Is There a Right Answer in the Dieting Craze?

Fern Wilkinson

Looking for a diet to shift that Easter chocolate? From standard calorie cutting diets like Weightwatchers and carbohydrate restricted diets such as Atkin’s, to more outlandish claims such as the Cabbage soup and Juicing diets, there’s no shortage to choose from.  Despite being bombarded with choice and information telling us how each diet works and why each is best, the proportion of overweight and obese people in the UK continues to rise. How can it be, with so many seemingly successful and miraculous diets available, that we as a nation do not seem to be losing any weight?

People follow diets for any number of reasons, including medical recommendation, ethical or environmental concerns, and religious factors. However, most people who choose to “diet” in the typical sense do so for weight loss –  and for good reason. A 2011 study found that diet was a greater indicator of an individual’s weight than exercise alone. So what happens when you start to diet?

When a person begins a calorie restricted diet, their body begins to run on a calorie deficit. Once the body has burned through it’s available glucose around six hours after eating, it turns to glycogen reserves. These are converted into sugars and burned. However, once this is used up, the body begins to break down fatty acids into smaller molecules called ketone bodies, in a process known as Ketosis, which depletes the fat stores of the body.

Consider though, that many diets don’t just restrict calories. Many restrict other components such as carbohydrate intake as is the case with the Atkins diet which replaces carbs for fat, or the Paleo diet, which swaps them for protein. In both cases, the aim is to feel fuller for longer, since proteins and fats take more energy to digest than carbs, reducing overall calorie intake. If not carefully managed, a lack of fibre and carbohydrates in these diets can lead to some pretty awful side effects, including bloating, lack of energy and constipation!

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Image Credit: Tumblr

It is not a simple matter of moderating food intake, however. The hypothalamus in the brain has a “set point”, which is actually a weight range of around 4.5-6.5 kg, that it attempts to keep the body within by adjusting hunger and metabolic rate. If weight falls below this range, for example because of sudden calorie deficit, the body slows down its metabolic rate, burning between 200-400kcal less per 10% body weight lost. Evolutionarily, this makes a lot of sense, since in the event of a food shortage conserving energy helps you survive, and regaining lost weight later ensures you have enough reserves to live through the next shortage.

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Image Credit: YourHormones

Extreme dieting can have negative long term effects by increase the brain’s “set point”, which may impact upon an individual’s ability to lose weight in the future. Studies have shown that 97% of diets fail, and after five years most people gain back more weight than they lost the first time around. So, if fad-dieting and calorie-counting isn’t working, what is the right answer?

Psychologists believe that people’s eating habits can be divided into two categories. First are the “control eaters”, who may consciously override their bodies by carefully monitoring what they eat. This category is typically where dieters lie. Research indicates that those exercising such tight control over their diet are more likely to binge or overeat, negating any previous benefits.

On the other side are the “intuitive eaters”, who eat when hungry and stop when full, and allow their body’s signals to govern their food habits. Psychologists suggest that learning to listen to your own body when it comes to food, and interpreting those signals accurately, may be the secret to better diet and weight management. Combine this with small, manageable changes towards a healthier diet, throw in some exercise and you have a recipe for success!

On Good and Evil

Rowan Jaines

The concept of evil is often understood to be the polar opposite of being morally good. Marcus Singer referred to the term “evil” as the worst possible term of criticism imaginable. He argued that evil is a human phenomenon since evil deeds must flow from the will to do something evil. In other words, Singer claims that if only humans are moral agents, then it must follow that only humans can perform acts of evil.

Perhaps because of the way in which morality has been entwined with religion and superstition over history, there are branches of thought that state that concept of evil is problematic due to its association with dark spirits and its subsequent denial of explanatory and contextualising factors. Critics of the concept of evil see this denial as dangerous when used in moral, political and legal contexts.

Some, however, believe the term evil is very useful and important in understanding the human world. Back in 2006, Philip Zimbardo, of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, claimed that “it’s time we [psychologists] asked the big questions like the nature of evil.”. In his famous talk, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he claimed that the right conditions, often conditions designed to elicit obedience as we see in military situations, can create the potential for evil actions in any and all human beings.

The debate over whether evil is something some are born with or a potential we all have within us has raged through the centuries, however, in the early 1990’s the murder of two-year-old James Bulger rendered that question newsworthy.

In 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was led away from a shopping centre by two ten-year-old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who proceeded to torture and murder him. Bulger suffered so many injuries that none could be isolated as the fatal blow. Terry Eagleton, critical theorist, uses the Bulger case as a way to illustrate our contradictory thinking with regards the nature of evil in his book On Evil.  Like Zimbardo, Eagleton is firm that evil does exist, following Augustine and Aquinas in seeing evil as an “absence” rather than any kind of object.

Both boys in the Bulger case came from difficult backgrounds. Thompson’s mother was an alcoholic who frequently left her seven children alone at home, whilst Venables’ mother suffered from severe depression and repeatedly hit him. Accounts state he was afraid of her, arranging his toys on his bed for protection. It’s very common for those who commit unspeakable crimes to have had abusive and neglectful childhoods, but how can we understand this when equally some who have had loving childhoods still commit unspeakable acts?

It may be a question of empathy. Although for most people the development of empathy is something that begins in infanthood, both developmental trauma and genetic abnormalities can mean that a person develops into adulthood with a lack of empathy. The ability to imagine another person’s experience is a cornerstone of what we imagine it is to be human and takes a central role in much of our moral coding. This makes more sense of Singer’s claim that evil is the worst insult one can level at another person, since the will to perform an evil act indicates a lack of humanity. This also dovetails with Zimbardo’s argument. His examples of conditions which are seen to encourage acts of evil are all conditions where people are stripped of their individuality and their humanity.

It makes sense to consider that although we all have the capability to make moral choices, making a socially responsible decision may be more difficult for people with genetic or developmental barriers to empathy. Considering the concept of evil in light of all we have learnt in modern neuroscience, more shades of grey appear and allow us to develop a more subtle and nuanced understanding of phenomena that previously we needed strong terms such as “evil” to describe. Here we have an excellent example of the power that modern science has in transforming age old moral debates and hopefully allowing us to develop more empathy even towards those who have performed “evil” atrocities in order to understand and grow as a species.