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Glass Onion —

June 12, 2013

Only seniors wrote for our high school paper, which made the editorial room primarily their domain. But as a freshman on the yearbook staff and the youngest brother of a senior on the newspaper, I spent a lot of time there. So it was my freshman year of high school in 1994 that I first found and fell in love with The Onion.

When I discovered the first one, I pored over it, cackling at every absurd claim made in starch-stiff journalistic prose. I instantly fell in love with every single person who contributed to that alternate reality, which became increasingly intuitive over the years.

In my opinion, The Onion has become a sort comedic conscience for the nation, particularly following its coverage of the September 11th attacks:

911More recently, The Onion has provided a sorely-needed respite from the sorrow following the Colorado and Newtown mass shootings, including headlines that expressed our disbelief at this new American reality and our outrage at ongoing political inaction. But most of the time, when The Onion isn’t responding to overwhelming tragedy, it’s just plain funny.

Of course, everyone finds different things funny, and sometimes you find yourself laughing despite knowing that you’re going to hell. My senior year of high school, The Onion posted a headline that I’m equal parts offended by and tickled by to this day: “Alzheimer’s Sufferers Demand Cure For Pancakes.”

Two of my grandparents suffered from Alzheimer’s, and one had a particularly intense end-of-life struggle with reality, but our family coped with the grief by laughing about some of the most bizarre claims she made, like how the staff chased her around the nursing home with dogs at night after we left. That headline always reminds me of her and although I know I should be offended, I can’t help but feel they captured something that families of those with Alzheimer’s have lived through.

But that’s me. I realize others believe that headline mocks those with Alzheimer’s and that there’s nothing funny about it, which is what makes humor such a tricky area to debate: one man’s punchline is another man’s punch in the gut.

So when it comes to The Onion, I’ve learned to accept the good with the bad when it comes to fat jokes. And there’s been a lot of bad, like “Michelle Obama Shutters ‘Let’s Move!’ Program After Failed 3-Year Run”:

“Though I had hoped ‘Let’s Move!’ would promote healthier habits among America’s children, it turns out our young people simply aren’t interested in moving—at all,” the first lady told reporters. “Seriously, not even a little. When I visit these schools and talk about exercise, most of the kids look back at me with blank stares. And the ones who do attempt to exercise clearly do not like it and stop almost immediately.” Obama added that she expects to achieve far more success with her forthcoming “Fine, Let’s Just Sit Here Stuffing Our Faces Until We Drop Dead!” campaign.

And that’s just one of many, many headlines:

Rarely, there’s a fat-related story that satirizes the culture’s contempt for fatties, rather than the fatties themselves, like “Should We Be Shaming Obese Children More?” or “Diet Book Author Advocates New ‘No Food Diet’.”

Currently, this is what you get with most fat jokes: 95% mocking fat people and 5% mocking the culture’s response to them. But it’s much easier to mock the gluttonous sloths than to take a step back and observe the cultural climate that fat people have to deal with. A lot of it  has to do with the lack of empathy in general toward fat people, since they are always, ALWAYS responsible for their body size and shape.

Which is why it should come to no surprise when I saw the following front page on The Onion‘s website the other day:

The Union

The story basically mocks the idea that losing weight is more complex than calories in/calories out.

The study, conducted by scientists at The National Weight Control Registry, determined conclusively that shedding excess weight has never occurred, changing your appearance is impossible, and that it actually feels “pretty nice” to just give up and realize that you’re powerless to alter your body mass index in any way, shape, or form.

When I first saw this article, I immediately began to wonder which member of Fitness Circlejerk was a staffer at The Onion. It’s the kind of strawman that concern trolls love to knock down while grunting around the weight rack. Their interpretation of Health at Every Size® says that caloric restriction will never, ever, ever lead to weight loss, which is not what any educated proponent of HAES has ever said.

Yeah, you can diet and exercise your way to a smaller size, but most weight loss research defines “clinically significant weight loss” as between 5% and 10% of their starting weight. Let’s say that guy in The Onion photo lost 10% of his body weight… assuming he’s the same size as me (265 pounds), that means that he’ll still weigh 238 pounds, which isn’t that impressive.

The Onion article mentions The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) in an attempt to subtly undermine the satirical claims made in the article. Except you have to keep in mind that the NWCR is a self-selecting group of 10,000 successful dieters who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for over a year. That seems like a fairly low bar for “success” in a country where tens of millions of people attempt to lose weight every year.

That’s why there’s one thing that separates Strawman HAES from Real HAES: long-term weight loss research.

Strawman HAES claims that “running on a treadmill every morning at 6 a.m. will not help anyone lose weight, and neither will cutting carbohydrates from one’s diet, eating smaller portions throughout the day, doing yoga, or hiring a personal trainer.”

Real HAES claims that while those things may lead to some weight loss, the vast majority of people who do so won’t lose much and most of those who do will ultimately regain the weight within five years. The difference between Strawman HAES and Real HAES is that Strawman HAES says it’s impossible, while Real HAES says it’s unsustainable for most people, according to the overwhelming body of long-term research.

Which brings us to the most interesting part of the article, where The Onion cites Rena Wing, who founded the NWCR with James Hill:

“Our findings indicate that if you’re trying to lose weight, you will fail — and that’s because you can’t, no one has, and you need to stop trying because it will never happen,” said Dr. Rena Wing, lead author of the report. “You could work out every day and eat nothing, and you still wouldn’t lose an ounce. And the sooner you throw up your hands and make peace with that fact, the better off you’ll be.”

The reason I find it so interesting is that the concern trolls I’ve argued with recently have cited Wing’s research to “prove” that long-term weight loss is possible. In this comment, I explain why Wing’s research is inadequate to this troll. In a nutshell, Wing’s proof relies almost entirely on phone surveys, which are notoriously unreliable compared to randomized, controlled trials where the subjects are actually weighed and measured. Also, Wing uses a five-year study to prove long-term efficacy, but only cites the results from the first year as evidence.

To a certain extent, comedy isn’t always about truth or nuance, it’s about saying what everyone else is thinking in a way that makes them laugh in recognition. In our culture, HAES is misrepresented as saying diets don’t work because of some mystical violation of the laws of thermodynamics.

In fact, even brilliant minds that are typically capable of nuance and understanding find this oversimplification easier to mock than the truth. Imagine my surprise when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote the following tweet:

DeGrasse TysonSay it ain’t so, Neil!

It was refreshing to see a sizable pushback from people who questioned his false equivalency to physics and his claim that the human body responds to fluctuations in energy predictably. Yet it still hurt to see one of my contemporary icons toss off such a glib and unsubstantiated “joke.”

Even the terms are troubling. As I responded to Neil, you can have two people who weigh 200 pounds and are technically overweight, but one has had a stable weight their entire adult life (let’s call him Bob) and the other could have lost 100 pounds in the last year (let’s call him Jim). Jim will have to eat significantly fewer calories just to maintain his 200 pound weight due to a process called adaptive thermogenesis, which I explain in detail here.

Now, if Jim eats the same amount of calories as Bob, he will put on weight. So who is “overeating”? Concern trolls would say, of course, that they both are because 200 pounds is too fat. Okay then, let’s have Bob and Jim restrict even further and get to 150 pounds, the same as Sam. Just to maintain their weight, Sam eats 2,500 calories, Bob eats 2,000 calories, and Jim eats 1,500 calories. Who’s “overeating” now?

These are the kinds of details that get lost in the gross oversimplification necessary to make jokes. But those jokes, whether from a satirical newspaper or a renowned astrophysicist, contribute to the public’s perception that anyone can lose as much weight as they want and keep it off indefinitely with enough willpower.

This is part of the reason why researchers have been attempting to dial down expectations for weight loss to no avail, as captured in this study from the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, which has the greatest title ever: “Great expectations: ‘I’m losing 25% of my weight no matter what you say.'”

Facts like this explain why you’ll never see The Onion make a nuanced joke about weight loss: the reality is far too depressing for those who depend upon the illusion for hope.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. r_nebblesworth permalink
    June 12, 2013 12:24 pm

    “Just to maintain their weight, Sam eats 2,500 calories, Bob eats 2,000 calories, and Jim eats 1,500 calories. Who’s “overeating” now?”

    None of them are… if they’re eating at maintenance, they’re eating at maintenance.

    Whether it’s desirable for them to be eating at maintenance is another question which depends on their individual goals regarding their desired weight and body composition.

    I think you said something like this a while back – if 2 people sit down and eat the exact same meal, and one of them gains weight, did that one overeat? I don’t see what the controversy is – yes, the weight gainer overate. It’s the definition of the word. Again, this isn’t a judgment on whether that weight gain is desirable.

    • June 12, 2013 1:18 pm

      But you’re simply defining “overeating” as “eating that causes weight gain.” You’ve still got two people who are technically overweight, and Tyson’s “joke” was basically that all overweight people overeat. And that’s the problem: Tyson is basically saying that if you’re overweight, you overeat, which is only true if you believe that you can determine the amount you eat by how much you weigh. So, if you’re 200 pounds, Tyson believes you’re overeating regardless of whether you’ve been weight stable for a decade or whether you’ve recently lost 100 pounds. Doesn’t matter, you’re overweight, so you’re overeating.

      It’s just such an arbitrary standard that it doesn’t make any sense. How Neil, or anyone else for that matter, defines “overeating” doesn’t matter because there is still no simple way to determine the individual caloric needs of a person without knowing things like their metabolic rate, their activity level, and what their diet is actually composed of. You know, the kinds of things that a doctor monitors, not some random astrophysicist on the internet.

      Simply saying “Fat people eat too much” is like saying “Poor people are too lazy” or “Irish people drink too much.” Yeah, you can find plenty of examples to prove your point, but it’s a gross oversimplification that does a great disservice to those who believe you’re one of the smartest people alive.


      • r_nebblesworth permalink
        June 12, 2013 1:40 pm

        >But you’re simply defining “overeating” as “eating that causes weight gain.”

        Because that’s what it means… if overeating is not “eating that causes weight gain,” then what does that word mean?

        >Tyson believes you’re overeating regardless of whether you’ve been weight stable for a decade or whether you’ve recently lost 100 pounds.

        It’s only a short tweet. Tyson would no doubt say you have been undereating if you recently lost 100 pounds.

        What he is getting at is that if a 300 pound guy wants to be 200 pounds, he can’t keep eating at maintenance for 300 pounds (and then wonder why he isn’t losing weight). All other things being equal, that guy needs to undereat, i.e. eat like a 200 pound guy.

        • June 12, 2013 2:32 pm

          Somehow you’re still missing the point. The 200 pound guy is eating 2,500 calories, while the 300 pound guy has to eat 2,000 calories. The 200 pound guy isn’t undereating. What he’s eating maintains weight stability. Even if we define over- and under-eating by the effects on weight, the 200 pound guy is neither over- nor under-eating. He’s just eating. But according to your definition, if the 300 pound guy eats 2,500 calories and begins putting on weight, then he is over-eating, despite the fact that he’s eating the same as the weight stable 200-pound guy.

          This is why the term “over-eating” is nebulous at best and meaningless at worst. Individual mileage may vary and all that jazz.


          • r_nebblesworth permalink
            June 12, 2013 2:49 pm

            >The 200 pound guy is eating 2,500 calories, while the 300 pound guy has to eat 2,000 calories. The 200 pound guy isn’t undereating.

            With you so far. In fact, that is what I said (“if they’re eating at maintenance, they’re eating at maintenance.”).

            >But according to your definition, if the 300 pound guy eats 2,500 calories and begins putting on weight, then he is over-eating, despite the fact that he’s eating the same as the weight stable 200-pound guy.

            Yes, he is. The fact that Mr. 200 maintains at 2500 is irrelevant to Mr. 300’s dietary needs. As you said, they both have different metabolic rates, activity levels, hormonal makeup, diet composition, etc.

            Are you seriously suggesting that in the above example, Mr. 300 is not overeating @2500 cals/day, simply because some other guy can eat that much and maintain? That doesn’t make any sense.

            >Somehow you’re still missing the point.

            Admittedly true.

            • June 12, 2013 3:10 pm

              I’m saying that an outside observer, like Neil, cannot look at a person’s size and decide whether they are overeating or not. A 200 pound person may be overweight in his eyes, but according to even your definition, he’s not because he’s maintaining. I’m saying that it’s stupid to make assumptions about what people do or do not eat based solely on their body size. That’s all.


              • KJH permalink
                June 13, 2013 8:30 am

                The whole point is they are *still* overeating REGARDLESS of what their maintenance calorie level is. It doesn’t matter if one person can eat 3000 calories to maintain 200lbs and another has to eat 1500 to maintain 200lbs (claims I dispute, but that’s a different discussion) – everyone has different maintenance levels, and eating according to them will prevent being overweight. It’s silly to have this almost karma-like view on things ‘he eats 3000 calories, I should be able to eat that much too!’. If your biological maintenance needs are X, eat X. If you eat >X, you are overeating, simple as, it doesn’t matter what someone elses maintenance level is. You are still overeating, that is excess energy not required by the body.

                • June 13, 2013 10:30 am

                  So, basically you believe that if you’re overweight, you’re eating too much regardless of how much that is. That the mere fact that you’re overweight is proof that even if you eat 2,000 calories a day, you’re still eating too much. Do I have that right?


                  • r_nebblesworth permalink
                    June 14, 2013 4:50 pm

                    Yes, if you’re overweight (let’s define it as weighing more than you want to), you are overeating. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, and weigh 300lbs, but want to weigh 200lbs, then you need to eat less than 2,000 cals/day (all other things being equal)! It doesn’t matter that some people, somewhere can maintain at 200lbs with 2000 cals or 3000 cals or 1500 cals or whatever. That’s all that we’re saying.

                    What’s sticking for me, is when you say “even if you eat 2,000 calories a day,” implying that there’s some “normal” number of calories that you should be able to eat regardless of the effect it has on your body size and composition. This not only doesn’t make any sense, it flies in the face of your various other statements that people are individuals with different metabolisms, energy needs, hormonal makeups, etc. – which I agree with btw!

                    Also your CSS is broken

  2. Michelle B permalink
    June 12, 2013 4:48 pm

    If it’s all about calories in/calories out, then why are there people who stay the same weight no matter how much they eat or how little they exercise?

    • Jimmy permalink
      June 13, 2013 7:24 am

      Because they think they’re eating a different amount of calories than they really are. My brother is super skinny even though he “eats like a horse.” We went out to eat together a few nights ago and he got a 4 oz burger, a side of fries, and a glass of water. He ate half the burger, and maybe a handful of fries. That’s “eating like a horse” to him.

      • June 13, 2013 10:29 am

        You’re talking about one person, and suddenly you’ve disproved adaptive thermogenesis? No.


        • Jimmy permalink
          June 13, 2013 12:29 pm

          It doesn’t matter. He’s eating enough calories to sustain the weight he’s at. If he adapted and started to gain weight, then he’s eating more calories than is needed to sustain his current weight and would thus need to reduce his caloric intake to maintain his weight.

        • grambo permalink
          June 14, 2013 11:50 am

          Adaptive thermogenesis results in a 4-6% RMR variance, which is verging on insignificant.

      • Michelle B permalink
        June 13, 2013 3:05 pm

        But I’m not talking about someone who exaggerates about how much they eat, I’m referring to people like my very thin co-worker, who would eat large bags of candy and cookies daily and meals large enough to feed 3 people and not gain an ounce. Many of my other co-workers would comment on how they wished they had her metabolism.

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    June 12, 2013 5:24 pm

    Overeating cannot be determined by looking at someone or their number on a scale. Overeating is when you eat too much and feel overfull. Every human being in a wealthy society has overeaten at some time or other, and many of them are thin people. Overeating is not consuming enough calories to maintain weight and/or metabolism. Who appointed anyone the judge of someone else’s caloric consumption?

    Many so-called overweight people do not overeat and eat what might be considered a quite ordinary number of calories. My body does not use calories in the same way that a genetically thin person’s body uses calories. My body does not use calories in the same way it did prior to dieting; my body does not use calories in the same way it would have if my grossly neglected hypothyroidism had been treated 40 years ago.

  4. Dizzyd permalink
    June 12, 2013 7:50 pm

    Bob and Jim could be a pile of dead bones and concern trolls would still say they’re too fat. That’s the stupidity – mocked by the Onion – that our American society proudly holds up as intellectual discourse when it comes to weight. BTW, did you know according to the Onion that stars are made up of Twinkies? Strange, but true.

  5. Dizzyd permalink
    June 12, 2013 7:54 pm

    I got to admit, even though it’s not funny really, I laughed at the new campaign Mrs. Obama said she would champion: “Fine, Let’s Just Sit Here Stuffing Our Faces Until We Drop Dead!”

  6. Dizzyd permalink
    June 12, 2013 8:12 pm

    Quick note – I just got an email from MedCity News talking about “how we should stop blaming the patient for noncompliance; if the patient isn’t complying, then more than likely the health care system is failing them instead of the other way around. It could be that the treatment is not right for the patient, and maybe we should stop intensifying the treatment and trying to push it even more on the patient.” Heartening, to say the least!

    • violetyoshi permalink
      June 13, 2013 5:42 am

      I’m glad to hear someone from the medical community recognize that blaming the patient never works. You can work on problems, and they might be difficult for some patients to deal with, but claiming a patient is noncompliant because they can’t do what they can’t do. That’s setting up someone to adapt a learned helplessness approach to everything concerning their health, why try if I’ll get it wrong, why try if I’ll always fail. That’s not a healthy mindset for anyone.

      In fact the other day I went for an ear checkup, I kept telling the doctor I couldn’t do a procedure, they only let up once I started crying. I don’t understand this mindset, if someone says they can’t do something in that moment, why not just understand and say okay. Even just saying it’s okay and not badgering them for awhile will be enough to let their anxiety subside. I just dealt with this kind of stuff in high school too, and it boggles me, that people honestly think something positive will come out of pushing people.

      • June 15, 2013 9:06 pm

        Exactly. Patients are not robots. They are far more complex. Not everyone’s situation is going to be the same and doctors need to learn to deal with this fact by approaching with compassion, not being know-it-all dicks.

  7. Dizzyd permalink
    June 12, 2013 8:13 pm

    Now, if they would only apply that to weight loss/diet issues!

  8. Alex permalink
    June 12, 2013 11:42 pm

    “Jim will have to eat significantly fewer calories just to maintain his 200 pound weight due to a process called adaptive thermogenesis, which I explain in detail here.”

    You seem to misunderstand adaptive thermogenesis. You are saying that *because* Jim lost weight that he will have to eat less than Bob. This isn’t true. Firstly, the large portion of adaptive thermogenesis that has already taken effect is Jim’s reduction in caloric expenditure due to his reduction in weight, Jim’s caloric expenditure is going to be higher when he’s at 300 pounds compared to 200 pounds because he’s got 100 pounds less metabolically costly tissue to support; but that alone won’t shoot his expenditure below Bob’s. It will only bring it closer in line to Bob’s. In fact their expenditure will be nearly exactly the same if their activity levels are the same.

    Which brings me to the other part of adaptive thermogenesis. Jim’s expenditure *may* be lower, *if* his activity level is lower, as is the body’s “natural” response to decrease intake. So essentially there are two options for having the same energy balance as Bob; either make sure that activity levels stay high, both in terms of exercise and non-exercise activities as a sum. Or eat according to your activity level, which is essentially the definition of overeating, “eating above your activity level’s expenditure.”

    And at the end of the day, unless Bob is a tradie and working out everyday and Jim doesn’t workout, the difference isn’t going to be 500 calories, much closer to 100-150.

    • June 13, 2013 10:28 am

      I’m planning a full post on adaptive thermogenesis in the future, but there is plenty of evidence and consensus that adaptive thermogenesis plays a significant role in stymieing weight loss efforts. Although it is not the only contributor, it is a major contributor. In this review of the evidence, the authors cite a previous study that found a 30% adaptation after losing 12% of their body weight over 8 months through diet and exercise. The AT varied by when they measured, but when the dieters plateaued, it was pretty clear what was contributing:

      This study found a 28% adaptation, while this study found that the adaptations were quite significant:

      The reduction in energy expenditure to a level 15 percent below that predicted for body composition, as a result of a 10 percent (or larger) decrease in body weight, is large when one considers that an average daily intake of 2500 kcal would be associated with a positive energy balance of approximately 375 kcal per day.

      There are more studies on this subject which I’m combing through for a future post, but suffice it to say that there is plenty of evidence to suggest a larger influence from AT than you claim.


  9. Elizabeth permalink
    June 15, 2013 9:21 am

    I’m sticking with The Diet Cure, nebble. The author treats people with all sorts of eating and health issues and makes a clear statement that eating under 2500 calories a day is detrimental to one’s metabolism. Once a body such as mine grows accustomed to 1200 calories a day, I can actually gain weight on 1200 calories and would have to further reduce caloric intake to maintain weight. Your suggestion seems to imply that if I can only eat 400 calories a day to maintain weight, that would be the right and proper thing to do. Anything under 1800 calories a day, if I remember correctly, is considered starvation by the WHO. Fortunately, my hypothyroidism is being treated and I eat normally, having learned the hard way that starving oneself to lose or maintain weight is an extraordinarily poor health decision.

    • June 15, 2013 9:10 pm

      I learned the hard way that eating diet food, starving myself for days at a time, and other crap habits like that may lead to weight loss initially, but once I start eating enough to be satiated, I will regain the weight and then some. I dieted myself up to 300 pounds. (Not that there is anything wrong with weighing 300 pounds.) Three-ish years after discovering size acceptance and HAES, I started exercising again. I binge eat far less often, and the food I eat is generally better quality. I initially lost a small amount of weight, and then my weight stabilized. I rarely get on a scale any more, because what I weigh doesn’t matter. How I feel does.
      I have hypothyroidism too, BTW. Levothyroxine almost killed me! If anyone else is having trouble with Levothyroxine, ask your doctor about Armour. It’s been far better for me. However, it is not suitable for vegetarians, as it is made from pig thyroid.

      • June 16, 2013 11:16 am

        I just switched to Armour. I’m curious to see if I can tell a real difference or not. My husband says he thinks I’m more energetic than I was before. But this month is extremely stressful so I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell a big difference the first month. I’m just glad my doctor let me try Armour, a lot of doctors won’t prescribe it.

  10. LittleBigGirl permalink
    June 16, 2013 12:02 pm

    “Strawman HAES claims that ‘running on a treadmill every morning at 6 a.m. will not help anyone lose weight, and neither will cutting carbohydrates from one’s diet, eating smaller portions throughout the day, doing yoga, or hiring a personal trainer.’ ”

    I think critics of HAES tend to forget what the ‘H’ stands for. Running on a treadmill, cutting carbs (or maybe eating more complex carbs etc.), doing yoga or hiring a personal trainer have other HEALTH benefits like increased energy and stamina, improved lung capacity, reduced stress, possibly improved cholesterol or other chemical/hormonal health indicators, etc.

    Personally, I would rather have any of those things than simply weigh less.

    Incidentally, muscle weighs more than fat so if you are doing any kind of exercise that builds/strengthens muscle you may actually be mourning the building of lean muscle when you step on the scale and start wailing about gaining or even ‘plateauing.’

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