Eating cake does not make you fat

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This post is inspired by the logic of a post by Ollie Lovell.

Like most of you, I had come to believe that eating cake makes you fat. I was convinced by the evidence that cake is an energy dense food of little nutritional value and that, all other things being equal, eating lots of it would lead to weight gain.

I personally avoid eating much cake, preferring a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and so I had come to think of myself as being on one side of this debate.

However, a couple of things happened recently that made me reevaluate my position by rethinking the definition of ‘eating cake’

First of all, it is quite possible to eat cake only rarely, while enjoying a diet full of healthy food and while pursuing an active lifestyle involving plenty of exercise. Such a combination is actually very good for you and won’t make you fat. In fact, it is probably one of the healthiest lifestyles out there. And yet, technically, someone following this balance of food and exercise could be described as someone who ‘eats cake’.

Nevertheless, I continued to be unsatisfied. The definition of ‘eating cake’ was still expressed only in behavioural terms. It didn’t seem anywhere near complicated enough.

So I read some papers by cake lovers in order to gain a more nuanced understanding which I will now share.

Let us think about what happens when you eat cake: You roll it around in your mouth, tasting it with your tongue and even smelling it. It is a sensation of flavour. We could therefore argue that any time we have this sensation – any time we taste any food – we are in essence ‘eating cake’.

With this new definition, there is clearly no relationship at all between eating cake and weight gain and so I think it has the potential to end this divisive debate, once and for all.


20 thoughts on “Eating cake does not make you fat

  1. Thanks Greg, I appreciate you taking the time to write this. And it’s a great analogy. I’ll expand on it further below.

    But first, I agree that your parody of my post is logically consistent and makes a good point, until your concluding sentence. Rather than:

    ‘With this new definition, there is clearly no relationship at all between eating cake and weight gain and so I think it has the potential to end this divisive debate, once and for all.’

    Which I don’t think represents the conclusion that I drew at all. I think a more appropriate cake-centric equivalent conclusion to the one that I drew would be something like:

    ‘With there being such a lack of clarity and a shared definition surrounding what cake actually is, I think that what it would be more helpful to discuss is questions like:

    -When you ate that food today that contained a high sugar content, what was the taste sensation that you were going for?
    -Why did you choose to eat that food with a high sugar content today rather than have a ‘cheat day’ on Saturday like you usually do?
    -How do your current feelings regarding your weight influence your choice of how often you consume high sugar content foods?
    -What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of measuring your health in the way that you currently do?
    -When are you going to next exercise, and how are you going to next exercise, to ensure that this high sugar content treat doesn’t adversely affect your waistline?’

    (see my original post for the parallel sentences with which I conclude it)

    And this is actually the key point I was trying to make. I agree with much of what vehement proponents of explicit instruction say, but I just don’t think that the way that the arguments of these proponents are misconstrued (sometimes by the proponents themselves) help us to do better teaching and learning. If I read your posts, and your book with care (which I have done and continue to do), I note that you actually come to the same conclusions that I do in terms of it not being about inquiry or explicit, but about identifying your students on the spectrum from novice to expert and teaching them accordingly. That said, I think that sometimes the titles of your posts, and the title of the Kirschner, Sweller, Clarke article, misrepresent the nuance of your position, and the nuance of Kirschner, Sweller, and Clarke’s article too. To highlight this point, here are two quotes from the KSC paper which clearly present represent the non-expert learners caveat:

    -‘For novices, studying worked examples seems invariably superior to discovering or constructing a solution to a problem.’
    -‘In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. ‘

    It’s sad that, somehow, the nuance of this conclusion gets lost in the raging debate around prog vs. trad because I feel like if we could move past (unclear) terminology then we could actually find ourselves learning a lot more from each other… which is why I wanted to write a post like the one that I did.


    In the same way that ‘not eating cake’ doesn’t make me a healthy person, ‘not doing inquiry teaching’ won’t make me a better teacher. Eating cake (whatever that is) and teaching by inquiry (whatever that means) are both valid activities, and very appropriate in many situations (e.g., at Birthday parties and with experts in a domain respectively).

    Building upon your cake analogy you’ve argued in a similar way to many vehement proponents of explicit teaching do, starting with the assumption that cake makes you fat. I would argue that cake doesn’t actually make you fat! An excess of calories at times when it isn’t appropriate to consume them (along with various other factors, some being genetic, some being environmental) is what makes an individual fat.

    To push it further, the kind of people whom I would like to be like are not the ones who abstain from cake all together (which I have done at times, it made me sad!), but those who eat a low sugar diet most of the time, and enjoy sweet treats less frequently, enjoying them when they do, and recognising the value of the shared experience of partaking in sweet treats with friends and colleagues. This is the balance that I’m currently trying to strike in my eating habits.

    Cake is a ‘sometimes’ food, minimally guided instruction is a ‘sometimes’ instruction strategy.

    • I do not value nuance for the sake of nuance. I don’t think it makes us more sophisticated or cleverer. I value clarity and that’s what I endeavour to produce. If you redefine ‘inquiry learning’ so that it means something different to what it is commonly understood to mean then you can argue that it is effective. However, this does not serve the purpose of clarity. What purpose does it serve?

    • Mitch says:

      Hi Ollie
      For what it is worth I see where you are both coming from. My view is that there are ‘inquiry activities’ along the spectrum from novice to expert that help understanding and that these are generally more successful with a strong teacher led component.
      At the same time I actually think your sources have a definition of inquiry that is not what is actually pushed at teachers.
      For one, I would also certainly not have classroom discussion classified as a inquiry-based approach. It could be either. The type of discussion, the amount of teacher involvement or steering, what you are discussing and when you are doing it is what would make it explicit or implicit. I also would not say “The teacher explains how a science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena” is inquiry at all either.
      The push for more inquiry is most definitely a push for minimal teacher direction, less explanation and more choose your own adventure. This is the push that is unchallenged by our leaders and academics.
      As an aside, after the Hattie work came out my jurisdiction defined explicit teacher as ‘having clear learning goals’. I don’t think these redefinitions help at all.
      I guess I think the answer may very well be in between these two extremes (or as Greg and I have said before – variety may have benefits) but both differentiated definitions need to be clear in what they mean.

    • John Perry says:


      “It’s sad that, somehow, the nuance of this conclusion gets lost in the raging debate around prog vs. trad because I feel like if we could move past (unclear) terminology then we could actually find ourselves learning a lot more from each other”

      Please, guys: we are all teachers. Largely we all want the same thing for our students.

      • Chester Draws says:

        Please, guys: we are all teachers. Largely we all want the same thing for our students.

        The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. That we might want the same thing doesn’t mean that what we propose to get there isn’t dangerously wrong.

        I would argue that we don’t want the same things anyway. I want to teach my students Maths, so that they can understand the material in depth and are confident with their competence. I have seen other teachers far more focused on students enjoying Maths over doing it, and I have had teachers just concerned about just passing the end of year exam with no concern past that point.

        I’ve even seen Maths teachers argue that teaching social justice is more important than what they might teach by way of Maths.

  2. Pingback: Inquiry vs. Explicit: Is there even a difference? - ollie lovell

  3. chrismwparsons says:

    The main message I took from Ollie’s post was that the key cognitive benefits which are supposedly attributed to Inquiry Based Learning, are part and parcel of his (and on reflection my) approach to Explicit Instruction.

    You could say that if in the above analogy Explicit Instruction is cake eating (as it’s more densely refined, processed, whatever), it turns out that Ollie’s students are actually eating a fruit cake.

    • chrismwparsons says:

      In all honesty though, I suspect a better analogy overall would be between Battery Farming and Free Range, and Ollie realising that what he thought was him doing Battery Farming actually included a fair sized outside enclosure as well.

    • Michael pye says:

      That’s kind of the issue, I think we are vulnerable to interpreting via personal experience rather then objectively evaluating the evidence or in this case the logic.

      Ollie’s post can still be an interesting read but the conclusion can also be invalid. The argument that explicit is largely the same as implicit seems to be circular reasoning, relying on the flexibility of language when used in different contexts. I have no doubt that the two terms have been muddied at points, however most people participating in this debate do have a clear distinction between the two ideas.

      Even Ollie’s example such as the popcorn experiment is really a clear cut example of explicit teaching, if you doubt that consider the 40 minute time scale. If it has been referred to as implicit that is really an example of mislabelling not a reason to redifine the labels. I did enjoy reading Ollie’s post but the conclusion didn’t seem to follow.

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