Saturday, November 13, 2010

SHOCKING weight-loss breakthrough! ... Or, dieting a la Rube Goldberg?

Relatively speaking, I haven't spent much time on the weight-loss businessin retrospect that was an unfortunate omission in my bookbut these sorts of "insights" are what's so infuriating to some of us who track the SHAMscape and related enterprises. Why is this, seemingly, major news? Why do we have to try everything else first before settling on the astounding realization that you lose weight by consuming fewer calories than you expend? OK, my friends from the fitness realm might interject, "Now hold on there, cowboy, it ain't quite that simple." (For the life of me, I don't know why they all talk like that; very odd.) Maybe it's true that there's some nuance to it, that you can favorably tweak the proportion of muscle to fat by applying cutting-edge nutritional science, combined with enlightened workout regimens.

Still, most of us will go to almost any lengths, and I mean any, to avoid facing the obvious truism italicized above. We'll ingest Brazilian tree bark,
we'll have our ears stapled, we'll gulp mystery-formula pills by the handful, we'll embrace genuinely bizarre food fads (or leave out this or that food group altogether, and dangerously so) before we just bite the bullet (instead of everything around us that's edible) and say: You know what? Maybe I should stop eating so much. Or exercise more. Or, ideally, both. Nutritionist Mark Haub proved the wisdom of that approach in colorful and ironic fashion recently when he dropped 27 pounds by eating nothing but Twinkies. Although Twinkies are much-maligned as the quintessential junk food, and according to some can even cause you to go berserk and kill gay municipal employees, Haub proved that the basic equation still holds: Consume fewer calories in Twinkies than you burn in the course of your daily activities and you'll lose weight. As assuredly as if you ate nothing but carrots and sprouts.

Yet it's understandable that overweight Americans would brush aside common sense when there's a $60 billion industry filling the airwaves as well as the pages of every women's magazine with nonsense that massively overcomplicates the proposition of weight loss and gives consumers every possible excuse to rationalize away the simple fact that if they really want to lose weight, they can do so at home
sans any complex "weight-loss systems"via portion control. Aiding and abetting all this you have the bright-eyed hordes from the Cult of Positivity who relentlessly sell the notion that the key ingredient in dieting success is unflagging optimism. "Don't ever admit a negative thought! To be successful at dieting [or anything else, for that matter], you have to persuade yourself that failure is simply unacceptable!"

In truth it appears to be a healthy dose of fatalism that does the trick.

* Many of you young'uns may not have heard of Rube Goldberg, but he was a cartoonist who specialized in devising incredibly, hilariously complicated systems for accomplishing simple things.


RevRon's Rants said...

I think that some people might actually use these new "miracle" weight-loss technologies as an excuse for not losing weight. "I really want to get in shape, but I can't afford the Quantum Abs & Ass Blaster right now." Abs and ass remain intact, and the person no longer feels responsibility for reducing their acreage.

Now, I know this sounds pretty heartless, and I don't claim that it's the whole problem. I do think it's a factor in some cases, however... likely more than we'd think.

VW = squat

Anonymous said...

I agree with RevRon, and add another reason for the belief in complicated weight-loss regimes: It's easier than getting a whole society to realize that its whole current way of life is unhealthy and needs to change. Specifically I'm referring to the fact that so many of us work in sedentary jobs, and drive everywhere, and there aren't enough hours outside of work to get enough physical activity to make up for sitting around the rest of the day. Imagine trying to get people to believe that they might be better off, i.e. healthier, going back to working on farms or in workshops, or by riding bicycles as a primary mode of transportation? And those are just two examples. So no way - I'll just wash down these weight-loss pills with another frappucino, thanks.

Tyro said...

In truth it appears to be a healthy dose of fatalism that does the trick.

I hadn't thought of things that way before but it really rings true. Perhaps it isn't so much fatalism as cold hard realism - some things are intrinsically difficult and we need to properly understand and prepare for that. Weight loss is difficult so understand that the solution will be difficult. Most people fail, so plan for failure and try to learn from the mistakes of others.

It reminds me of "The Gap" by Seth Godin where he says that there is a natural cycle which happens in almost any new venture. At the start we get quick rewards and feel pretty good, like we're masters but between this and genuine mastery is a long, difficult, unrewarding slog which is what wears most people out. He says that about the worst thing we can do is to put in the time & money to slog through the gap only to quit in the middle which is unfortunately what most of us do. If we instead recognize that this gap is there, we can either quit early so we can move onto something else or prepare mentally and financially for this work and push ourselves through to where we can reap the rewards. Those people who buy magic weight-loss pills, Get Rich Quick schemes or generally delusionally ignore the possibilities of failure and the true costs in making lifestyle changes are doomed to fail, and worse, fail after having put in unnecessarily large amounts of time and energy.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Exactly. Barbara Ehrenreich addresses this point at length in her book Bright-Sided, and I've made similar points with regard to the self-esteem movement in school: If you keep telling people that "it's all up to you, you can do it if you really apply yourself," then when those people fail at a very difficult endeavor--which, make no mistake, dieting surely is--then they're not only a failure at dieting, but they also have to face the fact that they're failures in a much deeper sense as well: They couldn't "apply themselves," or they "didn't try hard enough," or they "just don't have what it takes." This is the ironic danger of filling people's heads with delusional optimism. At the end of the day, life just isn't that easy, and folks who've been weaned on false hope end up feeling twice as bad.

It's a very difficult balancing act. You have to give people "permission" to fail, while at the same time equipping them with the resiliency that enables them to keep on trying.

RevRon's Rants said...

This brings to mind our previous discussions some time back about faux "Doctor" Joe Vitale's blog post on the San Diego fires. For those who missed those, Vitale said that the people who practiced the "Law of Attraction" were spared by the fires, the clear insinuation being that the ones who lost their homes were obviously not evolved enough to ward off the fire. Got to admit that I was somewhat reassured by the flaming he got for that, which eventually convinced him to delete the entire discussion. I wonder if he's figured out what he did to "attract" such widespread disgust, or if yet another clue bus passed him by.

Nowadays, Vitale's claiming that the people in Haiti aren't really victims at all, homelessness and cholera notwithstanding. They obviously earned, created, and deserved the circumstances that befell them. So far, hundreds have "failed" to attract a life that will outlast the disease. Perhaps cholera is a better LOA practitioner than they. Meanwhile, his own "adventure" continues...

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: But it's amazing how unapologetic some people are with regard to such blame-the-victim sentiments. After all, if they're diehard subscribers to the LoA, and they've enjoyed some good fortune in life, they want full credit for their success, so by logic they also have to blame others for their failures.

I remember that after I watched my ABC special in its entirety for the first time along with the rest of America, I was struck by the demeanor and overall attitude of that one lady who was the first to shave her head, and who said she'd attend another Ray event, given the opportunity. Though it would've been cringe-worthy and impolitic for her to voice her innermost feelings about what happened in Sedona, you could almost read her mind:

I'm one of the strong. I'm a true spiritual warrior. I survived the ordeal-by-fire. Those others? I feel bad for them...but they just weren't worthy...

Wayne S said...

I'd like to weigh in (please excuse the pun) on the side of fatalism as the preferred weight loss method. Between last year and this I lost 50 lbs. bringing my BMI to exactly 25. The motivation: being told by my doctor that if I didn't get my blood sugar/weight/diet under strict control I would likely die a painful miserable death at an early age and knowing some people my own age who died in exactly that manner.

The method: realizing that my doctor didn't have all the answers and researching the role of diet in diabetes. I settled on a diet low in carbohydrates, salt saturated fats and processed foods and high in fresh fruits and vegetables, fiber, vitamins and minerals.

A solid dose of fear in the form of knowing what will happen to me if I fall off the wagon keeps me on the straight and narrow. The upside to my personal condition is that I actually spend less money on healthy food I prepare myself than eating prepared foods or eating out regularly. The down side is that I still have to poke myself in the fingers twice a day for blood glucose levels.

Part of the problem as I see it is that we are constantly bombarded with advertising that informs us that products a , b and c are healthier than products x, y and z when in reality all of them are pretty unhealthy to consume.

What I find amazing is the number of people I have encountered that when faced with their own mortality still cannot find the strength to do what must be done to save there own lives. For that phenomenon I have no explanation.

Steve Salerno said...

Wayne: Thanks for sharing your personal lens on weight loss. I know people, too, who continue to smoke after being told that they risk death by doing so.

But still, the fairly large number of people such as yourself, who lose weight only after being given dire medical news, illustrates another problem with weight loss in this country: We tend to look at it in terms of vanity, not health. Sure, we want to lose weight, but in the back of our minds we figure, "Oh well, I guess I can just get used to looking at myself fat, if I have to. I can always buy bigger clothes." That's because we're thinking of weight in terms of what's visible on the outside; we don't think that much about what's happening inside until we hear the bad news from a doctor. That's when we really take the problem to heart (as it were).

Wayne S said...

I have to admit that before the diagnosis I was as complacent as anyone regarding my own health issues. The fact that fear worked for me is unimportant compared to the rest of societies ability to perceive the health risks as less important than the high probability of serious health problems that will occur further down the road.

It seems to me that this comes under the heading of the cognitive dissonance trait of human nature that all of these self help groups and gurus take advantage of to separate us from our cash without regard to the secondary negative impact it has on individuals and society.

Anonymous said...


What happens if you think that death isn't the worst thing that can happen to you? Does fatalism work then?

Also, they had a news clip today here in the UK where neurobiologists are starting to study the brain of highly successful business people to see if they are wired differently. Lo and behold one of the men they tested said, " You can get anything you want if you want it badly enough"

I wanted to scream " but I really really want to be a supermodel, why am I not growing the 20cm in height required!!!!"

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: I don't think fatalism (or any "ism") works all the time. That's my point about the SHAMscape: It takes highly complex and, indeed, largely inscrutable realms (e.g. the human personality; success vs. failure; the impact of totally random variables in the outcome of any given enterprise) and reduces all of that to simplistic bullet points that cannot possibly have any repeatable, predictable impact on the course of one's life. Let's even suppose I wrote a self-help book titled: YOUR TICKET TO SUCCESS IN LIFE: DON'T KILL PEOPLE!, think of all the settings (and there are many, actually) where even a cardinal "truism" like that doesn't apply!

So no, I do not advise a general mood of fatalism. But I don't advise a general mood of optimism, either. What you really need is a highly variable balance that is constantly under pressure from external forces. And then of course there are many other isms that need to be factored in. How do you write a book that expresses that equation in any kind of way that can have even a modicum of validity for "the average" reader?

RevRon's Rants said...

Anon brings up a subject I've weighed many times over the years. If one spends an extended period fully *expecting* to die at any moment, the fear of death subsides and ultimately disappears. It's a very freeing perspective. But is it a perspective that could - or should - be more universally sought and achieved?

For one thing, I doubt that many people would willingly submit to the regimen required for such an "awakening," and I would have serious doubts about the mental state of those who *were* willing. Furthermore, the process of transcending that fatalism is wrought with its own demons, and all too often, the "awakening" is tinged with unimaginable misery. Truth is, nobody goes through the "training" and emerges intact and undamaged.

I think perhaps the same kind of attitude might be ingrained in people who have been obese for an extended period of time. "Yeah, I look like hell, and it's probably gonna kill me, but I'm gonna die anyway, so why go through the grief of trying to lose the weight? Now, if you'll give me an instant-skinny pill..."

Tyro said...

Reminds me of some advice I heard at a motivational seminar foisted on us by our bosses. The big message: "life each day as if it were your last. No regrets!"

I wanted to ask the speaker if giving yet another speech at a corporate event was what she wanted to do before she died and, if so, would she forgo her speaking fees?

(I sadly noticed that no one quit in order to spend a final weekend in Paris or Madrid.)

Perhaps our lives are better if we acted like we had a few dozen years left in us, rather than a few hours. Less catchy though.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Oh really? And if you're living as if it's your last day, and what you really want to do is tell your boss to f**k off, stab one of your neighbors or take a little grab at that foxy little 19-year-old down the street, does that advice still apply?

This is my big gripe with "living in the Now." People who live in the Now can be very dangerous indeed. If not in a literal/physical sense, then certainly they are capable of inflicting profound emotional damage on those around them.

Dimension Skipper said...

Not a lot of details to the particular case that's the main subject of the article, but...

Classmates struggle to understand talented and popular teen's suicide
By Don Butler, The Ottawa Citizen

...mentions this in re to another suicide case:

After Brett’s death, Pearson, who lives in Carleton Place, started speaking to students in Lanark County about her son.

The students, she said, want to talk about it. “But they’re too scared to come forward ...”

She tries to teach them how to trust adults who can help.

“When they kill themselves, usually it’s an impulsive act. They live in the moment.”

Steve Salerno said...

Great point, DimSkip. A sad one, too.

RevRon's Rants said...

"People who live in the Now can be very dangerous indeed."

As opposed to people who live in the shadow of their regret of the past or their fear of some horrific tomorrow? Living in the present doesn't excuse one from responsibility for their past; nor does it remove them from the future consequences of their acts. If the responsibility for one's acts is removed from the equation, it doesn't matter whether an individual is living "in the now" or futilely trying to change their past and/or future. The outcome is likely to be pretty dismal in either case.

I think Carlos Castaneda did a good job of describing the best approach (before he went off the deep end, that is). To paraphrase, the man (or woman) of knowledge takes each step as if it were their last dance on earth, and chooses for that last dance to be the act of a warrior (pure). Act as if there is no tomorrow, but realize that your last act will be your epitaph and your legacy. Kind of hard to go wrong by following such a course, IMO.

Tyro said...


To paraphrase, the man (or woman) of knowledge takes each step as if it were their last dance on earth, and chooses for that last dance to be the act of a warrior (pure). Act as if there is no tomorrow, but realize that your last act will be your epitaph and your legacy. Kind of hard to go wrong by following such a course, IMO.

Steve & I gave a few examples on how that can go badly wrong and I stand by them.

If I knew for a fact that I was going to die next week I would quit my job, spend a good chunk of change on a final goodbye blast and give away the remainder of my savings. I would try to compress 40 years of future living into a few days and end with nothing, and I'm pretty sure that most people would do the same.

The fact is that most of us have decades of life left in us so this "act as if there is no tomorrow" philosophy is fundamentally at odds with reality - delusional. While it sounds nice and lofty, I doubt denying reality is a sound basis for any philosophy. Even a superficial look at the consequences of this delusion show it is harmful at best and devastating at worst.

You say it's hard to go wrong, I find it hard to see how it could go right. There are some trite upsides (like asking out that pretty girl at the bar) but the downsides seem to drown these out. Am I missing something? How do you see this benefiting people?

RevRon's Rants said...

Tyro - If someone is a narcissistic sociopath, of course their efforts to live only in the present will manifest narcissism and sociopathy. By the same token, if someone strives for integrity in their life, their "last dance" will be one of integrity. The ultimate effects will be a mirror of the individual's core values (or lack of same). Those "trite upsides" you describe appear (to me at least) to be strawmen situations; perhaps occurring in kneejerk, but certainly not defining one's actions beyond the moment one first considers their own mortality.

The person who lives solely for their own benefit will do so whether they have five minutes or five decades left to live. By the same token, the person who strives to exhibit right actions will continue to strive, regardless of the time remaining to him or her. Denying the value of any ideology based upon the lowest common denominator of its adherents (or spokespeople) is, IMO, both disingenuous and inherently misleading.

Tyro said...


If someone is Buddha-like then they don't need aphorisms to guide their life so if your advice is only useful for them it's not worth much.

My point was not that I or others are mindless hedonists but that when faced with imminent death we make the rational decision to stop saving or sacrificing for a future which will never come. Some will start spending, pretty much everyone will stop working and saving, some may chose to express themselves in ways they would not otherwise do. The only reason this appears sociopathic or narcisistic is because they're living as if they would not have to live with the consequences of their actions and not have to save for any future - exactly as you're asking them to do. It's a reasonable, rational response but very destructive if their beliefs are wrong and they aren't facing immanent death.

I think your "live with integrity" is far better advice than trying to develop a delusion which is likely to result in harm in otherwise sane, rational people.

RevRon's Rants said...

I guess I missed where I said that it was essential for someone to "live Buddha-like" in order to make an appropriate life choice. And I would think that only an immature (or sociopathic) person would abandon any sense of responsibility, simply because they came face to face with their own mortality. So let's not make it a strawman, either/or situation, OK?

The real delusion is in clinging on to the notion that death doesn't apply to us. Nobody gets out alive, and IMO, realizing that and incorporating that truth into one's life is far from being harmful. It is the epitome of sanity and reason not to delude one's self into believing that we're going to live forever. And the notion that the natural response to such insight would be to abandon one's life values is, IMO, profoundly cynical. One needn't be "Buddha-like" to hold onto their values and integrity... they only need be a step or two above a sociopath.

Tyro said...


Instead of implying that I and most of the world are sociopaths, perhaps it would be more convincing if you would share what you would do if you had only one day or one week to live.

Would you continue to go to work? What would happen to your savings?

RevRon's Rants said...

Not implying anything about you, much less, "the rest of the world," Tyro. Just pointing out that your characterization of a mindset is really that of a strawman, lacking nuance.

I have little interest in "convincing" anyone of anything, except perhaps that they might consider that there are other worldviews than their own that may well be valid, even enriching. At least to consider, rather than condemn.

And as to my own behavior... in my current situation, I'd do my best to tie up any loose ends in my affairs, say my goodbyes, and tell the people who care about me not to sweat it. Otherwise, there's little I would do differently than I do already. Perhaps try to be a little nicer to folks. As to savings... hah! What savings? :-)

Steve Salerno said...

I think the Ron/Tyro dialogue raises interesting questions about whether one's degree of investment in "the future" has a major (even decisive) bearing on one's receptiveness to "living in the Now." If you have a million-dollar nest egg, are you more or less willing to make spontaneous decisions (or entertain major life changes) that others might view as "reckless"? I see arguments on both sides.

One of my wife's favorite lines is that "the person with nothing to lose is one of the most dangerous people in society." That was drummed into her and her colleagues when she worked in a bank, and underwent training about how to handle a hold-up. But that observation has wider implications as well. Many of the great "gurus" have discovered their totally new ways of looking at life when they found themselves at a spectacular low point. So is it easier to look in unusual places for answers when everything that used to define your life has been taken from you? And if that is true--does that realization (on our part) not raise questions about the validity of the "answers" these gurus find?

RevRon's Rants said...

Interesting questions, Steve. Like most folks, I once perceived myself as immortal. Sure, I could mouth the words acknowledging my mortality, but the words never sank in on anything beyond intellectualization. Upon coming literally face to face with the inescapable FACT that I would die, the moments I had left to me - however many or few - became precious where I once took them for granted, and the things I had always used to distract myself became burdensome. When you think you're taking your last breath, you don't change the way you breathe; you simply appreciate the sweetness of the air.

If I knew for certain that I had 50, 30, or even 10 years left in this life, I'd probably make some logistical preparations, but not to the extent that my attitude toward life was dramatically altered. To be honest, I think the idea of knowing how much time I have left would be a source of sadness, at any rate. The very unpredictability is inspiring.

And if I had a significant nest egg stashed away, I reckon I'd leave it intact, as Connie would need it far worse than I. In short, no change.

Tyro said...


We regularly make sacrifices today to provide for our future selves. We work in jobs we may not love so that we can save for a retirement, we make large purchases which will only payy off over several years, we make investments of time and money for future payoffs (eg: going to school). All of this is entirely dependent on us believing (realistically) that we will live for decades, not days.

Even though you didn't answer what you'd do about your work or savings, you did say you would start to wrap up your affairs. I take it you would not make new investments, try to cover any debts or obligations so your family wouldn't be burdened. Of course if you always lived like that, you would never initiate new investments, never take new obligations, never make any plans for the future.

But lets say we do live another ten years or another forty. What then? How do we plan for the future if we're living as if we will not last another day? How do we make sacrifices in our lives today so that we're provided for in the future? All of this requires that we expect to live a long, healthy life.

No sociopaths or strawmen here and I really don't see what nuance I'm supposed to be missing. Instead of leveling these broad accusations, maybe you could flesh them out and give me specifics.

roger o'keefe said...

I have a feeling I'm going to take a lot of flak for this, but I believe this whole discussion is diverting doubletalk. There are ways we can live our life that are successful and there are other ways we can live our life that are almost certain to create massive problems for us or leave us in a real pickle as we get older. These life lessons have been handed down through the centuries and are no big mystery: Save for a rainy day. Think about what you're doing before you jump in with both feet. Get married before you have babies. (Sorry, "today's women".) Don't buy on credit if you don't have the cash, and if you don't have the cash you probably shouldn't be buying it at all with the exception of a handful of major purchases like a house or a car. Don't cheat on your wife or if you're a wife, don't cheat on your husband. First and foremost DON'T LIVE IN THE NOW! That will end in disaster for almost everybody who tries it.

Is it really all that difficult to know the right way to live your life? We all know what we ought to do. Some of us just don't want to do it, or we look for excuses that give us a way out.

Steve Salerno said...

Roger: Have you considered writing a self-help book?

RevRon's Rants said...

Tyro - I do what I love, fully accepting the fact that it isn't likely to provide for a comfortable "retirement" - a stage in life that I reject out of hand. I suspect that I'll keel over my keyboard one day, but I can't see why I would want to "retire," at any rate.

What few assets I possess would subsequently belong to Connie, to do with as she sees fit, and her decisions are of no real concern to me. There is no burden left, simply because I haven't committed to anything that isn't already taken care of.

By "putting my affairs in order," I meant that I would strive to make my departure as painless as possible for those who care about me. The "affairs" are emotional, rather than economic.

You asked, "How do we plan for the future if we're living as if we will not last another day?" I would respond that if we're living well today, the future will take care of itself, frequently in defiance of any plans we might make. The only "plan" I have is to endeavor to continue living well, for whatever time I have left.

The only "asset" I possess that means anything to me is my life itself. The only thing I will leave behind that actually matters is whether I lived well and brought more joy than pain to life - my own, and others'. I'm still in the red on that account, but continuing to strive for a balanced account.

I can only do that on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. I failed a moment ago, but feel compelled to try harder in this moment. I was an asshole yesterday, but I can't change that; all I can do is try to be less of an asshole today. Right now.

If that mindset is foreign or even distasteful to you, so be it. Follow what feels right. But keep in mind that others might choose differently. That doesn't make them wrong.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Is it really all that difficult to know the right way to live your life?"

Not necessarily. The truly difficult part seems to be accepting the fact that your own life is the only one you're ultimately qualified to live (or, for that matter, to pass judgment upon).

Tyro said...


It's wonderful that you're leading a life you love and would do regardless of your need for money.

Is it so hard for you to believe that others are working for money rather than love, who make investments and short-term sacrifices so that the future will be better?

You're surrounded by equipment, technologies and businesses that were all started in this way. Your computer and Internet only arose because people had multi-year visions, all the food you eat required farmers to work for a payoff that would only come a year or more in the future. What more can I say? I find it increasingly hard to understand why we're having such a hard time bridging this gap and it's starting to feel like you're playing games with me. Do you genuinely not understand what I'm saying?

RevRon's Rants said...

Sigh... Tyro, I understand you perfectly, and I'm certainly not playing games. I made no attempt to denigrate anyone else's way of looking at their life. All I asked is that the same courtesy be extended to my own way, without dismissing or trivializing it.

Lots of folks led a variety of lifestyles to set the stage for my own. Best way to thank them is to live well, IMO... and that means something different to me than to you, it would appear. So be it.