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 14, 2014
portion control - I find the people around me who weigh the most, while some even eat better than I do, consume amazing amounts at one sitting, way more than they can ever hope to expend
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2014
Several people here have mentioned the inadequacy of the BMI (= body mass index) as a measure of obesity.

No competent health-care professional would rely on BMI alone as a basis for some sort of medical intervention. It's a guideline, not a rigid rule.

It seems to me the real problem with the BMI is that it is eagerly adopted by non-experts in the field who don't understand the limits of its applicability and hence when it is, or isn't, an appropriate measure. And the problem that underlies THAT is the incredibly poor understanding of science on the part of the general public (for instance, see the results of a recent Pew Research Center survey at http://www.people-press.org/2013/04/22/publics-knowledge-of-science-and-technology/ ). (It's probably not such a problem for followers of this blog. :)

What could, or should, be done to rectify this lamentable situation probably lies beyond the scope of this particular blog posting. I'll restrict myself to observing that today, discussion of most areas of public policy has a strong tendency to get hijacked or torpedoed by the following:

- Factual ignorance on the part of a public that is nevertheless strongly opinionated

- Resistance in the public to being educated about the facts, and a preference for appeals to emotion and 'values'

- Ubiquitous political partisanship

- Professional opinion-formers and lobbyists

- Insufficient engagement by scientists in correcting public misperceptions of the facts

Maybe Scott will take this subject up in more detail at some future time.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2014
5 years ago I lost 50 pounds and have kept it off since. I read your book, and the funny thing is that although our methods would be described as awfully similar, the mental picture I used is pretty different.

One additional concept that I think people would find helpful is that not only is relying on massive willpower to gut through a severe diet change unsustainable, it is actually counterproductive. Instead of teaching your body to enjoy healthy foods, you are conditioning yourself to equate healthy eating with suffering. In other words, creating an aversion to healthy food.

Personally, I found glycemic index to be a poor predictor of fullness per calorie. I just experimented with different foods until I found what worked for me.
Mar 14, 2014
It is happening already. See the book "Wheat Belly" then head over to Dr. Davis' facebook page "Wheat Belly". Lots of before/after photos from people who have lost weight following his plan. Yet if you google you'll find a lot of articles on the Internet debunking his book. Weird how it is in the nutritional world. Everyone says they are right. But so far the only plan that worked for me was Wheat Belly!
Mar 14, 2014
Hi Scott,

I like the idea but wanted to comment on the limitations of knowledge. Knowing what to eat and how best to move isn't enough. Here is a terrific video that confirms this notion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5d8GW6GdR0&list=PLF2ncLB4dwqxD45wL4zo6rRDMJq--hy56&index=4 I encourage you to consider adding other elements to your proposed campaign. Knowledge alone will help a few but by adding a few smart tweaks many more could be served.

Mar 14, 2014
Lack of knowledge isn't EVERYONE's problem, obviously, but many people education would certainly help. I don't know what others think about food, because I just don't talk about food much, socially.

But anecdotally, I was speaking with an obese friend recently and found out she thinks two slices of wonder bread with a kraft single and low-fat mayo is a healthy light snack. All the years I've known her I assumed she was intentionally making poor choices, but she truly didn't know any better. And she's a reasonably intelligent woman in other areas of life.

More education out there somehow certainly could only help. If you're willing to fund it, go for it!! The results of the survey would have to be pitched carefully, to avoid offending overweight people. Just because you haven't studied this one area of life doesn't mean you're an idiot, of course.

[I agree. -- Scott]
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2014
I don't know if anyone else has mentioned it yet, but BMI is bad science (lazy at least). While obesity is clearly unhealthy being 10 to 15 pounds "overweight" has lower mortality then those who are at or underweight, and being severely underweight is as bad as being obese. Here is one article on it.
In Scott's write up and in his comments to others, he is making the point that understanding willpower is as important if not more important than understanding nutrition. Yes at this point he should plug his book, methods/habits are more important than goals. If you want to lose weight (eat healthier) you make strategies for it not just wishes about it.

[BMI limits have been mentioned a few times. I agree. I think I was once labelled overweight while looking like a competitive swimmer when naked. -- Scott]
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2014
Knowledge and Information are better than Ignorance and Deceit.

Good stragety, yes. Magic bullet, probably not.

I think some overweight people might get some weight loss by learning what some fitter people know. I think it's more biological than just knowledge.
I think the real answer is a shock collar. Not just eating, but smoking, gambling, drug addiction, and other destructive behaviors too. The knowledge is necessary to allow one to see the need for the treatment.


The Two Most Important Questions in the World, really?
I might imagine the two most important questions in the world are:

1. If god exists, what is the true nature of god.
Notice how I put the two questions together instead of a seperate does god exist question.

2. How might I live my life in a fulfilling way?
Combining happiness, productivity, value, health, all into fulfilling.

[My book God's Debris answers the first question. My book How to Fail... answers the second. You're welcome. -- Scott]
Mar 14, 2014
To me, what stands out in Scott's post (and others in the past) is that he has noticed strong causations between types of foods he might eat and his mood and "energy level." Some commenters have said similar things, that certain foods make them feel a certain way afterwards, bad or good. I don't have this experience; that is, I have never noticed that eating, say, meat for breakfast makes me feel any different than eating oatmeal, or than eating fruit, or than eating pancakes, and so forth. Now you might say, maybe I'm just super not-in-tune with my body, and that there are real differences in how my body and mind feel after eating those different foods, and I'm not noticing or paying any attention to them. But if I don't consciously notice those differences (if there are any, which I can't tell), do they matter? Would my life be any better if I started paying attention to this and discerning what foods make me feel certain ways? How would I even trust my results, if they're based on starting to identify differences I have no experience noticing before?

I'm wondering if I'm the anomaly, not to have different foods make me feel different ways. I eat whatever I like, trying to have a balanced diet overall. For the record, I'm 28, male, normal weight, normal physical activity (I walk, work out occasionally, like to work outside in nice weather). I like eating anything and everything. I eat it and then I feel satisfied until I'm hungry again. Is that so weird?

[I'd be surprised if you have tried isolating certain foods at certain times of the day to see how they affect you. Most people eat a variety of food all day long, so it would be hard to notice what one food does to you. I was in that situation most of my life too. It takes some testing. (My new book talks about systems for isolating which foods do what to you.) -- Scott]
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2014
My fitter friends like sports way more than I do and they get full faster than I.

I don't think knowledge plays much of a part. There are slim idiots, fat idiots, slim geniuses and fat geniuses.

You are thinking that more knowledge scares me into doing more sports. Doesn't work for me.

Past experience would. Only, you don't survice the experience of living.

[If you think playing sports has much impact on weight, you might have a knowledge gap. And if you didn't know you could feel full faster by the type of food you eat, you have another gap. -- Scott]
Mar 14, 2014
Somehow I would have thought that the two most important questions in the world would have been of a more sexual nature. Maybe that's just me.
Mar 14, 2014
[My question of the day for my smart blog readers is this]

I'll answer anyway: Yes and no. Yes because education is shown to affect behavior, but not enough to make the changes you are wanting.

Learning (or understanding), is different than training (behavior modification.) You would have to come up with a way to get them to do something to get a taste of success to appreciate the knowledge they gained to have widespread success.

You were probably not literal on your questions but if so i would suggest not questions that people would not accurately or consistently answer but:

1) Info to calculate BMI

2) Simple survey to assess nutrition knowledge

[I believe new information is the only thing that changes behavior. But that's another blog topic. -- Scott]
Mar 14, 2014
More knowledge about nutrition and diet is no doubt a good thing. But there is more to it. Almost everyone knows smoking is very unhealthy, yet a lot of people keep smoking. So knowing how it works is unfortunately not always enough.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2014
Scott, how about this 90%?

Are all of them both willing and able to acquire and apply the knowledge that you speak of?

Are you sure they dont require any resources other than some psychological tricks and nutritional advice?
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
This makes me think of a talk I heard about a doctor speaking at a medical convention, on the dangers of smoking, and he said you couldn't see the back of the room... because of all the cigarette smoke!

His conclusion was that knowledge does not necessarily change behavior. Even after all these years and all the knowledge we have of the health risks, the percentage of cigarette smokers in the world is amazingly high.

Nutrition is still not well understood or clearly defined, there are many conflicting viewpoints and theories, so that it would be impossible at this point in time to judge the degree of "knowledge" an individual has on the topic. My diet would probably be shocking to you, with the amount of red meat, simple carbs and saturated fats I consume, yet I am 6' 1" 185 lbs, and I don't exercise much.

[I would say the WRONG knowledge, or incomplete knowledge, doesn't change behavior. I believe the RIGHT knowledge changes almost everyone with a normal brain. -- Scott]
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
The two most important rules in the world:
1) Don't take investment advice from a cartoonist.
2) Don't take diet advise from a cartoonist.

But seriously, eating right should be a science but there is a credibility problem. It seems like everything they tell you that is bad to eat is later on proved to be ok or good to eat. Perhaps that shows how little we really know about our bodies, or that there are too many variables. If this were strictly scientific, the scientists would mostly agree, and the conclusions would not be changing all the time.

I do not think there is a silver bullet in weight loss. If there were, we would not have a huge diet industry.

My advise:
1) Do what you want in moderation. Anything you do that is extreme now will be proven to be incorrect at a future date.
2) Eat less, exercise more.

[The "eat less" method is a poor strategy because simple carbs increase your hunger, which means you have to dip into willpower, which is not sustainable for most people. The higher odds approach is learning to eat different, not just less. You can eat all day long (and I do) if you choose correctly. -- Scott]
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
I'm well and truly more educated than most people - read lots of nutritional books and studies (rather than diet books and popular media articles) and I'm still on that borderline between overweight and obese. I also have PCOS and a leaning toward thyroid issues though, so I don't know if that counts...
Mar 13, 2014
I think it's worth testing out. I'm about 50 pounds overweight, active daily but I not clear what you mean by "simple carbs". Coke and candy are out, but is an apple a simple carb?
Mar 13, 2014
I'm overweight, as is most of my family. I know nothing of nutrition but I do know that i don't exercise nearly enough and that I eat too much. The only reason that I am not considered morbidly obese is that im tall enough for it to have a significant impact on my BMI. I'm not sure if more knowledge on nutrition would help but it certainly couldn't hurt. Also hi, this is my first time writing on this blog though I've followed it and the comics for about half a year now.

[You're a good example of my point. I'm guessing you don't know that exercise doesn't have much impact on weight. And if you knew how to choose your food right, you couldn't overeat even if you ate all day. (I do eat all day.) You're about 12 facts away from being thin. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
Sure, education would help but being exposed to knowledge and facts is not the same as learning. Some will take the information and learn while others will hear/see the information and not learn. Some of the non-learners will even nod their head in agreement with the information and not change their behavior. It may depend on when or what age the information is made available. Case in point is smoking. My generation was probably hooked before it became abundantly clear that smoking will kill you. Despite knowing that it still took me almost 40 years to finally completely quit. Some of my peers have never quit although they have seen all the information and are intelligent. It may work the same with food and nutrition. Get them young. If it's McDonalds and Hershey and Coke and Kellogg's they may be doomed. If it's Michelle Obama and nutritionists maybe they will learn. There has to be genetics involved too. I've always eaten pretty healthy. I don't particularly like sweets and I never add salt at the table or when I cook. I get anxious if I go more than a day or two without a salad (olive oil & vinegar dressing). Yet after just a couple of cigarettes I was hooked at 12 years old and I always loved beer as far back as I can remember. So I guess my long winded observation is more education couldn't hurt but "It depends".
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