The simple math of weight loss
The elegant balance of eating well gets corrupted by busy lives, with too little sleep and too many choices. We can fix that.
If I move enough and eat healthy food I maintain my weight. If I consume more energy than I expend, I keep it as stored energy to be used later — During our next famine, harsh winter or Naked and Afraid TV series.
Conversely, if I require more energy than I take in, then I use that stored energy for fuel. It’s a beautifully simple equation that all creatures have been utilizing since the beginning of time. But how does such elegance get so damn complicated?
I teach my dog arithmetic
I had a Labrador retriever once. I fed him a few cups of dry store-bought dog food and table scraps every day. He stored a lot of that food as extra energy — In other words, he got fat.
When I cut his food to a couple cups a day, and shared less pizza with him, he lowered his stored energy and lost weight. I didn’t feed him rice and dog supplements, or make him play Frisbee four hours a day. I simply reduced his calories, and his body knew what to do with the stored energy.
Is it really that easy?
Um, no. There are plenty of reasons why it’s so hard, and some of them may not even be our fault.
1. Adipose (fat) cells are stingy — Once we have them, they don’t like to be empty and start to signal the brain for more fuel. Also, certain chemicals can affect the endocrine system (hormone stuff) and the body’s metabolic processes. In short, some common chemicals can impact the way our bodies process food and store fat.
2. Our microbiome — the brew of tiny organisms that live in our guts — plays a role in processing food. Changes in our diets are known to effect the bacteria in our bodies, which in turn have been shown to affect how we extract energy from our diets.
And if an individual is obese, their microbiome might actually be making weight loss harder. In recent studies, average-sized mice implanted with gut bacteria from their obese buddies were found to gain weight.
(According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), we each ate roughly 20 pounds more meat per year in 2000 than we did 30 years earlier. Plus we’re consuming far more artificial sweeteners.)
3. Increased use of prescription drugs may also play a role. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), spending on prescription drugs doubled between 1999 and 2008. Among adults, antidepressants were the most commonly used drug — And many studies have linked antidepressants to weight gain. But they’re not the only culprits: Allergy drugs, steroids, and pain medications, can also affect your weight.
4. The habits and lifestyles of today’s world certainly have something to do with it as well. We’re sleeping less than we used to. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans got less than seven hours of sleep per night.
A Carnegie Mellon University study, published in 2012, found that Americans were roughly 20 percent more stressed out than they were 25 years ago. When stressed, obese people (more so than their lean counterparts) seek high fat foods such as chips, ice cream, French fries, pastry and candy.
5. The typical supermarket diet is rich in sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. It causes obesity in rats. That is, rats fed Purina rat chow (yes, that’s a real thing) maintained a normal weight. But rats fed a common supermarket diet ended up overweight — Until researchers took away that food.
The rats then lost weight when they returned to eating rat chow. There’s little doubt that fats, sugar, and salt stimulate us to eat more than we need. Besides, we don’t need more fat rats.
The paradox of choice
People make an average of 200 food choices in a day. And all these decisions can deplete our limited “mental resources” that govern will power. That’s one reason why, at the end of a hectic day, you can more easily overeat. You lack the mental resources to say “no” to that tempting cookie. Or, to refuse your dog a slice of pizza. Choice is exhausting.
Habit conquers pizza
Determining the role each of these factors plays in weight loss is subject to further study. But we can change our brain circuits by substituting food with another stimuli, such as exercise. Exercise does more than burn calories to control weight; exercise changes the reward system in the brain.
Exercise supports self-control. That is, people who exercise have greater control over what they eat. They also have more control over sticking with their exercise program. Successful exercisers are able to make exercise a habit, and not a choice. So instead of eating like a dog, maybe you just play a little fetch at the gym today.
Thanks for reading.