Respectful Insolence

Remember Sandy Szwarc of Junkfood Science?

It’s been a long time since we’ve last encountered her. Indeed, it was last year when there developed a debate on whether her posts were suitable for the Skeptics’ Circle. At the time, I was conflicted. In many ways, Ms. Szwarc seemed to be a skeptic–at least, when it came to most topics. However, when it comes to one topic, she is a crank, and that is the topic of the relationship between diet, obesity, and health. It’s not obvious that she is a crank, and it took my reading her blog over several weeks before I came to the inescapable conclusion that all of Ms. Szwarc’s “skepticism” was inevitably in the direction that being obese is not only not unhealthy but is actually at least as healthy as not being obese and that eating fatty foods is not at all unhealthy. To here, virtually any study she looks at that concludes that being obese or eating fatty foods or too many calories predisposes to health problems is a pile of crap while any pile of crap study claiming otherwise is the latest and greatest. She routinely concludes that virtually every warning made by scientists and physicians about diet and obesity as risk factors for cardiovascular disease and other health problems is fearmongering. Worse, after reading her blog long enough, it became clear to me that she has a distressing tendency to use unscientific tactics, such as cherry picking data, attacking scientific consensus, and alleging conspiracies. That Sandy Szwarc is a diet and obesity crank was a conclusion that I came to reluctantly and only after a long time trying to avoid it.

If I had seen this article by her, The first Law of Thermodynamics in real life, I wouldn’t have dawdled over the decision for so long. For, with this particular bit of denialist crankery, Ms. Szwarc has made it completely clear that she is not a skeptic but a crank in a way that is hard to make more crystal clear.

She seems to be implying that the first law of thermodynamics doesn’t entirely apply when it comes to obesity and diet. And you know that when I see something like that, it’s time to apply a little of the ol’ not-so-Respectful Insolence™.

You think I’m kidding? Would that I were! You think I’m exaggerating? Then check out this passage that boils a long post down to its essence:

As is often the case when science is dummied down into soundbytes, it becomes wrong. Such is the case in the distortion of the Law of Thermodynamics which has been simplified into the popular wisdom: “Calories in = calories out.” This simplistic adage has become something “everyone knows” to be true. It’s behind widely held beliefs that managing our weight is simply a matter of balancing calories and exercise. While that’s been used to sell a lot of calorie-reduced diets and calorie-burning exercise programs for weight loss; sadly, it’s also been used to support beliefs that fat people “most certainly must be lying” about their diets and activity levels, because otherwise their failure to lose weight would seem to “defy the Law of Thermodynamics.”

While it might seem inconceivable, this simplified maxim is little more than superstition and urban legend. To realize this fact requires us to first go back to physics class and fill in the missing half of the first Law of Thermodynamics.

The first Law of Thermodynamics, or energy balance, basically states that in a closed system, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed or transferred.

In a closed system…

The human body is not a closed system! There are countless, wildly varying, and little understood variables that affect the efficiencies of a system and for which we have no control over. Understanding this helps to explain why calories cannot be balanced like a checkbook, and why people never seem to gain or lose as calculated.

See what I mean? Here, she’s setting up an argument to claim that the human body is not a closed system. It’s a case where she is sort of correct on the surface but that she is obviously full of crap becomes obvious with just a little deeper digging. Speaking of digging, though, before I go on to explain, I can’t resist letting Ms. Szwarc dig herself in a bit deeper by quoting a bit more:

Balance in an open system, like the human body, is when all energy going into the system equals all energy leaving the system plus the storage of energy within the system. But energy in any thermodynamic system includes kinetic energy, potential energy, internal energy, and flow energy, as well as heat and work processes.

In other words, in real life, balancing energy includes a lot more than just the calories we eat and the calories we burn according to those exercise charts. The energy parts of the equation include: calories consumed; calories converted to energy and used in involuntary movement; calories used for heat generation and in response to external environmental exposures and temperatures; calories used with inflammatory and infectious processes; calories used in growth, tissue restoration and numerous metabolic processes; calories used in voluntary movement; calories not absorbed in the digestive tract and expelled; calories stored as fat, and fat converted in the liver to glucose; and more. Add to that, to put it simply, each variable affects the others, varies with mass and age, involves complex hormonal and enzyme regulatory influences, and differs in efficiency.

Calories eaten and calories used in voluntary movement are only two small parts of energy balance and are meaningless by themselves, unless all of the other variables are controlled for… which they can never be as they aren’t under our control.

I bet anyone who’s taken freshman physics can spot the misdirection in Ms. Szwarc’s argument. Can you? First, let’s define systems. An isolated system does not exchange energy, work, or matter with their environment. Closed systems, on the other hand, are able to exchange energy in the form of heat and work with the environment, but not matter. An open system can exchange energy and matter with the environment. Somehow, Ms. Szwarc thinks that moving from the thermodynamics of a closed system to that of an open system can be used to justify her argument that somehow all these other sources of energy impact on obesity. She’s wrong.

In an open system, the first law of thermodynamics states: The increase in the internal energy of a system is equal to the amount of energy added to the system by matter flowing in and by heating, minus the amount lost by matter flowing out and in the form of work done by the system. Let’s treat the human body as an open system for a moment. What are the forms of matter and energy that go in and out of the system? Well, going into the system we have food. Food is the only kind of energy the body can utilize on a scale relevant to obesity. After all, we aren’t plants; we can’t use the energy from sunlight to do photosynthesis, nor can we use heat or sunlight to do useful work. All of our usable energy comes from the chemical energy stored in food, the measure of which is the calorie.

The body converts the food it consumes into usable energy in one of two forms:

  1. Chemical energy for immediate use: The “molecular currency” of chemical energy in the body is adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Energy is stored in the phosphate group and released when it is cleaved.
  2. Stored chemical energy: When more energy comes in than can be utilized right away, it is converted to glycogen in the liver. However, the glycogen stores in the liver are rather limited, and after they are topped off the remainder is converted to fat, which is a far more energy-dense chemical form.

No process is completely efficient, of course; so the excess energy is converted into heat. The matter from food goes into:

  1. Production of structural proteins, carbohydrates, etc.
  2. Storage as glycogen or fat
  3. Carbon dioxide and water from respiration
  4. Waste

As far as its being matter, the food that cannot be converted to chemical energy is eliminated as waste, and the matter byproduct of usage of that chemical energy is carbon dioxide and water (leaving aside anaerobic metabolism, of course, the products of which are virtually always eventually used for aerobic metabolism). Because matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, the mass and energy from food that enters the body plus the oxygen breathed in during respiration must equal the energy that is used by the body to do work and make heat plus the matter lost through waste and expiration of carbon dioxide plus weight gain due to either storage of energy from food as fat and the use of food components to make structural components. Implying that it doesn’t necessarily have to be so is akin to implying that homeopathy works.

In any case, that doesn’t even seem to be what Ms. Szwarc is even saying; rather the whole bit about the first law of thermodynamics was simply diversion, not to mention a bit of a straw man. Even if it were true that the public so misunderstands physics that its conception of weight loss is in such error, that does not mean that it’s not true that weight loss can’t be achieved through a combination of decreased food intake and increased energy usage in the form of exercise. In addition, she even goes on to mention the second law of thermodynamics. Why? I have no idea. It is largely irrelevant to her argument, even though she is correct that no energy conversion system can ever be 100% efficient in turning heat into work. The best explanation I can come up with is that she is implying that the energy lost due to the second law must mean that energy out will be smaller than energy in, but I’m not even sure of that. I can only conclude her mention of the second law serves the same function that certain hand motions of a magician do: To misdirect the eyes of the audience from what she is really arguing. Instead, she tries to make it sound as though the body’s homeostatic mechanisms for regulating energy and fat don’t follow the first law of thermodynamics:

The human body is a remarkable and incredibly complex and sophisticated system that normally keeps all sorts of things in balance, such as our fluid and electrolyte levels, our body temperature… and, yes, even our fat stores. When fat levels deviate from each body’s natural range, compensatory mechanisms kick in over weeks to return the body to its individual normal state, all without us having to think about it or having much to say about it. Even when eating a range of calories, our body weights stay within a surprisingly narrow range.

Ms. Szwarc then goes on ad nauseam to list examples of research that purport to show that the human body has a “set point” for weight and fat stores that it resists moving away from, either by increasing hunger and decreasing metabolism when food consumption is too low and decreasing hunger and increasing metabolism when food consumption is too high. Even if valid, none of this research goes against the first law of thermodynamics in any way. It postulates that the body either uses more energy or less energy to try to maintain a “set point.” Ms. Szwarc, however, seems to imply that it somehow does by a lot of fancy “energy balancing”:

The energy parts of the equation include: calories consumed; calories converted to energy and used in involuntary movement; calories used for heat generation and in response to external environmental exposures and temperatures; calories used with inflammatory and infectious processes; calories used in growth, tissue restoration and numerous metabolic processes; calories used in voluntary movement; calories not absorbed in the digestive tract and expelled; calories stored as fat, and fat converted in the liver to glucose; and more. Add to that, to put it simply, each variable affects the others, varies with mass and age, involves complex hormonal and enzyme regulatory influences, and differs in efficiency.

Calories eaten and calories used in voluntary movement are only two small parts of energy balance and are meaningless by themselves, unless all of the other variables are controlled for… which they can never be as they aren’t under our control.

Notice the slight of hand here. She’s gone from saying that “calories in” doesn’t necessarly equal “calories out” to saying that calories eaten don’t necessarily equal calories used by voluntary movement. She’s doing it, however, to imply that decreasing one’s food intake or increasing one’s activity level won’t make a difference in losing weight. This is plain silly, as total calories in must equal total calories out. Decreasing food intake and/or increasing physical activity must turn the energy balance to negative. What Ms. Szwarc is really doing is disguising a not entirely unreasonable argument that weight loss is very difficult to achieve because the body’s metabolism adjusts to try to maintain its weight and fat content at a certain set point and wrapping it in a straw man argument about the first law of thermodynamics as applied to an open system Nothing in any of the arguments about metabolic set points violates the first law of thermodynamicss, which she takes to a ridiculous extreme near the end:

The simplistic view that weight management is just a matter of “calories in = calories out” sounds lame now, doesn’t it?

The pop belief that if all of us ate the same moderate diets and did the same intense exercise, we’d all have the same bodies (namely, slender) is something obesity researchers know is a myth. The pop belief that people can simply eat less and exercise more and control their weight defies the first Law of Thermodynamics.

No, it does not

See the straw man argument? Not even the “pop” version of the “calories in = calories out” argument is this simplistic. The “pop” version of the argument is that eating less and exercising more will lead to weight loss, not that everyone can be lean, mean, fighting machines by eating less and exercising more. And decreasing caloric intake can and does lead to weight loss; it’s just that for many people it’s incredibly difficult, perhaps because of the metabolic responses Ms. Szwarc likes to emphasize. None of her blather about open versus closed systems and the first law of thermodynamics changes that. Eating too much food and not exercising increases the internal energy of the open system that is the body by increasing stored energy in the form of fat, while decreasing food intake and increasing work done by the system in the form of exercise decreases the internal energy of the system in the form of decreased fat. It may be incredibly hard for many people to achieve these manipulations because of metabolic and genetic factors, but the physics remains inescapable. Ms. Szwarc’s prestidigitation of language and science doesn’t change that.

Think about it this way: What is the universal end result of every operation for morbid obesity ever devised? It’s a decrease in the number of calories absorbed. Early operations, such as ileal-jejunal bypass operations did it by bypassing a huge length of the small intestine; unfortunately such bypass operations had numerous long term complications, primarily metabolic. (Indeed, I remember having to reverse just such an operation for a patient during my residency because of numerous complications.) More modern operations are designed to decrease the size of the stomach to the point where food intake is severely limited, both physically and physiologically through the feeling of being full after very little food. It’s nothing more than the first law of thermodynamics in action that forces the patient to eat a lot less. Steve Novella also noted that simply keeping a daily diary of food intake can double weight loss.

I’m afraid I just don’t get Sandy. Where she points out that obese people are often demonized and their obesity looked down upon as a moral failing, she does a service. Thanks to a complex interplay of metabolism, genetics, and culture, for many people losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight can be incredibly difficult. In fact, I remain puzzled why she even brought up the first law of thermodynamics, because it changes nothing and only makes her look like more of a crank. In a closed system, energy in must equal energy out, energy meaning the sum of work and heat. In an open system energy and mass in must equal energy and mass out. When it comes to obesity, it’s a distinction that doesn’t mean much, and it’s certainly not a distinction that changes the validity of “calories in = calories out.” Either Ms. Szwarc does not understand the basics of the first law of thermodynamics she had left out the bit about the first law of thermodynamics, she might have even had a reasonable argument to make.

Unfortunately, all the hand-waving and obfuscating in her post designed to make it look as though there’s more to the “calories in = calories out” than just the first law of thermodynamics simply confirms my original opinion of her, namely that she’s a crank but a very skilled and subtle crank. Her writings on obesity had always left me with a feeling that something wasn’t quite right, that her arguments were incredibly one-sided. After I read them again, I had to say either “the stupid, it burns” (because she doesn’t understand the first law) or reluctantly tip my hat to her for being exceedingly clever in constructing a tsunami of confusion by implying that the research suggesting the existence of a metabolic set point in humans somehow “complicates” the the application of the first law sufficiently to invalidate it when it comes to dieting for weight loss.

Comments

  1. #1 Marilyn Mann
    October 13, 2008

    I totally agree with you on Sandy Szwarc. In fact, I stopped reading her blog because (1) I did not find her to be a reliable source of information, (2) she posts on things she knows nothing about, (3) she cherry-picks the evidence, (4) she does not allow comments on her site, (5) she does not respond to emails. Like many people, not everything she says is wrong, but that is not good enough for me.

  2. #2 Marilyn Mann
    October 13, 2008

    BTW, The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS) links to some of Szwarc’s stuff, although she is not listed as a member. I have no idea, though, whether she gave them permission to link. There certainly are some similarities between her views and THINCS.

    http://www.thincs.org/links.htm#sites

  3. #3 bill
    October 13, 2008

    Glad you posted this, I have been looking at her website for awhile and was not sure what to think.
    Was going to ask you to comment of some of her posts.

    Thanks.

  4. #4 Confused
    October 13, 2008

    It’s nothing more than the first law of thermodynamics in action that forces the patient to eat a lot less.

    Um, did you mean to say “lose weight” instead of “eat less”? I can’t think of a thermodynamic explanation for people eating less.

  5. #5 Calli Arcale
    October 13, 2008

    When somebody mentions the first law of thermodynamics in a medical discussion, it’s usually a good sign that the person has only a vague idea of what it means.

  6. #6 Pete DeSanto
    October 13, 2008

    As a chemical engineer, it is amusing to see how Sandy incorrectly applies the differential form of the equation expressing the 1st Law of Thermo. The equation as displayed and the variables are defined correctly. However, the equation in her second link to Engineer’s Edge assumes a system at steady state, which I doubt the human body every attains while functioning. She has forgotten to include the accumulation of energy term (i.e. weight loss or gain from storage of this energy as fat) within the system, which I would think is the parameter of interest in the final energy balance when integrated over time. Consequently, this entire part of her post is meaningless fluff used to dress up a poorly thought out argument.

  7. #7 Orac
    October 13, 2008

    Um, did you mean to say “lose weight” instead of “eat less”? I can’t think of a thermodynamic explanation for people eating less.

    Come on, give me a break. It was late when I finished this. :-)

  8. #8 ebauer
    October 13, 2008

    She may be a crank, but you’re not being fair to her argument. Seems like she’s talking about the (true) concept of basal metabolic rate as the largest determinant of body mass index. Around 60-70% of calories burned are involuntary/independent of exercise. Of course the the human body obeys thermodynamics, but you’d have to exercise strenuously for 12 hours a day to significantly up your caloric output on that day. A successful weightloss program works on increasing BMR. Short answer; losing weight=simple in theory, not in practice.

  9. #9 thetwitchytechnician
    October 13, 2008

    I get the strangest feeling that she was the “fat kid” in school. Granted, all I did was scan (busy doing study-type things) but I detect some bitterness.

  10. #10 CanadianChick
    October 13, 2008

    ebauer, I think Orac is being more than fair to her argument – she doesn’t really have one, once she pulls out the “Laws of Thermodynamics” stuff.

    Yes, she probably is talking about basal metabolic rate, but that’s not what she’s SAYING.

    She’s saying that the standard formula for weight loss, where calorie intake must be less than calorie output, isn’t true because of the laws of thermodynamics. That’s nonsense.

    Some of her other points have some validity. Being obese does not automatically mean you have high blood pressure, wonky triglycerides or diabetes. I’m a prime example of that. But this point is lost in all the ‘appeal to scientific authority I don’t really understand’ nonsense.

    The formula is simple and proven. What’s not simple is determining the number of calories that are going out. However, that CAN be approximated with careful and accurate records and a willingness to appreciate that weight gain doesn’t happen over night, nor does weight loss.

  11. #11 Elizabeth Reid
    October 13, 2008

    I’m a fat person who believes pretty strongly that it’s incredibly hard for some of us to stop being fat (to the point where, in this society, it’s close to impossible), and I still think it’s silly to deny that the laws of thermodynamics apply to us. If I eat (enough) less, I will lose weight. It’s unquestionably true. For me, ‘enough’ less might mean I’d be eating less food than many naturally thin people, but if I eat enough less, I’ll lose weight.

    What I think it’s reasonable to argue is that hunger and satiety are complex mechanisms that work together to maintain weight in ways that we don’t understand all that well, and that circumventing that via conscious decision appears to be very difficult, for fat or thin people (except thin people only have to try to do it under unusual circumstances, while fat people are routinely asked to try). Furthermore, our society is structured to offer a superabundance of rich, appealing food and few opportunities to build exercise into our daily lives (i.e. exercise becomes something we can only do as a ‘leisure’ activity). It appears to be true that under these circumstances expecting people to substantially and permanently alter their weight by voluntarily altering their behavior is unrealistic. It doesn’t have a thing to do with thermodynamics, though.

  12. #12 natural cynic
    October 13, 2008

    Making a closed system with the human is very possible and has been done many times in closed system metabolic chambers. All energy in [food] has been precisely calculated while all energy out can be precisely measured [oxygen consumption + ergometric work + weight change] The First Law has been confirmed.

    ebauer: Of course the the human body obeys thermodynamics, but you’d have to exercise strenuously for 12 hours a day to significantly up your caloric output on that day.

    Wrong wrong wrong. Go back to the Olympics and look at Michael Phelps training diet. On the order of 7000+ Calories/day. Look at the diets of cyclists in the Tour de France – 6-7000 Cal/day. And they only exercised about 5 hours/day. They needed that many calories to maintain their body weight. If Phelps was being a total couch potato, he would probably need ~2200 Cal/day to maintain his weight while there would be changes in body composition to more fat, less muscle.

    For the average individual, 4-5 hours of vigorous exercise per day would not be reasonable without a serious training program to adapt the body, but when that could be accomplished, that person would probably need >5000 Cal/day for maintenance. The difference between that “average” individual and the athletes is due to the athlete’s ability to maintain a far greater energy output. On the exercise part of the energy output, most people will simply not spend the time necessary to reduce weight.

  13. #13 Eric
    October 13, 2008

    What’s sad is, in all of this discussion, and in the biomedical community in general, the ‘Fatness = Poor Health’ thing is repeated without critical thought either.

    I was in a lecture on risk factors for maternal nutritional status and birth outcomes. We discussed BMI as a inexpensive proxy for more accurate body fat measures, and body fat as a proxy for nutritional status. If this were another field of epidemiology, the bias introduced by a proxy of a proxy would send people into conniptions. Instead, its being used to promote that skinny = healthy, drives people away from medical care, and ignores the impact of stress, self-perception, and clinicians assumptions linked to obesity.

    Questionable measures being used to make statements about health that ignore the larger picture, drive people away from their doctors, and stand in the way of obtaining meaningful treatments. Sounds like another topic you write a lot about…

  14. #14 Sonya
    October 13, 2008

    Question for you: By what mechanism do the fat cells fail to absorb energy before the muscles and brain have done so?

    Could obesity be a matter of the fat cells absorbing nutrients and energy first?

    Wouldn’t this explain why obese dieters find the calories-in/calories-out thing to just plain not work?

  15. #15 Chris Noble
    October 13, 2008

    I could never understand how the basic premise of the “Matrix” was possible. Supposedly humans were being used to generate electricity with more energy coming in than went out.

    My sheeplike acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics had prevented me from enjoying the film. Now I see the errors of my ways.

    Seriously, losing weight can be very, very hard but the reasons for this have absolutely nothing to do with the laws of thermodynamics.

  16. #16 student
    October 13, 2008

    She is correct that the body has a set point that resists variations from a certain weight “set point.”
    However, the body does so by increasing the release of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone” and reducing the body’s metabolism. It is never accomplished by altering basic chemical principles.
    Ultimately it will cost an overweight person, at the very minimum, about 1200 calories (and probably more like 1500) to just live through the day, even if she were’t moving around or eating. She would certainly burn many more calories if she exercised.
    So long as she ate fewer than than those approximately 1500 calories, it would be physically impossible for her to gain, or even maintain her weight. The fat cells would eventually have to be metabolized for the energy it takes just to keep her heart pumping and her brain thinking.
    I do empathize with the fact that the body’s signals make it very painful for some people to be able to reduce their weight, as feeling hungry is unpleasant. But this does not mean that overweight people wouldn’t lose weight if they consumed fewer calories than they expended.
    I suppose the difficult part is determining exactly how many calories a given individual expends throughout the day. There are clinics that can determine this, based on the amount of oxygen your body releases in a closed environment. It is expensive and uncomfortable, but the principles show to hold up.

  17. #17 student
    October 13, 2008

    Sonya, it doesn’t matter when fat cells “absorb” energy. Most excess energy, in the long term, gets stored as fat. The issue is not the timing but a matter of deficit vs. excess.

  18. #18 Emily
    October 13, 2008

    Thanks for this post! I’ve always wondered about that blog – she writes some very convincing stuff, but the lack of comments has always made me suspicious, because it means when/if she says something blatantly wrong there’s no way for someone to easily publicly correct her.

  19. #19 Inquisitive Raven
    October 13, 2008

    To expand on Eric’s point, BMI scales to the square of a person’s height, but assuming that ratios of fat/muscle/bone remain constant, mass (or weight) scales to the cube. IOW, the taller you are, the less meaningful BMI is, regardless of body composition. On top of that, BMI is very sensitive to changes in body composition. Of things, there’s actually a good discussion of the latter issue in Robert Atkins’ diet books.

    Getting back to thermodynamics: one factor that seems to be overlooked in weight loss discussions is how efficiency in extracting usable calories from food affects weight, and how our gut microflora affects that efficiency. The effect of the gut microflora appears to be significant. Not Exactly Rocket Science recently reposted an article on that subject from its pre-Borg days.

  20. #20 Mr. Bubble
    October 13, 2008

    Its been a while since I took Thermo… but I think one thing that gets glossed over and/or assumed to be true – with respect to nutrition – is that ‘a calorie is a calorie is a calorie’.

    Food isn’t always simple, nor is the body a simple machine that burns food.

    And, to boot, the body being a complicated thing – combinations of food affect it differently.

  21. #21 Kim
    October 14, 2008

    I think the only reason she’s even bringing thermodynamics into it is that she’s trying to formulate a rebuttal to people who wave thermodynamics at fat people…usually without being any more coherent than she is in this piece.

    It’s actually pretty fascinating to me how much the first law of thermodynamics gets bandied around in diet circles. In particular it comes up a lot in arguments over whether low-carb diets feature a “metabolic advantage” over diets with other macronutrient ratios.

  22. #22 Gene Callahan
    October 14, 2008

    “She seems to be implying that the first law of thermodynamics doesn’t entirely apply when it comes to obesity and diet.”

    Wow, you didn’t actually read her post, did you? What she REALLY said was that there were many ways to expend calories other than exercise, and that the application of the 1rst law to the problem is subtle.

    Nice smear job.

  23. #23 Laser Potato
    October 14, 2008

    “Wow, you didn’t actually read her post, did you? What she REALLY said was that there were many ways to expend calories other than exercise, and that the application of the 1rst law to the problem is subtle.”

    *I* read her post as well, and I can safely say that you, Gene, are filled with what maketh the plants grow.

  24. #24 Eric
    October 14, 2008

    “I think the only reason she’s even bringing thermodynamics into it is that she’s trying to formulate a rebuttal to people who wave thermodynamics at fat people…usually without being any more coherent than she is in this piece.”

    Exactly. She didn’t do it very well, but considering much of the biomedical community chants “Calories In, Calories Out” to fat people like some sort of summoning ritual, I’m not sure I blame her.

  25. #25 jamie
    October 14, 2008

    what is it about cranks and obsession with the laws of thermodynamics? I don’t think I’ve read a paper in an age which cites them (directly), yet as soon as you enter any kind of woo-woo website it’s always “EVOLUTION/MODERN MEDICINES/ATHEISM/VACCINES/NOT EATING COMPLETE SHIT/GOING TO THE GYM DEFIES THE ELEVENTIETH LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS”.

    It seems to me like some kind of double whammy of appeal to authority and trying to denigrate opponents by saying “look, here’s some laws even highschoolers know about which say you’re wrong”.

  26. #26 Cath the Canberra Cook
    October 14, 2008

    Orac, I’m really really excited that you’ve posted about this, and I only wish you’d done it on the weekend when I would have more time to read thoroughly. As I posted on denialism blog recently, this field is insanely difficult for the layperson to get a grip on. There is so much hype, woo, money grubbing and total insanity in nutrition and diet information out there, and so much of it looks so credible. And then you find out that Ben Goldacre’s dead cat is a certified nutritionist.

    I do read Sandy’s site, and it does not scream woo or denialism in any way. It’s a rare woo who would link to quackwatch, for instance! I think she has a lot of good points, but I am on the fence, not a rabid fan. I promise to read this more throughly when I get time, but meanwhile here’s a devil’s advocate point.

    As we know, the 2LoT is vastly abused by creationists to claim that evolution is impossible. It is also vastly abused by the diet industry to suggest that weight loss is incredibly simple. All you need to do is balance food calories in with exercise calories out, allowing a fixed amount for your metabolism, and kaboom, you’re fine! And if you’re not, it’s all your own fault, you disgusting pig.

    Well, no you’re not fine, and it is actually massively complex, and 95% of diets fail in the long run. And perhaps Sandy is targetting this dramatically painful oversimplification, rather than actual, y’know, physics.

  27. #27 Julia
    October 15, 2008

    Where does that 95% of all diets fail figure come from? I saw a link to a NY times article recently that said it was bunk, but I see it quoted everywhere.

    I used to read Junkfood science pretty religiously, and I agree that a lot of what she says is sensible. It’s what she’s careful not to say that annoys me. A person once sent me a link to one of her posts when I asked for evidence of their assertion that “fat people and thin people eat the exact same amount of calories.” Basically the blog post was careful never to say that fat people eat the same number of calories as thin people, only that they eat in response to hunger cues to maintain their ‘setpoint’ just like thinner people do.

    However, it was clear the person who sent it to me absolutely believed that this was proof that there was no difference in caloric intake between fat and thin people. I honestly have a hard time believing that this isn’t deliberate on her part. Especially considering the way a lot of these kind of half truths are repeated as fact by large numbers of people in the fat acceptance movement.

  28. #28 WonderingWilla
    October 15, 2008

    I am also not ready to completely write her off, perhaps if she had comments on her blogs a moderation in her premise would evolve as a result. I like some of her points on the diet industry and the absurdity of recommendations for children’s diets. Not that I have looked that hard, but I haven’t found anything that challenges some of the ‘change with the wind’ recommendations of parenting magazines.

  29. #29 Prof. Bleen
    October 15, 2008

    I generally agree with her position on society’s unrealistic expectations about weight, but I’ve found that whenever she cites scientific studies, she horribly distorts the results, often to support a conclusion diametrically opposed to that of the authors. I suspected that she might have some shady industry backing, in the manner of Steven Milloy at JunkScience.com. SourceWatch.org does indeed have a rap sheet on her, and while it does not directly tie her in to the junk- or fast-food industry, it does tie her in with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, for whom she has written a series of articles arguing that environmental groups are far too picky about minor things like mercury in our environment.

  30. #30 dee
    October 16, 2008

    Why do diets fail? Because losing wight in our obesogenic environment is HARD.

    Relationships between diet and exercise are complex, there is no doubt, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t lose weight if you are burning more calories than you consume. Stop eating for a month and see what happens.

    There are complex social, psychological and economic issues that surround food that need to be addressed by us as a society. We need to make healthy choices easy choices. Witness the food lobby fighting clearer labelling tooth and nail to see what we are up against.

  31. #31 Rogue Epidemiologist
    October 16, 2008

    I didn’t read her stuff. I’m not familiar with her stuff. But I do know the First Law of Thermodynamics, and I know how metabolism works. So I fail to see how First Law doesn’t apply to this picture.

    With that said, I like cake and bacon. But I have the sense to give up my lunch breaks to go work out at the gym. Gonna go put my running shoes on now.

    /not a fatty, but not a size 2

  32. #32 Article Writting Service
    October 16, 2008

    I feel Its most related to genetal …?

  33. #33 Sara
    October 17, 2008

    And what about some of the research I’ve seen that shows that, since much of digestion is accomplished by our gut bacteria, people colonized with differing amounts of differing strains actually extract different calorie totals from the same amount of food consumed?

    I didn’t read the whole article when she published it – but as I idly flipped by, *that* is what I thought she meant by “not a closed system.” We’re not the only ones doing the digesting, so to speak.

    In addition, I’ve always thought her parsing out of the “fat kills!!!” reporting was remarkably similar to some of your parsing out of the “Vaccines kill!!” articles. Her comments on the actual numbers on weight loss reduction surgery are also needed, in this current “staple ‘em all and let god sort them out” climate.

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