just this once” (IME the same applies to southern Italy, where there indeed are plenty of big people), whereas in Japan you'd be told “weren't you supposed to be on a diet?” and given stern looks by everyone.

So ISTM that in places like southern Italy (and I'd guess the US too, though I've never been there) “you should be thinner” is used much like belief as attire and not decompartmentalized, or else people are expecting you to achieve that by magic (or maybe by fasting whenever in private or something).

comment by hyporational · 2014-01-02T21:48:52.511Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's the first time I'm trying to lose weight and it's amazing how much energy other people are putting into making it take as much willpower as possible. "Just this once" indeed... For some reason people are also trying to convince me that high calorie foods actually don't contain many calories.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-12-31T13:20:15.128Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fat people are also likely to be harassed if they're seen exercising. I think the simplest explanation is that people's beliefs are apt to be incoherent.

comment by Emile · 2013-12-31T14:51:08.495Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

people will often pressure you into eating high-cal stuff “just this once” (IME the same applies to southern Italy, where there indeed are plenty of big people

A map comparing regions of italy will not tell you much about how italy compares to other countries. A brief search:

http://gamapserver.who.int/mapLibrary/Files/Maps/Global_Obesity_BothSexes_2008.png

... shows that Italy seems to have less obesity than most Western nations.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2013-12-31T18:43:12.325Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

... am I trippin', or is Israel missing from that map? There's a scrap of color to the south and a dot near Tel Aviv.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-02T12:19:42.620Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Italy as a whole does (which is another piece of evidence not exactly supporting Taubes, BTW), but some regions in the south have rates of obesity comparable to that of Germany.

(I know, unfair comparison, if you could cherry-pick one region of Germany it'd probably have even more obesity, yadda yadda.)

(Anyway, unless you want to not be obese as a terminal value rather than because of the health effects, comparing the prevalences of CVDs would be more useful than comparing those of obesity. See also the French paradox, which does support Taubes.)

comment by private_messaging · 2014-01-03T09:25:07.517Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Italy as a whole does (which is another piece of evidence not exactly supporting Taubes, BTW),

Exactly. Really, if you look at this map, the less obese regions almost invariably have lower fat/carbs ratio in their common cuisine. Especially the whole of Asia inclusive of Japan.

As of the success of Taubes's diet, this works too . The question which diet is the best for not making you want to over-eat or the easiest to stick with has very little to do with the question of which diet is the most healthy. And the answers to the former question are likely to have more to do with culture, sociology, and psychology, than with metabolism.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-03T09:36:28.832Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As of the success of Taubes's diet, this works too . The question which diet is the best for not making you want to over-eat or the easiest to stick with has very little to do with the question of which diet is the most healthy. And the answers to this question are likely to have more to do with culture, sociology, and psychology, than with metabolism.

In particular, I'd expect the Twinkie diet to work wonders if the main reason you eat a lot is out of boredom or nervousness, rather than actual hunger.

comment by private_messaging · 2014-01-03T20:27:04.922Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Or simply because carbohydrates are generally more satiating than fats .

The thing about Taubes, is that he's writing for the mainstream audience - i.e. people who have no independent knowledge of the topic besides what Taubes chooses to tell them.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-04T13:23:40.959Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GWIt doesn't seem to me they've tried to distinguish different types of carbs -- as far as I can tell they didn't rule out (e.g.) starch being more satiating than fats but fats being more satiating than sugar.
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-01-04T20:03:54.034Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's the wrong nitpick, but you shouldn't dismiss it as just a nitpick. One interpretation is that the issue is fiber, not starch vs sugar. The abstract does mention that glycemic index is a useful axis to consider, but it also generalizes to all carbs, which is silly.

comment by private_messaging · 2014-01-04T13:26:36.012Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, it's part of the mainstream that you shouldn't be getting significant fraction of your dietary intake from sugar, right?

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-04T16:05:19.101Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was just nitpicking, not defending Taubes. I'm editing the grandparent to make it clearer.

comment by private_messaging · 2014-01-04T16:11:58.429Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Nah, I was genuinely wondering. I'm not in the US, I don't know if you guys have had a mainstream opinion that excessive drinking of coca cola is absolutely fine, or some other ridiculous heresy like that. (I suspect not, but then Taubes acts as if yes. I don't think even regular people ever thought that sugars were totally ok and couldn't make you fat)

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-04T16:42:20.396Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not in the US

Neither am I.

I don't know if you guys have had a mainstream opinion that excessive drinking of coca cola is absolutely fine, or some other ridiculous heresy like that. (I suspect not, but then Taubes acts as if yes. I don't think even regular people ever thought that sugars were totally ok and couldn't make you fat)

The OP asked the same question here.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-12T11:12:06.430Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Exactly. Really, if you look at this map, the less obese regions almost invariably have lower fat/carbs ratio in their common cuisine. Especially the whole of Asia inclusive of Japan.

I'd be wary of generalizing results across genetically different populations, though -- for example, a diet with plenty of dairy and wine seems to be fine for Caucasians but I wouldn't recommend it to East Asians.

comment by private_messaging · 2013-12-30T21:31:50.033Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It would be hard to measure how the attitudes changed. In general the more people have a condition, the less having that condition makes you stand out, the less does conformity drive you to avoid that condition. Furthermore it would seem to me that "self blame is bad" is a relatively recent idea, as well as blaming everything on metabolic disorders...

Not that those don't play a role. Obviously someone with low levels of certain thyroid hormones will have to ignore hunger more than someone with high levels.

Recent research is finding that gut bacteria affect how nutrients are absorbed.

Human digestion is already very efficient... potential gains due to some different bacteria should be insignificant (and would generally be a good thing, i.e. being able to live on less food is good).

So far as rebound from dieting is concerned, you've got a point about starvation events. On the other hand, a lot of people do report gaining about twenty five pounds after each diet, so there may be something new involved.

Yeah, I dunno. There's definitely something wrong about discontinuity in response to a smoothly changing variable.

edit: an observation, traditionally we'd eat a lot of soups - e.g. borscht, etc. Those are low calorie foods that make you feel full. Now, if you go to a fast food place, or even in a restaurant, there's literally nothing which is low calorie but makes you feel full. Obviously, if you eat the volume of french fries equivalent to the volume of borscht, you're going to be over-eating. West also used to start eating with a soup.

comment by private_messaging · 2013-12-28T18:28:04.856Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The point is that energy storage in body fats is normal. Of course in hunter gatherers, there's a multitude of negative feedback mechanisms (e.g. you can't hunt when you're too fat), which presumably can interrupt the weight gain well before it reaches gargantuan proportions (i.e. "obese" BMI).

Ultimately, if you consume a little bit more calories than you spend, you gain weight little by little, and if that goes unchecked, over the years you will get severely overweight, obese, and so on.

edit: albeit maybe the food is to blame as well - it could be that the foods ended up engineered to be enjoyable at lower levels of hunger.

comment by Randy_M · 2013-12-30T17:05:20.318Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It is orthogonal to your topic (Taubes and Obesity) but I think the more interesting case is the one linking saturated fat to heart disease.

There's a recent book called Death By Food Pyramid I found very interesting that discussed the evolution of dietary guidelines in the US and the reliabilty of the studies they were based on that I would like to see discussed here as well.