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.