Obesity as a Metabolic Disorder, Part 1
Back when I posted the rule-of-thumb about the relationship between a 10-calorie-a-day change and overweight (+10 calories a day from eating or sloth equals +1 pound a year, -10 calories a day from diet or exercise equals -1 pound a year), my old friend Jeff Lorenzini e-mailed me to say that this was complete nonsense. He had been on a raw vegan diet for years, and…
…when I was doing 100% raw, I was shocked when we sat down and added up my calories every day, almost 3,000, which is a shitload, and yet I was losing weight like crazy and eventually plateau’d at less than 130 pounds, which was pretty skinny. Then, I slowly built the weight back up, which is what every raw fooder that I’ve talked to reports happening to them as well. So, it’s more than just saying 10 extra calories a day, your body has all kinds of ways to regulate metabolism.
And the thing is, I knew he was right. When I had been on extremely-low-carb diets in the past, I too could eat 3,000 calories a day, and still lose weight, without doing more than walking 30 minutes a day and riding my bike for less than an hour, a few times a week. I typically ate less than that, but regardless, I wasn’t hungry, and in 2004, I went from 252 pounds to 223 pounds, and dropped 5 inches off my waistline, in 19 weeks, before falling afoul of Halloween and falling off the wagon. And I was losing body fat faster on that diet than my current “eat a little less, exercise a lot more” regimen.
So, what gives? It’s going to take more than a single post to answer — let’s take our time and enjoy it!
Think of the cells in your body as semi-independent individuals. Suppose that there were some way, or ways, that the fat cells could be become deranged, or at least out-of-balance compared to the rest of the body.
Fat cells, after all, can choose either to get fatter, sucking lipids from the bloodstream and storing them as triglycerides, or they can reverse the process and shrink, releasing nourishment as free fatty acids into the bloodstream. Suppose that the fat cells were a little more prone to suck nourishment from the blood, compared to the other tissues? Well, you’d get fatter.
And what if you tried to lose the extra fat by eating quite a bit less, without doing anything to address the core problem? The fat cells would still be very enthusiastic about their blood-sucking, and since you weren’t eating very much to begin with, the rest of the body would be left with even less nourishment, while the fat cells (who are on the side of the fat cells) padded their coffers, probably wearing top hats.
So, in the presence of this metabolic derangement, low-calorie diets make you feel listless and ravenous, because your non-fat tissues are semi-starving in the midst of plenty — if the fat cells are in the “suck in nourishment” mode, they’re not spewing as much of it out to the bloodstream. Even though you’ve got ample reserves stored as fat, it’s mostly locked away in the vault, unavailable for use.
But, is there a shred of evidence for this view? Oh, yes. Let’s start with genetically obese mice, as described on page 368 of Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories (Knopf, 2007):
…it is invariably the case, as Jean Mayer discovered in the early 1950s, that these animals will fatten excessively regardless of how much they eat. Their obesity is not dependent on the excessive calories they consume, although allowing them to consume excessive calories may speed up the fattening process. “These mice will make fat out of their food under the most unlikely circumstances, even when half starved,” Mayer had reported. And if starved sufficiently, these animals can be reduced to the same weight as lean mice, but they’ll still be fatter. They will consume the protein in their muscles and organs rather than surrender the fat in their adipose tissue. Indeed, when these fat mice are starved, they do not become lean mice; rather, as William Sheldon might have put it, they become emaciated versions of fat mice. Francis Benedict reported this in 1936, when he fasted a strain of obese mice. They lost 60 percent of their body fat before they died of starvation, but still had five times as much body fat as lean mice that were allowed to eat as much as they desired.
Continued in Part Two…