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
[I do love broccoli. Cauliflower too. As noted in several of my comments to other comments, cravings can be manipulated if you have the knowledge of how to do it. (For ten years I ate a bowl of ice cream every night. Now I eat none.) -- Scott]

I beleive you, but the point is you shouldnt have had to manipulate your cravings as far as liking healthy foods is concerned. I can see why you had to manipulate your cravings to give up bad foods, but you and the rest of us should have already liked broccoli, cauliflower and a whole range of other healthy foods. Why dont we?
Mar 13, 2014
[People don't know what they don't know. In other words, My hypothesis is that you know less than your thin friends on at least a few key points about diet. It could well be that the 100 facts you know are not as important as the 50 facts your friends know if they know the more important facts. That sort of thing would all be teased out of the survey data. -- Scott]

In general I agree with you. I have just had too many frustrating experiences trying to explain what the difference was between carbs, fat, and protein, and why eating half Little Caesar's pepperoni pizza every day was not good for you... to my very thin friend that eats junk food all the time and never works out. >.<

Anyway, not saying I know everything about the subject, mostly what a college nutrition course can teach, but I know that I know more than at least some of my thin friends.

[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]
Mar 13, 2014
Your premise is flawed - being overweight is not inherently unhealthy. Half the people with diabetes are normal weight. I'm surprised someone with your insight has bought into conventional wisdom.

[I'm fairly sure you just proved my premise. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
Heres a question Ive asked a few other places and not gotten a satisfactory answer: why do so many of us think whats good for us is so yucky in the first place? I can understnd why we crave bad foods (how long has it been since one could die from too much ice cream? A century?) but, logically, if brocoli, cauliflower, liver, etc. were so good for us we should love or at least like them.

[I do love broccoli. Cauliflower too. As noted in several of my comments to other comments, cravings can be manipulated if you have the knowledge of how to do it. (For ten years I ate a bowl of ice cream every night. Now I eat none.) -- Scott]
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
I actually think that if your self esteem is good, then whatever you need to know, you'll eventually go out and find it. I think they key is that you're driven to find out how to reduce your weight, not have someone teach it to you from the get go. Because if you went out to find it yourself (or took some kind of action to make something happen), you will feel a real sense of progression and success. I have no idea how much of an effect it will have if this boost is absent because we were taught about nutrition.

I feel the same way when I haven't cleaned my apartment for some time. At some point, I start cleaning a small corner, just to get started, and that snowballs into me cleaning everything.
Whenever somebody tells me that I should clean my room because of this and that, I feel less inclined because now I'm _supposed_ to, and well...that just doesn't feel as good.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
I know quite a bit about diet and nutrition and exercise and I'm 50lb's overweight. We are all going to die someday, fatty foods taste good, I'd rather enjoy 58 years than squeak in 2 more years while eating like a refugee.

[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]
Mar 13, 2014
I cannot begin to fathom how your brilliant analytical mind buys in to the flawed mainstream thinking about optimal diet. Seriously, time for you to read the works of Ron Rosedale and learn about mTOR, autophagy, Igf1, and the biology of ageing and disease.

[Does he advocate eating nothing but donuts? I'm having a hard time convincing myself that there's a counter-argument to learning how to eat right. Excuse me while I don't bother to research any of the things you mentioned. -- Scott]
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
[I'm sure your point is valid for some subset of overweight people. Perhaps 10%? -- Scott]

My gut tells me that many more than 10% struggle with self esteem issues in some shape or form. But not all of it manifests itself in weight problems. So while obesity is an important problem to solve, its not as fundamental an issue as is low self-esteem.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014

I don't know much about food other then that vegetables and fruit and fresh unprocessed foods are healthy, and I have been thin as long as I can remember. (I'm 49)

I have fat friends, they know as much about food as I do, they just care more about eating stuff that they find tastefull, and less about health. That's my experience.

(You know whats good to avoid children getting fat? Breastfeeding. That should be advocated.)

My diet plan is very simple: I don't eat s h i t, well, not too much of it anyway.

Note: I live in Europe and visited the US for 3 weeks last summer, and I noticed that there is an abundance of bad foods available in the supermarket (e.g. bread with 5% sugar), but also a lot of good foods. The first breakfast that our American friends served us was so loaded with sugar, that my son and I were feeling sick for a couple of hours. We then quickly started to shop for our own foods.

[Your friends like eating unhealthy foods but they probably don't know they could adjust their cravings until healthy food gave them the same pleasure, and it wouldn't take much willpower to make the change. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
That is an interesting hypothesis, and you are probably correct on at least one level. But I think it doesn't quite stop there.

Is there a single person left in the civilised world that does not know full well the dangers of smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, or narcotic drug abuse? And yet there are still a great many people who persist in those things.

Education is only half the solution. There needs to be a cultural shift as well. This is the difference between education and indoctrination. You not only have to disseminate knowledge to as many people as possible, but you have to get those people to internalise that knowledge such that it becomes part of their unconscious decision-making process.

[Two-thirds of people don't smoke, largely because of knowledge of the consequences. But two-thirds of Americans are overweight. It would be an enormous win to bring the population of overweight people down to the level of smoking. Sure, you can't get them all. But isn't that true of just about everything? -- Scott]
+21 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
Scott, I've known people who are overweight, know whats bad for themselves, and they still eat it.
The common denominator: low self esteem. These people don't think highly of themselves, and in turn don't believe that they are worthy of feeling good and being happy. Your assumption fails with these people.

On the flipside, fix their self-esteem and they're able to claw their way out of any addiction.
The problem is just that its a downwards spiral. When you don't think you deserve happiness, you self-sabotage, which in turn makes you feel worse. And then you rationalize that you feel worse because you don't deserve better.

It can be very difficult to escape the catch-22. In order to stop self-sabotaging, you need to think better of yourself. But you won't start thinking better of yourself if you keep self-sabotaging.

It may very well be that knowledge is still the answer, but I think it needs to be solved at this level first.

[I'm sure your point is valid for some subset of overweight people. Perhaps 10%? -- Scott]
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
I don't think so. Food has become addictive or a bad habit. Maybe not like alcohol or tobacco, but still it tends to overpower our limited willpower even if we know that it's bad for us. I haven't seen any studies, but in my experience, knowledge is not enough to change bad habits. You'd need something to increase the incentive. Since medical costs increase with weight, how about a tax break or insurance break. In other words, just like auto insurance, you pay based on your risk.

[Food cravings are fairly easy to manage if you know the technique. It requires knowledge and almost no willpower. You are a perfect example of my point. I have a chapter on that in my book. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
I really wish this was the case... I can't speak for people in general, but I know that I know about nutrition then nearly all of my friends. And I am the most overweight among them.

It would not surprise me if I had a low metabolism, I know that I have low self control.

[People don't know what they don't know. In other words, My hypothesis is that you know less than your thin friends on at least a few key points about diet. It could well be that the 100 facts you know are not as important as the 50 facts your friends know if they know the more important facts. That sort of thing would all be teased out of the survey data. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
In a word, Yes!

I weighed 300lbs in Dec 2012. Everyone I knew who had lost weight told me about "Aha! Eureka!" moments of personal change. Suddenly, they just had "it" and lost weight. My moment like that never came. I was a serial yo-yo dieter with no hope to be thin.

I thought one day, "I'm a smart person. Why can't I figure this out?" So I put the MA on my wall to the only use it has seen: I researched everything on nutrition and willpower and incorporated it into the systems Scott advocates so helpfully.

I weighed in this morning at 210lbs, en route to a healthy 190. And I've never felt starved because I know what foods fill me up, satisfy me and fuel me. Whenever I'm at a restaurant, fried foods smell awful now because I'm programmed to know how much better I'll feel with a chicken breast instead of a fried wing and basket of fries.

Anecdotally, I can say education was a substantial factor in losing weight because I never feel starved or deprived with the right foods.

[Exactly. You now understand that you can eat as much as you want as long as you choose correctly, and you have slowly adjusted your cravings in the process, all without willpower. Congratulations. -- Scott]
Mar 13, 2014
Uh Oh... Scott is going to be on someone's (s)hit list now for fat-shaming. You'll probably be an overnight superstar on tumblr.
+32 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2014
[My question of the day for my smart blog readers is...]

Oh man, excluded from answering again.
Mar 13, 2014
Not for a certain part of the populace, and I can tell you why in one word: Alcohol.

I myself love wine - it's a beautiful thing and a person can spend a lifetime exploring it, tasting it, analysing it, etc. I know it lowers metabolism, is nothing but empty calories, and if taken too much at one time, will make a body feel like crap. But am I gonna stop consuming it because of that? Absolutely not!

[I know plenty of thin wine-lovers. Evidently it's not a huge obstacle to health so long as you do other stuff right. -- Scott]
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