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People who lie about how much they eat are jerks

-10 Post author: Elo 08 August 2016 03:45AM

Originally posted here: http://bearlamp.com.au/people-who-lie-about-how-much-they-eat-are-jerks/


Weight loss journey is a long and complicated problem solving adventure.  This is one small factor that adds to the confusion.  You probably have that one friend.  Appears to eat a whole bunch, and yet doesn't put on weight.  If you ever had that conversation it goes something like,

"How are you so thin?"
"raah raah metabolism"
"raah raah I dont know why I don't put on weight"
"Take advantage of the habit"

Well I have had enough.  You're wrong.  You're lying and you probably don't even know it.  It's not possible. (Within a reasonable scope of human variation) Calories and energy are a black box system.  Calories in, work out, leftovers become weight gain, deficit is weight loss.  If a human could eat significantly more calories for the same amount of work and not put on weight we would be prodding them in a lab for breaking the laws of physics on conservation of mass and conservation of energy.

So this is you, you say you gain weight no matter what you eat and that's scientifically impossible.  Now what?  You probably don't mean to break the laws of physics (and you probably don't actually break them).  You genuinely absentmindedly don't notice when you scoff down whole plates of food and when you skip dinner because you didn't feel like it (and absentmindedly balance the calories automatically).  It's all the same to you because you naturally do that.

This very likely is about habits, and natural habits that people have.  If for example John has the habit of getting home and going to the fridge, making dinner because it's usually the evening.  Wendy doesn't have the habit.  She eats when she is hungry.  Not having a set mealtime sometimes means that she gets tired-hungry and has a state of being too exhausted to decide what to eat and too hungry to do anything else that would help solve the problem.  But for Wendy she doesn't get home and automatically cook dinner.  (good things and bad things come from habits.)

Wendy and john go to a big lunch together.  They both eat 150% of the calories they should be eating for that meal, and they don't mind - enjoying food is part of enjoying life.  It was a fancy restaurant with good food.  Later that evening when Wendy gets home she doesn't feel hungry and goes off to read a book or talk to friends on the internet.  Eventually she has a light snack (of 10% of her "dinner" calories) and heads off to totalling 160% of the calories for the two meals.  Effectively under-eating for the day.  John on the other hand, has his habit of heading home and making dinner.  Even after the big lunch, his automatic systems take over and he makes and ordinary dinner of 100% of his calories for that meal.  John's total for that day is 250% for two meals or effectively half a meal extra for that day.

If W and J do this every week (assuming the rest of their diets are perfectly balanced), John will have an upwards trajectory and Wendy will have a downwards one.  John might ask Wendy how she stays so skinny, and Wendy wouldn't know.  After all they eat about the same amount when they are together.

No one understands this.  


What can we do about it?

1. We can hire scientists to follow both J and W around for a week and write down every time they eat something. (this is impractical - maybe if we are in an isolated environment like a weekend retreat it would be easier to do this)
2. We can get them to self report via an app (but people are usually pretty bad at that)
3. We can try ask more specifically, "what do you eat in a day?", or "what have you eaten since this time yesterday?" and gather data points to try to build a picture of what a person eats.
4. We can search for people with similar habits around food to us and ask them how they stay healthy.
5. We can look for people with successful habits around food, ask them for advice and then figure out why that advice works, and how to make that advice work for us.

On the noticing level.  You should notice that every single thing that you eat adds to your caloric intake. Every single piece of work you do adds to your burn.  It's easier to eat another piece of chocolate (for 5 seconds) than run another 15minutes to burn that chocolate off.  If something is not working towards your dieting success it's probably working against it.


Meta: this took one hour to write.

Comments (37)

Comment author: jimrandomh 09 August 2016 07:34:06PM 4 points [-]

You have noticed things happening that don't match your model of how you think the world (and nutrition in particular) should work. Rather than defy the data, maybe you could come up with a different model that better explains the observations?

Comment author: Elo 11 August 2016 04:41:20AM -2 points [-]

come up with a different model that better explains the observations?

I did. It was: People don't really know what they are saying when they say, "I eat anything and don't put on weight". And people are bad at introspection on themselves.

Comment author: ChristianKl 08 August 2016 08:34:24AM 7 points [-]

If a human could eat significantly more calories for the same amount of work and not put on weight we would be prodding them in a lab for breaking the laws of physics on conservation of mass and conservation of energy.

That's false. It doesn't break any law of physics. In practice it also doesn't seem to be true.

I have a friend that repeated Dave Asprey's experiment and added 1000 kcal of calories via butter per day. The person knew enough about his diet to know that this meant that he consumed more calories. They didn't put any weight by doing the experiment for a month.

As far as "resting" metabolism goes, there are also very different resting states. Friday I was lying on my back in my bed from 20 to 23 and was deelpy relaxing. At the end the space under the right side of my body was wet. The leg and up to the shoulder. The left side of my face was also wet and there was a bit sweat running down but not enough to make the blanket under that left side wet. I can't tell you to what extend the warmth was created by brown fat or by muscles, but I was certainly not exercising but deeply relaxing and releasing tensions.

Comment author: Brillyant 08 August 2016 07:16:35PM *  1 point [-]

I have a friend that repeated Dave Asprey's experiment and added 1000 kcal of calories via butter per day. The person knew enough about his diet to know that this meant that he consumed more calories. They didn't put any weight by doing the experiment for a month.

"I have a friend who..." isn't terribly compelling evidence. :)

As far as "resting" metabolism goes, there are also very different resting states.

From my recall, basal metabolic rates can vary significantly between otherwise very similar individuals. ~60% of BMR variances are determined by differences in lean muscle mass. But even when two individuals are the same age, gender, lean muscle %... they can still have BMR differences that would seem to contribute to weight gain in some individuals over time... even if their diet and exercise routine was identical to someone who maintained a stable weight.

I don't think it's as simple as OP is making it. But I also don't think it's as complicated as LW seems to make it.

As long as we're accepting anecdotal evidence, I've gained and lost in a ~40lb range (~160-200lb) over the last few years according to essentially a very predictable 'calories consumed minus calories burned' model. During some periods, I've kept copious spreadsheets of every calorie and every rep in the gym. It's been very predictable once I had some good data.

Again, for clarity's sake and so that I am not pestered on this point, I think there is more to the equation than just calorie arithmetic (and there are plenty of cases where people are predisposed to obesity no matter what they try and of course no one should be shamed for their body weight) ...but there is not nearly as much woo and mystery to losing weight as many on LW would try to make you think.

I think the main reason people end up desiring for weight loss to be a lot more than just calorie math is that while much of weight loss is simple, it's also super fucking hard. It's emotional. And being hungry sucks and makes your crabby. And making these changes will diminish your capacity to do other things for a while. Just like any other pursuit requires you to allocate resources, you can't expect to put effort into incorporating a brand new dieting strategy and exercise regiment while maintaining the exact same level of productivity and focus. There is an adjustment period. Then it gets easier.

Because it's super fucking hard and emotional, it makes sense to me that fad diets are as popular as they are. But maybe there isn't a hack? Maybe much of what needs to be done amounts to changing habits? Which is simple, but hard.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 August 2016 09:09:16AM 0 points [-]

As long as we're accepting anecdotal evidence, I've gained and lost in a ~40lb range (~160-200lb) over the last few years according to essentially a very predictable 'calories consumed minus calories burned' model.

I don't have a model that would be disconfirmed by your story.

I think the OP might have been partly motivated by a comment about some overweight being triggered by inflammation and there a bunch of inflammationary illnesses that do quite often result in weight gain.

Comment author: Elo 11 August 2016 04:24:32AM -2 points [-]

Nope, it was all about habits really. And how they lead to good and bad outcomes.

Comment author: ChristianKl 11 August 2016 08:53:34AM 2 points [-]

Are you aware about how little some people's weight chanages year to year and about the amount of calories that are needed for gaining a kilo of additional bodyweight?

Habits alone without a regulation system that tries to keep a certain amount of weight and influence it by hunger and other methods don't seem to me capable of holding constant weight.

Comment author: Elo 11 August 2016 04:25:26AM -2 points [-]

But maybe there isn't a hack? Maybe much of what needs to be done amounts to changing habits?

Changing habits is a hack. But one that seems promising if it can yield long term change and long term progress.

Comment author: Brillyant 11 August 2016 07:13:20PM 0 points [-]

Meh. Semantics.

I'm saying the route to weight loss might be hard, like eat less and exercise more. For months. There may not be a low effort technique (i.e. hack).

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 09 August 2016 04:16:47PM 3 points [-]

The laws of physics allow you to lose calories without exercise by generating heat.

http://mobile.the-scientist.com/article/44183/warming-up-to-brown-fat

Comment author: Elo 11 August 2016 04:38:34AM -2 points [-]

This is commonly called the base metabolic rate (the burn of hearts pumping, muscles turning and stomachs churning). Differences in base metabolic rate don't explain the full observed differences in weight. It would be nice, but it's not enough.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 08 August 2016 04:48:56AM *  6 points [-]

People have had this argument many times on Less Wrong and elsewhere, and you are the one who is wrong here. Calories vs physical exercise is not a physical law. Of course you will only lose as much carbon as you can join to the oxygen that you breath out your mouth. But there is no physical law that says there has to be any particular proportion between that and the measurable exercise you perform externally, and in practice there is no fixed proportion -- people have different proportions, just as it seems to them.

(The fact that you bring up conservation of mass and conservation of energy suggests the absurd idea that you lose weight by converting mass directly into energy -- if that was the way you lose weight, you could eat once and live a few years off that, or more.)

Comment author: Elo 11 August 2016 04:22:23AM -2 points [-]

Calories vs physical exercise is not a physical law.

I said energy in / energy out. On the way in that means calories in, on the way out, around 30%(or more) of your daily burn is your base metabolic rate while you are awake, the things your body does to keep you alive. Heart pumping, stomach churning, breathing stuff.

Exercise is probably less than 1/6th of your daily burn. Unless you are marathon running in which case you are probably eating enough to more than compensate for it.

the idea that you lose weight by converting mass directly into energy

Okay... I never suggested weighing the food you eat, but that was a dieting fad in the 60s or so (it didn't last for reasons of that's now how energy in food works)

Comment author: entirelyuseless 11 August 2016 04:15:25PM 2 points [-]

Motte and bailey. You stated, "If a human could eat significantly more calories for the same amount of work and not put on weight we would be prodding them in a lab for breaking the laws of physics on conservation of mass and conservation of energy."

If you understand "work" there to mean whatever your body does to lose weight, then you might be right. But you made the claim to support this:

"If you ever had that conversation it goes something like,

"How are you so thin?" "raah raah metabolism" "raah raah I dont know why I don't put on weight" "Take advantage of the habit"

Well I have had enough. You're wrong. You're lying and you probably don't even know it."

But that conversation is completely consistent with your new interpretation of work. With that interpretation, it is consistent with the laws of physics for someone to double all of his meals and continue with the same daily routine, every day, and not gain any weight, because "work" means something quite different then the normal stuff that a person does every day and considers to be work or exercise.

Comment author: Elo 12 August 2016 04:20:59AM -2 points [-]

it appears that I should have been more clear. Yes. Work does have several definitions, one is, "all energy exerted including energy to persist - i.e. sleep, Base Metabolic rate, incidental exercise and actual purposeful exercise", and the other is, "the actual activity alone, excluding the base metabolic rate".

I intended to use this definition for the whole post: "all energy exerted including energy to persist - i.e. sleep, Base Metabolic rate, and actual activity"

If you only count the work that people purposely do - 90% or more of the picture will be left out. Similar if I only counted the food I ate while "dieting" (or "having a meal") and not the food I eat while "snacking" or "being hungry" or other definitions of what doesn't count.

Comment author: OrphanWilde 09 August 2016 03:15:54PM 2 points [-]

I don't recommend having this argument. It's useless in almost every respect.

There are two fundamental issues. First, most people don't understand what a Calorie looks like, and think the difference between a healthy weight and an unhealthy weight is a large amount of food, rather than a small amount of food compounded over long periods of time. Want to lose weight in a sustained and sustainable fashion? Subtract a small amount of food over a long period of time. Instead, people crash-diet, then go back to normal eating habits.

An extra apple a day translates, over years, to up to 50 extra pounds. Looking at two people's daily diets, one is overweight, one is healthy, and most people couldn't tell the difference by looking at what they ate.

The second problem is that exercise is incredibly unpleasant if you're overweight. If you're currently in shape, try tossing 50 lbs of weights into a backpack the next time you exercise. Or better yet, don't, because you could hurt yourself pretty easily in exactly the ways overweight people injure themselves when doing things like jogging.

It takes physiological issues to gain serious amounts of weight in the first place; these won't stop you from losing weight, but they'll make it harder to maintain a steady weight. Normal people fidget or otherwise increase their base level of activity when they overeat, burning off excess calories. Overweight people have to be more deliberate and conscious of these things.

Comment author: Jiro 11 August 2016 08:04:26PM 0 points [-]

An extra apple a day translates, over years, to up to 50 extra pounds.

No it doesn't. You use up more calories when you weigh more. If you eat an apple a day you will reach an equilibrium where you have just enough extra weight to burn a number of calories per day equivalent to an apple. 95 calories in an apple will still get you to about 9.5 kilograms extra, which is a lot, but not near 50 pounds and it won't increase without limit.)

Comment author: OrphanWilde 12 August 2016 05:01:59PM 0 points [-]

No it doesn't. You use up more calories when you weigh more. If you eat an apple a day you will reach an equilibrium where you have just enough extra weight to burn a number of calories per day equivalent to an apple. 95 calories in an apple will still get you to about 9.5 kilograms extra, which is a lot, but not near 50 pounds and it won't increase without limit.)

The information I have seen suggests a pound of fat requires 2-3 kilocalories per day to maintain itself, which implies a range of 30-47.5 pounds from a 95 kilocalorie deviation, which would be 13-20 kilograms.

I have no idea how accurate that is, but it doesn't matter too much, as the underlying point remains the same: People's expectations of food consumption necessary to be overweight are entirely inaccurate. Fat people think thin people must be eating almost nothing at all, thin people think fat people must be eating three hamburgers per meal, where the actual difference is quite small, relative to our out-of-whack expectations.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 August 2016 02:51:36AM 0 points [-]

There are fat athletes. I can believe that starting from being very sedentary is harder if you're fat.

Comment author: OrphanWilde 10 August 2016 03:19:39PM 2 points [-]

It's not just "harder", it requires skills and knowledge, which most people don't actually have.

The point is that "exercise" isn't helpful advice to lose weight. First, it's not terribly effective at it over short durations, and people need to know that what they're doing is working. Second, if somebody isn't already exercising, they're going to hurt themselves, have a six week recovery time, try again, hurt themselves, and give up on losing weight. Third, you're communicating something different than what you think you are; "Go for a walk every day" is good advice, by comparison to "exercise". The temptation is to object that that is exactly exercising - but it isn't what people think when you tell them to exercise.

I've been both. My natural tendency, absent constant pressure, is to settle 40-50 pounds over my ideal weight - and it's relatively easy for me to lose weight now, but mostly because I know it's possible. The first time I lost weight, willpower had nothing to do with it - I had a minimum-wage job that kept me constantly active, and I didn't feel like I could afford to waste money on anything but the minimum sustenance of food. So I was dieting and exercising against my preferences. Since then, I've been able to lose weight - because I knew it was possible. Without the prior experience of having lost weight, it feels like an impossible achievement.

Comment author: Elo 11 August 2016 04:36:56AM -2 points [-]

still don't disagree. weight loss is hard. good habits help.

Comment author: Elo 11 August 2016 04:35:28AM -2 points [-]

I don't think I disagree anywhere.

Comment author: SquirrelInHell 09 August 2016 05:25:16AM 0 points [-]

A human body has very strong mechanisms that regulate your food intake, and you can't oppose them short of persistently starving yourself (which ruins your health).

So in practice "how much you eat" is not a factor in weight loss, but "how much food your body is regulated to want" is.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 August 2016 04:54:13PM 2 points [-]

you can't oppose them short of persistently starving yourself (which ruins your health).

Citation needed. We're not talking about anorexia, we're talking about, say, naturally 300 lbs people "persistently starving" themselves to 200 lbs. Would that ruin their health?

Comment author: SquirrelInHell 10 August 2016 02:39:46AM 3 points [-]

As far as I know, yes it would. In "What You Can Change and What You Can't" (which is not a perfect book, but it has some useful content), Seligman gives a reference to a study that actually found that losing weight in overweight middle-aged men made their health worse, not better.

Have you ever noticed that we have lots of evidence that slimmer people tend to be healthier, but not that losing weight makes you healthier? This is a subtle but very important difference.

I do not know any compelling evidence for the latter point. So my estimates are close to the prior, which is that starving yourself is going to at best change little, and at worst ruin your health.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 August 2016 02:43:30PM 0 points [-]

As far as I know, yes it would.

Citation is still needed :-) Do you have a link to that study?

Have you ever noticed that we have lots of evidence that slimmer people tend to be healthier, but not that losing weight makes you healthier?

Let me see if I read your position correctly. We know that slim people are healthier than fat people, right? We know that getting fat worsens your health -- I believe this is fairly uncontroversial -- do you wish to contest that? But you are saying that this is a ratchet, losing fat will not make your health any better. In other words, once you gained weight there is no path back to health ever?

That seems a rather strong statement to me and I haven't seem much support for that being true in reality. Why did you pick this position as your prior?

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 10 August 2016 09:44:09PM *  2 points [-]

Citation is still needed :-) Do you have a link to that study?

I think this is an uncheritable request but I bite:

Large fluctuations in body weight during young adulthood and twenty-five-year risk of coronary death in men. Hamm P1, Shekelle RB, Stamler J.

(referenced as note 30 on page 188 in chapter 12 on dieting ("overweight vs. Dieating: The Health Damage). There are actually multiple references given but I think if you are really interested you can now follow up.

You should read Seligman anyway. Selignman has been discussed on LW repeatedly e.g. here , here and here (disclaimer: the last is by me). A summary of the book can be found easily.

Comment author: Lumifer 11 August 2016 05:54:50PM 1 point [-]

Large fluctuations in body weight...

The paper is behind the paywall, but the abstract definitely does not say that losing weight in unhealthy. From what I can read, gaining and losing weight increases your CVD risk but lowers your cancer risk compared to just gaining. The abstract then coyly remarks that "risk of death from all causes combined was lowest in the no change group" but does not compare the all-cause mortality between the "gain and lose" and "just gain" groups.

But let me ask you the same question: do you believe that getting fat is a one-way trip to sickness: once you gained weight there is no path back to health ever?

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 11 August 2016 07:57:52PM -1 points [-]

I have not read all the referenced papers either. And even if I did: I'm not the expert with the context knowledge to be able to provide an educated (sic) summary. I do trust Segligman on this. His work appears to live up to very high scholarly standards. "What you can change and what you can't" in particular has been updated multiple times. If he says (and I see all those varied references supporting this) that we have negative evidence that lowering weight works then I update strongly toward that.

I don't want to answer your question because it appears to me to be a trap. Seligman doesn't claim anything remotely that strong ("ever") anyway.

Anecdotal point: I'm slim and have to do basically nothing to keep a healthy fitness level. In particular I can eat as much sweets and fat food as I want. I do have an advantage though: I'm an extremely picky eater and what I don't like I do not eat. My sons seem to have inherited this mostly so I'm at ease regarding them too. It runs in the family. My personal observations might make it look as if people did something wrong when they get fat. But evidence like Seligman's helps me feel compassion for those poor people who were not as lucky as I to develop some mutations (it has to look like that to me) that is more adaptive in our modern civilization.

Comment author: Lumifer 11 August 2016 08:46:16PM 1 point [-]

I don't want to answer your question because it appears to me to be a trap.

It's not a trap, it's a bullet :-) which you can attempt to bite or dodge :/

For palatability I can express it in the 'expected' form: for someone who is currently overweight (and so, in expectation, is less healthy than a similar slim person), will losing weight, in expectation, worsen his health? If so, what avenues are open to an overweight person who would like to get healthier?

Comment author: Good_Burning_Plastic 12 August 2016 10:18:07AM 0 points [-]

for someone who is currently overweight (and so, in expectation, is less healthy than a similar slim person), will losing weight, in expectation, worsen his health?

You mean in the short run (during the period the person is losing weight) or in the long run (during the period the person stays at the new, lower weight)? It doesn't sound implausible to me that the person would be less healthy than before starting to lose weight in the former but healthier in the latter.

Comment author: Lumifer 12 August 2016 02:48:48PM 0 points [-]

I mean in the long run. The paper which got linked upthread was a 25-year followup study. In the short run losing weight is certainly biologically stressful.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 11 August 2016 09:45:53PM 0 points [-]

My sympathies.

Apparently I'm least qualified to give advice. All I could do amounts to repeating only minimally educated guesses. Seligman advises acceptance and adaptation to it. Maybe you can be overweight and make the best out of it? I feel intimidated by size combined with some minimum amount of strength. Get a clearer picture of what the weight does with your body. Where your feel-good point really is. For changing that sheer will-power will apparently not work. So if I were overweight I'd follow another strategy. I think about it like the procrastination equation. What equation can you change most easily? Calories in? Calories out? Motivation to change calories in/out? It is not easy to change peer group late in life but I hear that peer conformance does help. Are there things that you enjoy that as a side effect involve 'exercise'? For example I traveled thru Europe with my for boys with heavy backpacks. I imagine if you do that often it builds some strength. And there is basically no way out. And there are the rewards of the sites seen. Ibet you can come up with better ideas for yourself.

Comment author: Elo 12 August 2016 04:23:44AM -2 points [-]

Perhaps slow and steady weight loss is not as damaging to health as sudden weight loss?

Comment author: hairyfigment 10 August 2016 11:55:25PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Lumifer 11 August 2016 05:48:57PM 0 points [-]

I'm perfectly willing to concede that a "typical" fat person will not sustainably lose much fat until s/he gets really old and maybe not even then. But then "typical" people aren't very capable in general.

The interesting question is what percentage of fat people can sustainably lose weight and what makes them special.

Comment author: Elo 11 August 2016 04:30:34AM -2 points [-]

Seligman gives a reference to a study that actually found that losing weight in overweight middle-aged men made their health worse, not better.

Three considerations:

  • weight in the form of muscle is good. As you lose that you get less healthy. If you lose both 5kg of fat and 5kg of muscle at once you will probably be less healthy at the end of that adventure.
  • Initially changing your bodyweight in large chunks is probably bad but in the long run, being 10kg closer to the ideal bodyweight for your size/age will be better for you. If nothing else - (from first principles) giving your heart less of a hard time pumping blood around.
  • Just losing weight might throw off ratios of things like cholesterol in the body, (again) causing initial unhealthyness but later when they stabilise again you will be generally healthier.

Having not seen the study, I can't be too confident but these don't seem like outrageous explanations.