Character vs. Chemistry, Part Three

      157 Comments on Character vs. Chemistry, Part Three

Well, it’s almost February … so how are you doing on those New Year’s resolutions?

In my first post of the year, I wrote that most weight-loss resolutions fail because we keep making plans that require a change in character, when the actual problem is rooted in chemistry.  I just need to have the discipline to stop eating even if I’m hungry, we tell ourselves.  I just to get off my butt and spend more time at the gym.

Just eat less and move more.  It must work, because that’s the advice doled out by nutritionists, doctors and personal trainers who’ve never been fat.

I can certainly understand why people who’ve never been fat or who lose body-fat easily like to believe getting lean is a matter of character.  After all, that belief is quite flattering to them.  It means their waistlines are a tribute to their superior discipline.

When I was in my 30s, I spent a lot of time hanging out with a buddy of mine – a naturally-lean jock type —  who was about my age and also single.  I remember mentioning to him (once … and only once) that I was frustrated with my efforts to lose weight.  He did his best to muster a sympathetic tone and replied, “Well, I guess at some point you’ll have to learn to push yourself away from the table a little sooner.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that during our many outings together, he matched me burrito for burrito and beer for beer.  I also knew for a fact that I hit the gym and worked out more often than he did.  He joined me for a workout once and later admitted he was surprised that I was quite a bit stronger than he was.  He had probably assumed my big belly and boy-boobs were proof I was lazy in the gym.

People like my naturally-lean friend (as well as millions of frustrated dieters) believe in simple calorie math:  your adipose tissue is a like a savings account for stored energy, so all you have to do to lose weight is make regular withdrawals.  By gosh, just cut 500 calories per day from your diet, and you’ll drain your fat cells of 500 calories in stored energy – one seventh of a pound of fat.  Keep it up for a week, and you’ll lose a pound.  Nothing to it.  You just need the discipline to cut those 500 calories per day.

And guess what?  For people like my naturally-lean friend, it kind of works that way.  In a recent post, I recounted a study in which researchers divided the subjects into three groups:  naturally lean, fat but with a demonstrated ability to lose weight by eating less, and the “resistant obese” who had failed to lose weight even while being monitored in a hospital.  All three groups underwent a 24-hour fast, and researchers measured the concentration of fatty acids in their bloodstreams at several intervals.

The “resistant obese” experienced almost no rise at all in their levels of serum fatty acids – in other words, their  bodies didn’t make up for the lack of food by significantly increasing the flow of fat from their fat cells.  The fat people who’d demonstrated that they could lose weight by dieting did experience a rise in serum fatty acids – not dramatic, but significant.  But the naturally lean subjects experienced a dramatic spike in serum fatty acids while fasting.  They were, like the savings-account model of obesity suggests, making automatic withdrawals from their adipose tissue to offset the lack of food.

My naturally-lean friend did, in fact, once drop 10 pounds rather quickly just by restricting his calories.  He wasn’t fat at all, mind you, but he’d started dating an athletic woman and wanted to get cut to look good for her.  So he ate less and – BINGO – he shed body-fat.  That ability to easily tap stored fatty acids for fuel was, of course, the reason he was naturally lean in the first place.  Unlike me at the time, he wasn’t hormonally geared to store fat and keep it stored.   His body was happy to tap the savings account.  But I’m sure to him, the quick weight loss was proof that eating less is all there is to it.  Nothing required but a little discipline.

To his credit, he didn’t hold himself up as a weight-loss expert or preach to me about eating less and exercising more.  (And if my description of him makes him sound like a shallow human being, trust me, he isn’t.)  But plenty of people like him do consider themselves experts – after all, they’re thin, so they must know what makes a person thin.  I refer to them as people who were born on the metabolic finish line and think they won a race.  Not only that, they consider themselves experts in how to train for and win the race.

These are the people who make idiotic arguments such as, “Of course it’s just a matter of eating less.  No fat people were freed from the Nazi concentrations camps!”  The slightly-less-idiotic version of that argument is to point out that if we lock people in metabolic wards and only let them eat 1,000 calories per day, they lose weight — so it’s clearly just a matter of cutting calories, ya see.

First off, as the researchers noted in that same study I reference above, some people do, in fact, stay fat on very few calories – so few calories that one researcher labeled them “thermodynamic paradoxes.”  Eating less isn’t really an option for them.

Secondly, what happens to people in concentration camps or metabolic wards isn’t relevant to frustrated dieters, because the frustrated dieters don’t live in locked-down environments where other people get to decide they can’t eat more even if they’re ravenously hungry.  Human beings aren’t supposed to endure hunger for weeks on end.  That’s why you have to lock them down to force them to live on starvation rations.  They might lose weight, but they’ll be miserable the whole time.   (Just ask Ancel Keys.  During his WWII-era starvation experiment, most of his subjects became depressed and a couple of them showed symptoms of psychosis.)

As an analogy, I could put a bunch of alcoholics in prison, limit them to two drinks per day, take blood samples to demonstrate that they were legally sober the whole time they were confined, and then declare that I’d proved the key to overcoming alcoholism is to JUST DRINK LESS.  Show some character.  Apply some self-discipline.  Have a couple of beers and then stop, already.  That’s all there is to it.

Almost nobody would expect that advice to work.  Most people grasp that when alcoholics get drunk even after promising themselves and anyone who will listen that they won’t, they’re giving in to powerful biochemical urges that normal drinkers don’t experience.  Most people grasp that the only way an alcoholic could become a normal drinker would be to somehow make those biochemical urges go away — not to overpower them with willpower and character.

But that’s what most conventional weight-loss advice is telling fat people to do – overpower a relentless biochemical drive with discipline and willpower.   That’s what we promise ourselves we’ll do when we make those New Year’s resolutions, and that’s why the resolutions fail.

Fixing our character doesn’t work, but fixing our chemistry can.  More on that later.

 

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157 thoughts on “Character vs. Chemistry, Part Three

  1. Jake

    Let me be clear:

    I’d rate my personal satisfaction with the volume and taste of my diet an 8. I *like* my diet but not all aspects of it.

    If I ate whatever and whenever I wanted, I’d rate my diet a 10 (as would everybody by definition). However, I also freely admit that even if I ate as much as I wanted, it would probably be a lot less than calories that most people, so I’m lucky that way.

    Reply
    1. Babs

      I don’t think you *get* it. Why don’t you actually measure out everything you eat, write it down in a little book, and keep track of your calorie intake? And we will just see if you really eat LESS than a fat person. This is something fat people are told to do all the time to lose weight.

      Fat people are told, “Are you sure you are only eating 1,200 calories a day? Are you writing down everything you eat? Are you measuring your food?” And yet here is a naturally thin person assuming, without writing it down, that they must eat less because they are thin and you are “lucky that way.” Let’s just see if it’s luck or if you actually eat just as much as everyone else, most likely more. Write it down for a week and please come back here to share the results.

      Reply
  2. Toni

    Since I can’t reply further up, I’ll respond here.

    @Chris: Saying that there is a hormonal problem that is at least partly to blame for someone being overweight or having a hard time losing weight is NOT in any way, shape, or form, a means of telling them that they should resign themselves to being fat. Actually, it gives them hope. If they can learn to work with their chemistry, rather than against it, they can actually have success. Yes, a certain amount of willpower is still involved, especially in the beginning (LC often represents a HUGE deviation from the way people have been told to eat their whole lives). What the CICO camp doesn’t seem to realize is that by ignoring the chemistry aspect, you are dooming a whole subset (and a rather large percentage, at that) of the population to end up giving up because that advice *doesn’t work* for those people. It just doesn’t. Who is more likely to resign themselves to being fat, in your opinion: someone who understands their body chemistry and can then use “character” make appropriate choices based on that, or someone who is told to simply “eat less and move more” and ends up struggling, suffering, and failing time and time again?

    Sure, both require willpower. However, your “willpower” will fade really fast if you aren’t getting results. Hence Tom’s reference to why so many “give up” on their New Year’s resolutions to lose weight after just a couple months.

    I will tell you that I didn’t get fat by eating crap. I got fat eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, low fat/fat free dairy. I didn’t drink soda, I didn’t eat lots of candy/pastries, I didn’t eat fast food more than once every couple of months. Of course, T2D, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s run in my family, and I’ve had symptoms of hypoglycemia since I was a teenager. I am insulin resistant. That’s not my fault. But there is something I can do about it. HFLC is the first “diet” I’ve ever tried that allows me to get to and maintain a healthy weight without it being a Herculean effort. Finding something that addresses my chemistry so that I now have more control is extremely liberating.

    I suspect we’re on the same page here, but as for Jake, he’s assuming people only get fat by failing to “follow the rules”. And that is simply not the case. I “followed the rules” and still got fat.

    @Jake:

    You said you don’t like doing the things you do, but you do them anyway. You can argue semantics and tell me you didn’t mean that in a negative way, but it certainly sounds negative to me. It also sounds like you are holding yourself up as a moral example, a martyr of sorts, who “doesn’t like” his diet, but does it anyway.

    If that’s how you want to live you life, rock on. I was always told to work smarter, not harder. I’ve found a way of eating that allows me to not have to exercise willpower (my cravings went away pretty quickly once I started HFLC), but rather to simply make smart choices (and now they actually ARE choices, I’m not driven by extreme hunger anymore) that work with my chemistry.

    Maybe miserable was the wrong word, but you certainly don’t sound enthusiastic about your diet. I don’t like it, but I do it anyway isn’t a ringing endorsement.

    Do I like cookies and ice cream? Sure. And I can eat them. In *true* moderation. Because I’m not on the blood sugar roller coaster, because I no longer have cravings, and because I am full and satisfied from all that steak and butter. Processed foods have actually lost their appeal – they don’t taste very good anymore and the smell of fresh baked bread has actually become a little nauseating. In short, I love my diet. I do it because it works, but I also do it because it is truly enjoyable. Best of both worlds. I was just pointing out that you don’t seem to be nearly as enthusiastic about your own diet.

    Heck, Toni, you practically wrote my next post. Those are all good points that I plan to tackle next.

    Reply
  3. Chuck

    I’m interested in post pregnancy weight loss. I have many friends who have had kids that were always thin before getting pregnant, but after they just can’t lose it for anything. I know hormones probably play a big part of it and one of my theories is that many of them pick up bad eating habits while they are pregnant that they did not have before and once the baby is born it has become normal routine for them. I don’t think that is the only reason just a possibility. I have tried to steer many of them the LCHF way, but that seems to terrify most of them even though they have seen my results. The main excuses I hear are that they love carb loaded foods, your a guy it’s easy for you and of course the usual that stuff is bad for you.

    Have you covered this topic yet? Do you or your wife have any advice to help steer these women in the right direction? I just hate seeing my friends torture themselves with the low-calorie and CICO nonsense then feel horrible when they fail in a week or less.

    Pregnancy causes a dramatic change in hormones. Dr. Michael Fox has done a lot of work in that area. Here are some interviews:

    http://livinlavidalowcarb.com/blog/the-llvlc-show-episode-454-dr-michael-fox-says-eating-low-carb-improves-fertility-pcos/10192

    http://www.carbohydratescankill.com/2704/68-michael-fox-md-on-geriatric-gynecology-carbohydrate-consumption

    Reply
  4. Mark

    So if I’m not really losing any weight (body fat specifically- I’m a little soft around the centre), I’m tired ALL the time (even after a good solid 9 to 10 hours sleep), don’t especially feek like exercising, could it be that I’m not eating enough? I’m still hardwired to the old ‘eat less, move more’ mantra, so I’m perhaps not eating enough to repair my metabolism and kick start my body tapping its fat stores. Does this scenario seem plausible?

    Yes, that’s possible. Also keep in mind that there’s no one diet that’s ideal for everyone. If you’ve been trying to lose weight by going almost zero-carb for awhile (long enough to have adjusted) and don’t have any energy, you might do better with something like Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health diet. (It’s still low-ish carb, but not low-carb as defined by, say, the Atkins diet.) Or you may want to try a cyclical ketogenic diet. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

    Reply
  5. Jake

    Let me be clear:

    I’d rate my personal satisfaction with the volume and taste of my diet an 8. I *like* my diet but not all aspects of it.

    If I ate whatever and whenever I wanted, I’d rate my diet a 10 (as would everybody by definition). However, I also freely admit that even if I ate as much as I wanted, it would probably be a lot less than calories that most people, so I’m lucky that way.

    Reply
    1. Babs

      I don’t think you *get* it. Why don’t you actually measure out everything you eat, write it down in a little book, and keep track of your calorie intake? And we will just see if you really eat LESS than a fat person. This is something fat people are told to do all the time to lose weight.

      Fat people are told, “Are you sure you are only eating 1,200 calories a day? Are you writing down everything you eat? Are you measuring your food?” And yet here is a naturally thin person assuming, without writing it down, that they must eat less because they are thin and you are “lucky that way.” Let’s just see if it’s luck or if you actually eat just as much as everyone else, most likely more. Write it down for a week and please come back here to share the results.

      Reply
  6. Mark

    So if I’m not really losing any weight (body fat specifically- I’m a little soft around the centre), I’m tired ALL the time (even after a good solid 9 to 10 hours sleep), don’t especially feek like exercising, could it be that I’m not eating enough? I’m still hardwired to the old ‘eat less, move more’ mantra, so I’m perhaps not eating enough to repair my metabolism and kick start my body tapping its fat stores. Does this scenario seem plausible?

    Yes, that’s possible. Also keep in mind that there’s no one diet that’s ideal for everyone. If you’ve been trying to lose weight by going almost zero-carb for awhile (long enough to have adjusted) and don’t have any energy, you might do better with something like Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health diet. (It’s still low-ish carb, but not low-carb as defined by, say, the Atkins diet.) Or you may want to try a cyclical ketogenic diet. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

    Reply
  7. Nick

    I agree that chemistry plays a huge part. I have a couple of friends who are recovering alcoholics. Every day they have to make the decision not to drink.
    Me on the other hand, I couldn’t care less about alcohol. I’m not teetotal. I’ll have a drink every now and again maybe once or twice a month. But usually I can’t manage more than one glass of wine or a pint of cider. I just can’t physically drink any more. It’s not because I’m morally superior to people who can’t stop drinking. I don’t have more willpower or discipline. My whole body just gives a really clear cut off signal “That’s enough” and so I stop. I imagine that people who get strong signals not to overeat get a similar signal with food.

    For me with food, I just don’t get that same signal. And at the wrong time of the month my body is just screaming at me to eat and gain the weight that I lost during the previous three weeks and usually I do gain it all back in that one week. I can’t ignore it. Low carb has helped but not eliminated the cravings.

    I did see on the TV years ago there was a theory about there being a continuum depending on whether in times of stress you would turn to alcohol or food. The theory came about because researchers found that obese people who turned to food when stressed were lacking in a particular hormone. They started giving the obese people this hormone, but found it was turning them into alcoholics. They had to halt the study before completion because it is worse for your health to be an alcoholic that obese. I can’t remember any more details and haven’t found it again when I searched for it but it sounds very interesting and backs up the character vs chemistry argument very well.

    Thanks for this series Tom, I’m really enjoying it. Will look forward to the next part.

    When I was a heavy drinker, I drank as much alcohol as I wanted. I still do, but I want a whole lot less. Changing my diet has definitely made a difference. I now get that cutoff signal you mentioned after two or three drinks.

    Reply
    1. Walter Bushell

      Ah, alcohol or glucose as emergency brain food? Particularly on a low fat diet I could see that happening.

      Oh and caffeine boosts blood glucose levels, but apparently does this through lipolysis[1] which is a good thing.

      According to
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11508705

      J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2001 Apr;47(2):139-46.
      Caffeine as a lipolytic food component increases endurance performance in rats and athletes.

      “These results suggest that the caffeine ingestion enhanced endurance performance resulting from spare stored glycogen with increasing lipolysis from adipose tissues and fat oxidation during exercise both in rats and in athletes.”

      [1] breakdown of fat.

      I don’t care how coffee works. All I know is, anyone who tries to make me give it up better be armed.

      Reply
  8. Nick

    I agree that chemistry plays a huge part. I have a couple of friends who are recovering alcoholics. Every day they have to make the decision not to drink.
    Me on the other hand, I couldn’t care less about alcohol. I’m not teetotal. I’ll have a drink every now and again maybe once or twice a month. But usually I can’t manage more than one glass of wine or a pint of cider. I just can’t physically drink any more. It’s not because I’m morally superior to people who can’t stop drinking. I don’t have more willpower or discipline. My whole body just gives a really clear cut off signal “That’s enough” and so I stop. I imagine that people who get strong signals not to overeat get a similar signal with food.

    For me with food, I just don’t get that same signal. And at the wrong time of the month my body is just screaming at me to eat and gain the weight that I lost during the previous three weeks and usually I do gain it all back in that one week. I can’t ignore it. Low carb has helped but not eliminated the cravings.

    I did see on the TV years ago there was a theory about there being a continuum depending on whether in times of stress you would turn to alcohol or food. The theory came about because researchers found that obese people who turned to food when stressed were lacking in a particular hormone. They started giving the obese people this hormone, but found it was turning them into alcoholics. They had to halt the study before completion because it is worse for your health to be an alcoholic that obese. I can’t remember any more details and haven’t found it again when I searched for it but it sounds very interesting and backs up the character vs chemistry argument very well.

    Thanks for this series Tom, I’m really enjoying it. Will look forward to the next part.

    When I was a heavy drinker, I drank as much alcohol as I wanted. I still do, but I want a whole lot less. Changing my diet has definitely made a difference. I now get that cutoff signal you mentioned after two or three drinks.

    Reply
    1. Walter Bushell

      Ah, alcohol or glucose as emergency brain food? Particularly on a low fat diet I could see that happening.

      Oh and caffeine boosts blood glucose levels, but apparently does this through lipolysis[1] which is a good thing.

      According to
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11508705

      J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2001 Apr;47(2):139-46.
      Caffeine as a lipolytic food component increases endurance performance in rats and athletes.

      “These results suggest that the caffeine ingestion enhanced endurance performance resulting from spare stored glycogen with increasing lipolysis from adipose tissues and fat oxidation during exercise both in rats and in athletes.”

      [1] breakdown of fat.

      I don’t care how coffee works. All I know is, anyone who tries to make me give it up better be armed.

      Reply
  9. Dan

    Tom, you really hit the nail on the head when you mention the kind of diet and fitness advice that comes from people who have never been fat. I wouldn’t ask someone who has never driven a car to teach me how to drive – so what sense does it make to ask someone who has never had to lose weight how to lose weight?
    Your comparison to your friend remind me a lot of my brother-in-law. Really skinny guy, eats about 4000-5000 calories per day, can’t put on weight. He is living proof that the calorie model is not correct. If it were, he would be morbidly obese!

    Yup, my son is like that. He tried to gain weight a couple of times by overeating … didn’t work.

    Reply
  10. Dan

    Tom, you really hit the nail on the head when you mention the kind of diet and fitness advice that comes from people who have never been fat. I wouldn’t ask someone who has never driven a car to teach me how to drive – so what sense does it make to ask someone who has never had to lose weight how to lose weight?
    Your comparison to your friend remind me a lot of my brother-in-law. Really skinny guy, eats about 4000-5000 calories per day, can’t put on weight. He is living proof that the calorie model is not correct. If it were, he would be morbidly obese!

    Yup, my son is like that. He tried to gain weight a couple of times by overeating … didn’t work.

    Reply

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