Toilet Humor And The HOW vs. WHY Of Getting Fat

You ever go to a big party, go to the bathroom, flush the toilet, and the water starts coming … up? This is the most frightening moment in the life of a human being. You’ll do anything to stop this. You’ll lose your mind and start talking to the toilet: “No, please, don’t do this to me. No, come on, you know this is not my responsibility! I didn’t make this happen!” – Jerry Seinfeld

Of course you caused it to happen, Jerry. You flushed the toilet, which filled the bowl with water. More water went into the bowl than went out, and so it overflowed. Call any reputable plumber and ask why a toilet overflows, and that’s the answer you’ll get: more water going in than going out.

Heh-heh-heh … just kidding. A reputable plumber would explain that something has clogged up the system, then charge you a hefty hourly fee to fix the clog.

Back in my standup days, I opened a few times for a comedian I really liked named Tom Parks. He had a good bit about his toilet backing up into his bathtub. (I don’t remember it word for word, and paraphrasing won’t be as funny. Sorry about that.) Parks called a plumber, who fixed the problem and then apologized for the bill, explaining that house calls on a Sunday are billed at two-and-a-half times the usual rate … to which Parks replied, “Buddy, here’s all I want to know: is the @#$% gone from my tub? Yeah? Then you can charge me whatever you want.”

Fortunately, the plumber didn’t attribute the problem to more @#$% entering the tub than exiting.

I bring up the toilet humor because of yet another raging debate about the relevance of calories-in/calories-out (CICO) on the Fat Head Facebook group. I don’t have time to read all the posts in the Facebook group, much less comment on them, but I did chime in on that one. Here’s what I wrote:

Arguing about whether weight gain/loss is caused by the hormonal effects of diet or CICO is like arguing whether your toilet overflowed because of a clog in the pipe or because more water went into the toilet than went out. CICO always applies, but that’s the HOW of the result, not the WHY.

I’m not sure why this is such a difficult concept for some people to wrap their brains around, but apparently it is. So I’ll try to explain one more time:

Those of us who believe losing weight isn’t as simple as restricting calories aren’t denying the laws of physics. People have accused Gary Taubes of ignoring the laws of thermodynamics, but frankly, that’s beyond ridiculous. The man has a degree in physics from Harvard, for pete’s sake. His first award-winning book was about physics. It seems rather unlikely that when he wrote Good Calories, Bad Calories, he just up and decided the laws of physics don’t apply to obesity or weight loss.

What he’s tried to explain in at least a couple of speeches I watched online is that yes, of course, if you increase your body mass, you consumed more calories than you expended. If you decrease your body mass, then yes, of course, you expended more calories than you consumed. But that’s all the calories-in/calories-out equation can tell us. It doesn’t tell us the actual reason weight gain or weight loss occurred.

As I was trying to get across in my Facebook comment, we’re talking about the difference between HOW vs. WHY. If my toilet overflows, then yes, more water entered the bowl than exited. That’s HOW it overflowed. But that’s not WHY it overflowed. The WHY would have something to do with a clog in the pipes.

People who insist that gaining weight is caused by consuming too many calories and that losing weight is therefore as simple as consuming fewer calories are confusing HOW with WHY. The HOW of gaining or losing weight is always the same: a calorie surplus or a calorie deficit. But that doesn’t mean eating more will make you fat or eating less will make you thin.  Your body is rather opinionated about how much fat mass it wants to maintain and will adjust your metabolism accordingly.  That’s where the WHY comes into play.

In his book The Calorie Myth, Jonathan Bailor wrote about a group of research subjects who consumed an extra thousand calories per day for several weeks. According to the CICO equation, they should have all gained 16 pounds. Nobody gained that much (the most anyone gained was eight pounds), and some of the naturally-lean subjects gained a mere half-pound. So let’s look at HOW vs. WHY for those lucky people:

  • HOW they avoided getting fatter: the calories they expended matched the calories they consumed.
  • WHY they avoided getting fatter: their bodies are hormonally geared to stay lean and responded to the extra calories with a corresponding rise in metabolism.

Here’s a paragraph from Good Calories, Bad Calories:

When physiologists began studying animal hibernation in the 1960s, they again demonstrated this decoupling of food intake from weight gain. Hibernating ground squirrels will double their body weight in late summer, in preparation for the winter-long hibernation. But these squirrels will get just as fat when kept in the laboratory and not allowed to eat any more in August and September than they did in April. The seasonal fat accumulation is genetically programmed – the animals will accomplish this task whether food is abundant or not.

So simply limiting food intake didn’t prevent the calorie-restricted ground squirrels from getting just as fat as their free-eating brethren.

  • HOW they got just as fat: they consumed more calories than they expended.
  • WHY they got just as fat: hormones released before the hibernation season commanded their bodies to get fat, and their bodies heeded the command … even if doing so required a drastic reduction in metabolism to provide the surplus calories to store as fat.

Here’s another paragraph from Good Calories, Bad Calories:

In these experiments, researchers remove the ovaries from female rats. This procedure effectively serves to shut down production of the female sex hormone estrogen (technically estradiol). Without estrogen, the rats eat voraciously, dramatically decrease physical activity, and quickly grow obese. When estrogen is replaced by infusing the hormone back into these rats, they lose the excess weight and return to their normal patterns of eating and activity.

Oops. I guess getting fat is all about eating too much and exercising too little after all. Those rats ate voraciously and sat around being lazy. That must be why they got fat.

But wait …

When researchers remove the ovaries from the rats, but restrict their diets to only what they were eating before the surgery, the rats become just as obese, just as quickly; the number of calories consumed makes little difference …. “If you keep the animals’ food intake constant and manipulate the sex hormones, you still get substantial changes in body weight and fat content,” [researcher George] Wade said.

  • HOW the rats got fat: they consumed more calories than they expended.
  • WHY the rats got fat: removing their ovaries caused a hormonal imbalance that commanded their little rat bodies to accumulate fat – which they did, despite no increase in food intake, probably by drastically reducing metabolism.

Awhile back, I watched a TV documentary called The Science of Obesity. It wasn’t very good overall, so I didn’t write about it. But there was one intriguing section about a woman who was lean her entire life, then became morbidly obese within a year. She limited herself to 1500 calories per day, but didn’t lose any weight. Her doctor insisted she was lying about her food intake.

So she did the smart thing and found another doctor – who ran a slew of tests and found she had a tumor on her pituitary gland. Was she consuming more calories than she was expending while becoming obese? Yup. Gaining weight always requires a surplus of calories.  Does that mean she got fat and stayed fat because she was eating too much? Nope. She became obese because of the tumor, which caused all kinds of hormonal hell to break loose.

I recently had a good friend tell me he finally cut way back on his carb intake, especially his bread intake. (Interestingly, he wasn’t persuaded by Fat Head to change his diet; it was a personal trainer who finally got through to him.) He’d been eating less and less over the years in a failed attempt to drop some weight. I remember hanging out with him over a weekend, and he didn’t eat anything until dinner – but then bread was the first item on his dinner menu. Bread, a salad, and some salmon. That was it.

Anyway, after making the dietary change, he told me, “I swear, I didn’t do anything but ditch the bread and potatoes, and 15 pounds just dropped off like nothing. I was never hungry. I never felt deprived.”

  • HOW he lost weight: he expended more calories than he consumed.
  • WHY he lost weight: a change in diet triggered some kind of hormonal shift that moved him from fat-accumulation mode to fat-burning mode.

Maybe he unconsciously ate less, even though he insists he didn’t. Maybe he started releasing fatty acids at a faster rate and didn’t feel hungry because he was eating his own fat. Maybe he started eating more protein, which requires more energy to digest. Maybe his metabolism perked up. Doesn’t matter. The point is, something about the change in diet fixed the WHY of his inability to lose weight. He absolutely, positively expended more calories than he consumed while losing … but he didn’t count calories or consciously restrict his portions in order to do so.

When we switch to a better diet and end up losing weight (and keeping it off) for the first time in our lives, it means we’ve finally addressed the WHY of excess fat accumulation. The HOW of weight gain (whether we gain fat or muscle) is always the same:  consuming more than calories than we expend. CICO and hormones are not mutually exclusive explanations, any more than a clogged pipe and water-in vs. water-out are mutually exclusive explanations for an overflowing toilet.

I don’t like the CICO explanation because 1) it doesn’t actually tell us why a person gains or loses weight, and 2) it encourages people who don’t know what the @#$% they’re talking about to be judgmental — like that idiot reality TV star from England who stuffed herself to get fat and then concluded that fat people just eat too much.

But in a recent email, a reader reminded me that people who attribute obesity to hormones can be judgmental too … or least too confident that they understand the WHY of weight gain and have the answer.

This woman has been overweight for years.  She’s tried everything under the sun, including severe calorie restriction.  When people told her “it’s the hormones, it’s the hormones, it’s the hormones!” she had everything checked and checked again, by endocrinologists, holistic practitioners, you name it.  The bottom line is that she can’t lose the excess weight, and nobody can tell her why.

I’m reminded of the “resistant obese” subjects some researchers described in a study I recounted in a previous post:

This phenomenon of people who do not lose weight is really the most tantalizing thing that confronts physicians.  There are these people who can live on 600 calories and not lose any weight. On what are they surviving?  If we measure their basal metabolism in terms of calories, we get figures in excess of 600 calories per twenty-four hours.  It would seem that on this diet they are in a caloric deficit all time, but still are not losing any weight.  I am still an admirer of the laws of thermodynamics, but these people seem to be thermodynamic paradoxes.

The researchers were describing people under supervision in a hospital.  They weren’t sneaking food or lying about their food intake in a diet journal.  They were locked down in a hospital, but failing to lose weight on 600 calories.  I don’t think they were thermodynamic paradoxes, however.  Somehow, some way, they managed to get by on that ridiculously low intake of food.  Some people just seem to be hard-wired to be very fat.

  • HOW they stayed obese on 600 calories:  The calories they expended matched the calories they consumed.
  • WHY they stayed obese on 600 calories:  Nobody knows.  And nobody should judge them for it.  Those unfortunate people are just proof that scientists still have a lot to learn about the WHY of obesity.



112 thoughts on “Toilet Humor And The HOW vs. WHY Of Getting Fat

  1. Rick

    So Tom,

    Is it safe to say: Weight gain and/or weight loss is caused by an imbalance of CICO;
    HOWEVER, the cause of that CICO imbalance could be from a variety of things, depending on the individual?????

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Absolutely. First the body decides how fat it needs to be (for a variety of reasons, many probably still not known), then the metabolism and appetite adjust accordingly. That’s why when people restrict calories, they’ll often lose a bit of weight and then stall. Their metabolisms adjust down to match the lower calorie intake.

      1. Anand Srivastava

        Paul Jaminet has shown that Obesity is a multi-factorial disease, through the lognormal distribution it has. This means that no single method will solve it for all. Some will require several methods to cure it. This is why we get the stalls. Yes you could starve yourself for sometime, via LCHF, but eventually, the body will get to where it wants to be, unless the underlying problem got solved during the starvation diet.

        The only solution is to treat the underlying problem, which LCHF may not treat.

        Paul’s AHS presentation is excellent.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I agree with Paul that it’s a multi-factorial condition, which is why I don’t believe there’s one perfect diet for everyone — not even the Perfect Health Diet.

          1. Lauren


            Paul is at least trying to target nutrient requirements for optimal health, but within that there will always be specific variances.

            I wonder instead of CICO, if Calories-Needed/Calories-Unneeded is a better metric and could offer an easy to understand substitute. After all, a Twinkie calorie is not a Celery calorie is not a Butter calorie.

            It’s not just weight loss that struggles with this blame-the-patient/the patient must be lying mentality. It cuts across many sectors. It seems what our society suffers from is a compassion disorder.

            Thank you for being not only a voice of intelligence and reason, but one of advocacy and kindness. My gratitude is huge.

            1. Tom Naughton Post author

              Personally, I hope we get eventually get away from the obsession with calories altogether.

  2. Marshall

    I saw Tom Parks do that routine at the University of Florida’s Gator Growl in 1991 and still think of it every time we have plumbing issues.

    Do you remember “My record player is broken”? (part of the same set he did)

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Oh, yeah, great stuff. At one time, I probably could have recited most of his act for you. He never liked following dirty comedians because he worked pretty clean. I always worked clean, and after he saw my act, he started requesting me for his lead-in (middle act, after the opener and just before him) when he worked in Indianapolis. We had lots of time to talk in the green room between shows. Very nice and very intelligent guy, in addition to being a helluva comedian.

  3. Randy Harris

    i am re-reading Good Calories, Bad Calories – such a great book, it’s making an impact on the second go-round.

  4. js290

    People who use CICO as it relates to metabolism usually understand neither thermo nor metabolism.

    Occasionally, I’ll point out:

    1. There are no metabolic cycles that biochemically use a “calorie” as a substrate.
    2. CI affects CO and vice versa. It’s only descriptive (as you call ‘HOW’) not prescriptive (‘WHY’). As long as there’s a deficit or surplus, there will be loss or gain, respectively. Calorie counters won’t consider that eating more of the right CI may increase CO, or that the wrong CI may reduce CO.
    3. Storage of fat is not the diseased state. Inability to use fat as fuel (hence, leading to fat storage) is the diseased state. Storing excess energy is exactly what an efficient system should do. And, it should be able to tap into those energy stores later (metabolic flexibility).

    I like the way Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture describes it:

    Observations (HOW) vs Concepts (WHY)

    1. Bryan Harris

      “People who use CICO as it relates to metabolism usually understand neither thermo nor metabolism.”

      This is such a good observation. I never thought about it until now but the most fervent opposition to the changes I’ve made in my diet were people who truly do not seem to have ever understood the subjects (either one of them).

      Some of them sound like they lightly skimmed over some kind of simplified physics blog article, and now they’re experts telling me about energy conservation.

      I’ve honestly had a person tell me more than once that if I run a mile or walk a mile I’ve burned exactly the same number of calories because “That’s just simple physics, man! Don’t you know anything?!? GAWL!!” We even had a big argument, which I ultimately lost because I didn’t even know how to begin making an argument.

      1. Walter Bushell

        Indeed, almost nobody understands either one, particularly thermodynamics. It’s the flunk out course for want to be physics majors. Beyond the three laws, “You can’t win, you can’t avoid losing, and you can’t get out of the game.”.

  5. Christine Lee

    I’ve seen your movie several times, I love it. I’ve read Gary Taubes books, several times. I’ve followed you and several other folks to understand this topic. It took “toilet humor” to finally drive home the point. Just another reason why you are awesome. I finally get it. Thank you.

  6. PhilT

    Do you have a reference for the 600 calorie paper please, I would like to read it. I thought the brain used nearly that on its own so should be interesting….

      1. PhilT

        Thanks, yes it’s mainly in the interesting discussion. I particularly enjoyed “DR. MAX KLEIBER (Davis, California): I cannot get excited about the law of conservation of energy in this particular case, because so far I have failed to see an
        explanation of the necessity for the energy in basal metabolism for the vital functions”

  7. Tammy

    Thank you Tom ! Once again you make a concise and compelling argument, that makes perfect sense. I’m one of “those” people. I’ve been overweight my whole life, and nothing seems to be the key to losing all the excess. Considering that I’ve spent most of my life, from 10 yrs old to 53, you would think that I would have it figured out by now. Nothing like taking a 10yr old girl to a Weight Watchers meeting and shaming her by stating her weight in front of the whole group. That enough should have humiliated the weight off me, but it didn’t. Fast forward to 42 and gastric bypass surgery. I lost 170 pounds, then after starting birth control pills for the first time in my life, I gained back 50. STILL working on getting that off after 7 years, which will take me back to my lowest weight which is still 50 pounds too much, according to the “experts” My pouch is still small and my portion sizes are small. So… no one can tell me that I eat too much, therefore I am fat. I have spent my life being restricted and the fat is still with me. The ONLY thing that is working for me, is LCHF and intermittent fasting. Even while doing LCHF, I hit the same plateau as I have for the last 8 years.. lost 20 and stopped. Once I started fasting and went to almost zero carbs, I finally have started losing again. I’ve dropped 18 in the last few weeks due to fasting every day and watching my glucose levels like a hawk. If this is what it takes to lose more weight, I will do it. But if anyone thinks I’ve been lazy or just don’t get the CICO concept, they’re wrong. I get it, it just doesn’t work for me. If that was all it took, then everyone would gain and lose the same way, and we all know that doesn’t happen. THANKS TOM!

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Wow, that image of a 10-year-old having to state her weight in front of a group of adults is painful. So sorry you had to go through that.

      1. Kathy in Texas

        The first time I was aware of my weight was in the doctor’s office when I was 12. I weighed 120 lbs. I don’t know how tall I was then, but I’m only 5’5″ now. That was before calculated BMI, so I didn’t get that little bit of info. I guess that “imprinted” on me, because I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with (not very successfully) controlling my weight.

        One never knows what will stay with a child for life. I’m 66 and that snapshot of my childhood is still with me.

    2. Kristin

      So it seems that fat shaming is a poor way to get a person to lose weight. Whelp, that is no reason to stop trying (sarcasm deeply intended.)

      It seems your metabolism runs a lot like Jimmy Moore’s does.

      1. Tom Naughton Post author

        That’s one of the reasons the fat-shaming attacks on Jimmy infuriate me. He may well have some of that “resistant obese” thing going on, and thus have to constantly battle against a body that wants to be huge. All those internet cowboys out there insisting that Jimmy would stay at 225 if he just did this or that don’t know what the @#$% they’re talking about.

        1. Kristin

          Jimmy’s skin is way thicker than mine. I really don’t think I could handle what he seemingly brushes off. I have a lot of respect for him.

          1. Tom Naughton Post author

            Well, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, Jimmy grew up in a very abusive household. I’m sure he developed thick skin way before he became a blogger. The fact that he’s a kind-hearted man with a good attitude about life is a testament to his character.

            1. Mark

              Abel James has described Jimmy Moore as one of the sweetest guys he’s ever met. Having seen Jimmy’s videos, I’m inclined to agree.

            2. Tom Naughton Post author

              Jimmy and Christine have stayed with us for a few week-long visits. They’re both about as nice as nice gets. My girls consider “Uncle Jimmy” a big ol’ teddy bear and jump all over him.

      2. Walter Bushell

        But fat shamming is fun and supports one’s self image. Why stop just because it doesn’t help the recipient?

    3. Walter Bushell

      I heard that women who succeeded in Weight Watchers become leaders. “It works for me, thus you can do it.”
      Yes and a 5 foot tall man can make it pro basketball.

  8. Wayne Gage

    When I was young I was a heat island…people standing around me told me that I radiated heat. I could eat lots of anything and never gain a pound and then something switched and eating carbs caused weight gain. Another well written post..also Red Skelton never gave a dirty word performance, he said it isn’t needed to entertain. Good for you.

      1. Angel

        Amen to that!! I don’t really think of them as comedians.

        The problem is, too many members of the audience think that dirty is funny. As far as I’m concerned, dirty is only funny to people who aren’t grownups.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          It’s comedy, but it’s a weak form of comedy. It doesn’t take as much talent to write dirty comedy as it does to write clean comedy.

          1. PJ (RightNOW)

            Which is why I think Bill Cosby is so awesome. I was raised on his albums and skits, my dad was a huge fan. They have a comedy radio here that just plays little stand up clips and stuff, and I heard many of his I’d never heard before. The man can take something ordinary, like getting his drivers license, and just put you in tears of laughter.

            1. Tom Naughton Post author

              He’s a comic genius. He had a bit about going to the dentist that made me laugh so hard, the muscles around my ribcage were sore the next day.

  9. Eric from Belgium

    This reminds me so much of the plot line in the excellent TV shows by James Burke….
    The main plot line being that we humans make our universe only exists by perceiving it through what we know. If a new knowledge comes around, it will change our perception and thus the nature of the universe….

    Can’t remember who said that Science does not progress by Eureka moments, but one funeral at a time…

    Got it. Max Planck. The actual quote is “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    On that note, and thinking about the first law of thermodynamics, when we die, we’re not ‘gone’ as such. All the matter and energy is still there, it’s measurable.

    It’s just a bit more …disorderly…. (aka entropy, second law of thermodynamics..)


  10. Walter Bushell

    Bad as it is an overflowing toilet is nowhere near as being on the highway at high speed with stalled traffic ahead and realizing you can’t stop. (Fortunately I pulled off to the shoulder and managed to stop there or I wouldn’t be posting here.)

  11. Onlooker

    Very well said, Tom. It’s really not that complicated, is it? The only reason some people can’t seem to understand it is that they are stuck on some ideology or emotional reaction (or combo thereof).

    Of course that’s a lot like many other aspects of life, like “global warming”, the State, etc., and therefore not surprising, though exasperating.

  12. Tom Welsh

    “People have accused Gary Taubes of ignoring the laws of thermodynamics, but frankly, that’s beyond ridiculous”.

    Sounds like the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    It’s a big problem in our society that, in any debate, two groups of people are likely to be equally sure they are right: experts and ignoramuses. The difference tends to be that the latter are more outspoken and more dismissive of anyone who disagrees with them.

    To put it somewhat more poetically, we have two undoubted geniuses:

    The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
    – Bertrand Russell

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    – William Butler Yeats

  13. Joe

    Another great article Tom. You are definitely one of my favorite nutrition writers. I’m glad you referenced Taubes book because it’s the best IMO. “Why We Get Fat” is the reason I’m not anymore lol. Taubes’ book was the first book I read that actually sounded like science rather than marketing. The only reason I tested Taubes dietary advice was because 1. He says multiple times that he doesn’t really know what causes obesity because the science isn’t good enough to draw a definitive conclusion and 2. Low carbing will probably make you thinner but not necessarily as thin as you want to be. I was sold after that. I knew he wasn’t just another “miracle diet” snake oil salesman.

  14. Kristin

    I had a good laugh to see the subject of your post today. I had just been talking to a friend who has been eating LCHF for months now, lost a fair bit of weight and improved her health greatly. She was asking me about how to break a weight loss plateau. I suggested maybe her body is happy where it is.

    On another note I have watched a truly horrendous UK series called Supersize vs Superskinny. Real junk food telly. They put together a very overweight person with a very underweight. The focus is total calories, of course. In one episode the guy was eating 2600 calories a day 2000 of which was chocolate. The announcer smugly says “No wonder he is so underweight.” What? If I ate 2000 calories a day in chocolate I would probably be able to watch my waist visibly expand. He’s just malnourished and naturally skinny. I think I like to watch that show sometimes because of the incredible absurdity of it all.

    1. Catherine

      Kristin – I, too, find myself having to watch this bizarre programme, even though my blood starts to boil almost instantly when Dr Christian appears! There’s never any mention of the fact (and it does seem to apply to virtually all the “fat” participants) that the hugely overweight person’s daily food intake consists almost entirely of sugary, carb-loaded junk. No, the junk is only referred to in terms of its fat content, and piles of gloop intended to represent the fat are placed in front of the victim, er, participant to illustrate the error of their ways. Your example of the chocolate-stuffing skinny is quite a mainstay of this programme, and as you say, there are those of us who could watch ourselves expand just by thinking about that much chocolate. Have you also seen “Secret Eaters”? Much the same sort of thing, except it’s normally a family or couple who are being shown how much fat they eat. There’s never any real emphasis on proper nutritional requirements, just how many calories are being consumed. Grrrrr! Tom – love this article, as with all your others. Total sense!

      1. Kristin

        Ummm, yesss… I’ve seen Secret Eaters as well. Sometimes yelling at the computer screen. I’m glad to find I’m not the only sensible eating community member who gets guilty entertainment out of this slumming. Now mind you I doubt I could stomach an American version of this kind of show. Only the Brits can entertain me like this.

        And lovely gay Dr Christian may be eye candy but it does not absolve him of the guilt of his complicity with SSvSS.

      2. Kristin

        Okay, sorry, one more. In the first season there were a couple of the ‘supersize’ that ate VERY well. Gourmet stuff I would eat in a heartbeat. Just clearly too much starch for that person. They have eliminated that nonsense in later series. Don’t want people to think this is not a black or white situation.

        1. Catherine

          Hell, no! Imply that starchy foods are not healthy?? Perish the thought! I’m always fascinated by Dr Christian’s shirts, too – extraordinary!

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I believe a change in diet, by producing a change in hormonal balance, can indeed re-set the set point. That’s what happened with me. But no change in diet will allow every obese people to become lean.

    2. Alex R

      Calling it a “set point” is over-simplifying things. It’s more of a sum of dynamic factors, like hormonal milieu, micronutrient deficiencies, mitochondrial health, plus a bunch of unknowns. Some of which we know how to affect, some we don’t.

      1. js290

        Yeah, exactly. A new steady state equilibrium was found by all the various factors. “Set point” seems to assume there’s some predetermined destination.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I look at set-point this way: given a particular hormonal situation, there’s a degree of fatness at which your body is happy and in a real or perceived state of energy balance. Unless the hormonal situation changes, it will fight tooth and nail to maintain that degree of fatness. We can change the hormonal situation with diet — more so for some than for others.

    3. Kristin

      I do think there can be a set point change. Mine has shifted down by about 20 lbs which relieves me greatly. But to think it is that simple is continuing to do disservice to the many who don’t fit in that box. The set point theory for me is one more tool in the toolbox.

  15. Craig

    I remember two occasions, one in fifth grade and another in seventh, where I must have lost all my self control because I suddenly got really lazy and gluttonous. I just laid around eating everything I could get my hands on and packing on weight. Funny how both times happened right before large growth spurts where my height increased dramatically. But I’m sure hormones had nothing to do with all that.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Well, it’s all about calories in vs. calories out, so obviously you got taller by eating more.

  16. Stephen

    I can only see weight management in CICO terms, but I also believe that it’s really hard to overcome our genetic body types.

    In my spin class, I’ve lost 60 lbs, and will probably lose another 15 lbs. But a woman in the class tries just as hard as I do, is very dedicated and determined, but can’t make much visible progress.

    I’m naturally thin, and just got obese eating massive amounts of junk food every night and isolating myself. So exercise is fun and easy for me, and I can get back down to my college weight, even eating a pound of bread a day.

    I don’t know what the woman in class can do to get the results she wants. She probably already avoids carbs. I know that CICO works, so she could probably force herself to be thin, but it’s probably not healthy or sustainable. Hopefully, she’ll be happy with a healthier version of herself, and doesn’t hold herself to magazine-standards of beauty.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I disagree with the statement “I know that CICO works …” Restricting calories doesn’t work if your metabolism plummets to match calories out to calories in. Yes, if you’re willing to essentially starve yourself forever, you will eventually lose weight, but you’ll also be malnourished, lethargic, and generally miserable.

      1. Stephen

        Yeah, that’s what I meant. I should have put “works” in quotes.

        I’m pretty opposed to calorie restriction, but some people do it. One guy I know has lost about 90 lbs by eating 1500 calories/day, low carbs, plus exercise. He’s still not thin, and he seems to be fighting his body type. We’ll see what happens in the long term.

          1. PJ (RightNOW)

            There seems to be a class of people for whom malnourishment actually makes them fat. The more malnourished, the longer, the fatter. These people can be anorexic and still get fatter. This is one of those things where cultural bias means most people don’t believe that, but anybody living with one of them knows it’s so. These people often end up being the fattest (I mean huge) because they keep trying to ‘compensate’ for being fat by chronically undereating, particularly the ‘fattening’ foods as our culture seems them (e.g. the ones they need most, actually, but instead they’re eating whole-grains) and their body’s response is not only an incredibly low baseline of energy (so they’re lucky to be able to move at all) but more inflammation and more fat cells. This cycle is likely to end in disease when years of chronic nutrient deprivation results in the gradual breakdown of one or more organs. The irony.

            This idea that energy reduces as intake does is true, but there is a point at which energy cannot reduce any further and still keep brains and hearts functioning, and this is easy to reach, especially if the person is very large to begin with. At that point the person may have no energy to function decently with at all, but still not be losing much if any weight after initial water/adjustment.

            Also, given our culture’s pervasive foods, we know that hormones have more to do with fat deposition than calories. Frankenfoods do not help. One review on this study: mentioned:
            “… the weight gain associated with wheat consumption has little to do with caloric content per se; rather, the gluten proteins … disrupt endocrine and exocrine processes within the body, as well as directly modulating nuclear gene expression … to alter mammalian metabolism in the direction of weight gain.’

            Take a person who is genetically intolerant to wheat gluten but doesn’t know it, feed them what in some form nearly every meal of every day week season year decade of their life and it’s no surprise they end up fat. They can go paleo/LC/whatever and lose ‘some’ weight but likely not anywhere near the amount they’d like to. It’s always an irony when I know someone who eats amazing well and is still huge, while others eat just horribly and feel morally superior for being lean.

            Anyway my main point was going to be — some people will actually die of organ failure due to gradual breakdown or acute energy deficiency, long before they even get to the point of teeth and hair falling out, and they’ll never get skinny in the meanwhile, not even close.

            1. Tom Naughton Post author

              Exactly the point Gary Taubes brought up in Good Calories, Bad Calories. We’ve seen cultures where malnourishment is rampant, and yet some parents are obese. If it’s all about calories, that means the fat parents are choosing to eat too much while starving their kids.

            2. Rachel

              This actually sounds like me really. Er well aside from any eating disorder. Hair falling out, mouth a mess, skin a mess, morbidly obese. Eat healthiest out of anyone I know and have the hardest-hardest-hardest time losing weight. It goes but it’s slow. I’ve spent the past 5 years watching calories and weighing and measuring my food. 51 pounds lost in 5 years, about 140 more to go (at this rate, 14 more years, lol). Reckon I should add I don’t eat wheat or processed foods.

  17. Gina

    In the interest of full disclosure, I used to work as a leader for a national weight loss company. At the time, I believed in the program but I had already adopted the “no refined carbs” philosophy through my own research. I just couldn’t talk about it in my meetings. It bothered me that I knew not to eat the pre-packaged low fat treats but was encouraged to sell them to others. (I didn’t). It further bothered me that if someone’s result on the scale upset them, I should ask “was that what you expected?” (I didn’t). Talk about rubbing salt in the wound! After leaving, I read “The Big Fat Surprise” and after researching that, found “FatHead.” Thank you so much for taking the time to explain the science behind health and weight loss!

    Lastly, for anyone who buys the CICO argument, may you be afflicted with the hormonal rollercoaster that is “perimenopause!”

      1. Gina

        Indeed. I just wish the CICO theory and the lipid hypothesis would go away. They are like bad Internet rumors. Your presentation on “Diet, Health and the Wisdom of Crowds” was very good and backed up by facts, not emotional arguments or incorrect information that has been repeated but never proven. Thank you!

    1. Kristin

      I want to echo Tom’s sentiment about thinking you would be glad to leave that job. I found myself recoiling just reading your story. I have a friend who has been a WW leader for 20 years so far. She does stay lean by eating amazing crap (and probably that is her size anyway.) When she comes to a pot luck gathering everyone knows not to bother with her dish which will be low fat vegetarian fake cheese and dreadful. Sigh. I talked to her a couple of years ago about my body transformation and weight loss. I could see her disconnect when I said I was eating high fat low carb. She did recover and make a polite response. Koolaid. Bring on the Koolaid.

  18. Bret

    I run across mainstream exercise videos/online advice fairly often, and it frustrates me to see the mouthpieces continuing to obsess over calories. “Come on, guys, keep pushing it! You’ve got to work to burn off those calories!” It’s so silly when you consider how few calories you are really burning in the grand scheme (maybe 500 in a workout…maybe 1000 if you’re really pushing it), and how often you would have to exercise in order to lose weight at an effective and suitable rate, if CICO really was a legitimate strategy. To say nothing of the wear and tear and other stress you put on your body with that kind of chronic overexertion. Similar issues with obsessing over food intake.

    That said, I do think there is some real value in limiting one’s intake of foods, as long as it is done intelligently, moderately, and in the context of a whole foods diet (“diet” meaning eating strategy, not a scheme emphasizing calorically quantitative obsession). The oxidative and hormonal stress that the body endures by disposing of any food — and especially modern, highly processed/frankenstein foods, of course — as well as the evolutionary commonsense perspective that tells us our ancestors adapted us to going without food sometimes (at least without a large quantity) — grants merit to scientific exploration of and personal experimentation with occasional or intermittent fasting. Same with exercise — of the strength building and brief intense interval variety, that is.

    But I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this has nothing to do with counting calories. That strategy is beset by a mountain of mathematical and biological fallacies that doom it to failure. Sadly, that doesn’t stop the food and exercise industry, the desperate general public, or the government. (The first picture embedded in this linked article comes to mind.)

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Indeed. Merely counting calories is a strategy with an abysmal rate of failure. Reducing intake as the natural consequence of a nutrient-dense diet that’s more satiating is another matter. That gets to the WHY of the problem.

      1. GTR

        Counting calories works well for sportsment. This is an artificially selected group with hormones working well (or artificially improved), and naturally high metabolism. Another factor is that they are moving a lot, and some even face more cold (eg. immersion in water or outdoor training/events) than an office worker – so basically what they eat goes more into energy, rather than as building blocks.

  19. Pierson

    Fantastic information, Tom, especially regarding the rats. Speaking of which, do you have that paper? I ask because that situation actually perfectly describes my mother’s condition, in that after a lifetime of being a highly active average-slightly pudgy individual, she too became morbidly obese within a year following her ooverectomy. Funny enough, since she mentions getting hot flashes and other menopause-related problems whenever she loses 25+ pounds, this indicates that it’s probably hormonal. She was also malnourished and anemic as a child, which probably explains why she’s always carried a little extra weight

  20. Nads

    Oh hell, bad memories of regularly clogged toilets when I was living in the US. The WHY may be that your toilets are shaped oddly. I never clog the Aussie ones!

    My WHY I used to overeat was a combo of sugar addiction and reactive hypoglycaemia. I never should have been fat.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I lived in an apartment in Chicago that just had a pipe from the toilet into the wall and a very powerful flush. Water in never exceeded water out, and I lived there for 10 years.

  21. Mark

    From wikipedia: The small calorie or gram calorie (symbol: cal) is the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere.
    The large calorie, kilogram calorie, dietary calorie, nutritionist’s calorie, nutritional calorie, Calorie (capital C)[2] or food calorie (symbol: Cal) is approximately the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. The large calorie is thus equal to 1000 small calories or one kilocalorie (symbol: kcal).

    Can someone explain to me what exactly heating water by one degree has to do with fat gain/loss?

      1. Eric from Belgium

        I beg to disagree slightly.
        There unfortunately and for totally wrong reasons a relationship between heating water and diets.

        The notion of calories dates back to the steam power age. To make steam, you need water and heat. Making heat is easiest done by burning stuff.
        But how much stuff needs to be burned to, say, make a train move from point A to point B?
        A french chemist by the name of Clement (who later worked with Carnot) defined the unit of heat as the Calorie, which is the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of one gram of water from 14.5°C to 15.5°C.

        Then how is the “caloric content” of stuff measured?
        Simple. Put a measured amount of “stuff” in a device called a bomb calorimeter, basically a sealed steel vessel filled with excess oxygen, put said bomb in a measured quantity of water, at a know temperature, make the stuff burn, and measure the change of temperature in the surrounding water.
        So one can then measure and grade the potential for generating heat of various fuels, and thus calculate the efficiency of an engine.

        Then things went horribly wrong…

        There must have been a guy thinking along the lines of “Hang on. Humans eat stuff, and generate heat. Let’s burn some fat and sugar an proteins in a bomb and see how much heat that can give off”.

        And presto, the concept of calories in diets was invented….

        I can guarantee one thing for sure: a gallon of kerosene or diesel oil is packed full of calories, try drinking it and you will not put on weight. It might just make the optional subsequent cremation more efficient though….

        Isocaloric, but not isometabolic, anyone ???

        Oh, and if you think that there is somewhere a guy in a white coat stuffing pizza and sushi rolls in a bomb calorimeter, you will be dissapointed. “Caloric” content of foodstuff is not measured as such, but derived and calculated from “official” tables, conveniently available online at

        I really wonder how they made that can of Bud light burn in a calorimeter to get these 103 Kcal??

        By the way, in Europe, we don’t bother burning stuff anymore. We just copy the usda database and translate it. Cheaper that way.

        Now, where did I put this astrology manual ???


        1. GTR

          The nutrition labels already take this into the account – protein is counted as 400 kcal/100g as utilized in ogranisms instead of 540 kcal/100g that would be there by simply burning it.

    1. Bret

      Eureka! I think you’ve found the obvious answer that has eluded the calorie obsessors for so long, Mark: obese folks should just light themselves on fire (we’re made of mostly water, right?). That will burn lots of calories very quickly, and our weight loss success as a society will be through the roof.

      Quick, let’s get this idea patended so we can make some bank before Jillian Michaels catches on and starts chasing Biggest Loser contestants around with torches.

        1. Mike

          I actually did figure it out once. What if I could plug a tube into my gut and feed the fat into my car, how much weight would I lose during my commute, assuming that my car got the same mileage from fat as it does from the equivalent energy in gasoline? I don’t remember the answer but it would be a convenient way of losing some weight but a very expensive way of fueling a car. I failed to take into account GTR’s point that bodies don’t extract as much energy as the bomb number would suggest so my pointless fantasy calculation would have been a bit wrong, but close enough for a bit of whimsy.

          A chemist or physicist can tell you how much energy is yielded by oxidizing the hydrocarbons in sugar & fat. I think the bomb-calorimeter is probably the upper bound for how many calories there is in food, but as GTR points out, it isn’t the lower bound.

          If you have a physical job to do, like pumping water from a well all day, we can figure out how many calories worth of butter you would have to eat to do that job. You wouldn’t be able to do the job without burning at least that many calories. You probably would have to burn more though, because bodies don’t extract energy perfectly.

          Where it all seems to break down is that it sounds like bodies normally spend way more calories doing basal metabolic stuff than they actually have to, so when the fuel is tight, we just turn up the efficiency.

          What mystifies me is where the energy goes.

          I think you’ve talked about the prison experiments where they overfed prisoners by massive amounts and they didn’t gain weight. OK so if they took in all of this extra energy and didn’t store it, what happened to it. Did they excrete it all? How much food energy is left in human poo anyway? I know there are species of animals that survive on the dung of big herbivores, because they leave so much food energy behind them, but I’ve never heard of human poo beetles.

          If they didn’t excrete it all, they presumably burned it. Did they burn it doing work, or did they just burn it through basal metabolism? Did they all start doing herculean quantities of jumping jacks? If they just burned it all through basal metabolism, shouldn’t they have become noticeably warmer? I don’t see how you can just consume 30% more calories without exercise without running pretty darned hot, yet people generally stay within a degree or so of 37C. I wonder if their water intake went up massively and they sweated all that heat away. Something is still very mystifying about all of this.

          1. Tom Naughton Post author

            It is mystifying, but that just proves that despite what some people think, we don’t yet know everything about metabolism, calories, etc.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      It makes perfect sense that our bodies would encourage a bit of weight gain before winter sets in.

  22. Sam

    Most people absolutely forget one big thing:

    When you put 1000 calories into your mouth, it does not mean that 1000 calories will enter your body. Your body might as well decide to flush them through, right into the toilet (which hopefully is not clogged).

    Really, just looking at the shit coming out of our body should have most people realise that not every calorie gets digested properly :/

  23. LaurieLM

    Gary Taubes is coming to speak in my area….I’m going. I’m excited.
    Springfield College in Springfield MA, Nov. 12 at 7 pm. Free and open to the public.

    I teach biochemistry, and the explanation of thermo can be a little non-intuitive.
    Thermodynamics is a ‘state’ function. That means that the initial and final states are all that are accounted for. IT IS PATH IN-DEPENDENT.

    If you think of going from point A to point B, the ‘absolute’ distance between to two is a state function.
    If you take several different paths (the kinetics-rates), you get variation (though the absolute distance between them remains the same. You will expend more gas, and put more miles on your car if you travel from A-C-X-P-B than if you go from A-C-B, and you use even less gas if you go from A directly to B.

    I know this probably doesn’t clear it up, but when state functions have changed- going from A to B, you can only make conclusions about the two endpoints. Calories in and out, thermo, is a state process. The path remains uncleared up. The SPEED with which you gain or lose weight is tractable with looking at, considering and varying the path.

    Off topic, there is a book by the Cochrane collaboration co-founder Peter Gotzsche, “Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime’ you might want to know about.

  24. egocyte

    Very good post, maybe the clearest way to explain it I ever read.
    I sometimes use another analogy, but in reverse: business.
    If you have a friend running a business but losing money, you can tell him that he just has to earn more money than he spends. It’s true but it won’t help him understand where it doesn’t work.
    He could try to raise his incomes but if his margins are too small, or negative, it won’t solve his problem.

  25. MaterialGuy


    Something can be necessary for a process to happen, but it is not sufficient for the the process to occur – it is only a vital part of all of the conditions for a process to occur.

    Science is hard for some people to grasp. Science sometimes is difficult to explain.

    Thermodynamics is harder than ordinary physics for people to grasp. Thermodynamics is traditionally poorly explained.

    How could people back in the 1800’s, without benefit of understanding of modern atomic bonding theory, without understanding of electromagnetics, and without understanding of quantum mechanics possibly have dreamed up a set of rules that predicts WHAT happens, such as the normal intrepretation of thermodynamics implies.

    The truth is that the laws of classical thermodynamics doesn’t actually predict what happens. They are not a NECESSARY and SUFFICIENT condition for things to happen. They are NECESSARY, but NOT SUFFICIENT conditions for things to happen.

    A classic example of old is that thermodynamics states that graphite is the equilibrium form of carbon at room temperature and pressure. However, we virtually never see diamonds decompose of phase change to graphite at room temperature and pressure.

    There are countless chemical reactions that are similar in that they either appear to refuse to proceed at rooom temperatuer conditions, or only proceed at a practical rate by the use of catalysts which increase the speed of reaction or the so called “reaction kinetics”.

    If you look at a half dozen books on thermodynamics, you will find absolutely no quantitative predictions of reaction rates. That is usually covered under the name of KINETICS or Chemical Kinetics. Some, but not all, thermodynamics books explain this limitation. Classical Thermodynamics is more technically EQUILIBRIUM THERMODYNAMICS.

    There are four laws in Classical Thermodynamics. One of them is conservation of ENERGY, the FIRST LAW. If something satisfies just the first law (not the law of ENTROPY), you cannot really state that this will happen as the whole set of thermodynamic laws are only NECESSARY but not SUFFICIENT.

    If you don’t know the four laws, you don’t really know thermodynamics. And, you have no business predicting what chemical or biochemical effects will occur either fast or slow or need a catalyst.

    Catalysts are necessary for the vast majority of biochemical reactions. Catalysts are key to the field of KINETICS and BIOCHEMISTRY. Classical thermodynamics doesn’t PREDICT biochemical reactions, but does state NECESSARY but not SUFFICIENT limitations of WHAT CAN HAPPEN.

    Phrased another way, Classical Thermodynamics can distinguish between the POSSIBLE and the IMPOSSIBLE (or forbidden) reactions.

    To argue conclusively on the basis of no satisfaction of the First Law defines reactions that are impossible is OK. To argue conclusively on the basis of satisfaction of the First Law demanding that this means that the reaction or behavior WILL HAPPEN is proof of not understanding the subject of Thermodynamics as well as Kinetics and Biochemistry as well.

    Not understanding the notion of NECESSARY but not SUFFICIENT implies lack of higher mathematics and a lot of the physical sciences.

    There also doesn’t appear to be any real science in Political Science. Just saying your are scientific is not SUFFICIENT to prove that you are scientific.

  26. Josh

    I guess I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said, except I am glad that at least another commenter knows who Tom Parks is. I remember seeing him on HBO in the 80s, NNTN and a comedy special. Funny guy.

  27. GTR

    Notice that there’s another factor in gaining fat and it is the toxins. Body has a limited rate of eliminating toxins so it stores them in the fat tissue for further processing. Persistent high toxic load can cause a weight gain. This mechanism of creating fat is not about energy balance. The toxins can be industrial, or natural the latter including LPS from bacteria, or mycotoxins.


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