As some of you know, one of my tricks for keeping my energy high is always having at least one project going that could change the world in some positive way, even if the odds are ridiculously low. Along those lines, I've been thinking about funding a survey that could be summarized with these two questions:

  1. How much do you know about nutrition and diet?
  2. How overweight are you?

Let's assume experts could come up with a quiz on diet and nutrition that would accurately rank people from less-informed to well-informed. My hypothesis is that the people with the most knowledge about proper diet and nutrition also have the healthiest levels of body fat. In other words, knowledge is a substitute for willpower when it comes to deciding what to eat. Or taking it one step further, knowledge creates health.

If my hypothesis is correct, an educational campaign about proper eating would have a gigantic impact on health. I could even imagine your healthcare insurance provider offering discounts to patients that pass a diet and nutrition test in a doctor's office.

The popular view is that overweight people have low willpower, or low metabolism, or they don't exercise enough. But my observation over a lifetime of eating with various groups of friends is that fit people simply know more about proper eating and exercise than their weight-challenged friends.

For example, I think you'd find that overweight people think they need to increase their exercise routine substantially to lose weight. And that's a scary proposition if you're not feeling particularly fit. Thin people, on average, probably understand that exercise is good for your health but it doesn't have a big impact on weight. In fact, to lose weight some people might be better off temporarily cutting back on exercise just to reduce the drag on your limited supply of willpower.

As another example, I think you'd find that overweight people more often think "a calorie is a calorie" no matter how you get it, whereas fit people think simple carbs are almost poisons.

In my case, when my knowledge of proper eating reached a good-enough level I dropped ten pounds without using any extra willpower whatsoever. Now I eat as much as I want, of anything I want, all day long, and I don't gain a pound. The secret was learning how to manage my cravings. I can eat anything I want because I no longer want unhealthy foods. Knowledge replaced my need for willpower. For example, I now understand that eating simple carbs for lunch kills my energy for the rest of the day. It doesn't take any willpower to resist doing something I know will make me feel like hell in an hour. But before I knew simple carbs were the culprit, I assumed eating in general was the problem, and I couldn't avoid eating during the day. Knowledge solved a problem that willpower could not.

I think it's clear that governments would be worthless in educating the public about diet and nutrition because the unhealthy food industry lobbyists are too powerful. So I think this sort of effort would need to be privately funded. But before doing that, it would help to have a better idea if this is a good strategy.

My question of the day for my smart blog readers is this: Do you think that overweight people could get to a healthier weight simply by learning what their fitter friends already know?


Scott Adams

Creator of Dilbert

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

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Mar 29, 2014
"Do you think that overweight people could get to a healthier weight simply by learning what their fitter friends already know?"

I would answer a yes to that question based on my personal experience, though in my case, the learning was not from friends but reading stuff online from netizens who were in similar situation as mine and were able to reduce their weight by following a healthy diet and excercise regime. My willpower to reduce my weight became strong only after learning about fitter habits. And that willpower wasn't helping me few years earlier when I underwent a surgery and
the doctor advised me to reduce weight by following healthy habits. I foolishly ignored that advice at the time. So yes, being aware of healthy options have definitely improved my chances to become fitter. I have improved my diet (even though I do indulge sometimes, which I need to control) and also reduced my weight over the last 15-16 months. I can look back and if I had known about these issues earlier, I think it should have helped. Compare that to people around me, who don't yet have the same fitness awareness (in spite of my attempts), are not yet ready to excercise and improve their diet.
Mar 19, 2014
I eat a lot. Chips, soda, burgers, fries. Lots of stuff. I don't really care about nutrition.

I am slightly underweight. 5' 4" and 102lbs.
Mar 18, 2014
Were you aware that your blog has ads that link to "Garcinia Cambogia" supplements, that are apparently SO effective that two women - Julia Miller and Audrey Campbell did the exact same test - word for word in a 3-screen article for 2 diffeent "news outlets".....and both got down to 5 stone.....(hence must both be under 4 feet tall not to be seriously medically underweight).

Point being.....most people want the easy fix. And there is too much lying <expletive deleted> out there.

I know you likely have no idea what ads run on your blog page. But I found it ironic, to say the least.

+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 17, 2014
"Do you think that overweight people could get to a healthier weight simply by learning what their fitter friends already know?"

The question itself somewhat implies that the fitter friends' knowledge on food is hard to acquire. If only the uneducated would be more aware, and have some way to also get that knowledge, all would be good.

The truth is of course that it is a lack of interest to seek out the knowledge, not a lack of knowledge being available. It only takes one good book to get that knowledge. Even without a book, one can read what is in products and do the elementary school math. And then there is this free and overwhelming internet, where you can look up anything.

The knowledge is everywhere, ready to be picked up with near-zero effort. If this is true, why is it that still some people have zero knowledge on the subject? The only thing I can think of is a lack of interest.

There are categories of knowledge, for example, that can make the world of difference. For example, is a person is in the habit of eating junk food, and you can find a healthy replacement that is equally satisfying, such knowledge is golden.
Mar 17, 2014
As someone who has battled weight issues on-and-off for much of my life, I can tell you that losing weight is 80% dependent on being in the right mental and physical state to do it, and 20% on figuring out what works for you. Here's my story:

At 11 I was 5'5', thin, and a C-cup - I got a LOT of unwanted attention, including from teachers. I was one of only 2 girls in my class banned from wearing shorts because it was distracting to the adults. Over the next couple years I gained weight as a self-defense mechanism to stop the leering. I dropped the weight before college, when I was mentally ready for a little more attention.

At 35 I developed a grapefruit-sized fibroid tumor that pressed against my spinal column, causing near constant pain. I had to go on steriods for 6 months before having surgery. Between the steroids and lack of exercise, I gained 30 pounds. It took me a couple years to get it all off.

At 40 I developed a viral thyroid infection - gained 35 pounds in 6 months before medication stablized it. But my energy level never returned, and my chemistry was messed up. I was pre-diabetic and had high cholestrol. This time it took me almost 10 years to get it all off.

And then menopause hit, and once again I had a hormone imbalance, combined with sleepless nights that left me craving sugar to stay awake during the days. 30 pounds later, and the symptoms are finally subsiding enough for me to get back on a diet and the weight is coming off. I hope to be back in my skinny clothes in 2 or 3 months.

Knowledge wasn't the problem in any of these situations.

One last thing - once a person has gained enough to be considered obese, they have added fat cells to their body that don't go away. So when back at a normal weight, they have more fat cells than someone who has always been thin, and each cell has to be starved a bit to maintain the same weight. One more reason keeping weight off is harder.

Mar 17, 2014
Ultimately, I guess that what Scott's saying here is that if you have most of your life in order, then knowledge is the last most important thing to consider.
Scott probably already has a bunch of other systems in place to keep in-check stress, depression, anxiety, comfort-needs, bad habits, etc, all the different mental things that ones mind could succumb to, and his head is likely bursting of all the knowledge it took to get him there.

What I would like to know is how you get to that point when you are lacking on multiple fronts at the same time (is this in the book?). "Normal" people usually have a handful of struggles going on simultaneously; when they chip away at one problem, they often lose ground to another.

[Yes, my new book addresses a systems approach to everything from your health to your attitude. But I would say that fixing your life and then working on your diet as the mop-up operation is backwards. You need to fix your diet first (as the book describes) to get the right kind of energy to tackle your other challenges, especially your attitude and motivation. Diet comes first, not last. -- Scott]
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 17, 2014
Food marketing is evil. A great many "meal replacements", diet snacks and especially breakfast cereals are way more calories than chips and sweets - and not much better nutritionally.

I find the best way to keep weight down (other than walking every day), is substitution. I find the craving for crisps can be beaten with popcorn or even crunchy cucumber (combine crunch and salt). Cravings for sugar and sweets are beaten with hard wine gums. It is no use "not eating them" - the cravings just get worse every hour, every day, until you have a weak moment.
Mar 17, 2014
Sorry Scott, the taste of the vanilla and pistachio cake I just ate outweighs any of the considerations you mentioned.
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Mar 16, 2014
Here are what will probably be my final thoughts on this subject:

If you (personally) were going to fund a research study/survey, it would be worth approaching a body like the Pew Research Center to discuss it in the first instance: they have a lot of experience in gathering data that will be used in framing public policy, and they could also ensure that your questions are posed in the most effective, meaningful and statistically most significant way. Their positive reputation among policymakers should also help to ensure that the findings from the study -- whatever those may turn out to be -- will have the maximum potential impact where it matters.

I'm not sure why Ludwig817 is so sceptical of government-funded dietary advice. Can he point to specific examples of poor dietary advice that emanated from a government agency? I'm wondering if he has some reason to presume it is ideologically rather than factually driven, is based on unsound research methods, or is promoting certain advice in order to favour particular commercial interests.

I'm not claiming that any of these things is impossible, but it would be helpful to know on what evidence Ludwig bases his presumption.
Mar 16, 2014
Beyond the basics of nutrition, I have grown to not trust dietary information that comes to me from or funded by government, or as part of selling a dietary product. Been too many changes along the way in the official dogma. Observation of the apparently healthy and energetic people around me, over the years, has convinced me that the same food has different effects on different people. One of my friends is still trying to convince me that the different effects are due to mild food allergies. She is not one of the apparently healthy and energetic group. The section on diet in your book made sense to me. I am definitely biased toward the empirical approach, in most everything except cliff diving. Thanks for writing with simplicity and clarity. Even I can understand it.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 16, 2014
[My book God's Debris answers the first question. My book How to Fail... answers the second. You're welcome. -- Scott]

Oh, so you meant "The Two Most Important Questions in the World" - that you haven't already answered?


+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 15, 2014
After thinking about it for a while, I have come to the conclusion that your questions are not very important at all.

The 2 most important questions in the world are:
1) How can I help you?
2) What do I believe?
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 15, 2014
I think the two primary causes for high weight are low self-esteem and low income. It doesn't matter how good for you broccoli is (or how good tasting, or how much you crave it) if it costs more than a pack of hot dogs (79 cents or less). A half pack of hot dogs with four slices of bread will fill you up as much as a full pound of broccoli and for much less money. And it doesn't matter how much social pressure has been put on you to "change your cravings", when you are feeling depressed you will go for your comfort food. In fact that social pressure will keep you depressed for longer and ironically cause you to eat more comfort food.

As far as education goes I will say this: the nutritional health professors my college were all overweight.
Mar 15, 2014
Knowledge is part of it, certainly. Cutting refined sugar from your diet helps more than cutting all sugars, and a lot of people don't know that. But knowledge is not the only factor.

People eat for many reasons other than that they're hungry, and they choose food for many reasons other than taste and nutritional value. People eat certain foods because "that's what you have for breakfast/lunch/dinner", because it's traditional, because certain other foods "aren't a meal". People eat because they are lonely or stressed, or because they're happy and with friends. Food connects to our emotions and sense of self in ways that are rarely rational, and which we may not recognize.

A few years back I realized I needed to lose weight, and discovered that I had an irrational fear of being hungry. I have never lacked food in my life. It took a lot of time and effort and sheer stubbornness to face that. Eventually I was able to lose 40 lbs and have, for the most part, kept it off. (As for calorie counting: pretty much all I did was count calories and eat less pre-processed food.) I had the knowledge. It was anxiety that held me back.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 15, 2014
I agree with all those who have mentioned the excessive influence of the fast-food industry and the manufacturers of processed foods in shaping what most Americans eat. (The Libertarian mantra that "we don't want to be told by the government what to eat or how to live our lives" plays very conveniently into the hands of the processed-food industry, which can then tell the public what it wants them to be eating with minimal interference from government agencies.)

On moving to the USA from Britain over a decade ago, I noticed several aspects of the food culture here that struck me as being quite different from where I grew up, as well as some where the UK has been following the American pattern:

- Fast food is relentlessly pushed at Americans in just about every venue where it is possible to advertise. That's not to say it isn't also pretty bad in Britain, but in the USA the degree of fast-food advertising is just insane. The result is that the unthinking habitual consumption of this kind of food has become normalised in American culture.

- Government-sponsored public health education is at a very low level compared with the UK, where there is much greater governmental emphasis on guiding people's food choices. Perhaps partly as a result, 'healthy eating' is a term much more commonly heard from the lips of Britons than Americans.

- Some urban areas (the so-called 'food deserts') are almost devoid of regular supermarkets; what food is available from convenience stores and gas stations tends to be highly processed and expensive. This makes reasonably-priced basic foodstuffs and ingredients unavailable to many city dwellers, especially those whose incomes are low and/or who have trouble getting around.

- A lot of the processed food you can buy here is horribly oversalted or oversweetened. (I had to try out many different brands of bread before I found any that resembled bread more than cake. And as for the revolting saltiness of most liquid chicken/beef stock...)

- In processed foods, salt and sugar often take the place of flavour (especially in nationally-marketed brands; store brands are often superior in this regard).

- Fresh fruit and vegetables tend to be marketed on the basis of price, not flavour (to the extent that they are marketed at all).

- The confusing design of food labels makes it difficult to decipher their nutrition data.

- General-interest magazines often contain ads promoting faddish diets of dubious effectiveness backed up by bogus and misleading claims. This confuses many people about what actually constitutes good nutrition.

- Many of today's children are growing up in homes where the adults don't know how to cook; as a result, they are clueless about what to cook, how to cook it, and what a balanced diet ought to consist of.

- Information about healthy eating is poorly delivered in America's schools, and what little there is is often undermined by the food choices that the schools themselves offer their pupils.

- Portion size in restaurants is often crazily excessive, which encourages diners to overeat. There is also a more deeply-entrenched culture of eating out for entertainment in the USA than there is in Britain, which further exposes Americans to the temptation to gorge themselves.

- Restaurant food, even of the non-fast-food variety, is often salted to excess.

- The peculiar American tradition of competitive-eating contests transforms eating from a civilized group activity into a revolting gladiatorial spectacle. (My opinion.)

In sum, any third party seriously interested in helping Americans to improve their health through better nutrition will not find themselves short of possible objectives.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 15, 2014
Scott: If you think playing sports has much impact on weight, you might have a knowledge gap.
Quite possibly. But the daily view of slim people jogging around me creates the impression.

Scott: And if you didn't know you could feel full faster by the type of food you eat, you have another gap.
Ok, talking about food, I take the bait.

I (BMI: 29.5, age 43) eat with those other people and I eat the same stuff often enough to know what they are eating and how it feels for me. Unless the foods one feels full faster afterwards vary with people, I don't see that the type of food makes much difference.

Also I don't buy ready meals, at home I cook from basic ingredients. No idea what the mess hall in our company does.

Here are the little bits I know about me, regarding food, and I'd be happy to have any knowledge gaps pointed out. Or any other ideas.
- Newspaper diets ("half a slice of toast with tuna"): Obviously these work for me just as they work for everybody else, namely not at all. I'd eat three of these diet breakfasts in one meal.
- Cooking unappetizing meals: One slim friend of mine can't cook and she doesn't care about food either. Would work, unfortunately I can cook, and like the food I cook.
- Cheating: Having some sugary stuff before a meal seem to work partially. I have to deal with a grumbling stomach and being hungry a few hours later. But sweets are out of fashion, aren't they? At least, until a new study comes along about the benefits of carbs.
- Suffering: Between ash wednesday and easter I won't eat anything after 4pm (and no alcohol at all). I'm down 6 pounds and sleep better but I don't think I can extend that to the rest of my life.
- Role models: All slim people I know tell me about discipline and suffering when eating. No way, I've go one life only. But where is the line between enjoyment and gluttony?

Btw, most slim people I know have visibly gained weight these last two or three years. Something with the food industry? Anybody's fault but mine. :-)
Mar 15, 2014
Big problem here, as in many other areas, is that there's an insanely well-funded disinformation lobby. Not people opposed to good nutrition per se, but those fighting to protect and grow the market for various products of limited or negative nutritional value.

Fast food chains, purveyors of processed junk food and soda bottlers may not be coordinating their messages, but the cumulative impact of their marketing is to undercut any realistic nutritional information. And it's targeted primarily at the young to set their dietary habits early.

Also, the healthiest foods don't lend themselves to the current business model. See the history of the Dilberto. Potatoes, meat, corn and bread can be processed and treated pretty much like plastic, pumped full of preservatives and loaded with fructose and sodium to provide a simulation of flavor. And the fast food industry is built on the model of minimum wage employees with zero cooking skills and/or nutritional knowledge heating and serving such product. So they have a vested interest in fighting anything that would make consumers more knowledgeable and demanding.

Think of the decades-long fight by the tobacco industry. That was small potatoes compared to the modern food industry.
Mar 15, 2014
I agree 100% that the good nutrition information can't come from the government, as the current government recommendations are all BS.

I agree 100% that the right information can make it very easy to eat right and lose weight. Last year, I decided to try a paleo-ish way of eating. I traded my toast for bacon and eggs. By every metric, I'm a much healthier person now, and the slimmest I've been since I hit puberty. (But according to the government, my diet changes should have caused me to lose weight and hurt my health.)

The challenge is that there is great disagreement in what it means to "eat right", and not everybody's biology works the same. Since going through this experience, I've read dozens of books and research about diet. I think it's likely that there is a portion of the population that does best on a low-fat, high carb diet. I clearly do much better on a high fat, low carb diet.

Lastly, I think even more than knowledge, results make it easy to make dietary changes stick. We are animals at the end of the day, and if you don't feed your body correctly, it is not happy. When I thought a healthy diet was low fat and lots of carbs (healthy carbs, but carbs), I had a very hard time sticking with the program. My body knew that its needs weren't getting met, and it wanted me to eat something else. I was constantly combatting my will power. Now that my needs are being met, it is very easy to refuse food I don't need. I think lots of people think they can't stick to a diet because they lack willpower. I think it's more likely that they can't stick because the diet isn't providing what their body needs, and their bodies are crying for something different to eat.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2014
[I believe new information is the only thing that changes behavior. But that's another blog topic. -- Scott]

This shock collar changes behavior, just hold my beer and watch this.
Mar 14, 2014
Seriously? Overweight people need more info? This comes from a man who just a few days ago wrote "My stress is way down since I discovered that all humans are irrational". I think most overweight people know enough about nutrition but are overweight for a variety of other reasons. Look at how many millions of people smoke and I think most of them are well aware of the dangers - but they do it anyway. Sorry, but I prefer Dilbert's simple blog to that of Scott Adams.
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