The Overwhelming Appeal of Simplistic Obesity Thinking

Simplistic thinking about obesity has an overwhelming appeal. Sadly, though, it has a dismal history of letting us down. “Yes, calories in/calories out really is the key to weight loss,” writes Tamar Haspel in the Washington Post. To insure we don’t miss the point, she closes by saying: “It’s the calories, people. It’s the calories.”

On a very different tangent, but with the same ethos of simplistic thinking, James Bailes tells us he knows precisely how to reverse the epidemic of problems that arise from childhood obesity. He says carbohydrate restriction is the answer:

“Over the last 23 years, I have treated hundreds of overweight children with this diet. Several teenagers lost over 100 pounds. Other children witnessed their type 2 diabetes disappear. Every single one told me that they felt better, had more energy, and were less hungry than before.”

Simply Unhelpful

The problem is that obesity is not a simple or monolithic problem. Multiple factors are contributing to its rise in the population. Both the physics of energy intake, storage, and use, as well as the physiology of metabolic regulation play important roles in weight gain and loss. Plenty of people find the concept of calories in and calories out (CICO) to be helpful in coping with obesity. For many others, though, it’s utterly unhelpful. For some it leads to disordered eating that causes them great harm. Commenting on Haspel’s essay, Regularperson3627 explains:

“The issue isn’t that CICO isn’t true, it’s that it’s such an oversimplified perspective that it’s not helpful. Even in this article you’ve mentioned numerous ways in which there’s a discrepancy between what a consumer might expect in terms of their intake and burn rate versus how food actually works. People have tried to lose weight by calorie counting for 50 years and we’re fatter than ever.”


We tire of people who want to sell us THE KEY to weight loss or the obesity epidemic. Models certainly are useful for understanding these challenges. But they can also fuel endless the arguments. For a taste of this, just dive dive into the rabbit hole of scholarly debate about carbs and calories between David Ludwig and Kevin Hall.

If there is any key to making progress against obesity, it is curiosity – prompting us to grow toward a more complete understanding of this complex challenge.

Click here for Haspel’s essay on the virtues of caloric accounting.

Minimalism, painting by Alfred Freddy Krupa, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

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August 25, 2023