Archive for February, 2014

Some years ago, Dr. Robert Lustig worked with a group of kids who had brain cancer. The cancer treatments were successful, but later the kids became obese. According to their parents, the kids had developed enormous appetites and become sedentary. They spent all day sleeping or sitting in front of the TV and eating.

Lustig didn’t inform the parents that those kids needed to just stop being so lazy and gluttonous.  He didn’t urge the parents to tell their kids to just eat less and move more, for goodness sake.  As an endocrinologist, Lustig knew the change in behavior was being driven by a change in biochemistry. He suspected that as a side-effect of the cancer treatments, the kids were over-producing insulin. Tests confirmed his suspicion.

So he gave the kids an insulin-suppressing drug.  Here’s how he described the results:

“When we gave these kids this drug that blocked insulin secretion, they started losing weight. But more importantly, something that was even more amazing, these kids started exercising spontaneously. One kid became a competitive swimmer, two kids started lifting weights, one kid became the manager of his high school basketball team … Changing the kids’ insulin levels had an effect not just on their weight, not just on their appetites, but on their desire to engage in physical activity.”

These kids didn’t get fat because they sat around and ate more.  They sat around and ate more because they were hormonally driven to get fat.  Luckily for them, Lustig understood that and treated the root of the problem:  chemistry, not character.

When I started writing this series of posts, I knew I’d receive (and did) a comment or two along the lines of “But telling people it’s about chemistry gives them an excuse to just give up.”  Comments like that usually come, of course, from people who have never been fat and chalk it up to their superior character.  I understand the appeal of that belief.

I also understand wanting to believe it’s all about character because darnit, that just feels like cosmic justice.  Effort ought to yield results, period.  Most of us would like the world to work like that.  As kids, we were told that if you work hard and put your mind to it, you can do almost anything.  So in our little pea-picking brains, the formula for success looks like this:

Effort = Success

But as we grow older, we realize everyone inherits different talents and abilities.  I admired Bart Starr and wanted his job someday, but I certainly knew by middle school that no matter how hard I worked, I’d never become a star quarterback in the NFL.  Or in college.  Or in high school.  Or in the Pop Warner leagues.  I just didn’t have the physical gifts.  So after swallowing the knowledge that genetics matters, we update the success formula in our minds to look more like this:

Ability x Effort  = Success

That’s where we’d like the equation to stay.  That “ability” part still seems a bit unfair, but we can live with it.

Well, like it or not, there’s still more to it.

Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, the last Super Bowl notwithstanding.  Sure, he inherited the ability to become great from his father, also an NFL quarterback in his day, but Manning’s dedication to his profession is legendary.  He spends hours and hours studying videotape of opposing defenses so he can predict their moves and spot their weaknesses.  It’s Ability x Effort at work, for sure.

But wait … what if Manning prepared for games by spending hours and hours studying and memorizing the birthdays, middle names, favorite desserts and horoscopes of the defensive players he’ll be facing?  Would he still shred defenses like he did in the 2013 NFL season?  Of course not, because that knowledge wouldn’t be useful in guessing how to pick apart a defense.   The time and effort spent acquiring that knowledge would be wasted.

Let’s suppose I want to look better in shorts.  Running for 10 hours a week might put some muscle on my thighs, but not as much as one set of leg presses per week with heavy weights.  Resistance training is more effective for growing muscles, period.   It doesn’t matter that running 10 hours per week takes more effort and dedication than spending three minutes on a leg-press machine.

So we have to update our formula for success one more time.  Now it looks something like this:

Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success

Effort matters, absolutely, but only yields good results if it’s applied effectively.

Let me offer another example:  suppose twin brothers both decide to take second jobs and invest most of the additional income to make for a more prosperous middle age.  One twin works extra hard, spends less, and invests $500 per month in bank CDs that pay 1.05% interest.  The second twin doesn’t work quite as much and treats himself to nicer clothes and other goodies, and thus only saves $250 per month, which he invests in mutual funds that earn the S&P 500 historical average of 11.69%.

After 20 years, the twin who invested $500 per month would have just over $134,000 in his account.  Meanwhile, the twin who only invested $250 per month would be sitting on nearly $233,000.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it?  I think we’d all agree the first twin demonstrated more character.  He worked harder, he sacrificed more.  And yet it’s the brother who worked less and sacrificed less who has nearly $100,000 more in his account.  That’s because while his efforts were smaller, they were applied much more effectively.  Working and saving was a matter of character.  The return on investment was, in a manner of speaking, a matter of financial chemistry.

And of course if the twin who worked harder and saved more invested it all in the next Enron, he’d get nothing in return.  He would no doubt feel royally screwed by an unfair universe, but that would be the result.  I hate to break it to anyone who doesn’t already know, but the universe doesn’t reward you based on how much effort you expend or how many sacrifices you make, no matter what all the touchy-feely self-help books say.  The universe rewards effort that’s applied effectively.

If we sat down and explained to the ambitious young twins that their financial success would depend heavily on the effectiveness of their investments, I doubt either of them would say, “Well, that’s it, then.  If it’s about return on investment, I don’t see the point in making the effort.  I give up.”

I’d expect the opposite, in fact:  I’d expect them to be motivated to find effective investments so their efforts wouldn’t go to waste.

Turning this back around to losing weight, yes, there has to be some effort and some sacrifice involved.  If you’re obese, whatever you’ve been doing isn’t working.  Your diet will have to change.  But it has to be an effective change.  Switching to a diet that works with your body’s chemistry so you feel satisfied even while eating less is effective.  Switching to a diet that works against your body’s chemistry and leaves you ravenous and lethargic isn’t.  That’s the dietary equivalent of investing in Enron.

Making the effort to find the diet that works with your chemistry and then sticking with it – even if means giving up the donuts and bread you love – requires some character.  But if you’re willing to do that, you can be like the twin who saved and sacrificed less but ended with more money.  Getting results won’t require as much sacrifice, and perhaps eventually it won’t feel like a sacrifice at all.  I certainly didn’t feel deprived when I went back to bacon and eggs for breakfast.  I used to love pasta, but now I don’t miss it.

So let’s look at that success equation one more time:

Ability x Effort x Effectiveness = Success

We all know that thanks to genetics, some people are naturally lean and others tend to get fat, so let’s swap genetics for ability.  The effectiveness of a diet is largely a matter of chemistry.  So now here’s our equation if we define weight loss as success:

Genetics x Effort x Chemistry = Weight Loss

But wait … genetics is also a matter of biochemistry.  So we’re looking at Chemistry x Effort x Chemistry.

That’s why I say weight loss is mostly about chemistry, not character.  Knowing that is hardly an excuse to give up.  If anything causes people to give up, it’s effort and sacrifice that isn’t rewarded.  That’s why the gyms become less and less crowded the farther we get from New Year’s and all those resolutions.  Understanding that chemistry is a big part of the equation and choosing accordingly is what enables our efforts to finally succeed.

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I apologize for the lengthy delay in posting and answering comments.  It was a strange and sometimes stressful week with virtually zero time for blogging.

I finally had some free time over the three-day weekend, which we used to solve a couple of issues around the ol’ farmstead.  The first issue involved a runaway dog.  Well, not exactly a runaway dog, but a loose dog.  I was looking out the kitchen window on Saturday and thought, Hmmm, that’s a big animal poking around at the edge of forest back there … almost as big as one of my Rottweilers.  Hey, wait a minute!

Yup, it was our dog Misha, running happy and free, waaaay outside the backyard fence.  Nobody had left a gate open, which meant she was jumping the fence.  Most of the fencing is 48 inches tall, and she can’t jump that.  But over on the side yard, there’s a long section that’s only 40 inches.  There’s also a section that was apparently caved in a bit by a tree at some point, and it’s even shorter.

The long-term plan is to fence in the entire property, but we’re not ready to make that investment yet, so we needed a quick and easy (and inexpensive) solution.  Chareva remembered that she’d used a cow panel to make the hoop part of the portable chicken coop and thought cow panels would be tall enough to keep Misha from exploring the countryside and possibly deciding to explore the highway full of fast-moving vehicles.

I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t the most aesthetic solution, but what the heck, the existing fence isn’t a charmer anyway.  That’s one of the reasons we plan to get all-new fencing someday.  The cow panels were easy to strap to the existing fence, and so far they’ve kept Misha from doing another remake of The Great Escape.

The other issue we solved was getting across the creek without requiring balance or long-jumping skills to avoid stepping into muddy water.  The shortest route from the house to the chicken coop and the garden is across the creek.  During dry months, it’s easy to just step over it.  But for several days after a good rain, crossing the creek requires either a decent long jump or stepping on big rocks that may or may not be slippery.  I’ve had my foot slip off a rock and plunge into the muddy water enough times to expand my vocabulary of four-letter words.

To keep our feet dry when the creek swells after a rain, I figured we needed something 12 feet long.  I thought a steel bridge with handrails would provide a charming touch, but didn’t find the price on 12-foot steel bridges charming in the least.  So we decided to just go buy $100 worth of wood at Home Depot and make a bridge ourselves.

For the base of the bridge, we bought 4×4 beams.  For the surface, we bought 12-foot planks that are just under an inch thick and cut them into 3-foot sections.

Chareva likes this picture because (according to her) I look like a boy pulling his wagon.


She suggested pre-drilling holes before attaching the planks with 2-inch wood screws.  While putting together the portable chicken coop, she apparently had a bad experience trying to drill long screws directly into the wood.   I replied that in the interest of time and efficiency, I’d like to try drilling the screws directly first.

When I pushed the drill down and the screw head ended up flat against the plank, she said, “Huh … I guess you’re stronger than I am.”  And here I thought – you know, with our workouts at the gym and all – she already knew that.  Nice when a construction project clarifies your wife’s opinions of your abilities.  She also told me several times how happy she was to see me building a bridge from scratch.  I get that … my dad never did anything with tools, I never did anything with tools until we moved to the farm, and all the years she knew me in Chicago and Los Angeles, she never saw me take on a project more complicated than hanging a picture.

I thought we’d probably have to prop up at least one beam with rocks or paving stones, but nope.  With a little moving and shoving and adjusting, we found a spot where the bridge settled in nicely, with no tilting or rocking.  I celebrated with a round of disc golf, patting myself on the back a bit each time I used the bridge to cross the creek.

Meanwhile, the girls have decided it’s a great perch for watching crawdads.

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If you’re a regular reader, you’ve already seen these pictures.  But take another look.

When people send me before-and-after pictures like these, they also usually tell me about their struggles losing weight – often covering many frustrating years — before Fat Head inspired them to try a LCHF diet.  Then they finally lost weight.

If weight loss is mostly about character, then here’s what happened to these people:  After years of being too weak-willed to simply eat less and move more, they finally developed the necessary discipline.  The fact that Fat Head convinced them to start eating bacon and eggs and dump the hearthealthywholegrains just before they became disciplined was pure coincidence.

If weight loss is mostly about chemistry, then here’s what happened:  Something about switching to a LCFH diet caused biochemical changes that allowed these people to consume fewer calories than they burned without feeling hungry and miserable.  They may have even felt more energetic instead of less while reducing their energy intake.

I of course vote for the second explanation, and the research backs me up.  Let’s look at just a couple of clinical studies of low-carb diets.

In this one, 10 obese subjects with type 2 diabetes followed a low-carb diet for 14 days and lost an average of 3.6 pounds.  The researchers noted that the subjects consumed fewer calories than before, which completely accounted for the weight loss.  Fair enough.  We’re not claiming that low-carb diets make calories magically disappear.  The money shot in the study’s conclusion is this:

… a low-carbohydrate diet followed for 2 weeks resulted in spontaneous reduction in energy intake to a level appropriate to their height.

Spontaneous reduction in energy intake. If people aren’t told to eat less but end up eating less anyway, what does that tell us?  It tells us they aren’t hungry.  That’s chemistry, not character.  Character is (according to the calorie freaks) being hungry and not eating anyway.

Well, perhaps everyone enrolled in a diet study decides to eat less and lose weight to impress the investigators, eh?  Perhaps we’d see the same results with any diet.

Nope … at least not in this study (and there have been several like it), which compared a calorie-restricted low-fat diet to a low-carb diet.  This time the subjects were obese women who followed the diets for six months.  Keep in mind that the women in the low-carb group weren’t told to restrict calories.  They could eat as much as they wanted as long as they stayed within their carb limit.  And yet look what happened:

Women on both diets reduced calorie consumption by comparable amounts at 3 and 6 months.

The low-carb women weren’t told to eat less, but they did.  Now let’s compare the weight loss:

The very low carbohydrate diet group lost more weight (18.7 lbs vs. 8.6 lbs) and more body fat (10.6 lbs vs. 4.4 lbs) than the low fat diet group.

Now, you could argue that if the low-carb group lost more weight and more body-fat than the calorie-restricted group, they must have ended up eating less.  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe their metabolisms stayed higher.  But let’s suppose they did eat less, and that eating less completely accounts for the extra weight loss.  So what?  The point is that they weren’t told to eat less, but they did so spontaneously.  Either they just happened to develop more character than the calorie-restricted group, or they weren’t as hungry.

Studies like this one say it’s because they weren’t as hungry:

Symptoms of negative affect and hunger improved to a greater degree in patients following a low-carb ketogenic (LCKD) diet compared with those following an low-fat diet. Whether these symptom changes explain the greater short-term weight loss generally experienced by LCKD followers deserves further research.

I’ve lost count of how many people have told me in emails, in comments, in Facebook posts and in person that their appetites have totally changed.  They don’t crave desserts and other sweets anymore.  They aren’t thinking about lunch two hours after breakfast.  They sometimes skip meals because they’re not hungry.  They say “no thank you” when co-workers pass around donuts or pieces of birthday cake — not because they refuse to give in to temptation, but because the temptation simply isn’t there.  A piece of cake is no more appealing than a bowl of dirt.  They are eating as much as they want, but they want less.

When people change the composition of their diets and suddenly find they can eat less without feeling hungry for the first time in their lives, that’s chemistry.  If feeling full and happy on smaller portions then leads to a spontaneous reduction in energy intake to a level appropriate to their height, that’s chemistry.

By the same token, when people try living on 1,200 calories’ worth of low-fat Weight Watchers meals and end up ravenously hungry, that’s also chemistry.  Of course, people who are on diets that leave them hungry are supposed to rely on character at that point and voluntarily suffer the hunger pangs.

Bad idea.  Hunger isn’t some annoying sensation created by Mother Nature to torpedo your weight-loss efforts.  Hunger is your body’s way of saying I need something … protein, nutrients, fuel — something that food could provide.  If your body needs fuel and you refuse to supply it, you may end up with a slower metabolism.  Or your body may cannibalize your muscles to make glucose.  Or you may wind up feeling lethargic and depressed – emotions your body produces to discourage you from wasting precious fuel by being active.  That’s chemistry, chemistry, and chemistry in action.  But once again, people made miserable by chemistry are supposed to suck it up, stick with the diet, and use the strength of their character to overpower the urge to eat — then go to the gym to spend an hour on the treadmill despite feeling lethargic, too.

That approach rarely works.  Humans aren’t supposed to voluntarily suffer.  We’re not geared for it.  The diet you can live with is the diet that works with your body’s chemistry, not against it.  You can’t go through life in a constant state of war against your body and your appetite, not if you want to be healthy and happy.

The people whose pictures grace the top of this post all tried to lose weight by going on other diets that made them miserable.  They probably stuck with those diets for a good long while even when the diets clearly weren’t working.  Then they probably felt like failures when they couldn’t stand it anymore and gave up on those diets.

Then they found a diet that worked because it didn’t require them to suffer – in fact, they got to enjoy delicious, fatty foods they’d been told were bad for them.  They felt full sooner.  They ate less spontaneously.  They lost weight – lots of it.  And it happened because of a change in chemistry, not because they finally developed superior character.

Does that mean character doesn’t play into it all?  Nope.  It does.  But I’ll deal with that topic next time.

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