Taubes - Chapter 06 - Thermodynamics for Dummies, Part 1

- POSTED ON: Jan 01, 2011

Taubes starts out

“The very notion that we get fat because we consume more calories
than we expend would not exist without the misapplied belief
that the laws of thermodynamics make it true.

Obesity is not a disorder of energy balance,
or calories-in/calories-out or overeating,
and thermodynamics has nothing to do with this.”

There are three laws of thermodynamics.

“The first one…is known as the law of energy conservation:
all it says is that energy is neither created nor destroyed
but can only change from one form to another.”

He goes on

“All the first law says is that if something gets more or less massive,
then more energy or less energy has to enter it than leave it.
It says nothing about why this happens.
It says nothing about cause and effect.

It doesn’t tell us why anything happens;
it only tells us what has to happen
if that thing happens.
A logician would say that it contains no causal information.”

As an example,
Taubes suggests that instead of talking about why we get fat,
we could talk about why a room gets crowded.
In this example the energy we’re discussing is energy in entire people,
rather than just their fat.

So, we want to know why this room is crowded and so overstuffed with energy (people).

If I said,the room is crowded because more people entered than left,”

You’d say…”Of course…But Why?”

If I then said, “rooms that have more people enter than leave
will become more crowded. There’s no getting around
the laws of thermodynamics”.

You’d say…”So what.?”…because I still haven’t given you any reason why.
I’m just repeating the obvious.

Taubes says

“This is what happens when thermodynamics is used to conclude
that overeating makes us fat.
Thermodynamics tells us that if we get fatter and heavier,
more energy enters our body than leaves it.
Overeating means we’re consuming more energy than we’re expending.
It says the same thing in a different way.

Neither happens to answer the question why.
Why do we take in more energy than we expend?
Why do we overeat?
Why do we get fatter?”

He goes on:

"The vast majority of experts who say that we get fat
because we overeat
or we get fat as a result of overeating
…are making the kind of mistake
that…should earn a failing grade in a high-school science class.”

Taubes says maybe we should start with the 1998 National Institutes of Health report
that said:

“Obesity is a complex, multifactorial chronic disease that develops from
an interaction of genotype and the environment.

Our understanding of how and why obesity develops is incomplete,
but involves the integration of social, behavioral, cultural, physiological,
metabolic and genetic factors.”

I’ve read many books and online discussions about
the First Law of Thermodynamics.
So, despite my lack of knowledge about such Scientific issues,
I am familiar with what that First Law says.

Usually in these discussions, people wind up arguing about things like
the differences between energy burned inside an open container
and energy burned inside a closed container.

Frankly, this tends to make my eyes glaze over,
and I want them to talk about something more interesting to me,
or at least, something I could better understand.

I like the fact that Taubes gives a simple explanation 
of the First Law of Thermodynamics
and how, while that Law is always True,
it doesn’t explain what causes of obesity.

Also I definitely agree that obesity is a very complicated disease
and that no one completely understands how and why it happens.


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Existing Comments:

On Feb 18, 2011 wrote:
Taubes says………………….Why do we overeat? (p 75)……………………………….This is the heart of the matter for me. Those portion control diets answer the question: How do we stop overeating? They don't answer why we overeat in the first place. My father has preached at me countless times: "You cannot deny the First Law of Thermodynamics." True. I wasn't denying it, and Taubes isn't denying it. He's just saying that it's not helpful. I suppose at one point people figured out how much they ate affected how much they weighed but that would have occurred a long time ago! Taubes seems to be doing a set up here: setting up to explain why we overeat so that a better way to lose weight than calorie counting can be found.


On Feb 19, 2011 Karen925 wrote:
“Obesity is a complex, multifactorial chronic disease that develops from an interaction of genotype and the environment. Our understanding of how and why obesity develops is incomplete, but involves the integration of social, behavioral, cultural, physiological, metabolic and genetic factors.” I think this is brilliantly written. Encompasses the many aspects of obesity while acknowledging the disordered physical component.


On Feb 20, 2011 TexArk wrote:
http://sparkofreason.blogspot.com/2011/01/on-taubes-and-toilets.html Here is a good essay on Taubes and the First Law of Thermodynamics. I will paraphrase parts of it to get your interest. Some misinformed folks read Good Calories Bad Calories and came away thinking that Taubes implied that low carbohydrate diets somehow got around energy conservation. Taubes, who has a degree in physics, probably thought that the First Law was just generally held to be true and that nobody would question his belief in it, and so didn't focus on it much. Taubes clearly learned the hard way that you can't take these things for granted. "WWGF has two chapters on this topic, and makes it very clear that 1) Yes, Virginia, the First Law of Thermodynamics is alive and kicking, but 2) that the First Law adds no information as to the cause of obesity, or what you might do to fix it. You can’t read WWGF and still think Taubes is claiming that thermodynamics doesn't apply to biological organisms." At this link he gives a good analogy comparing a broken toilet to broken metabolism and says that the real lesson of WWGF is the same as his toilet story: just knowing the constraints on the workings of your body (e.g. conservation of energy) is not the same as knowing how the pieces actually fit together, the cause-effect relationships that make the whole machine go. You can't fix something without having some idea of how it works, whether it is a toilet or the human body. Like his toilet, your metabolism (and that of all living organisms) is self-regulating. Read his humorous essay to get the whole story.

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