Nina Teicholz on the Bankruptcy of Counting Calories

Calories-in/calories-out is a useful identity. But in isolation it tends to give people the wrong idea about successful weight loss. In particular, it says nothing about when a particular combination of calories in and calories out will lead to suffering and when it won't. As I emphasize in "Prevention is Easier Than Cure of Obesity":

By "what works" I mean not only being successful at losing weight and keeping it off, but also doing so with a minimum of suffering. As an economist, I would consider suffering a bad thing, even if suffering had no adverse effects on health whatsoever. But suffering also makes a weight loss program difficult to sustain, so suffering does have a bad effect on health. So minimizing suffering is crucial.

The calories-in/calories out identity is typically thought of this way:

Weight Gain in Calories = Calories Consumed - Calories Expended

What sneaks in with this arrangement of the identity is the questionable idea that calories consumed and calories expended are fixed quantities not subject to any deeper forces. Rearranging the identity gives a different perspective:

Calories Expended = Calories Consumed + Weight Loss in Calories

This rearrangement subtly hints at the idea that, holding calories consumed fixed, effective weight-loss that puts a lot of fatty acids and ketones into the blood stream from metabolized body fat might make one feel more energetic and so raise calories expended. Conversely, relatively ineffective weight loss combined with a low level of calories consumed will lead to internal starvation with all kinds of body signals going out to discourage energy expenditure and encourage the consumption of more calories. Those body signals are exactly the kinds of signals that can cause suffering.  

Nina Teicholz attacks naive misunderstandings of calories in/calories out in her May 20, 2018 Los Angeles Times article "Counting calories won't reduce obesity. So why are we requiring restaurants to post them." I agree that posting calories is not a particularly effective public health intervention. I would go so far as to say it would be much more useful to post the insulin index of different types of food. (See "Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid." One benefit of requiring the posting of the insulin index for restaurant food is that the research would get done to measure the insulin index for more types of food.) The virtue of low-insulin-index food is that it has a high ratio of satiation to calories—where here by "satiation" I mean "being satiating." With food that has a high ratio of satiation to calories, it will feel natural to stop eating before consuming too many calories. You won't have to try so hard to stop. 

Here is what Nina says about counting calories:

Although we've long held on to the intuitive idea that slimming down is merely a matter of beating the math — create a caloric deficit of 3,600 calories and lose a pound of fat — the evidence has been stacking up against it for more than a century.

Since the early 1900s, medical research has shown that people do lose weight on calorie-restricted diets — in the short term. But in most cases, they quickly gain it back. Reviewing hundreds of papers on dieting published already by 1959, two researchers concluded in the AMA Archives of Internal Medicine: "Most obese persons will not stay in treatment for obesity. Of those who stay in treatment, most will not lose weight, and of those who do lose weight, most will regain it."

Moreover, the researchers found, people usually put back on more weight than they'd lost. This cruel twist is due to the fact that a person's metabolic rate slows down to accommodate semi-starvation, but it doesn't bounce back, resulting in a stubbornly depressed metabolism. To maintain that weight loss, it appears a person must restrict calories for life — a state of deprivation that, as it turns out, few humans can sustain. The two AMA authors wrote that the most common "ill effects" of constant hunger include nervousness, weakness and irritability, and, to a lesser extent, fatigue and nausea.

Yet we seem committed to the myth that weight loss is merely a matter of calories in vs. calories out. That's why it's front-page news when researchers discovered that most participants in "The Biggest Loser" reality TV show didn't maintain their new, low weight — and that six years out, several weighed more than when they appeared on the show.

If counting calories in the usual way doesn't work, what does work? Nina points to some hints:

Insufficient sleep, for instance, may impair fat loss, as one small controlled trial concluded. Not getting enough sleep also increases the hunger hormone, ghrelin, according to another study. Chronic stress also appears to stimulate ghrelin, as well as the stress hormone cortisol, which is thought to weaken the body's ability to metabolize carbohydrates.

The most promising area of obesity research focuses on the effects of eating carbohydrates. Some 70 clinical trials now show that restricting carbohydrates is a highly effective way of fighting obesity. Low-carbohydrate diets are either equally or more effective than low-calorie diets, according to an analysis in JAMA.

One of the reasons low-carb diets work is precisely that they don't require counting calories. People are allowed to eat as much as they like, so long as they keep carbohydrates low. In part because foods with protein are satiating, people on this diet don't get hungry. Their metabolism doesn't slow down, and they aren't required to sustain a state of semi-starvation.

One recent survey of some 1,500 people found that more than a third of them were able to keep off more than 20 pounds and maintain a low-carb diet for two years or more. Another study, conducted at Stanford, found that subjects successfully lost weight without monitoring calories simply by eating high-quality "real" foods and more vegetables while reducing refined carbohydrates.

The big thing that Nina is missing is the idea of fasting, or time-restricted eating. As I say in "4 Propositions on Weight Loss," in my book the bottom line is this:

... for a large fraction of people, fasting—combined with avoiding sugar, bread, rice and potatoes—is a powerful, not-too-painful, tool for weight loss. 


Don't miss these other posts on diet and health and on fighting obesity:

Also see the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see my post "A Barycentric Autobiography."

Should the U.S. Dollar Be Weak or Strong?

                                                                                                  Link to the article above

                                                                                               Link to the article above

The words "strong" and "weak" for a currency can mislead people into thinking a strong currency is good and a weak currency is bad. That isn't right. As I was quoted by Angelo Young in the article above:

“It is not right to say in an unqualified way that a ‘strong’ dollar is good, or to say that a ‘weak’ dollar is good,” Miles Spencer Kimball, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Salon.

It depends on why the dollar is strong or weak.

  • If the dollar gets stronger because demand for US products has increased, that is a good sign.
  • If the dollar gets stronger because the US government is borrowing a huge amount, including from foreigners who have to buy dollars to lend to the US government, that is a bad sign.
  • If the dollar gets stronger because the Fed is raising rates to keep the economy from overheating, that is appropriate. 
  • If the dollar gets weaker because demand for US products has fallen, that is a bad sign. 
  • If the dollar gets weaker because Americans are saving more and put some of the savings into foreign assets that they trade away dollars for, that is a good sign. 
  • If the dollar gets weaker because the Fed is cutting rates to bring the economy out of a recession, that is appropriate. 

Unfortunately, I don't know of a convenient, compact, vivid terminology for changes in exchange rates that makes the direction clear without seeming to assert a value judgment that doesn't necessarily follow. If the dollar strengthens, it can be called the dollar appreciating, which also sounds good. If the dollar weakens, it can be called the dollar depreciating, which also sounds bad. But strengthening/appreciation can be bad and weakening/depreciation can be good. It all depends. 

Noah Smith: Nurture Counts as Much as Nature in Success

The title of this post links to an excellent Bloomberg column by Noah Smith subtitled "More years of schooling and growing up around smart people makes a huge difference." In relation to our coauthored column "There's One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don't" that Noah mentioned, let me mention that I wrote a follow-up column "How to Turn Every Child into a "Math Person" that gives links to some of the reactions to "There's One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don't" and many resources for math learning. Here are some links to posts on math learning that didn't make it into that column:

Also, here are some Twitter discussions on math learning:

Anthony Komaroff: The Microbiome and Risk for Obesity and Diabetes

                                       Link to the 1st page of the article above.  The rest is gated. 

                                    Link to the 1st page of the article above. The rest is gated. 

Research has begun to demonstrate that the quality of bacteria in one's gut is important for human health. Let me call the quality of bacteria in one's gut "microbiome capital." Anthony Komaroff makes the argument that microbiome capital could plausibly be important early in his Journal of the American Medical Association summary article "The Microbiome and Risk for Obesity and Diabetes":

Beginning at the moment of birth, each human increasingly coexists with microbes. By the time individuals reach adulthood, they are colonized by many more microbial cells than the roughly 13 trillion human cells. More important still, these microbial cells (the microbiota), collectively, have exponentially more genes (the microbiome) than do human cells, around 250 to 800 times more.

Moreover, many genes in the human microbiome generate proteins, including hormones, neurotransmitters, and molecules of inflammation, that can enter the circulation and affect health. In light of this, it is reasonable to question whether the genes of the microbiome might play a greater role in health than do human genes. Recent evidence suggests that the microbiome may affect the probability of many major diseases, including obesity and diabetes.

Current knowledge hints that it might be possible to create a proxy for the quality of bacteria in one's gut—and thus for microbiome capital—from the ratio of bacteria from the phylum Bacteroidetes to bacteria from the phylum Firmicutes. Anthony writes: 

About 90% of gut bacteria are in 1 of 2 phyla: Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. Firmicutes generate more harvestable energy than Bacteroidetes. Obese humans have relatively more Firmicutes ...

Many experiments in mice, detailed as follows by Anthony, indicate that microbiome capital matters:

  • Gut microbiota from obese mice and from lean mice were transplanted into germ-free, lean mice, all of whom had the same daily caloric intake. Over the next 2 weeks, the mice receiving microbiota from obese mice became obese, whereas those receiving microbiota from lean mice remained lean.1

  • Gut microbiota from conventionally raised animals were placed in the guts of lean germ-free mice. Without any increase in daily caloric intake, the body fat content of the animals increased by 60% within 14 days, and they developed insulin resistance.2

  • Obese mice underwent Roux-en-Y gastric bypass (RYGB) surgery or sham surgery. Mice that underwent RYGB surgery had the expected weight loss and a characteristic change in the gut microbiome, whereas mice that underwent the sham surgery did not. Transfer of bacteria from mice that underwent RYGB surgery to mice that underwent the sham surgery resulted in weight loss, although not as great as seen following RYGB surgery. ...

The last experiment is important because in many ways it has been somewhat mysterious exactly why gastric bypass surgery helps so much in weight loss, given that greater hunger could easily counteract any purely mechanical reduction in food intake at a given sitting.

The comparison to capital accumulation is tightened by the influence of obesity on microbiome capital. Here is Anthony's description of that:

These experiments suggest that the composition of gut microbiota can influence obesity. However, other experiments suggest that obesity can influence the composition of gut microbiota. For example, when obese people diet and lose weight, the proportion of Bacteroidetes increases relative to Firmicutes. Conversely, when obese people resume their previous diets and gain weight, the proportion of Firmicutes increases.

All of this is only tantalizing if a therapeutic result for humans cannot be confirmed. The closest thing so far is this result that Anthony reports:

... only experimental evidence can suggest a causal connection. At least 1 study does. Treatment-naive men with the metabolic syndrome had their gut flora eliminated by polyethylene glycol lavage. Then they were randomized to receive small intestinal infusions (through a gastroduodenal tube) either from lean male donors or from their own feces. In men who received infusions from lean individuals, insulin sensitivity increased. This effect declined over time, and there was considerable individual variability.

That is, getting gut bacteria from someone thin tended to move the recipient away from the insulin-resistance that is so closely related to diabetes, though it only did so for a while. 

This is an important area of research. I hope it proceeds expeditiously. For economists theorizing about obesity and diabetes, it points to changes in microbiome capital as a possible mechanism for phenomena. One big missing piece in the research is that it does not address whether or not high-quality probiotics taken by mouth can help with weight loss and with restoring insulin sensitivity. 


Don't miss these other posts on diet and health and on fighting obesity:

Also see the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see my post "A Barycentric Autobiography."

John Locke Argues for the Historicity of Social Contracts

In arguing for the historicity of social contracts, John Locke makes two interesting arguments in Sections 100-104 of his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (in Chapter VIII, "Of the Beginning of Political Societies"). He argues:

  1. the state of nature is so unattractive that the transition to some form of government would have occurred quite early on. 
  2. government is likely to come before writing, so one should not expect a lot of written history on the formation of governments from the state of nature. 

The second argument especially, is a very interesting argument for the selectivity of records. He is entertaining in putting it this way:

... we may as well suppose the armies of Salmanasser or Xerxes were never children, because we hear little of them, till they were men, and imbodied in armies.

After making these arguments for why the deck is stacked against him if he is asked to provide positive historical evidence of the formation of a social contract, John Locke then adduces several cases where he argues a social contract was formed within the span of recorded history to try to prove his point:

  §. 100. To [the idea of the formation of a government by mutual consent] I find two objections made.

  First, That there are no instances to be found in story, of a company of men independent, and equal one amongst another, that met together, and in this way began and set up a government.

  Secondly, It is impossible of right, that men should do so, because all men being born under government, they are to submit to that, and are not at liberty to begin a new one.

  §. 101. To the first there is this to answer, That it is not at all to be wondered, that history gives us but a very little account of men, that lived together in the state of nature.The inconveniences of that condition, and the love and want of society, no sooner brought any number of them together, but they presently united and incorporated, if they designed to continue together. And if we may not suppose men ever to have been in the state of nature, because we hear not much of them in such a state, we may as well suppose the armies of Salmanasser or Xerxes were never children, because we hear little of them, till they were men, and imbodied in armies. Government is every where antecedent to records, and letters seldom come in amongst a people, till a long continuation of civil society has, by other more necessary arts, provided for their safety, ease, and plenty: and then they begin to look after the history of their founders, and search into their original, when they have outlived the memory of it: for it is with commonwealths as with particular persons, they are commonly ignorant of their own births and infancies: and if they know any thing of their original, they are beholden for it, to the accidental records that others have kept of it. And those that we have, of the beginning of any polities in the world, excepting that of the Jews, where God himself immediately interposed, and which favours not at all paternal dominion, are all either plain instances of such a beginning as I have mentioned, or at least have manifest footsteps of it.

  §. 102. He must shew a strange inclination to deny evident matter of fact, when it agrees not with his hypothesis, who will not allow, that the beginning of Rome and Venice were by the uniting together of several men free and independent one of another, amongst whom there was no natural superiority or subjection. And if Josephus Acosta’s word may be taken, he tells us, that in many parts of America there was no government at all. “There are great and apparent conjectures,” says he, “that these men,” speaking of those of Peru, “for a long time had neither kings nor commonwealths, but lived in troops, as they do to this day in Florida, the Cheriquanas, those of Brazil, and many other nations, which have no certain kings, but as occasion is offered, in peace or war, they choose their captains as they please,” l. i. c. 25. If it be said, that every man there was born subject to his father, or the head of his family; that the subjection due from a child to a father took not away his freedom of uniting into what political society he thought fit, has been already proved. But be that as it will, these men, it is evident, were actually free; and whatever superiority some politicians now would place in any of them, they themselves claimed it not, but by consent were all equal, till by the same consent they set rulers over themselves. So that their politic societies all began from a voluntary union, and the mutual agreement of men freely acting in the choice of their governors, and forms of government.

  §. 103. And I hope those who went away from Sparta with Palantus, mentioned by Justin, l. iii. c. 4. will be allowed to have been freemen independent one of another, and to have set up a government over themselves, by their own consent. Thus I have given several examples out of history, of people free and in the state of nature, that being met together incorporated and began a commonwealth. And if the want of such instances be an argument to prove that government were not, nor could not be so begun, I suppose the contenders for paternal empire were better to let it alone, than urge it against natural liberty: for if they can give so many instances, out of history, of governments begun upon paternal right, I think (though at best an argument from what has been, to what should of right be, has no great force) one might, without any great danger, yield them the cause. But if I might advise them in the case, they would do well not to search too much into the original of governments, as they have begun de facto, lest they should find, at the foundation of most of them, something very little favourable to the design they promote, and such a power as they contend for.

  §. 104. But to conclude, reason being plain on our side, that men are naturally free, and the examples of history shewing, that the governments of the world, that were begun in peace, had their beginning laid on that foundation, and were made by the consent of the people; there can be little room for doubt, either where the right is, or what has been the opinion, or practice of mankind, about the first erecting of governments.

To John Locke's most direct examples of the formation of a social contract above, a key objection is that the individuals involved were already used to the idea of a government, so what was happening would be unlike the earliest formations of governments. John Locke implicitly addresses this objection with a more plausible story of how government by the consent of the governed could arise when either (a) multiple families decided to combine into a larger tribe or (b) a dispute arose within a family about whether a particular individual was fit to rule:  

 §. 105. I will not deny, that if we look back as far as history will direct us, towards the original of commonwealths, we shall generally find them under the government and administration of one man. And I am also apt to believe, that where a family was numerous enough to subsist by itself, and continued entire together, without mixing with others, as it often happens, where there is much land, and few people, the government commonly began in the father: for the father having, by the law of nature, the same power with every man else to punish, as he thought fit, any offences against that law, might thereby punish his transgressing children, even when they were men, and out of their pupilage; and they were very likely to submit to his punishment, and all join with him against the offender, in their turns, giving him thereby power to execute his sentence against any transgression, and so in effect make him the law-maker, and governor over all that remained in conjunction with his family. He was fittest to be trusted; paternal affection secured their property and interest under his care; and the custom of obeying him, in their childhood, made it easier to submit to him, rather than to any other. If therefore they must have one to rule them, as government is hardly to be avoided amongst men that live together; who so likely to be the man as he that was their common father; unless negligence, cruelty, or any other defect of mind or body made him unfit for it? But when either the father died, and left his next heir, for want of age, wisdom, courage, or any other qualities, less fit to rule; or where several families met, and consented to continue together; there, it is not to be doubted, but they used their natural freedom, to set up him, whom they judged the ablest, and most likely, to rule well over them. Conformable hereunto we find the people of America, who (living out of the reach of the conquering swords, and spreading domination of the two great empires of Peru and Mexico) enjoyed their own natural freedom, though, cæteris paribus, they commonly prefer the heir of their deceased king; yet if they find him any way weak, or incapable, they pass him by, and set up the stoutest and bravest man for their ruler.

  §. 106. Thus, though looking back as far as records give us any account of peopling the world, and the history of nations, we commonly find the government to be in one hand; yet it destroys not that which I affirm, viz. that the beginning of politic society depends upon the consent of the individuals, to join into, and make one society; who, when they are thus incorporated, might set up what form of government they thought fit. But this having given occasion to men to mistake, and think, that by nature government was monarchical, and belonged to the father, it may not be amiss here to consider, why people in the beginning generally pitched upon this form, which though perhaps the father’s pre-eminency might, in the first institution of some commonwealths, give a rise to, and place in the beginning, the power in one hand; yet it is plain that the reason, that continued the form of government in a single person, was not any regard, or respect to paternal authority; since all petty monarchies, that is, almost all monarchies, near their original, have been commonly, at least upon occasion, elective.

Centuries of historical research put modern scholars in a somewhat better position to study the beginnings of government. But John Locke was remarkably insightful given the historical information he had to work with.  

You Can Learn Dramatically More in the Same Amount of Time. Here’s How.

Here is a link to my 69th Quartz column, "The most effective memory methods are difficult—and that's why they work."  

Note: You can see all of my previous Quartz columns listed in order of popularity here.

Below are some passages that were cut to keep the column tight, plus suggested reading:

When people think of technological progress, they usually think of technological progress in the natural sciences and their applied wings: physics, biology, engineering and medicine, for example. Bu at least one area of the social sciences where technological progress has the potential to make a major difference to conventionally-measured GDP: the science of learning and teaching. Between learning and teaching, the science of learning comes first, since teaching is nothing more than helping someone to learn.

Some of the most exciting science about learning comes from psychologists rather than education school professors. ...

Implications for teaching. For teachers, this research on learning points to the value of anything that gets students to work hard during class. For example it helps to get students up to the board, to give them mini-quizzes or questions they answer with clickers, or to have students write a few sentences about what they learned at the end of class. But what really works for lasting learning is so individualized that classroom techniques only go so far.

In an extensive 2017 survey of randomized field experiments of schooling, Harvard economist Roland Fryer finds that tutoring is one of the few educational interventions with big effects. One likely reason for this is that tutors quite naturally challenge students in the way the ideal flashcard app would, as well as challenging students to explain concepts in their own words. The effectiveness of tutoring is not lost on college students. During the time I worked at the University of Michigan, so many students from relatively well-off families were hiring tutors as a boost to their coursework that many of our economics graduate students could make just as much money being a tutor as they could as official teaching assistants.

The trouble with human tutors is that they are expensive. Fortunately, there is hope that computers can become better and better tutors. Typical classes are so ineffectively taught that learning software designed to go along with the regular curriculum typically doesn’t do much good, but experimental evidence already indicates the value of learning software designed to act as a tutor.

But you don’t need a tutor or tutoring software to be an ace learner. All you need is the courage and determination to brave the hard knocks of techniques that constantly make you feel stupid by showing you what you don’t know yet.

Conclusion. There are some other things to learn about learning. For example, there are excellent tricks to get good memory cues: The alphabet song has helped millions of kids master the alphabet, the acronym OCEAN has helped psyche students remember the Big Five personality traits and memory champions use more elaborate “memory palace” techniques (described here) that also work like a charm. But the basic principle is the one above:

If it isn’t making you feel stupid, it isn’t helping you learn.

Or less bluntly, in the words of Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel in Make It Stick:

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.

We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.

Related Columns:

Link to the Amazon page for Make It Stick

Suggested Further Reading by Make It Stick (quotation, bulleting added, bold changed to italics)

Scholarly Articles

  • Crouch, C. H., Fagen, A. P., Callan, J. P., & Mazur, E. (2004). Classroom demonstrations: Learning tools or entertainment? American Journal of Physics, 72, 835–838. An interesting use of generation to enhance learning from classroom demonstrations.
  • Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14, 4–58. Describes techniques that research has shown to work in improving educational practice in both laboratory and field (educational) settings, as well as other techniques that do not work. Provides a thorough discussion of the research literature supporting (or not) each technique.
  • McDaniel, M. A. (2012). Put the SPRINT in knowledge training: Training with SPacing, Retrieval, and INTerleaving. In A. F. Healy & L. E. Bourne Jr. (eds.), Training Cognition: Optimizing Efficiency, Durability, and Generalizability (pp. 267–286). New York: Psychology Press. This chapter points out that many training situations, from business to medicine to continuing education, tend to cram training into an intensive several day “course.” Evidence that spacing and interleaving would be more effective for promoting learning and retention is summarized and some ideas are provided for how to incorporate these techniques into training.
  • McDaniel, M. A., & Donnelly, C. M. (1996). Learning with analogy and elaborative interrogation. Journal of Educational Psychology 88, 508–519. These experiments illustrate the use of several elaborative techniques for learning technical material, including visual imagery and self-questioning techniques. This article is more technical than the others in this list.
  • Richland, L. E., Linn, M. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). Instruction. In F. Durso, R. Nickerson, S. Dumais, S. Lewandowsky, & T. Perfect (eds.), Handbook of Applied Cognition (2nd ed., pp. 553–583). Chichester: Wiley. Provides examples of how desirable difficulties, including generation, might be implemented in instructional settings.
  • Roediger, H. L., Smith, M. A., & Putnam, A. L. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In B. H. Ross (ed.), Psychology of Learning and Motivation. San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press. Provides a summary of the host of potential benefits of practicing retrieving as a learning technique.


  • Brooks, D. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011.
  • Coyle, D. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. New York: Bantam Dell, 2009.
  • Doidge, N. The Brain the Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
  • Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.
  • Dunlosky, J., & Metcalfe, J. Metacognition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2009.
  • Dunning, D. Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself (Essays in Social Psychology). New York: Psychology Press, 2005.
  • Dweck, C. S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.
  • Foer, J. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin, 2011.
  • Gilovich, T. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.
  • Gladwell, M. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2005. _______. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little Brown & Co, 2008.
  • Healy, A. F. & Bourne, L. E., Jr. (Eds.). Training Cognition: Optimizing Efficiency, Durability, and Generalizability. New York: Psychology Press, 2012.
  • Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Mayer, R. E. Applying the Science of Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2010.
  • Nisbett, R. E. Intelligence and How to Get It. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
  • Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. Dynamic Testing: The Nature and Measurement of Learning Potential. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2002.
  • Tough, P. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
  • Willingham, D. T. When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.
  • Worthen, J. B., & Hunt, R. R. Mnemonology: Mnemonics for the 21st Century (Essays in Cognitive Psychology). New York: Psychology Press, 2011.

Letting Go of Sugar

Link to the video above on YouTube. Link to the lyrics for the song "Now I Know."

An official designation that something is "addictive" is a very political matter. But the addictive, or at least psychotropic, quality of sugar is indicated by things like:

  • the way children's perception of their day revolves around the sugary treats they consumed,
  • the physiological and mental changes that loosen the hold of sugar after three weeks or so of avoiding it, and  
  • the ease with which lyrics about romantic relationships can be reinterpreted as lyrics about sugar.  

At the top, I have a video of Lari White singing "Now I Know." Try interpreting the second person pronoun "you" in these first two stanzas and refrain in the middle as referring to sugar:

I always wondered how I'd live without you
If you ever said goodbye
Would I just live in dreams about you
With tears in my eyes
Would I fall to pieces when you go
I always wondered how I'd live without you
Now I know

I'm doing alright
I'm strong enough to make it on my own
I'm not afraid of the night
I'm learning how to face it alone
I've been good at holding on
Now I'm learning to let go
I always wondered how I'd live without you
Now I know

I always wondered what I'd do without you
I found out today
I got up and made a cup of coffee
And time just slipped away
I dressed up and went out on the town
To places you'd never go
I always wondered what I'd do without you
Now I know

Let me offer some tips for escaping the thrall of sugar.

Three Weeks' Patience. The first is one I alluded to above: if you can go three weeks without eating sugar, it will get easier. It may still be hard, but sugar won't call to you quite as much. Foods that didn't taste that sweet to you before will start tasting sweet. And if you try again some of the foods you used to love, they will taste too sweet. 

What is more, if you can go three weeks without eating sugar, then if you do eat sugar again, you will be able to notice what it does to you: sugar makes you hungry. The calories-in/calories out identity is so misused in our society that I don't like to talk too much about calories. But there is one context in which I don't mind talking about calories. A key ratio for foods and beverages is the satiety to calorie ratio. If the satiety to calorie ratio is high, you will naturally want to stop eating before eating too many calories. If the satiety to calorie ratio is low, you will naturally want to eat too many calories. My experience is that sugar has a negative satiety to calorie ratio: eating sugar doesn't make you feel more full; it makes you feel hungrier, like subtraction soup in one of my favorite childhood books: The Phantom Tollbooth.  

Give Sugar Some Competition. It is hard to beat something with nothing. When you are going off sugar, especially in the first three weeks, always have with you a nonsugary treat to substitute for sugary treats you are tempted by. Unless you have an allergy, I view any kind of nut as very healthy. In a Ziploc bag, you can take nuts with you anywhere you would be tempted by a sugary treat. (See "Our Delusions about 'Healthy' Snacks—Nuts to That!") Besides nuts, chocolate with at least 88% cocoa (which has a little sugar but not much), good-tasting cheese, and coffee or tea (with cream if you like, but no sugar) can be a good competitor for much less healthy sugary treats. (See "Intense Dark Chocolate: A Review," "My Giant Salad" and "Eating on the Road.") At home, frozen cherries, fresh peaches or other fruit with half-and-half (but no added sugar) are excellent competition for sugary treats. If you crave carbs, plain oatmeal with half-and-half is one of the safest ways to indulge in something that seems carbolicious. (Lean away from instant oatmeal, which is likely to be more quickly digested and so have more of an insulin kick.) 

To prevent temptation before it begins, make sure to invent some very healthy, substantial dishes that you love to eat and love to make. For me it is "My Giant Salad." Also figure out some easy snacks that give you variety. One weird bit of variety for me is eating hearts of palm straight from the jar. They may not appeal to you. Find something healthy that does!

Know the Names of Sugar.  I found a useful page on the many names of sugar: "56 Most Common Names for Sugar You Should Know." Follow the rule that sugar is sugar. For example, honey, agave nectar and fruit juice count as sugar. The one exception is this: with a little poetic license, it counts as "going off sugar" even if you continue to eat whole fruit of all types. (To the extent that whole fruit is problematic because of the sugar in it, you can worry about that later, after you have successfully escaped from the clutches of all the other forms of sugar.)   

Avoid Nonsugar Sweeteners. Don't just replace sugar one for one with nonsugar sweeteners. It is a big help in going off sugar to get your sense of sweetness recalibrated. Avoiding nonsugar sweeteners is important for that to happen. I am not at zero in my consumption of nonsugar sweeteners, but they aren't a big thing in my eating patterns.

In addition to making it so that your sense of sweetness doesn't get recalibrated, the sweetness of nonsugar sweeteners can easily make you think about eating and therefore increase your appetite (the opposite of satiation). Not all of that happens consciously.

The third problem with nonsugar sweeteners is that all of the most common types have an insulin kick to them. I wish nutrition researchers had reached a consensus on the insulin kick from different kinds of nonsugar sweeteners. Based on what keto websites say, I consider erythritol and oligosaccharides the most nearly innocent nonsugar sweeteners. They are still sweet, but possibly only have a bad effect through sweetness itself. Stevia has a mixed reputation; I don't avoid it totally. 

Don't Prepare Food You Shouldn't Be Eating. My heart goes out to those who are trying to improve their own eating habits but are expected to prepare food for others who are content to eat badly. It is hard to resist eating food that you prepare if it is food that calls to you. Fortunately, people who insist on eating sugary food can usually be bought off with junk food purchased at the grocery store. Since you don't intend to eat what you are buying, make it easier for yourself to keep your resolve by buying things those you are buying for like but that you detest. Then you won't be as tempted. Similarly, if you really can't escape preparing some food you shouldn't be eating, see if you can't get away with preparing something you don't like very much. 

If You Bend the Rules, Eat the Worst Things First. I have read that, historically, the traditionally order of eating—appetizers, main course, dessert—was designed to maximize the appetite of guests at a party. One trouble with that is that if you eat a sugary dessert at the end of a meal, then you are likely to want to eat more after that. Or at a minimum, you will be able to happily get the sugary treat down when eating more of anything else would sound like too much. 

If the traditional order—appetizers, main course, dessert—encourages diners to eat as much as possible, reversing the order—dessert, main course, appetizers—should help you eat less.  An insulin kick or psychological effect from sweetness that makes you want to eat more isn't quite as harmful if the next thing you were going to do was sit down to a giant, healthy salad anyway.

Counter the Sugar Industry's Propaganda. The sugar industry likes to push two lines to divert people's attention from the harm of sugar:

  • A calorie is a calorie
  • Exercise can fully counteract any harm of sugar

Not so. Different calories are associated with dramatically different degrees of satiation. And while exercise will make you healthy, happy and smart, I don't know of any evidence that any amount of exercise below that of a competitive athlete can counteract the harm of a diet that is extremely heavy on sugar. There is some evidence that modest amounts of exercise can be protective against weight gain, but I wonder if that isn't related to exercise making people want to eat less sugar: if you are working so hard on the treadmill, are you really going to (under the conventional theory) undo all that effort by eating a lot of sugar?

One of the most effective ways to counter to the sugar industry's propaganda in your mind is to read Gary Taubes's book The Case Against SugarThis book can be an inspiration to anyone making a serious attempt to let go of sugar. I hope many of my other blog posts, flagged below, can also be helpful to those trying to go off sugar. (You might want to play "Where's Waldo?" with the word "sugar" among those links at the bottom.)

Help Us All Figure Out What Works and What Doesn't in Letting Go of Sugar by Sharing Your Experience. I would love to hear about your experiences—especially if you find going off sugar difficult. Even if I have the basic outline of the science of weight loss right in my contrarian views, the psychology and practicalities of implementing those contrarian views are still in their infancy. Hearing about problems people run into when trying to go off sugar is the only way I know to think about how to deal with those problems. And a brilliant solution you come up with might well be something I would never think of myself in a million years. So let us know about your experiences trying to go off sugar.  


Don't miss these other posts on diet and health and on fighting obesity:

Also see the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see my post "A Barycentric Autobiography."


                                          Image source

                                       Image source

Dan Reynolds, Lead Singer of Imagine Dragons, on the Human Cost of the Mormon Church's Stand Against Gay Marriage

Trailer for "Believer"

I highly recommend the HBO documentary "Believer." It shows the best and worst of Mormonism in one package. Dan Reynolds's idealism is familiar to me from all of the Mormons and ex-Mormons I know. I believe that idealism owes a lot to his Mormon background. That is the best of Mormonism. 

But also on display in "Believer" is the willingness of Mormon Church leaders put what in their view is essential for the preservation of the institution and their own power—not an entirely distinct concept—ahead of the welfare of gay members of the Mormon Church. 

The Mormon Church has a doctrinal view that is very negative about gay marriage. But the harshness of its policy against gay marriage goes well beyond even the harshness of its anti-gay-marriage doctrine. (See my post "The Mormon Church Decides to Treat Gay Marriage as Rebellion on a Par with Polygamy.") 

Coming from a Mormon background, my own views about homosexuality and gay marriage evolved over time. If you had talked to me back in 1990, you would not have heard the most enlightened views about homosexuality. But over time, I have come to value "diversity" more and more—not as the codeword it often is, but in a genuine appreciation of what we can all learn from and gain from human beings who are different from us. Indeed, love across chasms of difference is, I believe, the key to making a place for God in our world. And love across chasms of difference soon reduces chasms of difference to the size of cracks in the sidewalk.