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Full disclosure: Some of this post I’ve cut-and-pasted from an online debate I had with Helen Pluckrose.)
In the New York Times, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt wrote about why weight loss diets almost always fail in the long run:
The root of the problem is not willpower but neuroscience. Metabolic suppression is one of several powerful tools that the brain uses to keep the body within a certain weight range, called the set point. The range, which varies from person to person, is determined by genes and life experience. When dieters’ weight drops below it, they not only burn fewer calories but also produce more hunger-inducing hormones and find eating more rewarding.
The brain’s weight-regulation system considers your set point to be the correct weight for you, whether or not your doctor agrees. If someone starts at 120 pounds and drops to 80, her brain rightfully declares a starvation state of emergency, using every method available to get that weight back up to normal. The same thing happens to someone who starts at 300 pounds and diets down to 200, as the “Biggest Loser” participants discovered.
This coordinated brain response is a major reason that dieters find weight loss so hard to achieve and maintain.
Weight loss diets don’t work in the long term, for the vast majority of people. (This is true of all weight loss plans, including “lifestyle changes”). Especially if “work” means “turn a fat person into a non-fat person.”
And that simple fact, if it were accepted, turns nearly all of our society’s discussion of fat and “the obesity crisis” upside down.
What should fat people who are concerned about their health, or want to improve their health, do? The default answer, in our society, is “stop being fat.” Lose weight. But for most fat people, that’s nonsensical advice – and worst, actively harmful advice – because we don’t know how to make fat people stop being fat. At least, not in any way that lasts and works for most people.
Am I saying fat people who want to be healthier should give up? Absolutely not. I’m saying that for most fat people, becoming healthier doesn’t require futile attempts to lose weight. Take a look at this graph:
(Source.) The graph shows likelihood of mortality as it relates to weight and four other characteristics: fruit and vegetable intake, tobacco use, exercise, and alcohol. These are sometimes called the “healthy habits.”
On the left side of the graph, fat people who practice zero “healthy habits” – smoking, no veggies, immoderate drinking, no exercise – have a much higher mortality risk than so-called “normal” weight people with unhealthy habits (although the “normals” have elevated risk too).
On the right end of the graph, fat people who practice all four healthy habits have a mortality risk that’s just barely higher than their thinner counterparts. More importantly, we can see that fat people who practice all four healthy habits benefit enormously, compared to fat people who don’t. (“Normals” benefit enormously from these healthy habits, too.)
Most fat people can’t permanently lose enough weight to stop being fat. But most fat people can eat more veggies, can not smoke, can limit ourselves to one glass of hootch a day, can add moderate exercise to our lives. These things aren’t always easy, but they are all much more achievable, for most fat people, than stopping being fat.
Achievable advice is better than unachievable advice. There’s a positive way forward for most fat people who want to be healthier – one that’s more likely to work, and less likely to encourage self-hatred, than trying to stop being fat.
I find the idea of a anthropomorphic brain inherently funny; if we cut it open, would we find another, smaller brain inside?
I’m unusually happy with how this cartoon looks. Mainly for the brain, which was so much fun to draw (although time-consuming) and I think came out well. To make up for how time-consuming the brain was to draw, the little hormone-servants also look really good (in my opinion), and took virtually no effort or time to draw.
When I was working on this strip, I posted my design for the brain character on social media, to see if people would get that it’s a brain.
Nearly everyone got that it’s a brain (although a few guessed it was a raison, and I can kind of see that). But I had decided to use the cerebellum as pantaloons, and several people thought they were the brain’s balls. And that is why my final brain design has no cerebellum.
TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
This cartoon has six panels, plus an additional tiny “kicker” panel below the bottom of the cartoon.
At the top of the entire cartoon is a large caption, which says THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON A DIET.
The first five panels show a human brain, but anthropomorphized: It has arms, legs, hands (gloved with three fingers, a la Mickey Mouse) huge eyes and a pointy crown. It’s in some sort of dimly lit round space.
The brain is speaking to a cell-like creature, with little blobs of oil falling off of it, and this creature has also been anthropomorphized, and has a mouth and two big eyes. The cell-like creature is wearing a black bowler hat.
The brain is speaking a bit imperiously to the cell-like creature, who is named Mr. Ghrelin. Ghrelin looks a little nervious.
BRAIN: Mr. Ghrelin, you have a report?
GHRELIN: Your majesty, I bring word from the stomach! We’ve been getting less food and we’re losing fat!
A close-up of the brain. The brain is looking up thoughtfully into the hair, one finger pressed to the side of what I’ll call its cheek, as if its trying to remember something.
BRAIN: Less food? Losing fat? There’s a word for this…
BRAIN: What’s that word? It’s something I learned millions of years ago in evolution school…
The brain has jumped up, holding the sides of its, er, head and with an extremely panicked expression; Mr Ghrelin is in turn surprised by the brain’s reaction. The word “starvation” is written in huge red letters.
BRAIN: This is called STARVATION!
A shot of the brain, raising its fists high as it yells, with a determined expression on its face. The background has disappeared, replaced by bright yellow, with waves of action lines (indicating great energy) shooting out from the brain.
BRAIN: I’m declaring a state of emergency!
BRAIN: Slow down metabolism! We must preserve our precious fat!
The brain is now surrounded by a bunch of Ghrelin-types, each of who looks the same, except they’re wearing different hats (we can see: bowler hat, top hat, cabbie cap, 50s dad hat). The brain, still yelling, is pointing decisively as it gives marching orders.
BRAIN: Release the stress hormones! Have them produce constant, extreme hunger! And store all the fat we can! Just in case!
BRAIN: We’ll keep this up for years if necessary!
A fat man sites on a sofa. Next to him, on an endtable, are a lamp, a drinking glass, and a pen. On his other side is a cell phone and a throw pillow. On the back of the sofa, there’s a folded blanket and, lying on the blanket, an orange cat. He’s wearing fuzzy slippers that are designed to look like mice, with little ears sticking up.
He’s holding a book; we can see the book’s cover, with the title “THE COMMON SENSE DIET.” A caption above the book shows what he’s reading in the book.
CAPTION: Just eat less! It’s easy!
TINY KICKER PANEL BELOW THE BOTTOM OF THE STRIP
Mr. Ghrelin is speaking to the brain again; the brain is facing away and looking anxious.
GHRELIN: Good news! We’re getting normal amounts of food again.
BRAIN: But for how long? Better store more fat.