About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Atkins: the fad, the bankruptcy

Well, it has happened: Atkins -- the company named after the man who invented the low-carb high-protein diet, has filed for bankruptcy. Apparently, after sending several small bread and pasta companies to the same fate, Americans are now fed up, so to speak, with red meat too!

This isn't really surprising, as the American public is infamous for diet fads that last a season, or slightly longer than the average dieter's ability to actually stick to any health-conscious regime. As a commentator put it today on National Public Radio, people figured out that life without bread and pasta is just not as much fun. As an Italian (with no weight problem, at the moment!) I couldn't agree more.

The thing abot the Atkins (or, for that matter, many other popular diets), is that there is little -- if any -- scientific research to back up its claims of effectiveness, and especially of long-term health (you may lose some weight in the beginning, but is your heart going to be ok with all the cholesterol you keep gulping down in large portions?). This, of course, hasn't stopped even some of my more skeptical friends to embrace it, either because somebody told them it worked (science by anectode -- never fails), or because it just felt good to suddenly be free to eat a lot of formerly "forbidden" meat (I guess not many vegetarians takers).

There are two rather obvious, and yet so often overlooked, things about dieting. First, there is no magic bullet, no single-chemical or simple solution to what is, after all, a complex methabolic problem. Like many things in life, there is a way to do it, but it ain't painless and straightforward. Second, the "secret" to lose weight is (but don't tell anyone!): eat less and move your butt more. Or, to put it more scientifically: it's a matter of thermodynamics, baby, if you want to lose weight, increase your ouptut and decrease your input. Believe me, it works, I've done it! (And it's backed by the most solid principle in science: the second law of thermodynamics.)


  1. Good column Massimo. I can't disagree with you. People seem to be looking for the panacea that will fix it all with little or no effort. I think Skeptic magazine ran an article that largely backs up your analysis, if you haven't read it (though somehow I bet you're a regular reader of it):
    "The skinny on fat: a skeptical evaluation of the Atkins and other low carb diets" by Patrick Johnson, Skeptic, Wntr 2004 v10 i4 p66(9)

    Interesting that you've moved to a blog. I have recently as well, and I'm even considering giving up my personal website that I've maintained for 6 years, www.rationalnorth.com. My blog is at http://rationalnorth.blogspot.com

  2. Why does this have to be so complicated?

    Eat reasonable content; watch your portion size and exercise.

  3. Yep, nutrition class taught me that weight gain and loss is a simple matter of input-output where over time even the most simple imbalance can lead to weight gain OR LOSS.

    50 lb over 5 years = ~ 1 extra "pat" of butter a day! or 8oz of soda a day!

    To loose 50lb over 5 years = ~ 1 mile walking @2mph every day OR take a leasurly bike ride 20 minutes a day!

    It's really that easy, now there are other larger issues with being healthy than weight. An active fat person will probably me more healthy than a thin couch potato. Many people equate weight = health and that is definatly not true on anything more than a corolation.


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