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Akrasia and Shangri-La

37 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 08:53PM

Continuation ofThe Unfinished Mystery of the Shangri-La Diet

My post about the Shangri-La Diet is there to make a point about akrasia.  It's not just an excuse: people really are different and what works for one person sometimes doesn't work for another.

You can never be sure in the realm of the mind... but out in material foodland, I know that I was, in fact, drinking extra-light olive oil in the fashion prescribed.  There is no reason within Roberts's theory why it shouldn't have worked.

Which just means Roberts's theory is incomplete.  In the complicated mess that is the human metabolism there is something else that needs to be considered.  (My guess would be "something to do with insulin".)

But if the actions needed to implement the Shangri-La Diet weren't so simple and verifiable... if some of them took place within the mind... if it took, not a metabolic trick, but willpower to get to that amazing state where dieting comes effortlessly and you can lose 30 pounds...

Then when the Shangri-La Diet didn't work, we unfortunate exceptions would get yelled at for doing it wrong and not having enough willpower.  Roberts already seems to think that his diet ought to work for everyone; when someone says it's not working, Roberts tells them to drink more extra-light olive oil or try a slightly different variant of the diet, rather than saying, "This doesn't work for some people and I don't know why."

If the failure had occurred somewhere inside the dark recesses of my mind where it could be blamed on me, rather than within my metabolism...

If Roberts's hypothesis is correct, then I'm sure that plenty of people have made some dietary change, started losing weight due to the disrupted flavor-calorie association, and congratulated themselves on their wonderful willpower for eating less.  When I moved out of my parents' home and started eating less and exercising and losing more than a pound a week, you can bet I was congratulating myself on my amazing willpower.

Hah.  No, I just stumbled onto a metabolic pot of gold that let me lose a lot of weight using a sustainable expenditure of willpower.  When that pot of gold was exhausted, willpower ceased to avail.

(The metabolically privileged don't believe in metabolic privilege, since they are able to lose weight by trying! harder! to diet and exercise, and the diet and exercise actually work the way they're supposed to... I remember the nine-month period in my life where that was true.)

When I look at the current state of the art in fighting akrasia, I see the same sort of mess.

People try all sorts of crazy things—and as in dieting, there's secretly a general reason why any crazy thing might seem to work: if you expect to win an internal conflict, you've already programmed yourself to do the right thing because you expect that to be your action; it takes less willpower to win an internal conflict you expect to win.

And people make up all sorts of fantastic stories to explain why their tricks worked for them.

But their tricks don't work for everyone—some others report success, some don't.  The inventors do not know the deep generalizations that would tell them why and who, explain the rule and the exception.  But the stories the inventors have created to explain their own successes, naturally praise their own willpower and other virtues, and contain no element of luck... and so they exhort others:  Try harder!  You're doing it wrong!

There is a place in the mind for willpower.  Don't get me wrong, it's useful stuff.  But people who assign their successes to willpower—who congratulate themselves on their stern characters—may be a tad reluctant to appreciate just how much you can be privileged or disprivileged by having a mental metabolism where expending willpower is effective, where you can achieve encouraging results, at an acceptable cost to yourself, and sustain the effort in the long run.

 

Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community

Next post: "Collective Apathy and the Internet"

Previous post: "Beware of Other-Optimizing"

Comments (91)

Comment author: Jordan 12 April 2009 08:19:06AM 9 points [-]

I've got a slew of digestion issues and some metabolic problems (first ulcer at age 13). Pertinent info I've learned:

1) Diarrhea is a hell of a way to lose weight.

2) Treating your diet like a controlled scientific experiment does wonders. For about a year I never at more than 2 - 4 ingredients per meal (an ingredient being a single, unprocessed, whole food). That was a tough year, and my diet remains restricted due to what I learned, but the health I've earned is invaluable. What helps me is to think of food as a source of fuel, not pleasure.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 October 2012 08:54:12PM 1 point [-]

Treating your diet like a controlled scientific experiment does wonders.

Suggested reading: The Hacker's Diet by John Walker.

Comment author: loqi 10 April 2009 10:26:52PM 9 points [-]

The metabolically privileged don't believe in metabolic privilege, since they are able to lose weight by trying!

I, for one, believe in metabolic privilege. There is enormous variance in the human metabolism. I am six feet tall, I have (in the past) consistently eaten over 3,000 calories a day, rarely eat less than 2,000, engage in an irrationally miniscule amount of exercise, and have not tipped past 135 pounds in ten years.

Comment author: mattnewport 10 April 2009 10:38:35PM *  2 points [-]

Without denying that metabolic privilege may be real, this is hardly sufficient evidence to convince the less wrong crowd of its existence. An alternative theory: some people naturally favour foods that cause less weight gain for their caloric value (the fact that such foods exist is the basic thesis behind many modern diets, see e.g. Good Calories, Bad Calories for an overview and copious references to relevant research).

To establish the existence of 'metabolic privilege' would require some fairly large scale and difficult medical research. I imagine there is some existing research indicating e.g. a genetic link to weight gain based on twin studies but even that could also be explained by the theory above assuming food preferences are also heritable.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 11:25:18PM 8 points [-]

Children who overeat as kids have twice as many fat cells (large or small) for the rest of their life.

Comment author: mytyde 26 September 2012 04:13:55AM *  7 points [-]

People who grew up in Nazi-occupied countries who were malnourished as children also developed astoundingly high obesity rates as adults. From the evidence I've seen, genetics is over-emphasized as the missing factor in almost every medical theory before enough is known to know better. While income correlates with obesity, it does not explain the physiological mechanism through which poorer people (relative wealth may seem to mean much more than absolute wealth, interestingly) have a much harder time staying healthy.

It seems much more plausible that both semi-adaptable epigenomic variation and multi-generational lifestyle adaptions play bigger roles in generating familial and social trends of obesity. The nutrition, gut health, and overall health of BOTH parents contributes to the making of a child, and the mother's health strongly affects it from then until birth, after which point colostrum and then breast milk will continue to play a direct parent-to-child role in the young one's development.

Though there is no conclusive research that I'm aware of, it is probable that children establish certain growth limitations based on signals about nutrient availability received directly from their parents during conception and then from the mother during pregnancy and breastfeeding (variances of conveyed gut flora could be the mechanism here). Then, lifestyle and its epigenomic effects as normalized during childhood continues to play probably the same-seeming role since parents will tend to feed their children the same things they eat.

Anthropologically, going back a mere few hundred years there were no cultures anywhere in the world suffering obesity epidemics, so it doesn't make sense to attribute variance too strongly to genetics. Historically, humans have survived healthfully on almost any combination of macronutrients while the main variant between healthy civilizations seems to have been micronutrients. Since studies generally don't account in any fashion for idiosyncratic in-utero environment or for epigenetic variations among individuals, it could turn out that a vast amount of nutritional research is entirely worthless. E.g. clinical studies of nutrition among populations could depend entirely on sociological factors about the last generation's diet than about the objective value of macro-nutrients (which, in my opinion, should never be claimed as the object of a study as if removed from the context of the foods they are a part of).

The father's health can play a role after conception as well since beneficial gut bacteria, in the least, can be transferred through saliva & sex. Additionally, since these gut bacteria build up multi-generationally, it could be that antibiotic treatment seriously impairs the functioning of newborns, especially if they don't have probiotic sources in their diet (the best of which is breastmilk from a biotics-rich mother!).

-med student

Comment author: ryleah 13 March 2014 05:00:55PM 0 points [-]

If parental health plays a role in this I would be interested in seeing if there's a correlation between parental vaccination and obesity.

Comment author: brazil84 07 October 2013 12:33:36PM 2 points [-]

Children who overeat as kids have twice as many fat cells (large or small) for the rest of their life.

While I accept that this is literally true, I am very skeptical of the connotation -- that greater numbers of fat cells is the mechanism responsible for the difficulty in losing weight and maintaining weight loss.

The hypothesis makes sense, since fat people who lose weight still have a lot of fat cells. But if it were true, one would expect that surgical removal of fat cells would have a significant positive impact on obesity. A couple studies have been done on this issue; I can try to find them if you like. There was not a significant positive impact.

So the inference is that (1) large numbers of fat cells; and (2) difficulty in losing weight and maintaining weight loss, are both the result of a third factor.

Comment author: mattnewport 11 April 2009 12:04:44AM 3 points [-]

'Good Calories, Bad Calories' covers much of the research related to 'Syndrome X'/Metabolic Syndrome. Some research seems to indicate that consumption of high glycemic index foods over an extended period can cause permanent damaging metabolic changes.

I think it is slightly misleading to equate damage to the metabolic system due to historical factors with a more general claim that healthy metabolisms vary widely however. The presence of Type 2 Diabetes is clearly a very relevant data point to be aware of when advising on diet and would lead to different advice than to a 'normal' healthy individual. I think the same is likely true of other types of metabolic damage that may have occurred in the past. Of course given the current state of understanding of the biology underlying all this it's difficult to find unambiguous answers.

Comment author: badger 11 April 2009 12:21:25AM *  8 points [-]

Of any area that is fraught with bad advice and poor thinking, it has to be nutrition. Because of the emotions tied up in body image, I think it may even surpass politics as a mindkiller.

As far as anecdotal evidence goes, I've always been very thin, but my wife has struggled with multiple diets. She tried Shangri-La at my suggestion, and experienced the appetite suppression, but with no weight change. That seems even stranger for Roberts's theory than it just not working.

Diet is heavily moralized, and advice often boils down to "try harder and it will work, otherwise it is your fault". It may be the case that the only existing way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, but I'm beginning to doubt it.

Thermodynamically, it has to be the case that "calories in - calories out = calories stored", but that equation says nothing about causality. The standard advice assumes that the left side determines the right side, but there is no clear reason why that should be the case. Gary Taubes [1] [2] makes a fairly convincing case that the causality tends to go in the reverse direction. He argues that weight loss is a lot more effective if you change your metabolism, and your body will adjust your hunger and energy levels to compensate.

I'm not entirely sure I buy Taubes, but he's made me strongly doubt the standard story. If the best weight loss program is one that tries to influence metabolism, you should cut carbs, eat small frequent meals, eat a greater variety of food, include flavorless calories ala Shangri La, avoid sweet calorie-free food, and exercise moderately, but not heavily. Under this story, if you are hungry, you're doing something wrong because that means your body is trying to store more fat.

I just want to emphasize again that I'm not speaking with certainty, but the Taubes hypothesis definitely needs more consideration.

Addendum: Noticed Taubes's book Good Calories, Bad Calories was mentioned by mattnewport. If someone is very interested, I'd recommend it. It appears very well-researched, but in this case, that translates into a very dry and technical style that I had trouble staying interested in.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 12:33:56AM 0 points [-]

She tried Shangri-La at my suggestion, and experienced the appetite suppression, but with no weight change. That seems even stranger for Roberts's theory than it just not working.

This is indeed peculiar. For how long did she attempt the diet, if I may ask?

Comment author: badger 11 April 2009 01:16:47AM 0 points [-]

Around two months. She is trying it out again, but this time in conjunction with another diet because even appetite suppression alone is helpful.

Comment author: simon 10 April 2009 10:20:24PM *  17 points [-]

The metabolically privileged don't believe in metabolic privilege, since they are able to lose weight by trying!

Some of us do believe in it since we are able to stay very thin without trying. I have never dieted and never needed to.

But, we probably don't post very much on diet blogs.

I come from a family of thin people who eat fairly unhealthily but are quite active. When I first stopped living with my parents, I basically stopped exercising and ate even more unhealthily. I became very unfit in the sense of e.g., not being able to run a block without getting out of breath, but gained very little weight. So I figure the causation is probably not mainly exercise -> thinness, but more on the lines of genes -> (thinness & athleticism) or genes -> thinness -> athleticism.

Comment author: mytyde 26 September 2012 04:23:49AM *  8 points [-]

Americans who have grown up in at least moderate financial security have developed astounding rates of obesity. People who grew up in Nazi-occupied countries who were malnourished as children also developed astoundingly high obesity rates as adults. From the evidence I've seen, genetics is over-emphasized as the missing factor in almost every medical theory before enough is known to know better. While income correlates with obesity, it does not explain the physiological mechanism through which poorer people (relative wealth may seem to mean much more than absolute wealth, interestingly) have a much harder time staying healthy.

It seems much more plausible that both semi-adaptable epigenomic variation and multi-generational lifestyle adaptions play bigger roles in generating familial and social trends of obesity. The nutrition, gut health, and overall health of BOTH parents contributes to the making of a child, and the mother's health strongly affects it from then until birth, after which point colostrum and then breast milk will continue to play a direct parent-to-child role in the young one's development.

Though there is no conclusive research that I'm aware of, it is probable that children establish certain growth limitations based on signals about nutrient availability received directly from their parents during conception and then from the mother during pregnancy and breastfeeding (variances of conveyed gut flora could be the mechanism here). Then, lifestyle and its epigenomic effects as normalized during childhood continues to play probably the same-seeming role since parents will tend to feed their children the same things they eat.

Anthropologically, going back a mere few hundred years there were no cultures anywhere in the world suffering obesity epidemics, so it doesn't make sense to attribute variance too strongly to genetics. Historically, humans have survived healthfully on almost any combination of macronutrients while the main variant between healthy civilizations seems to have been micronutrients. Since studies generally don't account in any fashion for idiosyncratic in-utero environment or for epigenetic variations among individuals, it could turn out that a vast amount of nutritional research is entirely worthless. E.g. clinical studies of nutrition among populations could depend entirely on sociological factors about the last generation's diet than about the objective value of macro-nutrients (which, in my opinion, should never be claimed as the object of a study as if removed from the context of the foods they are a part of).

The father's health can play a role after conception as well since beneficial gut bacteria, in the least, can be transferred through saliva & sex. Additionally, since these gut bacteria build up multi-generationally, it could be that antibiotic treatment seriously impairs the functioning of newborns, especially if they don't have probiotic sources in their diet (the best of which is breastmilk from a biotics-rich mother!).

-med student

Comment author: [deleted] 26 September 2012 08:44:37AM *  1 point [-]

So I figure the causation is probably not mainly exercise -> thinness

Which ought to be nearly obvious to anyone who has compared the calorie expenditures of common physical activities with the calorie contents of common foodstuffs. (Yes, increasing muscle mass increases thermogenesis (but so does caffeine) and I personally feel that doing abs help me feel less hungry because they kind of compress my stomach (but so does wearing higher-rise trousers and pulling their belt tighter), but those are second-order effects.)

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 11 April 2009 02:13:14AM *  12 points [-]

Slightly off topic here, but even in cases where it is "just willpower" that a person needs, anecdotal experiences suggest that said willpower is often more easily obtained by strategy than by, um, willpower. For example, I was unable to do much of anything in college, and stressing out about it (which is what I somehow thought "willpower" was; I wasn't very intrapersonally sophisticated) didn't help, and eventually trying to investigate how I worked and how to sort of rewire the relevant skillsets, did help. Similarly, someone I know well yo-yo dieted for a couple decades, literally (though with longish pauses), then used the Beck CBT book to successfully stick to one of those same diets. (I realize willpower of any variety won't help some with healthy weight loss. I don't mean the example like that. It's just interesting that even willpower kind of isn't about willpower.)

Comment author: patrissimo 11 April 2009 01:27:20AM 8 points [-]

Yeah, this is so true.

I think I give some credit for how SLA and ADCR work for me to "willpower", but when I look at my dietary history, it is not one of willpower! I stayed overweight for 2 years before discovering SLA. The difference was a technique that worked, not willpower. And for exercise, I was out of shape for ~5 years until I found a form of exercise (olympic-style weightlifting) that was really fun. My willpower didn't change.

My mind keeps wanting to take credit, but really, these were matters of technique. Although, that perspective leads me to pitch these techniques more, not less!

Comment author: Yvain 10 April 2009 11:43:28PM *  11 points [-]

"There are no outs. Even if someone else would call it an extenuating circumstance and forgive me for giving up, I'll just get it done anyway."

This post and Extenuating Circumstances aren't literally contradictory, but their implications seem to point in opposite directions. I would like to see more discussion of when to apply this mode of thinking and when to apply the Extenuating Circumstances mode of thinking.

Right now I'm interpreting the difference as being that if you really want to lose weight, you shouldn't accept "I have an inconvenient metabolic set point" as an excuse not to do so, but you should realize that it will shift which routes are easier than others and take that into account when planning your best strategy for weight loss. So you might try devote effort to finding some clever trick instead of trying to steamroller ahead with sheer willpower.

Am I on the right track?

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 12 April 2009 01:45:11AM 6 points [-]

This post and "Extenuating Circumstances" aren't literally contradictory [...]

And this is to say nothing of "Shut Up and Do the Impossible"!

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 April 2009 02:27:17AM 13 points [-]

Maybe I'll do a longer reply later... The basic answer is that you can do the impossible but it comes with a price. Burn down every obstacle, sacrifice whatever it takes, devote any amount of time and any amount of energy required? You only get a few shots of that magnitude. Sure, if I made it the one priority in my life and gave up that FAI stuff, I could lose weight.

Comment author: pjeby 12 April 2009 04:02:43AM *  6 points [-]

Sure, if I made it the one priority in my life and gave up that FAI stuff, I could lose weight.

Even if you had to check yourself into a bariatric (is that the right word?) clinic for drugs and doctor's supervision, it's not like they're going ban you from having a computer or visitors.

Even if you had to take time off, how long would it be for?

Have you even asked that question?

What other questions haven't you asked about this yet?

Maybe I'll do a longer reply later...

Don't. You'll be better off not spending more time writing your way into deeper rationalization and justification of an already damaging belief.

My wife went through years of off and on dieting, trying every damn thing that came out and not getting anywhere, and despairing that she'd ever be able to lose the weight. Then, she made a change in her beliefs... and the very next thing she tried -- something she'd previously ruled out as an option -- worked. She's lost over 100 pounds so far, with the most fun and least problems of anything she'd tried before.

The point of which is not that you'll necessarily find something that works that quickly. The point is that what you believe about what's possible or what's wrong with you or what's useful to try, is much more likely to be a FAR greater limiting factor on your ability to lose weight than anything about your metabolism, unless you're actually diabetic or have some sort of diagnosable glandular disorder.

So if you really think you're metabolically challenged, go to a doctor, for goodness' sake. Preferably one that specializes in problem weight-loss cases, who doesn't just prescribe-and-run. Medicine in general may not be all that great, but they do have some cool test equipment. Might as well take advantage. ;-)

(Post-downmod edit: In case there's any confusion, I'm not arguing that beliefs directly affect weight loss; only that beliefs can prevent you from seriously investigating an option that might work for you... especially if that option seems "too hard" or "too much work".)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 April 2009 03:22:41PM 3 points [-]

There are plenty of things I could try with more money. But for this either SIAI needs to be more successful with fundraising or my career as a speaker needs to take off... which I can only help make happen by swapping effort to making more money, which gets us back into that "diverting effort from FAI" business.

Comment author: jscn 13 April 2009 11:38:14PM 3 points [-]

I find it hard to believe that you haven't thought about the following, but you haven't mentioned it so I will. Conventional wisdom says:

1) Being at a healthy weight/having a 'healthy lifestyle' will (accidents and terminal genetic disorders aside) result in you living a longer life. This means more time to work on FAI stuff.

2) Exercise and good diet tend to increase feelings of well being and energy levels. This means better/more effective work on FAI stuff.

Discounting physical health and concentrating on intellectual life seems to me to be a status symbol for many intellectuals. But I would think that spending time and mental energy on physical well being would give larger benefits, in the long term, to one's intellectual endeavours.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 16 February 2013 07:54:02PM 1 point [-]

Burn down every obstacle, sacrifice whatever it takes, devote any amount of time and any amount of energy required? You only get a few shots of that magnitude.

Also, different people get different numbers of such shots, and with different maximum magnitudes.

Comment author: CronoDAS 11 April 2009 02:17:42AM 9 points [-]

I've joked that I've been on "the video game diet" - I would be so absorbed in my video games that I'd skip meals.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 11 April 2009 10:08:51AM 3 points [-]

Rings right to me. When I'm buried deep in research papers, I don't remember to be hungry (doesn't work for thinking, only for reading-guided learning). Though after a day or so of not eating anything, the mind goes noticeably stupider. I understand that the problem for some people is not that they suffer from hunger, and so can't focus on work, but that lack of food weakens then, even if the distracting effect of hunger is lifted by other means.

Comment author: James_Miller 11 April 2009 02:42:46AM 1 point [-]

The video game diet works for me as well.

Comment author: vizikahn 10 April 2009 09:52:37PM 5 points [-]
Comment author: gwern 21 July 2011 03:23:44AM 2 points [-]

Besides that Australian study, see "The Workout Enigma", describing http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20689460

Recently, researchers in Finland made the discovery that some people’s bodies do not respond as expected to weight training, others don’t respond to endurance exercise and, in some lamentable cases, some don’t respond to either. In other words, there are those who just do not become fitter or stronger, no matter what exercise they undertake. To reach this conclusion, the researchers enrolled 175 sedentary adults in a 21-week exercise program. Some lifted weights twice a week. Others jogged or walked. Some did both. Before and after the program, the volunteers’ fitness and muscular strength were assessed. At the end of the 21 weeks, the results, published earlier this year in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, were mixed. In the combined strength-and-endurance-exercise program, the volunteers’ physiological improvement ranged from a negative 8 percent (meaning they became 8 percent less fit) to a positive 42 percent.

...The implications of such wide variety in response are huge. In looking at the population as a whole, writes Jamie Timmons, a professor of systems biology at the Royal Veterinary College in London, in a review article published last month in The Journal of Applied Physiology, the findings suggest that “there will be millions of humans that cannot improve their aerobic capacity or their insulin sensitivity, nor reduce their blood pressure” through standard exercise.

...the actual mechanisms involved are complex, as a recent study by Dr. Timmons and others underscored. In that work, researchers accurately predicted who would respond most to endurance exercise training based on the expression levels of 29 different genes in their muscles before the start of the training. Those 29 genes are not necessarily directly associated with exercise response. They seem to have more to do with the development of new blood vessels in muscles; they may or may not have initiated the response to exercise.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 10 April 2009 10:04:05PM *  1 point [-]

Unsurprising given that most of the effect of exercise is informational, equivalent to twiddling a control knob. Some people have mis-wired controls; for them exercise does no more than just burning a small number of immediate calories.

Comment author: mytyde 30 September 2012 03:50:32AM 0 points [-]

If they don't have the nutritional basis for changing their bodies, they won't. Some people, mostly those suffering from chronic conditions, are actually low in cholesterol

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 September 2012 04:04:50AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer, excuse me if you've already done this, but have you tried doing your own research about what's going on with your metabolism? Everything you've mentioned has been trying other people's ideas about diet and exercise.

Comment author: JoyBoy 13 May 2013 11:41:59AM 1 point [-]

This could have been a good article. Unfortunately, Eliezer falls into the same trap as Robert by implicitly making up his own model (the "metabolic privilege model") which should explain "everything". Whereas some argue that the "non-responders" are lacking willpower, Eliezer argues that they are just metabolically disprivileged. Thus, he explains why the rest does not respond.

But what does it mean to be "metabolically disprivileged"? Is our metabolic system really such a static system?

In science, every model simplifies. Take a look at physics: Quantum Mechanics & Classical Physics do not explain each other yet they aren't wrong. Roberts model simplifies and might be wrong, but it seems to fit better than the "metabolic privilege model" which does not explain anything. He just put a black box called "metabolic privilege" in the room which explains the problem away.

Comment author: brazil84 08 March 2014 10:00:04PM 0 points [-]

But what does it mean to be "metabolically disprivileged"?

That's an interesting question. As far as I can tell, it means that one's fat cells do not respond to energy deficits by releasing energy.

So for example, a morbidly obese person who gets weight loss surgery and loses weight would fall into the category of "metabolically privileged." Because his fat cells are reacting properly to an energy deficit. From the fact that weight loss surgery does generally result in weight loss, at least in the short term among those who survive it, it's reasonable to infer that metabolic disprivilege is pretty rare, even among the obese.

Another question is whether metabolic privilege varies in a quantitative way from person to person. One can imagine that some peoples' fat cells do a great job of compensating for caloric deficits while other peoples' do a worse job. Pretty much everyone reports that weight loss is uncomfortable; perhaps those in the latter group will experience more discomfort.

It's an interesting question, but I'm not sure it's that important. A pretty standard diet entails a deficit of roughly 500 calories per day with an aim of approximately 1 pound a week of fat loss. But if a 500 calorie deficit is unbearable, there's no rule which says you can't dial it down to 300 or 200.

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 February 2011 01:34:58PM *  1 point [-]

Heh. I just started on a slow carb diet. It's been fantastically successful - I lost 8kg in a week (105kg down to 97kg), which is generally considered rather too fast, but I have lots of energy and feel great.

I got it from Four Hour Body, Tim Ferriss' latest magnum opus of, ah, broscience. He applied science to his own body! ... then generalised from himself to everyone else in the world. But the diet's promise was remarkable and it just so happened that I like all the foods he listed for it, so it wouldn't be onerous. And it hasn't been. I don't miss potatoes or rice, I do miss wheat products, but there's the scheduled binge to take care of those.

I posted about my weight loss win on Twitter and promptly got a pile of friends asking about it. I have had to give all the caveats: mostly that it works because I really like the foods in question and the diet was in fact almost no work at all. (Tin of tuna for breakfast, every day? Two tins of chickpeas for lunch, every day? OM NOM NOM.) Also that it's, ah, a bit faddy and broscience-based. YMMV. Etc. That is, warning people off what worked for me but may well be a very bad idea for them.

Lesson learned: when giving "this worked for me", take care to avoid hazards that may lead to other-pessimisation!

Comment author: brazil84 18 October 2012 12:22:14PM 2 points [-]

How are things working out for you 20 months later? I would be very interested to know.

Comment author: drethelin 18 October 2012 05:09:06PM 2 points [-]

When I tried the diet I lost 10-15 pounds reasonably fast and then plateaued after a month or two. I started losing again when I plain cut out carbs on non-cheat days. Also BP coffee and fasting seems to help but I haven't been doing those as long as simple carb-dodging

Comment author: David_Gerard 18 October 2012 04:49:30PM 2 points [-]

Still around 95kg. Still like the food. All is fine :-)

Comment author: brazil84 08 March 2014 11:50:58AM *  1 point [-]

How are things now 3 years later? Are things working out? And if so, have you changed your thinking since the beginning?

Comment author: David_Gerard 09 March 2014 01:52:20PM 3 points [-]

Got thoroughly sick of it by last year, largely gave up. Now I eat it some days, ignore it others. Haven't checked weight lately :-)

Comment author: brazil84 09 March 2014 02:30:32PM 1 point [-]

Thank you for responding . . . I wish I could up-vote your post by about 50 points.

My impression is that when people kvell about their diet success, they tend to be reluctant to update down the road if things don't work out. Leading to a survivorship bias problem. And making it difficult to get a better understanding of how diets run off the rails.

From a meta point of view, there is arguably only one real way to diet successfully, which is to think about all the ways that diets fail and then plan and adopt strategies to deal with those problems.

Comment author: David_Gerard 10 March 2014 08:56:17AM *  0 points [-]

The essential problem remains: humanity's basically solved the food problem, but our genes don't understand this so pack on the fat in preparation for a famine that will never arrive. So all diets are unnatural. Too much food for our health is a great problem to have, though, much better than the previous problem.

Comment author: brazil84 11 March 2014 07:27:50AM 0 points [-]

The essential problem remains: humanity's basically solved the food problem, but our genes don't understand this so pack on the fat in preparation for a famine that will never arrive. So all diets are unnatural

Well that's one essential aspect of the problem. There are other issues too. But I think this point is important in at least one respect: There is an idea out there that there is something wrong with obsessing over one's food intake and weight. Another poster asserted that dieting is a mental disorder.

But given that for a lot of people, System 1 (non-conscious thought) is unable to navigate today's environment successfully, it's not unreasonable to use System 2 (conscious thought) as a substitute. Or even what one might call "System 3" -- conscious thought plus brain extensions such as calendars, food and weight logs, written meal plans, etc.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 11 March 2014 08:46:13AM 0 points [-]

So all diets are unnatural.

I thought the entire point of the paleo diet is that it is natural, er, consonant with the ancestral evolutionary environment?

Comment author: David_Gerard 11 March 2014 10:48:26PM 0 points [-]

So it claims. I believe this is more than slightly disputed.

Comment author: brazil84 18 October 2012 07:25:10PM 1 point [-]

Thank you for responding! I've been doing some informal research into diet and weight loss.

Comment author: mytyde 29 September 2012 03:47:13PM -1 points [-]

That's really neat. How is it that Tim Ferriss could have developed a more effective weightloss system than nutritional experts? If such a claim is indeed true, it would necessarily lead to questioning the basis of nutritional experimentation: is it even built upon a solid enough base to be useful?

Comment author: ianshakil 12 April 2009 07:12:51AM *  1 point [-]

I've suffered from insomnia for as long as I can remember (I'm 25). I've tried every form of medication / therapy / sleep study / sleep hygiene that you could possibly imagine. Just like Eliezer can't lose a pound -- I can't still can't get into a normal / sustainable sleeping pattern. Very frustrating! We have a long way to go.

Comment author: wallowinmaya 19 May 2011 05:55:40PM *  0 points [-]

You should try Melatonin. I've suffered from insomnia for 2 years. Sine I'm taking Melatonin, booom, my insomnia is gone! TRY IT!

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 09:14:10PM *  0 points [-]

The whole business is an unbelievable nightmare realm. I'm slightly underweight, but I've watched several people close to me go though all sorts of struggles with it, and I can understand how much everyone wants to be the one who's going to deliver the secret that can help all these people achieve what they want.

On the engineering level, only one fact matters: change in energy stored equals energy consumed minus energy expended (as The Hacker's Diet observes). But acting on that equation looks like the hardest thing in the world. Did you read "Breakdown of Will"? His explanation of why in some ways dieting is harder than kicking heroin made sense to me, though I don't think much in that book besides the fact of hyperbolic discounting is empirically verified.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 09:16:31PM 21 points [-]

On the engineering level, only one fact matters: change in energy stored equals energy consumed minus energy expended

Bullshit.

There's a hundred factors being identified that e.g. control how fast energy gets sucked up by fat cells leaving you weak and still hungry, versus how long energy is left available in the bloodstream leaving you feel strong and ready for running. Or e.g. how much nutrient that passes into your mouth is absorbed in the intestinal tract. Or e.g. when exercise creates new lean muscle that burns more calories on its own.

The fact that change in fat equals fat stored minus fat consumed is technically true but useless: I deny its connotations. The idea that the calories you take in through your mouth are the "input" and that the exercise you do to burn them is "output" and that the balance between the two is all that matters is false but appealing bullshit that plays hell with the bodies and feelings of every poor fat person who tries to live that lie. Between input and output there is a giant complicated machine and yes the exact form of the input and the exact form of the output and what you ate as a kid and all sorts of other things affect it.

Comment author: pjeby 11 April 2009 02:07:34AM 12 points [-]

false but appealing bullshit that plays hell with the bodies and feelings of every poor fat person who tries to live that lie

This is precisely how I feel about most self-help and productivity advice, except substituting "mind" for "bodies", and "procrastinator" for "fat person". ;-)

Comment author: ialdabaoth 16 February 2013 07:51:40PM 2 points [-]

This is precisely how I feel about most self-help and productivity advice, except substituting "mind" for "bodies", and "procrastinator" for "fat person". ;-)

The fact that it feels precisely identical should not be surprising at all - precisely the same mechanism is occurring in both cases.

Mental health/productivity and physical health/fitness are both situations that have a massive social stigma, and a massive incentive for people who are (to use Msr. Yudkowski's term) "privileged" to function in a manner that allows them to achieve socially acceptable results by performing socially acceptable procedures.

The fact is, our culture (and regrettably, ESPECIALLY the sort of people who are attracted to lesswrong) thrives on the sort of "but I'm better than that!" thinking that leads directly to prejudiced bullshit about "willpower" and "not trying hard enough" and "wanting to fail" and "ugly fat fucks" and "useless social retards" and "parasite welfare queens". Because, as a species of social primate thrust into a constant high-stress environment, those of you who are constantly receiving cortisol/dopamine signals that you're just-barely-making-it-but-look-out-for-that-tiger need people to feel superior to.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 September 2013 10:41:54AM 2 points [-]

I find that LW has much less of the prejudiced bullshit you describe than mainstream culture, probably because of the common belief that willpower isn't magic.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 13 September 2013 11:58:24PM 1 point [-]

Interesting. I would very much like to also find that LW has much less of that prejudiced bullshit. Can you think of a way that our behaviors might lead to our differences in experience, so that I might experience more of the LW that you are experiencing?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 September 2013 08:44:38AM 2 points [-]

I suspect that I've got some tendency towards "glass half full"-- I tend to notice the good stuff.

Also, LW being better on the issue than the mainstream doesn't mean that LW is consistently good, just that it isn't resoundingly awful.

This update from CFAR is a good example on LW of supporting skillful means rather than just blaming people who aren't doing well.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 14 September 2013 03:06:58AM 0 points [-]

willpower isn't magic.

True on the other hand, social pressure is a great way to fight akrasia. On the other hand telling people they have no control over their actions is a great way to promote akrasia.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 September 2013 08:46:34AM 1 point [-]

Social pressure works to oppose akrasia.... except when it doesn't work. Some people end up crushed rather than pushed in a useful direction.

Comment author: [deleted] 14 September 2013 05:02:18PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: TheOtherDave 16 February 2013 11:21:09PM 1 point [-]

those of you who are constantly receiving cortisol/dopamine signals that you're just-barely-making-it-but-look-out-for-that-tiger

Do you use the second person with the intention of not including yourself in that group?
If so, I'm interested in what you believe distinguishes your group from the group you're addressing.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 17 February 2013 01:20:11AM 0 points [-]

Do you use the second person with the intention of not including yourself in that group? If so, I'm interested in what you believe distinguishes your group from the group you're addressing.

I'm a useless social retard, and thus am no longer receiving signals that I'm just-barely-making-it. I am instead receiving I'm-fucked-and-need-to-self-terminate-for-the-sake-of-the-pack signals.

Comment author: DSherron 02 May 2013 04:17:52AM 2 points [-]

I'm a useless social retard, and thus am no longer receiving signals that I'm just-barely-making-it. I am instead receiving I'm-fucked-and-need-to-self-terminate-for-the-sake-of-the-pack signals.

Um, no you're not? This is the theory of Group Selectionism. There is no chemical signal that your brain will naturally produce corresponding to "suicide for the good of the pack". You can arrive at that idea through other means, but there is almost certainly no low-level chemical signal which corresponds to suicide for the good of the group; everyone who might've passed that gene on to you died out for the sake of the people that didn't have it.

Comment author: waveman 28 March 2014 12:41:09PM 0 points [-]

If the pack contains blood relatives, yes it can. See Kin Selection.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 09:25:57PM 3 points [-]

The idea that the calories you take in through your mouth are the "input" and that the exercise you do to burn them is "output" and that the balance between the two is all that matters is bullshit.

Well, if you manage to consistently gain weight while consuming fewer calories than you expend, this has interesting consequences for thermodynamics.

It's not bullshit, but it's also a red herring for the actual question, which is how to actually reduce body weight in a sustainable, healthy manner.

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 09:39:32PM 6 points [-]

There's a difference between "false" and "bullshit". You could argue that the equation is bullshit without saying that it was strictly false.

Comment author: saturn 10 April 2009 10:09:42PM *  3 points [-]

The thing is, it's both bullshit and strictly false. There's always some amount of food energy that goes in your mouth and comes straight out the other end, and this varies based on a host of poorly-understood factors.

Edit: I'm arguing against the extremely common assertion that energy eaten = energy expended + weight gain, which is what your original comment looked like. If you're talking strictly about fat cell behavior, you're right, but this is rather useless information for the purpose of weight loss. What SoullessAutomaton said was energy eaten >= energy expended + weight gain, which is indeed true.

Comment author: jonas 11 April 2009 04:37:19AM 1 point [-]

If you have diabetes mellitus you lose a lot of glucose in your urine. Certainly that simple case complicates the energy in energy out dogma.

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 April 2009 08:42:36AM 0 points [-]

"out" would have been a better word than "expended" - to cover all the ways that energy can leave your body, including glucose in the urine.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 09:45:14PM 2 points [-]

Fair enough, but I think making the distinction explicit is important, and that Eliezer's edited post is better for it.

Call me superstitious, but I prefer to avoid anything that might get the Laws of Thermodynamics angry. You don't wanna mess with those guys.

Comment author: Jonnan 11 April 2009 02:42:07AM 0 points [-]

Nah - they're cool

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 09:26:24PM 3 points [-]

Edited to make clear the difference.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 10 April 2009 09:41:22PM *  3 points [-]

On the engineering level, only one fact matters: change in energy stored equals energy consumed minus energy expended

Bullshit.

0 < bullshit(change in weight = consumption - exercise) < bullshit(you can lose a pound of fat a day with my new diet even though you expend less than a pound of fat's worth of calories in a day).

Or e.g. when exercise creates new lean muscle that burns more calories on its own.

From personal experience, this is a great one, and seldom mentioned. Bodybuilding can be a better way to lose weight than running, even though the running burns more calories while you're doing it.

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 09:18:19PM *  2 points [-]

Edited following your edit.

I'm slightly worried about the way my laptop seems to have developed hands that are closing around my throat.

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 11 April 2009 05:34:56PM *  2 points [-]

For those who need help with the joke.

edited to use proper LW linking

Comment author: Psychohistorian 10 April 2009 10:05:24PM 0 points [-]

How does one reject the hypothesis "You're failing because you aren't trying hard enough / you're doing it wrong?"

In the case of the Shangri-la bit, it obviously works, but in the "eat less, excersize more" diet, how can one conclude that the failing is in the strategy and not the user?

I'm not trying to say you're wrong; I'm genuinely curious as to how one can decide this approach fails.

Comment author: anonym 10 April 2009 11:47:52PM *  2 points [-]

Well, if you hold your diet steady but burn an extra 500 calories a day (3500 calories a week) exercising, with no significant changes to your weight, that would a pretty big indicator...

Comment author: jimmy 11 April 2009 03:00:40AM -3 points [-]

If you aren't losing weight with the "eat less, exercise more" diet, you're doing it wrong and conservation of energy says so.

A somewhat separate question is "is the 'eat less, exercise more' diet supposed to lower your set point through exercise or just make you miserable but skinny?" To see if that works for you I guess you'd just lose weight and then ask yourself "how much does this suck?"

Comment author: waveman 01 April 2014 02:52:19AM 1 point [-]

Insulin / tendency to insulin resistance. Or perhaps your body is just very reluctant to give up fat. In Atkins' book he describes some extreme cases of such people one chap could not lose fat on 800 calories a day of pure fat in his diet.

I would also consider the effect of high cortisol levels on metabolism. Apart from Cushing's {disease,syndrome} it would appear that high cortisol levels are associated with various forms of childhood trouble (illness, neglect, abuse, hunger) - perhaps an epigenetic effect. And high cortisol produces a strong tendency to insatiable appetite, tendency to store fat and difficulty in mobilizing fat.

Endocrinologists seem to assume that you either have Cushing's or there is no problem. Maybe you have high cortisol due to alcoholism (pseudo-Cushings). How much do you drink?

If you have a tendency to excessive appetite, abdominal obesity, and perhaps high levels of anxiety and conscientiousnes (there are many cortisol receptors in the brain) have a look into your cortisol levels.

At this point your troubles start. Apart from the idea that you have Cushing's or you are fine as mentioned above, there is a problem with testing cortisol levels. Doctors will assume that a blood test is best. But for measuring the cortisol burden it is not. The reason is that cortisol levels fluctuate wildly on an hourly basis and across the day, lowest after midnight. So a blood test is like measuring traffic by taking a single photograph across a road. A 24 hour urine test is best for assessing the overall cortisol burden.

A lot of people with high 24 hour numbers have normal serum numbers during the day. The problem is that the serum levels don't go down overnight in some people (eg me).

Also worth noting that the normal levels of cortisol cover a very wide range and that levels in the upper half are associated with bad outcomes in life (heart disease, blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, eye damage etc). So get the numbers not just the "normal/not normal" result.

Comment author: Swimmer963 01 April 2014 03:10:43AM 0 points [-]

OK, guilty. Most of my successes in life so far are explained by the fact that it's easy for me to work hard for long periods of time without burning out, and that my internal reward system is set up to make delayed gratification easy.

...Amusingly, I used to think I had inherited an awful metabolism that made it impossible for me to lose weight, because it is really hard for me to lose weight by dieting, even though I was swimming competitively and very fit. A couple of years ago, when I finally decided that my actual weight was just fine and what the hell, I concluded that I was fortunate to have a fast metabolism and be able to eat whatever I wanted without gaining weight. Unsure what to conclude from this.

Comment author: spigot 08 November 2013 07:38:39PM 0 points [-]

I'm going to hazard a theory why the olive oil in the morning causes weight loss. I do something similar, except I use coconut oil. I put a dollop into my morning coffee along with other foods like tumeric and, cocoa beans. I'm making up an energetic cocktail with lots of good stuff in it. The fats in this slow digestion and cause satiation. It doesn't seem to me like there's any rocket science to it. Fats are slower to digest and provide long lasting energy. If you keep the carbs in this low or non-existent, you don't get an insulin rush, which leads to depletion which leads to hunger pangs. When I have this drink I often feel pretty well wrapped until noon or so. I would typically give myself a protein rich snack, maybe a hard boiled egg, perhaps an apple or carrot at mid morning, but today for example my activity level is low so just one egg at mid morning and I feel pretty energized. If you are able to cut out a morning meal, slow digestion, and keep away hunger pangs, you will eliminate all the caloric activity that usually gets ingested in the morning, plus get a longer fast. You're not really fasting of course, but giving the gut a lot less to deal with in the morning. I get a big dollop of olive oil in my lunch/midday salad, a big one with more protein and lots of green stuff, nuts and so forth. Insulin level still stays low, more fats, so you're pretty much good to go until evening.

My two cents worth, your mileage may vary.

Comment author: linkhyrule5 13 September 2013 07:41:57AM 0 points [-]

Looking at this, and then at Yvain's blue-minimizing robot analogy...

... I wonder if akrasia isn't just what happens when the conscious "rider" tries to enforce something on the unconscious "robot"?

Due to recent emotional trauma, I've shifted from a rather cliche procrastinating college student to someone much more focused. On the inside, it feels like I'm just trying harder - but remembering how I felt a year ago, it's clearly not that simple. A year ago, I felt like I was trying as hard as I feasibly could.

Oh, sure, I had plenty of excuses why I couldn't try harder... but reversed stupidity, etc. My conscious self would very much have liked to work harder back then.

So I wonder if overcoming akrasia isn't a matter of knocking your unconscious tendencies into something useful to you...

Comment author: anonym 13 April 2009 12:48:06AM 0 points [-]

Of possible relevance for failure to lose weight on a diet: Clinical significance of adaptive thermogenesis

I don't have access to the article, and have only read the abstract. If anybody does have access or has read the paper, what are the environmental factors that might influence thermogenesis during dieting (as mentioned in the abstract)?

Comment author: evtujo 11 April 2009 10:56:20PM 0 points [-]

it's a relief to hear of others not having success with shangri-la. i wish it worked for everyone but it doesn't and it's (apparently) not just me doing it wrong. though how you mess up drinking oil is beyond me.

i have lost 20 pounds this year (after about 2 years of trying various strategies including shangrila) and the answer was just discipline. cut out sweets ruthlessly and practice letting myself feel hunger. but i'm definitely plateaued now. and i have to exercise my free will every day to stay there. and it slowly starts moving up when i relax it. sigh

and i wish exercise worked as well. but i'd already maxed out that strategy years ago.

Comment author: mytyde 29 September 2012 03:50:08PM -1 points [-]

The "extra-virgin" designation does make a difference, fyi. That's probably not what was throwing you off, but I'll leave this here for future Shangi-la researchers.

Comment author: pjeby 24 April 2013 10:53:31PM 1 point [-]

The "extra-virgin" designation does make a difference, fyi

You mean "extra light". Extra virgin is the one that doesn't actually work.