Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Occam's Razor

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Occam's razor is a principle named after the 14th-century logician, theologian and Franciscan friar, William of Ockham.

In short terms, it means that you shouldn't make your hypotheses more complex than they need to be. The simplest explanation or strategy is often the right one. Sadly, it's rarely applied in the fitness industry or among people in general. We have a tendency to seek out exotic and alternative hypotheses when an explanation for a phenomenon appears too straight-forward.

If the truth is non-complex and fairly unexciting, invent new truths - make them complex and exciting. It's an effective way to get attention and it's a strategy employed by charlatans and quacks since the beginning of time. Spice up your claims with half-truths, credentials, maybe add some charisma to the mix, and you'll soon have a following of people that are all too eager to buy into the lies.

Some of the most despicable kind of quackery is revealed when the topic of the obesity epidemic and nutrition arises. It's despicable because it preys on people's failures to take responsibility for their own actions by telling them that they are victims of circumstance.

For a good example of what I mean, I'd like to direct your attention to Alan Aragon's excellent article "The bitter truth about fructose alarmism".

It's an educational read, especially if you read the ensuing discussion in the comments. Alan does a great job of appealing to science and reason when discussing the issue at hand, which is far more than can be said about Lustig and his followers. Lustig even shows up and makes a feeble attempt at discussing the matter. He proceeds to make a fool out of himself by appealing to his YouTube hit-count as some sort of proof for credibilty and then leaves.

Occam's Razor and the Obesity Epidemic

My goal here isn't to discuss fructose specifically, but rather the ongoing trend to blame the obesity epidemic and weight gain on inane aspects of our diets. In the case of fructose, an argument is made that fructose consumption alone can explain a substantial part of why people are getting fatter. That's the gist of the argument, read Alan's article if you want more.

Occams's razor applied to the obesity epidemic would reveal that we're becoming fatter due to a mismatch between calories in and out. We're eating more, but not compensating for our ever increasing calorie intakes by becoming more active. While this makes sense from a purely intuitive point of view, it's also backed up by studies.

Fructose consumption is a moot point. Yet some of the fructose-alarmists seem to be convinced that people would magically unfatten themselves if food companies were to use glucose instead of HFCS in their products. Never mind the fact that some people are drinking seven cans of soda each day, which adds approximately 1000 calories to their daily intake. The connection between soft drink consumption and obesity is such a no-brainer that it simply isn't exciting. So in comes the anti-fructose-brigade led by Lustig and his ilk ready to present an unfounded but all the more interesting theory on the issue. And surely enough, some people choose to swallow it hook, line and sinker.

There are countless examples of this on the net. The quacks and their followers blame fructose, carbs, omega-6 fats, environmental toxins, hypothyroidism, parasites and all kinds of redundant shit that makes people feel like they are victims of circumstance rather than passive over-consumption and inactivity. The truth is easier to accept that way.

Environment vs evolution

The alarmists and their ilk have a naive and glorified view of human psychology and physiology. In their naivety, they seem to assume that humans are not prone to sloth and excess when opportunities present themselves, and in this age, there are plenty of opportunities indeed. You see, we love to eat. We especially like to eat calorie-dense foods. Carbs + fat is a tasty combination. We don't like to move too much, especially not when they are so many appealing reasons not to. Television, video games and the Internet - that's great fun. Going out running or training, not so much.

In stark contrast to most animals, the human body does not defend against body weight gain effectively. Our physiology is actually biased toward weight gain. In the animal kingdom, a high body weight can be detrimental to survival. Fat animals are easy prey for larger predators. For that reason, animals possess the ability to regulate their body weight within a fairly tight range by effectively matching feeding patterns to their actual needs. A period of overfeeding is usually followed by a period of spontaneously reduced food intake due to suppressed hunger and vice versa.

Throughout evolution, humans relied on wits and intelligence, in contrast to physical attributes, in order to hunt and survive. We were never the hunted ones, so there was never any evolutionary reason for us to be light and mobile. On top of that, periods of low food availability and famine encouraged us to eat far beyond satiety whenever food was available. All of these traits proved to be very useful for us thousands of years ago, but in an environment with an overabundant food supply and little incentive to physically move and expend energy... Well it doesn't require a rocket scientist to understand that we're prone to gain weight in this age. The environmental influence is strong enough to override our innate defenses against body weight gain, defenses that were weak to begin with.

But while the human species may be more prone to obesity as a function of our evolution and the modern environment, we have other distinct traits that separate us from other animals: self-reflection and the ability to control our impulses; to take conscious action to better ourselves. Animals don't posess these traits, but we do. It's part of what makes us unique, what separates us from all other species on this earth.

Of course, all of this requires some sort of effort. It's more convenient to tell people that they are fat because of fructose, toxins or a sluggish metabolism. The truth is easier to accept. It makes us appear more virtuous if willpower is removed from the equation. But humans are not automatons like the alarmists and blame-throwers would like us to believe. That's the underlying issue I have with all this quackery. By buying into it, people choose to abdicate their responsibiliy.

Grown men and women take responsibility for their lives and actions. They do not blame a life of excess on some trivial aspect of their diet. A diet that on the whole consisted of refined foods, rich in both carbs and fat, often combined with a sedentary lifestyle: that's how I got fat. I loved food and I liked to sit on my butt and play videogames. It was an enjoyable lifestyle and I had a lot of fun. I'm very typical in that regard. People get fat by giving in to pleasure in the form of food and entertainment. It's not more complicated than that. Be wary of anyone who tries to make you believe that it is.

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Note: When I talk about our inherent defense against weight gain, I'm referring to the bodyfat set-point. For the only article(s) you'll ever need to read on this subject, go here and here. Excellent and comprehensive coverage on a fascinating topic.

As a closing comment, I'd like to say that Dr. Lustig isn't the best example of a quack or charlatan. There are plenty others out there who would serve as better examples. Lustig just happened to be one who caught my attention due to the recent hoopla caused at Alan's blog.




My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

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