Some years ago, Dr. Robert Lustig worked with a group of kids who had brain cancer. The cancer treatments were successful, but later the kids became obese. According to their parents, the kids had developed enormous appetites and become sedentary. They spent all day sleeping or sitting in front of the TV and eating.

Lustig didn’t inform the parents that those kids needed to just stop being so lazy and gluttonous.  He didn’t urge the parents to tell their kids to just eat less and move more, for goodness sake.  As an endocrinologist, Lustig knew the change in behavior was being driven by a change in biochemistry. He suspected that as a side-effect of the cancer treatments, the kids were over-producing insulin. Tests confirmed his suspicion.

So he gave the kids an insulin-suppressing drug.  Here’s how he described the results:

“When we gave these kids this drug that blocked insulin secretion, they started losing weight. But more importantly, something that was even more amazing, these kids started exercising spontaneously. One kid became a competitive swimmer, two kids started lifting weights, one kid became the manager of his high school basketball team … Changing the kids’ insulin levels had an effect not just on their weight, not just on their appetites, but on their desire to engage in physical activity.”

These kids didn’t get fat because they sat around and ate more.  They sat around and ate more because they were hormonally driven to get fat.  Luckily for them, Lustig understood that and treated the root of the problem:  chemistry, not character.

When I started writing this series of posts, I knew I’d receive (and did) a comment or two along the lines of “But telling people it’s about chemistry gives them an excuse to just give up.”  Comments like that usually come, of course, from people who have never been fat and chalk it up to their superior character.  I understand the appeal of that belief.

I also understand wanting to believe it’s all about character because darnit, that just feels like cosmic justice.  Effort ought to yield results, period.  Most of us would like the world to work like that.  As kids, we were told that if you work hard and put your mind to it, you can do almost anything.  So in our little pea-picking brains, the formula for success looks like this:

Effort = Success

But as we grow older, we realize everyone inherits different talents and abilities.  I admired Bart Starr and wanted his job someday, but I certainly knew by middle school that no matter how hard I worked, I’d never become a star quarterback in the NFL.  Or in college.  Or in high school.  Or in the Pop Warner leagues.  I just didn’t have the physical gifts.  So after swallowing the knowledge that genetics matters, we update the success formula in our minds to look more like this:

Ability x Effort  = Success

That’s where we’d like the equation to stay.  That “ability” part still seems a bit unfair, but we can live with it.

Well, like it or not, there’s still more to it.

Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, the last Super Bowl notwithstanding.  Sure, he inherited the ability to become great from his father, also an NFL quarterback in his day, but Manning’s dedication to his profession is legendary.  He spends hours and hours studying videotape of opposing defenses so he can predict their moves and spot their weaknesses.  It’s Ability x Effort at work, for sure.

But wait … what if Manning prepared for games by spending hours and hours studying and memorizing the birthdays, middle names, favorite desserts and horoscopes of the defensive players he’ll be facing?  Would he still shred defenses like he did in the 2013 NFL season?  Of course not, because that knowledge wouldn’t be useful in guessing how to pick apart a defense.   The time and effort spent acquiring that knowledge would be wasted.

Let’s suppose I want to look better in shorts.  Running for 10 hours a week might put some muscle on my thighs, but not as much as one set of leg presses per week with heavy weights.  Resistance training is more effective for growing muscles, period.   It doesn’t matter that running 10 hours per week takes more effort and dedication than spending three minutes on a leg-press machine.

So we have to update our formula for success one more time.  Now it looks something like this:

Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success

Effort matters, absolutely, but only yields good results if it’s applied effectively.

Let me offer another example:  suppose twin brothers both decide to take second jobs and invest most of the additional income to make for a more prosperous middle age.  One twin works extra hard, spends less, and invests $500 per month in bank CDs that pay 1.05% interest.  The second twin doesn’t work quite as much and treats himself to nicer clothes and other goodies, and thus only saves $250 per month, which he invests in mutual funds that earn the S&P 500 historical average of 11.69%.

After 20 years, the twin who invested $500 per month would have just over $134,000 in his account.  Meanwhile, the twin who only invested $250 per month would be sitting on nearly $233,000.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it?  I think we’d all agree the first twin demonstrated more character.  He worked harder, he sacrificed more.  And yet it’s the brother who worked less and sacrificed less who has nearly $100,000 more in his account.  That’s because while his efforts were smaller, they were applied much more effectively.  Working and saving was a matter of character.  The return on investment was, in a manner of speaking, a matter of financial chemistry.

And of course if the twin who worked harder and saved more invested it all in the next Enron, he’d get nothing in return.  He would no doubt feel royally screwed by an unfair universe, but that would be the result.  I hate to break it to anyone who doesn’t already know, but the universe doesn’t reward you based on how much effort you expend or how many sacrifices you make, no matter what all the touchy-feely self-help books say.  The universe rewards effort that’s applied effectively.

If we sat down and explained to the ambitious young twins that their financial success would depend heavily on the effectiveness of their investments, I doubt either of them would say, “Well, that’s it, then.  If it’s about return on investment, I don’t see the point in making the effort.  I give up.”

I’d expect the opposite, in fact:  I’d expect them to be motivated to find effective investments so their efforts wouldn’t go to waste.

Turning this back around to losing weight, yes, there has to be some effort and some sacrifice involved.  If you’re obese, whatever you’ve been doing isn’t working.  Your diet will have to change.  But it has to be an effective change.  Switching to a diet that works with your body’s chemistry so you feel satisfied even while eating less is effective.  Switching to a diet that works against your body’s chemistry and leaves you ravenous and lethargic isn’t.  That’s the dietary equivalent of investing in Enron.

Making the effort to find the diet that works with your chemistry and then sticking with it – even if means giving up the donuts and bread you love – requires some character.  But if you’re willing to do that, you can be like the twin who saved and sacrificed less but ended with more money.  Getting results won’t require as much sacrifice, and perhaps eventually it won’t feel like a sacrifice at all.  I certainly didn’t feel deprived when I went back to bacon and eggs for breakfast.  I used to love pasta, but now I don’t miss it.

So let’s look at that success equation one more time:

Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success

We all know that thanks to genetics, some people are naturally lean and others tend to get fat, so let’s swap genetics for ability.  The effectiveness of a diet is largely a matter of chemistry.  So now here’s our equation if we define weight loss as success:

Genetics x Effort x Chemistry = Weight Loss

But wait … genetics is also a matter of biochemistry.  So we’re looking at Chemistry x Effort x Chemistry.

That’s why I say weight loss is mostly about chemistry, not character.  Knowing that is hardly an excuse to give up.  If anything causes people to give up, it’s effort and sacrifice that isn’t rewarded.  That’s why the gyms become less and less crowded the farther we get from New Year’s and all those resolutions.  Understanding that chemistry is a big part of the equation and choosing accordingly is what enables our efforts to finally succeed.

85 Responses to “Character vs. Chemistry, Part Five”
  1. Michael Landier says:

    This series of posts on Character vs. Chemistry have been excellent. Your Peyton Manning analogy is spot on. I think most people use the formula:

    Ability x Effort x Conventional Wisdom = Success

    If success does not occur, effort almost certainly comes into question whereas conventional wisdom rarely does. This is applicable not just to weight loss but also to many other aspects of life (as you touched on in your post.)


  2. Alex says:

    Here’s the bottom line from a “Naturally Lean Guy” – I believed my high school biology teacher when he said it was all “calories in vs. calories burned.” Not only was he wrong as two left shoes but so was I for believing him! Because I was naturally lean and was willing to exercise a fair amount I was one of those who preached to the “Fat and lazy.”

    Believing my own B.S. I managed to put on a fair amount of excess weight – think sick, fat and inflamed. I will freely admit I couldn’t have been more WRONG. Christmas 2012 I read Dr. Davis’ book “Wheat Belly” and gave up wheat and most carbs January 5th 2013. What I found was that with no exercise – yes, you read that right NO EXERCISE – I lost 40 pounds in 16 weeks by eliminating most carbs from my diet.

    I’m 51 years old and never paid any attention to anything about diet and nutrition until I read “Wheat Belly” and shortly thereafter watched “FatHead.” I now find myself at the same weight I was when I joined the Army in 1979 and have stayed there for almost a year regardless of the number of calories I eat – it’s all about the kind of calories I eat.

    Character vs. Chemistry? Hands down my own experience tells me it has nothing to do with Character and everything to do with Chemistry. For those that still believe that “calories in vs. calories burned” has anything to do with the price of tea, let me unabashedly say, as I once believed, you’ve been told an untruth.

    Thank you Tom for your courage in confronting the “Establishment thought process” and forcing everyday people to question the conventional wisdom. You’ve left the cave and at great personal risk returned to warn the rest of us – think Aristotle’s “Allegory of the Cave”

    Keep up the good work!

    Thank you, Alex.

    • Plato, not Aristotole.


    • Catherine says:

      I’ve believed for some while (since discovering Tom, and Zoe Harcombe) that it is the QUALITY of calories that counts, not the number of calories. My husband and myself have only started achieving weight loss since starting to prepare all our meals from scratch, and only ever having “convenience” food when we genuinely are pushed for time – that’s turned out to be virtually never! The difference is amazing. We are both pretty decent cooks, too, so our talents were being wasted! It all tastes so much better home made, and you know precisely what has gone into your meal. I do still get some looks when I tell people why I won’t touch spreads, and always have butter. Then I’ll tell them what’s in their spreads, and what’s in butter, and I think they see my point – sometimes! An excellent article, as always, Tom, thank you.

      Look after the food quality and the number of calories consumed tends to take care of itself.

  3. Leanne says:

    Excellent explanation.

  4. Vaughan says:

    Tom, your post was a very thought provoking read. As someone who wears both hats so to speak (a fair amount of body fat & a good amount of muscle and gross strength from years of iron) it intrigues me. How much of my body fat is down to my love of carbs? I suspect a lot. But then, I also know I would be much smaller/weaker without their ingestion for the same amount work spent with weights. Cycling low carb phases would seem to be the obvious choice. But here’s the rub, whenever I try I feel crap, and my strength goes down the toilet. Genetics/body chemistry raising its head? Would seem so. As I said, I enjoyed the post. But like so much of what I read, it seems to deal with extremes. Either the individual is fit and has never been fat, or, they are quite overweight and do very little in the way of exercise. What of those who do quite well at both? Lol. We seem to be the minority, but we exist damnit!

    As someone who worked out a gym as an adult and became strong for my size but also fat, you don’t have to convince me.

    • Galina L. says:

      There are a lot of fat gym rats, especially among thous who eat a kind diet” , and fat Zumba instructors are very common.

    • Lori says:

      Former fleshy weightlifter here. I might not have quite as much strength as I used to, but getting down to 120 pounds from ~140 and resolving a bunch of health problems from too much carb make LC a no-brainer for me. I also spend a lot less time exercising, eating, grocery shopping and cooking.

      When you’ve tried LC, have you gone through a full induction period of two weeks and eaten a high percentage of fat and added salt, potassium and magnesium during that time? If you haven’t checked out The Art and Science of Low Carb Performance by Phinney & Volek, it’s worth a read.

    • Cat says:

      I was going to recommend the very book that Lori just recommended. The book shows that, once the induction period is over, an athlete will experience more energy and stamina than he/she ever did fuelled on carbs. Part of the problem with carb cycling is that you consume carbs, which takes your body out of ketosis, and then your body is starved off carbs and has to try and switch to using ketones as fuel. The constant switching means ketosis can’t be entered effectively. My own anecdotal experience also says the same thing: I was tired for the first week, a little better for the second week, and then even better thereafter than I ever was on carbs. I ran PBs, I lifted heavier weights, my sleep improved. So basically, read the book and you’ll realize why the carb cycling approach is totally wrong… and I say that as someone who’s fit, never been fat and loves to exercise.

  5. Bex says:

    This whole series has been a proper light bulb moment for me……I’ve spent far too long thinking I’m weak willed or somehow ‘inferior’ to people who seem able to stay at the shape they want to be despite the fact they eat whatever they like (and often far unhealthier food than I eat!)

    Hopefully my experimenting means I’m close to finding my chemically correct diet, even though the sugar addiction is going to be a hard one to kick….

    I have a feeling you’ll kick that addiction.

  6. Jana says:

    This is great. I hope it has convincing power for those on the fence.

    Another good example of chemistry that people think can be overcome with character is post-partum depression. I hear again and again that a woman experiencing it should be able to just snap out of it. But science proves that theory wrong based on hormone levels. Women experiencing post-partum depression have hormone levels out of balance, which is why it’s so important for those women to talk to their doctors right away so they don’t have to continue suffering. A simple test and some hormonal replacement therapy will reverse the depression. It’s not character but chemistry driving that bus.

    Yup. We can’t just “snap out of it” when the root problem is chemical.

    • Jill says:

      Regarding this invariable “talk to your docotr” advice.

      You’d better hope youir doctor is not only competent but intelligent. By that I mean willing to listen, admits when he or mshe is wrong and willing to admit he/she doesn’t know something.

      Otherwise you’re screwed because they like to experiment.
      Same with dentists and other medical types.

      Many of them shouldn’t be in the medical/healing fields.

      And no, my doctor is OK – she doesn’t fight me on Wheat Belly etc.
      She hasn’t read it either, but is impressed by the results.

  7. Red Guitar says:

    What I found difficult while following the conventional wisdom for diet and exercise was that it worked incredibly well for me until I hit a plateau. My effort was rewarded quite handsomely until my body just shut it down and I regained the weight.

    I spent years questioning my character because my effort and sacrifice worked every time. In my mind it just had to be my lack of committment.

    My college friends who I can only see once or twice per year used to have bets about whether I would show up fat or thin.

    Unfortunately this horrible cycle hid the truth from me for too long. I wish my effort would have gone totally unrewarded. I would have looked for a different answer much sooner.

    I feel ya. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if I’d known what I know now 40 years ago.

    • Toni says:

      I hear ya. I “succeeded” on the conventional wisdom diet, in that I could shed all but the last 20 or so lbs. So, yes I was rewarded, and believed that my diet was working, but then I’d hit the 160 lb mark and just couldn’t go any lower. I blamed myself (obviously the diet “worked” it got me to 160) for not being more motivated and disciplined.

      Then I tried low carb. And I’m down from 175 when I started, 7 months ago, to 140 lbs today. Without exercise. And without the struggles I always experienced on the conventional wisdom diet (lethargy, chronic, nagging hunger, deprivation, cravings, etc).

      It would have been way better if the conventional wisdom diet hadn’t worked at all; it wouldn’t have taken me 20 years to figure out that it wasn’t working. But it’s like anything else – sporadically rewarding a behavior makes that behavior even harder to break than if it is rewarded every single time. I’m just glad it finally got thru to me 🙂

      Congrats on the weight loss. Glad it’s working for you and easier than the conventional diet.

  8. Janet says:

    “If anything causes people to give up, it’s effort and sacrifice that isn’t rewarded.”

    This is how I feel some days. I was always naturally thin growing up and could eat whatever I wanted. About eight years ago, my thyroid conked out. Completely. I gained about 30 pounds. I have a fabulous naturopath who put me on compounded T3 and T4. For some reason, though, I cannot lose weight; in fact, I still gain weight very easily. I gave up eating wheat and sugar. My husband and I grow and preserve our own food, we raise chickens, eat local grass-fed beef, and last year we raised pigs for the first time. No soy, no HFCS. I cook from scratch. I am eating the best possible diet I can and I am still about 20 pounds overweight and it is incredibly frustrating. My naturopath and I both believe the key is some chemical process in my body having to do with the thyroid hormone that is short-circuiting the weight loss, but we’re baffled at what it could be or how to fix it.

    But all of that does not keep me from enjoying your blog and your adventures on your farm. Keep up the great work!

    I hope you and naturopath are able to pinpoint the problem, Janet.

    • Angela A says:

      My friend had a similar problem with her thyroid and weight, and after medication didn’t resolve the problem, her doctor tested her vitamin D levels and found they were extremely low. With supplemental D3 shots, she started losing weight immediately and dropped 10 lbs within two months. Just something for your naturopath to consider looking into if s/he hasn’t yet. My friend’s previous doctor didn’t even think to check it.

      • Janet says:

        Thanks, Angela. He did test my levels and they are well into the normal range, so that doesn’t seem to be the issue, but I am glad he checked it anyway.

    • Kristin says:

      Janet, given that you eat so well and you do have a thyroid issue and you are only looking at 20 lbs ‘overweight’ may I suggest that in your case you are at a perfectly healthy weight? By whose definition have you decided this is overweight and if the answer is you, why did you decide this?

      I don’t know your age but from what I’ve been reading it seems that women are healthier a bit heavier than conventional wisdom wants to own up to, especially as we get older. (With all due respect to women who don’t put on weight as they age. Their health issues don’t display on their bodies so readily.)

      • Janet says:

        Hi Kristin,

        I am 48 and I currently weigh 150 pounds. I am nicely curved with a well-defined waist and a 34DDD bra size. I actually think I resemble a Barbie doll, although I always thought a real woman would fall over from being so top-heavy if she actually looked like a Barbie doll. 🙂 I weighed 125 when I was married and 137 after my second child was born, and at my heaviest, before my thyroid issue was diagnosed, I was all the way up to 170. One could argue that 150 is where my body wants to be, but it just seems still a little heavy to me. I would particularly like to get rid of some of the excess weight on my chest. I’d be happy to lose even 10 pounds; 20 seems like a pipe dream.

        What really annoys me, though, is how very easily I put on weight. One little indiscretion and I am paying for it for days. I just think my metabolism is not functioning optimally, and that really bothers me more than my actual weight.

        • Catherine says:

          You sound to be a pretty healthy weight, Janet. Bearing in mind all the thyroid stuff you have to deal with, I’d say you’re doing brilliantly. In Britain, 150lbs would be 10stone 10 pounds, a weight I’ve not been at since 2000, and I don’t have a thyroid issue. I’d quite like to be as overweight as you!!

        • Cameron Baum says:

          The real question is… Do you want to lose weight, or lose fat? BMI does not take nto account bone density or muscle mass.

          I suggest looking at what your general health and fitness levels are, before panicking over weight. If you are fit and active, with no immune system problems, then you should be okay. Feel free to ignore me, mind you. Im not doctor.

        • Kristin says:

          Janet, it sounds like your extra weight is in healthy areas and it seems some others are in agreement. We are always our own harshest critics. I sure do understand your needing to keep disciplined in order to avoid putting weight on. I do think that most of us women as we get older especially (I’m 53) need to work at not letting society shame us into feeling we have to get ourselves to a certain number on the scale. I’d say treat yourself to clothing that celebrates that lovely curvy body you have. 🙂

    • T. says:

      My mother-in-law has hashimotos (and no thyroid) and she has found that she cannot eat more than 20 carbs a day or she gains weight. She also eats no grains of any kind, no rice, no corn, no wheat, etc. There are no slip-ups, we don’t keep any of it in the house. We don’t go out to eat either.

      You say you are on T3 and T4, and I’m assuming that your medication is putting your lab results in the correct range? It’s not a matter of just taking whatever they think you ought to have, but requires refining it, in a step-wise and slow progression toward it being correct. It took over a year to get my mother-in-law’s dosage correct with her visiting her endocrinologist every two months (said endocrinologist is in the San Antonio area if you are interested). She is a poor converter of T3, and is on time-release compounded T3. They don’t look just at the TSH number (her endocrinologist says TSH means very little), but at other numbers too, like total T3, T4 and Free T3 and Free T4. Once they got her numbers correct, she lost a little weight and was back into the same size she wore in high school.

      Also, the amount of T3 that one needs is dependent upon whether their liver is capable of converting T4 to T3. Most people’s liver will do this. However, there is a small number who will not that do need the compounded time released Cytomel – HOWEVER, if your liver does convert T4 to T3 and you take too much Cytomel, you will feel like CRAP and it will throw everything out of whack. Some people who do convert okay feel good on a tiny dose of T3.

      Also, are you getting compounded T4? You do not want compounded T4 – it degrades too quickly and loses its effectiveness. Tirosint is pure T4, it comes as a gel cap made in Switzerland that does not degrade and does not contain wheat. You should not fill the prescriptions in advance – one month at a time is what you want, because the stuff degrades.

      You cannot eat iodine – no iodized salt, no seaweed, no multi-vitamins with iodine in them, no iodine supplements – it messes up your medication and wreck your blood levels.

      She also tends not to eat dinner. In the end her calories are restricted probably below whatever they would tell you is the correct amount to eat per day because she doesn’t have a thyroid at all. However, by eating low carb and quality fat and protein, she says she doesn’t get hungry at all and has more energy than she did when she was younger.

      Not having a thyroid changes everything. You’ll have to experiment and stick to each experiment with fastidious resolve, to figure out what works for you. I also suggest, that as great so you may feel your naturopath is, you really need to find an endocrinologist who SPECIALIZES in thyroid. Not diabetes, not anything else. My mother-in-law feels better since finding this endocrinologist than she has ever felt in her life. Seventeen years of bad medical advice – and doctors that never bothered to check her T3 levels left her very tired and feeling horrible. Don’t waste time with doctors who won’t go the extra mile to make you feel better.

      • Galina L. says:

        Armour natural desiccated thyroid contains both T3 and T4, it is what I take. It made a huge difference.

        • T. says:

          My mother-in-law used to take that, and way back in the beginning it did help her feel better, but as time went on, it stopped working for her. She currently needs a pretty big dose of T3 because her liver will not convert hardly any T3. Also, I’m not sure that it’s guaranteed gluten free, so if you have an auto-immune disorder like Hashimotos that is something to watch out for.

  9. Excellent article, as usual, Tom.

    I’ve gone from 350 lbs to 250 lbs without a lot of effort, but I have been weight-stable at 250 lbs for nearly 10 years, and I really wish I could be weight-stable at about 200 lbs. Have I given up? No. I’m still experimenting with various approaches to getting rid of that extra 50 lbs.

    Meanwhile, I’m really enjoying the fact that my arthritis is gone, along with my night vision impairment, my severe adult acne, and my high blood sugars.

    Unfortunately, since I’m currently unemployed, I have to use the VA medical system, and my primary care quack keeps telling me that I need to eat less and move more. And since my cholesterol is 210, she was nagging me about taking a statin until I finally barked at her and told her not to bring the subject up again, ever. So now, I have a “non-compliant patient” notation in my record…

    Oh, well. The search continues without (or in spite of) the “help” from the “medical” establishment.

    A statin for total cholesterol of 210? Oh, my …

  10. Ham-Bone says:

    Simple. Brilliant. Simply brilliant. This explains why some can have success with restricted calories and massive exercise. If the conventional wisdom method is 10% as effective as a low carb high fat diet with short bursts of high intensity activity then someone can work 10 times harder and have the same results. Plus, they can brag about their efforts. I like bragging about not counting calories and not exercising while still maintaining but that’s just me. It reminds me of the old sales story. If you close 1 out of every 10 cold calls and I only close 1 out of every 100 I will still beat you every time. Because I will make over 10 times the number of calls you make. (But, perhaps I should just read a Ziglar book on sales and improve my methods and save my sanity.)

    I’m sure Ziglar would approve of both the effort and making sure those efforts are effective.

    • Ham-Bone says:

      Indeed he would. He would also approve of the searching for an effective method. That takes effort of its own (education, trial and error, self-experimentation, etc.) Maybe we can all take pride in that. Weigh non-recurring / start-up efforts vs. recurring efforts and find the best return on investment.

  11. Joe Dokes says:

    I teach, the best principal I ever worked for was a former P.E. Coach. She used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” As a principal she didn’t just want us expending a lot of effort, she wanted us making changes that actually worked. This was and is too rare in education.

    She fully understood your equation. Though I’d change it to: Ability X Effective Effort = Success. 😉


    Joe Dokes

    Joe Dokes

    • Bob Geary says:

      A music teacher I had in high school had a similar twist on the motto: “Practice makes permanent.” Always loved that.

  12. Curtis says:

    Hi Tom,

    Nice post and makes a lot of sense.

    Been reading a lot of your blog lately after viewing Fathead a few months ago.

    My view of Supersized Me has changed a lot since then.:)

    Fathead gave me the kick in the pants to do my own research and boy have I had to change the way I thought about many things.

    Appreciate all you do.

    Thank you, Curtis.

  13. Justin B says:

    You know what’s a much bigger excuse to give up? Doing what is “correct” according to everything that you’ve been bombarded with since you were a kid in attempt to lose weight, only to keep gaining weight instead. That happened to me, and I’d assume many people, until 2003, when alternative (read: actually scientific) theories started getting attention.

    Absolutely. I gave up several low-fat diets around April or so because they weren’t working and it wasn’t worth the misery.

    • Walter Bushell says:

      But for the pioneers, it may be necessary to prove to oneself that the conventional wisdom is folly. At the point of desperation anything *even the truth* can be accepted.

  14. Jim B. says:

    Interesting and well thought out! It sort of reminds me of a book I just read called “The Talent Code”, by Daniel Coyle. It analyzes how incredible talent comes out of certain “hotbeds”, such as South Korean LPGA golfers, or baseball players from the Dominican Republic. It didn’t happen by chance, and they didn’t have the most expensive training and facilities. Much came down to deep, focused practice, which stimulates the growth of myelin, the neural insulator in the brain. The thicker the myelin, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become.
    As it relates to health and nutrition, the focused research that you, and many in the Paleo community do, help us understand the relationship between food, exercise, hormones, etc., and we’re able to make informed decisions rather than follow the “official” mantra or latest celebrity fitness fad.

    Sounds as they’ve figured out how to make practice more effective.

    • Jill says:

      This is true Jim, but let’s not forget that we can make these changes because many of the LC and other foods are available/accessible because other people have this knowledge too or are working on getting it. eg wholefood/vitamins/suppliers.

  15. Lori says:

    My calculus II teacher said, “Good mathematicians are basically lazy.” It’s not that they don’t do any math, they just don’t make extra work for themselves. In many areas of life, maybe most, effort doesn’t count for much. Nobody thinks they’d be rewarded for picking up a big rock and moving it instead of using a lever or a wheelbarrow, but many think effort matters more than it does in relationships, careers, investing, and weight loss.

    To use a programming analogy, I currently (among other tasks) have to fix problems that arise in a system that’s been in use for years. Problems are constantly arising, too, mostly because the original programmer always seemed to find most the complex methods possible for accomplishing a task. The code goes every which way, down alleys that weren’t necessary, then back through more alleys of code that essentially fix the bad code that came before. To call it spaghetti code would be a compliment.

    I’m sure it took tremendous effort to write all that code. But as someone who’s basically lazy in the way mathematicians are basically lazy, I always try to figure out how to accomplish a task with as little code as possible.

    • Good programmers write great code. Great programmers steal code from good programmers.

      (Can’t remember who I stole that from.)


      No sane programmer will ever steal code written by whoever designed the piece-of-@#$% system I have to maintain. His code would be a useful example, however, of how not to write code.

      • Kristin says:

        And down the rabbit hole I go.

        As one who has spent years rewriting bad code whenever the company is willing to let me take the extra hours, I can also say that the fewest possible lines of code is not always the most maintainable solution. Best if you are stuffing your code into a tiny device but for general applications the most efficient balances between succinct and maintainable.

        Okay, now I’ll return us to our regularly scheduled nutrition talk. Sorry, folks. Had to get that one out of my system. I’ve really enjoyed this blog series, Tom, and I’ve sent the links all over the planet. I continue to hope the seeds I fling will germinate.

        I agree. Sometimes too little code creates its own problems. But mounds of mounds of code, much of it there only to fix the problems created by of other mounds of code, makes debugging a nightmare.

        While trying to figure out how the heck this particular system is supposed to work, I finally had to write the names and supposed purposes of the subprocedures on index cards and connect them with string, just to get some sense of the (ahem) logic.

        • Wendi says:

          The look my husband just gave me when I read him this exchange is truly impressive. I don’t think I’ve seen him recoil in horror like that since…

          Well. Since he was working for a company that thought “highlight all text” followed by “change font” actually translated a document into a foreign language.

    • Trish says:

      I’ve heard a good saying about too much unneeded effort–“using a sledgehammer to drive in a thumbtack.” There’s a few people I work with that are like that, but unfortunately in the corporate universe that’s construed by management as “going the extra mile.” :headdesk:

      I have nothing against effort and hard work, but if they’re not applied effectively, it’s just effort and hard work for the sake of effort and hard work.

    • Alex (@FedFanForever) says:

      Tom, I’m a software engineer as well. In fact it take more effort to create the proper abstractions and atomic units of code that together make a more robust system than to write a big pile of spaghetti. Test-drive design, I’m a believer!

      I agree it takes more mental effort to write good code. The doofus who designed the system I’m stuck with maintaining certainly made lots of effort with his typing fingers, however. My rough guess is that the system could accomplish the same tasks with about 1/3 of the current code. Now I know why when I took it over, the users told me it gets the work done, but it’s slow.

  16. cave horse says:

    Lori: Along the same lines, Mark Rippetoe has said (paraphrasing) freeweightlifters are the laziest people on earth, because they look for the easiest way to do everything. The techniques he coaches teach you how to safely move the maximum amount of weight, using as little effort as possible. Yet somehow, they still make people stronger.

  17. Ines says:

    It is the same with communication. Some people need to write lengthy paragraphs and cannot get to the point, others are able to just state their point in a few simple sentences.

    I am always amazed how difficult “simple” actually is.

    Absolutely. The writers I admire get the point across concisely.

    • Jill says:

      To write concisely takes a lot of effort and lot of rewriting. 🙂
      Unless you do most of it in your head and then put it on paper.

      Lazy writers meander all over the place and don’t do rewrites. They’re the ones who
      are difficult to read. It’s a lot like coding, a programmer once told me.

      As a writer and programmer, I agree.

    • Alex (@FedFanForever) says:

      The mental process of creating something simple is anything but. It’s much easier to spew out verbal/written diarrhea. It gives incompetent managers the impression that more work is being done…

  18. hdob says:

    If you are regularly using a leg press machine, please allow me to recommend full squats, as performed by Mark Rippetoe. I recall you have some knee issues, and he has that covered. I believe he is missing an ACL himself. Search his name and you’ll find his website and book “Starting Strength.”

    Thank you. Mine’s a torn (now shaved) meniscus, but I’ll check him out.

    • Jill says:

      “Mine’s a torn (now shaved) meniscus.”

      Sounds like you’re ordering a very unusual cocktail!

      “I’ll have 2 Torn Meniscii, hold the olives”. 😉

      I definitely wanted a cocktail when I tore the meniscus.

  19. Leon says:

    Since around Christmas carbs have been creepyly crawling back into my diet & mind.

    This series has refreshed my love for HFLC food completely: ”baby why did I ever quit you?”

    Welcome back.

  20. Glenda says:

    In the books “The Diet Cure” and “The Mood Cure”, Julia Ross explains and gives evidence of how addressing amino-acid, vitamin, and mineral deficiencies through supplementation and diet can not only cure obesity and mood disorders but also alcoholism and drug abuse.

    That’s why her success rate is so high. She addresses the chemistry.

    • Glenda says:

      Yes, exactly, and except for a few grains that she allows for some people–and if she didn’t I dare say she may have 100% success–her diet is Paleo: good fats, grass-fed meats, organic vegetables & some fruits.

      Thanks for this series!

  21. Pierson says:

    Speaking of chemistry, what do you make of this fellow who has eaten nothing but cheese pizza for 25 years?

    Doesn’t appear to be the picture of health.

    • Miriam says:

      Um…I know you weren’t asking me, but I make of the guy that’s he’s an idiot. Any diet that has you waking up in your underwear on the kitchen floor surrounded by frozen pizza isn’t something anyone in the Primal/Paleo/Low-carb has to bother trying to “explain.”

      What I do note is that he thinks his diet is fine primarily because he’s thin–despite the blackouts and diabetes. As someone has said (possibly Tom?) the ones who get fat are the lucky ones. They’re the ones who figure out something is wrong before they get the giant heart attack.

      I suppose it’s possible that all the fat is helping to slow the rate at which he absorbs all the glucose, which is sparing him a bit. And if he tends to eat at nicer pizza joints it’s possible that he’s getting pretty good quality cheese on those pizzas–cheese is fairly nutritious. If the flour in the dough is enriched, which it probably is, he’s got the sprayed-on vitamins and minerals. Add in some nutrition in the tomato sauce (tomatoes are most nutritious cooked, after all) and even in the oregano (actually oddly high in vit K, manganese and iron, as well as 4x the antioxidents of blueberries) and you might have an explanation for how he’s surviving.

      He’s clearly, though, not thriving.

      • Jill says:

        Miriam, I can’t agree that the fatties are the lucky ones.
        If you’re thin and you have a good diagnosis ie “you’re diabetic!”
        you can do somethinhg about it without all the abuse, preaching, patronage, bad advice, stessful scrutiny and moralistic judgment and picking that being fat attracts.

        Some people (guys) actually spit on and throw things at fat women.

        Besides, obesity is only a usefuyl indicator is one realises it’s a signal of metabolism gone wrong. Many people regard it as a signal that the obese person is a lazy fat glutton who deserves abuse and limited health care.

        • Jill says:

          Hey Tom, could you please put an edit facility on this blog??
          I for one would be very grateful!


          To edit comments after submitting? I don’t know if that’s possible, but I’ll check.

          • Jill says:

            Facebook does it, and some blogs do have it.
            My problem is I type too fast and my keyboard has tiny keys!

            Thank you. 🙂

    • Kristin says:

      This article points out to me the danger of focusing just on cholesterol levels to determine good health. This guy’s doctor isn’t worried about him because his cholesterol levels are fine as if that is the be all and end all marker of good health.

    • SB says:

      I’m with Miriam. Any “diet” that leaves you with diabetes and the “occasional” blackout while in the kitchen…or while driving(?!?!) is not good. Hopefully someone smashes some sense into him before he drives into a tree or a small child.

      • Anyone who drives while routinely passing out is a waste of skin. if he hits a tree that might be a loss, if he damages the tree.

        He’s considered healthy because he has good numbers. Doctors who do that are like painters who do paint by number paintings.

  22. P says:

    My two kids, 8 & 10, belong to a local competitive swim team. Their swim coach emails out eating advisories for health: no sugary pop, stick w/ whole-grains, fruit ,veggies and lean protein. Avoid fat.The Posted in practice lobby is the USDA food plate poster.
    Most of the coaches are overweight. 40% of the swimmers are overweight or obese. Many of the overweight parents send their overweight children to swim to get into shape. They implore their kids to work harder. But it’s not working. So they blame root cause to flawed genetics.
    Your equation ‘ Genetics x Effort x Chemistry = Weight Loss’ and ‘Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success’ is right on target.

    Let’s hope more coaches come to realize that.

    • Alex (@FedFanForever) says:

      Or maybe they should all be blessed with Michael Phelps’ biochemistry and be able to eat 12,000 calories a day of garbage food.

  23. J says:

    Hey everyone!!!..stop worrying!! ..The FDA is here to rescue us all..–finance.html

    Awesome. Because the original labels did such a bang-up job of battling obesity.

    • SB says:

      I’m glad the gov’t has been observing our eating habits long enough to know, scientifically/statistically, how much ice cream and potato chips we “typically” eat at one time. Will they make sure to revise serving sizes every couple of years to make sure it’s keeping up with current eating trends? What if the new labels cause consumers to eat less in one sitting (e.g. “oh crap, well I’ll just eat half a serving of Ben and Jerry’s and save myself some calories”), will they revert to the old labels? So many questions. So many government solutions.

  24. Jeff In Indy says:

    This probably belongs on your other blog, but this article reminds me of when President Obama said that hard work must not be the secret to success, since “lots of poor people work hard”. Working hard at a dead-end job does not guarantee success…


    Apologies about that other blog going dormant. Someday I’ll get back to it.

  25. josef says:

    We know fat people remain fat or get fatter on a low fat/high carb diet. What would happen if a naturally thin person adopted low carb? Would the person become skinnier?

    My wife went lower carb when I did, since she cooks most of the meals. No, she didn’t get skinnier, but she became healthier.

    • Justin B says:

      My wife, who is one of these “naturally thin” people, actually ended up losing 30 lbs after switching to LCHF (albeit, with more cheat allowances than I give myself). Looking back at photos, its obvious that she’s lost some weight, but nobody would have looked at her before and said that she needed to lose any weight. She actually initially did it simply so that she wouldn’t be hungry all the time.

      Chareva didn’t lose weight (or enough to notice) when we changed our diets. However, when she was in the Peace Corps and living on millet (the local crop), she was heavier.

      • Millet is a goitrogen, by suppressing the synthesis of thyroid hormones. I have read that the blocking of iodine by millet can not be overcome by increasing iodine consumption.

        So it is especially likely that the specific qualities of millet were causative of Chareva’s weight gain.

  26. P says:

    Hey Josef,
    I was naturally thin (129 lb) and ate low-fat-high-complex-carb, w/ climbing cholesterol count. Alarmed, my doc prescribed statin and I took it. My chol plummeted but I felt tired, even after long restful sleep.

    Anyway after a year on statin I read up, ditched statin and switched to high fat-protein-veggies and nil carbs eating. I shed 4 lbs. It’s now almost 3 yrs now. I still weigh appr. 125 and a healthy HDL/TG ratio of 1. Interestingly, the LDL number has gone up. But w/ all metabolic indicators in good level, I have learned now to regard the high LDL count as a false alarm.

  27. Babs says:

    Hi Tom, What have u read about cortisol and its effect on insulin? I read a lot of these lo carb blogs and some ppl gain weight when going bioligically zero carbs due to the increase of cortisol which apparently keeps insulin up, thus curtailing weight loss.

    Gary Taubes wrote that cortisol causes some people to gain weight, some to lose weight.

    • Firebird says:

      Cortisol has caused me to gain weight. So has adding carbs back into my diet to control the cortisol.

      I hope you can solve whatever is causing the stress.

      • Babs says:

        That is so aggravating! I have started to look at foods that might trigger weight gain/stalls. I *think* sour cream stalls me, even in modest amounts. Im testing this by eliminating it entirely while continuing to eat the same amounts of other dairy products (i.e., cheese and heavy whipping cream).

        I’ve talked to people who were stalled until they gave up dairy entirely. Good luck with the experiment.

  28. Beowulf says:

    Excellent equation to show how effort needs to be in line with practicality/biology to cause the most success. I’ve seen some people in my life really take it to heart and make some serious changes to their health. Any advice, though, for those who just can’t seem to kick the sugar/carb-monster to the road even WITH good information and advice? I’ve recommended Fat Head to plenty of friends/co-workers/acquaintances, given them good advice about weight loss chemistry and dietary intervention from a low-carb perspective, and yet very few have actually been able to stick to it (and these are people asking for advice, not just people I’m randomly pestering). Most never even seem to give it a fair shot. They might try it for a day or a week, but then there’s always an excuse for pasta, bread, sweets, etc.

    Other than the whole “you can lead a horse to water” problem, what gives? I can’t see the continued appeal of a bowl of bran cereal for breakfast when someone is telling you that you can have bacon and eggs instead.

    Julia Ross recommends various amino acids that help overcome the refined-carb cravings in her book “The Diet Cure.”

    • Beowulf says:

      My library carries that, and I should have it in hand in a week. Thanks!

    • Kay says:

      @Beowulf: I discovered Fat Head a couple years ago and changed my diet by bringing back fats (butter, eggs, avocados, bacon) and reducing carbs and in that time I’ve lost 25 lbs. But the area I’ve been struggling with forever is sweets (chocolate, pastries, ice cream, etc…). Than a month ago someone mentioned “The Diet Cure”. I read the book and two weeks ago I started applying what was recommended for me (you take a survey/test to focus on your problem areas). I couldn’t believe it, the sugar cravings disappeared. I wasn’t doing the pacing the floor, anxiously figuring out how to avoid eating sweets, I just didn’t think about or even care about sweets. I was amazed and wondered why haven’t my doctors told me about this before?!
      Now, of course there is the effort part of the equation that still applies. I have bad habits that lead me down the wrong path (not taking the supplements consistently) and I have family members who keep trying to pull me back to the dark side…”you deserve a sweet treat every now and then!”, but I’ve lost 4 lbs these past two weeks and I feel so relieved and happy because I know how to do this. I know how to FINALLY lose the rest of the weight without torturing myself with horrible diets and worse yet horrible feelings of thinking less of myself for not having the willpower to stay on horrible diets (for the rest of my life). I have the CHEMISTRY portion of the equation worked out, a little more work on the EFFORT part to do, and GENETICS, well what are you going to do about GENETICS? I’m on my way! wooohooo!
      Thanks Tom! These Character vs Chemistry posts have been awesome 🙂

  29. ethyl d says:

    Tom, can you put all five (and more if you plan to add to this theme) Character vs. Chemistry posts in one place on your site somehow? I’d like for some people to read these and it would help if the whole series could be accessed with one click rather than searching the site for each one as they get older and aren’t right at the top of the blog in recent posts. You do the best job of pointing out just how naked the emperor is!

    I think I have one more to go. I’ll link them all in that post.

  30. Elenor says:

    Beowulf, I find that works for me, when I’m tempted by some high-carb treat, is to ‘take a mental peek’ at my (poor, 58-yr-old, laboring) pancreas! A friend horrified me when, after dinner at her house, she and hubbie and 10-yr-old had ice cream for dessert (I passed on it); and then barely an hour later, they all had seconds! (Different ice cream, but ice cream again!! EEK!) The husband has back problems and a weight problem and (after I got him to read and try Esther Gokhale’s stuff, which helped him), I convinced him to read Mark Sisson’s book and he went on a 30-day challenge with me (skinny wife supported him but didn’t play along, and skinny complaining daughter wouldn’t change any of her eating habits!). He is now a true believer (he has lost 11 pounds already!) — and he finally did watch Fat Head. He loved it. He’s quite dismayed at the lack of willingness of wife and daughter to go along.

    I suggested he offer this consideration to his wife; they both are extremely careful with their daughter. I think it’s wonderful that the girl is not allowed to blast her ears with loud music (on speaker or MP3 player). Think of the sound waves bashing the ear and damaging the delicate structure. Okay-now, think of the girl’s pancreas!! Think of it getting bashed by sugar and carbs — see it getting sicker and sicker until it finally gives up and stops producing insulin. No, it’s not guaranteed she will become Type 2 — but it’s happening more and more and more — hence the diabesity ‘epidemic.’ Some pancreases can take continual bashing to sugar and carbs, some can’t. You won’t know if yours (or your beloved daughter’s!) can’t until you kill it!

  31. Bret says:

    Spot on. It is so tempting to believe that mere effort will yield success. If I come into work an hour earlier than I am required to and stay an hour later, my employer will surely reward me with days off, awards, promotions, or other recognition. The more hours I spend hitting away at balls on the driving range, the better my golf swing will be. If we just keep working to make the War on Drugs bigger and bigger, we will overcome those black markets and drugs will just disappear.

    On a different note, mainstream culture’s moral judgment of those afflicted with obesity is truly repugnant. Your mention of Dr. Lustig’s exemplary lack of such ignorance reminded me of the following sarcastic excerpt from Dr. Dwight Lundell’s fantastic speech on the 2013 Low Carb Cruise: “You eat too much and move too little. The cure is…eat less, move more. That’s my diagnosis–and if it doesn’t work, it’s your fault, because you’re so slothful and gluttonous.” Incidentally, in that same talk he also mentioned several times the brilliant 2009 documentary and recent speech by this fellow named Tom Naughton, a name which drew rightful applause from the audience.

    I’m living proof that hours and hours spent on the golf range can result in grooving a bad swing into your muscle memory.

  32. Elena says:

    My pet peeve is disdainful naturally thin people who calls me i liar liar liar when I have tried to say no, it ain´t that simple buddy.
    Because, you know, it can´t be TRUE that I, during 9 weeks, weekly did 2 zumba passes, lifted wights (short and heavy) 3 times a week, swam and did yoga 2 timas a week did not loose ONE gram.
    I got stronger and I had fun and suppose I shifted a bit on the fat/lean mass % bu I did NOT loose ANY weight.

    So it could only be that I lied. Probably just stuffed myself with junk and lying about my exersize.

    That excersize might not be the holy graal of weight loss just does not compute with most people.

    That’s because they’re stuck in that Effort = Success mindset. If you truly worked hard, there must have been a positive result.

  33. Suzanne says:

    Tom great article and series. Sadly, in the UK we have a tame doc, who flashes his eyes and teeth in the media and is busily trashing the work of Dr Robert Lustig. The BBC have gone so far down market, they don’t check his work (or source of funding.)

    Nice to see the U.K. has its own Dr. Oz.

  34. Alligatorchar says:

    There was a chart in Lustig’s TEDx from 2013 where he pointed out that a subset (20%) of obese people will live normal lives free of metabolic dysfunction and a subset (40%) of normal weight people that will experience metabolic dysfunction. Assuming this is accurate, then it would be worth pointing out that many of the people that are described as being born on the finish line are not as such. They are seems as on the finish line but they are with of the rest of the pack.

    In thinking about this I started to think of my situation. I’m 46 and 5′ 9″. I’ve usually weighted around 200 with a high of 220. I tried CICO and LF with limited success. I ate at lot of granola in an attempt to eat healthy, etc, etc. I’ve been right headed but lacking and real understanding of biochemistry. In the last year I’ve started to put the pieces of the puzzle together by going LCHF thanks to a friend, Fat Head, this blog and Taubes’ easy book. I limit sugar and grains. I don’t drive more than modest ketosis according to Ketostix. Yet I’m happy to report I’m down to 185 after getting things more or less right with my diet in October. I was thinking I’m in pretty good shape as I’m well on my way to the normal weighted group assuming I continue to eat “right” and don’t run into a hormonal issue.

    However, I didn’t consider that it’s possible that I’ve got a bunch of fatty innards and that’s my bigger, albeit unseen, issue. My main goal with the LCHF is avoiding metabolic syndrome. Yet it seems the scale and mirror might not be as telling as I’d hoped. I don’t know a good way to know.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      If you really want to know, you’ll need lab tests. As you pointed out, the mirror doesn’t show what’s happening inside.

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