Saturday, September 19, 2009

Letting Off Some Steam

Counterintuitive ain't the half of it. We seem to have gotten our understanding of obesity and weightloss from infomercials. Can that be possible? What about Oprah? -- didn't she lose a bunch of fat? And Robert De Niro -- he got fat on purpose for Raging Bull. So eating more will make you fat, and diet and exercise can lean you down. It's obvious. But controlled studies consistently invalidate this observation. Calorie restriction for the obese results in lower basal metabolism and decreased energy expenditure. Exercise increases appetite and for the effort provides a relatively insignificant energy expenditure. That's the clear conclusion from the studies.

It's not genetic, as we know from the obesity epidemic. If Americans were generally not fat 30 years ago, and three times as many are fat now, it's environmental, some behavioral change of diet, lifestyle, etc. It's genes responding, not demanding. So why is it happening? That's not the question I'm going to look at. Now, it's why isn't it changing, with diet and exercise.

I think that somewhere in the brain there is a silhouette of what it thinks we should look like, and the brain works to maintain that shape. I think that a very gradual increase and excess of calories allows for the slow modification, adaptation of that image, so that slow fat gain can be sustained, whereas sudden change is more easily reversed. I think that meditation, visualization, affirmations can hack in and edit that image, allowing for successful weight loss where a merely thermodynamic approach will fail. I say will fail, because that's what the mechanistic studies show -- treating fat loss as a mere equation of positive or negative energy balance results in failure. The silhouette gauge makes adjustments -- faster heartrate, more spontaneous movement, nervous energy, body temperature fluctuation, manipulation of appetite and cravings -- anything to waste or conserve energy, calories, fat.

Here's what it is, I think. The diet and exercise paradigm, to which every sensible person must be attracted, seems to be wrong. You'll have to look at your own life experience to see if it has worked. It's irrelevant in my own life. I've never had visible body fat. That used to be how it was with most young people. I'm not young anymore but that's how it is with me. I don't do anything for it -- that's just how it is. Lifestyle, of course -- not a discipline, a preference. Lucky me. It's why I've always had abs, too -- I just naturally engaged my core whenever I lifted something. But I'm neurotic and self-destructive, so it's not all roses with me. You don't have to be jealous. But I seem to have digressed.

It's not a simple equations, energy in, energy out. If the body were a closed system, that idea would work. But it's not a closed system. There's leakage. It's not energy in, which is either stored or burned for purposeful metabolic functions. Such functions can be quantified, as body heat or lifting or locomotion or breathing or heartbeat or shivering. These are purposeful, and because of that they are predictable, quantifiable, and variables of an equation. The silhouette gauge is a randomizer.

Think of the body as a steam engine, in an old fashioned train. A bunch of coal, a furnace, and a way to get work done. Easy. Straightforward math, whatever the details. But then there's the whistle. The safety valves, that keep the boiler from exploding. It confounds things. Some people are always blowing their whistle. A lot of wasted steam. Keeps them lean. Some people let the pressure build until it's dangerous. Not on purpose -- it's just how the thing is built. Some engine cabs just keep filling up with coal, that doesn't get burned -- or the firebox has a problem, and the coal builds up there. You get the idea. I haven't been elegant with the analogy, but you can play with it yourself.

The point is that the calculations can't be valid if the system is not closed. How can people eat less and still be fat? First, metabolism is not even a steam engine, but rather a hybrid motor, that uses different fuels in a pattern we haven't recognized yet. Then, well, the system is not closed. What goes in? Calories? How meaningful is that? Something burned in a crucible is supposed to translate one-to-one into metabolism? Isn't that actually sort of an insane assumption? And once we have digested these "calories", they can be used only according to the mechanistic expectations of thermodynamics? I'm all for thermodynamics. For mechanistic systems. The fact that fat people can eat less and exercise more than lean people sort of confounds the issue, though, wouldn't you agree?

There's an engineer at the switch, and he operates according to rules that you don't find in elementary physics textbooks. He decides wheel speed and burn rates and heat and pressure and noise. He doesn't like to be starved, and he works at his own pace. How do you make him happy? Feed him right, and have a conversation.

That's all. That's all for now. I'm still looking for answers. Data, rather, from which I can formulate answers. It's what I do. I can explain the Flood -- this will be easy.


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