Tag Archives: energy balance

Skinny Scientists and Pseudoscience and the New Scientific Method

This week was kind of a bad news good news week for the science of fatties.  On the good news front, Dr. Oz got a very public spanking in Congress for continually touting snake oil “miracle cures” for weight loss.  Claire McCaskill, Chairman of the Senate’s consumer protection panel, brought Dr. Oz to task for presenting a variety of supplements, potions and cures as effective methods of weight loss without having any,  you know, science to back it up.  When grilled by McCaskill, Dr. Oz admitted that some of the “miracle” weight loss cures (like green coffee beans) do not pass scientific muster to be presented as fact.  But he insists that he has studied them himself and recommended them to his own family.  He says he recommends stuff to his audience that he would give his own family.  Which is cool, except he is not described on TV as “Papa Oz” or “Uncle Oz”.  He’s touted on TV as “Dr. Oz”.  And TV watching people are gullible.  If a TV doctor tells them that green coffee supplements will make them miraculously thin, many people believe it is so.  And they think that if a doctor recommends something, there’s a little more scientific proof that it works than “my cousin tried this and it was awesome”.

The fact that Dr. Oz underwent this very public spanking is in some ways very encouraging.  It is in line with many other efforts by the FTC to bring “miracle weight loss” companies to task for making a whole lot of money from lying to people about the effectiveness of their products.  But if Dr. Oz behaves in a way remotely similar to these other weight loss companies (including Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers) we should be prepared for some “bobbin’ and weavin'” in the boxing ring.  After huge fines were levied by the FTC, Weight Watchers and many other competitors have started to put a tiny asterisk after weight loss claims and the teeny-tiny mousetype on the bottom of their ads says “results not typical”.  Which is a start.  But let’s face it.  When you have three glorious examples of anecdata with startling before and after pictures, that little asterisk has to work pretty darn hard.  The FTC said as much in “Gut Check” their new spotters guide to weight loss fraud.  Dr.  Oz will have to begin including his own “asterisk” regarding his “miracle” weight loss cures.  But the guy has his own TV show.  He has writers and editors that are extremely talented.  I have no doubt that he will find a way to appear to follow the letter of the law regarding truth and weight loss, while leaving the spirit of the law firmly behind.

And in this same week, I came across this piece by budding scientist Rachel Fox.  In the piece she describes why she has decided she can no longer pursue a career in science.  She has been told in no uncertain terms that she cannot be a scientist because she is fat.  And being a scientist and being fat just don’t mix.  In the piece, Fox describes the discrimination, both subtle and overt she has experienced as a budding scientist.  At one job interview for an exciting student researcher position at  a prestigious lab, Fox was told that the work was “collaborative” and that the lab didn’t want anybody on board who “was going to eat more than their fair share of the pizza”.  Fox describes other incidents where fellow researchers are appalled that she doesn’t seem to understand the “calories in, calories out” rules of nutrition.  And as we’ve seen with Dr. Terrible earlier this year, scientists and academics seem think they are free to draw whatever conclusions they like about fat and self-discipline because you know, science.

It’s important to understand that science is subject to prejudice and politics just like any other field.  Scientists expressed beliefs about the flatness of the earth and geocentric nature of the universe long past the sell by date of these notions  not because they had evidence, but rather because it was politically prudent to do so.  Modern scientists may not find themselves in an actual dungeon.  But I’m sure many other scientists like Ms. Fox can attest to the notion that doing science while fat can lead to “The Inquisition”.

So, as much as I wish I could jump up and down with glee over Dr. Oz’s trip to the Congressional Woodshed for “making stuff up” to give us fatties “some hope”, I am simply saying let’s wait and see.  When you’ve got a guy with an audience with millions of adoring fans, his own TV show, his own writers, editors, makeup people, lawyers and PR firms, we can expect a whole lot of fancy dancing, and very little scientific fact.  In fact, make it up and make it look good on TV might just be the 21st century scientific method.



Jeanette DePatie (AKA The Fat Chick)

The Energy Balance: Simple Arithmetic or Differential Calculus?

One thing that makes me crazy as a fat person is people spouting the old energy balance equation at me.  They say, if you’re fat, the reason is simple.  You eat too much and you exercise too little.  They suggest that body mass is a simple equation that looks like this:

food=exercise means stasis

food>exercise means fat

and food<exercise means thin

They suggest that it is “simple arithmetic”.  Seems logical right?  And blessedly simple?  All I have to do is exercise more and eat less and I will be thin, right?  Except in the real world, things are rarely, if ever that simple.  But if you’re thin and enjoy all the societal benefits that come with being thin, like being considered healthy, righteous and disciplined by most of your peers, you want to believe this math don’t you?  Because believing that the benefits you derive are completely under your control and that anyone can have them, allows you to feel the maximum of A) control over your environment and B) self righteousness about your situation.

I think there is some similar math going on out there about the question of wealth.  If you are a wealthy person or even a reasonably well off person, there’s a tendency to believe in an “energy balance” when it comes to money as well.  It looks sort of like this:

spending=hard work means stasis

spending<hard work means rich

spending>hard work means poor

But when we look at these equations, we start to wonder.  What about people who didn’t have parents who saved for them to go to college?  What about people who are born rich?  What about people who face prejudice because they are the “wrong” height or the “wrong” color or they speak the “wrong” language, and find it difficult to find a job?  We all know people who work very, very hard and are really, really not well off at all.  Maybe this whole energy/wealth balance arithmetic has some problems.  Maybe it’s just not that simple.

The real story about energy balance and whether or not we are fat is a lot more complex.  Just take a gander at this amazing chart that documents many of the things that can influence our weight.  There’s so much stuff on this chart, I can’t even see it all on one page.  On my laptop, I have to scroll all around to see it.  And there are new factors that influence body fat being discovered all the time–from fat genes, to fat hormones, to compounds in plastic containers to environmental pollutants to more and more complex drug interactions.  Looking at this chart, one might start to think that whether or not we are fat seems far beyond simple arithmetic.  With all of these factors swirling around, maybe it’s a little more like differential calculus.

As a society we desperately want to believe that being thin is simple.  Because simple problems cost less to solve.  Simple allows us to maintain the illusion of complete control.  And I think we desperately want to cling to the illusion of control because we are mortal beings.  We want to believe that we can control our health because we want to believe that if we follow a few simple rules, we can control whether or not we get sick and when we will die.  We want to believe that if we work hard, we will be rich.  Because it seems almost unbearably unfair that some people will work very hard for their whole lives and not have enough to eat while other people will be born to a large amount of money and will never need to work a day in their lives.  We don’t want to face the fact that some of us who have a lot of money were at least in part, incredibly lucky. And we don’t want to believe that some of us who don’t have much money at all, never will, no matter how hard we work.  And we want to believe that if we just ate a little less and exercised a little more, we would be thin, thin, thin.

The illusion of control and desire for simplification is, in many ways, hard wired into our societal systems.  But we can overcome this programming if we desire it.  We can choose to dial down the self righteousness and dial up the empathy and understanding.  We can choose to resist the urge to oversimplify our privilege in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves.  We can take on the challenge of doing the hard math problems that contain a lot more variables.  And if our situation challenges the “simple arithmetic” view of the world, we can choose not to buy into the rhetoric privileged people use to feel better about themselves.  We can embrace all of life with all of its complexity and richness.  Because true health and happiness rarely boil down to simple arithmetic.


The Fat Chick