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

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +63
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Mar 13, 2014
I'm with drazen. I become physically ill when I taste certain bitter vegetables. You can edumacate me all you like on how sugary foods will kill me in the end... but I'm not dropping dead today, and I also am not about to force feed myself something my olfactory sense is violently rejecting. That WOULD take significantly more willpower than I have after a 12 hour shift at work.
The other factor to consider is price. Health food (anything labeled as particularly healthy / organic / fat-free / sugar-free) tends to cost MORE than the equivalent calories' worth of regular food and most of those labels are bald faced lies in one way or another. So what's Low Income Joe to think when he visits the grocery and sees one loaf of bread for 80 cents and the 'healthier' kind is $3? And you can argue different types of calories all you like, but the first goal of eating is *not to starve to death*. If it costs me three times as much to eat healthy (and raw, natural foods == prep time == money, so it isn't just the shelf pricing I'm concerned with) then my health be damned, I will eat what is *easy* and get back to more important things like earning money to pay my bills. I try to eat smart and moderate and get a decent amount of exercise but I can't make that the focus of my life.
I suppose if you have someone honestly ignorant enough to believe eating donuts for breakfast lunch and dinner is OK, a little extra knowledge would improve his situation. But I doubt it's the deciding variable in a lot of cases.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
If you do something like this just please, for the love of god, don't use BMI as a metric. It's the most flawed statistic in the world and was SPECIFICALLY created for use on populations, not individuals. Otherwise your results are going to be hopelessly skewed because anyone with a lot of lean muscle is going to come out high on BMI even though they may know a lot about nutrition.

Someone will tell you to use it. You have to resist. It's used because it's easy, not because it's accurate. Is it harder to get data if you need more than a person's height and weight? Sure, but you could use a random number generator too and get your data in 5 minutes. Either do it correctly or don't do it at all.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
By the way, theres a lot of recent research on the effects of your gut flora on health.


If the theories are true, unhealthy people who have already obliterated their gut flora will need more than just knowledge. They will probably need a gut flora transplant lest they want to eat rabbit food for a decade !

Supposedly, certain gut flora composition allow you to eat unhealthy for extended periods without gaining significantly in weight. That is, untill the unhealthy food overpowers the bacteria responsible for limiting the damage.

To the point of some other commenters, I think we still know very little about health despite recent advances.
Mar 13, 2014
If you Google "Maureen Anderson" and "The Real Reason I Quit Junk Food Cold Turkey," you'll find an article I wrote about my experience on this, Scott. That's the biggest thing I got out of your book, how much I was already doing right when it comes to diet -- and why what I was doing works.

The piece of knowledge I think many people are missing is how easy it is to forsake junk food, eventually.

That's where I hope to help!
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
[The low-hanging 90% ? -- Scott]

If you're trying to help people who are able, willing, basically already halfway there and just need a gentle push in the right direction, thats low hanging fruit.

Sure, 90% sounds like a large number.
But you're not saying that if we can get 90% onboard with gentle nudging, we can safely neglect the challenge of helping the remaining 10%, are you ?
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
All the knowledge in the world doesn't change the fact that for many people, such as myself, a lot of healthy food is actively revolting, in sight, smell, and/or taste. Living longer ain't worth much if every other meal makes you want to gag and vomit. It's not pickiness, it is literally being physically incapable of enjoying such things (I probably have the gene for sensitivity to bitterness, as I don't mind many fruits, which are sweeter, but still nothing that makes me salivate).

Exercise I can get behind more easily, but it can't be boring. Weights and running are dull as hell to me, but I like to hike, golf, and play tennis. Those things usually feel really good unless it is hot and sticky or too cold to want to be outdoors for more than three minutes at a time.
Mar 13, 2014
All I really know about nutrition is that eating a lot makes you fat. And I don't even exercise. I am so skinny that people around me are concerned about my health. Under 60 kg, and I'm a man of average height. The weird thing is that I eat what I like - only I don't really like eating that much.

I mean, sure, I live an unhealthy lifestyle, but it's not related to obesity. Maybe I would have some use of nutrition education, altough I doubt it - I have all the useful information at hand, but I never really cared. I always found nutrition boring and confusing, as I feel that scientists' opinion on whats healthy and what's not changes every week.

I might be one of these self-destructive people, but I don't think any education on this matter would be any help.
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
Further to my earlier comment about the apparent impossibility of actually knowing anything about nutrition, I did a little reading on glycemic load since you seem to think it’s important. Googling ‘glycemic load evidence’ shows no scientific consensus on the subject. Survey articles find inconsistent results. Here’s an example of primary research http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/85/4/1023.full which apparently shows that diets with wildly different glycemic loads had no effect on weight.

In general, I think your assumption, “experts could come up with a quiz on diet and nutrition that would accurately rank people from less-informed to well-informed” is shaky. It is possible to accurately rank people on the quantity of their nutritional knowledge, but not possible to rank them on the quality of their knowledge.
+17 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
[Do you think that overweight people could get to a healthier weight simply by learning what their fitter friends already know? - Scott]

Hm. I don't think so, for 3 reasons:

1) the humans love "unhealthy food" BECAUSE it is rich in calorie and taste (and those two often go hand in hand), and that is BECAUSE through most of the homo sapiens history the food was scarce, so overeating actually helped us to survive periods of famine (or long winters).

2) every time you try to cut your weight (or change your diet) you are really fighting your brain - who sees this change of diet as direct threat (or attempted murder) - and guess who is going to win that fight (on average)?

3) changing diet would be a rational thing to do if you're overweight. People are not rational (on average), so the conclusion is obvious. Anything else is wishful thinking.

And there is a parable with smoking and alcohol as well. Both are generally bad and causing a lot of deaths and driving up health costs in a lot of different ways, but the tobacco and alcohol drinks industries are one of the most profitable on the planet. There's a reason for it (see No.3)...
Mar 13, 2014
I just wanted to chime in re: "a calorie is a calorie", this is a true statement. More info: http://evidencemag.com/why-calories-count/

Carbs are bad now just like fat was bad in the 80's. The notion will fade, but not before a handful of fitness gurus and cranks are made rich.

Sincerely, A fit person
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
[What you imagine is a preference is an easily-fixed addiction. Knowledge of how to adjust your cravings could get you to a point where you enjoy eating just as much as now (healthier foods) but weigh 50 pounds less. And it wouldn't require much in the way of willpower. -- Scott]

My greatest issue is portion control followed by the daily snack and then milk. I've cut out soda to less than 5L per year, fruit !$%*!$%* juices are less than 5L per year, and milk is at about 4 cups per day on average. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs (other than Ibuprofen), and I probably have ice cream 1-2 times a month. The last time I had an orea cookie was the 3rd and 4th of this month and I can't remember the last time before that one. Unfortunately my daily snack now is either a hostess cupcake or toffee coated peanuts.

The best I've been in eating and exercise in the last 5 years was 13 lbs lighter than now and that was the year I did 3 half marathons and several 10k's. If you have a suggestion on where to start I would appreciate it as I've been on enough diets and exercise plans that any more I've decided to eat food that I like, hike 2.5 miles 2x a week, lift weights 3x a week, and try to stay busy on the weekends. I would prefer to be 30#'s lighter than I am now, but the last time I was there was when I biked 12 miles a day and ran 1.5-2 miles a day 5x a week and ate more like a refugee in portion sizes.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
While I believe your basic approach is sound, Scott, it's also clear that the obesity picture is made complicated by a variety of other factors (e.g. social acceptability, economic disincentives, individual psychological factors not related to knowledge of nutrition) that others here have already mentioned.

There is yet another major factor to be taken into account: our gut flora, and the diversity and composition thereof. Individuals with otherwise similar characteristics and habits may have quite different gut flora, leading to correspondingly different metabolic outcomes, disease processes (or the absence of them) and patterns of fat accumulation. Because of the complexity of the ecosystem in the gut and the interactions of its organisms both with each other and with the human host, this is still an area where much research needs to be done that presumably may lead -- eventually -- to more effective therapies.

In the meantime, it seems wise to avoid taking an overly reductionist or prescriptive approach in terms of the prevention and management of obesity. People may be doing everything that nutrition science (or your system) currently recommends, and yet they may still struggle with their weight because something about their gut flora (but probably no-one knows exactly what) is off kilter.

As a starting point, the relevant Wikipedia article ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gut_flora ) contains a lot of interesting information on the subject; if nothing else, it illustrates well what a complex variety of factors and processes are in play. Also relevant is the article about so-called 'fecal transplantation' ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fecal_transplant ).
Mar 13, 2014
Sounds like an interesting proposal with a lot of promise.

Gut reaction is that this smells like a chicken-egg thing. You perceive that having knowledge leads to making better health choices, but it may be that making better health choices leads to acquiring more knowledge. Although, my guess is that it's a self-reinforcing cycle. good choices -> knowledge -> good choices -> knowledge... and maybe it doesn't matter where in the cycle you hop on.
Mar 13, 2014
Your question assumes there is a one size fits all approach, but that is not true. The fact is, different plans and programs work for different people. I know adherents of the paleo diet who are very fit, and I know adherents of vegan diets who are very fit. The two diets are different, but clearly both work for some people. No diet or program is going to work all the time for all the people.

The problem facing an overweight person seeking to get healthy is to sort all the information and advocacy for competing philosophies. Perusing a bookstore or the internet will present the seeker with hundreds of different diets and programs, often which contradict one another. To add to the confusion each of these diets and plans has the support (either genuine or paid) of doctors, nutritionists, dietitians, personal trainers, etc. lending them credibility. The key to success is perseverance in trying a variety methods until one is found that works and is sustainable.
Mar 13, 2014
I think you're on the right track. I've been using the book "Racing Weight" to help me trim down a few pounds and one of the important concepts I've learned is not just what is better to eat, but also how to learn the difference between belly hunger and mental hunger. Learning to eat until your belly is full, not until everything is eaten.

So if you change the first question to "How much do you know about nutrition, diet, and eating habits?" then I think you might be on to something.
Mar 13, 2014
One other factor on quitting smoking vs. overeating: They don't make you stand outside in the rain in a clearly marked rectangle of shame in order to eat a doughnut. Agggh, second hand carbs!
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
seans88 kind of beat me to it but...

Beware of confusing causation with correlation. People who are conscientious about their weight, are probably motivated to educate themselves about nutrition.

However, the misleading and conflicting information about nutrition is astounding. You can find a credible "nutritionist" who will say just about anything. e.g. carbs are good, carbs are bad ...same for fat, meat, diary, glutten, sugar, vitamins, ...
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
I don’t know a thing about nutrition. Every pop science article on the subject seems to contradict every other one. This leaves me with the impression that there is no scientific consensus on the subject, and as a layman it is a waste of my time to try to pick out which approach is actually correct.
Mar 13, 2014
Hi Scott, the answer to your question is yes, but knowledge about a healthy diet is one of the least important differences between the groups.
I’ve studied health psychology, so here is what established scientific knowledge has to say on the topic: Knowledge and health behavior are almost uncorrelated. (especially when controlled for socioeconomic status).

Why does knowledge not work?
First of all knowledge mainly addresses the “How” of fitness, not the “Why”. If people feel fine without dropping weight or reluctant about restricting themselves (see examples in the comments) they won’t change no matter how much they know, except they experience strong external pressure.
You are aware of how great humans are at bending reality to fit their current preferences. Some comments mentioned smoking and drinking. It doesn’t help to put nasty pictures of lung cancer on boxes or well meant warnings on bottles. When people are polled, they are well aware of lung or liver problems hitting others but are certain it won’t happen to them. Cognitive dissonance and selective perception in the works.

What does help?
Knowledge (but only if we stretch the meaning of the word).
Two areas that show high success rates:

Certainty that you are able deal with challenges and obstacles. Self-Efficacy. In order of decreasing effectiveness, this is built through:
1. Previous self-paced success (better if in a similar area of life)
2. Role models that pave the way (the higher the similarity to the role model, the higher the chance to succeed),
3. Encouragement from other people that you are able to pull it off.

Planning: Crafting a specific action plan and canned responses for failures along the way

What works on a societal level are regulations that automatically increase the distance between you and unhealthiness when it matters: Right at the moment when you have a craving. Higher prices, fewer shops, shorter business hours, less venues where you are allowed to exhibit the behavior all worked really well for countries which decided to tackle the issue from this angle. This is the same as your system to drive to the gym every day no matter what. If you are in front of the gym the psychological distance to exercise is so small that you rarely fail. Changing regulations of course is a tough battle.

Right now I don’t have time for it, but if you are really interested in how to change health behavior on a large scale, I can look up a few studies for you.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
I guess we can add the subject of nutrition to the list (along with politics and religion) as subjects best avoided in polite conversation.

That said, I generally agree with Scott on this one.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog