NEDA Week: On Marilyn Vos Savant or why the word’s smartest woman isn’t that smart

Yes, the smartest woman in the world has disordered eating and is slightly underweight.


If you are a regular reader of Parade Magazine (it’s that fauxish magazine that accompanies the Sunday paper) then you may be familiar with Marilyn Vos Savant. She has a question and answer column in the paper entitled Ask Marilyn. Savant is noted as being the woman with the highest IQ in the world (190 or 228, depending on the source). Thus her column doesn’t just answer Dear Abby type questions. She routinely settles disputes that readers send in regarding logic, math, science and many other topics.

Truthfully science and math go over my head so sometimes I only skim the column. I never really thought much about her one way or another. That is until 2004 when a reader asked the following:

“I notice that you always appear to be thin in your photos. How do you do it?”

“Here’s the “Ask Marilyn Daily Diet”:
I have a very light breakfast (low-fat yogurt or fruit or cereal)
and a very small lunch (a bit of cheese and crackers).
During the day, I drink water and a few cups of tea (sometimes with caffeine).
For dinner, however, I have just about anything I want, including bread and a little butter or olive oil, most kinds of entrees and vegetables, plus a dessert. The biggest exception is that I try to limit saturated fats, so I seldom have foods like burgers and fries. I also skip fatty meats and gravies and soups with cream.

I think this maintenance diet is successful for me because it’s hard to overeat when I have only ONE SIGNIFICANT MEAL A DAY. If my weight creeps upward a few pounds, which sometimes happens, I eliminate the bread and dessert until it returns to normal.I also have strict rules that I seldom break, except during vacations and holidays.”Marilyn

I had never seen a photo of Mrs. Savant aside from her head shot at the time so had never thought of this. As you may imagine, after reading that I lost all respect for this woman. If you just glanced at that you may think, big whoop, she eats healthy. No, she eats an incredibly rigid, highly regimented meal plan seemingly with the sole intention of not gaining weight.


So, of course, I had to investigate. Surely I wasn’t the only one who found it odd that “the smartest woman alive” didn’t seem to eat for health (the logical choice, as you’d think that intelligence begets logic). This led me to a long discourse of her diet on her site. The following is an excerpt from her “strict rules” that she sometimes breaks until she feels fat which is when she goes uber diet all over her ass:

“No snack food at home: only mealtime food. This means zero cookies, chips, nuts, and other treats. When it’s time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you should find everything you need. But when you want something between meals just for fun, the cupboard should look bare.

No eating between meals. This includes “healthful” food such as fruit or juice. For your health, they’re better than “junk” food. But for keeping trim, they are just added calories. Instead, try a no-calorie beverage or a cup of tea with sweetener.

One of the best things about my routine is that I always look forward to dinner, when I can have most anything I want, what a treat! Plus, food tastes much better when you’re hungry and not eating simply because mealtime has arrived.

Yes any food always taste delicious when you are starving yourself!

…Warm drinks and room-temperature drinks are more flavorful than cold ones, so I don’t add ice. I order beverages without ice in restaurants, too. Plus, melting ice makes a beverage watery, and that diminishes the flavor even more. Even in summer, iceless drinks don’t seem warm. Body temperature is almost 100°F, and so 72°F water tastes plenty cool enough. And in winter, why have an icy drink at all?

I’ve never even heard of someone so insane that they deprive themselves of ice

…Do take forever to eat dinner. The simple pleasure of dining with family or friends is underrated in our hurried lives. So is dining alone while reading a newspaper or simply enjoying good food. One of my favorite activities is going out to dinner by myself when my husband is away. I usually take a couple of questions to ponder and linger for the evening. It’s blissful!

I have no idea how anyone could eat in the presence of this woman, no wonder she loves eating alone and instead of eating it would appear that she’s actually sitting at a dinner table working.

Do savor each bite. If you love food, why not enjoy the taste as long as you can? Plus, thorough chewing

Gee I wonder if she also practices the Dolly Parton diet where you chew your food and then spit it back out?

makes for less tummy trouble… This is one reason I avoid drinks with calories. They disappear in a flash!

Don’t change your dining habits on the weekends. Weekends are already delightful, and you can have most anything you like for dinner every day, anyway. Adding foodfests like brunch is just plain overindulgence. Use that time to take a walk in a hilly park, bicycle with the kids, or shoot baskets at a playground. You’ll feel much better afterward.

=it’s stupid to eat on the weekend, just exercise some more instead

Don’t underestimate the calories you consume. When I say “a very light breakfast” and “a very small lunch,” I really mean it: maybe 250 calories for both together.

Gee 125 calories per meal, I’d be such a glutton

People often underestimate the calories of “healthful” food and overestimate the calories of foods that are frequent targets of dieters, such as one of the scariest foods of all: butter. Yet an average apple has the same number of calories as two pats of butter!

I think this means that she’s against apples.

Don’t eat food that you don’t really enjoy. This is an important part of my daily diet, whether I’m maintaining my weight or losing a couple of pounds. I won’t eat anything that I don’t think tastes great, even if I’m at a restaurant.

I once practiced this as a half cocked diet idea, having nothing to do with her & guess what, if you don’t have anything fantastic around you just won’t eat, hello borderline anorexia, waving!

…I have a limited number of days in my life, and time is precious. In a similar way, I have a limited number of calories to enjoy in my life. I want to “spend” them in the best way I can. So I refuse to waste precious calories on stale bread, spaghetti that’s too soft, or a giant cookie that didn’t taste as good as it looked. One bite, and it’s all over!”Marilyn

Guys, I just found out that we only get so many calories, shit, how do I find out how many I have left!?! Better ask Eddie Murphy!

Naively I assumed that he comments section would be full of people who also found this um, let’s say odd, not so, many commended her (as Americans are apt to do to any thin person) and even asked for more tips. Gee, let’s just start a Pro-Ana forum. One, disgustingly was a dietitian, a shitty, shitty dietitian. When asked about exercise Marilyn also mentions that she runs up to 6 miles per day. Hey, who needs food for that?

more choice quotes:
“Whenever I’m tempted, I remind myself that being interested in food is not the same as hunger.”

No, no, it’s not, but ask anyone with disordered eating, if you avoid activities or have to plan your entire day’s activities/food consumption around that one time you might go to the circus and eat cotton candy (also from the comments, I’m guessing that’s in place of her dinner) then you’re a little fucked in the head.

commenter:“…How tall are you?…”

“I’m 5 feet 8 inches tall, and I weigh 125 pounds.
(Note: I have a small frame, so my weight is low for my height. I would happily weigh ten pounds more if they would distribute themselves pleasingly all over. But my extra pounds behave like rich people in the winter: They head south.)”

=fuck my health, I just wanna be skinny

Don’t believe me?

For a height of 5’8″ the ideal healthy weight is 147 pounds. The recommended weight range is between 131 and 164 pounds. (source, source)

Here’s one commenter who’s actually a voice of reason:

“250 calories for both meals together and then starve all day waiting for the dinner? that’s insane! Why not eat a bit less on the evenings and a bit more at lunch and breakfast? Plus, calories are not burnt while you’re asleep…I’d rather enjoy myself a bit more and be less skinny!…”

with husband Robert Jarvik, creator of the Jarvik artificial heart

(source, there’s also a bit of a bio on her here)

I did search the net because I thought I can’t be alone in this boat. Unfortunately the only real criticism of Savant was covered by Jezebel (ugh, you know that I hate linking to them, but the actual report is available only through a pay paper online). Apparently instead of using her genius to be an inventor or something useful to humanity she’s more of a married socialite with her column as a hobby. That doesn’t bother me as I feel that you should be free to live your life in the style that you desire. I just wish that she wouldn’t push harmful ideas on people.

However it does make this a bit more interesting (from the horse’s mouth)

Now, why do I have such a big problem with this whole situation? I neither know Marilyn Vos Savant nor care what she does in her personal life. What I care about is that a large number of already confused and self hating Americans (and possibly people all over the world since this is online now) read things like this and think, hey if the smartest chick in the world thinks disordered eating is the bomb diggity she must be correct.

Am I saying that everyone should eat junk food all of the time (as someone semi “hinted” to me recently)? No, of course not. I am saying that I’m sure that if you added up what this woman ate on a daily basis it would most likely be under 1000 calories per day. Anyone who has obsessively studied diets, dieting, etc (unfortunately like I used to) can tell you that’s dangerous.

Then the even bigger issue, “food issues” are not just categorized (or at least shouldn’t be) by someone’s weight or even all of the types of foods that they eat. A big part of the problem is the mindset. It’s the “never good enough, never thin enough” mindset. It’s the absolutes mindset. It’s the “I plan my entire life around depriving myself and then “rewarding” myself mindset”. What it happens to be is an entirely unhealthy relationship with food.

That is why I don’t read her column anymore. I feel that if she does that fine, it’s not my life, but advocating that shit, it’s putrid.

Block quotes are, obviously, me being a smart ass.

It should be noted that I am against women attacking other women but I don’t believe this is an attack so much as important info that you should be aware of. But yeah, I sort of hate her, what can I say?

Update: March 2016
It is now almost impossible to view the original links to Marilyn’s diet. I think she knows it’s messed up. My link and others online directly to Parade’s site just take you to a bunch of her articles. This link is actually a discussion of said diet on her own site by fans. It’s interesting.

I just found this 2010 follow up to her original diet answer. A reader asked how she keeps healthy on such a “small diet”. She even asks about vitamins and supplements. Marilyn counters that it’s not “a small diet”, but that she only eats about “three hundred (or so) calories for breakfast and lunch combined”, damn, that’s scary.

Related Posts:
NEDA Week: Personal Stories of Exercise Bulimia
NEDA Week: Types of Eating Disorders & Disordered Eating
On Health
That Woman Behind You Is Better Than You, No Not That One, Look Harder

8 thoughts on “NEDA Week: On Marilyn Vos Savant or why the word’s smartest woman isn’t that smart

  1. Thank you so much for pointing this out! I did a google search on Marilyn’s diet thinking she probably ate a ton of omega-3’s for brain power (and wondering what her other secrets were). I’m really shocked by what I found. It’s kind of ironic that the “smartest woman in the world” doesn’t have knowledge about eating disorders.

  2. I agree that eating 250 kcals for breakfast and lunch is very odd, and I feel she shouldn’t have been dispensing any health advice. With that said, perhaps she doesn’t get hungry till dinner time, and at that time, she says she pretty much eats whatever she wants. She may be eating more than your estimation of 1000kcal. Personally, I don’t get very hungry during the day at all, and only snack a little. Further into the day, I eat more. I thought her comments were a bit restrictive and odd, but realized I try to follow the same diet for health anyways. She honestly, may not feel hungry through out the day, but should have the foresight to realize she shouldn’t be commenting on diets.

    This quote though “In a similar way, I have a limited number of calories to enjoy in my life. I want to “spend” them in the best way I can,” is ridiculous. A person can compensate for loss of fat. But then I remind myself that Marilyn is from a generation of women that may not have exercised to keep their figures. Most likely they just ate less, like what she’s doing. Also she’s so old, I’m not surprised her eating habits try to avoid more processed food.

    1. Sorry for the double post.

      My point was that this post is a bit harsh.

      “I’ve never even heard of someone so insane that they deprive themselves of ice”
      She’s doing this so that her drinks don’t get too diluted. Ice has no calories, c’mon we know that.

      “=it’s stupid to eat on the weekend, just exercise some more instead”
      I read it as, don’t let your weekend eating habits be different from your weekday habits. Brunch is an “overindulgence” in the sense that it’s something you typically don’t have on your daily basis so having it would be considered overeating, more caloric consumption.

  3. I’m 41/2 years younger than she is and my height has decreased 3 inches since I was a young adult. This causes me to wonder if she has been measured reciently. If she’s currently 5’8″ and weighs 125 then her BMI is 19 which is in the normal range of 18.5 to 24.9. I heard of an airline which requires women to be in the lower half of the normal range but allowes men to be anywhere in th normal range.

    I agree that her breakfast and lunch really don’t count as meals. She’s not holding herself out to be an example from the standpoint of nutrition is she?

    I wonder if she has any opinion on theories of intelligence. For example there is the multiple intelligences vs the g factor theory.

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