Poor Math Skills Leading to Weight Gain?

January 31, 2008 at 4:46 pm 17 comments

What if Willpower Matters Little in the Long-Term for Weight? provoked quite a discussion in the comments and led me to consider my own beliefs about the role of willpower in both weight loss and weight maintenance for the long-term after losing weight.

What got me thinking about the role of willpower is our collective belief that one must exert their will over their desire for food in order to overcome the strong desire to eat, often what amounts to too much food.

We’re repeatedly told that we suffer mindless eating habits, a toxic food environment, and a host of other influences which lead us to overeat; all of which can be overcome if we simply set our minds to choosing foods wisely, strictly rationing our intake with portion control methods, and sticking to recommended intakes of each food group to target particular ratios of calories from carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

When doing these things fails to produce long-term weight management, the individual is often the target of blame – they failed by failing to follow the recommendations. They failed to have adequate willpower to continue as directed. They failed to restrict calories sufficiently enough for the long-term to maintain weight effectively.

Rather than challenge the concept – consciously restricting food intake – we instead accept that such is normal and focus on the failure as an execution problem by the individual, often stated many different ways, but always boiling down to calories in exceeding calories out if the individual could only get it right then all would be well.

This makes weight loss and management a math problem.

In order to lose and maintain weight one must then be good at math in order to be able to constantly be vigilant in counting their calories in each day to keep consumption within target outputs.

So, maybe it isn’t willpower, but poor math skills leading to long-term failure to maintain weight loss?

No, I don’t really believe that…but, it does open the door to consider the idea that weight isn’t simply a math problem that is easily solved by changing inputs and outputs of numbers; that in the long-term exerting will to restrict calories over desire to eat is not really all there is to successful weight management.

If weight is not a math problem, then what is the problem?

If we look at the issue differently – set aside the idea that in the long-term one must exert willpower to maintain a calorie balance and seek to understand what truly drives our appetite, we find that weight is not a math problem, but a chemistry problem!

Weight is chemistry.

Chemistry thus influences obligate requirements for nutrients and energy, as well as our ability to exert our will over our desire.

Willpower then depends upon chemistry.

What does the data say about that concept? We’ll take a look in upcoming posts – in the meantime, your comments and thoughts are welcome!


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17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sparky's Girl  |  January 31, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    I agree that weight loss is more chemistry than math. Yes, math helps, but ultimately it’s the way our bodies uses those “numbers” that determines our results. I’ve said over and over that the calories in and calories out idea doesn’t make sense to me. I can eat 100 calories of sugar junk foods or 100 calories of veggies. If a calories is a calorie, why does it matter which I eat as long as I stay under my maximum number of calories. Again, it’s all about the chemistry. I can eat 1200 (and have) calories on a low-fat diet and struggle to lose weight. I can (and have) eat 2000 calories on low-carb and lose weight easily.

  • 2. Anonymous  |  January 31, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    Instincts will in the long run almost always trump will power. When I finally switched to low carb my will power was directed toward finding tasty, filling foods, new comfort foods. I look forward to my meals and NEVER worry about eating too much. I eat as much as I want. But appetite has steadily gone down. Servings half to a third of my old meals now satisfy. But I did not get there my sacrificing. RobLL

  • 3. Low Carb Band-It  |  January 31, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    Funny you’d write about this at this time. As I had commented before, I’ve done every diet known to man. I am absolutely no more a emotional eater than the stick figures around me who consume HUGE quantities of food during holiday and festive occasions. I have PCOS, a diagnosed metabolism likened to someone who lies in bed all day and am severely insulin resistant. And my Endocronologist (who embraces lowcarbing btw), told me it would take me 3hrs of exercise to get what most people get from 30-60minutes. Since I have Fibromyalgia, anything over a 12 minute walk, puts me in bed for several hours directly afterwards from lethargy and in pain for 24-48 after that.

    Somehow I’ve never given up. I’ve had 5 doctors tell me that I’d always be fat, “but keep trying”. Meanwhile giving me low-calorie/lowfat diets. I’ve tried Zenical, but not Meridia as I didn’t eat excessive amounts of food. It took me 2-1/2 YEARS of Weight Watchers to lose a whooping 56lbs and I NEVER cheated (and was still clinically obese). I was accused of cheating, but I didn’t. I went “off” the points program 7 total days (for holidays etc.) times during those 2-1/2 years.

    I even went on induction with VERY little loss. My body just does not like losing and I can’t live on 5 carbs a day (what it took for me to get the scales moving). I like variety just a little bit and I was horribly sad every day that I ate that way.

    OK, so I remember a LONG time ago you wrote a post about making sure that you are nurishing your body and to check you BMR and make sure that you’re getting ENOUGH calories. So I took the plunge (one of the ONLY things I hadn’t tried! LOL) and increased my calories by your calulation of getting the BMR. Oh boy what an experiment this has been. I’m eating around 1800-1900 calories a day and around 75 carbs a day and I’m LOSING WEIGHT EVERY SINGLE WEEK!!!! What is up with this? I’ve cut out processed and white foods completely. We rarely eat grains and stick with mostly low-sugar fruit, full fat dairy and I’m LOVING this. My Weight Watchers friends are watching me with fear and awe! LOL They don’t understand how I’m losing 1-2lbs a week eating so much.

    Anyways, just wanted to say THANKS and mine wasn’t so much willpower as FINALLY nourishing my body. I hope it heals up the metabolism after a while eating this way, but I can tell you this. I’m not suffering one bit!

  • 4. Anonymous  |  January 31, 2008 at 9:52 pm


    Think of the complexity and precision of the ‘calories’ math problem. If weight control is really a matter of willpower and calorie-counting, it demands extraordinary precision and accuracy.

    Consider. If one needs 2,000 calories per day to maintain an ‘acceptable’ body weight, one will need to consume 730,000 calories in a year’s time.

    Not approximately,but EXACTLY 730,000 calories. If we’re off by 3,500 calories (just 0.4%) we gain a pound. If we’re off by 17,500 calories (a mere 2.3% off) we gain FIVE pounds.

    What sort of calculus and daily tinkering does it take to ‘balance calories in with calories out?”

    How do thin people hit that mark so perfectly, year after year. How do THEY measure input and output with such precision?

    Somehow, depending on literally thousands and thousands of portion judgments, food decisions, and adjustments over a year to maintain weight sounds impossibly complex and doomed to failure.

    Unless of course, you weigh every day. And if you’re up a quarter pound, well, you ‘reduce portion sizes and calories’ and ‘increase activity’ until weight returns to the acceptable level.

    Again, is that how thin people do it?

    I contend this ‘balance calories in with calories out’ approach is ridiculous.

    For me, deciding to eat low-carb, paleo-like eliminates the calculus. Everything takes care of itself that way.

    It’s not willpower. It’s not counting. It’s finding a way to eat that AUTOMATICALLY does the calculus for you.

  • 5. K. Dill  |  February 1, 2008 at 12:54 am

    The facts is you have to restrict something, be it carbs, calories, or fat. And the bottom line is you end up consuming less. And its not just chemistry, its bio-chemistry, and includes more than just insulin’s up regulation of fat and glucose receptors at the cellular level. And btw, protein is also insulinotropiic, sometimes more than carbs. It includes hormones like leptin, grehlin, t3-t4 conversion rate, and a whole host of other reactions. While very low carb ketogenic diets certainly work for some, please explain to me why anyone should think that as a public policy they would be any more effective than low fat? Or why the cult of Atkins seems to think that one size, VLCKD, fits all?

  • 6. Wifezilla  |  February 1, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Excellent post! Thanks for putting in to words something I have been thinking for quite a while. Are skinny people all math wizards? LOL

  • 7. Migraineur  |  February 1, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Regina – have you seen this study that shows that thin rats are more motivated to exercise than fat rats? I just wrote a blog post about it, but I couldn’t get my hands on the study, so I’m basically commenting on the press acounts.

    I think this fits in with the weight/chemistry/willpower question. If thinness leads to exercise (and not the other way around), what does that say about willpower?

  • 8. Regina Wilshire  |  February 1, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    While very low carb ketogenic diets certainly work for some, please explain to me why anyone should think that as a public policy they would be any more effective than low fat?

    I’m of the opinion that the government should get out of the dietary recommendation business…but that’s me.

    Or why the cult of Atkins seems to think that one size, VLCKD, fits all?

    Well, I certainly don’t think there is a “one-size-fits-all” diet out there – one look at the global picture proves that different dietary approaches can and do nourish and sustain whole populations – what they all share in common is that dietary approaches connected to “healthy populations” are dense with nutrients, rather than conforming to a particular ratio of carb:protein:fat.

  • 9. Regina Wilshire  |  February 1, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Anyways, just wanted to say THANKS and mine wasn’t so much willpower as FINALLY nourishing my body. I hope it heals up the metabolism after a while eating this way, but I can tell you this. I’m not suffering one bit!

    Wow…thank you for sharing that! I hope you find success with the new approach and continue to feel better!

  • 10. Regina Wilshire  |  February 1, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    It’s not willpower. It’s not counting. It’s finding a way to eat that AUTOMATICALLY does the calculus for you.

    I totally agree….with one minor caveat – one needs the will to start the dietary modification and educate themself…..in time its then a matter of passing on the junk and sticking with the good foods IMO.

  • 11. billy  |  February 1, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Anyone with a bit of nutritional knowledge knows that counting calories is an extremely inexact science. Unless something is pre-packaged and lists the calories (which may or may not be accurate), it’s a total guessing game.

    However, I think that counting calories in the long run is just a way to get people to pay attention to what and how much they are eating. I’ve counted calories in the past, but now I just sort have developed a sense of appropriate foods and appropriate portions.

    The key there is appropriate foods. It’s not always the amount of energy contained in a food, but how that energy is bundled, which is the chemistry you speak of.

    The fact of the matter is that most people don’t want to think about math or chemistry when they eat. Most people just eat what tastes good to them and fills them up.

  • 12. Regina Wilshire  |  February 1, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    The fact of the matter is that most people don’t want to think about math or chemistry when they eat. Most people just eat what tastes good to them and fills them up.

    I agree and disagree…given the multi-billion dollar industry that is the diet industry, it’s obvious people do want to eat in a way that enables weight loss and management – why would they spend that much money if they weren’t trying? If that’s true, then I do believe that people would like to know why some foods fill them better, make them feel better and make it easier to maintain a calorie balance than others. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I do think that people do not realize they’ve been misled for the most part and that they’re eating to fill up not realizing that they’re overeating in the process because the foods they’re eating are messing with their internal metabolic processes that would allow them to stop eating as much if they had the right information to choose better. Case in point – whole grains are now the rage, but still leave a person in the cycle of higher insulin and blood glucose if they’re predisposed or already metabolically compromised…..so for such a person, the advice to eat whole grains over refined is really moot….and doing nothing to help them with appetite and satiety, and forget about fat loss unless they’re strictly keeping calories below needs.

  • 13. Steve  |  February 2, 2008 at 5:19 am


    I love your concise destruction of the calorie counting theory. I’ve seen this kind of description before, but the — Can only thin people can be this precise? Is that how they do it? — aspect really drives it home.


  • 14. Monica Reinagel  |  February 2, 2008 at 3:01 pm


    Appetite may be chemistry but I don’t think it necessarily follows that weight is chemistry. That would assume that we only eat when we’re (physically) hungry and I think many people who have struggled with their weight will attest that part of the problem is eating even when one is not hungry–or is “hungry” for something else, like entertainment, or affection, or whatever.

    If we get the chemistry right, you’re right: that should modulate our appetite (and metabolic processes) so that we can satisfy our physical hunger without gaining weight.

    But many will also have to work to identify emotional and behavioral triggers for over-eating and develop the will-power (or other strategies) to recognize and resist urges to eat that are not about physical hunger.

    Does that make sense?

  • 15. Ian Smith  |  February 3, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Interesting comments – this is my first time on this blog, but I think you guys would like thedailyskinny blog too. It has similar topics and offers

  • 16. alohanema  |  February 4, 2008 at 7:22 am

    Oh, it’s an interesting post and a little weird. This is the first time I’ve heard that poor math skills leading to weight gain.

    AlohaNema – Diet

  • 17. Jello  |  February 13, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    I am so encouraged by what low carb band-it had to say.
    I myself have PCOS and have never felt it has always been about the calorie count. I too have been to WW and have always been starving on the program and ended up falling off the wagon. But after reading your post I cannot wait to change my eating habits, stop obsessing about the numbers and see what happens.
    Thank you so much for sharing!

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