‘Cliffy’ Explains Why Kids Get Fat

“Cliffy, if a little knowledge is dangerous, you’re a walking time bomb.”

“Well, thank you, Diane!”

If memory serves, that exchange occurred in an episode of Cheers after Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman, explained to Diane that DNA stands for Dames are Not Aggressive.

“No, Cliffy.  DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.”

“Irregardless, there, Diane, my point is still moot.”

Last week, I broke my own Arguing With Idiots rule and engaged in a long online debate with a body-builder I eventually began referring to as “Cliffy,” in honor of his belief that since he’s lean and has big muscles, he knows absolutely everything there is to know about why people become fat.  Here’s what he explained to me (you may want to take notes):

People get fat because they’re lazy and eat too much.

I know, I know … it’s a tough one to wrap your head around.  You may need to read it couple of times before it sinks in.

I argued that people get fat because hormones signal their bodies to store a disproportionate share of the calories they consume as fat, which creates a fuel shortage at the cellular level, which ramps up appetite, which leads to eating more.  Hormonal imbalances are the cause; eating more is the symptom.

Cliffy countered by explaining that I’m an idiot (as well as a fat, lazy old man) and that he knows for a fact that being lazy and over-eating are the cause of obesity, because he doesn’t over-eat and exercises regularly and has very little body fat.

I haven’t seen a picture of Clffy, but I’ll take him at his word.  I’ll also bet you dollars to donuts (and you can keep the donuts) he’s never been fat.  Good for him.  Unfortunately, some naturally-lean people can’t help but assume they’re not fat because of their superior character and discipline.  Metabolically, they were born on the finish line, but think they won a race.  Worse, some think being born on the finish line qualifies them to teach others how to win the race, too.  (But enough about Jillian Michaels.)

I asked Cliffy a question Dr. Robert Lustig raised in his interview with Jimmy Moore:  if gluttony and sloth are the cause of obesity, how do we explain the rise in obesity among six-month-olds?  Are today’s babies lazier and more gluttonous than babies in previous generations?  Are babies even capable of gluttony and sloth?

Cliffy then explained – no, I’m not making this up – that their mothers are obviously feeding them too much.

That was the reply that prompted me (after slapping my hands on my desk and laughing my head off) to nickname him “Cliffy.”  From that point forward, every time I read one of his replies, in my head I was hearing the words spoken aloud by John Ratzenberger in his comedic Boston accent.

“Well, ya see there, Diane, some of these mothers haven’t been properly instructed by their pediatricians as to the proper duration of a nursing session.”

Since Cliffy clearly doesn’t know diddly about babies and nursing, I explained how it works:  Baby cries.  Mommy offers breast.  If baby is hungry, baby nurses.  Baby continues nursing until baby has had enough.  Now we burp baby.  No sane mother in history has ever pulled a baby away from her breast and said, “Woah, that’s enough, baby!  Daddy and I don’t want you getting fat!”

Cliffy replied by explaining that I’m an idiot (and a fat, lazy old man) and that if more babies are obese these days, it’s because they have hormonal problems, and he wasn’t actually talking about babies anyway, because what he actually meant was that if kids are overweight – kids, not babies! – it’s because their parents are over-feeding them.

When I pointed out that he’d just admitted hormonal imbalances can cause obesity among babies and wondered why he still insisted obesity among kids is strictly a matter of being lazy and eating too much, Cliffy explained that I’m an idiot (and a fat, lazy old man) who is stupidly blaming “evil carbohydrates!” for making kids fat, when everyone knows if kids get fat, it’s only because their parents are over-feeding them, period, end of story.

So let’s look at Cliffy’s explanation and see if it makes sense.  I think you parents especially will appreciate Cliffy’s logic.

My daughters are both lean.  According to Cliffy, this means Chareva and I are not over-feeding them.  Kudos to us.  We must be great parents.

Just one little problem:  I have no flippin’ idea how we manage to avoid over-feeding them.  When the girls tell me they’re hungry, I feed them.  If they’re still hungry, I feed them again.  I’ve never once told them, “Nope, you’ve eaten enough food today.  I don’t want you getting fat.”

If Alana (soon to turn six) is in a growth spurt, she’ll even wake up and come downstairs well after midnight to ask for a snack.  I give it to her.  Sometimes after the snack, she’ll ask for another.  I give it to her.

But that’s me.  My wife is charge of their meals most of the time.  So after Cliffy explained to me that kids become fat because their parents over-feed them, I talked to her about it.

“Honey, how many calories do the girls burn off in a day?”

“Calories?  I have no idea.”

“You’ve never looked it up to get an estimate?”


“Well, how many calories do you feed them in a day?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never counted.”



“Then how do you know when to cut them off for the day?”

“Cut them off?  What are you talking about?”

“You know, to keep them from getting fat.  When do you know it’s time to stop so you don’t end up over-feeding them?”

“I never stop.  If they’re hungry, I give them something to eat.”


“Yes, always.  What kind of mother doesn’t feed a hungry child?”

Aha, so it isn’t just me.  My girls are lean, so we’re clearly not over-feeding them … and yet we accomplish this remarkable demonstration of parental responsibility by giving them something to eat every single time they tell us they’re hungry.

My parents did the same.  I ended up fat, but my brother didn’t … so they somehow managed to over-feed me, but not him.  (I could’ve sworn we had the same-sized portions on our plates.)  My sister was skinny until she started taking Ritalin, which apparently prompted my parents to start over-feeding her as well, because she got fat soon afterwards.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I bumped into another parent from our girls’ school at the grocery store.  She told us she’s going to push her son to engage in more outdoor sports activities this summer because he’s started getting fat – at age seven.  Naturally, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek into her grocery cart.  It was full of the kinds of foods that would make the American Heart Association proud:  cereals, whole-wheat bread, pasta, fruit spreads, potatoes, and big jugs of apple juice.

I’m guessing this mom, who struck me as a sweet person, feeds her kids whenever they’re hungry.  According to Cliffy, this means she’s over-feeding her son, because he’s getting fat.  Our girls are lean, which means we’re not over-feeding them, even though we also feed them every time they’re hungry.

Utter hogwash.

We avoid “over-feeding” our girls by deciding what to feed them, not how much.  We don’t keep candy, cookies, donuts, waffles, cereals, breads, juice boxes or sodas in the house.  When they’re hungry between meals, they can take their pick of lunchmeats, eggs, cheeses, olives, carrots, tomatoes, sardines, sausage links, full-fat yogurt, home-made whipped cream, fruits or nuts.  They can even have low-carb ice cream.

The difference is, they just don’t crave all that much food.   Funny how when you stock your cabinets and refrigerator with full-fat, low-sugar, real foods, you can feed kids as much as they want, and yet somehow avoid over-feeding them.

But irregardless there, Diane, Cliffy’s point is still moot.


66 thoughts on “‘Cliffy’ Explains Why Kids Get Fat

  1. tracker

    @Sierra, “Just a note: Jillian Michaels was a heavy teen so I don’t think that she was born at the finish line.”

    That’s Jillian’s story and she’s sticking to it. I saw a picture of her (or rather supposedly her… I know too much about how photoshop can make someone look completely different to believe anything I see), she was 12 and would be what I call a bit chubby and out of shape. She was definitely not obese. It’s bullshit. She doesn’t have a hormone imbalance. She was also probably on the cusp of puberty at the age of twelve which makes whatever she was going through absolutely irrelevant to most everyone who is not currently going through puberty, what with the raging hormones and all.

  2. Charise

    This REALLY hit home with me:

    “Unfortunately, some naturally-lean people can’t help but assume they’re not fat because of their superior character and discipline. Metabolically, they were born on the finish line, but think they won a race. Worse, some think being born on the finish line qualifies them to teach others how to win the race, too.”

    When I chose to do CrossFit for 4 months (stupidly without changing my eating habits) I promptly GAINED fat and inches and my 115-pound 15% bodyfat 5’8″ female coach promptly told me “if you really wanted to lose weight, you would conquer your sugar cravings.” I don’t have a problem with the advice, but her accusing me of “not wanting it enough” to fight sugar cravings that were worse than a cocaine addiction really pissed me off! She’s NEVER had to struggle with weight, and my husband is the same. They seem to think that just because they’re not fat or ever struggled with food, that they somehow have discipline.

    Sorry. Sore spot!

    I feel ya. Those people annoy me. At least my wife and son both know they’re lean because their bodies resist putting on fat.

  3. LS

    Rose, my son is a bit younger (2), but he sounds very similar to your son. I nursed exclusively for 6 months, and even then, he wanted to eat *constantly*. It was exhausting lol. I continued nursing (w/ solids) until 1.5 years.
    Now, he wants to eat all day. Literally, this morning, he ate half a crustless quiche and half a loaf of coconut bread. Then he asked for a snack a few hours later. People are always commenting on how much I “let him eat”. He’s hungry!! I oblige 99% of the time (sometimes I think he’s just bored or sees something that he thinks looks good). I justify it because I make EVERYTHING from scratch, and we don’t eat grains and very little dairy (he gets homemade yogurt and cheese sparingly). He has so much energy, more than any of the other kids his age and is very smart (I know, all moms say this about their kids 😉 ). He is average in size, even on the small side. I am not particularly thin nor is his father naturally thin, so I don’t *think* it is genetics. I literally think he just eats that much to meet his energy needs. He never stops moving! Anyway, I guess my advice is to try and allow him to eat to his appetite on a paleoish diet and see if it regulates itself (same suggestion as Tom gave). Maybe you’ll find that he’ll have extra energy to burn off, or that he can’t consume as much. I guess it can’t hurt to try for maybe 3 months and see how it works out for you…? Even adults find they often self regulate their intake on a lowish carb, real food diet. Good luck!!

  4. LS

    Sorry, just came back to add really quick that I don’t do structured “meal times”, so, though it may sound like he’s gluttonous, we will sometimes skip lunch or dinner, or some days he may eat a ghastly amount of food, and not eat much the next. All in all, I think he does probably eat quite a bit more than most kids his age/size, but he also never stops moving, so it evens out.

  5. Me

    I’d say a bunch of crap from the cliffy guy.. As well as the writer.
    I mean, sure you are absolutely right that people are different by the how-easy-do-i-get-fat scale, but there’s not a person who has the right to say “I can’t get lean because this is what I am and this is my body style, it’s impossible for me to lose weight”. Sure people who have been balancing and fighting with their weight for their whole life are getting pissed at people who can eat anything and still be lean, while telling others how lazy they are when they are fat. I understand this. Let’s say for most of my friends as well as some of my relatives, they can eat anything they like, as much as they like and they won’t gain weight even if they don’t excercise even the slightest bit.
    With me, on the other hand, it’s the quite opposite. If I don’t excercise and I eat even a little treats – or even if I just eat a little too much meat and vegetables (and other so called good food), I’ll instantly gain weight. This is me, I cannot change it and I’ve accepted it.
    And the baby part. I was overweight as a baby and always the “big” one. Before I could even walk, the doctors told my parents that I should be put on a diet because I was so fat. Well whatcha know, not a week later I started walking – and weight problems? Not anymore. I got lean(er) because I just walked and sprinted everywhere and didn’t stay foot one second.

    So; due my fattening if i don’t do sports or excercise, I “instantly” start gaining weight. But I am fit right now. Why? The same thing as the baby part. I excercise. I’ve accepted the fact that I gain weight if i don’t excercise even when eating pretty normally. So I excercise 1-3 hours a day normal things like going for a walk or walking dog or etc. And every single day I do weightlifting and swimming or I go to my american football or wrestling or mixed martial arts or any other training I have. This will quarantee me burning those calories. And yeas, hence i can eat as much as I want, while staying in a perfect shape and fit.
    And yeas, it takes most of my whole day but so-fucking-what. It’s your life on the line, it’s your job to do 🙂 No one else is going to do it for you.
    So here you have it. An overweight baby to a grown up with weight problems when eating even the most healthiest food —> to a persons in a shape of his life even when eating as much as I want. Just with simple plain old excercising.

    There is no shortcut to this: burned calories(your own metabolism as well as the amount of calories you burned while excercising) – consumed calories = weight loss/gain.
    This is as simple as it gets.
    You eat more what you burn = weight gain
    You eat less what you burn = weight loss

    So why can some people eat much more without getting any weight than other people ever could? Because as stated before, burning calories varies from the calories burned excercicing and from their own metabolism. Some people have a fast metabolism, some have slower (as I have). Just deal with it and for crying out loud don’t go “this is just me I am naturally big, I can’t lose weight easily”.

    I had a lot of other stuff to discuss about the things you’ve written as well as the Cliffy guys words, but I came to a sudden point or aknowledgeing (is that even a word?) of me spending my precious time writing this when you have google.

    So that’s my two cents. Do a flip.

    Well worth the two cents.

  6. Tangerine

    You know there’s a Jillian Michaels advertisement on your page, right?

    Google places some rather inappropriate ads in those spaces.

  7. Sarah

    One of my kids favorite snack is whipped cream with a little bit of vanilla in it. They love it and so do I. A few months ago, I remember whenever I would make pancakes and whipped cream, I was always so concerned with how much whipped cream they would put on top of the pancakes. I’d say, “ok, enough cream…no, you can’t have anymore…that’s too much.”

    Now I realize that it should have been the other way around. “That is enough pancakes, why don’t you just eat cream.”

    Now when they have pancakes made with coconut flour, I let them have as much whipped cream as they want.

    I used to eat pancakes with no butter, but of course extra syrup to make them edible. I shudder to think …

  8. Tom Naughton Post author

    @Picky — The brand of yogurt is Cabot. My wife says she can only find it at one store around here, Publix. Full-fat Greek style, no added sugar.

  9. Sarah

    The recipe I use for pancakes is

    2 cups coconut flour
    1 1/2 tablespoon vanilla
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    3 eggs
    1/4 cup honey, agave, splenda, whatever sweetener you like to use

    Mix it all together and let it sit for about 5 minutes for the baking soda to activate.
    Heat your pan on medium low and use butter or coconut oil, as much as you like.
    Make the pancakes small, about 3 inches or so across, otherwise they are hard to flip.
    The batter will be thick, (we like it that way), but then I sometimes add a little bit of cream to thin them out, but not too much because we like them nice and thick.)

    You can also use almond flour if you’d like, I use whatever one I happen to have around, but I prefer the coconut flour because it doesn’t contain the phytic acid that the almonds have…or something like that.

  10. Firebird

    Thank you Sarah. Prefer the Splenda to the Honey or agave. Agave spikes me as much as anything, so I avoid it. Good looking recipe, nice and simple, the way I like it. I’m guessing you could add a dash of maple, banana, raspberry extract as well for different flavors.

  11. Daphne

    You should read the book “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming” by Ellyn Satter which actually describes mothers who, on doctor’s advice, would remove their 6 month old children from their breast still hungry because they wanted them to lose weight. It only made their weight shoot up rapidly. Worse still, the babies had constant, healthy growth patterns before the food restriction and the parents were simply misinterpreting a normal natural variation in body size as abnormal.

  12. PaleoLifter

    I am not a Bodybuilder in the professional sense of the word, but I work out at least 5 days a week lifting fairly heavy weights. I once suffered under the same delusion as Cliff here but unlike him, I am able to look at my own experiences and the scientific evidence other have done and adapt my beliefs accordingly. I have been lifting on and off for over 20 years now and can honestly say that I have had more success and less injury since I went 90% Paleo. Unfortunately gyms are full of Cliffs and I battle this type of ignorance almost weekly. Keep up the awesome work Tom.

  13. Firebird

    @ Sarah, I tried making these pancakes today and there was a problem with them. I could not get all the dry ingredients wet. There isn’t enough liquid to moisten the entire batch. Is there an ingredient missing from the list (water?)

  14. Joe B

    Just watched your movie last night, and (though I’ve never had a weight problem), I’m moving to a lower-carb diet (I already gave up junk food), after being a low-fat eater since 1985. But I’ve got to say, your anecdotal example of your own kids is worthless. As an (also worthless) counter-example, my kids, age 14 and 17 are skinny kids, and we’ve also always let them eat what they wanted — but our house (until now, at least) has been stocked with low-fat food, grains, etc. My kids just don’t overindulge in eating like other kids too. They never have – likely as a result of their hormones, yes. But it’s not the sardines keeping your kids thin.

    Sure, some kids stay lean on junk food and then blow up when they’re teens or adults, as I did. The point is, keeping kids lean isn’t about counting their calories to avoid feeding them “too much.” It’s about hormones (especially around puberty, as I just learned from watching Dr. Fox’s speech on the cruise), and by feeding our kids sardines instead of cookies, they’re far less likely to undergo hormonal changes that will make them fat.

  15. Area Man

    Well done, Tom. I would like to make one additional observation; until very recently, the ability to store energy for later use (i.e. get fat) would have been a survival advantage, not the other way around. Access to excess calories are a modern phenomenon. As a scrawny Irishman, I am delighted that I wasn’t around 160 years earlier to experience the potato famine.

    It would have been a survival advantage to get fat to a relatively small degree. We can live for several weeks on body fat levels that wouldn’t qualify as “overweight,” much less “obese.” In a hunter-gatherer existence, being obese would be a definite disadvantage. You can’t catch prey if you’re reduced to waddling after it.


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