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 13, 2014
[Quitting cigarettes is hard no matter what method you use. Learning to eat well (and doing so) is easy if you use the right method and avoid using brute willpower to get there. -- Scott]

I think there are two factors that make it easier to quit cigarettes than to quit overeating, though both are difficult. The first one is that when you quit smoking, you quit entirely. There is no measurement challenge - it is binary, either I smoke or I don't. Unfortunately, you cannot simply quit eating and you can't really completely quit eating simple carbs either. Therefore it is much easier to slide off the wagon regarding food.

Secondly, I don't think economics (i.e. taxes) have been given enough credit on the smoking front. I have a sister and a good friend who each smoked a couple packs a day for over 20 years, but finally gave up due to the sheer expense of it. It is quite a different thing to burn through packs that are costing $0.75 when they were teenagers vs. committing to a $10 or $15 per day habit when you are trying to make ends meet. I am not generally a tax advocate and I am not a fan of Bloomberg's nanny state initiatives, but I do think if something costs more, it is consumed less.

So, I believe the ability to quit smoking entirely, coupled with a rising economic incentive to do so has made it "easier" to quit smoking and thus not a certainty that simply providing more information can bring the obesity levels down to the smoking percentages.

[Try picking just one problem food in your life and giving yourself permission to eat normally except for eliminating that one thing. In a few months you'll lose the craving for the specific food. Then pick another. You'll change your diet over time without ever feeling much in the way of sacrifice or willpower. -- Scott]
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Mar 13, 2014
Scott, my biggest problem is that there is so much misinformation and conflicting information out there due to marketers and lobbyists. When someone tries to get educated on this stuff, you'll find experts with PhDs telling you that meat is poison, meat is fine, only green veggies are best, colorfully-diverse veggies are best, butter is good, butter is sin, sugar is fine, sugar is the devil, protein is IMPORTANT, protein is not terribly important...

It seems to me that this is a type of confusopoly set in motion to keep capitalism healthy and the public less than healthy and "needing" new therapies every few months.

[Your point is valid, but I think the 80-20 rule applies. You'll get 80% of the benefit you need by knowing relatively few things, and those would be the things upon which experts tend to agree in 2014. You can be wrong about butter, vitamins, organic foods, and lots of stuff if you understand that avoiding simple carbs is important and eating protein soon after exercise makes a difference. Those are just examples. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014

Sorry to tell you that you are looking at an incomplete sample size ("my friends") for your data and theory. I have a BS in Biology and have had several different training classes for both nutrition and fitness. Unfortunately, I'm still overweight right now by nearly 100 lbs. I've allowed myself to settle into a sedentary computer engineering job and I have not pushed myself to get my exercise regime back in place. What can I say? I like food and I hate exercise and I know it's not good for me. None of that helps. I will get my motivation going here shortly - but it's a struggle. And yes - this is NOT the first time that this has happened to me.

[The incomplete sample size is the point of the blog. I wouldn't be thinking of funding a survey if I already had good data.

If you hate exercise, don't do it. Do you also hate going for a nice walk? That's good enough to get you moving in the right direction, and all you need for weight control.

Your BS in Biology is probably obsolete in terms of diet. Most of what we knew 5 years ago has been proven wrong. -- Scott]
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
There are other problems too. We (mostly) train our children poorly when it comes to the dinner table. The "clean your plate" club is wide-spread and damaging (forcing a child to keep eating past the point where their body is telling them have eaten enough - eventually they learn to tune out that signal). Forcing them to eat on a schedule that is convenient for their care givers (three square meals a day) - but doesn't fit their dietary needs.
Mar 13, 2014
The phrase that keeps ringing in my brain here is "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'." But to be fair, that cuts both ways. I have not been a "normal" weight since 7th grade (when, probably not coincidentally, mandated high-exercise play periods ended in my public school education). I do three miles in ~30mins on the elliptical 4-5 times a week, and my legs are in great shape but I'm still 250lbs at 5'10". I'm built stocky but even accounting for that I should be more like 180-200lbs.

I did read your book (great book, btw) and I've visited many doctors, nutritionists, etc over the years...more of them recently. And I have had absolutely zero progress at training my brain to crave healthy food. Nor do I derive any pleasure at all from exercising. It's unpleasant, boring and leaves me tired and sweaty...I get no "runner's high" at all.

So my inclination is that your idea is crazy, and you're imprinting your own experience onto a wider worldview. :)

But of course, the plural of anecdote is not data. It's just as likely that I'm doing the same.

More seriously, I think the comparison with smoking is a valid one, because you have to account for an entire industry that synthesizes (I hesitate to say the word "grow" anymore), packages, and markets pretty much all food in the United States to make us consume as much as possible. This isn't just about willpower; this is about "Big Food" making us chemically addicted to various food products, through chemistry and genetic tailoring to trigger various biochemistry reactions in our brains.

For decades, there was a huge marketing campaign, both public and less so, by tobacco firms to convince people that not only was smoking "cool", but that it was actually healthy! It took fifty years of nonstop effort: lawsuits, congressional action, marketing campaign, age restrictions, warning labels, secondhand smoke rules, and society shunning of smokers....just to get to where we are today when it comes to smoking. And where we are is a lot better than it was, but it's still not great. When it comes to food, we're not even five years into that fifty.

That said, I really have no idea how much this impacts your core thesis. My gut (pun intended) says it's more than the oft-mentioned 90/10 split, but even if it's as bad as 40/60...getting 40% of fat people to be thinner (and, presumably, more healthy) is certainly a worthy goal. One that's likely within the realm of viable ROI for the effort required.

[You speak of exercise as if it's a big factor in your weight. In my book and in this blog post I say it isn't. (Experts say that too.)

In the book I mentioned two systems for changing your cravings. One involves continual trial and error in flavoring healthier stuff until you find what works for you. The other is identifying specific problem foods (say french fries) and eliminating only the one item at a time for a few months until you lose the urgent cravings. Have you tried either system? -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
Part of the problem there on the question of nutritional knowledge is that the experts themselves are constantly in disagreement and keep changing their minds. Famously, the diet composition endorsed by the government for decades as being the most healthy is now thought to be a prime culprit in the fattening of America.

[That's a problem for sure. And it wasn't solvable even five years ago when experts were still puzzled by the so-called "French Paradox." Now expert opinions are at least in line with observation. I imagine experts are still wrong about stuff such as the benefits of organic farming, vitamin needs, and that stuff. But at least in 2014 we know that the potato is more villain than the baked ham. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
Absolutely. I know many people who are simply misinformed about easily confused things such as eating fat is bad (no, being fat is bad), don't know the nutritional impact of farmed fish or grain fed cows, etc. It's not that simple but it can be learned. Once one overcomes the misinformation, exactly as you said, the weight comes off and people get naturally fit without much exercise.

Make it happen!!
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
[You might be confusing the 10% of self-destructive people who can't be helped.... -- Scott]

That sounds like you had some bad experience with trying to help someone than anything else.

But now I understand your angle to this.
If you're just going for the low hanging fruit, then yeah, a little knowledge is all you need.

[The low-hanging 90% ? -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
As an obese individual, I know there is healthy eating and all that. That does not change the fact that what works for one person does not work for everyone.
I disagreed with at least two things in "How to Fail...". Where simple carbs make you feel lethargic and slow in the afternoon, I find that my energy levels go up in the afternoon after eating simple carbs. The other thing I disagreed with was the coffee statement. As a former long time Coca-Cola drinker, when I finally stopped drinking Coke I found myself with more energy. Though Coke and Coffee are different, I find water to be a good substitute. Unflavored water (Crystal Geyser is my preferred water) can be just as much as an energy drink as something with caffeine.
And writing that, I wonder if the reason that I find carbs to work for me is that I drink water and not caffeine?

[To be fair, the book tells you to experiment personally with your energy levels after eating certain foods because individuals vary. So technically you agree with the book because you're doing that very thing. And the book does (I think) mention that being dehydrated feels like being tired, so water might indeed be pepping you up. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
You're confusing cause and effect. People don't lose weight because they learn more about nutrition; they learn about nutrition because being in a particular weight range is important to them and they want to understand how to achieve that goal. To be sure, there's a baseline requirement that someone understand that nutrition and weight are related, but that's a very low bar. Beyond that, nutrition is a sufficiently complex subject that teaching people who don't already prioritize their weight will result in low retention rates. The same is true for personal finance; if you haven't already decided to care about budgeting, investing, etc., being lectured on those topics has no effect because there's no reason for you to care about or remember what you're told.

[You might be confusing the 10% of self-destructive people who can't be helped with the 90% who prefer a healthy weight but don't know how easily it can be achieved. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
Yes. I've struggled with weight my entire adult life. In "How to fail...", I first read about glycemic index, which led me to glycemic load. Since then, I've read up on glycemic load and been able to manage my refined carb intake, all while eating whatever cheese, meat, fruits, and veggies I crave. I've also started walking 20-30 minutes at least every other day. Result: the pounds are melting away.

It can be done. All it takes is a little knowledge of how refined carbs can negatively affect your body, and how to fix the problem.

[I'll bet you are surprised how little it required in terms of willpower. And thanks for reading my book. I'm delighted that it is helping. -- Scott]
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
For me it was about making healthy food have good flavors and textures. Plain over boiled green beans won't ever interest me even if they gave me super powers.

[Totally correct. The knowledge of how to properly flavor healthy food reduces the temptation and willpower needed to avoid unhealthy foods. In this case, knowledge is a direct substitute for willpower. (I'm not sure if you read about this in my book, but it's an important chapter.) -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
You'll give them a quiz which isn't about diet too, to control for knowledgeable people being healthier however much they know about diet. So your survey should be summarized with three questions, not two.

[You'd have to control for lots of things. And if a correlation between knowledge and weight is found, you'd still need to do controlled tests to see if correlation equals causation. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
Go to a hospital and look at who's out back smoking. In addition to "normal people", it's those who should know damn well better: pulmonary specialists and doctors.

I predict that knowledge will equal a small % increase in healthiness, but not a large one.

[Quitting cigarettes is hard no matter what method you use. Learning to eat well (and doing so) is easy if you use the right method and avoid using brute willpower to get there. -- Scott]
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
Scott occasionally uses the term self-esteem, but if you look closely at what he's referring to, it's actually self-compassion.

Psychologists have decided that the self-esteem movement has damaged more people than it has helped.
They now promote self-compassion as much more healthy.

In comments today, a couple people mentioned self-esteem in the now discredited way it was popularized. When you have a minute, examine the new self-compassion movement Psychology now prefers.

My apologies for the off topic comments.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
I tend to think not, based on one glaring oxymoron: "an easily-fixed addiction." If all you needed was to decide you didn't want to consume that stuff any more, it wouldn't be called "addiction," it would be called "preference." I know as much about nutrition as whatever educational program you are suggesting could reasonably impart and I do try, constantly, to make the right choices. But knowing a sugar cookie will make me feel queasy, sleepy, and over-heated and lead to weight gain doesn't stop my hand from reaching out and taking it and shoving it in my face, despite my brain screaming, "NO!! Not again! STOP!!" the whole time I'm not enjoying eating it. That's addiction and we haven't figured out how to fix that yet (or, in your system, a bug in the wetware that the robot can't self-adjust). The best the addicted can do is avoid the temptation which with food is pretty difficult without living in a cave and having a forced diet delivered. And the cave had better be further away from a 7-11 than I can walk in a day.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
Scott, What is the correlation between poverty and obesity?

Studies show that people who are worried about where their next meal will come from usually eat lots of bread and other carb-filled foods. It doesn't matter if they are extremely well educated, yet the biological urge to not starve to death makes them fill up and have stored energy (you call it fat) to get them through the lean times.

I would also recommend doing your own research, or paying someone competent to do it, on the relationship between what are known as "addictive personalities" and many disorders. Including weight gain, unhealthy eating, narcotics, tobacco use, alcoholism, etc.

As for education being the key, I doubt it. Sure it can help some small percentage of the population, likely under 10%. But as others have pointed out, knowing something doesn't imply direct action.

[Studies would control for income as well as other factors. And I agree that people worried about where they will get their next meal are not the target for this education campaign. Keep in mind that thanks to education only one-third of Americans smoke, but two-thirds of adults are overweight. The smoking example supports my point that it could work with food too. In fact, since food is far less addictive than tobacco, it should work much better. -- Scott]
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
It might depend upon your personality. In - Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, there's a section on over/under stimulation and how to find your "sweet spot" for the different personality types and references some studies that support her hypothesis.
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
If only it were that easy. You are a cartoonist, not a doctor or a nutritionist. You won't reach that many people with your message. One of my doctors (a weight loss expert) tells me that I need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. The other (a gastroenterologist) tells me that if I keep eating fresh fruits and vegetables, with my health conditions, I will die! My situation isn't unique. With that kind of confusing advice being disseminated, even if you are right, you are whispering to the wind. Good luck!
Mar 13, 2014
[A college course in nutrition would be worthless if you took it more than five years ago. Much of what you learned would be wrong. -- Scott]

Very true. I only graduated last year, and took the course about 2-3 years ago.
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