Friday, October 21, 2011

Women and weight loss

I've been having an interesting conversation with Sam McDonald over at Rod Dreher's blog on the issue of weight loss. I think, for now, I've given up. :)

Sam is a firm believer in the notion that weight gain or loss is totally explained by the "calories in minus calories burned equals either weight or loss" formula. People get fat by overeating and not exercising, and people lose weight by cutting calories (drastically, if necessary; Sam has written before about existing on an 800 calorie per day regimen) and increasing exercise.

I am not a disbeliever in thermodynamics, of course. But I think that the "weight loss formula" is a handy shortcut in our understanding, in sort of the same way that "water is H20" formula is a handy shortcut in our understanding, or that "a-e-i-o-u are the vowels" is a handy shortcut in our understanding (should we talk about "sometimes 'y' and 'w,' or shouldn't we?).

As I told Sam, I gained weight not by scarfing whole cakes and buckets of fried chicken, but by three rather close-together pregnancies. Over a decade later I'm still carrying about 20 extra pounds. Sometimes I will gain a few more pounds, sometimes I will lose a few, but sustainable long-term significant weight loss still eludes me. To Sam, this is just proof that I haven't figured out the perfect amount of exercise I need daily and the perfect amount of calories to cut. Once I do that, the pound a week drop I'd like to have will happen as if by magic; the fact that I have done that sort of thing many times in the last decade just proves that I haven't done enough.

I brought up the metabolism issue and the fact that many women will put on ten or fifteen pounds in their forties even if their diets and exercise regimens remain exactly the same, but somehow I get the impression that Sam may believe that women's bodies work exactly like men's when it comes to weight gain or loss--and that all men's bodies work like clockwork: eat more than you burn and you gain, eat less than you burn and you lose.

I've recently started to lose a little weight, but that's where things get mysterious to me. When I try really hard to ramp up the exercise and eat less, I tend to...maintain my present weight. When, as this week, I have multiple migraines, quit worrying, eat what I want when I want, skip exercise because I'm already in pain and even drink a few Cokes (tm) because as cheap yet effective migraine medicine goes it's hard to beat a combo of sugar and caffeine, I should either barely cling to maintenance or gain weight, right?

Well, that's where it gets weird, because I weighed myself today and found out I've lost a little over two pounds this week.

How did that happen? Where did they go? And, more importantly, how can I keep them from finding me again? :)

I'm not convinced that thermodynamics explains it all. I think that hormones including female hormones and stress hormones etc. play a role. I think that the effect on metabolism of drastic calorie reduction is going to vary widely based on the person's original metabolism. I think that many of the things we mistakenly do to try to lose weight, such as stress about it, fuss about it, fixate on it, weigh and measure every calorie, and so on actually end up being detrimental to the process. And I think that the science of the human body is still developing, and that one day we'll understand the role of genetics, metabolism, and individual health in a way we don't now.

And, yes, the thermodynamic equation still matters; you can't exceed your body's daily caloric requirements every day for years and not gain weight; and if you figure out a safe and sustainable way to lower calorie intake and increase calorie burn you may see modest results, such as the loss of ten or fifteen percent of your body weight. But that's a far cry from believing that the only reason we can't all achieve some ideal weight is that we're all too gluttonous and lazy to try.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

I haven't seen the weight loss thing at Rod's, so I haven't gotten into it with Sam. Thermodynamics is always exactly right, in the strictly chemical sense that in any chemical reaction, a defined amount of potential energy is added to, or given up by, the products, compared to the reactants.

The problem in Sam's argument is, human metabolism is a very complex set of biochemical processes, so what goes in in food, gets used up performing work, and stored as fat, is not a simple equation. Among other relevant recent observations, some studies suggest (if Pete is reading, he should take note of how I word this) that once people GAIN fat, the body tends to operate in ways that KEEP it, rather than it being just as easy to lose as it was to gain.

Why doesn't it work out like Sam says? Well, perhaps the chemicals that would be necessary to break the fat down into molecules that are swept out of the body aren't being produced in the necessary quantities, no matter how hard you exercise. Just a guess, but that kind of possibility is what makes it impossible to write out a neat, simple equation.

Years ago, a co-worker's daughter who was substantial overweight went through her first pregnancy, and came out of it much slimmer. Basically, the extra pounds went into production of the baby, and after delivery, were gone. How come it doesn't always work out like that? This is the kind of question Sam is not able to answer.

Anonymous said...

I have focused on two books/ways that you may be interested in! I know, I sound like a commercial and such but being women, there are certain things about us that are different than men, as you pointed out.
The first book is What Your Dr May Not tell You about Premenopause by Dr. John Lee and Virginia Hopkins.

There is a lot of info about hormones in there, especially being imbalanced and what can happen, weight gain, etc. There is also tips if you have monthly migraines in how to make them less severe. It may be something you would be interested in.
Although their approach is always total (exercise/spiritual/emotional health) our hormones being imbalanced can cause us to hold weight.

Another one you may be interested in which my dr recommended is the Blood Type Diet. I have to say I really raised my eyebrow at that one and thought "have you gone nuts? What I eat has nothing to do with my blood type!" Well, it seems that there is truth in the science because I do feel better when I eat what I am supposed to or what is best for my body. For example, being A, I need to avoid as much meat as possible and eat fish with many vegetables. I was skeptical at first, but it could explain how my husband craves, yes craves, meat and yet he will not pack it on where it will drag me way down and thus, I gain weight.

It could explain why you ate what you wanted and still lost weight because you may have picked up on what your body likes (assuming it isn't entirely junk food!!).

Also with these things, I am shooting for good/better/best meaning I am not killing myself to stick strictly to it. But I can tell you when I had to come off it for two day and ate many things that were absolute no no's for me (ham!) I suffered the day after.

I hope you what is best for you!

BTW, they did say something interesting about exercise for my group - I need to look at low impact- stretching, walking etc. The reason being I am subject to injury easier than the others. That was so amazing because I was out of commission last year with a hurt knee from "pushing" myself to loose that weight.

Anyway, wanted to share that.

Anonymous said...

I think (and this is after 2 glasses of wine, so I apologize now), your situation may be hormonal. I think this because you tend to have migraines, and I have a novice degree in psychology and I have analyzed your writings.

ha, ha, hee, hee on the last psychology/writings part.

However, I do recommend you trying Naprotechnology. I have mentioned this before. Try Pope Paul IV Institute and you might kill 2 birds with one stone.

Although if you like the 2nd amendment skip the stones and get a gun. After all you do live in Texas.

Ok I won't give up my day job (which by the way is the same as yours :) buh dump bump (drums)

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry one more thing. Seriously, I to homeschool (6 children). Homeschooling by its nature can be very sedentary. So I do try and sit on a big inflatable exercise ball especially when grading. This is great for the abs and helps strengthen the pelvic body/muscles. I had terrible difficulty with pregnancies and had to see a physical therapist and she would sit on a ball rather than a chair. So it was her idea.

Anonymous said...


Saphira said...

Red, please read Gary Taubes' book, "Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It". He is a science journalist who not only knows his biochemistry and his history, but is very entertaining to read. I promise you will not regret it! I had known Atkins was basically right, but this author has twenty more years of research and is much more thorough in his presentation of the reasons and the experience of history. The research presented is fascinating and totally compelling.

He explains why this idea of the law of thermodynamics is grossly misapplied in this case, and why, as you noticed, people do not lose weight as a result of exercising *or of limiting calories*.

It is so, so simple, all about carbs (esp. simple carbs), and my mom who has been a good forty pounds overweight due to a thyroid disorder, lost twenty pounds in two months with no pain, no pills, and eating food she loves. I only had ten pounds to lose, but I did it with her and lost mine, too.
Anyway this is *not* a fad diet, this stuff has been known for a long time but there has been a complete brain blip in the U.S. in the last fifty years which has made us believe the opposite of the truth.

I wish the truth would be shouted form the mountaintops about this; so many people suffer needlessly and feel guilty about not getting the "equation" right or being "gluttonous" and it is *not about that*. I am raising my four slender and healthy girls on *gobs* of butter, cream, whole milk, and fatty steaks, and my mom and I lost weight easily and quickly by eating lots of fat, protein and veggies, and as much as we wanted.

Barbara C. said...

I've read in various diet/nutrition/food (and I think one neuro-biology) books about how women's bodies store fat differently. A woman's body tends to hedge it's bets so that if famine occurs an unborn baby could survive off fat stores if pregnancy occurred. A woman's body might cling to fat it has acquired especially if she's had previous times of extreme dieting or starvation.

I remember reading in one of those books, maybe Omnivore's Dilemma,where the hormones they inject in cattle actually can get absorbed in women's fat cells when they eat the beef making it harder for them to lose weight.

Anonymous said...

Here is my advice Red, for whatever that is worth! Haha!
First 12 pounds over a year is a very respectable and healthy weight loss. I think you all are absolutely right women's bodies hold onto fat so weight loss is possible but takes much longer in our 40's. So, if you make it your goal to eat healthy and maybe a little less than usual on most days and exercise on most days for at least 30 minutes, you will feel better about yourself, your clothes will fit better, and over time you will lose weight. Maybe not right away because if you are building up muscle say if you have been sedentary for awhile due to a pregnancy, the scale won't register a weight loss for awhile. I would suggest stop worrying about what the scale says, ever if possible, and worry about your health and how you feel.


Anonymous said...

I'm a believer in the old thermodynamic equation, calories in, calories out. I do think our metabolism slows as we age, but that would still make sense with the formula. Same for any medical conditions.

And of course, many of us become much more sedentary as we get older as well.

One problem is the idea of the 2,000 calories a day that the gov't puts out. That is way too high for many women. Really, many of us only need about 1,500.

Ann Marie

Deirdre Mundy said...

The other huge issue is that "weight loss" is misleading... after my last pregancy, I got my waistline down to "smallest since high school" levels. But my weight didn't budge. Why? Well, there's the nursing chest of doom.... plus I built muscle... plus, nursing and pregnant women who walk alot and drink lots of milk apparently keep adding bone mass. On the plus side, my DR. says I don't have to worry about Osteoporosis!

Anyway, the point is that the number on the scale is a waste---the key is the FAT not the weight--at least for being healthy......

Saphira said...

Oh and even though I said it's all about carbs...I do agree that hormones etc. are a huge factor; also ideal weight needs to take into account phases of life, such as nursing etc. I only meant that any modification of weight will depend primarily on carb intake, that's it, and this will vary from person to person. Calories in, calories out, has been thoroughly debunked, but errors always take awhile to let go of their hold on society.

JMB said...

I second the Gary Taubes book! Another factor that hasn't been brought up is heredity and body type. Some people are naturally lean and some are naturally zaftig. No amount of exercise or diet will turn me into a long and lean type. I naturally have pronounced biceps and very well developed shoulder and back muscles, despite having never lifted a weight until last year. The weight training has only defined more what was already there.

I am fortunate that power breastfeeding (too lazy to make a bottle approach) amped up my metabolism in such a way that I ended up back at my pre preg weight at about a year post partum. Some women cling to weight while nursing and some do not.

But read the Taubes book. My husband lost 25 lbs recently by limiting carbs and sugar, and sticking to protein and fats. It works!

Anonymous said...

I'm on Weight Watchers and am losing steadily, at age 57 (35 pounds since May 15), only slightly less quickly than I did 12 years ago. I mostly eat whole foods anyway but now have a reminder about the correct portions and proportions.

The new "points plus" formula doesn't even use calories. The science indicates that some foods take more energy to digest and absorb, specifically protein and fiber. So the new formula is based on those in relation to fat and carbs in a food.

Women don't lose weight from exercise, as men do. But exercise is critical for preventing weight gain or regain in both sexes.

They continue to push fruits and vegetables. Why the company hawks such awful products is beyond me. I don't touch the stuff. It's as if the company as multiple personalities - the weight loss science side and the product division must not talk much, expect about the points formula. Too bad. They could be a leader in whole foods but they go for the cheap crap, overpriced, in the products.


kkollwitz said...

"I'm a believer in the old thermodynamic equation, calories in, calories out. I do think our metabolism slows as we age, but that would still make sense with the formula."

Yes. I continue to eat less over time to maintain my weight where I'm satisfied with it. In my late 20s I still ate 4 meals a day; at age 54 I eat about 1.5 meals.

I exercise to stay fit, but to manage weight I simply eat less.

Kate said...

Thanks for this post. It's really good to know I'm not alone with this struggle. For years and years, I only ever weighed 100 pounds soaking wet. After having children, thyroid disease, prediabetes, and a host of interrelated endocrine issues, I now weigh between 180 and 190 depending on what week of my cycle I'm in hormonally. I've done the South Beach Diet/Atkins type programs as recommended and directed by a doctor. However, I would be hungry within two hours of eating that high protein, fat and veggie meal. I needed some kind of carb because otherwise I'd experience that roller coaster ride of blood glucose spikes and dips that would show up as a bad A1C test level.

It's ironic that I find I'm hungrier and have a much more difficult time losing weight when I am exercising that one hour a day I've been told to by my doctor. My weight yo-yos up and down the same 10 pounds and has for years now. I could say I buy the strict thermodynamic equation and honestly strive to go by that. More exercise and lower caloric intake. It's good until the next blood glucose dip, where I have to act so I can function physically. All of my endocrine issues are linked, and the original cause can be traced to hemorrage following my last child's birth. My pituitary gland was damaged, causing first secondary hypothyroidism and then a host of cascading issues with the adrenal hormone feedback loop and the female reproductive loop. I experienced amenorrhea for six years following the birth of my last child. No doctor could figure out why and they were shocked when my cycles suddenly started again and I was able to lose 20 pounds without any effort. That was the last time I was able to lose weight of any great magnitude, no matter what diet and/or exercise program I've been on. What's more is that all my weight is concentrated on my belly, which has given me the appearance of being pregnant for the last 10 years. Clearly there is a dearth of information and understanding of what is going on with my body, and the bodies of many women. My endocrinologist was honest with me. He told me that there was far, far more about hormones and endocrine function that was unknown by doctors than was known and understood. The least understood hormonal cycles and feedback loops understood by medical professionals and researchers are related to female reproduction. Interestingly enough, that lack of knowledge didn't stop the development and widespread use of hormonal-based contraception.

All I know is I'm not lazy or gluttonous. I've worked for years and years on this issue. Nothing has worked. Try finding non-maternity clothes that fit someone shaped like me. Okay, I've ranted enough in my frustration. Thanks for being willing to share your story and for letting me share mine.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Elizabeth is right. Weight Watchers is the best program out there, both for initial weight loss and sustained loss. It has a very good support mechanism too, with the meetings.

priest's wife said...

I had four successful pregnancies and a late miscarriage within ten years. I have almost 50 pounds left over from all that (my baby is 2 1/2)- my sisters have more children in a shorter amount of time, but they are 'skinny'- and they eat just as much as I I sympathize! metabolism is tricky- I think for me, exercise is more the key

Charlotte said...

Gary Taubes provided extremely compelling evidence for how there has never, ever been one scientiic study proving that calories in/calories out has ever resulted in sustained weight loss. In fact, his book makes a compelling scientific case that just the opposite it true: Exercize increases appetite and it is scientiicaly verifiable.

We are still on the low-carb thing. I have gotten lax and off the train, but I have maintained my weight loss and haven't gained. Eliminating carbs is the key and carbs are 100% completely related to HORMONES. Read the book. And rememeber Taubes' book is NOT a weight loss book - it's a journalistic/science book.

Wendy Concepcion said...

I have tried just about everything. I have found The Light Weigh program and have experienced how it is different than anything out there. It is the only Catholic based program I have seen and it makes the food part very, very simple and teaches detachment from food (basically what happened naturally when you had the migraines.) The program is 10% weight loss focused and 90% spiritual growth focused - aiming to help you regain the proper relationship you had with food when you were a kid. You can take a look at their website if it interests you.