“Thinking Makes You Fat”: Or, Science Made Even Stupider

Debbie says:

We keep thinking we’ve reached the ultimate in silly studies … and we keep being wrong. Last week’s entry into the “no, really, how could they even publish this?” sweepstakes comes from the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Here’s the news report:

Researchers found the stress of thinking caused overeating with heavy thinkers seeking out more calories.

Note: more calories does not automatically equal overeating.

The research team, supervised by Dr Angelo Tremblay, measured the spontaneous food intake of 14 students after each of three tasks.

Wow! 14 students. Statistically significant? I don’t think so.

The first was relaxing in a sitting position, the second reading and summarizing a text, and finally completing a series of memory, attention, and vigilance tests on the computer.

After 45 minutes at each activity, participants were invited to eat as much as they wanted from a buffet.

The researchers had already discovered that each session of intellectual work requires only three calories more than the rest period.

Dubious discovery, given information below.

However, despite the low energy cost of mental work, the students spontaneously consumed 203 more calories after summarizing a text and 253 more calories after the computer tests.

This represents a 23.6 per cent and 29.4 per cent increase, respectively, compared with the rest period.

Do we know how much they had eaten before? Was it a controlled amount? Do we know what size the students were? Whether they were eating enough after resting?

Blood samples taken before, during, and after each session revealed that intellectual work causes much bigger fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels than rest periods.

This is another way of saying that intellectual work uses more energy, i.e., uses more calories. So why do we believe the “only three calories” data given above? At least they didn’t draw specious conclusions about intellectual work and diabetes … yet.

And, of course, the article ends with a warning that our intellectual work may be bad for our health. (The inevitable conclusion here is that resting is good for our health … after all, anything that makes us eat less is good, right?)

Just in case you were thinking that this kind of idiocy is confined to the boundaries of the United States, the geniuses who thought up this particular study are in Quebec. You can bet that they haven’t been working their brains hard enough to work up an appetite!

There is light on the horizon, however. All this extra fat that we’re creating by thinking could be put to good use in gas tanks if it wasn’t for those pesky California laws. (Okay, yes, it’s gross. And terrifyingly easy to misuse. And at the same time, I can’t resist a grin when I think about it.)

Thanks to Aahz for being first with the thinking article, and also whoever pointed me to the lipofuel story.

6 thoughts on ““Thinking Makes You Fat”: Or, Science Made Even Stupider

  1. Given that brains use more energy per pound than any other tissue in our body (I’ve read that it uses about 20% of our total calories burned); making it work harder would use a considerable number of calories. Plus, when I’m resting my muscles relax and use less energy; when I’m thinking my muscles move and tense, also using more energy. Oh, I had a third thought, I’d bet that your continuing metabolic use of calories is higher after thinking hard than after resting.

    And, students, hmm. Great variety of body types and human diversity there. Wonder if they had all guys or all women or a mix. Almost certainly they had little or no age differences.

    It’s an interesting pointer to guide the next experiment; but no good conclusions can be drawn yet.

  2. 14 participants? And the researchers are running around touting this study as valid and letting the media pick it up without reservations? That’s horrible.

    I think real critical thinking classes, akin to what does in Psychological Thinking (in which one learns to read research articles and use critical thinking to dissect an article to come to a conclusion as opposed to swallowing media drivel) should be a required core class. In middle school.

  3. Researchers found the stress of thinking caused overeating with heavy thinkers seeking out more calories.

    Is this part of why women were (and in many ways, still are) so actively discouraged from education? Because it might make them fat and unfuckable?

    (I know more calories =!= overeating but I just happen to find the connection interesting.)

    There has been a LOT of bad diet talk going on at work this week (I am the only person at my office eating full meals at lunch), so my head wanted to explode even more when I saw this.

  4. I agree that there are serious problems with drawing concrete conclusions from this study, but I found it very interesting on a personal level. Whenever I’m working on a difficult paper or need to critically read a book for my grad classes, I feel the need to munch on something. I’ve tried to resist the urges in the past, but I usually give in just so that I can complete my academic work at-hand. When I read about this study a few months ago, it all made sense: Brain cells need twice as much energy as other cells in the body, so more intellectually stimulating activities would make it require more energy, just as an athlete requires more energy to keep pace with energy expenditure. The article I read about this, however, made no mention that the researchers advocate thinking less!

  5. As an over-achieving, Type A, thought-making woman, I can assure you that intellectual thinking and learning, especially the challenging materials, is EXHAUSTING.

    It only makes sense that we would need to consume more calories to make up for the mental exhaustion we experience during and afterwards.

    However, to correlate that thinking makes one fat is both misleading and appalling. Perhaps, if anything is going to make us fat, it’s the time we spend studying the material sitting on our butts instead of running around a park that would correlate. And frankly, I’ll happily take that risk because there is more out there for me to know, and I’m not stopping learning until I die. Better to be smart and chubby (which I’m not), than to be skinny and incapable of doing things for myself.

  6. But don’t they say kids need a good breakfast before school so they can learn better? I think there’s a connection.

    I’d rather be fat than stupid… (and my kids too).

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