What is this cartoon? Tens of thousands of people on twitter looked, and for a long time, no one could identify it. But eventually they managed to track it down — it’s a still from a 1991 TV movie about how “’soulmates’ from another planet” teach Earth people that confidence can help to save Christmas. Sometimes it takes a million eyes to solve a mystery, but on the internet, we HAVE a million eyes.
Aella releases the results of a new study where she “asked trans people how much their preference for various sexual things changed after hormone replacement therapy”. She describes her sample size as “real low”, but 300 is much higher than most psychology studies (which famously often have a mere 20 people per condition). Some criticism from Liminal Warmth on twitter here — Lim says “I don’t think much at all can be drawn in terms of generalizable or solid conclusions from this data set” and points out that there are alternative explanations for Aella’s findings. This is true, but we think it’s the wrong way to look at things. There are always alternative explanations, and the value of a study usually depends on how many explanations it rules out, how much it narrows things down, not how many alternatives are left. Someone might predict, for example, that taking estrogen would make a person much less interested in most sexual preferences, but Aella’s results provide pretty strong evidence against that story. There are limitations to the dataset but there was basically nothing before and now there’s something, so kudos to her. This is what research looks like, and we’re excited to see what Aella does next.
One of the earliest pieces to argue against the use of tobacco is the treatise A Counterblaste to Tobacco, written by King James VI of Scotland / I of England. James blames Native Americans for this public-health scourge, but you have to admit that he writes with some style — he calls smoking “a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”
Lithium is an element, atomic number 3. It is a soft, light, highly reactive metal with a variety of uses. Among other things, it’s often found as a trace mineral in drinking water. Small amounts of lithium are naturally present in many water sources, but levels of lithium in American drinking water have been increasing for the past 60 years.
In 2021, the USGS released a report that found a median level in US groundwater of 6.9 µg/L. This is almost four times the median level in the 1960s, but looking at nothing but the average obscures the fact that many people are getting exposed to even more. For comparison, the maximum level they found in groundwater was 1700 µg/L, ten times the maximum recorded in 1964.
The USGS also found that about 45% of public-supply wells and about 37% of domestic-supply wells contain concentrations of lithium “that could present a potential human-health risk per the current EPA guidelines”. Here’s how they describe it in the paper:
Lithium concentrations in untreated groundwater from 1464 public-supply wells and 1676 domestic-supply wells distributed across 33 principal aquifers in the United States were evaluated for spatial variations and possible explanatory factors. Concentrations nationwide ranged from <1 to 396 μg/L (median of 8.1) for public supply wells and <1 to 1700 μg/L (median of 6 μg/L) for domestic supply wells. For context, lithium concentrations were compared to a Health Based Screening Level (HBSL, 10 μg/L) and a drinking-water only threshold (60 μg/L). These thresholds were exceeded in 45% and 9% of samples from public-supply wells and in 37% and 6% from domestic-supply wells, respectively.
Lithium is not currently regulated in drinking water, and water quality reports don’t regularly include it. Most water treatment plants do not track lithium or attempt to reduce it. But the EPA and other government agencies are becoming more concerned about lithium exposure, even at the trace levels found in drinking water:
Just this January, lithium was added to the EPA’s proposed Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. The Rule is used by the EPA to collect data for contaminants that are suspected to be present in drinking water and that do not have health-based standards set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Although useful for treating mental health disorders, pharmaceutical use of lithium at all therapeutic dosages can cause adverse health effects—primarily impaired thyroid and kidney function. Presently lithium is not regulated in drinking water in the U.S. The USGS, in collaboration with the EPA, calculated a nonregulatory Health-Based Screening Level (HBSL) for drinking water of 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L) or parts per billion to provide context for evaluating lithium concentrations in groundwater. A second “drinking-water-only” lithium benchmark of 60 µg/L can be used when it is assumed that the only source of lithium exposure is from drinking water (other sources of lithium include eggs, dairy products, and beverages such as soft drinks and beer); this higher benchmark was exceeded in 9% of samples from public-supply wells and in 6% of samples from domestic-supply wells.
But these effects may not always require psychiatric doses. A long-running literature of epidemiological research (meta-analysis, meta-analysis, meta-analysis) suggests that long-term exposure to trace levels of lithium commonly found in drinking water can also have psychiatric effects. Specifically, trace levels in drinking water are often found to be associated with decreased crime, reduced suicide rates, and/or decreased mental hospital admissions.
So people often ask us, how can I get lithium out of my tap water?
For a long time, we weren’t able to answer this question. Until very recently, no one was concerned about lithium levels in drinking water, so there isn’t much research on how to get it out. Heck, back in 2014 the NYT ran an opinion piece arguing that maybe we should start putting lithium in our drinking water. How times have changed.
This is further complicated by the fact that lithium is pretty weird. At an atomic number of only 3, it is the third-lightest and third-smallest element. In some ways it is more like the gasses hydrogen and helium than it is like the metals iron, lead, or mercury, which are much larger and much heavier. This makes it hard to predict whether techniques that can remove other metals would also remove lithium, which is present in solution as an especially tiny ion.
(A favorite “Whoaahhh” fact about Li+ is that it is so small, a bit of electrical energy can make it can creep into the crystal lattices of other compounds and basically just hang out there indefinitely, usually with a bit of swelling of the “host” crystal. It’s kind of like pouring sand into a jar of marbles — lithium is so tiny it can sneak into very small spaces, which is virtually impossible with any other metal ion. The technical term is that it “intercalates” into these materials. Lithium intercalating back and forth between cobalt oxide and graphite, for instance, is the basis of the lithium ion batteries that power virtually every phone and laptop and electric vehicle. There’s an entire field of research focused on making lithium creep into and out of various materials to store energy. People have been trying for a long time to make Na+ do this, since Na+ is so much cheaper and more abundant than Li+, but it’s still way too hard to make any kind of useful battery with an ion as big as Na+.)
To answer the question of how to get lithium out of your drinking water, we set up a project with research nonprofit Whylome to test several commercially-available water filters, the kinds of things you might actually buy for your home, and see how good they are at removing lithium. It’s taken a couple of months of planning, testing, and analysis, but those results are finally ready to share with the world.
This project was funded by generous donations to Whylome from individuals who have asked to remain anonymous. Further support for the research was provided by The Tiny Foundation, which allowed us to expedite several aspects of the research. Special thanks to our funders, Sarah C. Jantzi at the Plasma Chemistry Laboratory at the Center for Applied Isotope Studies UGA for analytical support, and to Whylome for providing general support.
The full report is here, the raw data are here, and the analysis script is here. Those documents give all the technical details. For a more narrative look, read on.
You buy a bunch of normal water filtration devices (henceforth “filters”, even though they’re technically not all filters) from a store, like Home Depot, or online, from places like Amazon. Or online from Home Depot.
You spike large quantities of water with specific amounts of lithium, to get water containing known levels of lithium.
Then, you run the lithium-spiked water through the filters and take samples of the water that comes out the other end.
Finally, you submit that water to chemical analysis and find out how much lithium was removed by each of the filters.
This is basically the perfect garage experiment — except that in this case, filters were tested in the laundry room, not in a garage.
1.1 Water Filtration Devices
To get a sense of the different options available on the market, we elected to test three different types of devices: carbon filters (which are what most people think of when they think of at-home filters); reverse osmosis devices; and electric water distillation stills.
We chose devices from brands that most people have heard of, and models that people tend to buy. If you click through the links below, you’ll see that many of these devices are best-sellers.
Devices were purchased off of Amazon, from the Home Depot, or from their manufacturer, depending on availability. For each device, we also purchased as many extra filters as needed, so that each test could start with clean filters (see the report for more detail).
Carbon Filters — We came into this pretty confident that carbon filters would perform very poorly for lithium removal, despite some nonsense to the contrary floating around the internet (for example, here and here). Carbon has a low affinity for Li+, so we didn’t expect it would pull very much out of the water. Carbon can remove some metals, like lead, by ion exchange — the same principle used in water softeners. But the metals it is good at removing are multivalent (having a charge of +2 or +3 or +4), not +1 like Li+.
Carbon is also known for having noticeable variation between individual filters, because the carbon in question is made from plant material (often coconut). There will be minor variations in the carbon properties between batches, depending on how fast the coconuts were growing that month and minutiae like that. So we went into this expecting that there might be some differences between different filters, even within the same brand and/or model.
Since we expected that carbon filters would probably all suck based on the mechanism of action, and because we expected that there might be noticeable variation, we decided to test several different brands of carbon filters, in multiple configurations (pitcher, on-tap, and under-sink). This is why we tested so many devices and why we got a relatively wide mix of brands and configurations.
This way, if carbon filters are all equally ineffective, it should be very obvious. But if we’re wrong and they’re great, or some are much better than others, we have a good chance of noticing. Carbon filters are also the cheapest and most commonly used filters, another reason to test more of them.
We expected less variation in the other two kinds of devices, so we decided to test two models of each.
Distillation — We expected that distillation machines would work well, but we didn’t know if that was 80% well, 90% well, or 99.9% well. Lithium salts have zero volatility, so when water evaporates and condenses, the lithium should be left behind. The main risk is that droplets of liquid could get caught in the condenser, which could result in some of the original liquid getting into the clean distillate. So a well-designed distillation machine should perform well, but we didn’t know how reliable or well-designed small at-home countertop models would be.
Reverse Osmosis — We were the most uncertain about reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis is very good at removing divalent metal ions (like Ca2+ and Mg2+), and pretty effective at removing monovalent metal ions from tap water (like Na+ and K+), but it wasn’t clear if this pattern would extend to lithium. In some ways Na and K are very similar to lithium — all three are present in water as single-charge positive ions, and all three are the same chemical group, the alkali metals. But lithium is much smaller and lighter than other elements. Na has an atomic number of 11, and K has an atomic number of 19, while Li has an atomic number of only 3.
As a result, we weren’t sure if reverse osmosis would be anywhere near as effective at removing lithium as it is at removing these other contaminants. Maybe reverse osmosis would pull lithium out of the water just like any other ion. Maybe it would miss lithium entirely, because the ion is so small. Or maybe something in between. So we went into this expecting that reverse osmosis might be anywhere from 0% to 100% effective.
1.2 Lithium Spiked Water
For realism, we worked with actual American tap water. In this case, we used tap water from the town of Golden, Colorado. Despite the fact that it was indeed part of the Colorado Gold Rush, Golden, CO is not named after the gold rush or even after gold itself; it is named after some guy named Tom Golden.
Samples of the tap water were spiked with known quantities of “ultra dry” lithium chloride salt to create spiked water samples of known lithium concentration.
We ended up testing four concentrations of lithium: 40, 110, 170, and 1500 µg/L Li+. This covers a range from “starts to be concerning” to “around the highest levels reported in US drinking water”. There’s also a bit more history to these numbers, but we’ll talk about that below.
Each filter was tested at each concentration, and at two timepoints (realistically these are “volumepoints”, but that’s not really a word). The carbon filters and the RO devices were each tested after 10 liters and after 20 liters. The distillation machines were tested at 2 liters and again at 4 liters, since they take a really long time to run.
Analysis was performed by ICP-OES. The instrument used was a Perkin Elmer 8300 ICP-OES, and the limit of detection was 1 µg/L. All analyses were done in triplicate and were submitted in a random order.
The following figure gives an overview of the results. This figure only includes performance at a concentration of 110 µg/L after the first timepoint (2L for distillation, 10L for the others) but the same general pattern holds across pretty much everything:
2.1 Carbon Filters
Carbon filters are lousy at removing lithium, but probably not 0% effective. Most of the time, water contained slightly less lithium coming out of the filter than it did going in. But the carbon filters didn’t do much, and there wasn’t a huge amount of variation between them.
2.2 Reverse Osmosis
Reverse osmosis was shockingly good at removing lithium. Removal was reliably high for all systems, more than 80% for the GE system and consistently above 95% for the APEC system. The result is unequivocal: reverse osmosis works. Reverse osmosis does not, however, drive these concentrations close to zero. RO is good, but if you start with 100 µg/L in your tap water, you might still end up drinking 10 µg/L even after filtration.
In many cases you do end up with less than 10 µg/L after filtration, but if you start with a high concentration, you are still generally getting more lithium than was in the median American water source in 1964 (2 µg/L). The lower your starting lithium, the lower the lithium concentration you are getting out of your RO filter.
Finally, distillation machines are nearly perfect at removing lithium. Lithium levels after distillation were undetectable (<1 µg/L) in most cases, and removal was still >99.5% for the highest concentration (1500 µg/L). Distillation reliably drives any levels you would expect to see in American tap water below the level of detection.
2.4 Long-Term Reverse Osmosis Test
We also decided to do one long-term test of a single system, to check if it kept performing well over a longer period of time, and to see if anything weird happened. We expected that systems would get slightly worse over time, but there might also be a discontinuity, where a system keeps doing well for a while and then suddenly craps out and does much worse. We wanted to see how much decline happened with more use, and check if there was any discontinuity or sudden point of failure.
Carbon filters don’t work very well even straight out of the box, so obviously we didn’t test one of those. RO doesn’t remove lithium from water quite as well as distillation, but it’s faster, cheaper, and much easier to install. Because RO sits at this sweet spot, we decided to test the GE RO device up to 100 liters.
We tested the GE RO device against a concentration of 170 µg/L, and the device continued to do a good job removing lithium even up to 100 L. Performance went down slightly over time, but not enormously. At 10 L, the device removed about 98% of the lithium in the water, and by 100 L, it removed about 89%. We don’t know how well it would perform beyond 100 L, but this finding suggests it would keep doing pretty well but progressively worse over time.
This would be a good topic for further study — run a few RO devices to 1000 L and see what happens. Alternately, you could install a RO device in the home of someone whose tap water is already high in lithium, test its effectiveness once a month, and get a sense of how these devices would perform in a real-world scenario.
The conclusions from this study are, fortunately, pretty straightforward. But on the way to those conclusions, there were a few complications.
3.1 PUR Pitcher
In addition to the six carbon filters mentioned above, we also tested the “PUR Ultimate Filtration 7-Cup Pitcher”. When we ran it through the same procedure as the other filters, we found there was more lithium in the filtered water than in the original water, at all concentrations. Basically it seemed like the PUR pitcher was adding lithium to the water instead of taking it away.
This was confusing and seemed like it might be wrong, so we tried the same pitcher again with a different set of filters. This time we didn’t get the weird result — lithium levels went down when we ran water through the filter, just like normal.
We’re not totally sure why this happened. One possibility is that some of the water evaporated during testing, but letting the water sit for a few days didn’t make a substantial difference compared to filtering rapidly, so this appears unlikely. Another possibility is that there’s meaningful batch-to-batch variation in the lithium content of the filter cartridges. Activated carbon comes from plants (usually coconuts), so conceivably there could be more lithium in some coconuts than in others. If you got unlucky, the carbon might contain a lot of lithium and you would end up adding lithium to the water instead of taking it away.
In any case, this was strange and inconclusive enough that we ended up removing it from the main analysis, but we’re reporting it here just in case. Good cautionary tale about how even a simple measurement is never simple.
3.2 Concentration Complication
We originally planned to test lithium concentrations of 10, 60, 100, and 1000 µg/L.
The reasoning was that 10 and 60 µg/L were the EPA thresholds of interest, and that testing 100 and 1000 µg/L covered two further orders of magnitude while still being realistic — according to the USGS, 4% of groundwater wells in the US contain more than 100 µg/L lithium, and the maximum recorded contained 1700 µg/L.
But two things happened to screw that up.
First, the tap water in Goldengave us a bit of a surprise. Golden is a city in Colorado, and most tap water in Colorado comes from dazzlingly clean snowmelt. Snowmelt should contain almost no lithium (it’s basically been distilled), so we expected that the tap water in Golden would also contain almost no lithium. This assumption was backed up by water quality reports from nearby Denver, CO, which find no lithium in Denver’s water.
But to our surprise, when we started testing samples, we found that they contained more lithium than we spiked them with. We circled back and tested the unspiked tap water, and found that it contained around 20-25 µg/L, an amount that was reliable across several months. If there are seasonal changes, our January-March sampling window wasn’t big enough to detect them.
The local water treatment plant is fed by Clear Creek, so we collected and tested a sample from the creek about 2 miles upstream from the water treatment plant. The creek there has a concentration of 27 µg/L, very similar to the tap water. It appears that water enters the Golden, CO treatment plant at around 25 µg/L, and the treatment process has very little impact on lithium concentration.
At this point we were questioning our assumptions about water sources, so we collected some local snow and tested that too. The snowmelt had barely detectable lithium, less than or equal to 1 µg/L. This confirms our earlier belief that precipitation is generally very low in lithium (at least in Golden, CO).
If it’s not in the snowmelt, the lithium must be coming from somewhere else. This is speculation, but the Clear Creek watershed does include many abandoned mines, some dating way back to the early gold and silver rushes from the 1800s, and there is at least one Superfund site, so old mine tailings are one possibility (see in particular here). One of the towns upstream (Idaho Springs) has natural hot springs with some geothermal activity, so another possibility is that these springs add lithium to Clear Creek along the way. We didn’t find an obvious link for Idaho Springs, but other hot springs in Colorado definitely brag about the lithium content of their water (Denver Post on Orvis Hot Springs: “The resort’s seven pools are laden with lithium…”), so this seems quite plausible.
This suggests that our original assumptions were mostly correct — snowmelt contains little to no lithium, so most drinking water in Colorado should be quite pure. But in this specific case, looking at water drawn from Clear Creek, we ended up with more than we expected. Water coming from one of Colorado’s snowmelt reservoirs, rather from a well or stream, would probably contain a lot less.
In the end, the lithium levels in Golden’s tap water raised the lithium level of all of our samples by about 25 µg/L. We were already halfway through testing when we discovered this, so we decided to continue with these slightly higher concentrations. If anything, it’s a stricter test of the filters.
Second, the lithium salt we used was substantially more potent than the stated strength (i.e. much stronger than expected), which also increased the concentrations we tested.
We used lithium chloride from Fisher Scientific as the lithium spike for all our samples. According to the certificate of analysis, the salt contained a lot of water. But apparently this was not the case. As far as we can tell, the salt appears to have very little water content, so it contains a lot more lithium per weight than expected (about 30% stronger than expected). This caused us to underestimate the amount of lithium in the salt, and as a result, we added more than we meant to. This is why we ended up testing up to 1500 µg/L.
Again, we were already halfway through testing when we discovered this, and decided to forge ahead. Because this error was propagated across all the samples we had submitted, the analysis was still internally consistent. Even though these weren’t the numbers we had set out to study, it doesn’t really matter. Those numbers were arbitrary to begin with; we chose them because we live in a base-10 world. We were still able to compare between filters at realistic concentrations.
Together, these two factors inflated the concentrations we tested, from 10, 60, 100, and 1000 µg/L to 40, 110, 170, and 1500 µg/L. First, the tap water from Golden added 25 µg/L to all the samples. Then, the unusually dry lithium salt inflated the amount added to each sample by around 30%.
Fortunately, this does not seriously impact our results. Filters were consistent across all concentrations, and in the end we covered a very similar range, 60-1500 µg/L instead of 10-1000 µg/L. We’re only really missing an analysis of how well the filters would work at low levels, around 10 µg/L. But RO devices that drive 40 µg/L to around 1 µg/L can also be expected to drive 10 µg/L way down low.
The only thing we would want to revisit in future studies is to test carbon filters at levels close to 10 µg/L; but our best bet is that they don’t do much at those levels either.
We also caught one other problem. During analysis, we found that we made a mistake when mixing four of the concentrations. Twice as much lithium chloride as intended was added to the solutions for the PUR faucet mount at concentrations of 110 and 170 µg/L, and also for the Culligan faucet mount at 110 and 170 µg/L. As a result, these two filters were actually tested against ~210 µg/L and ~325 µg/L instead of the intended 110 and 170 µg/L. You can easily see this error if you look at the tables in the report.
This is unfortunate and does complicate the data, but again it doesn’t seriously change the conclusions. Carbon filters don’t get much lithium out of tap water at any concentration, whether it’s 110, 170, 210, or 325 µg/L. There’s no reason to expect that the PUR and Cullighan faucet mounts would perform differently at these concentrations than at the intended ones — these results fit the overall result, which is that carbon filters aren’t good at removing lithium.
You may not be used to seeing scientific papers talk about mistakes the research team made, or the incorrect assumptions that showed up halfway through the project, or the weird random anomaly that doesn’t have an easy explanation. But the truth is that this is just what research looks like.
Academic researchers are expected to pretend like everything went perfectly and nothing weird happened, but this is not how actual research projects work. In real projects, especially where you’re trying to advance the frontiers of knowledge, you have to take chances, make mistakes, and yes, even get messy.
There are always going to be some accidents in any research project, and instead of sweeping them under the rug and pretending we never make mistakes, we’re going to talk about them. This not only is virtuous, it also puts you (readers) in a better position to form your own opinion about our results. It gives you a better sense of what to expect if you want to replicate or extend our results. And if we didn’t tell you about all the SNAFUs, we’d be giving you the wrong idea about what research is really like.
Obviously we want to avoid mistakes when we can, which is why we use techniques like randomizing sample order and including control samples to help prevent and diagnose mistakes. But this sort of thing happens, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to just publicly say “whoops, our bad”.
If you have the time and money, distillation is the best way to get lithium out of your water. The catch is that distillation is slow: distillation machines usually run at less than 1 liter per hour, a small fraction of the speed of other devices, and consume a lot of energy to get there. Distilling all of your cooking and drinking water with one of these machines would be very slow or very expensive or both.
For the average consumer, reverse osmosis is a much better choice. It’s cheaper and faster, and it works nearly as well as distillation does. For the average American, a RO system will ensure that you end up with less than 10 µg/L in your water, probably much less.
Both of the RO systems we tested were under-sink units, meaning they go under your sink (duh) and create a stream of purified water that is separate from the actual tap. That way you wash your dishes with the high flow rate you’re accustomed to from a faucet, but fill your glass or make pasta with the separate stream of RO-filtered water.
You could also spring for a professional-grade household system that filters all the water that comes into your house, but there are a few complications. First off, while it should work basically the same as these under-sink units, we didn’t actually test a household system. Second, it’s got a much higher upfront cost and it would be more of a pain to install and maintain. Also keep in mind that typically only 20-50% of the water entering the RO unit actually leaves as clean, filtered water; the rest never makes it through the filter membrane and goes down the drain. Throwing away that much water for things like showering or washing your car would mean a lot of wasted water.
Finally, a whole-house RO system typically needs to be accompanied by a water softener, and we’re not sure if water softeners contain lithium or not. Water softeners operate by ion exchange, exchanging one Ca2+ or Mg2+ ion for two Na+ ions. You “regenerate” the system every so often by dumping a big bag of rock salt (NaCl or occasionally KCl) into the “brine tank”, which displaces the Ca/Mg off of the ion exchanger. If the salt being used for regeneration contains lithium, it would make its way into the drinking water just as readily as Na+. We haven’t tested any water-softening salt yet (though we might at some point), but we did test table salt as part of another project, and that definitely contains some lithium.
Because of this, it’s not clear whether you’d end up drinking more or less lithium if you install a household RO system with a water softener. If you’re using a water softener without a RO system, you’re probably adding some lithium to your water, though we’re not sure how much.
If you purchase water that was treated by RO or distillation (as many bottled waters are), it’s probably very low in lithium. But the catch here is that many companies put minerals back in, because pure water actually tastes kind of flat and metallic. Aquafina, for example, is first purified through RO before putting a pinch of salt back in for taste. If the pinch of salt contains lithium, you’re back to square one.
Thanks again to our anonymous donors, the Tiny Foundation, Sarah Jantzi, and Whylome for supporting this research. Finally, thank you for reading!
Eukaryote Writes Blog reviews the book Barriers to Bioweapons (an old review actually, from 2017). Among many other things: “the book also relays an anecdote from Shoko Ashara, the head of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, who after its bioterrorism project failure ‘speculat[ed] that U.S. assessments of the risk of biological terrorism were designed to mislead terrorist groups into pursuing such weapons.’”
The comment from user left_the_center on this NY Mag piece — “‘Quiet quitting’, ‘cancel culture’, ‘identity politics’ – these are all press-ready phrases designed to stir up disingenuous debates that center responsibility for bad systems on the people subject to those systems.” Whether or not you agree with the conclusion, it highlights how so much culture war is based around attempts to reframe things without drawing attention to the reframing.
Rambling essay on don’t read the news / talk about risk in order to act, don’t just complain / Pets.com was good, actually / “modern especially western societies is multiple generations of people not asking themselves if things are good or bad and instead asking if things are legal or illegal.” Roundabout in places but a good attempt to point at some pretty common brainworms.
Vampire Survivors Success: An opportunity in the Steam marketplace. The essay is theoretically about games, but the design lessons are good in general – “Ryanair has figured out that the only thing people really, truly, care about is getting from one spot to the next safely and cheaply. People complain about the lack of amenities but in reality, passengers actually care more about the price. That is why Ryanair focuses EVERYTHING they have on those things: getting people to where they need to go safely, cheaply, and on time. To hell with everything else. “
We haven’t confirmed any of these claims, but check out this thread on the history of the atomic bomb. “The timing of the bombs was not due to any strategic or political calculus. It came down to the weather — an operational choice. The people on Tinian dropped a second bomb because they had a second bomb ready to go, and because their strike order was open-ended. … many of the military-operational types didn’t think one or two bombs would cause Japan to surrender anyway … General Marshall was having his people think about how to use the bombs in conjunction with an invasion — imagining a world in which they might have an atomic bomb to use every 10 days or so … they had a pipeline that they thought could make 3.5 atomic bombs per month, and the military wanted to use them.”
The US Air Force built a fake town in the middle of the Arizona desert to practice bombing, and they named it “Yodaville”. Surprisingly this town does not seem to have been named after the Star Wars character — it was named after the call sign of the guy who had the idea of making a fake bombing-target town in the first place, though his call sign presumably came from the Star Wars character.
Large pieces of space junk land in a field in Australia. “I think it’s a concern it’s just fallen out of the sky,” says a local. “If it landed on your house it would make a hell of a mess.” Also: “I’m a farmer from Dalgety, what am I going to say to NASA?”
Gods of Salt — Uh, claims? About what you would expect from a theory of history posted on DeviantArt, but a pretty good read nonetheless.
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his provisional constitution is available online.
John Brown is best known for fighting to end American slavery. Born in 1800 and raised around abolitionists, ending slavery was a religious conviction for Brown, who came to believe that he was “an instrument of God” put on earth for this very purpose. From the 1820s on Brown was seriously involved in the Underground Railroad, but in the 1840s he became frustrated by their lack of progress, and formed his own, more militant version of the Underground Railroad, the Subterranean Pass Way. By 1856, Brown and his sons were out in Kansas, killing pro-slavery border ruffians as part of Bleeding Kansas.
This all culminated in a daring raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Brown’s plan was to take the armory and use the captured weapons to arm former slaves, carrying out future raids deeper and deeper into the South, freeing and arming more slaves every time. The plan originally called for 4,500 men to lead the attack, but on the day of the raid, Brown found himself with only 21. He went ahead with the plan anyway.
The raid went well at first, but eventually the US Marines showed up (under the command of Robert E. Lee, of all people!) and took back the armory. John Brown was captured, tried, and hanged. He became a martyr to the abolitionist cause, and in the Civil War a few years later, Union soldiers marched to the new song John Brown’s Body, which eventually mutated into such forms as the Battle Hymn of the Republic — or if you are a schoolchild, The Burning of the School.
But before his untimely end, he put together a provisional constitution.
It’s not really clear what the provisional constitution was for. Even at the time, people weren’t sure what to make of it. Brown’s lawyer introduced the provisional constitution at his trial as evidence that Brown must be insane, calling the provisional constitution “ridiculous nonsense–a wild, chimerical production” that “could only be produced by men of unsound minds.” Naturally, Brown disagreed.
Some people have suggested that it was intended to be the constitution of a new anti-slavery state in the Appalachian Mountains, where West Virginia ended up being. But the provisional constitution itself makes it pretty clear that it is intended for, or at least open to admitting, all citizens of the United States.
It might be a constitution for Brown’s new, more hardcore Underground Railroad, his Subterranean Pass Way. By some accounts it was written while Brown was a guest of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York (the two men had been uneasy friends for more than a decade). In May 1858 he met with Railroad leaders, including Harriet Tubman, in Chatham, Ontario, and it was there that he held a constitutional convention. But the provisional constitution describes the rules for a government, not a secret society.
Most likely, the provisional constitution was meant as a stopgap solution to a major point of contention among abolitionists. Brown and other abolitionists were fervent, one might even say crazed patriots, and they loved America. But hating slavery and loving America had a problem, and that problem was the US Constitution. In the eyes of many abolitionists, at least, the US Constitution sanctioned slavery, and that was unacceptable.
Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison took the most extreme position — he called the US Constitution “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth” and promoted a philosophy sometimes called “no-governmentism”, which is about what it sounds like. This led to a schism in the abolitionist movement, between people who accepted the US Constitution mostly as it was, and people who thought it was a covenant with death.
This may seem a little hysterical to modern ears, but it makes sense given what was going on at the time. In 1857, the Supreme Court made a decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, ruling quite explicitly that, because of the way the US Constitution was constructed, the descendents of slaves could not be US citizens. “A free negro of the African race,” reads the transcript, “whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States. … The change in public opinion and feeling in relation to the African race, which has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution, cannot change its construction and meaning, and it must be construct and administered now according to its true meaning and intention when it was formed and adopted.”
The majority opinion in the case said:
The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied [sic] by that instrument to the citizen? … they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.
The two dissenting justices made strong cases that this argument was ahistorical and not, in fact, in line with constitutional law. But coming on the heels of this decision, it’s easy to see why many abolitionists couldn’t get behind the US Constitution.
So one possibility is that Brown got up his provisional constitution in an effort to bypass this schism, or because Garrison had convinced him that the US Constitution had to go. Garrison was firmly anti-violence, so the two men did not exactly see eye to eye; though Garrison sort of came around to Brown’s position in the end. And Thoreau wrote of Brown that, “I should say that he was an old-fashioned man in his respect for the Constitution, and his faith in the permanence of this Union.” The hope might have been that even if the abolitionists could not all agree on the US Constitution, they could agree on a provisional one in the meantime, and put off the decision of whether or not to replace the US Constitution until after slavery was defeated.
In any case, Brown’s provisional constitution gives us a glimpse into his thinking and what kind of political philosopher he was, so it’s worth taking a look. (Brown himself would like this — “I wish you would give that paper close attention,” he said of his provisional constitution during the questioning after his capture.)
Tip My Hat to the New Constitution
The provisional constitution is made up of a short preamble and 48 articles. The preamble starts by condemning slavery and ends in the second paragraph by declaring, “we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions.”
The first few articles concern the design for a system of government, with the expected executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Compared to the US federal government, though, it seems quite small. Only one chamber of Congress, and that composed only of “not less than five nor more than ten members.” A Supreme Court of only five justices, chosen by direct election to three-year terms, just like the President and Vice-President.
Articles 13 to 15 provide brief and explicit instructions for how to try and impeach any member of government, including Supreme Court justices. Perhaps Brown was thinking of the Dred Scott case.
It’s easy to see how the provisional constitution could be construed as treasonous, since it does provide for an entirely new form of government. But John Brown eventually gets around to addressing this explicitly in the third-to-last article:
These articles not for the overthrow of government.
The foregoing articles shall not be construed so as in any way to encourage the overthrow of any State government, or of the general government of the United States, and look to no dissolution of the Union, but simply to amendment and repeal. And our flag shall be the same that our fathers fought under in the Revolution.
On the other hand, the provisional constitution does mention “the limits secured by this organization”, suggesting that the organization would be taking territory from someone. And the provisional constitution does seem written with warfare against slavery particularly in mind. Several articles are devoted to the organization, rules, and duties of the military, including what to do with prisoners and with “all money, plate, watches, or jewelry captured by honorable warfare, found, taken, or confiscated, belonging to the enemy.” There are also these articles:
All persons who may come forward, and shall voluntarily deliver up their slaves, and have their names registered on the books of the organization, shall, so long as they continue at peace, be entitled to the fullest protection of person and property, though not connected with this organization, and shall be treated as friends and not merely as persons neutral.
The persons and property of all non-slaveholders, who shall remain absolutely neutral, shall be respected so far as the circumstances can allow of it, but they shall not be entitled to any active protection.
At times, Brown gets a little bogged down in the weeds, especially on religious issues. He gets into it enough to devote several whole articles to forbidding behaviors which, we imagine, he must personally have had strong feelings about, the sorts of things not normally included in a constitution:
It shall be the duty of Congress to provide for the instant removal of any civil officer or policeman, who becomes habitually intoxicated, or who is addicted to other immoral conduct, or to any neglect or unfaithfulness in the discharge of his official duties.
No needless waste.
The needless waste or destruction of any useful property or article by fire, throwing open of fences, fields, buildings, or needless killing of animals, or injury of either, shall not be tolerated at any time or place, but shall be promptly and properly punished.
Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, or indecent exposure of the person, or intoxication or quarreling, shall not be allowed or tolerated, neither unlawful intercourse of the sexes.
The marriage relation, schools, the Sabbath.
The marriage relation shall be at all times respected, and families kept together, as far as possible; and broken families encouraged to reunite, and intelligence offices established for that purpose. Schools and churches established, as soon as may be, for the purpose of religious and other instructions; for the first day of the week, regarded as a day of rest, and appropriated to moral and religious instruction and improvement, relief of the suffering, instruction of the young and ignorant, and the encouragement of personal cleanliness; nor shall any persons be required on that day to perform ordinary manual labor, unless in extremely urgent cases.
That said, sometimes getting into the weeds on specific issues is all right. Section 41, on “crimes”, actually lists only one crime, but it’s a strong choice. The entire text of the Section 41 is:
Persons convicted of the forcible violation of any female prisoner shall be put to death.
Brown’s reputation as a “.44 caliber abolitionist” seems pretty well-deserved in the light of the last few articles, where he encourages open carry for everyone, men and women alike:
Carry arms openly.
All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly.
It’s especially interesting, though, that he stresses the open part of open carry. Concealed weapons were to be the exclusive domain of policemen, officers of the army, and… mail carriers:
No person to carry concealed weapons.
No person within the limits of the conquered territory, except regularly appointed policemen, express officers of the army, mail carriers, or other fully accredited messengers of the Congress, President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, or commissioned officers of the army-and those only under peculiar circumstances-shall be allowed at any time to carry concealed weapons; and any person not specially authorized so to do, who shall be found so doing, shall be deemed a suspicious person, and may at once be arrested by any officer, soldier, or citizen, without the formality of a complaint or warrant, and may at once be subjected to thorough search, and shall have his or her case thoroughly investigated, and be dealt with as circumstances on proof shall require.
On its own merits, the provisional constitution is not so radical, not even all that nutty. It provides for a normal state, with the normal branches of government, and most of the articles have to do with basic stuff like how people get elected and who is allowed to sign what treaties. The religious bent is a tad unusual, the violent abolition angle is pretty exciting/terrifying, but paragraph to paragraph it reads like any other constitution.
But in another way, the provisional constitution is affirming one of the deepest and most radical privileges inherent to being an American. Being an American entitles you to be an amateur political scientist, to speculate on strange new forms of government, and if needs be, to write your own damn constitution in defense of new forms of freedom, just like they did in 1776.
There is a dimension of imagination beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. There’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop, SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD brings you a horrifying vision, of a future where CRIME is LAW.
You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. Witness a theoretical argument. A friendly debate around a simple issue: can a human being uphold society by breaking the law? It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen, it’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of good will that it never shall happen. But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.
wellogro: Welcome back to Glory Glory Hallelujah, a podcast about doing great crimes.
This is part two of the transcript of my interview with Scarpia, dugong_narwhal, and the author of the blog AD Ancien Hal Unsung, three leaders of the effective illegalism movement, as much as it has leaders.
How do you Handle a Big Tent?
wellogro: Something I’ve always wondered about is, how do you keep your big coalition together? Effective illegalism attracts lots of liberals and conservatives and puts them in the same community together, how do you keep that from blowing up?
dugong_narwhal: Well the nature or, the fact that we’re all coming here together to do the same thing really helps, and the thing we’re coming together to do is of course to find the best crimes, and then execute on them. That really helps people stay focused — we’re always starting from a place of, what laws do we all think are bad, bad for us and bad for society? And then we say, ok, what are the best, safest ways to break those laws?
It’s definitely interesting how people who would have a hard time agreeing on what laws to pass have very little trouble agreeing on what laws to break.
ADAHU: Plenty of subcultures have their own versions of illegalism, and it’s surprisingly easy to draw them together into a syncretic vision of civil resistance. A great example is the queer community, which has the slogan Be Gay, Do Crime. In the beginning this was more of a joke, but younger queer people who were raised with the slogan have come to see it as a totally natural idea, and are ready to commit crimes that they think are important.
Scarpia: It’s kind of strange, I think most subcultures used to have more explicit norms about civil disobedience. Punks used to fight cops, stoners obviously are a subculture centered around an illegal hobby. Being gay was itself illegal in many parts of the US until quite recently, and is still illegal in some countries. Folk and country singer-songwriters recognize that it can be necessary to take justice into your own hands in response to domestic abuse — for example Carrie Underwood’s Church Bells or The Chicks’ Goodbye Earl.
Modern subcultures for some reason tend to be much less explicit about their willingness to resist, but it’s still there, and you can get people to see eye-to-eye pretty quickly when you point out their shared beliefs.
ADAHU: Yeah, some people think that the law-and-order divide is inherently liberal versus conservative. These people have clearly never seen an episode of Dukes of Hazzard. The main characters drive a Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag on the top that is literally named the General Lee, and their constant foe is the sheriff and his officers. Almost every episode ends with the police cars crashing and the cops being embarrassed. Conservatives don’t have an inherent alignment with the law any more than liberals do.
dugong_narwhal: The fact that most people are pseudonymous really helps. You might be a socialist sitting across the table from a neoconservative, but because he goes by “Brass Trash” and you go by “Piranha1980”, you don’t know that you theoretically are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Both of you think that we should have good public infrastructure, so both of you are pretty happy with the idea of breaking into the subway system at night and doing illegal maintenance on the trains.
Scarpia: And those pseudonyms may not be fixed to a particular political viewpoint. Lots of people outside the movement don’t understand this, but many pseudonyms are multiple different people. Some pseudonyms are four or five different people. We call this DPR’ing.
ADAHU: Dread Pirate Roberts.
wellogro: Oh! [laughs]
Scarpia: There are even some pseudonyms that were never attached to a single person in the first place. Like, I’m pretty sure Malus was never one guy, I think it’s a pseudonym that lots of people have picked up and used at one time or another.
dugong_narwhal: Yeah, at the conference in Chicago a few years ago I saw three different people whose nametag was “Unofficial Entire Society”. All of them claimed not to know that there were other people using that moniker at the conference. Well, two of them did, the third threw her drink at me and started running.
wellogro: Don’t people get upset at other people using their pseudonym?
Scarpia: Not really? Most people figure that it’s added protection against anyone trying to find out who they are. If someone borrows your pseudonym, it makes you that much harder to track down, and it makes it harder to pin any specific crimes on you.
It’s also just considered bad practice to use someone’s pseudonym without permission. But if you do, it’s mostly seen as a complement.
ADAHU: I’m more concerned about lack of accountability. One nice thing about using consistent pseudonyms is that you can develop a reputation, even though it’s not attached to your legal name. That helps us figure out who to trust, who’s a reliable thinker and planner, and who might be bad news. If people share pseudonyms, that can undermine the trust we’ve built.
Scarpia: This is something that concerns me too, but overall I have to say it hasn’t been much of a problem. Some pseudonyms are reliable and develop a positive reputation. Some pseudonyms are unreliable — maybe because they’re shared by a large group, maybe it’s one unreliable person, who knows — and develop a reputation of being unreliable.
Roots of Effective Illegalism
wellogro: One thing I’m really curious to get from this group is the long-term perspective. I only became aware of effective illegalism a few years ago, but all of you were part of it from the beginning, or near the beginning. What was that like, and from your perspective, where did these ideas come from?
ADAHU: The term illegalism comes from 1900s-era anarchist movements, but effective illegalism bears no more relation to these ideas than the Gates Foundation does to Rockefeller-era philanthropy. Effective illegalists don’t generally see theft and burglary as good crimes, and most of us don’t identify as anarchists. The average effective illegalist has never heard of Clément Duval and would be appalled by his actions. It’s more that there was already a name for organized law-breaking and it stuck. You could equally have called it effective civil disobedience but I guess that’s not as catchy.
I think it was a few things coming together at the right time. People trying and failing to work within the system. People becoming disillusioned with law and order approaches, either through seeing them fail, or things like becoming disillusioned with institutions like the Supreme Court.
And of course, better access to information and connection through the internet accelerates all of this.
Scarpia: I agree it was kind of a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back thing. In the beginning, so to speak, it seemed like you could do good by straightforward methods like curing disease and educating orphans. But over time people got disillusioned. There was a sense of frustration as people started coming up with more and more convoluted plans in the pursuit of doing good. It started feeling like it shouldn’t be this hard to make a positive impact on the world.
One good example is charter cities. Frequently the idea with charter cities is that government regulation wherever you live sucks, so you need to start your own government somewhere else. You might want medical reciprocity, where you let doctors from developed nations like Japan and Britain practice medicine in other countries. Or you might want drug approval reciprocity, where any drug approved by the EU is also approved wherever you live. The US doesn’t have either of these very reasonable policies, so some people tried to make charter cities which did have these policies. But alternatively, you could just break the rules and not need to go through the trouble of building a whole new city in Honduras.
There are a lot of stories like this, not just charter cities and not just in medical policy. Eventually we were like, it would actually just be easier to break the law.
Thomas Kuhn thought of paradigm shifts as a process that kicks in as more and more junk piles up. Contradictions to the current paradigm come in, someone happens to be in the right place at the right time to notice, everyone agonizes over them for a while, and at some point the friction becomes unbearable and everything does some inversion deemed impossible by consensus wisdom and now you have a new paradigm. Something similar happened with efforts to make the world a better place. Enigmas related to government regulation piled up higher and higher, people gnashed their teeth for a bit, tried to make some new cities, and then someone (no idea who) was like, well why don’t we just break the law instead? And effective illegalism was born.
dugong_narwhal: There’s a certain kind of person who finds working within the system really seductive. These people are happy to toss around clever ideas and play within the rules, and get a real kick out of looking for loopholes and workarounds. This describes a lot of programmers and engineers, but also like academics, or even just people who did well in school.
It takes a certain kind of shock to break these people out of their, I dunno, law-addled haze or whatever. And I think it took time because we had to wait for many individual stories, individual cases of these people to have good ideas about how to work within the system, and see their clever ideas for workarounds and loopholes get crushed by mindless bureaucrats and inconsistently implemented regulations. Lots of us, myself included, had to get our faces pressed up against the pavement before we realized, oh, it doesn’t matter how clever I am, working within the system actually doesn’t work for some of these problems! And it just took some time for a critical mass of people to have that experience.
ADAHU: Despite what we’ve said, and I agree with the others, it’s not all internal. There’s also an element of how it takes some time to realize that there are actually many laws that nobody cares about, that aren’t actually enforced that strictly, et cetera.
It takes a few rounds of seeing someone do a crime, thinking “oh shit they’re gonna get busted”, and then watching how no one even shows up to pretend to enforce things, to realize how free you actually are. It lets you realize the degree to which no one else actually cares about that law, so why would you follow it?
dugong_narwhal: Yeah, being in trouble is a fake idea.
Congress should fix this problem, and they could, but they don’t. I don’t even care why they don’t anymore. People started noticing that directly helping immigration can be a huge intervention, and that one way almost any American can help is by marrying a foreigner to give them a green card. Immigration officials do keep an eye out for this sort of thing, but security is tighter in some places than in others, and with some planning it’s not hard to convince them you’re a real couple. Or if you’re more scrupulous, Americans can go out of their way to date and actually marry foreigners, it ends up having the same effect.
If you think immigration is important, it doesn’t take much math to see that you can have 100x the impact by marrying a foreigner than by donating to congress or lobbying. Then it’s just a question of the tradeoff against breaking the law, or bending it really, marriage isn’t illegal. Most of us decided the exchange rate was pretty good.
Why Start with Crimes?
wellogro: This question might be too simple but I figured you all would have interesting thoughts on it, but why start with illegal actions? What would you say to someone who asked you why you don’t start with legal methods in your quest to make the world a better place?
Scarpia: There’s an element of, not to sound too cliché but I’m serious, there’s an element of freeing your mind. Once you let go of the block of breaking the law, all sorts of things become possible
Scarpia: I’m not even against laws in general. It’s an issue of, the dose makes the poison, right? A community with some laws is good, because they make for, you know they provide an agreed-upon standard. But too many laws is paralytic. There’s a dose where it stops being good for you, right? If I want to do medical research at home, that might be illegal. Or actually, worse, I may not know if it’s illegal or not. And how do I find out? You can pay a lawyer but often they tell you that no one knows — you just have to try it and see if you get sued or arrested.
Or if I see someone getting mugged, or I’m in a restaurant and someone is having a heart attack and I could step in and perform CPR. I don’t know if it’s legal or not to step in. So we go from having these brave pro-social impulses of, I should help, I should get involved — the sort of thing I think we should praise and encourage — to a system where we’re always second-guessing ourselves. Will there be consequences if I save this person’s life?
Sometimes there are specific carveouts, like Good Samaritan laws for administering naloxone to someone who overdosed on opioids, but these laws vary between states and have limited scope. Regular people aren’t necessarily going to know exactly what the law says most of the time. The average American is at a 7th or 8th grade reading level, so even if they do look up the exact language of the relevant statutes, there’s a good chance they’ll have a hard time interpreting something that was written by a committee of lawyers who spent 19+ years in formal schooling.
So the negative effects on society are much larger than they appear, because living in a society with too many laws makes everyone anxious and cautious, instead of being bold problem-solvers who are willing to take risks to improve the world.
dugong_narwhal: I agree with all that, and also, who says we didn’t start with legal methods? You’re not seeing where we started out, you’re seeing where we ended up. And for my own part I’ll say I still do a lot of things on the legal side to improve my community. I just reached a point where I realized that if I wanted to do the MOST good I could, I would have to start committing some crimes.
Scarpia also makes a great point about how difficult it can be to figure out whether an action is “legal” or not to begin with. I’d add that there are also many cases where something isn’t exactly a crime, it’s more of a loophole. In some states where you’re allowed to grow weed for personal use, you can’t sell what you grow but you can give it away. If you sold, say, an overpriced sticker or charged for your time as a “consultant” and then include some weed or a clone as a gift with purchase, that’s not really illegal. So the attitude of effective illegalism isn’t just saying here’s a clear line in the sand and I’m choosing to cross it, it’s also about recognizing the extent to which the law is not only selectively enforced but also just not that clear to begin with.
ADAHU: I find questions about “working within the law” really frustrating. The crimes effective illegalists commit are much less extreme than the crimes committed by folk heroes like Zorro or Robin Hood. If you think robbing from the rich to feed the poor is a good idea, you should be on board with a lot of even less harmful crimes. For the most part we want to do things that people really strongly approve of, things the average person wants to see, and the only thing in our way is that they’re technically illegal, though often in a way where the police can’t be bothered to stop us even if they find out.
wellogro: Illegalism gets a lot of criticism from outside, but I feel like I don’t hear a lot of criticism from within. But you’re all in a good position to criticize, what do you think effective illegalism could do better?
ADAHU: Our focus on American laws and the Anglosphere in general is, I think, pretty embarrassing. Countries like Saudi Arabia, just as an example, have some very bad laws that should be resisted. I understand the benefit of doing praxis in your backyard but I think we could also do more to fight unjust laws worldwide, by supporting illegalist movements in countries that are more oppressive.
dugong_narwhal: We need to try more things and take more risks. We found a few good crimes in the beginning and now we tend to just milk those same ideas over and over. But there are lots of audacious crimes out there that we haven’t cottoned on to and it’s worth taking on some extra risk to find out what they are. There are also a lot of ideas that most people in the movement think of as duds, but I think lots of them could be viable if we figure out better approaches. So yeah even for a movement that sees itself as audacious, I think we could be a lot more audacious.
Scarpia: Call me crazy but I don’t think we could be doing anything any better. This was a risky project from the start and the fact that we have had any success at all is enormously encouraging. If we can keep on at this pace for another decade, or even half this pace, I think that will be very impressive.
Favorite EI Sources
wellogro: Do you have any particular favorite effective illegalism sources — you know, blogs and podcasts?
Scarpia: Well, Honest Fiction is a long-time favorite, that should come as no surprise. I love The Wind and Stars, do you know that one?
wellogro: No? Is it new?
Scarpia: I don’t think so. I guess it’s kind of niche. It appeals to my interest in the logistical side of illegalism. Fort Wroth is pretty new, and while the proposals they make are on the extreme side, they’re at least totally committed to nonviolence and it’s thought-provoking. I have mixed feelings about Bungle Bungle Bungle and Dark Mind of Murderous Courage.
dugong_narwhal: I mostly follow longer-form blogs like Cayenne Halt Fils and Deep Gallon Oliver, also sometimes Breaking New Ground.
There’s one podcast I follow, If It’s Not Love, which is unusual for illegalism in that it is kind of a doomer podcast, but it tempers that with a focus on building community. So I guess it’s like optimistic doomer. I also liked the recent coverage from Crime 299 but I have to admit I haven’t listened to any of their back catalog.
ADAHU:Roses for Rats is a new blog a lot of people are following. Everyone thinks it’s a Flowers for Algernon reference but I think it’s actually a play on the White Rose Society.
I also really like Fell Chaya Tennis, which takes a kind of weird tack — she doesn’t write at all about the present, I’ve noticed, only about illegalism’s past or visions for its future. I think that’s really interesting, though I don’t know why she does that or even if it’s intentional.
I don’t know if Katya Mykula’s writing counts but I find it hugely influential. Some people have speculated that I might be Katya, which is flattering but I’m sorry to admit is untrue.
Favorite Kind of Illegalism
wellogro: Ok, to end, I want to ask you all, what is your favorite kind of illegalism?
Scarpia: I’m really happy with what illegalism has done for healthcare. This is something we mostly don’t talk about, and there are strategic reasons for that. Healthcare illegalism involves a lot of doctors and pharmacists breaking the law in ways that risk their medical licenses and other credentials, and so we don’t want to draw too much attention to the details of this success. But in the abstract I can say, we give out a lot of low-cost illegal medical care, we prescribe important drugs that people might otherwise be unable to get, and we illegally train people to treat illness and injury so that they can go out and practice medicine without a license on their own, so they don’t have to rely on us.
But all of this is kind of palliative. It helps individual people but the rest of the healthcare system still sucks, and thousands of people die because of muck-ups at the FDA. I want to see us do even more, and I think we’re on track to actually revolutionize healthcare in the next decade.
Here’s one example I’m very into. Biohackers with diabetes have been making their own insulin since 2015, and now illegalists are supporting similar efforts at a larger scale. The procedures to make insulin, and many other drugs and treatments, are not a mystery. Many of the patents are expired. Anyone with the right knowledge and equipment can sit down at a lab bench and make it happen.
This country could have factories pumping out high-quality generics, except that these factories are so hard to start, that they are de facto illegal. So we say, sure, we’ll just make illegal factories then.
It’s not like there is some special juice that makes Novo Nordisk drugs safe and reliable. They’re made in a lab, with equipment you can buy on the open market, by people with specific training. We buy and use the exact same equipment they use. Our labs are set up in exactly the same ways. Our technicians are educated at the same ivy-league universities; sometimes the technicians are people we’ve poached from the pharma companies, doing the same work they did there, making the same drugs! Our safety protocols are the same, sometimes better. The only difference is we don’t have the “right” papers from the FDA. We don’t wait for approval from an authority figure before doing good.
ADAHU: This is still a long shot but I’m optimistic that illegalism can help with the energy and climate crisis. Nuclear power is clean and safe, and while the legal side of things is perpetually tied up in red tape, there are a lot of borderline illegal and straight-up illegal things we can do to help.
Legal approaches to promoting nuclear power have not been very effective so far. People should definitely keep trying, but in the near-term we need something more direct. So a lot of us are looking for things we can do to make it easier to use nuclear power and harder to use other forms of power.
On the promotion side, we can do things to grease the skids, even things as simple as bribing officials to fast-track approvals on new nuclear plants. Can we build our own, illegal nuclear power plants and plug them into the grid? Can we fund research teams to invent new kinds of reactors? Hard to say right now, but I can tell you, people are looking into it.
On the prevention side, we can do things to make it more costly to use other forms of power. Any time a new coal or natural gas plant is getting built, we should get in the way as much as possible.
Blowing up existing power plants and pipelines is a bad idea. We don’t want to cause that kind of damage, and keeping thousands of people without power would be really bad for public support. But if we manage to shut down a coal power plant for a few hours every month, if we increase their repair bill by enough, we can make it so expensive to run these power plants that other forms of power look much more attractive. And there are lots of ways to increase repair costs without blowing anything up.
This is definitely one of the hardest forms of illegalism, and I understand why many people are hesitant to support an approach that sometimes borders on ecoterrorism. But energy is really important and I think there’s a lot we can do here if we’re willing to bend the law even a little.
dugong_narwhal: I’m oldschool, I still think intellectual property illegalism is the most exciting part of the movement. I don’t just mean pirating. It’s definitely fun to torrent a blockbuster movie but it’s probably not actually all that good for the economy. But a movement to make the de facto copyright period 20 years or so seems like a great idea.
People should be able to profit off of their creations, so I do support copyright law in general. But I don’t think anything from before 2000 should still be under copyright.
This is one of the easiest forms of illegalism, one where we might be able to achieve complete victory, even in the face of government interference. Most people already support it. Many people have even helped do it. Anyone who has pirated movies or music has already broken these laws.
You could make a strong argument that people behind projects like The Pirate Bay are real early heroes of the modern illegalist movement. The most effective illegalist of the 21st century is probably Alexandra Elbakyan, who founded Sci-Hub. There’s an even stronger case for sharing research papers than there is for pirating movies — research, especially publicly-funded research, should be free immediately.
And the roots are probably even deeper — all this is kind of a modern form of samizdat, the dissident at-home publication of censored materials.
wellogro: Thank you all so much. As usual, I’d like to end the podcast with a short poetry reading. For today, ADAHU has selected the first stanza of Lowell’s The Present Crisis.
When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west, And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.
Post from the blog Deep Gallon Oliver, August 16, 20XX
Effective illegalism is the movement devoted to finding the highest-impact criminal methods to help other people and the world. Philosopher Katya Mykula described it as “doing for the pursuit of civil disobedience what the Scientific Revolution did for the pursuit of truth”.
The illegalists have a global conference about once a year to touch base and discuss strategy. In the early years of the movement, this was fine and normal and no one gave us much trouble. But in recent years effective illegalism has gotten more attention and now local law enforcement and similar groups often try to, uh, interfere with the conference.
After the fiasco a few years ago in Nashville, the conference organizers have coordinated a campaign of misinformation to keep us from all getting arrested. So apologies to those of you who ended up in Baltimore, Fort Worth, Stockton, or Tempe. The actual conference this year was in Spokane, WA. Unless I’m lying to you as part of the misinformation campaign. Which I might be.
The official conference theme was “Doing Crime Together”. The official conference interaction style was “pseudonymous”. The official conference illegalism level was “very”.
One of the breakout rooms had all-day career coaching sessions with Careers for Crimes (motto: “You can develop important criminal skills at your day job.”). A steady stream of college students went in, chatted with a group of coaches, and came out knowing that the latest analyses show that becoming a doctor or a pharmacist is a useful path to build crime-relevant skills, but gaining a law degree is probably less useful than previously believed. They also put out a report on their progress this year, but I got a copy and all it says is “YOU’LL NEVER TAKE US ALIVE” in 120 point font.
The theater hosted a “fireside chat” with violetfjeschl, who wore an oni mask and an oversized puffy winter jacket and never took either of them off. She’s director of the economic-growth-maximialist “Carson Wolves” group. I went in with some stereotypes but violetfjeschl started by admitting that while health codes and permits can be good, in many places the cost of starting a restaurant, grocery story, coffeeshop, or even just a barbershop are entirely beyond the means of most people. This is bad because most people need restaurants and grocery stores and would like to see more of them. She had some persuasive arguments for why overpermitting was slowing down economic growth, and how this explains why we see exceptional growth in software and other tech small businesses, which aren’t as location-limited as other small businesses and (so far) don’t face the same kinds of stifling regulations.
Her tactic is to coach local entrepreneurs in how to avoid getting noticed by regulators (turns out this is not very hard, the regulators are not driving around knocking down doors and the police usually can’t be bothered to shut down your illegal coffeeshop as long as they’re not getting tons of complaints), and give them small business loans that they wouldn’t be able to get through legal channels, since their businesses don’t officially exist.
She handled questions from the audience about whether the Carson Wolves were a gang with typical good humor, pointing out that the small businesses don’t have to pay them protection and insurance money if they don’t want to, but that most choose to, since they can’t get normal insurance or go to the police in a crisis. Personally I favor the creation of multiple extralegal insurance companies so that there can be normal market competition, and so that we don’t see these kinds of conflicts of interest.
Afterwards a bunch of us walked to an illegal restaurant a few blocks down the street, the vanguard of this brave new future, and none of us got food poisoning.
But walk a little bit outside of the talks, or linger in the common areas a little bit after you finish your box lunch (stolen from the offices of a Fortune 500 company), and you run into the shadow side of all of this. You might think that doing organized crime, even for good, is the underbelly of civilized society. Well, I’m here to tell you about the hidden underbelly of the underbelly.
Effective illegalism started with “I wonder if some things that are illegal would be good for society”. But even at this early stage, it’s gotten to some pretty weird places.
One thing I was surprised to learn is that many of effective illegalism’s most prominent public critics are themselves effective illegalists. Some reporters, an author, a major YouTuber, and a college professor whose name you would definitely recognize — all of them are big public critics of the movement, but all of them are secretly illegalists, all as part of a strategy to define the conversation. Unless I’m lying to you as part of a strategy to undermine our critics. Which I might be.
Double agents for crime were nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global.
You’re probably not surprised to hear that there were sessions on how to avoid getting arrested, how to talk with the police, and how to get police to support the movement. But you might be surprised to learn that most of these sessions were led by cops. In fact, one of the sessions was a police officer lecturing on all the laws that the police would never bother to enforce, and another guy gave a talk about all the great, prosocial crimes he was able to do as a police officer.
Crimes for Cops was nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global.
I got to talk to a number of people who teach their niche skills to others for illegalism purposes. Some of these are the kinds of skills you would expect, though some of them are kind of strange, like the large number of graphic designers who use their professional skills to forge documents in support of various high-impact crimes. And some are very strange, like the makeup and FX artists leading a disguise class on how to impersonate elected officials, or the voice actors leading a class on how to impersonate people over the phone.
Even the FX artists were nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global. But I can’t tell you about the weirdest people, they are too illegal.
But maybe the weirdest part was no one group of people, it was the synergy. Running the conference were a bunch of (no offense) pretty boring operations and logistics people who probably do this same sort of thing for their day jobs. These people support the movement but most of them don’t commit any actual crimes for it. Next to them are conference halls full of FX artists, electrical engineers, USPS employees, and actual police officers, all leading classes on how to commit crimes related to their areas of expertise. And next to them are people like violetfjeschl, in her puffer coat and oni mask, running a crime ring that’s something between a small business grants program and an extortion racket. And somehow all of these people are happy to sit down and work together and solve problems as if they are all no different from one another. And I think that’s beautiful.
I got in a chat with one of the volunteers running the conference, and told him that despite finding the conference inspiring, and being excited to see so many different kinds of people working together, I also felt kind of guilty for being something of a bystander to the movement, and not doing more crimes.
He responded with the official line, that effective illegalism is a movement of ordinary people, that anyone can contribute, and that resistance to unjust laws starts in the mind and the heart. That not everyone has to be a saboteur or a career criminal. That a commitment could be something more like just helping people out at your job by showing them all the loopholes, pirating music, or even just by not being a narc.
In fact, his philosophy was that you should do exactly what you feel like all the time, and not worry about the crime aspect at all, because if you look hard enough at the things you think are unjust in the world, and figure yourself out and commit to resisting evil where you, personally, see it, you’ll just naturally become an effective illegalist.
And then he knocked me down and stole my wallet. Just kidding. Then he invited me to help out with [CRIME PLAN REDACTED] which they were planning for that afternoon. And I realized I could either sit around and feel sad and cynical and depressed about the suffering in the world. Or I could go out, break some laws, and make the world a better place.
Post from the illegalist blog High Potential
When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, “Why do you push us around?” She remembered him saying, “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.”
Why hasn’t effective illegalism had our Rosa Parks moment yet?
You first heard about Rosa Parks in public school (sorry, homeschoolers). Back in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, got arrested for it, and her act of defiance became a symbol of the civil rights movement.
What you may not know is that her act of civil disobedience and the legal battle around it were somewhat strategic, and the civil rights movement rallied around Parks because they felt she was the ideal defendant to attract public sympathy. Per Wikipedia:
Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws, and she helped inspire the Black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year. The case became bogged down in the state courts, but the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle resulted in a November 1956 decision that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Parks was considered the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws, as she was seen as a responsible, mature woman with a good reputation. She was securely married and employed, was regarded as possessing a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was politically savvy. King said that Parks was regarded as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery”.
This was a huge success in favor of civil rights, I mean clearly, since we are still talking about it today. So for effective illegalism, a movement that in theory should not be afraid of breaking a few laws, why have we not had our Rosa Parks moment yet?
I think there are a couple of reasons.
Effective illegalism tends to fight against problems, not against laws. Obviously we are happy to break or bend laws, but we target problems like the housing shortage or prescription drug costs, and the laws that we break are often not the laws that cause these problems. In comparison, Rosa Parks broke a specific law (Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City code), and eventually (indirectly) got the law declared unconstitutional.
Part of this is a sign of the times. In 1955, there were big, specific laws that were clearly unjust. Today, we live in a web of many small laws that are all kind of nebulous, which are often harmless-looking on their own, but which collectively are unjust. So I accept that it’s gotten harder, but we can still find laws to fight.
If effective illegalists want to see this kind of success, we may want to consider more targeted acts of civil disobedience, where we break specific laws we think are wrong in the hopes of either showing how foolish they are, or creating court cases to challenge them directly. This is different from our normal approach of ignoring the laws to do good directly; but probably we should do some of both. We should fight unjust laws and should be ready to do that forever, but it would also be great if those unjust laws went away.
There’s also the issue of, well, effective illegalists are not a naturally sympathetic group. Most of us have real disdain for authority and would not make ideal plaintiffs. And we are not facing down laws as comically and obviously unjust as bus segregation, where black riders were required to pay at the front of the bus, then get off the bus so that they could go around and board at the back, and where drivers would often pull away and leave riders behind even though they had paid their fares. This is some real obvious kick-the-dog nonsense I would feel embarrassed to include as a fiction writer, but it really happened.
Even so, some of us are more sympathetic than others, and there are certainly many laws out there that are comically evil, even if they’re not quite on the level with bus segregation. I think we can do more to focus our efforts on these high-leverage issues and put sympathetic faces to the costs of these horrible laws.
But ultimately I think the main reason we haven’t had a Rosa Parks moment comes from the fact that effective illegalism, at least so far, has focused on crimes that are “safe”. What I mean by “safe” is crimes where it is unlikely for us to end up arrested. We mostly commit crimes that are only technically criminal, crimes that no one ever bothers to enforce, or crimes where we’re very hard to catch. This does make a lot of intuitive sense, because most of us do not want to get arrested. It makes sense to want to get away with these crimes.
Because of this focus on safe crimes, very few of us have been arrested. Most people see this as good, as success for effective illegalism. They think this is a design criterion, that our progress can be measured by not only how many great crimes we do, but how many great crimes we can get away with.
But some things can only happen if we take bigger risks, and are open to sometimes getting arrested. I’m glad that few of us have gotten pinched or gone to jail. But we’re hamstringing ourselves if we keep playing things totally safe.
And SOME things can only happen if we get arrested intentionally.
Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the redesignated colored section. Parks later said about being asked to move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till – a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a White woman in her family’s grocery store, whose killers were tried and acquitted – and I just couldn’t go back.”Blake said, “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks responded, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.'”
I wonder if some people misunderstand the Rosa Parks story.
Some people would say that in today’s media environment, more outrage is bad. People are outraged enough, and even if we come up with a cloyingly sympathetic story, more outrage will be lost in the noise. There’s a new scandal every week.
But I don’t actually think Rosa Parks’ example sparked people to outrage. I think it sparked them to change their mind, and it sparked things like a bus boycott. It shifted people from emotional outrage to something people could actually do about it.
One thing we should aim to do as illegalists is change people’s minds about specific laws, and about the law in general. Think about a potentially sympathetic white person in 1955 Alabama hearing about Rosa Parks. If a black teenager had refused to give up her seat, they would say, that kid needs to learn respect for authority. If a black man with a criminal record had refused to give up his seat, they would say, these criminals will flaunt any law. But Rosa Parks defied any excuse the mind would naturally reach for. A white voter with an ounce of sympathy in their heart will have to look at this case and say, well she did break the law, but she didn’t deserve to get arrested for it. Maybe that law is wrong.
It’s also worth noticing what the movement did to change black people’s minds, about how much to fear and respect the law. Martin Luther King Jr. had this to say about his eventual arrest in the course of the boycott:
At the jail, an almost holiday atmosphere prevailed. On the way Ralph Abernathy told me how people had rushed down to get arrested the day before. No one, it seems, had been frightened. No one had tried to evade arrest. Many Negroes had gone voluntarily to the sheriff ’s office to see if their names were on the list, and were even disappointed when they were not. A once fear-ridden people had been transformed. Those who had previously trembled before the law were now proud to be arrested for the cause of freedom. With this feeling of solidarity around me, I walked with firm steps toward the rear of the jail. After I had received a number and had been photographed and fingerprinted, one of my church members paid my bond and I left for home.
Another thing we should aim to do is to inspire people to take action. Three days after Parks’ arrest, local leaders started planning a bus boycott, and four days after Parks’ arrest, the boycott started. It ended up lasting 382 days. Black riders made up something like 70% of the bus company’s ridership, so the transit system’s revenue fell overnight. Was this illegalism? Sort of — the city used various methods to try to quash the boycott. They eventually got to the point where they treated it as illegal:
[Martin Luther King Jr.] and 88 other boycott leaders and carpool drivers were indicted for conspiring to interfere with a business under a 1921 ordinance. Rather than wait to be arrested, they turned themselves in as an act of defiance.
King was ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 386 days in jail. He ended up spending two weeks in jail. The move backfired by bringing national attention to the protest. King commented on the arrest by saying: “I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice.”
So when I talk about finding or creating sympathetic examples, I don’t just mean examples to stoke the fires of outrage. We certainly don’t need more of that. I mean examples that will change people’s minds about what is right and what is wrong, even if only a little. And I mean examples that will motivate people to actions, things like boycotts, or maybe to becoming illegalists themselves.
Or maybe the truth is that effective illegalism doesn’t need a Rosa Parks moment. We’ve been pretty successful so far flying under the radar, maybe that’s the right approach for people like us. I tried to explore what a Rosa Parks moment would look like for us, but it’s also possible that this is just a different kind of movement than civil rights.
The Crime Accelerator, a Washington Post interview with Jan Gold
WaPo: Today I’m speaking with Jan Gold, a prominent podcaster and spokesman for the movement that calls themselves effective illegalism, a movement whose unofficial slogan is, “Do the Best Crimes”.
Gold: I wouldn’t really call myself a spokesman. I’m not an effective illegalist. Most of them don’t really like me, in part because I do things like talk to the press, which they don’t love. But they do tolerate me. I’m more like an anthropologist.
WaPo: How would you describe the movement?
Gold: Effective illegalism is a group of people from all walks of life who have come together to find ways to improve society. Their logic is that all the legal ways to improve society have already been tried, so the remaining options for making a real difference in the world will all be things that are technically illegal, but morally good, even righteous. So they spend a lot of time figuring out which kinds of illegal acts would do the most good, and then if those acts are feasible, they go out and commit those crimes.
WaPo: Many people have called this approach misguided. After all, the crimes you commit are illegal for a reason.
Gold: Of course these actions are all illegal for a reason, but that reason isn’t always that they’re morally wrong. Sometimes they’re illegal because of a technicality. Sometimes they’re illegal to protect a corporation’s financial interests. Most often, I think, good ideas are illegal because our legislators are not very good at writing laws.
I don’t think breaking the law is wrong — I care a lot more about whether my actions are smart, just, and responsible, and whether they avoid being treacherous, destructive, and evil.
WaPo: What do you say to people who are concerned that effective illegalism is a breeding ground for anarchists who want to destroy the government?
Gold: Effective illegalism does attract a lot of anarchists and libertarians, but that’s mostly because anarchists and libertarians are already coming from a place where they understand that the government sometimes passes laws that are not in the best interests of the public. But anarchists are still a minority, since there are so few of them to begin with. We attract progressives, conservatives, evangelical Christians, environmentalists… we even attract a decent number of LEOs.
Gold: Sorry, law enforcement officers.
WaPo: Why would police support a movement to break the law?
Gold: The police have a better understanding of how the law is actually enforced than most people do. They know that enforcement is often arbitrary, that laws can contradict other laws, or even contradict themselves. They routinely come face to face with choices where they can either choose to enforce the law as it’s written, or do the right thing. For many of them, this is a huge part of their job. Different police officers take this differently, but most of them tend to develop, let’s call it, a practical approach to the law.
All that, but also, police officers are regular people and have the same problems regular people do, so they support effective illegalism for the same reasons that regular people do.
If you find a police officer with diabetes — or if you find a police officer whose parent or, even more, whose child has diabetes — and give them low-cost, illegally-produced insulin, you end up with an ally for life. They look after that illegal insulin-production operation like their life depends on it, because sometimes it does.
And not just police, mind, lots of government workers are effective illegalists. Partially because seeing the functioning of government radicalizes them; partially because being on the inside of the government gives them more opportunity to bend the law. You’d be surprised how many IRS workers end up seeing the injustices in tax law and coming to effective illegalism to find a way to make a difference.
WaPo: The effective illegalism movement is dominated by people who go by monikers like shaman_ist and mariopoker6969. Why are effective illegalists so afraid to use their real names?
Gold: Well, first off, many of them do use their real names, especially people who intentionally get arrested to draw attention to certain causes, as part of their illegalism. People like Shaune Bowman, Ben Jones, Leopold Lee, and Layla Steen Finch all publicly admit to being illegalists, though I suspect most or all of them also use pseudonyms. But the obvious answer as to why many of them don’t use their legal name is that they don’t want to be arrested.
We also find it kind of facile to describe this as “real names”. Just because it’s the name the state knows you by doesn’t make it your real name, it just makes it your legal name. And you know how we feel about laws.
WaPo: But the use of publicly-known names encourages accountability. Shouldn’t people face the consequences for their actions?
Gold: Again this seems pretty facile. I’m glad that that Adolf Eichmann faced the consequences for his actions, but what he did was legal, at least in the country he did it in at the time. I don’t think Harriet Tubman should have “faced the consequences” of her actions, even though what she did was illegal in the United States at the time.
We can have a more sophisticated moral compass than just “is it currently legal or not” — you know, the kind of moral compass that lets us condemn genocide and applaud the abolition of slavery. That seems like a good idea to me.
WaPo: Isn’t this a movement that glorifies and encourages young people to become criminals?
Gold: One of the things that most people don’t realize about living in a legalist society like ours is that, whether or not you realize it, you are already a criminal, even if you’re not prosecuted.
Ayn Rand wasn’t right about everything, but she was right when she said that when there aren’t enough criminals, the government makes them. So many things are declared to be a crime that it becomes impossible for us to live without breaking laws.
We’re not even just talking jaywalking. Transport your guns wrong? That’s a felony. Transport your legal, prescription drugs wrong? That’s a felony. Share your prescription drugs with your wife? That’s a felony.
I would say that effective illegalism glorifies some criminals, people like Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t think it glorifies muggers or arsonists.
WaPo: Many people find the idea of any organized crime to be very unsettling. Won’t your movement eventually descend into violence?
Gold: Most people conflate crime and violence, but of course not all crime is violent crime, and in general effective illegalists think that violent approaches are a bad idea. It’s not like violent crime is generally committed by strangers, either, most violent crime is committed by people you know.
We don’t totally rule out violence because there are some historical cases we can point to where we think violence was justified. The American Revolution was an armed uprising. The Civil War was fought in part to abolish slavery. Even Ghandi said, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
But we also don’t think violence is a good strategy in most cases, in part for the reason you say. People don’t like violence and for the most part don’t see it as justified, outside of cases like self-defense.
Part of what will make effective illegalism work in the long term is the fact that the public is naturally sympathetic to our cause. Solving problems with nonviolent approaches tends to get us even more support. And outside of some rare extreme cases, violence would turn people off. So we almost always try to avoid violent crimes.
WaPo: You think the public is sympathetic?
Gold: Sure. If you talk to most people, they care about whether or not their neighborhood is safe, whether they can get affordable healthcare when they need it, whether they have access to things like food and water and reliable housing and transportation, stuff like that.
They don’t really care if the things that get them these things are technically legal or illegal. In fact, almost all of them have experience with pointless governmental red tape, and most of them share the intuition that poorly-made laws are keeping them from having the kind of health, security, and opportunity that they need. This is a feeling that cuts across class, across income brackets, and across the political spectrum. Most people are afraid of the law, but when they see you breaking a specific law in a way they think is moral and that clearly is a benefit to them and their neighbors, they like it.
WaPo: Why commit crimes instead of working within the system?
Gold: This is a false dichotomy. We can and should do both. In the civil rights movement, people broke unjust laws to demonstrate how unjust they were. They also tried to overturn those laws through the normal, legal channels. So today, when we see a law we think is immoral, we both break it, and try to get it repealed. If we’ve had less success repealing unjust laws than they did in the 1960s, I think that says more about how legal reform has changed than about our practices.
But sorry, that doesn’t really answer your question. The real answer is that sometimes there needs to be action right away, and working within the system is too slow for things where the consequences of waiting are serious. If Congress passes an unjust law, you can get arrested and make appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court, and maybe get it ruled unconstitutional. But that can take years, or even decades. In the meantime, everyone either suffers under the unjust law, or they go to jail. If you go to jail for breaking a law that’s later ruled to be unconstitutional, it’s not like they just let you out. If the unjust law is about medical care, for example, many people will die, because the system’s gears move too slowly. Many of these issues are too important to wait for the system to sort itself out, even if it eventually would.
WaPo: But won’t all this illegalism lead to a breakdown in law and order?
Gold: Well, it depends what you mean by “breakdown in law and order”.
If you mean total chaos, cannibalism, people murdering each other in the street, I don’t think that will happen, because we don’t think murder and cannibalism are good crimes.
If you mean a world where people get the healthcare they need, where cities are safe and clean, where individual citizens work together to maintain our infrastructure — yes, I think if we’re lucky we might see that kind of breakdown in law and order, because these are all crimes that we think are good ideas.
Excerpt from a post from the blog Half Scale Ninety
No one really knows how effective illegalism began, but I like to imagine that it started in the basement of a house in San Francisco.
Some effective altruists were drinking and commiserating over the fact that even though effective altruism had gained worldwide recognition and was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, there were still all sorts of important problems they weren’t able to make any progress on.
They got to talking, as effective altruists do, about the things that were getting in their way. They kept running into a lot of great ideas for progress that they couldn’t act on because some part of the idea was illegal — to do the idea and make the progress, they would have to break the law. One of them jokingly suggested that they should start a NEW movement, all about doing the best crimes, and I guess the idea stuck.
Or you know, that’s what I like to think happened.
When an essay begins “Should you eat boogers practice automucophagy?”, you know it’s going to be good about eating boogers. Seriously, it’s an interesting post, and ends with two proposed experiment designs.
The Atlantic recently released its full archive dating back to the 1850s, and people have discovered such gems as “I Married a Jew” by Anonymous (h/t this tweet, looks like the account got suspended…). It is uh, it is a lot. Literally every paragraph. It makes it hard to know what paragraph to quote for you, but well, here’s one: “I try to tell Ben,” the anonymous author says of her husband, “that Hitler is merely writing another page in a history that will continue so long as the status quo between Jews and Gentiles remains—a status that only the willing shoulders of both protagonists can remove. But it is hard for Ben to take the long view. He looks upon Hitler as something malignantly unique, and it is no use trying to tell him that a hundred years hence the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England, who did the same thing in the thirteenth century.” In this and other stories from the archives of The Atlantic, there’s a definite air of “haha oh why are the Jews so worried about antisemitism? (THE YEAR IS 1939).” Presumably The Atlantic regrets this error.
Ok, ok, here’s the actual rickrolling paper. “Based on a careful manual assessment, we confirm that there are 24 academic documents for which the intention is clearly to rickroll the reader, with no relationship between the topic of the document and the link. This means that rickrolling is significantly more practiced (33x) than studied (10x) in the academic literature.” Seriously, click on it. Go ahead. We would never let you down.
The ACX book review of Haidt’s The Righteous Mind this month was particularly interesting. We had two thoughts we wanted to share. First, we loved the political analysis, but we’re surprised that still no one has pointed out that if the purity foundation is conservative, and purity is about avoiding disease, it seems like Haidt’s model would have predicted that conservatives would freak out majorly about COVID and liberals, who lack the purity foundation, would blow it off. Clearly this was not what happened, and it seems like a strike against the theory. Second, the author of the book review expresses concern that Haidt “doesn’t show his work” and “there’s no explanation of how he got from his data to his moral foundations”. In defense of Haidt’s data, if you feed responses to Haidt’s MFQ survey items into a factor analysis, the factors really do come out into those five foundations like he says they do. Whether those items are a good selection is a thornier issue.
Claims: Queen Elizabeth II is a distant descendant of Muhammed
A few people have asked us why we didn’t preregister the analysis for our potato diet study. We think this shows a certain kind of confusion about what preregistration is for, what science is all about, and why we ran the potato diet in the first place.
The early ancestor of preregistration was registration in medical trials, which was introduced to account for publication bias. People worried that if a medical study on a new treatment found that the treatment didn’t work, the results would get memory-holed (and they were probably right). Their fix was to make a registry of medical studies so people could tell which studies got finished as planned and which ones were MIA. In this sense, our original post announcing the potato diet was a registration, because it would have been obvious if we never posted a followup.
Pre-registration as we know it today was invented in response to the replication crisis. Starting around 2011, psychologists started noticing that big papers in their field didn’t replicate, and these uncomfortable observations slowly snowballed into a full-blown crisis (hence “replication crisis”).
Researchers began to rally around a number of ideas for reform, and one of the most popular proposals was preregistration. At the time, many people saw preregistration as a way to save the foundering ship that was psychological science (and all the other ships that looked like they were about to spring a leak).
Calls for preregistration can be found as early as 2013, in places like this open letter to The Guardian, and on the OSF, where people were already talking about encouraging the use of preregistration with snazzy badges like this one:
But despite the early enthusiasm, preregistration is not a universal fix. It has a small number of use cases and those cases are specific. Part of being a good statistician is knowing how to preregister a study and knowing when preregistration applies, and it doesn’t apply all that broadly. We think preregistration has two specific benefits — one to the research team, and one to the audience.
We’ve preregistered studies before, and in our experience, the biggest benefit for researchers is that preregistration encourages you to plan out your analysis in advance. When you do a study without thinking far enough ahead, you sometimes get the data back and you’re like oh shit how do I do this, I wish I had designed the study differently. But by then it’s too late. Preregistration helps with this problem because you have to lay out your whole plan beforehand, which helps you make sure you aren’t missing something obvious. This is pretty handy for the research team because it helps them avoid embarrassing themselves, but it doesn’t mean much for the reader.
The main benefit the audience gets from preregistration is that preregistration makes it clear which analyses were “confirmatory” and which were “exploratory”. Some analyses you plan to do all along (“confirmatory”; no it doesn’t make any sense to us either), and some you only do when you see the data and you’re like, what is this thing here (“exploratory”; you are Vasco da Gama).
This is ok by itself because it does sort of help against p-hacking, which is one of the big causes of the replication crisis. When you do a project, you can analyze the data many different ways, and some of these analyses will look better than others. If you do enough analyses, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find some that look pretty good. This is the logic behind p-hacking, and preregistration makes it harder to p-hack because you theoretically have to tell people what analyses you planned to do from the get-go.
(This only works against p-hacking that comes about as the result of an honest mistake, which is possible. But there’s nothing keeping real fraudsters from collecting data, analyzing it, picking the analysis that looks best, THEN “pre”-registering it, and making it look like they planned those analyses all along. And of course the worst fraudsters of all can just fabricate data.)
But here’s something they don’t always tell you: p-hacking is only an issue if you’re doing research in the narrow range where inferential statistics are actually called for. No p-values, no p-hacking. And while inferential statistics can be handy, you want to avoid doing research in that range whenever possible. If you keep finding yourself reaching for those p-values, something is wrong.
Statistics is useful when a finding looks like it could be the result of noise, but you’re not sure. Let’s say we’re testing a new treatment for a disease. We have a group of 100 patients who get the treatment and a control group of 100 people who don’t get the treatment. If 52/100 people recover when they get the treatment, compared to 42/100 recovering in the control group, it’s hard to tell if the treatment helped, or if the difference is just noise. You can’t tell with just a glance, but a chi-squared test can tell you that p = .013, meaning there’s only a 1.3% chance that we would see something like this from noise alone. In this case, statistics is helpful.
But it would be pointless to run a statistical test if we saw 43/100 people recover with the treatment, compared to 42/100 in the control group. You can tell that this is very consistent with noise (p > .50) just by looking at it. And it would be equally pointless to run a statistical test if we saw 98/100 people recover with the treatment, compared to 42/100 in the control group. You can tell that this is very inconsistent with noise (p < .00000000000001) just by looking at it. If something passes the interocular trauma test (the conclusion hits you between the eyes), you don’t need to pull out the statistics.
If you’re looking at someone else’s data, you may have to pull out the statistics to figure out if something is a real finding or if it’s consistent with just noise. If you’re working with large datasets collected for unrelated reasons, you may need techniques like multiple regression to try to disentangle complex relationships. Or if you specialize in certain methods where collecting data is expensive and/or time-consuming, like fMRI, you may be obliged to use statistics because of your small sample sizes.
But for the average experimentalist, you can get a sense of the effect size from pilot studies, and then you can pick whatever sample size you need to be able to clearly detect that effect. Most experimentalists don’t need p-values, period.
Better yet, you can try to avoid tiny effects, to study effects that are more than medium-sized, bigger than large even. You can choose to study effects that are, in a word, ginormous.
And it’s not like we really care about a simple distinction between working and not-working. The Manhattan Project was an effort to build a ginormous bomb. If the bomb had gone off, but only produced the equivalent of 0.1 kilotons of TNT, it would have “worked”, but it would also have been a major disappointment. When we talk about something being ginormous, we mean it not just working, but REALLY working. On the day of the Trinity test, the assembled scientists took bets on the ultimate yield of the bomb:
Edward Teller was the most optimistic, predicting 45 kilotons of TNT (190 TJ). He wore gloves to protect his hands, and sunglasses underneath the welding goggles that the government had supplied everyone with. Teller was also one of the few scientists to actually watch the test (with eye protection), instead of following orders to lie on the ground with his back turned. He also brought suntan lotion, which he shared with the others.
Others were less optimistic. Ramsey chose zero (a complete dud), Robert Oppenheimer chose 0.3 kilotons of TNT (1.3 TJ), Kistiakowsky 1.4 kilotons of TNT (5.9 TJ), and Bethe chose 8 kilotons of TNT (33 TJ). Rabi, the last to arrive, took 18 kilotons of TNT (75 TJ) by default, which would win him the pool. In a video interview, Bethe stated that his choice of 8 kt was exactly the value calculated by Segrè, and he was swayed by Segrè’s authority over that of a more junior [but unnamed] member of Segrè’s group who had calculated 20 kt. Enrico Fermi offered to take wagers among the top physicists and military present on whether the atmosphere would ignite, and if so whether it would destroy just the state, or incinerate the entire planet.
The ultimate yield was around 25 kilotons. Again, ginormous.
Studying an effect that is truly ginormous makes p-hacking a non-issue. You either see it or you don’t. So does having a sufficiently large sample size. If you have both, fuggedaboudit. Studies like these don’t need pre-registration, because they don’t need inferential statistics. If the suspected effect is really strong, and the study is well-powered, then any finding will be clearly visible in the plots.
This is why we didn’t bother to preregister the potato diet. The case studies we started with suggested the effect size was, to use the current terminology, truly ginormous. Andrew Taylor lost more than 100 lbs over the course of a year. Chris Voigt lost 21 lbs over 60 days. That’s a lot.
If people don’t reliably lose several kilos on the potato diet, then in our minds, the diet doesn’t work. We are not interested in having a fight over a couple of pounds. We are not interested in arguing about if the p-value is .03 or .07 or whatever. If the potato diet doesn’t work huge, we don’t want it. Fortunately it does work huge.
(We didn’t report a test of significance for the potato diet because we don’t think inferential statistics were needed, but if we had, the relevant p-value would be 0.00000000000000022)
What ever happened to looking for things that… work really well. No one has academic debates over whether or not sunscreen works. No one argues about penicillin or the polio vaccine. There was no question that cocaine was a great, exciting, very wonderful local anesthetic. When someone injects cocaine into your cerebrospinal fluid, you fucking know it.
We pine for a time when spirits were brave, men were men, women were men, children were men, various species of moths were men, dogs were geese, and scientists tried to make discoveries that were ginormously effective. Somehow people seem to have forgotten. Why are we looking for things that don’t barely work?
Maybe statistics is to blame. After all, stats is only useful when you’re just on the edge of being able to see an effect or not. Maybe all this statistics training encourages people to go looking for literally the smallest effects that can be detected, since that’s all stats is really good for. But this was a mistake. Pre-statistics scientists had it right. Smoking and lung cancer, top work there, huge effect sizes.
We know not everything worth studying will have a big effect size. Some things that are important are fiddly and hard to detect. We should be on the lookout for drugs that will increase cancer survival rates by 0.5%, or relationships that only come out in datasets with 10,000 observations. We’re not against this; we’ve done this kind of work before and we’ll do it again if we have to.
There’s no shame in tracking down a small effect when there’s nothing else to hunt. But your ancestors hunted big game whenever possible. You should too.
The first time we mentioned the potato diet, in Part III of our seriesA Chemical Hunger, we shared the story of Chris Voigt, the Executive Director of the Washington State Potatoes Commission, who lost 21 pounds on a 60-day potato diet. By Part X of the series, we started to wonder if someone should maybe run a study, and see if the potato diet really works as well as all that.
For those of you who are just joining us, the potato diet is a diet where you try to get most of your calories (>95%) from potatoes. You can have drinks like coffee and tea. You can season the potatoes with salt, spices, and whatever hot sauce you want. You can even cook with oil. The only thing we asked people to entirely avoid was dairy (see original post for details).
Does this mean you can eat fries for every meal? It does, and some people came pretty close to that ideal. See for example, this post:
I have never heard of a diet that allows you to eat french fries for all three meals, and I did just that on a couple of days. It rocked.
As people signed up and started sharing their experiences, we made a twitter thread of live-ish updates. In this thread you can read anecdotes shared on twitter that aren’t found in the official study data.
To sign up for the study, participants filled out a google form (PDF available in the repository; see below) of demographic information, then over the next four weeks, recorded their data on a copy of a google sheet that we provided.
Two hundred and twenty people filled out the signup form before we closed the study. As far as we can tell, most signups came from twitter, reddit, and word-of-mouth. We actually didn’t ask about this, probably should have. Whoops.
We downloaded people’s data when they sent us an email to formally close the study. Anyone who didn’t send us an email to officially close the study, we grabbed their data (if any) in the last days before closing the study. The dataset we’ll be examining today represents the state of the data as of midnight on Friday, July 1st, 2022, four weeks after we closed signups and eight weeks after we started collecting data.
Raw data, the analysis script, and study materials are available on the OSF. We decided to store our data and materials there, since that repository is well-supported and we expect it to stay available for a long time. The organized data is “SMTM Potato Diet Community Trial Main Form.csv”; the script is called “SMTM Potato Diet Community Trial 1 Analysis.R”; and the raw data is in a folder called “Potato Raw Dato”
This dataset is very rich — we certainly haven’t found everything there is to find in these data. A number of people measured other variables (like blood pressure, resting heart rate, and sleep) and we haven’t looked at those data in any systematic way.
Also there is a lot of room for new findings in coding the free-response data. You could, for example, go through and try to code what kind of oil(s) people are using, and see if people who use different oils lose different amounts of weight, find the diet easier, etc.
We really look forward to seeing other people do their own analyses. Send them our way, we’ll link them or do a roundup post or a meta-analysis or something.
Two participants asked that we not share their data publicly. But if you’re following along at home you should still get the same results as we do, because those two participants seem to have entered no data.
If you have advice about what to do differently next time, we are interested in hearing that. But if you don’t like something about the study design and just want to gripe — run your own study!
Let’s start with a recap of the study variables.
Our demographic variables are — age, ethnicity, height in inches, local ZIP or postal code, current country of residence, profession, and reported sex.
Sex was initially reported as “Male”, “Female”, or a free-response “other” field. A few participants reported being trans or nonbinary, so we created two variables, “Chromosomal Sex (estimated)” and “Hormonal Profile (estimated)” where we estimated their chromosomal sex and hormonal profile, respectively, based off of free report data. As the names suggest, these are just estimates. We don’t actually have access to your chromosomes.
This is in case there end up being major endocrinological effects. It seems like there could be sex differences in the potato diet because there are clear sex differences in obesity and in anorexia, which we think may be related.
On their datasheets, participants were asked to record a slate of variables every day. Our main daily variables are — daily weight in pounds; notes for each day; energy for each day on a scale from 1-7, where higher numbers are more energy; mood for each day on a scale from 1-7, where higher numbers are a better mood; and ease of the diet for each day on a scale from 1-7, where higher numbers are finding the diet easier.
We also had a field where participants could record whether or not they broke the diet (eating something substantial other than potatoes) each day. If they stuck to the diet we asked them to put a 0 in this field, if they broke the diet we asked them to put a 1. This is a bit of a mouthful so we will often colloquially refer to these as “cheat days”.
A total of 220 people submitted the initial form.
Of those, 11 people filled out the signup form incorrectly in such a way that we couldn’t sign them up (they didn’t enter an email, didn’t indicate critical data such as height, etc.). We enrolled the remaining 209 people in the study.
Let’s take a look at the demographics of the people who enrolled:
Age ranged from 18 to 69, with a mean of 35.2 and a median of 35.
Reported sex was 50 female, 151 male, 7 other entries (e.g. “non-binary”, “AFAB on testosterone so idk how you wanna categorise that”), and one person who didn’t respond.
Based on this, we estimated 51 XX participants and 156 XY participants; and we estimated 53 people with a more “female” hormonal profile and 153 people with a more “male” hormonal profile.
Reported ethnicity was 185 white, 10 Asian, 2 Indian, and 4 more specific entries (e.g. Latin, Indonesian, etc.). Everyone else who reported ethnicity reported being a mix (e.g. “Brazilian. Mostly white, kinda mixed though.”; “German/Vietnamese/Anglo-Saxon“).
Participants mostly came from the Anglosphere and Europe: 133 US, 17 UK, 17 Canada, 7 Germany, 6 Australia, 4 Ireland, 3 Sweden, 2 Poland, 2 India, 2 Hungary, 2 France, and several singletons from places like Finland, Mexico, Serbia, Brazil, and “Magyarorsz√°g” [sic] which we think is also Hungary.
Profession is hard to code since it’s so diverse, but it looks like the biggest groups were software engineers/programmers, grad students, various scientists and academics, and game designers.
Out of the 209 people signed up, 5 started the diet late for one reason or another, and were still in the middle of the four weeks when we closed data collection on July 1st. We let them keep going and looked at the 204 people remaining.
Of these 204 participants, 44 never entered any data onto their datasheet. As far as we can tell, they just never got around to starting the diet — we certainly didn’t get any data from them.
This leaves us with a total of 160 people who entered some data. Of those 160:
Age ranged from 19 to 61, with a mean of 36.0 and a median of 35.5.
Reported sex was 29 female, 124 male, 6 other entries, and one person who didn’t respond.
Based on this, we estimated 30 XX participants and 129 XY participants; and we estimated 32 people with a more “female” hormonal profile and 126 people with a more “male” hormonal profile.
Reported ethnicity was 145 white, 5 Asian, and 10 other entries like “Polish” or “Japanese/ Hispanic”.
Participants were still largely Americans: 104 US, 13 Canada, 12 UK, 6 Germany, 5 Australia, 3 Sweden, 2 Poland, 2 Ireland, 2 Hungary, and one each to a number of others.
Again the most common profession is software engineer / programmer, with various research jobs and IT jobs behind it.
Of this group, 35 people formally closed the diet early by sending us an email. We coded the reason they dropped out based on their comments.
One we coded as dropping out because of boredom (“Overall not a difficult diet, but I decided to end it because I was getting pretty bored of potatoes.”).
Two reported stopping because they got sick, which we coded as illness. This isn’t potato-related illness, to be clear — one had a throat infection and the other got shingles.
Six reported stopping because of a schedule conflict, coded as schedule. Some of them specifically said they could have kept going otherwise, like participant 66959098:
I am ending my diet at 21 days instead of at 28. This is mostly a scheduling issue, having family visiting next week and would like to go out and eat with them. I believe I could have made the four weeks without too much trouble otherwise, and I may even go back on the diet again sometime later.
The remaining 27 early closures reported stopping because they found the diet really difficult in one way or another, and we coded this as difficulty. For example, participant 29957259:
I threw in the towel on the potato diet six days in. The first few days were easy for me, but it eventually grew much more difficult. I found myself thinking about food way more than someone whose next meal was planned should have.
Clearly the potato diet really does not work for some people! More on this later.
Another 57 people made it partway to 4 weeks but didn’t officially close the study, and we don’t know why. We went back and forth on what to call this, since we don’t know why they stopped reporting their data, and we wanted the coding to sound as neutral as possible. In the end we coded them as dropped.
These participants don’t seem to have just flaked out. Many of them made it a long way. Several people made it past two weeks, and two people made it all the way to day 27:
We’re going to try to stay agnostic about what happened in these cases, because these participants didn’t give us a clear reason why they dropped out. But we can also make some educated guesses.
Some people clearly dropped out because the diet was too difficult. For example, participant 31554252’s last comment was:
Finding it very difficult to keep going—just very sick of potatoes
But other people don’t seem to have found the diet difficult, and probably dropped out for other reasons. For example, participant 71309629 appears to have dropped out because of illness. They said, “Got sick, will update later” on the last day they entered data, and haven’t updated since. We hope you’re ok!
Similarly, participant 97388755 could probably be coded as ending for schedule reasons. She said in the comments:
I renounce potato. I’m moving house and the chocolate cravings and trying to make potatoes for 2 people is a pain in the ass.
It might be interesting to go back and try to re-code all the dropped trials, figure out why they stopped the diet, but not today.
Since we asked everyone how easy the diet was, we can also look at the ease they reported on the last day they gave us a weight measurement (though a few people stopped reporting ease before then). As a reminder, higher numbers / more to the right is more easy:
Some people definitely were finding this difficult when they stopped, and it’s reasonable to think that the people who gave a 1 or 2 on the last day stopped because they couldn’t stand it.
But plenty of people who dropped out without telling us why rated diet ease at a 6 or a 7. The modal value is clearly 5! So while some of these dropped trials are because of difficulty, others presumably dropped out for other reasons: they had to go on a trip, they had a family emergency, they got sick with COVID, etc.
The diet protocol in the original post asked for 29 days of weight measurement. The last measurement would be on the morning of the 29th day, giving us 28 days of complete data.
But we fucked up on the data recording sheet and made it seem like people should record only up to day 28. Most people followed instructions — they gave us 28 days of data, then stopped. This is our fault, we messed up.
To keep things standard, we used each person’s data at day 28 as their final day of data. For people who went past 28 days (a number of people kept collecting their data and/or kept going with the diet), we treated them as if they did 28 days exactly. We used their weight on day 28 as their final weight, counted their number of cheat days up to day 28, etc.
At some point it might be interesting to go back and look at the data of people who did 29+ days, but again, not a project for today.
This is technically 27 full days of potato diet, since the measurement for day 28 is the MORNING of day 28. But tiny differences like this are like, eh, who cares. If the effect is substantial at all, it won’t matter anyways. Anyways, henceforth this span will be referred to as “four weeks”.
One participant (40207077) didn’t report his weight for day 28, so we used his day 29 data. Coincidentally this is also the person who lost the least weight over the 4 weeks. If you kicked him out because he often forgot to report his weight, average weight lost on the diet would be even greater.
Anyways, 64 people made it the full four weeks and completed the potato diet. Let’s review their demographics:
Age ranged from 19 to 61, with a mean of 36.7 and a median of 36.5.
For sex, 5 reported their sex as female, 54 male, 4 other entries, and one nonresponse.
We estimated 6 XX and 57 XY; and we estimated 7 people with a more “female” hormonal profile and 56 people with a more “male” hormonal profile.
For ethnicity, 57 were white, 4 Asian, 1 Polish, 1 “several of the above”, and 1 “half-asian, half-white”.
Participants reported being in the following countries: 46 US, 4 Canada, 2 each in UK, Germany, and Ireland, and several singletons.
Racial diversity is definitely a major limitation of this study, especially since obesity differs a lot across ethnicities. The diet could easily work half as well, or not at all, for African-Americans. Or for all we know, it could work twice as well. The results we have so far look really promising (as you’ll see in a minute), and we think it’s important to see if they’ll generalize. So if we run another potato diet study, and you’re part of a racial group that isn’t well-represented in this study (i.e. if you are not white), your data could contribute a lot!
The first question is, what is the retention rate for the potato diet? Well, it depends how you slice it.
If you want to be maximally strict, 64 people made it four weeks out of 209 enrolled, so 30.6%.
Not too bad. This is a kind of extreme diet, and it would be pretty impressive even if only 30% of people made it to the end. Frankly, we’re impressed so many people signed up in the first place.
But we think this is too low, in fact. Only 209 people were enrolled in the study, and because some trials were ongoing at closing, only 204 had potentially available results. 64 out of 204 would give us a retention rate of 31.4%.
But of those 204 people, 44 never entered any data. There’s a good chance most of these people never started the study, and shouldn’t be considered dropouts. In this case, retention is out of 160, and 64 out of 160 is 40.0%.
If you wanted to be maximally permissive, you could only count the dropouts who sent us an email to formally close the study. This gives us a total of 102 people, and makes the retention rate 64 out of 102 people, which is 62.7%
(Actually if you wanted to be super maximally permissive, you could only count people as dropouts if they explicitly stopped because of finding the diet difficult. Then retention would be 64 out of 91, or 70.3%.)
So we think the retention rate is somewhere between 40.0% and 62.7%, though you could make a case that the retention rate is as low as 30%. In any case, the idea that between one-third and two-thirds of people get to the end of four weeks on basically only potatoes is pretty wild.
Of course, a hard cutoff doesn’t make much sense. Most people made it some number of days between 1 and 28. Heck, five people ended the potato diet on day 27!
When we look at the number of days people made it to, we do seem to see two (or maybe three?) clear groups:
Clearly the most common outcome is to make it the full four weeks. The next most common is to drop out in the first week or so.
But there’s another bump near the end of the third week, and that seems kind of interesting, especially because some people mentioned hitting a wall at around three weeks. For example, participant 23300304 stopped on day 22 and reported:
Initially I found the diet extremely easy… However, quite suddenly after about three weeks I started feeling unwell, with low level nausea, headaches and general tiredness. Initially I thought I was falling ill. But I didn’t really show any specific symptoms of illness. After a few days I was feeling so bad I decided to end the diet. I felt better by the end of the first day eating my usual diet again.
Similarly, things were going great for participant 63746180. They had already lost about 10 pounds over 18 days and seemed to be enjoying it. But then:
My reason for ending is that I was hungry to the point of headache and dizziness, but could not force myself to eat a potato. It was a weird experience, my body was screaming for food but I couldn’t swallow a potato. I went from pretty happy with eating potatoes to completely unwilling to eat a potato in the span of a day.
So there might be something interesting with people hitting a wall at three weeks or so. However, as you can see from the histogram, it was a minority of participants.
4. Weight Loss
Of the participants who made it four weeks, one lost 0 lbs (participant 40207077). Everyone else lost more than that.
The mean amount lost was 10.6 lbs, and the median was 10.0 lbs. The 99% confidence interval on the mean is 12.1 to 9.1 lbs of weight loss. The greatest amount of weight lost was 24.0 lbs, from participant 74282722.
We thought this might end up being bimodal — some people going into potato mode and other people just struggling through — but it looks pretty normally distributed around 10 lbs. There’s sort of a little spike around 15 lbs maybe.
We can also look at individual time series data:
And here’s the average over time:
We can also do these plots as percent weight change, but you’re gonna be pretty disappointed, they look almost exactly the same:
Actually Why Not Just Look at All The Data
Like we mentioned above, a hard cutoff doesn’t make much sense. Let’s just look at all the data.
Here’s weight change by total number of days completed on the potato diet for all participants who entered data:
Seems like a clear trend. And it makes sense to us; if you make it 22 days on the diet, you get about 3/4 the benefit of making it the full four weeks on the diet.
We can see that only two people reported a net weight gain on their diet, and of only 2.3 and 0.1 lbs. In addition, twelve people did report exactly no weight change — though nine of them only entered data for day 1, so they couldn’t have lost any weight. It doesn’t look like the potato diet can go “wrong” and you can gain a lot of weight.
We want to point out that the person who lost the MOST weight (24.8 lbs; participant 71319394) actually ended the diet on day 27 — “I am calling it done a day early, but I think it has gone really well for me and was really easy for about 3 weeks.” — so he doesn’t appear in the “completed four weeks” analyses.
Also note the outlier, participant 89861395, who reported losing 41.6 lbs in 18 days. We assume this is an error, in part because he reported being 296.8 lbs on day 17, and then being 267.0 lbs on day 18, after which point he recorded no further data. It seems unlikely that he lost 29.8 overnight just before closing the study. Probably he lost 11.8 lbs total before stopping, the number suggested by his weigh-in on day 17.
When we plot this over time, it becomes clear that it didn’t really matter if people “finished” or not:
People lost about a half a pound a day on average, though with quite a bit of variation (we did kick out that one measurement claiming to lose 29.8 lbs in a single day, since it’s probably a typo). There appears to be no meaningful difference in the daily weight loss of people who did and didn’t make it the full four weeks. In fact, people who made it the full four weeks had slightly lower average weight loss, a mean of 0.41 lbs a day compared to a mean of 0.55 lbs a day in people who didn’t make it four weeks.
Here’s how the potato diet COULD have worked: some people don’t lose weight, so they quit, and other people do lose weight, so they keep going. If that happened, we would see a really successful group of people who made it to four weeks and lost a bunch of weight, and another group of dropouts who lost little or no weight. But that’s not what happened. Almost everybody who tried the diet seemed to lose about the same amount of weight per day. So something causes the dropouts to drop out, but it’s not that the diet doesn’t work for them. The diet works for pretty much everyone, at least for however long they can stick to it. But then, for unclear reasons, some people hit a wall.
You might want to know, how much weight will I lose if I don’t make it four weeks? How much weight will I lose if I start and keep going until I hit a wall? Well, it depends on how long it takes for you to hit that wall, but we can talk about what you can expect on average.
People who entered at least two weight measurements but didn’t make it four weeks lost an average of 5.5 lbs, with a median of 4.2 lbs and a maximum weight loss of 24.8 lbs.
If we pool everyone who entered at least two weight measurements, they lost an average of 7.7 lbs, with a median of 6.9 lbs and a maximum weight loss of 24.8 lbs.
So strictly speaking, if you start the diet, based on these data you should expect to lose 7.7 lbs on average. If you fully expect to make it four weeks for some reason, then you should expect to lose 10.6 lbs; and if you for some reason are sure you will NOT make it four weeks, you should still expect to lose 5.5 lbs on average.
Finally, it’s worth noting the subjective element. Just look at how happy many participants were with the diet:
I lost almost 25 lbs and have felt great throughout. I have been sleeping fine and having plenty of energy.
Well I thought that was super fun and I’m happy to have done it. Lost about 16 pounds. … Anyway, I had a blast. I would consider doing potatoes again in the future. This is probably the thinnest I’ve been in at least 15 years or so.
Thank you for doing this. I’ve found it very valuable and think potatoes will continue to play a role in my health.
Thanks for organizing this!
Thanks for the opportunity to do this, it’s been an interesting ride, and I did lose weight.
Hi! Thanks for doing such a great study!
I felt really good during the diet. This is the best I’ve felt in several years. My clothes fit better, I’m not as tired all the time, my back and knee has felt better than they had for the last 6 months.
I did it. One month, mostly potato. And I am really happy I came across your tweet about this crazy and kinda dumb idea for a study. Over this past month I lost pretty much exactly 10 kg / 22 lbs. It felt easy most of the time, and I feel fantastic. My goal of a BMI < 30 is still 20 kg away, but that feels achievable for the first time I can remember.
Thanks for running this experiment! It was very fun, and I wish there were more things like this going on in the world.
Thank you so much for including me in your study! It has been a huge boon to me personally and it was nice to be able to contribute to science!
I had a good time overall with the diet, and ultimately I think the viscerally-felt revelation that an adjustment to my diet gives me far greater mental clarity will be long-term life-changing. Thanks for that.
By BMI Bracket
We can also break down these same analyses by starting BMI bracket.
None of our participants were “underweight” (BMI < 18.5) to start. Of the people who entered any data, 27 had starting BMIs between 18.5 and 25, 66 were BMI 25-30, 43 were BMI 30-35, 17 were BMI 35-40, and 7 had starting BMIs above 40.
Retention by Starting BMI
Overall, it doesn’t seem like retention is much better or worse for people with higher or lower starting BMIs. This is a little surprising — you might expect leaner people to drop out more, since they have less to lose. Or you might expect heavier people to drop out more, because they presumably have a harder time losing weight. But we don’t really see much evidence for either.
We can also plot these variables to get a better look. We’ll adapt the colors from this uh lovely diagram by the CDC:
Again, we see pretty similar retention across groups. This plot shows the days completed, out of 28, by people in each bracket. Vertical lines are medians:
People with a BMI < 25 do seem to be more likely to drop out on the first day, but that might just be noise.
And here’s weight loss for people who completed the four weeks by BMI bracket. Again, vertical lines are medians:
As expected, people with higher starting BMIs lost more weight. We can also show this as time series:
What is not expected, and what we find quite surprising, is that people who started the study with a BMI of less than 25 (what they call “normal weight”) often lost weight as well. And not just a little weight, a decent amount of weight. Median weight loss for BMI < 25 was actually 7.3 lbs!
This becomes more striking if we break it out as percent body weight lost:
Nicky isn’t the only example of someone who started with a low BMI and saw it go even lower. There’s also participant 89852176, who made it the full four weeks:
I went into it not feeling like I had a lot of weight to lose (starting weight/BMI 143/21.1), but my wife and I started together at the same time, and she had more to lose. In addition, I was hoping for an improvement in my blood pressure (typically 120ish/85ish); I haven’t seen a significant change there. However, I did see significant weight loss; my ending weight/BMI (this morning, day 29) was 132.4/19.5.
Naturally we are wondering why people who are already at the bottom end of the range for “normal weight” are losing weight on this diet. Two possibilities come to mind.
One possibility is that the natural human BMI is really around 19. These days we think of 22 or 23 as pretty normal, but that seems to be the high end for hunter-gatherers.
Walker and colleagues compiled body size and life history data for more than 20 small-scales societies. They report mean ± SD body mass indices (BMI) of 21.7 ± 2.9 for n = 21 adult female cohorts and 22.2 ± 2.7 for n = 20 male cohorts, mid-range within the WHO category for ‘normal weight’ (BMI: 18.5–24.9; WHO). … within the Hadza hunter-gatherer population, we find little evidence of overweight or obesity. BMI for both men (20.0 ± 1.7, n = 84) and women (20.3 ± 2.4, n = 108) 20 to 81 years remains essentially constant throughout adulthood and similar between sexes (Fig. 1).
The average BMI at 40 years of age [for hunter-gatherers] has typically been around 20 kg/m2 for men and 19 kg/m2 for women. After the age of 40, the BMI for both sexes drops because muscle mass and water content decrease with age and because fat is not increasingly accumulated.
So if the potato diet is resetting your lipostat (if you’re not familiar, we describe this below) and sending your BMI towards what it would have been if you hadn’t been raised in a modern environment, maybe your BMI is headed towards the hunter-gatherer range of 19-20.
It doesn’t seem like potatoes would send your BMI any lower, in part because there have been cultures that lived almost entirely on potatoes and they did not all drop to BMI 10 and die. For example, take this account of the Irish, from Adam Smith of all people (h/t Dwarkesh Patel):
Experience would seem to shew, that the food of the common people in Scotland is not so suitable to the human constitution as that of their neighbours of the same rank in England. But it seems to be otherwise with potatoes. The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root. No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.
Another option is that potatoes just have super weight loss properties that work no matter how much you weigh (but more on this later).
We say “nothing but potatoes”, but the potato diet is actually a lot more permissive than all that. You get oil, spices, and drinks, and in our version of the diet, we said, “Perfect adherence isn’t necessary. If you can’t get potatoes, eat something else rather than go hungry, and pick up the potatoes again when you can.”
People took us at our word, and many people chose to take several cheat meals or cheat days (several people mentioned loving this aspect of the diet). For each day, they reported whether or not they broke the diet, so we have an estimate of how many cheat days each person had, and we can look at that as part of this analysis.
We do want to remind you that this is self-report. Different people had different standards about what counted as breaking the diet, and some people were more rigorous about tracking this variable than others. It might be a good future project to go through all the raw data at some point and get better estimates for adherence based on the comments.
But that said, let’s take a look at them cheat days:
Only five people reported not a single cheat day. Everyone else said they broke the diet at least once. Most people cheated a few times, but a few people (36%) broke the diet for more than a week’s worth of days.
This is important because clearly the potato diet’s effects are robust to a couple’a cheat days.
We can take a better look at this with a nice scatterplot. Here we compare number of cheat days on the x-axis to weight change on the y-axis:
You can see there’s a bit of a trend between more cheat days and less weight loss. Remember, higher numbers here are less weight loss; zero lbs is at the top. People on the left, who cheated very little, lost a whole range of weights. People on the right, who took more than 14 cheat days, tended to see much less weight loss.
The basic correlation is only r = 0.176, and not significant. Though we do notice a weird outlier in the bottom right, and without that participant, the correlation is r = 0.303, p = .014.
One interesting thing here is that the five people who reported 0 cheat days are all tightly clustered around losing 10 lbs, so the diet does seem to maybe be the most reliable for people who don’t take cheat days. But some people who took cheat days lost a lot more than that.
So overall we see that cheat days maybe matter a bit, but not a ton. It’s looking good for the 90% potato diet.
Heck, it’s looking good for the *40%* potato diet! Participant 68030741 broke the diet on 27 out of 28 days. (And actually didn’t mark down if he broke the diet on day 22, so maybe 28 out of 28.) He says:
I couldn’t get enough protein with only potatoes, so I supplemented with other food. Also, eating only potatoes without anything to accompany them quickly became too monotonous for me. So, I ended up getting only 40% of my calories from potatoes, but I still lost 7 lb over 4 weeks. I limited my intake of non-potatoes, but I ate potatoes ad libitum. I didn’t try to limit my daily calories; in fact the opposite, I often just wasn’t hungry enough to eat more.
There are some similar stories from other people, like participant 48507645:
I was really surprised at the results. While I cheated way more often than I wanted or anticipated, I still lost almost 10lbs. That’s with cheating almost every weekend (due to unforeseen social obligations).
And here’s one from participant 35182564:
I also must confess, that I was not very strict with the “no dairy” rule. I took milk for my coffee (4-5 cups a day) and occasionally a small piece of butter or some spoon of plain yogurt to go with the cooked potatoes. This does not seem to have impacted the successful outcome. But it made the diet so much easier and also improved the “empty stomach” and “hungry” feelings a lot. Everything besides these “tiny” amount of dairy, I noted in the sheet.
The most extreme case study may come from Joey “No Floors” Freshwater, who shared his story on twitter. He wasn’t able to enroll in the study proper but he decided to do his own version consisting of “1-1.5lbs of potatoes a day when I could”, or about a 20% potato diet. Turns out it works just fine, for him at least. Here are some screenshots:
So it looks like the 20% potato diet can work, at for least some people.
Most people who made it the four weeks report the diet being anywhere between “pretty easy” and “real easy”.
(24235303) It was remarkably easy to stick to the diet. I generally wasn’t hungry and when I was I just ate a potato. I only had cravings for other things when I was directly looking at them, such as when I was helping to put away groceries for my family. This seemed to require a lot less willpower than my previous successful diets.
(41297226) I lost 17 lbs in 28 days, felt very few food cravings or aversive hunger, didn’t get tired of potatoes.
(14122662) I felt mostly normal during this diet. I did often miss going out to restaurants or just having a non-potato meal, but the craving was never so strong as to be unbearable.
(63746180) Most of the time I had a good experience on the diet. I didn’t feel cravings for other food. Sometimes I would imagine eating out at a restaurant as a fun thing to do, but it didn’t have the same urgency as typical food cravings.
(57747642) General Diet Thoughts: It’s really surprisingly easy. I was skeptical that I’d be able to finish the four weeks when I started, but once you get in the groove (and learn some tricks for prepping large quantities of potatoes quickly and easily) it’s extremely simple to stick with it. I basically never felt hungry or low energy.
Even some people who dropped out mentioned that it wasn’t hard for them. For example, take this report from participant 70325385:
Overall, it was a good experience. I thought getting fewer calories would have a more detrimental effect on my mood and energy, to the point where I wouldn’t be able to function normally at all. What I noticed was mostly a ~2 point penalty to my mood and energy, which isn’t that big in the grand scheme of things but enough to be an annoyance.
On the other hand, we want to note that the potato diet was really, really hard for some people. Here are a few stories from people who stopped before completing four weeks.
(52058043) Not only is it very inconvenient to daily life and travel, it also feels pretty gross. I feel uncomfortably full, but still wanting anything, anything at all, that isn’t potatoes.
(86547222) In short, my experience was not great. First two days I didn’t peel potatoes and my digestion went crazy. After that I started to peel potatoes, which helped but not by a lot. During those 9 days that I stuck to the diet I mostly felt apathy. The diet removed any joy associated with food from my life, and I missed that.
More speculation on some people loving it and other people hating it later.
Beyond the self-report, we can also look at people’s daily ratings of how easy they found the diet, on a 1-7 scale from 1 “hard to eat only potatoes” to 7 “lol this is so easy, I love potato”.
We averaged each person’s ease ratings over the four weeks for a mean ease rating. The mean of these ratings was 4.6 and the median was median 4.7, both of course on a 7-point scale.
It does seem like people who found the diet easier lost a bit more weight:
The correlation here is small, only r = -0.155, and not significant. This may, however, be the result of one participant who lost almost 25 lbs but seems to have hated every day of it. See him in the far bottom left? Without that guy, the correlation is r = -0.326, p = .008.
This is participant 74282722, who is also the outlier on the previous plot, with 23 cheat days out of 28 days of the diet. Perhaps this guy’s experience was not typical.
Comparison to other Diet Studies
It’s not a contest, but we think the potato diet compares pretty favorably to the rest of the literature.
Meta-analyses like this one do find that many diets cause 10-20 lbs of weight loss on average. But these studies tend to run for much longer than the study we’re reporting on today. The studies in that meta-analysis ran for 16-52 weeks (median 24 weeks) to get that 10-20 lbs of weight loss. If the potato diet went for 16-52 weeks… well that would be something wouldn’t it. At an average weight loss rate of half a pound a day, you do the math.
This meta-analysis compared interventions based on diet, exercise, and diet plus exercise found that people lost about 23.5 lbs on just a diet, 6.4 lbs on an exercise regime, and 24.2 lbs with diet plus exercise. Again this is pretty good, but these diets were all run for what they describe as “short durations”, which is 15.6 +/- 0.6 weeks.
This two-year trial from The New England Journal of Medicine compared low-fat, Mediterranean, and low-carbohydrate diets in a randomized design. All three of these diets saw only about 2 kg (4.4 lbs) weight loss at one month. This is less than the potato diet participants who dropped out before reaching four weeks, who lost an average of 5.5 lbs (median 4.2 lbs).
Maximum weight loss on these diets was at around 5 months in, when participants had lost an average of about 5 kg (11.0 lbs) in the low-fat and Mediterranean diets, and an average of about 6.5 kg (14.3 lbs) in the low-carb diet. This is about comparable to the weight loss on the potato diet, but it took five times as long.
The attrition rate for the potato diet is pretty comparable to other diet studies. That NEJM paper mentions that “common limitations of dietary trials include high attrition rates (15 to 50% within a year)”, and as a sampling from some papers we grabbed at random from Google Scholar, we see attrition rates of 49.3% in this study, 32.3% in this study, and 56.3% in this study.
Admittedly these attrition rates are over very different time scales, so it may be the case that the potato diet is a little harder to stick to than these other diets. But that seems pretty well offset by the much faster and more reliable weight loss.
We also didn’t include any of the intense measures many diet studies implement to keep their participants in line. We didn’t lock people in a metabolic ward. We didn’t control how they prepared their meals. We didn’t do portion estimation. Heck, most of our participants didn’t even stick that closely to the diet. Most of them took several cheat days!
They still lost an average of 10.6 lbs over four weeks. Of those who made it the full four weeks, one lost zero pounds — the other 63 all lost at least 3 lbs. Of the participants who entered at least two days of weight data, two gained weight, three saw no weight change, and the other 146 lost weight. If you’re statistically inclined, the effect size for those who made it four weeks is d = 2.28. The potato diet is remarkably consistent.
It’s hard to estimate how much some of these other diet studies cost, but we’d guess at least tens of thousands of dollars. In comparison, our budget was $0. And we did the whole study in what, 10 weeks?
5. Effects other than Weight Loss
Ok, enough about weight loss. We were promised MORE.
The case studies did all mention weight loss, but they also mentioned other beneficial effects, the kind of thing we would love to see.
Chris Voigt reported major improvements in his bloodwork: “My cholesterol went down 67 points, my blood sugar came down and all the other blood chemistry — the iron, the calcium, the protein — all of those either stayed the same or got better.”
Andrew Taylor said, “I’m sleeping better, I no longer have joint pain from old football injuries, I’m full of energy, I have better mental clarity and focus.”
This is pretty exciting, so we wanted to look for other effects beyond weight. To keep things simple, we just asked people to track their mood and energy every day, both on a 1-7 scale (7 is better mood and more energy).
We took a look at both variables, and there does seem to be something there. There’s a small trend for mood, from an average of 4.3 on day 1 to an average of 4.7:
Of the people who made it four weeks, 45.3% reported a higher mood on day 28 than on day 1. An additional 34.0% reported the same mood (on a 7-point scale) on day 1 and day 28.
And slightly more for energy, from an average of 4.1 on day 1 to an average of 4.7 on day 28:
Of the people who made it four weeks, 50.9% reported higher energy on day 28 than on day 1. An additional 37.7% reported the same level of energy (on a 7-point scale) on day 1 and day 28.
But there’s definitely some variation — some people reported feeling VERY energetic:
There were also some reports of more specific forms of feeling energetic, like increased fidgeting:
(81125989) I also noticed I’m fidgeting a lot, but not sure if I was always fidget-y before, and I’m only noticing now since I’ve read about lipostats & Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
(88218660) Definitely had increased fidgeting at various points.
We also did this extremely scientific poll on twitter:
So it does look like a substantial minority experienced this, but still, a minority.
Effects and Variables we Didn’t Ask for
We asked people to track mood and energy; but, perhaps foolishly, we didn’t ask them to track things like blood pressure and sleep.
But despite our failure, many people chose to track additional variables anyways, and reported all kinds of other effects of the potato diet above and beyond weight loss.
Certainly many people did NOT experience these side effects. Many people just didn’t mention whether or not they experienced them, but for most of these effects, there were some people who specifically said they didn’t feel it. For example, participant 81125989, who didn’t feel anything:
I didn’t feel any noticeably better or worse. My sleep, anxiety, & ability to focus were trash the last few weeks, but they’ve already been that way for months before anyway.
But it’s hard to tell for most of these effects, since we didn’t track them systematically. A project for next time (or for one of you!).
Anyways, here is a selection of effects other than weight loss that were mentioned at least a couple times, and/or that we found interesting.
Digestion both Good and Bad
Lots of people reported digestive changes. Some of these were good. Others were very bad.
(72706884) Other: Improved digestion.
(89852176) almost exclusively loose stools alternating with mild constipation from day 12ish onward
(38751343) My only note is that when I ate potatoes for more than 24 hours, I had the best poops. Total no-wipers. 10/10 poops. I have IBS so it’s rare for me to have a solid bowel movement. Next time I decide to have anal sex, I’m definitely going to eat potatoes for 24 hours prior.
Before you go rushing to cram potatoes before your next bout of anal sex, beware: the potato diet gave other people diarrhea:
(68545713) I had trouble getting started with the diet because at first. I was leaving the skins on, and not using any salt or oil. I had quite extreme diarrhea in the beginning, which I attribute to the unusually high fiber. I also just don’t like potatoes, so not using any salt or oil made the actual eating of the potatoes very unpleasant for me.
After only a few days, I allowed myself salt and oil, and at about the same time I started “imperfectly peeling” the potatoes to reduce (but not eliminate) the fiber. This made the diet much easier for me.
Several people reported better sleep, and sometimes reported sleeping more.
(72706884) Improved sleep, even with caffeine pills. I never woke up in the middle of the night, which is atypical.
(34196505) I sort of feel like I slept better. This is not consistent with how I usually feel on a calorie deficit–normally, I have a hard time sleeping.
(31664368) Good energy and sleep from a crappy baseline (~4 month old at home, just starting to get “normal” sleep)
(63173784) I needed more than usual sleep on the diet, but once I added chicken I was able to sleep more deeply
My sleep apnea symptoms disappeared, except when I had the one “normal” meal in the middle. I must be reacting to other foods.
There may be a relationship between the amount of sleep people require on this diet and how much weight they lose — someone should look into this at some point.
Several people tracked their blood pressure, and they tended to see improvement, sometimes a lot of improvement.
If you don’t look at BP measurements very often, here’s a quick refresher on what the different ranges mean, from the FDA:
Normal pressure is 120/80 or lower. Your blood pressure is considered high (stage 1) if it reads 130/80. Stage 2 high blood pressure is 140/90 or higher. If you get a blood pressure reading of 180/110 or higher more than once, seek medical treatment right away. A reading this high is considered “hypertensive crisis.”
Two people saw minor increases. Participant 76703005’s blood pressure went from 123/69 (day 1) to 138/82 (day 29). Similarly, participant 26650045 went from 115/76 (day 1) to 116/80 (day 24, their last day).
But other people saw their blood pressure decline, sometimes by a lot.
(90638348) Blood pressure down, resting pulse down, pulse/ox up (data in spreadsheet)
Looking at the spreadsheet, participant 90638348 saw their blood pressure go from 139/98 on day 3 (the first they recorded) to 122/88 on day 29. They actually have BP data up to day 32, when BP was 125/87
Participant 14558563 also tracked their blood pressure, and found it went from 164/100 (day 5) to 153/98 (day 29). They even have data up to day 35, when it was 150/102.
(68482929) I ate a LOT of seasoning and salt, but my blood pressure dropped to 111/73 (before the diet it was 139/something)
(57747642) My blood pressure went down from a pre-diet average of about 135/85 to an average now of about 128/70. So that’s interesting.
(57875769) I also checked my blood pressure a few times, although I wasn’t scientific about it so I’d consider this anecdotal, but on day two of my diet my blood pressure was 149/96 (yikes!) and my last reading on day 27 was 126/81.
(66959098) I also took a blood pressure measurement before and after the diet, starting at 177/107 and going down to 130/80.
Not asking for blood pressure measurements was an oversight on our part, since the measurement is so standard and it’s so easy to track at home. If we run any future studies, we plan to include it; and if you try the potato diet on your own, we recommend that you track it!
Pulse / RHR
A few people measured their resting heart rate, and found that it dropped during their time on the potato diet.
Participant 90638348 reported their pulse (BPM) dropped from 78 (day 1) to 64 (day 29).
Participant 14558563 reported their pulse dropped from 68 (day 5) to 56 (day 29).
And participant 05999987 had this to say:
I noticed I often had to pee during the night, which is unusual for me. (Note that my version of potato diet was also very low sodium, mostly because bland potato was just fine with me and I figured if I got way out of Na/K balance my body would let me know, like a deer in search of a salt lick). More interesting is my resting heart rate went down by almost 10 bpm from ~63 to 54.
A few people got more comprehensive blood work done, and the changes they saw over the course of the diet were generally positive.
Participant 95730133 had this to say in his closing remarks:
As promised, here’s the results of my blood work! Taken on the first day (5/31) and last day (6/27) of my potato diet. Note the second test was also fasted though it isn’t marked.
Total cholesterol dropped from a high 242 mg/dL to a healthy 183 mg/dL.
LDL cholesterol improved from a high 148 mg/dL to a still high 124 mg/dL (0-99 is the target range).
All other levels remained healthy and in the target ranges.
Another participant (23300304) sent us his full blood test results. Like the guy above, 23300304 saw his total cholesterol drop, from 4.5 mmol/L to 3.1 mmol/L (about 174 mg/dL to 120 mg/L in the other units). He also saw his LDL cholesterol drop from 3.0 mmol/L to 1.4 mmol/L (116 mg/L to 54 mg/L). However, his triglycerides went up, from 0.65 mmol/L to 1.79 mmol/L.
When we tried this diet, we experienced some pretty hardcore hypomania:
This makes sense for us because we are mad scientists. But would “normal” people experience the super-wiring effects of potatoes too? Apparently yes, though certainly not everyone.
Participant 68545713 reported:
Energetically and mentally, I felt very energetic on the diet in a “hectic” kind of way. Not bad at all for me, that’s my preferred state. I tend to think of my mental clarity as being about a) how many trains of thought I can have going at once and b) how often I lose a train of thought to a blank mind. On potatoes, I had all ~3 trains running, and I rarely lost a thought. (That is quite unusual for me, and strikes me as very unlikely to be a coincidence.) … I’d classify the energy I get from a potatoes-only diet as “frantic”, or “hectic”, or “excited”.
Participant 15106191 gave these notes:
(Day 5) Energy boost kicked in today. Feel half my age
(Day 6) Potato energy going strong. Feel like Irish Superman
(Day 15) Almost too much energy, hard to sit down at a computer and work, took a break to play basketball
And participant 02142044 described:
[At] one point, I was feeling a mild euphoria, and then it just stopped … I felt a sort of euphoria/hypomania that lasted from day 17 to day 20, and I’m unsure how to reproduce it
Certainly not everyone saw this effect of the potatoes. Participant 90638348 said:
Never saw the manic energy described by other folks. I was sorta looking forward to that.
Only one person mentioned their migraines, but most participants probably don’t have migraines to begin with, so we found this interesting. This was participant 35182564, who said:
My frequent migraines improved during the diet. I could also go much longer without food than before and the blood sugar ups and downs were less pronounced, which is probably why the migraine is better. I am very happy about that.
Similarly, one person mentioned a serious improvement in their skin. Participant 36634531:
One unexpected consequence is that my skin is way clearer. I usually have a lot of redness in my face and am acne-prone. My skin has been way less red and acne has been infrequent which makes me wonder if I have a food allergy. If relevant for genetic reasons: I am of Jewish and English/Irish descent.
Two people mentioned libido issues; participant 95730133:
My libido was down a good bit this month, which I’ve seen during weight loss periods before.
…and participant 70325385
The diet had a fairly large effect on my energy and mood most days, and greatly decreased libido starting almost immediately.
Most people didn’t report this effect; but also no one mentioned the potato diet making them extra horny.
Fear and Grief???
One of the strangest effects that some people reported was an increase in intense feelings of fear and grief. For example, participant 95730133, who said:
I had 2-3 days with bad anxiety, which is super uncommon for me and represents a big chunk of the days I’ve ever felt anxious. May have had something to do with the rapid weight loss / potatoes.
We also saw some clear anecdotes about this on twitter:
Like I said above, potato diet is fucking weird. I mention this and the above because towards the end of the third week, I found myself crying every day. I was having actual meltdowns… five days in a row.
I am not talking “oh I am so sad, let a single tear roll down my cheek while I stare out of a window on a rainy day” levels of gloom and general depression. I am talking “at one point I couldn’t fold some of my laundry in a way that was acceptable to me, and this made me think I should kill myself, so I started crying”.
Is this a really dark to drop in the middle of a sort of lighthearted post about potato diet? Yes. I am sorry if you are uncomfortable reading it. Personally, I think I have a responsibility to talk about it, because the mentally weird aspect of this diet cannot be stressed enough.
If you experience this kind of side effect, we recommend you dial back or discontinue the diet. As Birb put it:
To anyone who wants to do this diet, or is considering it after the benefits I described above: I encourage you to do it, but please be extra cautious that your mental state might be altered and that you are not necessarily in your right mind.
Muscle / Exercise
Finally, let’s talk about the topic on everyone’s mind: getting swole, and staying that way.
When we opened signups, many people asked if you’d be able to get enough protein on an all-potato diet. Potatoes do have some protein, and more than their reputation would lead you to believe (3-5 g in a medium potato), but it’s true that 20 potatoes a day won’t give you as much protein as many people think you need.
This is where we reveal that this community trial is not actually the first-ever study of an all-potato diet. There are a few very small, very old studies, and they’re pretty illuminating on the subject of potato fitness. Stephan Guyenet explains:
Starting nearly a century ago, a few researchers decided to feed volunteers potato-only diets to achieve various research objectives. The first such experiment was carried out by a Dr. M. Hindhede and published in 1913 (described in 15). Hindhede’s goal was to explore the lower limit of the human protein requirement and the biological quality of potato protein. He fed three healthy adult men almost nothing but potatoes and margarine for 309 days (margarine was not made from hydrogenated seed oils at the time), all while making them do progressively more demanding physical labor. They apparently remained in good physical condition. Here’s a description of one of his volunteers, a Mr. Madsen, from another book (described in 16; thanks to Matt Metzgar):
“In order to test whether it was possible to perform heavy work on a strict potato diet, Mr. Madsen took a place as a farm laborer… His physical condition was excellent. In his book, Dr. Hindhede shows a photograph of Mr. Madsen taken on December 21st, 1912, after he had lived for almost a year entirely on potatoes. This photograph shows a strong, solid, athletic-looking figure, all of whose muscles are well-developed, and without excess fat. …Hindhede had him examined by five physicians, including a diagnostician, a specialist in gastric and intestinal diseases, an X-ray specialist, and a blood specialist. They all pronounced him to be in a state of perfect health.”
Dr. Hindhede discovered that potato protein is high quality, providing all essential amino acids and high digestibility. Potato protein alone is sufficient to sustain an athletic man (although that doesn’t make it optimal). A subsequent potato feeding study published in 1927 confirmed this finding (17). Two volunteers, a man and a woman, ate almost nothing but potatoes with a bit of lard and butter for 5.5 months. The man was an athlete but the woman was sedentary. Body weight and nitrogen balance (reflecting protein gain/loss from the body) remained constant throughout the experiment, indicating that their muscles were not atrophying at any appreciable rate, and they were probably not putting on fat. The investigators remarked:
“The digestion was excellent throughout the experiment and both subjects felt very well. They did not tire of the uniform potato diet and there was no craving for change.”
So previous all-potato diets didn’t lead to serious atrophy; it seems like people can maintain muscle just fine on a potato diet, and maybe even build muscle. Despite being relatively low in protein, that protein may be exceptionally available or otherwise of unusually high quality.
Empirically, participants in our potato study seemed to lose mostly fat, not muscle. Participant 10157137 used a Fitbit Aria scale to measure fat %, which went from 17.3% (day 1) to 16.5% (day 28). And they were not alone:
(57875769) I lost nearly 17 pounds, and if the body composition on my scale is to be believed, roughly 75% of that was fat.
(46804417) In total I lost 12.5lb (5.7kg) and 4.3% (33%->28.7%) body fat. I measured the fat % using a FitBit Aria 2 scale. I found it impressive that almost all the weight I lost was fat, usually when I diet I lose some fat but close to maybe half of the total?
Maybe you don’t trust these home scales, and you know what, fair enough. But these numbers are backed up with athletic performance, which indicates no noticeable muscle loss:
(41297226) Weightlifting: I’ve been lifting off an on the last couple months. Went from deadlift/squat/bench of 155/165/135 on April 29th (day -5 pre-diet) to 160/145/125 on May 16th (day 13, first time lifting during diet) to 175/150/140 (day 21). I’d say: inconclusive, but doesn’t seem like I was held back from improvement by potatoes (+ taking 4g of BCAAs post workout)
(14122662) In general, I was shocked by the amount of weight I lost, especially since I started out slim and didn’t have much weight to lose in the first place. I had to actively make sure I was eating enough each day so that I wouldn’t lose even more weight. That said, I felt fine throughout the diet and stayed physically active by rock climbing, hiking, and playing kickball and tennis. My health was never a big concern for me.
(01772895) I went on several pretty intense road/mountain bike rides and kept up while feeling good over the course of the diet.
(05999987) I stuck with my usual level of physical activity which is at least 5 miles of walking a day, with some plyometrics. On the few occasions I did do some more intensive activities (a hike with a long, steep uphill portion) or jogging I felt more muscularly tired than usual, though in general I had average for me, or slightly above average energy.
(74872365) I felt unable/unwilling to lift weights during it. I was lifting 3x a week beforehand, and tried near the beginning to workout a couple times but started feeling kinds of joint soreness I wasn’t used to (assuming because of impaired recovery from previous workout). I tried to give it a few more days rest and just suddenly felt very much like not exercising… so I hardly lifted at all for the rest of it. But after the diet was over (a few weeks after it, what with moving and stuff) I got back into gym, got going again at reduced weights, and in two weeks matched or exceeded previous personal bests on most lifts (but haven’t gotten back to previous bench press best). I overall feel very positive about the way in which I was able to resume working out and hitting PRs after it was over, it wasn’t an overall bad thing for my lifting in the grand scheme.
On the other hand, not everyone had sustained athletic performance on the potato diet. For example, participant 57747642 said:
One difficulty for me was keeping up my running volume on the diet. Pre-diet I ran ~20 miles a week. During the diet I found longer runs to be extremely tiring–I think I was just in too much of a caloric deficit to have much glycogen available. I started cheating by drinking a bottle of gatorade before my longer runs and that seemed to fix the issue. But I still only averaged about 8 miles a week of running which was quite a step down.
(15106191; Day 14) Bench press went down today, likely losing muscle along with the fat, either because of the low protein of potatoes or just the calorie deficit
(34196505) I lift weights at the gym a few times a week, and even on days when I made a point of eating a ton, I felt more fatigued and had a hard time lifting my goal weight. Physical activity seemed harder in general. This is consistent with how I usually feel about a calorie deficit.
If you’re training for a marathon that’s four weeks away, don’t start now. But for most of us, it’s clear that four weeks of the potato diet doesn’t cause serious atrophy or muscle loss.
6. Why do some people find the diet easy and others don’t?
Some people find the diet comically easy, while other people hit a wall at some point and are suddenly unable to eat another potato. We’d like to know why.
It’s worth distinguishing between two things; or that is to say, we think there are two ways to lose weight on the potato diet.
First, you can grit your teeth and force yourself to eat nothing but starchy tubers while fighting back your desire to eat literally anything else. A few people who made it the full four weeks seem to have had this experience. For example, participant 83122914:
It was an interesting experience, but it didn’t feel like any kind of magic bullet for long-term weight loss. I initially ate mostly mashed potatoes, but over time I found myself losing the desire to eat them. I craved meat, salad, etc. … I’ve had similar weight loss results in the past with a low-carb diet.
But most people lost weight the other way: after a day or two of eating potatoes, their appetite waned, they didn’t want anything else, and they began to steadily lose weight.
This is the interesting part. To make this easier to talk about, let’s call it entering “potato mode”, or “potatosis”. Actually, Greek for potato is “patata”, should it be “patataosis”?
Also worth noting that it’s not like the potato diet was just easy for some people and hard for others. More like, almost everyone found it easy at first. Some people found it easy for days or weeks and then suddenly hit a wall. So the question may be more like, why do some people hit a wall at three days, others at three weeks, and others apparently not at all?
It’s possible that the difference between the people who found the diet easy and the people who hit a wall will be something easy to notice, maybe basic demographic variables like race and sex. Let’s see:
The group of participants who provided us any data were mostly male (any way you slice it), mostly white, and mostly from the US.
But overall, basic demographics don’t seem to track onto who made it four weeks and who ended the study early. People who made it four weeks were slightly older, more likely to be from the US, and less likely to be white, but none of these differences are very big.
The only difference that jumps out is by sex. About 20% of the people who got to the point of recording data were female, compared to only about 10% of the people who made it four weeks.
We’re not sure why, or if this is even a real result. With so few female participants to start with, this could just be random noise.
Participants who are XY did report the diet being a little easier, with a mean ease rating of 4.4/7, compared to 4.2/7 for XX participants, but this is not significant (p = 0.530).
We also noticed that XY participants did complete slightly more days overall, but it’s not clear if this is robust. Looking at the plotted data, it doesn’t seem like a huge difference:
The first day of potatoes sucked. I seriously contemplated quitting during the FIRST day. After eating my first round of potatoes, I literally walked from our apartment to a grocery store to look at the extra cheesy hot-and-ready pizza I thought I needed. I gazed at the pizza and walked around the store looking for something to eat. Luckily, I was able to keep it together and walk out of the store and back home to my pantry full of potatoes.
I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it was seriously one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. It took more will power than I thought either of us had.
But with such a small number of XX participants, it’s hard to be sure.
That said, 20% (6 out of 30) of XX participants made it four weeks. If the potato diet only works for one out of every five people with two X chromosomes, that’s still pretty good.
We do wonder if this is a real effect, and if so, why it happens. It would be good if future studies had more XX participants.
Having lots of trans participants would also help us tell if the cause is more hormonal or more chromosomal. In this study, there aren’t enough people whose chromosomes and hormones don’t “match” to actually disentangle any effects.
Some people seemed to have an easier time, or see better weight loss, when they used less oil.
For our own part, one of us was fine for the first two weeks on a relaxed all-potato diet with olive oil, but didn’t see any weight loss until switching to a no-oil version for the last two weeks, when they lost 10 lbs.
Participant 68482929 did some analysis of his own on this question:
The amount of olive oil I consumed had a noticeable effect on how much weight I lost:
The main thing I craved on the diet was more olive oil. If I ate 10 tbsp / day, that felt about right (and my stool was normal and I gained a bit of weight on those days). The more I cut the oil, the more I had intestinal distress, and the more weight I lost.
Here’s that image:
Participant 88218660 mentioned something similar:
third week – started making air fryer fries at home with < 1 Tbsp of oil and eating pretty much only these. Also allowed myself to have ketchup – I’d estimate an upper bound of 200 calories per day of ketchup, but I expect it was less than that. Stopped losing weight. Very unclear if this is a natural plateau or an actual effect of ketchup. Cravings came back in force, as did normal hunger feeling.
Final day – switched back to mashed potatoes with no oil. Hunger was gone again, cravings were dampened, but didn’t immediately lose any more weight.
It’s not clear if this was the oil or the ketchup (or something else) but they definitely seem to have dropped out of potato mode for some reason. We reached out to participant 88218660 for clarification and he told us that he used olive oil at home.
Despite these stories, many people used lots of oil throughout the diet and still lost weight. This suggests it’s not that all oil is bad and inhibits the potato diet. More likely, it’s that 1) some kinds of oil (e.g. olive oil vs canola oil) inhibit potato mode more than others, 2) certain batches / sources of the same oil (two different brands of canola oil or something) inhibit potato mode for some reason, 3) some people respond to oil differently because of genetics or microbiome or something, or probably 4) some combination of the above. Or it could just be noise, this isn’t strong evidence yet.
Nicky Case also recently did a regression analysis of her own data over 40 days, and found a strong effect of olive oil. But it looks like it was in the opposite direction — for her, more olive oil was associated with more weight loss. Check out the analysis in her twitter thread:
It’s sort of not surprising that all these anecdotes reference olive oil, since we recommended that people should probably use olive oil if they use oil at all. But it’s still kind of interesting. Recommending olive oil might have limited the amount of information we’ll be able to get out of these data! A few people did mention they did very well on Five Guys fries, which are fried in peanut oil… Five Guys, talk to us.
Some people did keep detailed notes of their oil consumption, so it’s possible that a clear answer to this question is hiding somewhere in the data. But it’s also possible that we’d need to run a controlled experiment to figure it out, and we may do that at some point (unless one of you gets to it first?).
Salt / Sodium
Salt intake might also help explain why some people had trouble with this diet.
We didn’t ask people to limit salt intake, but some people may have been keeping their intake down anyways, and that may have made the diet harder than necessary. Even if they weren’t trying to limit how much salt they ate, they may still not have been getting enough. Potatoes by themselves are a naturally low-sodium food.
For example, consider the experience of participant 57875769:
Probably my biggest piece of advice is to use plenty of salt. Depending on the nutrition labels, potatoes have zero sodium or an extremely low amount. It seems hard to get the recommended amount of sodium (and I’ve seen some heterodox sources that say the recommendations should be even twice as high as they are) without adding salt to potatoes. A few days I felt kind of light headed or unfocused and I’d finding adding a little bit of salt to a glass of water (under the threshold where I could taste it) would often improve things pretty quickly.
Or this participant on twitter:
Some people also mentioned craving pickled things, which could be the manifestation of a salt craving:
(01772895) Interestingly toward the end, my main cravings were actually for pickled vegetables for some reason.
Of course, we don’t know for sure if the people who dropped out early WEREN’T getting enough salt. But if some people were avoiding salt this could explain some of the difference.
Another possibility is that finding the potato diet difficult can be an early sign of health issues.
Potatoes are high in potassium, and the kidneys need to do a certain amount of work to clear all that potassium from your system. They’re also high in certain toxins. A healthy body under no extra stress is equipped to handle these toxins no problem. But if your health is compromised, it might be another story.
If you eat one potato, your body will be able to deal with the extra potassium and the low levels of plant toxins. If you eat nothing but potatoes and you have reasonably healthy kidneys, again your body will be able to handle it. But if you eat nothing but potatoes and you have poor kidney health, at some point your poor kidneys may not be able to handle all the extra potassium, potato toxins, and other junk. This will make you start to feel terrible, and may explain why some people did fine on the potato diet for a long time and then suddenly started feeling terrible.
Kidney function seems like the simplest case, but other kinds of hidden health issues could also give your body trouble.
The clearest example comes from Alex Beal (who gave us permission to use his case as an example). He was one of our earliest participants in the potato diet, and also one of the first to drop out of the study. He started tweeting about his experience, did ok on the first meal, but soon found himself feeling awful and totally unable to stand potatoes. He published a log of his experiences here, where he says:
I’ve decided to drop out of the study after less than 48 hours. This diet kicked my ass.
Beal stopped the diet on May 1st. A few days later, he found out he had prediabetes:
This maybe explains why he had such unusual trouble with the potato diet (remember, 90% of people who entered at least one day of data made it more than two days, and 40% made it all the way to day 28). Beal has a (mild) metabolic disorder he didn’t know about when he started, and it’s pretty reasonable to suspect that this may have limited his ability to deal with all these potatoes.
We discussed this with Beal and he agrees it’s plausible. “In a study population of obese folks,” he says, “I do worry undiagnosed diabetes or prediabetes is a risk. It’s very common for it to go undiagnosed.” This is similar to something JP Callaghan mentioned, where he said, “There are tons of people walking around with their kidneys at like 50% or worse who don’t even know it.”
One strike against this explanation is that younger people generally have better kidney function, so if this were why people are dropping out of the study, you’d expect to see many fewer dropouts among younger people, which we don’t see. But for what it’s worth, Alex Beal is pretty young and he had undiagnosed prediabetes before signing up for the study. It’s possible that we recruited a sample that has disproportionately high numbers of young people with undiagnosed renal and/or metabolic disorders.
In any case, finding the potato diet really hard may be an early warning sign for kidney issues and/or diabetes, possibly because the high levels of potassium put a strain on your kidneys that you wouldn’t normally experience, so it might reveal problems you wouldn’t normally notice. So the potato diet may be a useful at-home diagnostic tool.
If you had a hard time with the potato diet, especially if you were only able to make it a few days, talk to your doctor about checking for kidney function and prediabetes.
A number of people mentioned that peeling the potatoes made the diet noticeably easier:
(02142044) The diet was a bit tough at the beginning, probably because I didn’t peel them.
(68545713) After only a few days, I allowed myself salt and oil, and at about the same time I started “imperfectly peeling” the potatoes to reduce (but not eliminate) the fiber. This made the diet much easier for me.
(86547222) First two days I didn’t peel potatoes and my digestion went crazy. After that I started to peel potatoes, which helped but not by a lot.
This matches our experience. On the potato diet, there was a point at which the peels started getting disgusting — but without the peel, potatoes continued to be delicious. We were very pro-peels starting out, but by about halfway through, we started peeling them and that made a clear difference.
This is interesting because it certainly goes against common wisdom about the peels — that they’re especially nutritious, that they’re good for you, and so on. It’s true they’re high in fiber, and it may be fine if you are eating only like, four or five potatoes now and then. But as Stephan Guyenet points out:
Peel [potatoes] before eating if you rely on them as a staple food … Potato peels are nutritious but contain toxins.
Again, your body can handle most vegetable toxins in small doses. But if you are eating a lot, at some point they might get to the point where it’s a problem.
So it could certainly be that past a certain point, eating the peels will become difficult for some people. Or it could be that the peels are generally fine if you’re healthy, but they pose a problem for people with undiagnosed poor kidney function. There could easily be a peels * kidney interaction.
It could also just be fiber. Lots of people reported digestive issues, and the peels are especially high in dietary fiber.
So it’s possible that some people who dropped out early could have made it further if they started peeling their potatoes. If you’re having trouble on the diet, we definitely recommend ditching the peels.
Like we mentioned, potatoes contain toxins, and some potatoes contain more toxins than others. For example, levels of the toxin solanine increase when potatoes are improperly stored, or exposed to too much sunlight, and green potatoes tend to have more solanine.
Most bags of potatoes are fine, but maybe one day you go to the grocery store and just happen to get a bag of greener-than-usual potatoes, which make you feel sick, and since you’re being careful, prompt you to end the diet early. From your perspective you can’t tell why you suddenly got sick, but from a god’s-eye-view, it was the bad batch of potatoes. So maybe random chance is what’s causing some people to hit a wall.
(Just avoiding green potatoes wouldn’t totally fix the problem, because potatoes can be high in toxins without being green. But definitely do avoid green potatoes.)
If this were the case, it would look pretty random who drops out. It does look pretty random who drops out. So maybe the dropouts are from some kind of random factor like this!
7. Why the Heck Does the Potato Diet Work
The human body has a lipostat that regulates body weight, and the lipostat has a setpoint, a weight that it wants to maintain. For the sake of an example, let’s say it wants to maintain a BMI of 23. The lipostat can detect how much fat is stored and takes action to drive body fatness to the set point of BMI = 23. If your body’s BMI is below the setpoint, the lipostat will drive you to eat more, exercise less, sleep more, and store more of what you eat as fat. If your body’s BMI is above the setpoint, the lipostat will drive you to eat less, move and fidget more, and store less of the food you eat as fat.
People become obese because something has gone wrong with the lipostat — for some reason it is defending a set point above BMI 30, and all the regulatory systems of the body are working together to push body weight to that level and keep it there (for more information, see here).
It seems clear to us that something about the potato diet lowers your lipostat set point, and weight loss kicks in because the lipostat starts to defend that new, lower weight.
When you run a normal calorie deficit (don’t eat as many calories as you need), you get sluggish, you lack energy, you get hungry, and you have a hard time exercising. This is because your body wants to defend its weight at the current set point, whatever that point is, and will work really hard to keep you from getting lighter.
But when you are heavier than your current set point, the body pulls out all the stops to help you lose weight and drop to the set point. You feel more energetic, you fidget to burn extra calories, your body temperature goes up, you stop feeling hungry, and so on. In line with this, people in potato mode reported being very energetic, having hypomania, fidgeting all the time, and having no trouble exercising. This is exactly what we’d predict if your lipostat set point suddenly went down.
In addition, there are two special points that strongly support the idea that the potato diet lowers your lipostat set point.
First, some people keep losing weight after stopping the diet. We think this means that the lipostat set point dropped faster than weight loss was able to follow, and it took a few days after the diet was over for BMI to catch up. If the diet just worked on caloric restriction, then you would expect people to start gaining weight again after stopping. But that’s not the case, or at least, not always the case.
(36634531) My weight is still holding steady after resumption of a typical diet. Are you guys going to ping the participants in X months to see if we return to baseline?
(57875769) Since stopping my weight has stayed pretty flat (I was 215.3 lbs this morning and I ended the diet at 215.2, and I was traveling for a few days which usually causes me to gain weight) and I find that I have a much smaller appetite than I used to. I’m having to re-learn how much food I should serve myself or order at each meal because I’m used to eating much more.
This is just suggestive for now, but we’ll know more in 6 months when we do the first followup.
But the biggest sign that the potato diet lowers your lipostat set point is the overwhelmingly common experience of how the potato diet makes hunger feel entirely different.
(36634531) My appetite did eventually tank. I was down to one meal a day. I don’t know if I was just full all the time or if my stomach shrunk or what. I was never feeling hungry throughout the diet.
(68545713) [I] felt less desperate than before-potatoes when I did get hungry. It was wonderful.
(29550957) Subjective feeling is definitely that I could get hungry, but it was not an urgent problem. Completely different from my usual modus operandi of gravitating in the direction of food whenever slightly hungry.
(10010108) I simply was not hungry in the mornings. Once I did start eating, I was starving every 1-2 hours. Out of habit, I do not eat after 8 pm. Sometimes we would have dinner at 7 due to scheduling, and I would be stomach growling hungry at bedtime, between 10-12. I was not going to get up and eat, so I drank water and slept. The hunger just wasn’t there in the mornings though.
(81125989) My sense of hunger was anomalous: some days I’d eat less than 1000 calories and feel totally fine, some days I’d get a sudden sharp pang of hunger right after a hefty meal. And on my cheat days, even when I ate to satiety, I ate a lot less than I did pre-potato diet.
(74872365) I recall feeling like hunger exists in two distinct modes, and potato diet worked helped switch one off while downregulating the other: there’s the “need to feel full and need blood sugar” hunger and the “pleasure reward hunger.” It was like when I finished a mashed potato dinner the first hunger was satiated fully but I still would have eaten a whole pint of ice cream for pleasure if I was allowed to. I still kind of wanted to eat for more pleasure, but the pleasure based eating was “deactivated” from controlling my decision, and the potatoes weren’t hitting that pleasure center. Hence I only ate up to the level of the first hunger metric, the more “physical” one, and that level was downregulated of course. During cheat days (which were all around dinner times I think), the moment I started eating non-potato, I got insanely outlandishly hungry and ate surprising amounts of food the rest of the evening. It was like I would eat a bunch and then suddenly feel empty an hour later.
(68030741) I limited my intake of non-potatoes, but I ate potatoes ad libitum. I didn’t try to limit my daily calories; in fact the opposite, I often just wasn’t hungry enough to eat more.
(1772895) Toward the end of the diet, I found it difficult to eat enough potatoes. I’d be a bit tired and hungry, but the effort of cooking them and eating them seemed too much to bother with. This was an interesting experience, and gave me some empathy for a few of my friends who have a hard time keeping weight on, even with an unrestricted diet. When they’ve described themselves as sometimes being ‘too lazy to eat’ in the past, I basically found that unimaginable, as I don’t think I could ever be too lazy to eat cake, for example. However, if the reward I got from eating cake was similar to the reward I get from eating potatoes, I guess that’s how I’d feel.
What’s interesting though is that I wasn’t feeling tired and hungry and craving some other food — I just didn’t feel like eating. Maybe this is something to do with the stuff Pen Gillette mentioned about eating habits fading. Interestingly toward the end, my main cravings were actually for pickled vegetables for some reason.
(77742719) I did get more tired throughout, and my appetite actually continually decreased. Had to remind myself to eat quite often and actually made a schedule. On this last day, I had only one meal of potatoes, 500 kcal.
(90638348) Was not ever resentful or hungry, always felt “full”
(88218660) First week – no oil, pretty much all mashed, non-organic russets with cajun seasoning and hot sauce. Almost immediately I could tell my cravings were significantly dampened (though not gone, especially if I was looking at tasty food) and that the normal feeling of hunger was entirely gone for me – what was left was a feeling of being almost faint and feeling not great when I went too long without eating. Took a lot of adjusting to.
(57875769) I feel full sooner than I used to, and I feel like there is a much richer variety of sensations that influence whether I want to eat more food. I remember some people advocating that to maintain a healthy weight you just need to learn to listen to my body, which is sort of what this feels like. Perhaps the people giving that advice were always thin and so listening to their body was never hard. I’ve started feeling signals I don’t remember feeling before I started the diet. It’s almost as if the volume from some things (e.g. a hyper-palatable diet) drowned out and deafened me to all the signals I was supposed to listen to. Now I feel like I’m hearing these again.
(76011343) throughout I had a ton more energy, better mood, weird hunger effect that you guys have documented (didn’t feel hungry and had to force self to eat)
As you can probably tell, this experience was extremely common. But we should note that it wasn’t universal, even among people who lost a lot of weight. Participant 99479977 lost 22lbs but specifically mentioned no appetite/hunger effect:
I’ve seen a lot of people mentioning how the diet changed their perception of hunger. For me at least that didn’t change. What I did notice though is that I become sated much quicker. Today I packed myself four medium size roasted potatoes for lunch during uni, and I felt sated after just three of them.
And see also this report from participant 34196505:
It wasn’t like some hunger switch flipped off in my brain after a day or three of nothing but baked potatoes–I still got hungry, and it felt similar to normal hunger. I saw people on twitter saying they were having a hard time reaching 1,000 calories a day. Can’t relate.
People did eat very few calories on this diet. Most people didn’t track calories very closely (another benefit of the diet — no calorie counting!) but some people chose to record how much they were eating. The people who recorded calories (self-report, so grain of salt here) generally reported eating very little.
For example, participant 68030741 kept super detailed notes on calorie consumption and should be the starting point for anyone who wants to dive deeper into this question. He reports eating as little as 756 calories in a given day, and never more than 1740.
Participant 71309629 never reported eating more than 1556 kcal, and ate as little as 307 kcal one day.
Participant 07644625 has “been tracking [calories] for 4035 days … hard to stop now” and reported eating as little as 1172 kcal in a day — but also often ate more than 2000.
Participant 05999987 also said:
As for ease of diet, it was quite easy to feel full, without eating very many calories at all. This worried me the first week, even on days when I supplemented the potatoes with salmon I never ate even 1300 calories a day. In fact, I averaged 921 calories per day.
This is consistent with the reduced appetite. But it is NOT an explanation any more than “the bullet” is a good explanation for “who killed the mayor?” Something about the potato diet lowered people’s lipostat set point, which reduced their appetite, which yes made them eat fewer calories, which was part of what led them to lose weight. Yes, “fewer kcal/day” is somewhere in the causal chain. No, it is not an explanation.
But we’re bored of trying to explain this one, so we’re going to let the cat do it:
Alternately, if you prefer your arguments to come from bipeds:
But that’s ok, this study was not designed to help distinguish between different theories of the obesity epidemic — it was designed to see if the potato diet works under realistic conditions, and to get a rough sense of what percent of people it works for. Now that we have that, future studies can use the potato diet as a “model diet” to start pitting theories against one another. Won’t that be fun.
Even so, the data from this first study does tell us a little bit about different theories. Compared to other diet studies, the potato diet has the benefit of being super controlled — it’s a clear baseline of potato, with few interfering factors. So let’s take a look.
Something special about potatoes?
One thing we need to address right off the bat is the possibility that potatoes cure obesity for some reason totally unrelated to the obesity epidemic.
For example: cocaine makes you lose weight. But the obesity epidemic didn’t happen because everyone was on cocaine for all of history, which kept them skinny, and then in the 20th century people started forgetting to take their cocaine, and we all gained 40 lbs. It’s just that cocaine has strong weight loss effects totally unrelated to whatever caused the obesity epidemic.
Similarly, it’s possible that potatoes are just a potent weight-loss drug for reasons totally unrelated to the increase in obesity since circa 1970. There are a few things that make this seem plausible.
For starters, Staffan Lindeberg, in his book Food and Western Disease, has a whole section on how maybe humans were built to eat roots and tubers:
Increasing evidence suggests that large starchy underground storage organs (roots, tubers, bulbs and corms), which plants form in dry climates, were staple foods 1–2 million years ago. There are at least three arguments in favour of this notion. Firstly, in contrast to most other animals including non-human primates, humans have an exceptional capacity to produce salivary amylase in order to begin hydrolysis of starch in the mouth. The underlying change in copy number of the gene coding for salivary amylase may have occurred approximately 1 million years ago. … Secondly, roots often need to be prepared under high temperature in order for its starch to be available for digestion and for its bioactive or toxic substances to be neutralised. There are many indications of Palaeolithic humans using fire for cooking, and one of the most common cooking methods for plant foods was probably the so-called earth oven, where food wrapped in large leaves is placed in a covered pit with hot stones or glowing coals. Thirdly, human tooth morphology, including incisal orientation, seems to be well designed for chewing root vegetables. … Our bipedal ancestors were apparently less efficient hunters than many carnivorous animals and less efficient fruit-foragers than the arboreal primates. In order to increase the caloric yield per workload (‘optimal foraging strategy’), root vegetables may often have been an optimal dietary choice. An illustrative example is the Machiguenga tribe of the Amazon, among whom one woman can dig up enough root vegetables in one hour to feed 25 adults for one day. The excellent health status among this and other starch-eating ethnic groups, including our own study population in Papua New Guinea (see Section 4.1), contradicts the popular notion that such foods are a cause of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
If we really are built to eat tubers above and beyond all other foods, this might explain why the potato diet lowers your lipostat set point to hunter-gatherer levels.
There’s also some evidence that potato protease inhibitor II suppresses appetite and reduces food intake, though these studies don’t seem to be especially targeted — it looks like they basically just gave people potato extract.
We don’t think the evidence is all that strong, but it certainly seems possible that potatoes just suppress appetite and make you lose weight.
We’ll know more when we get the six-month followup results. If potatoes just suppress your appetite during the time you’re eating them, then once you stop eating them, you should gain most of the weight back. But if potatoes are doing something more profound, and resetting your lipostat or whatever (however they do that), then weight loss should be at least somewhat sustained by six months out. For what it’s worth, this is what we see in the case studies, like Penn Jillette and Andrew Taylor, who seem to have had little trouble keeping the weight off.
It’s possible of course that BOTH are true, that potatoes both suppress your appetite in the short term and somehow reset your lipostat in the long term. In fact, the combination of these effects would be a pretty good explanation for why the potato diet is so unusually powerful. But we’ll have to wait and see.
But assuming for a moment that potatoes are NOT a superpotent weight-loss drug for some reason, what would this tell us about other theories?
Calorie-Counting, Willpower, and other Traditional Diets
(34459757) Pretty easy as far as diets go, basically never felt hungry. Previously I’ve successfully lost 25 lbs via just calorie restriction (mostly by eating box mac and cheese and other prepackaged things with easy calorie counts), and potatoes were definitely easier and I lost weight at the same speed.
(66959098) It felt pretty easy. I have tried simple CICO diets before where I simply reduce portion sizes and maintain a calorie deficit, which were incredibly hard to follow through and caused me to think about food all of the time. This had no such effect, no strong hunger, no strong cravings. I am happy with the results from just three weeks.
(99479977) I have tried various diets before, but restricting calories while eating whatever I like left me hungry, which lead to overeating and actually gaining more weight. The potato diet kept me sated, allows for just enough variety (especially through condiments) to keep me engaged
(27316026) I started the study slightly overweight by BMI and mostly interested in helping out along with seeing how it went firsthand. I’m 35 and 5’9 and my weight has been slowly going up on average for a decade, interrupted by harsh diets every few years to try and get back down under 160. I’ve always succeeded at these diets, which normally lasted around 2 months and involved meticulous calorie counting. I hated these diets and was only able to maintain them with the knowledge that they would be over relatively soon. Comparatively the potato diet has been a joy. It only took a few days to settle into, but after working out a few dishes I enjoyed I wasn’t hungry and food cravings were largely absent.
(95730133) I was pleasantly surprised with the amount and consistency of weight loss on this. 2.5 lbs a week is pretty dramatic and this was even easier to stick to than when I’ve done calorie counting previously at a shallower slope (1.25 lbs/week).
(29550957) This is pretty much the best diet I’ve ever been on, including earlier this year when I also ate mostly potatoes- but with tons of dairy (butter, sour cream, cheese) on them. Despite literally messing up an entire week’s worth of days, I seem to be durably down about 10lbs.
(30719090) This has been quite a revelation:
I have been dieting on and off for about 10 years now. The only successful diet was 10 years ago when I got down to 75kg (165lbs). This was based on buying an expensive range of low carb meals. I was less overweight at the time and it was something of a struggle. The diet was eventually derailed by personal circumstances and I have since then gradually increased my weight reaching 200lbs and over recently.
All other diets I have tried have had a small loss initially, but the loss has never continued. The psychological difficulty of maintaining a restricted diet when the losses did not continue was always too much for me. I hate the feeling of being hungry.
The potato diet has been very different. I actually like potatoes so I have not found it difficult to eat them every day and I have found it very easy to resist the temptation of other food.
(35182564) Since I was very successful, losing more than 20 pounds in six weeks, I will probably continue some more relaxed form of the diet for a few more weeks. I have been trying to lose weight for years with absolutely no success. The potato diet did in six weeks, what I could not accomplish in many years. I hope I can keep the lower weight (will send an update in a few months).
(05999987) As a person who has slowly gained weight over the years until I hit the border BMI between overweight and obese and it has become very difficult to lose weight. I’ve often done a couple weeks of limiting to 1500 kCal/day with what a normal person would think healthy–lots of vegetables, some whole grains, some lean proteins, olive oil, legumes. Every time I’d lose a couple pounds, but not much more, and find myself to be quite hungry most of the time. The main difference with potato diet is that I only once experienced the brain-crashing feeling that I need to eat something immediately because my brain is no longer working due to the colloquial usage of “low blood sugar”. The rational part of my brain also didn’t notice any hunger and I could read about/watch people eat/think about delicious foods and not feel like I really wanted to eat them, and I’m the sort of person who thinks about cooking a lot. Plain cold potato was just fine with me, and while I looked forward to the end of the diet and eating normal food again on a theoretical level, I didn’t care about adding condiments, etc.
(63833277) I occasionally had french fries or tater tots or even a couple of times pringles. My wife used some dairy in preparing the mashed potatoes and had ketchup on my fried potatoes, so probably technically every single day should have a “1” in the “broke diet” field. But if I’d done that I’d never have been able to stick with it as well as I did–I basically tried to bend the diet such that I could successfully stick with it but no further and call that success. I thought about retrospectively changing them all to 1s but there *were* days when I *actually* broke the looser diet I’d set for myself and I didn’t want to elide that distinction. Basically think of my diet as a slightly loose potato diet that’s like 95%-97% potatoes instead of 97%-99% as expected. Sorry for not being ideal about that, I figured that would be better than giving up after 5 days.
DESPITE THE DEVIATIONS, THE DIET WAS AN ASTOUNDING SUCCESS!
I’ve never lost weight before. My life has been a slow drumbeat of “this is my setpoint weight, I can’t lose any but I don’t gain any” punctuated by “Life event, my setpoint weight is now X lbs higher than it used to be”. I was never able to motivate myself to stick with diets because I was constantly half-assing them, thus not losing weight, thus seeing no point in sticking with a diet that wasn’t losing me weight.
I lost half a pound a day on this potato diet. I am astounded, as is everyone who knows me!
The potato diet is not a willpower diet. Some people saw huge effects even while cheating. Some people saw huge effects on this diet even when they had found other diets super hard in the past.
We understand if you don’t really get this. We didn’t get it either, despite reading about all the previous success stories, until one of us tried the potato diet for ourselves. Hunger vanishes in a really weird way that is hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t felt it directly. So listen to all our participants who are like “no it’s not calories, it’s not willpower”. Or try it for yourself, you might be surprised!
Anyone else who complains about calorie-counting will be thrown directly into the sun.
Carbs make you fat
Some people think that carbs make you fat. But the potato diet seems like bad news for any “carbs make you fat” theory, since potatoes are starchy carbs. More complex versions might still have a leg to stand on, but obviously this finding is a problem for this kind of theory.
We didn’t track the oil people were eating in any rigorous way, but many people had seed oils like canola and peanut oil on their potatoes. Since their diet was otherwise so limited, this seems like a problem for seed oils theory.
On the other hand, the amount of oil they were eating did seem to make a difference for some people. So maybe this is more evidence for “something that is sometimes in oil and sometimes not”. It fits pretty well with contamination theories (more in a bit), or anything else that might vary in oils, perhaps due to factors like different growing conditions.
There are some theories that suggest that the obesity epidemic is the result of what we’ll call “long-term” factors. For example, evolutionary theories say that natural selection is, for some reason, pushing us towards greater body weights over time. Epigenetic theories suggest that things that happened to your parents or grandparents cause obesity, as the result of gene expression.
Developmental theories say that people become more obese later in life because of something that happened to them early on in development or childhood. This recent massive review paper specifically argues “that obesity likely has origins in utero,” i.e. you get obese at 25 because of things that happened to you when you were an embryo.
But the potato diet poses a challenge for these theories. If obesity is caused by something that happened to you in utero, or by something that happened to your grandmother, then how come it can be reversed in a couple of weeks of potatoes? There may be ways to resolve this challenge, but it’s a challenge nonetheless.
Some people have told us, “oh you can eat any one thing and lose weight like this”. Penn Jillette also says this. He told “Good Morning America” in 2016:
It didn’t have to be potatoes, they aren’t magic. I picked potatoes because it’s the funniest word. I could have chosen beans or just almost anything.
We’re not so sure. In particular, why do people think that other mono diets work? We haven’t seen any. We encourage anyone to find anecdotes, studies, or better yet, run their own Onion Diet study or whatever.
The potato diet isn’t even really a mono diet. We explicitly allow for oil and seasonings, and lots of people lost weight with tons of cheat days. The mono-ness (monotony?) of the potato diet clearly is not the active ingredient.
Potatoes are also unusual in that they are (almost) nutritionally complete. You couldn’t do the white bread diet and get far. But you could maaaaaaaybe do the whole wheat bread and oil diet, or the wheat bread and cheese diet. Also known as: the basic daily diet in Europe for centuries.
That said, we do think that studies (maybe more internet community trials) of other very simple diets would be interesting — especially since most cultures historically have had very simple diets, which shows there are many simple diets you should be able to live on indefinitely. So we’d love to see, for example, studies on diets composed exclusively of:
Rice & beans
Rice & fish
Rice & lentils
Buckwheat soba & edamame
Bread & olives / olive oil
(Someone should check that these are nutritionally complete first, though.)
This last one is already close to the Mediterranean diet, but it would be interesting to cut the Mediterranean diet down to literally just bread, olives, olive oil, wine, and cheese. Or literally to just bread and olives / olive oil, if you could survive on that.
So anyways, if you are sure that any mono diet would work, please do run your own study, we want to see it. We’d be happy to discuss study design with you!
Some people put the obesity epidemic down to a factor called “food reward”. They say that people are obese now because food has gotten more delicious, and that the potato diet causes weight loss because potatoes aren’t delicious. An attempt to describe the theory might look something like this:
People are more obese because food is way more fun to eat now. You can even be agnostic about why food is more fun to eat, and maybe it’s a million small reasons. But over time food producers have figured out how to hit that mental g-spot that makes people go YUM, and when you do that, people eat more than they should and they gain weight. The potato diet works because potatoes are boring and so people don’t overeat.
To be frank, we still don’t really get this theory. That is, we don’t think it makes sense.
First, we’re not convinced modern food is more delicious than old-timey foods. They had butter and ham and sugar and ice cream and even donuts back in 1900. Check out our review of foods of the 1920s and 1930s — lots of the food culture was weird, but they also had like, just tons of lard and pie.
Second, if the problem is that Doritos and Kraft Singles have been hyper-engineered by food scientists to be irresistible, then how exactly would the potato diet pry people away from them? If they are irresistible, then it should be really really hard to stop eating doritos and start eating potatoes. But people say that it doesn’t take much or even any willpower to stay on the potato diet, and many people report no cravings. If your model is “people eat the most delicious foods available and cannot help themselves”, then the only way the potato diet could hold people’s attention is if straight potatoes are more delicious and addictive than twinkies.
Frankly we think they are more delicious than twinkies — but if that’s true and food reward is the law of the brain, then fast-food companies should be peddling baked potatoes instead of Snickers bars.
Finally, the food reward perspective predicts that the potato diet works because potatoes are boring so you don’t want to eat them. We think this is also bunkum. Potatoes are great, and everyone knows it. Lots of participants reported not only enjoying potatoes, but liking them more after completing four weeks of the study:
(24235303) I didn’t mind eating potatoes. They were still perfectly tasty throughout, and varying form factor and spices kept things fresh enough.
(02142044) I felt a sort of euphoria/hypomania that lasted from day 17 to day 20, and I’m unsure how to reproduce it … It was both a feeling of well-being, but also the potatoes started feeling delicious, like they were extremely savory.
(29550957) The last two days my family forced me to eat a bunch of other stuff for my birthday and honestly I wasn’t super enthusiastic about it! I wish I could have just been eating more potatoes. I notice I definitely felt worse after eating stuff like cake, and actually felt durably very stuffed for hours afterwards.
(31497197) Overall, I’d say the diet “works” in that I ate as much as I wanted, mostly didn’t crave other food too often, never got sick of potato, and lost weight. On the very relaxed diet, I lost an average of 2lbs/week, and I think that would have been higher with less frying, but commercial food is not conducive to diets at the best of times. … This is really easy, in that I don’t hate potatoes and haven’t gotten sick of them.
(16832193) I was quite surprised that I didn’t get tired of potatoes. I still love them, maybe even more so than usual?!
Participant 57875769, Day 11:
My wife and I went out to eat with a friend and I expected to use today as a cheat day, but honestly potatoes sounded like the best thing on the menu so I ordered hash browns and french fries. The hash browns were very filling on their own so I didn’t eat many of the fries.
And again Day 29:
I’m ending today. It’s weird though, I’m thinking of all the foods I could eat today and I might just stick with potatoes for a lot of my meals. It’s going to feel strange going back to a more varied diet.
So, people come out of the diet saying they love potatoes. Many of them choose to keep eating potatoes even though they’re off the diet. Some of them say they MISS eating so many potatoes. If this isn’t what people mean by “food reward” or “palatability”, then we’re not sure what they mean. If people do mean something else specific, we’d be interested in hearing that.
Same thing for satiety. Yes, potatoes are high satiety, in the sense that you don’t want to eat anything else after you eat potatoes. But why are they high in satiety? Why do they make you not want to eat any more? This is borderline circular reasoning.
Some people think that the obesity epidemic is caused by some kind of problem with the microbiome, the little beasties that live in your digestive system.
This is really a proposed mechanism, rather than a theory of the cause(s) of the obesity epidemic. It doesn’t explain why the microbiome gets so messed up in the modern environment, but this also means it is potentially consistent with many different theories. If high levels of sugar, fat, light exposure, iron supplements, PFAS, lithium, processed foods, or whatever mess up the microbiome, and something in potatoes fixes it, the potato diet would work just about like we see here.
This seems reasonably plausible to us. In particular, many participants report digestive or gastrointestinal changes (both good and bad) on the potato diet, which is about what you would expect if the potato diet were seriously changing your microbiome. One possible limitation is that weight loss does seem to be driven by the brain, but there may be a gut-brain connection that renders this point moot.
That said, we’re not sure how to test this hypothesis any further. We could compare the potato diet to a normal diet supplemented with potato starch, but if the potato starch supplement also caused weight loss, that wouldn’t point to the microbiome specifically, it would just show that the potato starch contains the same active ingredient as the potato diet, whatever that is.
We could also test stool samples, but honestly we don’t know what we would be looking for. Yeah some things would probably change in your microbiome after four weeks of potatoes, and we could see if any of them were correlated with weight loss, but that’s a pretty blunt instrument. What should we actually look for? If anyone has opinions on *exactly* what might be going on with the microbiome, we’d be interested in hearing your theory.
“Processed food makes us fat” is a line that has been pushed by outlets such as the Washington Post and the NIH. The basic idea is pretty simple: ultra-processed foods make you fat, for some reason. People who support this perspective don’t usually say what it is about these processed foods that make them so fattening, but it’s often mindlessly conflated with the food reward theory:
It also doesn’t mean that all processed food is bad. Whole-grain bread and cereal are excellent, and there are good versions of such things as frozen pizza and jarred pasta sauce. Also wine.
What it does mean is that modern industrial food processing — and only modern industrial food processing — has enabled the manufacture of the cheap, convenient, calorie-dense foods engineered to appeal to us that have become staples of our obesogenic diet.
This perspective does seem to predict that the potato diet should cause weight loss, because potatoes are super unprocessed, about the rawest food most people are likely to eat. Participant 20943794 does a nice job pointing out just how unusual potatoes are in this way:
Potatoes are a lot less processed than most food I eat … even the dishes I “make” “myself” have a big pre-made components. For example, when I “make” spaghetti, I used dried noodles that were made in a factory, a jar of sauce that was made in a factory, and beef that was butchered in ground in (at least) an industrial kitchen, if not another factory. The only stuff that’s really raw is the vegetables I chop and add.
So at first glance, the potato diet looks good for the idea that processed foods make you fat.
But there are some problems. First off, even if processed foods make you gain weight, that doesn’t necessarily mean that unprocessed foods will make you lose weight. Foods high in cyanide will kill you, but foods low in cyanide won’t bring you back to life (as far as we know, maybe someone should check).
We also want to say, we really think this is a non-theory. Even assuming processed foods do make you fat, this isn’t a theory (in our opinion) because it doesn’t address the question of WHY processed foods make you gain weight.
For comparison: in this study, we’ve found that eating enough potatoes makes you lose weight. But “the potato theory” isn’t a good explanation for the potato diet; we want to know what about potatoes makes this happen! So we really demand to know what it is about processed food that (potentially) makes people gain weight. Treating “processed foods” as a theory itself is at best circular reasoning (“processed foods make you fat because they are processed foods”).
Not to say that there aren’t potential versions of this idea that do work as a theory. Processed foods might be uniquely low in nutrients that we need to stay lean (potassium?). Or, since they spend so much time in contact with industrial machinery, they might be especially high in obesogenic contaminants.
There are all kinds of contaminants in the environment that didn’t used to be there. We know that some chemicals can cause weight gain in humans and animals. With these two facts in mind, we think it stands to reason that the obesity epidemic could be caused by one or more contaminants that are getting into our brains and messing up our ability to properly regulate our body weight. We presented a version of this theory in our book/series A Chemical Hunger, and while we don’t think it’s a sure thing, we do think that there’s a lot of evidence in favor.
The potato diet is definitely consistent with the contamination theory. Since potatoes are so incredibly unprocessed, they are presumably unusually low in most contaminants. Whatever contaminant you might be concerned about, there is probably less in a plain baked potato than there is in a steak, candy bar, or box of pasta.
The main wrinkle here is that weight loss on the potato diet is so fast, which is a little weird if we assume that the obesity epidemic is caused by contaminants. It seems like something about the potatoes would have to either stop the contaminants from messing with your lipostat, or would have to rapidly flush the contaminants from your body.
Briefly, the lithium hypothesis looks plausible because lithium causes weight gain at clinical doses, and we know people are exposed to more lithium now than they were back in the 1960s. The only thing is, how much lithium do you need to get exposed to before you start gaining weight, and are we getting exposed to at least that much? We’re working on answering these questions, but we have found some evidence that people get exposed to quite a bit in their food (though it’s complicated).
The fact that the potato diet causes weight loss isn’t really strong evidence for or against the lithium hypothesis. But we do want to point out, it’s consistent with the lithium hypothesis.
Potatoes are high in potassium, and there’s evidence that potassium competes with lithium in the brain in interesting ways. If obesity is caused by your brain getting all gummed up with lithium, and potassium makes it stop, then the high levels of potassium in potatoes would be the sort of thing that might cause lots of rapid weight loss.
Participant 02142044 mentioned this hypothesis:
You probably already know this, but I find it credible a potential reason as to why the diet works, if it does, is that it is helping clear lithium, which would also help explain the mild hypomanias people experience. https://jasn.asnjournals.org/content/10/3/666 seems to indicate that potassium and sodium can help with clearing lithium. That is also why I started salting more.
The fact that the potato diet causes hypomania in some people and fear & grief effects in others is also maybe consistent with lithium, since lithium is both an antimanic and a sedative.
Another mark in favor is that we do have some idea of what foods may be high in lithium, and there are a few hints that these foods can boot people out of potato mode and stop their weight loss. In particular, we have reason to think that tomatoes are often high in lithium, and one of our participants reported this:
Another food group that we think is often high in lithium is dairy, and there’s again some evidence that eating dairy can limit the potato diet. Consider this story from participant 29550957:
This is pretty much the best diet I’ve ever been on, including earlier this year when I also ate mostly potatoes- but with tons of dairy (butter, sour cream, cheese) on them. Despite literally messing up an entire week’s worth of days, I seem to be durably down about 10lbs.
If this is the case, then cheating on foods that are low in lithium should always be fine, and may explain why people were able to cheat on this diet so much and still see the effects.
Cheating on foods that CAN be high in lithium is a gamble. A crop that concentrates lithium won’t grab much if it’s grown in a lithium-poor environment, but will be totally loaded if it’s grown in a lithium-rich environment. So it’s quite possible that that e.g. some ketchup is loaded with lithium and some isn’t, depending on where it was grown, how it was processed, etc. This would look like ketchup making a huge difference for some people and not at all for others.
Unfortunately we still don’t have a great list of which foods are high and which are low in lithium. The list we do have, we don’t particularly trust, which is why we are gonna do our own survey of the food supply.
However if we had to guess right now, our best bets for foods that are high in lithium (and if this hypothesis is correct, might inhibit the potato diet) are: Eggs, milk, soft cheeses (but maybe not butter or hard cheese?), anything containing whey, tomatoes, goji berries, leafy greens, beef, pork, carrots, and beets. But again, this list ain’t gospel.
If the lithium-potassium competition hypothesis is true, other high-potassium, low-lithium diets might also cause weight loss. There’s a little bit of evidence that potassium consumption is related to successful weight loss, which makes this seem plausible.
But straight potassium supplementation may or may not work. At first we thought you could just give people potassium salt and see what happened, but we talked to a specialist who studies lithium clearance from the brain, and he said that the bioavailability of potassium from different sources complicates this a lot. We’re still trying to figure out what a good design for this study would be, but it’s not necessarily as simple as “consume a lot of potassium, avoid tomatoes and whey, and lose a lot of weight”, though we suppose someone could try it and see.
Looking at lithium and potassium in the urine of someone doing the potato diet might help with this, and so we’re considering asking for urine samples in future studies. But it might also be inconclusive.
For example, maybe lithium raises your lipostat set point by gumming up the brain somehow, and high levels of potassium lower the set point by increasing lithium clearance and forcing it all out of the brain. Lithium that gets forced out of the brain has to go somewhere, and if this were the case, it would probably end up in the urine, so you would see elevated levels of lithium in people who enter potato mode.
But maybe lithium causes obesity by forcing potassium out of the brain, and high levels of potassium cure obesity by supplementing potassium faster than the lithium can clear it. If something like this were the case, you might not see more lithium in people’s urine when they go on the potato diet.
Probably neither of these explanations are exactly correct — these are just examples to show that urine tests during the potato diet might be a good idea, but won’t be conclusive.
Something else about Potassium
But it’s also not like potassium and lithium are married. Potassium could still cause weight loss even if the lithium hypothesis is totally wrong. Potatoes are notorious for being high in potassium, so it’s reasonable to suspect that this might be the active ingredient.
That said, if it’s not lithium, why would potassium cause weight loss? We don’t know. Any ideas?
Don’t most theories predict weight loss on the potato diet?
Well, yes and no. Many theories do predict weight loss on the potato diet; but most theories don’t predict potato mode, this state where hunger disappears and you (occasionally) feel charged with incredible energy.
Finally, to anyone who thinks they knew it would work in advance…
Ok wise guy.
If you predicted (or could have predicted) that the potato diet would cause this kind of weight loss, or if medical / nutritional science could have predicted that this diet was going to be so effective in the short term, and so easy for so many people — then why haven’t doctors and nutritionists been recommending the potato diet to people alongside diet and exercise?
“I personally would not recommend it,” says Dr. Nadolsky. “It’s very restrictive. A vegan diet is very restrictive and a ketogenic diet is very restrictive, but a potato diet is one of the most restrictive diets you could ever do.” … the diet itself would be very hard to stick with for most people, says Dr. Nadolsky.
This type of extreme diet can pose serious health risks due to its severe limitations. “While there’s no doubt that potatoes — just like all vegetables — are supremely nutritious, eliminating almost all other food groups in totality is not only dangerous, but can really backfire,” says Jaclyn London, M.S., R.D., Nutrition Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute.
If you knew the potato diet would work, why did you not run this study many years ago? Why are there no clinical trials? Did you think people would not be excited to see this result?
Guess the NIH is too scared of the tater.
8. How to Potato Diet if you want to Potato Diet
We’re not currently accepting signups, but we know that some of you will want to try the potato diet for yourselves. So here is some current advice, from us and from some participants.
First, our advice:
When you start off, try eating mostly (> 95% of your calories) potatoes, with a little oil, and as much hot sauce and salt as you want. You can also have zero-calorie beverages like black coffee and tea. This seems really strict but many people find it to be much easier than they expected, so give this version a try first.
If you feel bad/weird and are like “I can no longer stand potatoes!”, try:
Eating a potato. Hunger feels different on this diet and you may not realize that you are hungry. Yes, really.
Drinking water. It’s really easy to get dehydrated on this diet, and again you can’t always tell.
Eating a different kind of potato. There are many varieties, try mixing it up. You will almost certainly want to eat more than one kind of potato.
Peeling your potatoes. Eating less peel / no peel seems to help some people with digestive and energy issues, especially after a few days on the diet.
Eating more salt. Potatoes are naturally low in sodium and you may not be getting enough.
Getting sunlight. Potatoes have no vitamin D, you may be craving that.
If none of these other things help, do a cheat meal and eat whatever you’re craving. (But maybe still avoid dairy?) If you find you keep taking cheat meals, go ahead and drop down to the 80%, 60%, or even a lower % potato diet. The 40% potato diet works just fine for some people.
If you still feel bad after trying these steps, stop the diet. If you are suffering then the diet isn’t working anyways, and you shouldn’t take risks with your health. Plus life is too short to do things that make you miserable.
If the diet is easy but you’re not losing weight (or otherwise not seeing effects), try doing 100% potato, no oil.
And here’s some advice from participants:
(33217580) I found that despite all the warnings, it was really easy to underprepare and end up with not enough food. The days where I either had done enough prep or just had time to go cook were definitely much simpler than the days where I would have been happy to just eat some boiled potatoes, but sadly the tupperware was empty, and I got really hungry, ate chips or fries, was a little lower on energy or moodier etc. If I’m going to continue (and I might, because it worked so well!), I’m going to aim for comically large proportions in food prep, because then I might actually have something close to enough.
(31664368) Advice: figure out a way to exit the diet gracefully. I have a robust belly, but significant GI issues I am still going through. Perhaps it was 1 thing I ate that set things on a bad track for several days. Trying oatmeal and crackers as easy non-potato food, but would love a playbook of how to get back to feeling solid after eating a burrito.
(14122662) If I were doing this again, I might also invest in a nice knife. I noticed that chopping the potatoes each day was effortful and a strain on my hand. Being able to slice through the potatoes more cleanly would have been a nice convenience.
(63187175) It requires a lot of preparation and staying ahead of your meals. Potatoes aren’t something you can just grab out of the cupboard and eat, there’s always some amount of cooking required and (at least in my limited experience) that cooking is either quite labor or time intensive (and usually both). If I do this again, my main takeaway lesson is that to be successful in sticking to it, I need to very deliberately over-prepare and always make way more than I want at a time. Just-in-time preparation is way too hard to follow. When I get home from a long day at work and discover that there are no potatoes already made, those were always the moments when I absolutely hated this diet. Even worse, I ran out of potatoes many times during these 3 weeks and had to take a trip to the store before I could even start cooking. Another area where I’d be more diligent if I try this again.
(02142044) How I’d do it again
– Ensure that my weighing scale is reliable
– Keep not using oil
– Stick to the diet strictly throughout
– Only eat potatoes boiled in their own water (mostly or only yellow?).
– Buy them in bio market if possible?
– Probably still eat sweet potatoes weekly for vit A?
– No exercises during this period.
– Do it in a period with less changes in my life overall (no medication, no changing location in between, no big relationship changes, etc)
– Keep filtering water throughout
– Change the way I track thing:
* Note how much kg of potatoes I eat each meals.
* Change “Mood” to “Lowest low”, “Highest high”, “Irritability”, “Fluctuation” and “Highest calm/plenitude”
* Keep track of “How tired am I of this diet?”
* Also note what is happening in my life to see other kinds of corelations.
– Supplement in B12 way more, salt my meals from the beginning
– No garlic. Cayenne pepper and tabasco are okay
(81125989) Advice to others trying the diet:
Feeling lazy? Trader Joe’s olive-oil Kettle-cooked potato chips for the win. Only three ingredients – potato, olive oil, and salt.
Choose cooking methods that are very low-prep-time, yet high-bulk. At first, I sliced potatoes before baking – this took over an hour each time and only made enough for one meal. Eventually, I realized I could just cut slits in whole potatoes, coat ’em in olive oil & salt, and dump ’em in the oven. Easy & makes enough for 2 days.
Variety is the spice of potato life. Get different kinds of potato, or you will get so intensely bored. (Also, get sweet potatoes for Vitamin A. Maybe placebo, but I noticed my evening low-light vision got worse, but improves the day after I eat sweet potato)
Schedule cheat days? I’ll have to wait to see your full analysis on the dose-response of the potato diet (weight loss vs days cheated)… but if the dose-response is good, then I recommend scheduling cheat days to stave off boredom. (Also, for social eating.) In particular, I ate red meats to get my B12. You can also eat liver or clams. Also potato has no Vitamin D, go get lots of sun or eat dairy/fatty fishes. (I don’t trust supplements; every time I’ve looked at a pre-registered RCT of a vitamin supplement, it’s either near-zero or somehow way less than just eating a whole food that’s known to be a source of it.)
– Buy lots of potatoes. Bake off or boil off five or ten pounds every couple days, then refrigerate to eat, mash, fry as wedges, roast as cakes, etc.
– Takiea baked potato that can be microwaved as needed, and or a small tupperware thing of mashed potato with some chilli/garlic/hot sauce in it when going places for long enough that being hungry will come up, but tables/utensils/microwaves etc will be available.
– Properly flavored mashed can be used as a dip for potato chips or something when going camping, etc.
– If with a group at a restaurant, order fries, or just have a beer. The mashed potato might be full of dairy fat.
– When eating non-potato snacks, make a note and carry on. Make sure they aren’t dairy.
– Make peace with breaking the diet for a meal every so often. It will happen sooner or later. Try not to, but eventually (group camping, or a nice restaurant, or something) it will be better to break the diet than not. Do so, and get back on potato immediately afterwards.
(21112694) While I only did about five whole days of the diet, I would highly recommend a 1-2 day transition off the diet. The day I ended, I went out for an event and had a large dinner which my digestive tract was not ready for. I typically have no issues with my GI tract, so I figured it wouldn’t be an issue given the shorter diet period. It could have just been a one-off random occurrence, but if you see this trend pop up more, it may be beneficial to suggest a slower transition off the diet, especially for those with GI issues like IBS (I don’t have any).
9. What’s Next
We’re very happy with this study, but there are some major limitations. Almost all of our participants were white, and most of them were Americans. We expect these results will generalize to other groups in other contexts, but frankly it’s not in the data.
The potato diet definitely causes weight loss, but a few major questions remain. Questions like, why do some people hit a wall immediately, and find the diet impossible after only a few days? Why do a few people suddenly hit a wall after about 3 weeks?
What’s up with cheat days? Does the 80% potato diet work for everyone? Can some people lose weight on the 40% potato diet? What about the 20% potato diet? The SMTM author who tried the potato diet didn’t lose any weight until they cut out all oil, at which point they started losing about a pound a day. So for some people it seems like the 100% potato diet is really necessary? Is that true? Why would that be?
Is the attrition rate really higher, and is the diet more difficult, for women / people with two X chromosomes? If so, why? What about trans people? If there’s a chromosomal effect, how does it interact with exogenous hormones?
All of these are questions that would be good to answer in future work.
Our current plan is to follow up with our participants in 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years (assuming it’s still interesting/relevant at that point). We’ll make posts with those results, and share the data publicly, as these followups happen, so look for the first followup post about six months from now.
We may also go back into these data and do more analyses, since there are almost certainly more things to find in the data we’ve already collected.
Also, expect a forthcoming post on reflections about doing this kind of shoestring internet science. Keep your eyes peeled.
We’re not currently taking signups, but if you want to try the potato diet for yourself, why not track your data using a structured spreadsheet, so all resulting data will be standardized. You’re welcome to download a copy of THIS FORM and follow the instructions, and you can send us an email with your copy of the form when you’re done. Just include the words “Potato Diet” in the email title so the emails are easy to sort and track.
If we can secure funding, our next study may be “potato camp”, a project where we send 20 or more overweight & obese volunteers to a summer camp and serve them nothing but potatoes for four weeks. This would allow us to replicate these results in a slightly more controlled fashion, collect things like urine and serum samples, and so on. And it would be a pretty good deal for participants — we’d make sure there’s wifi, so if you have a remote job, you can just drop by for four weeks and keep working as normal. If you’d be interested in attending potato camp, SIGN UP HERE. If you’d be interested in funding this project, contact us.
We might also run other studies, but we’re still figuring out what would be the best and most fun use of our time. Maybe we will run something on potassium. Or maybe our next study will be unrelated to obesity, it’s not the only interesting research topic in the world.
If you would like to be notified of future stupid studies like this one, SIGN UP HERE. You can also just subscribe to the blog itself by email (below), or follow us on twitter, if you want to keep up with our work in general.
And if you feel like reading this post has added a couple of dollars’ worth of value to your life, or if you have lost weight on the potato diet and you think it improves the quality of your life by more than one dollar a month, consider donating $1 a month on Patreon.
Thanks for going on this journey with us.
Sincerely, Your friendly neighborhood mad scientists, SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD
The TDS approach is pretty intuitive: if you want to study contaminants or residues that people are maybe exposed to through their food, one way to do that is to drive around to a bunch of actual grocery stores and supermarkets, buy the kinds of foods people actually buy and eat, prepare the foods like they’re actually prepared in people’s homes, and then test your samples for whatever contaminants or residues you’re concerned about.
A Total Diet Study (TDS) generally consists of selecting, collecting and analysing commonly consumed food purchased at retail level on the basis of food consumption data to represent a large portion of the typical diet, processing the food as for consumption, pooling the prepared food items into representative food groups, homogenizing the pooled samples, and analysing them for harmful and/or beneficial chemical substances (EFSA, 2011a). From a public health point of view, a TDS can be a valuable and cost effective complementary approach to food surveillance and monitoring programs to assess the presence of chemical substances in the population diet and to provide reliable data in order to perform risk assessments by estimating dietary exposure.
These papers include measurements of trace elements in various foods, and some of them include measurements for lithium. We didn’t find these papers while writing our first review of the levels of lithium in food and drink because these papers aren’t looking for lithium specifically — they’re looking at all sorts of different contaminants and minerals, and lithium just happens to sometimes make the cut.
But anyways, several of these papers do include measurements of lithium in various national food supplies, and they’re strange, because unlike every other source we’ve seen, which all routinely find some foods with more than 1 mg/kg lithium, they find less than 0.5 mg/kg lithium in every single food.
TDS with Li
The oldest TDS study we’ve seen that includes lithium is from 1999 in the United Kingdom, reporting on the UK 1994 Total Diet Study and comparing those results to data from previous UK Total Diet Studies. (The UK TDS has been “carried out on a continuous annual basis since 1966” but it seems like they only started including lithium in their analysis in the 1990s.) They report the mean concentrations of 30 elements (aluminium, antimony, arsenic, barium, bismuth, boron, cadmium, calcium, chromium, cobalt, copper, germanium, gold, iridium, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, palladium, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, selenium, strontium, thallium, tin, and zinc) in 119 categories of foods, combined into 20 groups of similar foods for analysis.
The highest mean concentration of lithium they found in the food categories they examined was an average of 0.06 mg/kg (fresh weight) in fish. They estimated a total exposure of 0.016 mg lithium a day, and an upper limit of 0.029 mg a day, in the British diet at the time. This appears to be substantially less than the amount found in a 1991 sample, which gave an estimate of 0.040 mg lithium a day in the British diet. They explicitly indicate there is no data on lithium in foods (in their datasets) from before 1991.
France conducted a TDS in 2000, and a report all about it was published in 2005. They looked at levels of 18 elements (arsenic, lead, cadmium, aluminium, mercury, antimony, chrome, calcium, manganese, magnesium, nickel, copper, zinc, lithium, sodium, molybdenum, cobalt and selenium) in samples of 338 food items.
The highest mean concentration of lithium they found in the food categories they examined was an average of 0.123 mg/kg in shellfish (fresh matter) and 0.100 mg/L in drinking water. They estimated an average daily exposure of 0.028 mg for adults, with a 97.5th percentile daily exposure of 0.144 mg. They specifically mention, “drinking waters and soups are the vectors contributing most (respectively 25–41% and 14–15%) to the exposure of the populations; other vectors contribute less than 10% of the total food exposure.”
France did another TDS in 2006, with a report published in 2012. This time they looked at Li, Cr, Mn, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn, Se and Mo in 1319 samples of foods typically consumed by the French population.
Similar to the first French TDS, the highest mean concentration of lithium they found in the food categories they examined was an average of 0.066 mg/kg (fresh weight) in shellfish. But the highest individual measurements were found in two samples of sparkling water, with 0.612 mg/kg and 0.320 mg/kg.
New Zealand seems to run a Total Diet Study programme every 4–5 years since 1975, but we’ve only been able to find lithium measurements from this project in a paper from 2019, looking at data from the 2016 New Zealand Total Diet Study. Maybe, like some of the other TDS projects, they only started including lithium testing later on. Anyways, in this paper they looked at 10 elements (antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, bromine, lithium, nickel, strontium, thallium and uranium) in eight composite samples each of 132 food types.
This paper is a little strange, and unlike most of these papers, doesn’t give much detail. They summarize the main findings for lithium as, “the reported concentrations ranged from 0.0007 mg/kg in tap water to 0.54 mg/kg in mussels” and say that the mean overall intake of lithium in New Zealand adults is 0.020–0.029 mg/day.
The most recent TDS that looked at lithium seems to be this 2020 paper, which looks at food collected between October 2016 and February 2017 in the Emilia-Romagna Region in Italy. They looked at levels of fifteen trace elements (antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum, nickel, silver, strontium, tellurium, thallium, titanium, uranium, and vanadium) in 908 food and beverage samples from local markets, supermarkets, grocery stores, and community canteens.
The highest concentration of lithium they found in the food categories they examined was in fish and seafood (50th percentile 0.019 mg/kg, IQR 0.010–0.038 mg/kg), and legumes (50th percentile 0.015 mg/kg, IQR 0.006–0.035 mg/kg). They estimate a dietary lithium intake for the region of 0.018 mg/day (IQR 0.007–0.029 mg/day).
So overall, these papers report that lithium levels in foods and beverages never break 0.612 mg/kg, and almost universally keep below 0.1 mg/kg.
How About Those Numbers
We’re skeptical of these numbers for a couple of reasons.
The TDS papers say that all foods and beverages contain less than 1 mg/kg lithium, and that people’s lithium intake is well below 1 mg a day. But this is up against sources like the following, which all find much higher levels (not an exhaustive list):
Bertrand (1943), “found that the green parts of lettuce contained 7.9 [mg/kg] of lithium”
Borovik-Romanova (1965) “reported the Li concentration in many plants from the Soviet Union to range from 0.15 to 5 [mg/kg] in dry material”, in particular listing the levels (mg/kg) in tomato, 0.4; rye, 0.17; oats, 0.55; wheat, 0.85; and rice, 9.8.
Ammari et al. (2011), looked at lithium in plant leaves, including spinach, lettuce, etc. and found concentrations in leaves from 2 to 27 mg/kg DM.
Manfred Anke and his collaborators found more than 1 mg/kg in a wide variety of foods, in multiple studies across multipleyears, up to 7.3 mg/kg on average for eggs.
Schnauzer (2002) reviewed a number of other sources finding average intakes across several locations from 0.348 to 1.560 mg a day.
Five Polish sources from 1995 that a reader recently sent us reported finding (as examples) 6.2 mg/kg in chard, 18 mg/kg in dandelions, up to 470.8 mg/kg in pasture plants in the Low Beskids in Poland, up to 25.6 mg/kg in dairy cow skeletal muscle, and more than 40 mg/kg in cabbage under certain conditions. (These papers aren’t available online but we plan to review them soon.)
It seems like either the measurements from the TDS papers are right, and all foods contain less than 1 mg/kg lithium, or all the rest of the literature is right, and many plants and foods regularly contain more than 1 mg/kg lithium. The alternative, that both of them are right, would mean that the same foods consistently contain less than 1 mg/kg in France and New Zealand while containing more than 1 mg/kg in Germany and Brazil. This seems like the most far-fetched possibility.
There are three strikes against the TDS numbers. First, they’re strictly outnumbered. When five papers from four sources (two of those papers are from France) say one thing and the rest of the literature clearly says another, it’s not a sure thing, but the side with more evidence… well it has more evidence for it.
Second, the TDS studies have a divided focus. They’re not really interested in lithium at all; they’re interested in the local food supply, and lithium just happens to be one of between 9 and 30 different elements they’re testing for. In comparison, pretty much all the other papers are looking at lithium in particular. If we had to guess which kind of team is more likely to mess up this kind of analysis, the team interested in this one particular element, or the team that randomly included the element in the list of several elements they’re testing for, we know which we’d pick. It’s hard to imagine that every team looking for lithium chose the wrong analysis or screwed it up in the same way somehow. It’s easy to imagine that the TDS studies, which measured lithium incidentally, might get some part of the analysis wrong.
It’s kind of like clothing. Ready-made sizes will fit most elements, but if you have an unusual body type (really long arms, really thick neck, etc.) you may have to go to a tailor. And lithium has the most unusual body type of all the solid elements. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if off-the-rack clothes didn’t fit poor little lithium.
The third thing that’s strange is that there seem to be some internal contradictions within the studies. For example, in the first French TDS study, the lithium levels in water are much higher than lithium levels in things that are made out of water, which seems impossible. The mean lithium level in drinking water is 0.100 mg/kg, but the lithium levels in things that are mostly water are much lower: 0.038 mg/kg in soups, 0.006 mg/kg in coffee, 0.004 in non-alcoholic beverages, 0.003 in alcoholic beverages, and 0.002 in hot beverages. Soup is maybe a little different, but coffee and beverages are mostly water. How can there be fifty times more lithium in plain water than in hot beverages, which are (we assume) mostly water?
For that matter, how can drinking water be the category with the second-most lithium (after shellfish)? Water is the main ingredient in beverages, but it’s also a major ingredient of pretty much every food. Fruits, salads, milk, vegetables, etc. etc. all contain lots of water. Unless there’s some major, universal filtering going on, there should be more lithium in at least some foods than there is in water.
And that’s what you see if you look at the other elements in this first French paper — more in foods than in water. For example, the average level of manganese in drinking water in these data is 0.19 mg/kg, and the mean levels in beverages are all 0.30 mg/kg or higher; the mean level in soup is 0.97 mg/kg; the mean level in fruits is 2.05 mg/kg, much higher. Same for zinc. The mean level in drinking water is 0.05 mg/kg, which is the lowest mean level of zinc of any food category. Other elements, at least, tend to have higher concentrations in some foods than in water.
In the second French TDS study, the same thing happens. The highest concentration of lithium they found in any food was in water, 0.612 mg/kg. The mean for water this time around was only 0.035 mg/kg, but that’s still higher than the means for most beverages and the mean for almost every food.
(The other TDS papers don’t give mean lithium measurements for water, so we can’t do the same comparison with them.)
This doesn’t make much sense. Water is a major component of many foods and it would be shocking if lithium didn’t find its way from water into food (and more obviously into beer and tea). But all of the fruits and vegetables have less lithium than the water that would presumably be used to irrigate them.
There’s a rich literature of hydroponics experiments that shows that all sorts of plants accumulate lithium. When you grow them in a lithium solution under controlled conditions, or in soil spiked with lithium, the plants end up containing a higher concentration of lithium than the solution/soil they were grown in.
These spikes are much larger than the levels of lithium plants are normally exposed to in the environment, but they’re experimental evidence that lithium accumulates, even to enormous degrees. You should reliably expect to see more lithium in plants than in the water they’re grown with. There might be some plants that don’t accumulate, but water shouldn’t universally contain the highest amounts.
We didn’t really include these sources in our original review because that was a review of lithium in food, and these hydroponically-grown experimental plants aren’t in the actual food supply. But they’re pretty informative, so here’s a selection of the studies:
Magalhães et al. (1990) grew radish, lettuce and watercress in a hydroponic system, with solution containing lithium levels of 0.7, 6.8 and 13.6 mg/L. These are all somewhat high, but exposure to 0.7 mg/L in water isn’t totally unrealistic. Plants were collected thirty days after transplanting. At the lowest and most realistic level of exposure, 0.7 mg/L, lettuce contained 11 mg/kg lithium, radish bulbs contained 11 mg/kg, radish leaves contained 17 mg/kg, and watercress contained 37 mg/kg. At 6.8 mg/L in the solution all plants contained several hundred mg/kg, and at 13.6 mg/L, radish leaves and watercress contained over 1000 mg/kg.
Hawrylak-Nowak, Kalinowska, and Szymańska (2012) grew corn and sunflower plants in glass jars containing 0 (control), 5, 25, or 50 mg/L lithium in a nutrient solution. After 14 days, they harvested the shoots, and found that lithium accumulated in the shoots in a dose-dependent manner. Even in the control condition, where no lithium was added to the solution, sunflower shoots contained 0.9 mg/kg and corn shoots contained 4.11 mg/kg lithium. At 5 mg/L solution, sunflower contained 422.5 mg/kg and corn contained 72.9 mg/kg; at 25 mg/L solution, sunflower contained 432.0 mg/kg and corn contained 438.0 mg/kg; at 50 mg/L solution, sunflower contained 3,292.0 mg/kg and corn contained 695.0 mg/kg. These levels are unrealistically high, but the example is still illustrative.
Kalinowska, Hawrylak-Nowak, and Szymańska (2013) grew lettuce hydroponically in solution containing 0, 2.5, 20, 50 or 100 mg/L lithium. Lithium concentrations above 2.5 mg/L progressively fucked the plants up more and more, but there was clear accumulation of lithium in the lettuce. There was some concentration in the leaves in a solution of 2.5 mg/L (though they don’t give the numbers), and when the lettuce was grown in a 20 mg/L solution, there was around 1000 mg/kg in the leaves.
Antonkiewicz et al. (2017) is an unusual paper on corn being grown hydroponically in solutions containing various amounts of lithium. They find that corn is quite resistant to lithium in its water — it actually grows better when exposed to some lithium, and only shows a decline at concentrations around 64 mg/L. (“The concentration in solution ranging from 1 to 64 [mg/L] had a stimulating effect, whereas a depression in yielding occurred only at the concentrations of 128 and 256 [mg/L].”) But the plant also concentrates lithium — even when only exposed to 1 mg/L in its solution, the plant ends up with an average of about 11 mg/kg in dry material.
Robinson et al. (2018) observed significant concentration in the leaves of several species as part of a controlled experiment. They planted beetroot, lettuce, black mustard, perennial ryegrass, and sunflower in controlled environments with different levels of lithium exposures. “When Li was added to soil in the pot experiment,” they report, “there was significant plant uptake … with Li concentrations in the leaves of all plant species exceeding 1000 mg/kg (dry weight) at Ca(NO3)2-extractable concentrations of just 5 mg/kg Li in soil, representing a bioaccumulation coefficient of >20.” For sunflowers in particular, “the highest Li concentrations occurred in the bottom leaves of the plant, with the shoots, roots and flowers having lower concentrations.”
Again, these are unrealistic for the amount of lithium you might find in your food, but they’re clear support for the idea that plants consistently accumulate lithium relative to the conditions they’re grown in. It doesn’t make sense that we see water having the highest concentration in the TDS data.
So for all these reasons, we’re pretty sure that the TDS numbers are wrong and that the lithium-specific literature is right. Specialty research that looks for lithium in particular is more reliable in our opinion than sources that happen to look at lithium as one contaminant along with a dozen others.
But even so, you’d have to be terminally incurious to look at this and not wonder what was going on. Why do these five papers have measurements that don’t match the rest of the literature?
What’s Going on in the TDS
Since these papers disagree with every other source, and they all share the same Total Diet Study approach, it seems like there must be something wrong with that approach.
Sometimes this kind of mistake can come from problems with the equipment, dropping a decimal, or misreading units, like mistaking mg/kg for µg/kg.
But we have a hard time imagining that all of these different teams with (as far as we can tell?) no overlap in authors would be making exactly the same error of using the wrong units or moving a decimal place. It’s possible they all use the same slightly-misleading software or something; we have seen a few other papers that report lithium in one set of units, and every other element they test for in different units. But again, it would be weird for every single TDS study to screw this up in exactly the same way.
Samples of each food group … were homogenized and digested (0.5 g) in inert plastic pressure vessels with nitric acid (5 ml) using microwave heating (CEM MDS 2000 microwave digestion system). All elements except mercury, selenium and arsenic were analysed by Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) (Perkin Elmer Elan 6000).
The elementary analyses (about 18 000 results in all) were carried out by the Environmental Inorganic Contaminants and Mineral Unit of the AFSSA-LERQAP, which is the national reference laboratory. All the 998 individual food composite samples were homogenized and digested (about 0.6 g taken from each sample) in the quartz vessels with suprapure nitric acid (3 ml) using Multiwave closed microwave system (Anton-Paar, Courtaboeuf, France). The total content of all selected essential and non essential trace elements in the foods was determined by Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) (VG PlasmaQuad ExCell-Thermo Electron, Coutaboeuf, France), a very powerful technique for quantitative multi-elemental analysis.
The National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for heavy metals was chosen to analyse 28 trace elements, and among them nine essential elements, Li, Cr, Mn, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn, Se and Mo, by inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) after microwave-assisted digestion.
Sample digestion was carried out using the Multiwave 3000 microwave digestion system (Anton-Paar, Courtaboeuf, France), equipped with a rotor for 8 type X sample vessels (80-mL quartz tubes, operating pressure 80 bar). Before use, quartz vessels were decontaminated in a bath of 10% HNO3 (67% v/v), then rinsed with ultra-pure water, and dried in an oven at 40 °C. Dietary samples of 0.2–0.6 g were weighed precisely in quartz digestion vessels and wet-oxidised with 3 mL of ultra-pure water and 3 mL of ultra-pure HNO3 (67% v/v) in a microwave digestion system. One randomly-selected vessel was filled with reagents only and taken through the entire procedure as a blank. The digestion program had been optimised previously (Noël, Leblanc, & Guérin, 2003). After cooling at room temperature, sample solutions were quantitatively transferred into 50-mL polyethylene flasks. One hundred microlitres of internal standard solution (1 mg L−1) were added, to obtain a final concentration of 2 μg L−1, and then the digested samples were made up with ultrapure water to the final volume before analysis by ICP-MS.
ICP-MS measurements were performed using a VG PlasmaQuad ExCell (Thermo, Courtaboeuf, France). The sample solutions were pumped by a peristaltic pump from tubes arranged on a CETAC ASX 500 Model 510 autosampler (CETAC, Omaha, NE).
We measured content of fifteen trace elements (antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum, nickel, silver, strontium, tellurium, thallium, titanium, uranium, and vanadium) in 908 food and beverage samples through inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.
Using a clean stainless-steel knife, we cut solid foods by collecting samples from six different points in the plate. Then, we homogenized the samples using a food blender equipped with a stainless-steel blade and we placed a portion of 0.5 g in quartz containers previously washed with MilliQ water (MilliQPlus, Millipore, MA, USA) and HNO3. We liquid-ashed the samples with 10 ml solution (5 ml HNO3 + 5 ml·H2O) in a microwave digestion system (Discover SP-D, CEM Corporation, NC, USA) and we finally stored them in plastic tubes, and diluted to 50 ml with deionized water before analysis. Using an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (Agilent 7500ce, Agilent Technologies, CA, USA), we performed trace element determination.
So, all of these papers use the same analysis technique, ICP-MS. We don’t know the exact technique used by the team in New Zealand, but all the other teams used microwave digestion with nitric acid (HNO3). Three of them (the French and Italian TDS studies) used quartz vessels.
The fact that all these studies use similar analysis techniques makes it much more plausible that something about this technique is screwing up something about the lithium detection.
This also seems likely because most other papers, the ones that find more than 1 mg/kg lithium in food, don’t use ICP-MS. Here’s a small selection.
The most recent paper finding more than 1 mg/kg lithium in plant matter seems to have used inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometry (ICP-OES), a related but distinct technique. This is Robinson et al. (2018), which found that plants can contain “several hundred mg/kg Li” in leaves. Here’s their procedure:
Plant samples were washed in deionized water and dried at 60 °C until a constant weight was obtained. Subsequently, they were milled using a Cyclotech type 1093 cyclone grinder with an aluminium rotor. Plant material (0.5 g) was digested in 5 ml HNO3. The digests were diluted with Milli Q (Barnstead, EASYpure RF, 18.3 MΩ-cm) to a volume of 25 ml and filtered with a Whatman 52 filter paper (pore size 7 μm). … Pseudo-total element concentrations (henceforth referred to as “total”) were determined in the acid digests using ICP-OES (Varian 720 ES).
Ammari et al. (2011), looked at lithium in solids (plant leaves, including spinach, lettuce, etc.) and found concentrations in leaves from 2 to 27 mg/kg DM. They used this procedure:
Collected leaves were gently washed in distilled water, air-dried, and then oven-dried to a constant weight at *70°C. Dry leaves were finely ground in a Moulinex Mill (Moulinex, Paris, France) to pass through a 40-mesh sieve. As Li is known to be present in cell vacuoles in inorganic soluble form, Li was determined in filtrates of oven-dry ground leaf samples (5 g) suspended in 50 ml of deionized water for 1 h. This procedure was used in the current study because not all the lithium present in natural unprocessed foods is taken up by the human body (pers. comm. with nutritionists; Dr. Denice Moffat, USA). Lithium extracted with deionized water represents the soluble fraction that is directly taken up by the gastrointestinal tract and considered the most bio-available. … The concentration of Li in leaf samples was measured with a flame photometer.
Anke’s 2005 paper doesn’t give a ton of detail, but seems to have used atomic absorption spectroscopy (AAS) for lithium, and reports numbers up to 7.5 mg/kg in foods.
Thirty days after transplanting, the plants were harvested, shoots and roots separately, and their fresh weight determined. They were oven-dried at 700C for 72 hours, weighted, ground in a Wiley mill and analyzed for N, P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe and Li contents after digestion in H2SO4 and H202. N was determined by Nesslerization, P by an ammonium molybdate-amino naphthol sulfonic acid reduction method (Murphy & Riley 1962), K and Li by flame emission and Ca, Mg and Fe by atomic absorption (Sarruge & Haag 1974).
Drinkall et al. (1969), one of our oldest sources, found up to 148 mg/kg in pipe tobacco and used “the atomic absorption technique”. Specifically they say:
Methods for determination of lithium in foodstuffs have in the past been limited almost entirely to the use of the spectrograph and the flame photometer. In the present investigation, however, it was decided to apply the technique of atomic absorption for this purpose. The chief reason for this choice was the lack of occurrence of spectral interference occasioned by elements other than lithium, Indeed, the only elements which were thought likely to prove troublesome were calcium and strontium. Even these, however, were found not to interfere. The instrument used throughout this work was the Unicam SP90 Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer, a propane-air flame being employed.
So this diverse set of methods all found levels of lithium above 1 mg/kg, while the “ICP-MS with microwave digestion in nitric acid (usually in quartz vessels)” technique seems to reliably find way less than 1 mg/kg. This is starting to look like it’s an issue with the analysis.
If this is the case, then if we can find other papers that use ICP-MS with microwave digestion in nitric acid, they should also show low levels of lithium, well below 1 mg/kg.
That’s exactly what we’ve found. Take a look at Saribal (2019). This paper used ICP-MS and looked at trace element concentrations in cow’s milk samples from supermarkets in Istanbul, Turkey. They found an average of 0.009 mg/L lithium in milk, way lower than the measurements for milk found in sources that don’t use ICP-MS.
Saribal, like the TDS studies, used ICP-MS to look for lithium alongside a huge number of other elements — 19 in fact. The full list was: lithium, beryllium, chromium, manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper, arsenic, selenium, strontium, molybdenum, cadmium, antimony, barium, lead, bismuth, mercury, thallium, and uranium. Like the TDS studies, they did digestion in nitric acid:
The quadrupole inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) used in this work was Thermo Scientific X Series II (Thermo Fisher Scientific, Bremen, Germany).
One-milliliter portions of each milk samples were digested in 65% HNO3 and 2 mL 30% H2O2 (Merck, Poole, UK) on a heat block. The temperature was increased gradually, starting from 90 °C and increasing up to 180 °C. The mixture was cooled down and the contents were transferred to polypropyl- ene tubes with seal caps. Each digested sample was diluted to a final volume of 10 mL with double deionized water
Here’s another one. Kalisz et al. (2019) looked at “17 elements, including rare earth elements, in chilled and non-chilled cauliflower cultivars”. They used ICP-MS, they microwave digested with nitric acid, and they found lithium levels of less than 0.060 mg/kg. Here’s the method:
We investigated the content of Ag, Al, Ba, Co, Li, Sn, Sr, Ti, Sb, and all rare-earth elements. … Curds were cut into pieces and dried at 70 °C in a dryer with forced air circulation. Then, the plant material was ground into a fine and non-fibrous powder using a Pulverisette 14 ball mill (Fritsch GmbH, Germany) with a 0.5-mm sieve. Next, 0.5 g samples were placed in to 55 ml TFM vessels and were mineralized in 10 ml 65% super pure HNO3 (Merck no. 100443.2500) in a Mars 5 Xpress (CEM, USA) microwave digestion system. The following mineralization procedure was applied: 15 min. time needed to achieve a temperature of 200 °C and 20 minutes maintaining this temperature. After cooling, the samples were quantitatively transferred to 25 ml graduated flasks with redistilled water. Contents of mentioned elements were determined using a high-dispersion inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer (ICP-OES; Prodigy Teledyne Leeman Labs, USA).
There are a couple complications, but they’re worth looking at. Seidel et al. (2020) used ICP-MS and found reasonable-seeming numbers in a bunch of beverages. But, as far as we can tell, they didn’t digest the beverages at all. They just say:
Li concentrations in our 160 samples were determined via inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) as summarized in Table 1.
Here’s Table 1 in case you’re curious:
This seems like evidence that something about the digestion process might be to blame.
There’s also Voica, Roba, and Iordache (2020), a Romanian paper which used ICP-MS and found up to 3.8 mg/kg in sheep’s milk and up to 4.2 mg/kg in pumpkins. This is pretty surprising — it’s the first ICP-MS paper we’ve seen that finds more than 1 mg/kg lithium in a sample of food. They even use microwave digestion with nitric acid! So at first glance, this looks like a contradiction — but when we looked closer, their method did differ in some interesting ways.
The lithium concentrations were determined by inductively coupled plasma – mass spectrometry (ICP-MS).
Considering that samples have a very complex composition with large organic matter content, the total digestion of the matrix is mandatory to assure complete metal solubility. The studied samples were subjected to microwave assisted nitric acid digestion by using a closed iPrep vessel speed system MARS6 CEM One Touch. The digestion vessels were cleaned with 10 mL HNO3 using the microwave cleaning program and rinsed with deionized water. Approximately 0.3 g aliquots of the samples were weighed, followed by digestion in 10mL HNO3 60% at high pressure, temperature and in the presence of microwave irradiation. The vessel was closed tightly, placed on the rotor, and the digestion was carried out following the program presented in Table 1.
After complete digestion and cooling, the samples were filtered, transferred to 50 mL graduated polypropylene tubes and diluted to volume with deionized water.
A Perkin Elmer ELAN DRC-e instrument was used with a Meinhard nebulizer and a glass cyclonic spray chamber for pneumatic nebulization. The analysis was performed in the standard mode and using argon gas (purity ≥ 99.999%) for the plasma following the manufacturer’s recommendations.
The operating conditions were a nebulizer gas flow rate of 0.92 L/min; an auxiliary gas flow of 1.2 L/min; a plasma gas flow of 15 L/min; a lens voltage of 7.25 V; a radiofrequency power of 1100 W; a CeO/Ce ratio of 0.025; and a Ba++/Ba+ ratio of 0.020.
We don’t know exactly what the difference might be, but the fact that they mention that “considering that samples have a very complex composition with large organic matter content, the total digestion of the matrix is mandatory to assure complete metal solubility” suggests that they were aware of limitations of normal digestion methods that other teams may have been unaware of. And none of the other papers seem to have used pneumatic nebulization, so maybe that makes the difference and lets you squeeze all the lithium out of a pumpkin.
Another difference we notice is that while Voica, Roba, and Iordache do use ICP-MS and the same kind of digestion as the TDS studies, they don’t test for anything else — they’re just measuring lithium. So maybe the thing that torpedoes the ICP-MS measurements is something about testing for lots of elements at the same time — a trait shared by all the TDS studies, Saribal (2019), and Kalisz et al. (2019), but not by Seidel et al. (2020) (the beverages paper) and not by Voica, Roba, and Iordache (2020).
A final (we promise) paper that helps triangulate this problem is Nabrzyski & Gajewska (2002), which looked at lithium in food samples from Gdańsk, Poland. They found an average of only 0.07 mg/kg in milk products and of only 0.11 mg/kg in smoked fish. This is not quite as low as the TDS studies but it’s much lower than everything else. And weirdly, they didn’t use ICP-MS, they used AAS. But they did digest their foods in nitric acid. Here’s the method:
The representative samples were dry ashed in quartz crucibles and the ash was treated with suitable amounts of conc. HCl and a few drops of conc. HNO3. The obtained sample solution was then used for the determination of Sr, Li and Ca by the flame atomic absorption spectrometry (AAS) method. Ca and Li were determined using the air-acetylene flame and Sr with nitrous oxide-acetylene flame, according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
So maybe this seems like more evidence that it’s something about the digestion process in particular, though this paper could also just be a weird outlier. It’s hard to tell without more tests.
Close Look at ICP-MS
We seem to have pretty clear evidence that ICP-MS, maybe especially in combination with microwave digestion / digestion with nitric acid, gives much lower numbers for lithium in food samples than every other analysis technique we’ve seen.
So we wanted to know if there was any other reason to suspect that ICP-MS might give bad readings for lithium in particular. We did find a few things of interest.
If you check out the Wikipedia page for ICP-MS, lithium is mentioned as being just on the threshold of what the ICP-MS can detect. This makes sense because lithium is unusual, much smaller than all other other metals. See for example: “The ICP-MS allows determination of elements with atomic mass ranges 7 to 250 (Li to U)” and “electrostatic plates can be used in addition to the magnet to increase the speed, and this, combined with multiple collectors, can allow a scan of every element from Lithium 6 to Uranium Oxide 256 in less than a quarter of a second.”
While ICP-MS is generally considered the gold standard for spectral analysis, like all methodologies, it has some limitations. Given that lithium is at the bottom of the range to begin with, it seems plausible to us that even small irregularities in the analysis might push it “off the end” of the range, disrupting detection. There’s more likely to be problems with lithium than with the other elements the TDS papers were analyzing.
We noticed that the 1999 UK TDS study had this to say about the upper limits of detection for ICP-MS: “The platinum group elements are notoriously difficult to analyse, as the concentrations, generally being close to the limits of detection, can be prone to some interferences in complex matrices when measured by ICP-MS.”
Now lithium is on the low end of the range, not the high range. But since the UK TDS study authors were concerned that elements “close to the limits of detection, can be prone to some interferences in complex matrices when measured by ICP-MS”, it seems like interference might be an issue. This shows that “fall of the end of the range” is a real concern with ICP-MS analysis. So ICP-MS may be the gold standard for spectral analysis, but it falls short of being the platinum standard.
Lithium may be determined in foods and biological samples with the same techniques employed for sodium and potassium. However, the much lower levels of lithium compared with these other alkali metals, mean that techniques such as flame photometry often do not show adequate sensitivity. Flame (standard addition procedure) or electrothermal atomic absorption spectrophotometry are the most widely used techniques after wet or dry ashing of the sample. Corrections may have to be made for background/matrix interferences. Inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometry is not very sensitive for this very low-atomic-weight element.
As usual with Anke this is very cryptic, and inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES) isn’t the same technique as ICP-MS. But even so, Anke’s comment does suggest that there might be some limitations on ICP methods when measuring lithium, that they might not be very sensitive.
We also found an article by environmental testing firm WETLAB which describes several problems you can run into doing lithium analysis, including that “[w]hen Li is in a matrix with a large number of heavier elements, it tends to be pushed around and selectively excluded due to its low mass. This provides challenges when using Mass Spectrometry.” They also indicate that “ICP-MS can be an excellent option for some clients, but some of the limitations for lithium analysis are that lithium is very light and can be excluded by heavier atoms, and analysis is typically limited to <0.2% dissolved solids, which means that it is not great for brines.” We’re not looking at brines, but this may also hold true for digested food samples. WETLAB indicates their preferred methodology is ICP-OES.
Maybe nobody knows what’s going on here! It’s looking more and more like this is just a question that’s sitting out on the limits of human knowledge. It’s a corner case — to know why some papers find high levels and other papers find really low levels, you might have to jointly be an expert on ICP-MS, lithium analysis, and chemical analysis in food. Manfred Anke is the only guy we’ve ever heard of who seemed like he might be all three, and he’s been dead for more than ten years. So maybe there’s no one alive who knows the answer. But that’s why we do science, right?
In any case, we’re very glad to know about this complexity early on in the process of planning our own survey, since we had also been planning to use ICP-MS! We had assumed that ICP-MS was the best technique and that it would certainly give us the most accurate numbers. But measurement is rarely that simple — we should have been more careful, and now we will be.
How do we figure out what’s going on here, and what technique we should use? We could go back and pore over the literature in even more detail. But that would take a long time, and would probably be inconclusive. Much better is to simply test a bunch of foods using different techniques, pit ICP-MS against techniques like AAS and flame photometry, and see if we can figure out what’s going on. So that’s what we’re gonna do.
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