During the big push to get the film ready for the cruise, I forgot to post chapter two of Fat Head Kids. So here it is.
I had to shrink some of the graphics to fit inside a post, and of course I can’t recreate Chareva’s two-page layouts or the flow of text around pictures. But you’ll get the idea.
I posted chapter one back in May, in case you missed it.
Stuff I wish I knew when I was your age:
Getting Fat is About Chemistry
As fans of The Piggy Bank Theory like to remind us, there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat. So HOW we get fat can be explained by simple math that looks like this:
calories in – calories out = change in weight
But WHY we get fat isn’t about math. It’s about chemistry, which looks like this:
Don’t worry; you don’t need to understand all that chemistry. In fact, very few people understand all of it. What you need to understand is this:
Even when you’re just sitting, your body is incredibly busy. Your lungs are breathing air. You heart is pumping blood. Your digestive system is breaking down food. Your muscles, organs and bones are generating millions of new cells. Your entire body is generating heat to keep you warm. And that’s just a tiny fraction of what’s going on inside of you right now.
Everything that happens in your body is triggered by chemical reactions, and those chemical reactions all use energy. Even the chemical reactions that convert food to energy burn energy. If we look at all the chemical reactions together (just a few are shown in the scary chart), they make up what scientists call your metabolism.
Your metabolism doesn’t work like a piggy bank. Not even close. If anything, it’s more like a super-complicated software application. So to understand how your body works, you need to understand how software works.
If you’re like most kids these days, you already have some favorite software applications … only you probably call them apps. My daughters love their apps, and I have to admit, some of them are pretty cool.
But even the coolest apps can only do what they’ve been programmed to do — not what you want them to do.
For example, when I’m playing Frisbee Golf on our Wii, I can’t just decide I’m going to reach the green on the 17th hole with one throw. That’s how I want the app to work, and in my opinion, that’s how it should work. But an app doesn’t know or care how we want it to work.
When you click a mouse, type on a keyboard, touch a screen, or work a remote, you send the app a message, otherwise known as a command. The app responds to the message by following the instructions that are written into its code — every single time. That’s how all apps work.
To create apps for tablets and computers, software programmers (like me) write code in a language like C+ or Java. Your body is like a huge collection of biological apps. But these apps are programmed by Nature, and the code is written in chemistry. Everything about you — from the color of your eyes, to the sound of your voice, to the size of your belly — is the result of your body following instructions written into its chemical code.
So to understand WHY we get fat (and the other topics in this book), we need to forget about piggy banks and the stupidly simple math of calories in vs. calories out. Nothing in the human body is simple.
Instead, I want you to think of your body as a biological starship — one that’s waaaay cooler than The Enterprise, The Millennium Falcon or any other starship you’ve seen in the movies. We’ll call our starship The Nautilus.
Introducing … The Nautilus!
The Nautilus is the amazing vehicle that carries you through the universe as you explore new worlds, save friendly creatures from the forces of evil, and occasionally get into trouble with your parents. You’re in the captain’s chair, so you can operate many of the ship’s controls. You can decide where The Nautilus will go and what missions it will try to accomplish.
That’s the good news. Now here’s the not-so-good news: you can’t change how The Nautilus works. It isn’t like a modern aircraft that humans designed and can re-design when they need to. The Nautilus was designed and programmed by Nature at the dawn of time, and it’s at least a thousand times more complicated than anything built by NASA. The best we can do is try to understand how it works.
Mr. Spot, the ship’s science officer, has been studying The Nautilus for decades. So has Dr. Fishbones, the ship’s medical officer. In spite of all their research, there’s a lot they still don’t know. But lucky for us, there’s plenty they do know.
I’m pretty sure my Earth children wouldn’t say that, but Dr. Fishbones is right about this: your body’s biological apps are fantastic. No human programmer could create apps as brilliant as the ones that keep The Nautilus flying. But they’re still apps — which means when they receive a message, all they can do is follow the instructions written into their code.
When you become a wizard with your favorite app, it means you’ve learned to send the right messages at the right time. It’s the same with The Nautilus. The only way to improve your starship’s performance is to change the messages you send to the crew. And guess what? Everything you eat sends a chemical message.
You have to eat, of course. As The Nautilus explores the universe, it burns a lot of fuel. It also requires daily rebuilding and repairs, which means it constantly needs new building materials. Fuels and building materials are both delivered through a single hatch, so we’ll give them both the same name: FUD.
As the captain, you can choose what kind of FUD goes through the hatch. That’s the good news. But once again, here’s the not-so-good news: you can’t decide what The Nautilus will do with the FUD. Those decisions are made by the ship’s chief engineer — an absolutely amazing app we’ll call Marty Metabolism, or just Marty for short.
Marty is probably the most important member of the entire crew. We’ll let Dr. Fishbones explain why.
You may have heard that some people have a fast metabolism, while others have a slow metabolism. So what exactly does that mean?
I’ll explain, Captain. Suppose The Nautilus lands on a cold planet with strong gravity, and Marty believes the ship is too heavy to take off again. The logical solution is to burn away some of the stored fuel. So he opens the windows to let in cold air, then turns up the heating system. He turns on all the lights and monitors. He orders his building crews to tear down and rebuild sections of the ship, using power tools that require energy. The ship is now burning fuel at a high rate, so we would say it has a fast metabolism.Now suppose instead that Marty is concerned we won’t have enough fuel to reach our next destination. So he closes the windows, turns off the lights and monitors, stops all the repair work, and turns the thermostat down to 60 degrees. When Dr. Fishbones complains of being cold, Marty gives him a big, ugly sweater to keep warm. The ship is now burning fuel at a much lower rate, so we would say it has a slow metabolism.
Your job as the captain would certainly be easier if you could just send orders directly to Marty, like this:
Unfortunately, that’s not how The Nautilus was programmed. As an app, Marty doesn’t know or care how you want him to do his job. He simply responds to what’s happening inside the ship and to messages from the rest of the crew.
The Brain and the crew send alerts and commands to each other through chemical messengers called hormones. When Marty receives a message, it’s often a command, such as GET TALLER, or BUILD BIGGER MUSCLES, or STORE MORE FAT.
To follow those commands, Marty has to adjust how much FUD the ship burns for energy, how much it stores as fat, and how much it converts into building materials. In other words, he has to adjust the difference between calories in vs. calories out.
That’s why The Piggy Bank Theory doesn’t work in real life. It assumes your metabolism stays the same unless you raise it by exercising. But in fact, Marty can speed up or slow down your metabolism quite a bit — and he will, depending on the messages he receives.
Here’s an example: one of the instructions programmed into The Nautilus is to keep building a bigger ship for the first 15 to 20 years. So if you’re not an adult yet, you’re growing taller. To grow taller, you have to consume more FUD than you burn, then convert the leftover FUD into building materials.
If we applied The Piggy Bank Theory, we would explain growing taller like this:
Wow, wouldn’t that be great? If you were on the short side, you could just keep eating and eating until you were nine feet tall, then go play in the NBA. But of course, that’s not how it works.
The Get Taller! program is the reason teenagers are known for their amazing appetites. They need the extra building materials to grow into their adult height. But they don’t grow taller because they eat more. They eat more because they’re growing taller. Consuming more calories than they burn is HOW they grow taller. But the Get Taller! program is WHY they grow taller.
If you’re still confused about calories and body size, think of it this way: suppose your dad is six-foot-five, and he’s always complaining about having to squeeze himself into those stupid little seats on airplanes. To grow as tall as he is, your dad had to consume more calories than he burned. So according to the Piggy Bank Theory, you could avoid growing as tall as your dad by eating a little less than he did. Would that work?
Of course not. Like all important apps, Marty’s code includes something called redundancy. That’s a programmer’s term that means if one block of code doesn’t work, the program switches to another … and another, and another, until the command is obeyed.
If your body is running the Get Taller! program and you decide to eat a little less, Marty will simply slow down your metabolism to burn less FUD for fuel. Then he’ll convert the leftover FUD into building materials.
That’s what Marty is programmed to do. He follows commands by constantly adjusting how he uses calories.
That’s why naturally lean people can eat 56,000 extra calories in eight weeks and barely gain any weight. That’s why people like my wife weigh exactly the same, year in and year out, without ever thinking about calories. When they eat more, Marty speeds up their metabolisms to burn the extra calories. Their version of The Nautilus was programmed to avoid getting fat — and that’s chemistry, not character.
Getting fat is also about chemistry. It begins when those chemical messengers called hormones tell Marty to run the Get Fatter! program and store more fat. It actually works a lot like the Get Taller! program … but the extra calories are converted into fat instead of building materials. That’s WHY you get fatter.
Since Marty is under orders to store more fat, he’ll trigger the Get Hungry! program to make you eat more. But if that doesn’t work, he’ll slow down your metabolism to burn less fuel. Either way, you end up consuming more calories than you burn. That’s HOW you get fatter.
The commands from hormones are so powerful, Marty can’t just ignore them. Perhaps Mr. Spot can give us an example.
Aha, that must mean The Piggy Bank Theory is correct! The rats ate too many calories, and that’s WHY they got fat.
The same thing can happen to people. A documentary I saw called The Science of Obesity featured a woman who was lean until about age 35. Then she suddenly started getting very fat. She cut her calories to just 1500 per day and still got fatter.
So, was she consuming more calories than she was burning? Yes, absolutely. That is always HOW we get fat. But was consuming too many calories WHY she got fat?
If you’re getting fat, I’m not suggesting you have a brain tumor. That’s a very rare condition. But something in your body is telling Marty to run the Get Fatter! program. Consuming more calories than you burn isn’t the cause of the problem. It’s the result of Marty following his orders.
By now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Okay, I understand Marty can slow down my metabolism if I eat less. But if I keep cutting my calories, I have to lose weight eventually. After all, Marty can’t slow the ship’s fuel use down to nothing.”
That’s true. If you’re willing to starve yourself, at some point Marty has to convert stored fat into fuel to prevent The Nautilus from shutting down. But starving yourself to become thin is a terrible idea, and it almost always fails in the long run.
If you watch shows like The Biggest Loser, you’ve seen people lose a lot of weight by starving themselves. But here’s what The Biggest Loser didn’t show you: most of the contestants were miserable the whole time, and most of them gained back all the weight after the show was over. As Mr. Spot can explain, that’s no surprise.
So why does that happen? If we want to lose weight by starving ourselves, why won’t Marty go along with the plan? The answer is that he’s simply trying to protect The Nautilus.
I recently read a book called The Happiness Hypothesis in which the author (a psychologist named Jonathan Haidt) explains that your body is like an elephant. Your conscious mind — the part of you that thinks and makes plans — is like a rider on top of the elephant. The rider likes to think he’s in control, and often it seems that he is. After all, he’s telling the elephant where to go.
But what do you suppose would happen if the rider tried to steer the elephant into a forest fire? I’m sure you can guess: The elephant would panic and run the other way, and suddenly the rider would learn he’s not in control after all.
It’s the same with The Nautilus. Long before you became its captain, Nature designed and programmed your starship to survive. If there’s one instruction coded into every living creature in the universe, it’s this: DON’T STARVE. You may think it’s a fine idea to go hungry for weeks on end to lose weight, but your body disagrees. When you fight your own body, you’re going to lose.
As the captain, you can think and make plans, but you can’t change the code that was written into your biological apps. Or as Dr. Haidt explained it, the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.
Trying to lose weight by starving yourself is like trying to drag the elephant into a fire. The crew of The Nautilus doesn’t know or care that you want to look better in a swimsuit. The crew only knows that the ship is breaking down and running out of fuel. So they send distress signals to Marty that say Starvation Emergency! Fire up the survival program!
Marty will crank up the Get Hungry! program to make you eat more. But if you don’t, Marty will trigger other programs to help the Nautilus survive — and survival means keeping the reserve fuel tanks as full as possible. So depending on your version of Marty, he will:
- Slow down your metabolism so The Nautilus burns less fuel.
- Release chemicals that make you feel tired and depressed so you don’t waste fuel by flying around.
- Break down your muscles and burn the muscle tissue for fuel.
- Re-program the fuel system to make storing fat even easier than before — in order to survive the next Starvation Emergency!
Remember the mice who had their calories cut by five percent, but ended up with bigger fat cells? Their bodies interpreted less food as a Starvation Emergency! The mouse version of Marty responded by drastically reducing their fuel use and storing extra fat. In fact, he was so determined to store fat, he burned muscle tissue for fuel instead of fat. So the mice ended up with more fat and less muscle — all because cutting calories triggered the Starvation Emergency! program written into their biological code.
That’s why advice based on The Piggy Bank Theory can completely backfire. You try starving yourself, but the crew keeps blasting hunger alerts, Marty slows down your metabolism, and soon the ship starts wobbling and breaking down. As the captain, you may not know exactly what’s going wrong, but you know you feel miserable.
So you go back to eating just as much FUD as you did before … but remember, Marty slowed down your metabolism to save fuel. So you not only gain back the weight you lost, there’s a good chance you gain back more. You went from your normal diet, to a diet that made you feel hungry and cranky and tired, then back to your normal diet — and the result of all that misery is that you end up fatter than when you started.
And who do you blame? Probably yourself. Maybe with a little help from these guys.
If there’s one thing I hope you understand after reading this book, it’s this: if you tried to lose weight by following advice based on The Piggy Bank Theory and couldn’t do it, YOU didn’t fail. The advice failed. The diet failed. The Piggy Bank Theory failed. It failed because it’s based on simple math that works fine and dandy with a piggy bank, but not with human biology — because that’s not how our bodies are programmed.
The good news is that you can lose the extra weight. I’ve done it, despite spending most of my life as a fat guy, and so have millions of other people. But to burn away the fat and keep it off, you have to work with the code written into your body’s chemistry, not against it. You have to stop firing up the Get Fatter! program. You have to stop triggering the Get Hungry! program when you shouldn’t be hungry. And you absolutely, positively have to avoid triggering a Starvation Emergency!
Every time you eat, you send chemical messages to the crew of The Nautilus. What you eat — and don’t eat — also determines which messages Marty sends back to you. If you’re not happy with your starship, the only way to improve it is to change the messages that trigger the ship’s code. It isn’t about character. It’s about chemistry.