Fat Loss Myth Myth

On the part of the internet I frequent there is a fatalistic view of fat loss developing the “scientific” basis of which can be found here.  The theory goes that long term weight loss is impossible because nobody does it.  This of course means that all the fat people on the internet can, while sitting on their asses, wave their hands in the air in defeat free of the burden of responsibility for their bodies.

The most obvious counterpoint here is that people were much lighter even twenty years ago.  Thus, we must have some control over our weight.  The mechanism that the article fails to mention for why we are doomed to grotesque flabs of flesh is that of homeostasis where your body likes to keep its physiological state relatively the same.  This equilibrium point is pretty much set after adolescence.  Perhaps the biggest contributor, especially if we believe the article, to adult obesity is then childhood obesity.  This has some important public policy considerations that I wont go into, needless to say, I think stuff like a soda tax is a great idea especially if trying to discourage the more price sensitive children.

Now I live in a rarefied part of the internet, consistently visiting sites on lifting or the latest health research.  In these locales there are many stories of people losing large amounts of weight and keeping it off for a time and looking amazing at the same time.  Maybe they get fat and stop posting or maybe they are just the gifted few that maintain weight loss.  I think far more likely is that these people are doing it right and the vast majority of people are doing it wrong.

Take for instance the metastudy linked in the Cracked article.  Of the twenty seven studies aggregated only six of them had anything to say about the exercise patterns of their subjects.  But in those six they found better maintenance of weight loss for those that exercised regularly.

Exercise is our most potent tool for weight loss.  Let me amend that.  For fat loss.  Another problem with that metastudy is that is only looks weight loss, but not all weight loss is equivalent.  If we take homeostasis as immutable and that it likes to maintain a certain amount of fat (neither contention may be true), putting on 20 pounds of muscle and maintaining the same amount of fat is still going to make you look better and have a lower body fat percentage along with a bunch of other health benefits.

Now why is exercise so great?  Myriad reasons.  It can help combat food cravings.  It increases fatty acid oxidation so you are more likely to use fat as a fuel.  It improves your mood and happy people are more likely to stick to the program.  It improves nutrient partitioning so excess energy is less likely to be stored as fat.  This is all on top of the well cataloged health benefits of exercise by itself.  Note that weight loss is still not definitively shown to lower your mortality rate, just a few markers for things that could kill you.  In contrast, exercise is well established as improving basically every part of your health, even your brain functioning.

Returning to our exercising study participants, while it was great that they exercised I can almost guarantee it was that long jog crap that has become ingrained in mainstream culture as “exercise.”  First off, that takes forever which always reduces compliance.  I have heard of people taking 45 minute jogs five times a week.  If they took three of those and replaced them with some resistance training I guarantee it would serve them better.  Many studies have shown that combining lifting with cardio gives more fat loss and increased lean body mass compared to either alone.

Another knock not against the metastudy, but the studies it metas is that the dieting protocols seem a bit insane.  In this case many of the were so called Very Low Energy Diets (VLED) where they eat 800 calories day.  Now all the evidence says you should go into a harsh calorie deficit to make progress 20-30% below maintenance.  However, 800 is really low and there is emerging evidence that starvation level diets can drastically slow your metabolism along with a bunch of other health markers.  This seems like a protocol designed only for the obese and it’s not clear that a more sane diet might not be better.  However, the metastudy showed that more drastic weight interventions (that is, VLED or larger amounts of weight loss) resulted in more weight loss maintenance.  I think it remains to be seen what the causation is here.  It could just be that in order to lose 20 kg of fate you have to be enormous already which means it might be easier to keep off.

But lets say the scientists are doing it right.  That does not mean your average person is.  As the Cracked article stated, only 2 in 1000 Weight Watchers clients maintain their weight loss.  This is a miniscule amount, but the problem is that these people went to Weight Watchers.  I have friends that used this system and it sounds ridiculous.  It adds a redundant points system on top of the points system every food item already comes labelled with: calories.  Furthermore, this subset of the population probably diets all the time.  This appears to be counterproductive especially with the small energy deficits of most consistent dieters.

So Cracked dismisses the claim that weight loss is all about willpower and yet at the same time all the people maintaining long term weight loss are obsessive.   Now I hang out with bodybuilding types and they are pretty much the most obsessive people on this planet.  Yet they get results and that is because at some level it IS all about willpower.  Whether that level of willpower is out of reach of most people is another question entirely.  It most likely is especially with our increasingly overflowing schedules. 

That suggests to me that we need to find ways to make it easier for the less obsessive among us.  For one science needs to work on optimizing exercise routines to take the last amount of time and get the most results.  We can also apply lessons from behavioral psychology where obsessive becomes habit and it stops taking willpower to do things.  Get a routine down and will start to take willpower to NOT follow it.  Finally, we need to start disseminating the few good results of science out to the masses.  For whatever reason health and nutrition is cesspit of fads, ignorance and celebrities peddling the latest snake oil; exactly the areas the scientific method is great at cleaning out.  Unfortunately, most of the results in this field just become one more advertising point for the latest health fad.  One study about the slimming effects of coconut oil and the web births a clutch of coconut fan sites espousing how the beneficial effects of coconuts, that range from staving off cancer to improving your sex life,  have been hidden from us by a vast conspiracy of scientists and corporations.

And that’s all I have to say on the subject.  It was a lot, but it holds a place in my heart because I was relatively chubby kid and now I consider myself relatively fit.  Am I doomed to largeness again or will I be one of the lucky few?  Only time will tell.

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