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.