Archive for the “Random Musings” Category
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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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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I haven’t given up blogging or anything like that. First day at work this week (Tuesday, after the holiday), three of us were told that two of the BMI application servers are going away next week, so we were assigned to migrate a long list of in-house applications from those servers to new servers — ASAP.
If any of you work in IT, you have an idea of what this week was like: a blur of dealing with migration scripts, configuration files, permission issues, broken references, error messages, emails, phone calls, side-by-side troubleshooting sessions, and plenty of four-letter words. (One of my co-workers is from Brazil, so I may have unconsciously picked up some Portuguese swear words.)
If Chareva wants me to crack up once and for all so she can have me committed, she can just wait until I get home tonight and greet me at the door with “Is that the same DLL version as on the old server? Because I’m thinking maybe we need to roll this application back to a previous build and then try making just the config changes again before migrating.”
Anyway, I’ve been getting home late, and with a fried brain. I started a third post on character vs. chemistry but haven’t finished it. I’ll get to it soon.
Meanwhile, we’re not stopping until everything is fixed. That’s character, not chemistry.
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In a post last week, I wrote about why I believe most New Year’s resolutions to lose weight fail: those resolutions are based on the notion that shedding pounds is a matter of character … i.e., if you just have enough discipline to eat less and spend more time on the treadmill, you’ll lose weight.
As someone who tried simply eating less and spent many hours on a treadmill (I even bought one for my apartment) without getting leaner, I don’t believe losing weight is about character. I believe it’s (mostly) about chemistry, which is why weight-loss plans that rely on changing a fat person’s character are bound to fail.
I’ll have more to say on that later. For now, I just want to share some bits from an old study (1960) that I apparently downloaded some time ago and then forgot to read.
The handful of subjects in the study fell into three categories: 1) naturally thin people, 2) fat people who had previously demonstrated that they could lose weight by restricting calories, and 3) fat people whom the researchers labeled as the “resistant obese.” They wrote this about the “resistant obese”:
All had very small appetites, and none of these subjects lost weight even during observation in the hospital for prolonged periods of time.
By contrast, one of the naturally lean subjects was described as:
… a twenty-five year-old woman who is healthy, but literally unable to gain weight despite an excellent appetite.
The question the researchers wanted to answer was whether fat people and thin people release and burn fatty acids at similar rates if they’re fasting. So they had all the subjects fast from dinner until the next morning, then measured the concentration of free fatty acids in their blood. Then they extended the fast for a full 24 hours and took the same measurement at various intervals.
Here’s what they found: in the morning, the fat people generally had higher levels of fatty acids in their blood than the thin people did. But over the course of fasting for 24 hours, the naturally thin people experienced a sharp rise in the level of fatty acids in their bloodstreams. The fat people who’d previously demonstrated they could lose weight by restricting calories experienced a milder rise in the level of fatty acids in their bloodstreams. The “resistant obese” people experienced almost no rise at all in the level of fatty acids in their bloodstreams.
The researchers noted that in an earlier study, naturally thin subjects who were restricted to a high-fat diet of 1,000 calories per day showed a sharp rise in blood ketones over the next week, while obese subjects on the same diet showed a much lower rise in ketones. Ketones, as you know, are a by-product of burning fat for fuel.
So taken together, here’s what those two studies suggest (at least about the subjects who were studied): when naturally-thin people eat very little or not at all, they release a lot more fatty acids from their fat cells, and they burn those fatty acids for fuel. “Resistant obese” people, on the other hand, don’t release extra fatty acids when they eat less or not at all, and therefore don’t make up for the calorie deficit by tapping and burning their body fat — at least not to nearly the degree the thin people do.
Remember that in describing the “resistant obese” subjects, the researchers noted that they had small appetites and failed to lose weight even under observation in a hospital. In a discussion among several researchers included at the end of the paper, the leader researcher makes this statement:
This phenomenon of people who do not lose weight is really the most tantalizing thing that confronts physicians. There are these people who can live on 600 calories and not lose any weight. On what are they surviving? If we measure their basal metabolism in terms of calories, we get figures in excess of 600 calories per twenty-four hours. It would seem that on this diet they are in a caloric deficit all time, but still are not losing any weight. I am still an admirer of the laws of thermodynamics, but these people seem to be thermodynamic paradoxes.
Small appetites. Couldn’t lose weight even while under observation at a hospital. Didn’t release or burn more fatty acids (not to any significant degree) even while fasting for 24 hours. Able to live on 600 calories per day without losing weight, causing a researcher who worked with them to label them as “thermodynamic paradoxes.”
Meanwhile, the naturally-lean people released lots of fatty acids and burned them for fuel soon after they stopped eating – including that twenty-five year-old woman who couldn’t gain weight in spite of her “excellent” appetite.
Does anyone believe the fat people in this study just needed more discipline and character in order to become thin? Or does this sound like a problem rooted in chemistry?
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I received an email today from Kahn Academy with the subject line Why New Year’s Resolutions are broken. The explanation (if you can call it that) in the message was that most people break their resolutions by February, so why not commit to completing an online course in January?
Cute. But it did get me thinking about why we break our New Year’s resolutions, especially resolutions to lose weight. I had quite a glorious career as a resolution-breaker back in the day, and I have the paperwork to prove it. From about age 25 all the way up until my daughters and Fat Head came along, I kept a daily journal. That journal is filled with optimistic resolutions committed to paper in January, followed by self-recriminations and occasional self-loathing around April or May. Lather, rinse, and repeat the next year.
Twenty-some years ago, I was on a comedy tour that ran through Iowa and Nebraska. I was also on a New-Year’s-resolution diet. The headliner, who happened to be one of those lean-jock types who’d never been fat a day in his life, rang my room at our hotel in Iowa and asked if I wanted to go out for lunch.
“Thanks, but I can’t do it. I’m on the Slim-Fast diet.”
“Really? You’re living on those little shakes?”
“Yeah, I need to lose 25, maybe 30 pounds.”
“Well, I guess that keeps the food bill down when you’re on the road.”
The show was at a nightclub just off a two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere. As I parked in the nearly-empty lot an hour or so before the show, I wondered what kind of crowd they could possibly draw. The answer was: a great crowd. An awesome crowd. A packed-house crowd that cheered wildly when I finished my set and turned the stage over to the headliner. Man, I thought, they must get everyone who lives within 40 miles to show up for comedy night.
I went to the bar, intending to order a Diet Coke.
“You want a beer?” the bartender asked. “It’s on the house for the comedians.”
“Uh … sure. I’ll have a Miller Lite.” I was on a diet, after all. A light beer couldn’t hurt.
The second one didn’t hurt either. The third tasted awesome – and I don’t even like light beer. But man, was I craving that third one. I craved a fourth one after that, but stopped myself from ordering it. I was on a diet, after all.
I’d been aware of being hungry before my set, but sometime after finishing that third beer, I felt downright ravenous. Chew-the-furniture ravenous. As if reading my mind, the bartender walked over with a pepperoni pizza and set it in front of me.
“Here, you can have this. Somebody screwed up the order in the kitchen. We can’t sell it.”
Just tell him thanks but no thanks, I thought to myself. You’re on a diet. All you’ve had so far are three light beers with 100 calories each. No harm, no foul. You don’t really want this greasy pizza. Nothing tastes as good as thin feels, right?
Wrong. The pizza tasted fantastic – and I don’t usually order pepperoni on my pizzas. As soon as I took the first bite, my brain was screaming for the next one. And the next one. And the next one.
So there I was, stuffing my face with pizza when the headliner finished his set and came to the bar to get a drink. He didn’t say anything about me breaking my Slim-Fast diet. He didn’t have to. I saw him glance down at the pizza and then up at me, and he seemed to grimace just a wee bit. I interpreted his expression as You poor, weak-willed slob – mostly, of course, because that’s what I was thinking about myself.
In other words, I thought my failure to stick to a weight-loss diet (by no means my first or last failure) was caused by a flaw in my character. I was fat because I was mentally weak. I just need more willpower, more determination. I told myself that over and over, year in and year out. My old journals are full of admonishments along the lines of “Why do I keep doing this to myself? How many times am I going to start over on Monday and blow it again by Friday?”
Here’s a specific example from an entry in March 1997:
I worked on the play, then ate an entire pizza while watching King of the Hill and the X-Files. Why? Why do I do this? What gets inside of me and says, “You’re losing weight, you’re working out– it’s time to @#$% that up! Let’s undo all that progress!”
Well, I had the right idea as far as the problem being inside of me. But it wasn’t about character. It was about chemistry. Let’s revisit my comedy road-trip in Iowa and think in terms of what was happening at a biochemical level.
Back in those days, I was still mostly a vegetarian. I’d eat a little chicken or fish now and then when I went out for dinner, but I didn’t eat meat at all at home. (Most of those pizzas I downed were topped with spinach, mushrooms and onions.) I pretty much lived on cereal, fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta and potatoes. In other words, I’d conditioned myself to depend on regular infusions of glucose to provide fuel for my body and brain. And given how slowly I lost weight when I managed to stick with a calorie-restricted diet for a month or two, I obviously wasn’t very efficient at tapping my body fat for fuel.
Slim-Fast is nothing more than a can of liquid sugar with a wee bit of sunflower oil and milk protein tossed in. So whenever I went on a Slim-Fast diet, I was continuing to live on glucose, but far less of it than I was used to. The burst of simple sugar no doubt spiked my glucose, and then my body responded by releasing insulin to beat it back down. I remember often feeling shaky two hours after those Slim-Fast meals – it was low blood sugar, of course, but I couldn’t raise it with another meal or snack because I was on a diet.
When I walked into that nightclub in Iowa, I probably already had low blood sugar, thanks to the Slim-Fast meals. Fortunately for my performance, hearing an emcee announce my name always produced a burst of adrenaline, and adrenaline releases glucose from glycogen stores while simultaneously stimulating the release of fatty acids from adipose tissues. My brain had fuel for the show. But when I was finished with my set and the adrenaline rush was over, my blood sugar was probably falling again.
No wonder those Miller Lites tasted so darned good. Alcohol is fuel. As I topped up the fuel tank, my brain was happy. Unfortunately, alcohol is a quick-burn fuel, and after living on something like 600 calories of Slim-Fast all day, I’m sure I burned through it at a record rate. I not only ran short of fuel again, I was almost certainly shorter on fuel than before. Among its many other effects, alcohol suppresses the liver’s ability to convert glycogen to glucose. So as the alcohol burned away, my brain was starting to experience a full-scale fuel emergency. On a diet consisting mostly of sugar, it’s certainly not as if I was producing ketones to provide an alternate brain fuel.
That’s why I was ravenously hungry when the friendly bartender set a pizza I didn’t order in front of me. That’s why as soon as I looked at it and caught that pizza aroma, my brain was screaming “@#$% YOUR STUPID DIET! FEED ME NOW!”
And so I did. It wasn’t a matter of character. It was a matter of chemistry.
How many times have you (or someone you know) stuck to a calorie-restricted diet for a couple of weeks, had a few drinks at a party, then headed to a Denny’s for a massive meal? The usual explanation – which I bought into for years – is that the alcohol affected the part of the brain that controls discipline and inhibitions, so the dieter’s inner hedonist took over and decided to make a pig of itself. In other words, the alcohol unleashed a character flaw that had previously been manacled by conscious willpower.
Wrong. By suppressing the conversion of glycogen to glucose, the alcohol produced a low-blood-sugar emergency — in a body already on the verge of a fuel shortage because of a restrictive diet. The body and brain then responded with a series of biochemical reactions that triggered a ravenous appetite. The brain wasn’t being a bad boy because its noble half got drunk and fell asleep. It was protecting itself from a dangerous fuel shortage.
That’s also what was happening when I’d semi-starve myself for a week, living on microwave meals consisting of pasta with fat-free marinara sauce, then end up ordering a pizza and eating the whole thing. I couldn’t stick to the low-fat, low-calorie diets I tried over and over because they took me on blood-sugar roller-coaster rides my brain couldn’t tolerate.
I could tolerate a high-calorie, high-carb, low-fat diet and often did … but that diet created other problems which, at the time, also looked like character flaws to me. Gaining a little more weight every year was one. An explosive temper when my glucose was falling and my adrenaline was rising in response was another. Drinking too much was another.
I wrote about the drinking problem when I reviewed Nora Gedgaudas’ excellent book Primal Body, Primal Mind in a post nearly four years ago. Here’s what she wrote about alcoholics in that book:
Alcoholics are utterly dependent upon and regularly seek fast sources of sugar – alcohol being the fastest … the problem in alcoholism, in fact, really isn’t alcohol per se, but severe carbohydrate addiction … Once cravings for carbohydrates and dependence on carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel are eliminated, so are the alcohol cravings. Training the body to depend upon ketones rather than sugar for fuel is key to this equation.
As I recounted in that post, when I stopped living on a diet that had turned me into a sugar-burner and became a fat-burner instead, I also stopped craving alcohol. Sure, I’ll cut loose on vacation, I’ll cut loose on my birthday, but then it stops. During most weeks now, I have two beers on Saturday night when we go out to a local Mexican diner we like, and that’s it. Unlike 20 years ago, drinking those two beers doesn’t trigger a desire for six or eight or ten more. It’s not a matter of discipline; it takes no discipline to turn down something you don’t particularly want. My character didn’t change. My chemistry did.
So coming all the way back around to topic of the post, why do we break our New Year’s resolutions? Why will sales of Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers meals spike for the next couple of months, then flatten out again? Why was the gym packed when I worked out yesterday but will almost certainly be back to half-empty by April?
Our weight-loss resolutions fail because we keep trying to change our character. But character isn’t creating the problem. Chemistry is. When we try to overpower chemistry with the strength of our character, chemistry will eventually win. And that’s why so many grand plans to shrink our waistlines — from the ones imposed on us by The Anointed in government all the way down to the ones we resolve to impose on ourselves — are doomed to fail.
More on that in a later post.
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