The Trouble with Most Psychological Approaches to Weight Loss: They Assume the Biology is Obvious, When It Isn't

Psychological approaches to weight loss send people to battle hunger and food cravings head on. But a large component of hunger and food cravings is governed by biological forces that can be sidestepped and don’t need to be fought at all. In “4 Propositions on Weight Loss” I lay out the theory that there are certain foods that generate powerful biological hunger and food cravings: sugar, bread, rice and potatoes, plus others that can be determined by personal experimentation. Avoid those foods, and then you will only have to face narrowly psychological desires for food. Eat sugar, bread, rice and potatoes, and you will face strong physiological cravings to eat more than is good for you. Indeed, avoid sugar, bread, rice and potatoes and you will be well on your way to facing surprisingly little hunger even when you eat nothing at all, because your body will be able to switch over relatively easily to burning your own fat stores.

Going off sugar, bread, rice and potatoes may seem superhuman, but it isn’t when you immediately substitute other treats such as nuts, manchego cheese or cherries and cream (or cherries and canned coconut milk). Also, eating a giant salad each day before you let yourself eat anything else (other than nuts and salad ingredients) can do a lot to reduce temptation. I give practical tips in “Letting Go of Sugar” and “Our Delusions about 'Healthy' Snacks—Nuts to That.”

A lot of the idea that dietary fat is bad for weight loss comes from people combining dietary fat with sugar, as I discuss in “Does Sugar Make Dietary Fat Less OK?” If you cut out sugar and other troublesome foods like bread, rice and potatoes, then dietary fat will make you feel full quite fast. Indeed, big doses of fatty foods like avocados and olive oil in a salad are some of the healthiest things you can eat, and can do a lot to keep you satisfied long after your meal.

In the contest for best simple message to aid weight loss and health, I’d bet on “Sugar is bad” against “Reduce calories” any day. As a matter of public health, the message “Reduce calories” has only led to rising obesity. It is true that the message “Sugar is bad” is out there at some level, but it lacks the punch it needs without comparisons like

  • Sugar is much, much, worse than butter or cream or oil.

  • The worst thing about bacon is the sugar added to the bacon.

  • Don’t worry about calories, just cut out all sugar.

To go further, I would add these:

  • In bread and butter, it’s the bread that’s unhealthy, not the butter.

  • In fried rice, it is the rice that is unhealthy, not the oil the rice is fried in.

  • The worst thing about french fries is that they’re made of potatoes, not the oil they’re cooked in.

  • In a hamburger, it is the bun that is the unhealthiest part.

The article I flag at the top of this post, Bee Wilson’s September 6, 2018 Wall Street Journal article “No, A Salad Doesn’t Make that Burger Healthier,” raises the question of whether being combined with healthy food can reduce the harm of unhealthy food. She stresses one part of the answer: a token amount of healthy food can’t redeem unhealthy food. The next part of the answer is that nothing can redeem sugar, bread or potatoes. Jason Fung, in The Obesity Code (a book I highlight in “Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon” and Five Books That Have Changed My Life) suggests that acidic things such as vinegar or Japanese pickled vegetables might help redeem white rice. Being full-fat helps redeem milk: I take a dimmer view of milk overall in “Is Milk OK?” (I have more to say on that in the future) but if the choice is between whole milk and skim milk, the message of Whole Milk Is Healthy; Skim Milk Less So is still helpful. Fiber can help slow down the insulin response to many things.

Thinking about things in terms of calories makes it seem obvious that adding healthy food can’t make unhealthy food less unhealthy, but thinking in terms of insulin responses can focus attention on the idea that adding oil or fiber or vinegar might help slow down the insulin kick of a not-so-healthy food. But sugar is so bad, I argue in “Does Sugar Make Dietary Fat Less OK?” that the interaction goes the other way: sugar makes dietary fat worse, which means that dietary fat makes sugar worse. With bread and potatoes, I am have less of a sense. I would start from the assumption that the harm of the bread in a sandwich is simply a big subtraction from whatever good there is in what is inside the sandwich.

That question of interactions between good and bad things in “No, A Salad Doesn’t Make that Burger Healthier” is a good one, but I am turned off by two undefended assumptions in the article: (1) that thinking about calories is helpful (see “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid,” “Nina Teicholz on the Bankruptcy of Counting Calories” and “Mass In/Mass Out: A Satire of Calories In/Calories Out”); (2) the psychologizing of the problem of weight loss. To me, understanding the biology of hunger—in particular the role of sugar, bread rice and potatoes, and how done right, fasting (drinking water, but not eating food) doesn’t necessarily lead to a lot of hunger—is a much bigger deal than understanding tidbits of psychology about calories like this:

Dr. Chernev found that if you ask people to estimate the calories in a hamburger, they will usually estimate more calories for a hamburger by itself than for a hamburger with a few sticks of celery or a carrot salad on the side. Many of the participants imagined that a burger by itself was around 600 calories, whereas they reckoned that a burger plus celery was more like 500 calories.

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."

Evaluating the Replicability of Social Science Experiments in Nature and Science

Coauthor Brian Nosek summarized the results this way in a tweet:

We replicated 21 social science experiments in Science or Nature. We succeeded with 13. Replication effect sizes were half of originals. All materials, data, code, & reports: osf.io/pfdyw/, preprint socarxiv.org/4hmb6/, Nature Human Behavior nature.com/articles/s4156…

The link on the title of this post is to the ungated version of the article. 

 

Steven Pinker on Transhumanism, Means-End Rationality and Cultural Appropriation

Adam Rubinstein's interview with Steven Pinker shown above yields many interesting thoughts from Steven. I was particularly struck by what Steven said about Transhumanism, means-end rationality and cultural appropriation. Here are those thoughts, with my headings added in bold:

Transhumanism: As for “transhumanism,” I’m skeptical about that we’re going to see enhancements of human nature by genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or neural implants (though these technologies may be used to mitigate disabilities, a different matter). We now know that there is no “gene for musical talent” that ambitious parents will implant into their unborn children—psychological traits are distributed across thousands of genes, each with a teensy effect, and many with deleterious side effects (such as a gene that makes you a bit smarter while increasing your chance of getting cancer). Also, people are risk-averse (sometimes pathologically so) when it comes to their children and when it comes to genetic engineering—they don’t accept genetically modified tomatoes, let alone babies. More generally, biomedical progress in the real world is more Sisyphus than Singularity. Readers of medical newsletters are regularly disillusioned by miracle cures that turn out to be no better than the placebo, or that wash out in the meta-analysis.

As for implants, neurosurgeons have a saying: “You’re never the same once the air hits your brain.” Invading a healthy brain with foreign objects, with the risk of inflammation and infection, is a really bad idea. And neuroscientists don’t have a clue as to how the brain encodes thoughts at the nano-level of synapses and neural firing, let alone a technology that would manipulate it with precision greater than a sledgehammer.

Means-End Rationality: Reason has nothing to do with asceticism, joylessness, incuriosity, coldness, or callousness. That is because intelligence is logically distinct from motivation: an ability to figure out how best to get from A to B says nothing about what the B should be. Goals such as happiness, knowledge, love, beauty, and insight are in no way antithetical to reason.

Cultural Appropriation ... one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment: that people are equipped with a capacity for sympathetic imagination, which allows them to appreciate the suffering of sentient beings unlike them. In this regard nothing could be more asinine than outrage against “cultural appropriation”—as if it’s a bad thing, rather than a good thing, for a white writer to try to convey the experiences of a black person, or vice versa.

I am looking forward to reading Steven's new book, Enlightenment Now

  Link to the Amazon page for  Enlightenment Now

Link to the Amazon page for Enlightenment Now

Michael Lowe and Heidi Mitchell: Is Getting ‘Hangry’ Actually a Thing?

OxfordDictionaries.com explains the word "hangry" this way:

It is only in the 21st century that the word hangry, a blend of hungry and angry used colloquially to mean ‘bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger’, has entered common use. However, the earliest known evidence for the word dates from 1956, in an unusual article in the psychoanalytic journal American Imago that describes various kinds of deliberate and accidental wordplay.

As a noun for being hangry, the word "hanger" can work when spoken with a hard g, but in print it is too confusing , so here I'll nominalize "hangry" to "hangriness." (The other alternative is "hangry" as a noun as well as an adjective.)

Hangriness is a real thing. The Wall Street Journal's Heidi Mitchell interviewed Michael Lowe, a psychologist interested in eating disorders for an August 29, 2018 article:

The popularity of the term hangry has outstripped the scientific research on it, Dr. Lowe says. He agrees that food deprivation can contribute to “a hypersensitivity to react to things you wouldn’t react to much or at all when you’re not hungry.” However, food deprivation exacerbates other feelings, too. “If we had a list of 10 negative emotions, my guess is that as people get hungrier, the scores of most of the negative emotions would go up, not just anger,” he says.

Just after we begin eating, blood-sugar levels rise sharply, then gradually decline for hours until we eat again. “At some point, one starts to experience falling glucose levels and stomach growling and other signs of energy deprivation that trigger an alarm in the brain,” Dr. Lowe says.

Some of the best evidence for the reality of hangriness or the broader set of psychological effects of low blood sugar is from three business school professors: Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso. Michael Lowe summarizes their Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA article "Extraneous factors in judicial decisions" as follows:

Dr. Lowe also points to a study of eight Israeli judges who granted 65% of convicts’ parole requests in the morning and after a snack break, but almost none at day’s end. “Someone who is very hungry and irritable is likely to react more harshly” than his or her well-fed co-worker, he says.

Michael Lowe knows something about the effects of being hangry. And I don't doubt that it is a reflection of low blood sugar. But Michael is not as clued in as he should be about the causes of low blood sugar. As I wrote in "How Sugar Makes People Hangry":

A big cause of low blood sugar is when you have eaten sugar, refined carbs or some other food with a high insulin index a couple of hours earlier. When sugar, refined carbs or something else high on the insulin index causes insulin to spike, that insulin causes blood sugar to be removed from the bloodstream (some to the muscles and some to be stored as fat in the fat cells). It is like waking up from being asleep at the wheel, seeing you are drifting off to the right, and then overcorrecting to the left. 

So, a good way to reduce the chances of blood sugar low enough to make you "hangry" is to avoid sugar, refined carbs and other foods high on the insulin index.

On the insulin index, see "Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid." My own experience, and that of others, is that when they eat low on the insulin index, they can go 24 hours without eating without getting hangry. So Michael is assuming a currently customary high-insulin-index diet when he told Heidi Mitchell (in her paraphrase):

There’s everyday hunger people feel five hours or so after a meal, called homeostatic hunger. There’s also hedonic hunger, which happens to some people because they become accustomed to eating simply for pleasure, so they often think about food.'

What Michael calls everyday homeostatic hunger comes on much sooner (five hours in his telling) and is much stronger for all but a minority of people these days because they are eating sugar, easily digestible carbs and other foods high on the insulin index.

Michael mentioned the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, but missed one of the main messages of that experiment:  

He cites the famous 1945 Minnesota Starvation Experiment as an extreme example: Of the male volunteers who lost 25% of their body weight in six months, most reported irritability and a decrease in mental ability.

A key to understanding why the experience of men in this experiment was so horrible is what they were eating—carbs high on the insulin index:

Their diet consisted of foods widely available in Europe during the war, mostly potatoes, root vegetables, bread and macaroni.

If they had been eating a diet low in easily digestible carbs—or eating nothing—they could have made up for fewer food calories by burning their own fat without much discomfort, as long as they had a reasonable amount of body fat left. (In the Stanford DIETFITS study I talk about in "Why a Low-Insulin-Index Diet Isn't Exactly a 'Lowcarb' Diet" and "Against Sugar: The Messenger and the Message" people replaced easily digestible carbs with either complex carbs like vegetables or with dietary fat. Either diet worked well.)

Michael's lack of understanding of the role of easily digestible carbs in causing low blood sugar also leads him astray in the stories he tells about our ancestors. Eating in an era before processed foods, before humans had come across potatoes in the Americas, and before grain was domesticated, I argue they would have gotten hangry mainly when their stores of body fat ran low, not when they simply had to go a few days without food while they had plenty of body fat left—a genuinely dangerous and often desperate situation. But processed foods, potatoes and grain have made us feel desperate for food in situations that aren't really desperate at all. (On processed food, see my post "The Problem with Processed Food.")

Not understanding the role of easily digestible carbs and other foods high on the insulin index in hangriness, Michael gives bad advice:

To avoid feeling hangry, Dr. Lowe recommends distributing food intake evenly across the day.

I talk about formal and informal evidence that substantial periods of time with no food are a key to relatively painless weight loss in these posts, among others:

You don't need to snack constantly to avoid feeling hangry. Just avoid easily digestible carbs and other foods high on the insulin index. And if despite this claim, you are worried you might feel hangry, you can carry around some nuts anywhere in a ziploc bag  (but don't go for cashews or peanuts, neither of which are true nuts and both of which have problems). See "Our Delusions about 'Healthy' Snacks—Nuts to That!" That can also help you deal with temptations, as I point out in "Letting Go of Sugar."

The bottom line is that if you feel hangry with any frequency, it is an urgent sign that you need to fix your diet. There are many other reasons to feel negative emotions, including anger, but human beings weren't meant to feel seriously hangry except in genuinely desperate situations. If you do feel hangry with any frequency, take it as a sign you are probably eating badly. 

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: Government by the Consent of the Governed Often Began Out of Respect for Someone Trusted to Govern

Even when everyone feels in their bones that legitimate government must be by the consent of the governed, it is only the experience of misrule that leads to formal constitutions or bylaws, written or not. In my experience now in two different Economics Departments—at the University of Michigan and the University of Colorado Boulder—I have seen how willing professors are to have streamlined decision-making if they agree with the policies decided on. Passionate objections about procedure almost always arise out of substantive disagreements with what was decided. 

In  Sections 111-112 and the associated not in his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (in Chapter VIII, "Of the Beginning of Political Societies"), John Locke writes of how willing people are to have a monarch when they trust and look up to that monarch:

§. 111. But though the golden age (before vain ambition, and amor sceleratis habendi, evil concupiscence, had corrupted men’s minds into a mistake of true power and honour) had more virtue, and consequently better governors, as well as less vicious subjects; and there was then no stretching prerogative on the one side, to oppress the people; nor consequently on the other, any dispute about privilege, to lessen or restrain the power of the magistrate, and so no contest betwixt rulers and people about governors or government: yet, when ambition and luxury in future ages [see Note 1 below] would retain and increase the power, without doing the business for which it was given; and aided by flattery, taught princes to have distinct and separate interests from their people, men found it necessary to examine more carefully the original and rights of government; and to find out ways to restrain the exorbitances, and prevent the abuses of that power, which they having intrusted in another’s hands only for their own good, they found was made use of to hurt them.

  §. 112. Thus we may see how probable it is, that people that were naturally free, and by their own consent either submitted to the government of their father, or united together out of different families to make a government, should generally put the rule into one man’s hands, and chuse to be under the conduct of a single person, without so much as by express conditions limiting or regulating his power, which they thought safe enough in his honesty and prudence; though they never dreamed of monarchy being Jure Divino, which we never heard of among mankind, till it was revealed to us by the divinity of this last age; nor ever allowed paternal power to have a right to dominion, or to be the foundation of all government. And thus much may suffice to shew, that as far as we have any light from history, we have reason to conclude, that all peaceful beginnings of government have been laid in the consent of the people. I say peaceful, because I shall have occasion in another place to speak of conquest, which some esteem a way of beginning of governments.

Note 1. At first, when some certain kind of regiment was once approved, it may be nothing was then farther thought upon for the manner of governing, but all permitted unto their wisdom and discretion which were to rule, till by experience they found this for all parts very inconvenient, so as the thing which they had devised for a remedy, did indeed but increase the sore which it should have cured. They saw, that to live by one man’s will, became the cause of all men’s misery. This constrained them to come unto laws wherein all men might see their duty beforehand, and know the penalties of transgressing them. Hooker’s Eccl. Pol. l. i. sect. 10.

As I think of the history of bad kings and queens, I marvel at the motivations that drive people to become bad rulers. But I believe Lord Acton's adage

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I have not held a lot of administrative power in my life, nor do I think, relative to the overall distribution, I am all that power-hungry. But during my stint as Associate Chair for Administration at the University of Michigan I noticed on at least one occasion the temptation to exercise power badly, out of pique. It struck me because it seemed so alien to my self-image. But position creates potential for corruption, in small cases as well as big ones. 

 

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Peter Conti-Brown: The President Crossed a Line in Commenting on Interest Rates. The Fed Needs to Redraw It.

I am grateful to Peter Conti-Brown for permission to make his latest Wall Street Journal op-ed a guest post here. Here is what he has to say:


The president probably wasn’t pleased when the Fed raised interest rates. But when the press asked Dwight Eisenhower to comment in 1956, he said: “The Federal Reserve Board is set up as a separate agency of government. . . . It would be a mistake to make it definitely and directly responsible to the political head of state.”

In the 1990s, President Clinton’s economic advisers, led by Bob Rubin, initiated a rule that the White House would make no comment on Fed policy, even anonymously. That rule held until last week, when President Trump stated in an interview that he was “not happy” with Fed policy. On Friday he followed up with a pair of tweets. The Rubin Rule is dead.

Some may celebrate its demise. The Fed isn’t supposed to be unaccountable: Politicians name key Fed personnel; Congress is active in its oversight; journalists and other outsiders engage and critique every aspect of Fed policy. That attention can make the job of central banking unpleasant, but it is vital to the Fed’s legitimacy.

What Mr. Trump did was different. The process of pushing interest rates back to historical norms has been and will be among the most uncertain policy programs undertaken in Fed history. Mr. Trump made that fraught process more complicated in two ways. First, he showed himself ready to wage war over the Fed’s decisions even without a market correction or recession—the usual times when politicians start looking for monetary scapegoats.

Second, the perception of the Fed’s decision-making will change immediately. To be sure, the substance of those decisions won’t be so easily swayed. The Fed won’t fold after one tart presidential comment; Chairman Jay Powell and his colleagues are made of sterner stuff than that. More plausibly, the Fed could overreact and seek to assert its independence by raising rates more quickly than is warranted. That would be a mistake, and it’s still unlikely.

In central banking, though, appearance matters as much as substance. How will the Fed’s decisions be perceived by markets and in political campaigns, in boardrooms and in newsrooms? If the Fed slows rate increases on the merits, the public now is likely to declare a Trumpian victory. If it speeds those increases, it may invite a Trumpian war. Either result would be devastating.

The Fed’s instincts will be to hide from this fight. Instead it should confront it. Central bankers should not give marble-mouthed nonresponses to the inevitable questions about the Trump administration. They should instead be clear with the usual assurances that the Fed hasn’t altered its course based on political pressures. And they should expand on the virtues and fragility of Fed independence and explain that these traditions are mostly for politicians, not central bankers, to honor.

Fed accountability, legitimacy and independence are fragile but valuable ideals that reinforce each other. The president crossed a line last week; the Fed should not be shy in attempting to redraw it.

Mr. Conti-Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, is author of “The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve” (Princeton University Press, 2016).

Does Sugar Make Dietary Fat Less OK?

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I have defended dietary fat as healthy in many blog posts, including

But there is one circumstance in which dietary fat might not be so great: if you are still eating sugar. In last week's post, "Heidi Turner, Michael Schwartz and Kristen Domonell on How Bad Sugar Is" I quote this:

Schwartz agrees that sugar can cause major health problems, but says it isn’t acting alone. The most potent way to activate the brain’s reward system is actually by combining sugar with fat, he says. And much of the American diet contains both of these components.

There is a claim here about complementarity in badness: that is, in the presence of sugar, dietary fat is worse than in the absence of sugar. I take the view that in the absence of sugar, dietary fat—other than the big mistake of transfat—is quite healthy. But it is logically possible that dietary fat combined too close in time to sugar is unhealthy. Let me spin out a possible theory. I should say first that I am not really persuaded by the "overwhelmingly rewarding" theory that Michael Schwartz is putting forward. Sugar is extremely rewarding. Fat is extremely rewarding. Is the combination of sugar and fat that much more rewarding than sugar in combination with nonfat foods or fat in combination with nonsugar foods?

Instead, let discuss things from the standpoint of the satiation to calorie ratio I talk about in "Letting Go of Sugar." Dietary fat by itself, or in combination with other foods low on the insulin index (see "Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid") is quite satiating: it will make you feel full quite fast. But sugar has a negative satiation to calorie ratio: it makes you feel less full. So add enough sugar to your dietary fat, and the dietary fat's normal tendency to make you feel full will be neutralized. 

The idea that sugar neutralizes the tendency of dietary fat to make you feel full still doesn't seem to make dietary fat any worse than anything else combined with sugar. But what if, in addition to the mechanisms that normally make dietary fat satiation, there is a volumetric mechanism that makes you full if there is a high volume of food in your stomach. It would make sense that sugar can neutralize some mechanisms that make you feel full, but it can't neutralize the volumetric mechanism. But dietary fat doesn't have a lot of volume per calorie, so if the normal mechanism that makes dietary fat so very satiating is neutralized, there isn't a volumetric backup mechanism for fat. Sugar gets past the main safeguard that makes you not want to overeat dietary fat and that's it. 

Solution? Don't eat sugar. See "Letting Go of Sugar" for how to get there. Sugar is bad whether or not it is combined with dietary fat. Even on the theory above, dietary fat is only bad when combined with 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."