Since I’ve spent the last two posts bagging on MeMe Roth and the other food cops, I may as well continue, but along a different line. This time, I want to explain why they’re not just annoying, but profoundly mistaken. Their prescriptions for “helping” people lose weight don’t work, have never worked, and will never work. Here’s why:
They still believe gaining or losing weight works like a simple savings account. Take in too many calorie deposits and your account — your fat tissue — grows. So to shrink your account — why, heck, it’s easy! — just make smaller deposits by eating less, or make bigger withdrawals by exercising.
This theory is a classic of example of the famous H.L. Mencken quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” It’s so wrong, even Kelly Brownell — the morbidly obese expert on obesity who thinks the rest of us are suffering from a lack of calorie-count laws — can’t keep his weight down in spite of all his supposed knowledge.
To understand why the bank-account analogy wrong, we need to revisit what is perhaps the single most enlightening concept Gary Taubes put forth in Good Calories, Bad Calories: homeostasis. In biology, homeostasis refers to a condition of balance, one that your body insists on maintaining. Blood sugar is a good example. Eat a candy bar, your blood sugar rises, so your pancreas produces insulin to bring it down. Skip the carbs entirely, your blood sugar falls, so your body produces glucose from protein to raise it again. The body insists on keeping blood sugar within a very narrow range.
When we’re talking about body fat, homeostasis is the amount of fat we need to provide our bodies with a reliable source of energy. If you haven’t already seen it, watch this YouTube clip from Fat Head, which explains how body fat feeds our cells:
Now, here are some quotes from Good Calories, Bad Calories to expand the idea a bit further:
Clinicians who treat obese patients invariably assume that the energy or caloric requirements of these individuals is the amount of calories they can consume without gaining weight. They then treat this number as though it were fixed by some innate facet of the patient’s metabolism. Pennington explained that this wasn’t the case. As long as obese individuals have this metabolic defect and their cells are not receiving the full benefit of the calories they consume, their tissues will always be conserving energy and so expending less than they otherwise might. The cells will be semi-starved even if the person does not appear to be. Indeed, if these individuals are restraining their desire to curb, if possible, still further weight gain, the inhibition of energy expenditure will be exacerbated.
Pennington suggested that as the adipose tissue accumulates fat, its expansion will increase the rate at which fat calories are released back into the bloodstream … and this could eventually compensate for the defect itself. We will continue to accumulate fat – and so continue to be in positive energy balance – until we reach a new equilibrium and the flow of fat calories out of the adipose tissue once again matches the flow of calories in.
In other words, people whose hormones have put them in fat-accumulation mode aren’t in a state of energy balance unless they’re eating more and getting fatter. And once they’re fat, they can’t remain in a state of energy balance — homeostasis — unless they remain fat. With that in mind, let’s take the bank-account analogy promoted by the MeMe Roths of the world and make some adjustments so it actually resembles biological reality. (I’m using simple numbers here for clarity.)
In our system, the fat tissue is still a savings account of sorts, but we can only pay our energy bills by making automatic debits from a checking account — the calories that flow through our bloodstream or are easily accessible in the form of glycogen. To get through the day, we need to make hourly payments of 100 calories or so, depending on our metabolisms. Meanwhile, the bank wants us to keep the checking-account balance as close as possible to, say, 500 calories. When the checking account runs low, our system is designed to automatically transfer calories from savings into checking.
Still with me? Good. Now here’s the catch: The bank will only let us transfer a small percentage of our savings into checking each hour. The exact percentage allowed is determined by a mix of hormones, with insulin acting as the primary account manager. With that in mind, let’s check on the account status for two women: Skinny Minnie and Fatty Patty.
Skinny Minnie (who has long, straight, blonde hair and wears glasses) has a pretty good deal going. At 120 pounds, she only keeps about 52,500 calories (15 pounds) in savings, and her bank allows her to transfer 0.30% of the balance into checking every hour — about 157 calories, which is more than enough to pay her hourly energy bill when she hasn’t eaten in awhile.
As a result, Minnie’s body is perfectly happy with the small savings account. When she eats, calories go into both checking and savings, but then begin flowing from savings back into checking pretty quickly. So she feels satisfied on small meals, and if she does overeat a bit, her body senses the high balance and starts spending energy like crazy … it turns up the heat, and she feels compelled to go run for four miles. Soon her checking account is back down to 500 calories, and the savings account remains right around 52,500. Minnie can even decide she wants to lose five pounds before her high-school reunion and accomplish that goal by eating less for awhile — at 115 pounds, she can still transfer 105 calories per hour into savings. She doesn’t even feel hungry.
Patty’s deal isn’t quite as good. At 140 pounds, she keeps 105,000 calories (30 pounds) in savings. She doesn’t want the large account, but she needs it … the bank only allows her to transfer 0.10% of the balance to checking each hour — 105 calories, just enough to pay the bills. While she considers herself overweight, she’s just barely in a state of energy balance as far as the bank is concerned.
A few years later, Patty’s situation gets a little worse. Thanks to genetics, menopause, frankenfats, stress, too many refined carbohydrates, or a combination of factors, her hormonal mix changes. She becomes insulin-resistant, and the bank is compelled to change the rules. A higher proportion of what she eats must go into savings …and worse, she can only transfer 0.075% of those savings to checking each hour — 79 calories.
So Patty eats a little more. But when she’s not eating — and especially during the 12 hours or so between dinner and breakfast — her checking account is being debited faster than it’s being replenished. The bank sends a not-so-polite message to Patty’s body: YOU MUST INCREASE YOUR SAVINGS ACCOUNT TO 140,000 CALORIES TO MEET YOUR HOURLY ENERGY WITHDRAWALS.
Patty’s body heeds the warning. It ramps up her appetite. It lowers the thermostat a bit and orders her to sit still more often by making her feel tired. Thanks to these measures Patty soon finds herself at 150 pounds. Minnie looks on in disgust, thinking to herself (or saying aloud on Fox News), “Come on, Lady, eat a little less and take up jogging, would you?”
Unfortunately, Patty’s well-meaning doctor is also concerned and orders her to cut back on fat and eat more fruits and grains. She does, and as a result her body is even more conditioned to burn glucose instead of fat. She craves carbohydrates. Her hormonal balance goes off again, she becomes more insulin-resistant, and soon she can only transfer 0.06% from savings into checking each hour. Her body receives another warning from the bank: YOU MUST INCREASE YOUR SAVINGS ACCOUNT TO 175,000 CALORIES TO MEET YOUR HOURLY ENERGY WITHDRAWALS. A few months later, Patty weighs 160 pounds. She’s now at 31% body fat and clinically obese.
Patty becomes disgusted with her larger figure and goes on Weight Watchers. She feels okay on the low-calorie meals for a few days, but as soon as she loses four pounds, her savings account is once again unable to replenish her checking account at the necessary hourly rate. The bank sends another message: WHAT THE HECK DID I JUST TELL YOU?! GET YOUR SAVINGS ACCOUNT BACK UP TO 175,000 CALORIES IMMEDIATELY OR WE’LL BE FORCED TO REPOSSESS THE FREE TOASTER.
Patty doesn’t care about the toaster and refuses to listen. But her body is afraid of the bank manager and undermines her efforts to shrink the savings account any further. It turns down the thermostat again. It feeds Patty some depressants so she’ll sit around even more. It begins siphoning off an even higher proportion of what she eats into savings. Soon she’s back in state of energy balance, but just barely.
Patty’s weight loss stalls at seven pounds, and she gives up. Sitting on the sofa for hours each day, she eventually watches Oprah and learns from Dr. Oz that she can’t lose weight because she’s depressed and needs to learn to love herself so she’ll stop punishing herself with food.
Like I said, this is a simplified and somewhat silly analogy, but it’s a lot closer to biological reality than the simple bank-account theory that has inspired all those brilliant solutions promoted by Meme Roth, Kelly Brownell, CSPI and the other food cops. Let’s see how their ideas would work out in our banking system:
Force restaurants to list the calorie counts of every food item on the menu.
The calorie counts are already easy to find, and anyone who wants to know them will find them. (At McDonald’s, all you have to do is look at the back of the paper placemat.) These laws aren’t about providing information; they’re about confronting people: look how many calories you’re about to consume, Fatty Patty! Don’t do it!
Great … so Patty orders a smaller meal at McDonald’s when she stops for lunch. But in order to stay in a state of energy balance and avoid starving at the cellular level, she needs all the calories she’s been consuming, because she needs to stay at 160 pounds. So after that smaller lunch, she eats a bigger dinner — or a normal dinner plus a dish of ice cream while watching the Tonight Show. The point is, her body is going to order her to eat enough to keep the savings account as high as it needs to be.
Ban fast-food restaurants in poor neighborhoods.
Riiiiiiight. So instead of getting their nice, cheap carbohydrates from McDonald’s, poor people will get them from snacks at the convenience store or junk food from the grocery store. As long as the account manager has set a small transfer rate, people have to keep the savings account high — so they do. Where exactly they obtain the deposits doesn’t matter.
Force communities to build more bike paths and walking trails.
This is one of Kelly Brownell’s big fat ideas. (If people would just exercise more, they wouldn’t look like me, you see …)
Fine, so Patty takes up walking. Nothing wrong with that — exercise is good for your health — but as far Patty’s weight it concerned, the extra walking just means she’s depleting the checking account a little faster. As long as that transfer rate remains small, she’ll just have to eat more to keep the savings-account balance where it needs to be. If she doesn’t, her body will ramp up her appetite until she can’t ignore it any longer. That’s why, as Gary Taubes pointed out, overweight people have trained for and run marathons without losing a pound.
Declare all obesity-related diseases “elective” and make fat people pay for them out of pocket so they don’t burden the rest of us.
That’s one of MeMe’s hair-brained (long, straight, blonde hair-brained and glasses that make me look smart) ideas.
Yes, that would certainly work, you see, because Patty is simply choosing to eat too much and be fat. If she just ate less and moved more, she would magically alter her hormonal balance so she’s in a state of homeostasis at 120 pounds, just like Skinny Minnie … I mean, Skinny MeMe. Stupid, stupid, stupid. That would be about as easy for Patty to do as it would be for Skinny MeMe to voluntarily starve herself down to 85 pounds.
The only way to make your body happy with a smaller savings account is to change the hormonal mix and increase the transfer rate. Some people who decide to go on low-calorie diets stumble onto it by accident … they give up desserts, sodas, potato chips and other junk and bring their insulin levels down in the process. Kind of like the pope who managed to avoid the plague because his doctor told him to sit in a huge ring of fire to ward off the bad humors. It worked … but bad humors had nothing to do with it. The fire warded off the fleas and the rats.
Unfortunately, MeMe Roth and the goofs she works with at CSPI have no clue about homeostasis or the connection between hormones and weight gain. They tell people to avoid sugar — that’s good — but they also promote low-fat diets with lots of fruits, potatoes and grains. That might work just fine for Skinny MeMe, but it’s a disaster for people with insulin problems.
So she’s not just annoying, she’s not just a busybody, and she’s not just wrong. She’s part of the problem. The sooner she shuts up, the better off we’ll be.