The science of weight loss


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


I have a fairly lengthy article in today’s Globe and Mail on the science of weight loss. My assignment was basically to sum up what works, what doesn’t work, and what we still don’t know. Yeah, it was a big topic…

[…] “People want to hear that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, and that you simply need to avoid the bad foods and only eat the good foods and you’ll be fine,” says Yoni Freedhoff, the founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Clinic and one of Canada’s foremost obesity clinicians [and author of the excellent Weighty Matters blog].

Over the past few decades, we’ve tried cutting carbs, eliminating fat – or meticulously optimizing the ratio between them; we’ve eliminated meat and subsisted on liquids; we’ve even eaten according to our blood type. The result? When Statistics Canada went out and actually measured thousands of Canadians (instead of trusting them to tell the truth about their weight) between 2007 and 2009, they found that 61 per cent of us were overweight.

As we begin a new decade, obesity researchers are turning away from this search for “good” foods – a quest that has led us down a nutritional rabbit hole, in which the rich complexities of the human diet are reduced to didactic edicts that change every few years.

Instead, they’re focusing more on the physiology and psychology of why people eat what they do, how societal forces influence their choices, and what they can do to change. The code hasn’t been cracked yet, but here’s what we do know about weight loss. […]

5 Replies to “The science of weight loss”

  1. I don’t know why there is so much mystery about weight loss. I enjoy watching what’s in people’s carts at the grocery store. It’s pretty easy to match the person with the cart.

    The only possible long term weight loss strategy is to eat food with few calories and lots of nutrients, so that you become satiated before excess calories are consumed.

    A recent study showed that over a 10 year period, 1995 to 2005 I think, the price of soda pop had gone down by 30 %, while the price of fruits and veggies had risen 30 %. (Discounting inflation) This was shown to be due to the structure of government subsidies. The “Farm Bill” in the US with it’s emphasis on cheap corn for meat and high fructose corn syrup have played a big role in making us what we are — FAT.

  2. Wow. I’ve come to expect a lot more from you, Alex. Even though you make reference to Taubes a couple of times in your Globe article it doesn’t seem like you even grasp the most salient ideas in his books. You leave the Globe readers no better off, in my opinion.

    This quote in particular seems to imply that you actually disagree with Taubes main tenet: “While Dr. Haub’s experience runs counter to the advice in anti-carb polemics like Gary Taubes’ new book, Why We Get Fat, his slim result was no surprise to obesity researchers.”

    Perhaps if you’d read to the end of Why We Get Fat you would have found a suitable answer.

  3. @Brian
    “I’ve come to expect a lot more from you, Alex.”

    Well, it’s a compliment, even if it’s backhanded — so thanks! 🙂

    “…it doesn’t seem like you even grasp the most salient ideas in his books… Perhaps if you’d read to the end of Why We Get Fat you would have found a suitable answer.”

    Weight loss is a very complicated topic — complicated enough, in my opinion, that you shouldn’t assume that anyone who disagrees with you either doesn’t understand or hasn’t read the literature. That being said, I’d be sincerely interested in knowing if I’ve made any errors in the piece, so please do let me know. In the meantime, I’ve posted a few follow-up thoughts about Taubes in a separate post here.

  4. Great article, Alex. The change in ghrelin and leptin associated with sleep deprivation — something so commonplace in our society — was especially interesting. I assumed it was just that sleepy people lacked willpower to make good eating choices! 🙂

Comments are closed.