My summer trip ended early, and I had to spend a couple weeks in a hotel room. In hotel rooms I often find myself doing something I rarely do, which is watch television. A LOT of television. Stupid amounts. The kind of TV-watching where you only stand up to dust the potato chip crumbs off of your shirt. I would have bought a bedpan to avoid having to go to the bathroom, but I would have had to leave the hotel room to acquire it, which was totally out of the question. The commercial breaks simply aren’t long enough. I might miss whose dish is on the chopping block. I just wasn’t willing to take those kind of risks.
In that couple weeks of my TV safari I came across a reality show about a 380-pound woman in her early 30’s named Whitney Way Thore called, “My Big Fat Fabulous Life.”
I watched her gain weight working out to the point of tears (and injuring herself, as typically happens when seriously overweight people attempt to work out really hard) and using restraint I can’t even imagine. I mean, she took a single bite out of a cookie and didn’t finish it! Reminds me of Kristen Wiig’s little “Just the tip” song in the recent hit movie Sausage Party.
She confessed to eating this bite of a cookie to her personal trainer who “let her go” because she “wasn’t serious.” We’ll get to him, the prototypical misguided trainer, later on.
I feel compelled to provide some commentary about this show because, like the show Naked and Afraid (where people starve themselves out in the wilderness and the narrator keeps saying how they need “protein” if they hope to survive), I can’t watch it without repeatedly yelling at the screen and even throwing things at it. Health and nutrition inaccuracy causes fits of rage!
The show frustrates me because everyone in the show, trainer included, has no clue about how body fat regulation works. That’s a given. I’m used to that frustration, though, as that “eat less, exercise more” type of thinking is endemic. But I also am frustrated that Whitney has such weak ammunition for defending herself against these calorie-worshipping know-nothings.
She often gets into situations where she’s being more or less bumrushed by the calorie S.W.A.T. team, and she’s close to defenseless in response. That’s the part that makes me yell at the television. I could throw rebuttal after rebuttal at these bullies until they were 2-inch piles of goop lying on the ground. But they can’t hear me no matter how loud I yell. At least I can vent here and someone besides my poor girlfriend and possibly the people in the room next door can hear.
And so, here is an attempt to help Whitney ammo up a bit, and to help set a few people straight on how body fat regulation actually works. I’ll write it as an open letter to Whitney. I hope she gets to read it…
I’m sure you’ve been surrounded with only a very narrow viewpoint with which to view your unfortunate weight gain problem, as have we all, since a young age. I think you mentioned starting to diet at about the age of 5 or 6. This is typical. Almost every extreme obesity case I’ve come across involves dieting at a very young age.
The questions I want you, and anyone else reading to consider, are:
- What if the standard approach to weight loss, while it gives us the illusion of being effective (you lose weight in the short-term), is actually ineffective for long-term weight loss?
- What if the standard approach to weight loss is actually a contributing factor to weight GAIN?
You know, I feel silly even posing those questions, as I think both of those questions have already been satisfactorily answered in the annals of obesity research and beyond. Huh huh, I said annals. And the experiential education of dieters everywhere is so in line with it that the truth about dieting and exercise’s shortcomings are self-evident.
Consider this line of thinking:
If you are eating as much of whatever you like and aren’t performing any unwanted exercise beyond the activity you find to be enjoyable (like prancing around with Todd, who is the real star of the show BTW!), and you are maintaining your weight effortlessly…
…Then you do something different…
And then after you stop doing something different and you start gaining weight doing exactly what you were doing while effortlessly maintaining your weight before…
Then the only reasonable conclusion is that whatever you did differently in the interim causes weight gain.
This year was, I believe, the 10th summer since I reached adulthood where I had a huge spike in my physical activity levels (because I like hiking, a summer activity). Before each of those ten summers I was effortlessly maintaining weight before the season began. Then I lost weight with the sudden increase in physical activity. And then I quickly gained it back doing the same thing I was doing before the summer started—eating to satiety and exercising for pleasure.
If my weight just went down and then back up to where it was before, it would be one thing. But in nearly every summer (except this one, fortunately), my weight after the summer hiking season actually SURPASSED my previous weight. I discuss that in this old video…
Conclusion: Increasing physical activity levels dramatically for a few months and then stopping leads to a net gain of body fat.
Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like your experience with your trainer Will, where you lost 100 pounds eating very little and performing large quantities of grueling exercise, only to gain it back plus extra before your weight started to stabilize again. Sounds a lot like my mom, who loves to say, “Every time I try to lose 10 pounds I gain 5.” Sounds a lot like just about everyone who tries to purposely force weight off by creating an intentional calorie deficit through diet, exercise, or a combination of both—even lean, young men with no preexisting propensity to gain weight.
The thing is, intentional weight loss just doesn’t work for the vast majority of people over the long-term. I even think it’s part of the problem, and there’s plenty of evidence to support this aside from the abundance of observational evidence all around us.
It sucks that the ability to lose weight in the short-term by starving ourselves gives us all the illusion of being able to control our weight. It also gives the general public that illusion, and they believe fat people can just frolic on down to the gym and fix that dang obesity thing they’ve got going on.
Not so much.
As Albert Stunkard, the world’s first major pioneer in the field of obesity research liked to say, most obese people have about as much control over their weight as they have control over who their parents are. He came to believe this after doing like, you know, actual science and stuff. Even the New York times couldn’t report his recent passing without trying to debunk him. Cuz you know, obesity has gotten more prevalent, so it can’t be genetics. It’s your fault fatty. We know that infants are getting fatter, so it can’t be a hereditary thing. They are getting fat just from thinking about all the junk food that they’re going to eat and video games that they’re gonna play later on in life.
Sorry, I know this stuff isn’t common sense. In reality, more people are inheriting a tendency to gain weight from their mothers. It’s hereditary in that there’s nothing the child can do about it, but it has little to do with genetics.
Maternal BMI, adiposity, gestational weight gain, circulating triglyceride concentrations, and degree of inflammation during pregnancy are associated with increased birth weight and neonatal adiposity (11, 31, 34–40). Maternal diabetes is linked with higher offspring fat mass at birth (41), increased BMI, and risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D) in childhood and beyond (42). Maternal smoking during pregnancy is associated with offspring risk of overweight and obesity at 5–7 y (11, 43, 44). Various animal models have shown that a high-fat maternal diet during pregnancy causes malprogramming of the fetal liver (45), increased offspring accumulation of fat (46), and development of features of metabolic syndrome in adulthood (47). Maternal nutritional status preconception also plays an important, but often underappreciated role. In ewes, undernutrition around the time of conception causes increased fetal blood pressure and impaired glucose signaling in adult offspring (48, 49). More comprehensive reviews of the fetal origins of obesity are widely available. Maternal increased BMI, smoking, and circulating triglyceride concentrations are all also associated with rapid postnatal growth (33, 37, 39, 50). Therefore, these maternal characteristics may illicit a “double-hit” programming effect on offspring’s metabolic profile, increasing the odds of later metabolic dysfunction and obesity in a cumulative or even synergistic manner (51). http://advances.nutrition.org/content/3/5/675.full
That same study shows that the diet and growth pattern of the child in the first 6 months is considered extremely significant in determining the risk for developing obesity later in life. This is also “not genetic,” but it can rapidly get worse and is completely out of the child’s control. In other words, a common cause of obesity (there are several factors, I discuss many of them HERE) appears to be caused by mostly hereditary and developmental factors making it seem “genetic” in nature. Stunkard was just too quick in dubbing it “genetic.”
Albert Stunkard, by the way, was probably the first major proponent of the idea that we should collectively stop discriminating against the overweight, as he was the first to fully realize that obesity was difficult if not impossible for most people to permanently “cure” with standard approaches.
Yet, despite 50 years of overwhelming research showing that obesity is hard to prevent and even harder to permanently eliminate—and attempts to lose weight might even be exacerbating obesity—the public opinion is still guided by hereditarily-blessed jocks, eating-disordered nutritionists and dieticians, and other improperly-educated blowhards who think obesity is caused by food addiction and laziness.
In a nutshell, the body has a host of involuntary mechanisms that control energy regulation—your desire for intake, your desire for output, how much gets burned for energy, how much gets stored as fat, and so on. Forcibly trying to override those systems with willpower to create a conscious calorie deficit literally causes appetite to increase, metabolic rate to decrease, desire for physical activity and calorie burn during exercise to decrease, and fat storage efficiency to increase. That’s why it doesn’t work and is actually a contributing factor to weight gain. I mean, would you take a pill with those side effects if you were trying to lose weight?
In reality, the story goes like this…
Kid is already pudgy before she has her first solid food, likely from having a very high omega 6:3 ratio as an infant with infant formula and/or high omega-6 breastmilk as discussed HERE, among other hereditary factors discussed above. Gets pudgier as she continues to do what every other living sentient organism is programmed to do, which is to eat food until fullness is achieved every time hunger is felt. Then starts to get pressure and brainwashing from society that she is fat because she is eating too much and not exercising enough, and starts to consciously try to restrict food intake and create a calorie-deficit at a young age. This leads to rebound weight gain and an intensification of the resolve to eat less and exercise more. The cycle repeats itself again and again, each time the person’s metabolic rate is lowered and propensity to store body fat increased. Problem spirals out of control and serious, morbid obesity ensues.
I think dieting as a kid is particularly powerful, as the body is still developing, and sending it cues to horde energy can be even more dramatic in its negative effect. The number and size of fat cells hasn’t even been fully determined at that point.
Just think Whitney, if you had never tried to intervene with your body’s natural energy-regulating mechanisms, not only would you have freed up a ton of energy to focus on other, more productive pursuits, but you’d probably weigh 200-250 pounds right now instead of 380 and careening rapidly towards 400+. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say. Everyone’s obesity story is unique.
What you might want to do from where you are now…
Please GET AWAY from your trainer Will for starters. This guy may freaking kill you trying to help save you. I know he means well, as most trainers do, but he knows not what he does.
Then read some good books to get properly educated about obesity. My favorite, which is hard to come by these days, is Robert Pool’s Fat: Fighting the Obesity Epidemic. The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos is a pretty close second. I haven’t read his Diet Myth book, but I’m sure it’s also excellent. I love Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size, although to say that obesity is natural and doesn’t come with secondary health problems is flawed (but trying to do something about it will make you even more ill, so who cares). Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin is also a solid read. There are others. My Diet Recovery series is decent. These all provide a good place to start.
I also think you’ll like the work of Diana Schwarzbein, who has a similar health background as yours. She suffered from PCOS in college just as you did.
With these books you should have much better ammunition against the haters who love to say that you are just enabling fat people to continue with their unhealthy ways with your show and your dedication to eradicating body shame. You can now tell them that what they advocate to help you get healthy is something that makes the problem worse not better, and that you’ve given up on that approach after 25 years of giving it a chance to be the solution that it just isn’t.
And yes, please give up before you lose and gain your way to 500 pounds. You’ll be surprised at just how non-fattening not trying to lose weight can be. Sure, you’ll gain a little weight in rebound coming off of a quarter century of dieting. But when your hair starts growing back, you sleep better, you’re happier, you stop gaining weight completely without even trying, and you don’t have to live in a perpetual guilt/repent internal struggle over every morsel you put into your mouth, you’ll know you’re on a better path.
Will you lose weight by staying on that path? Probably not. But you might. Many actually do, surprisingly.
At least you won’t likely keep swelling while trying desperately to lose weight. Imagine what kind of message and hope that would send to your overweight fans who think you’re a hero rather than what you are sending to them now—watching you cry over buying a cookie, get yelled at by a guy who has probably never had more than 10 pounds of fat on his entire body, and injure yourself trying to ride a bike with car tires on it.
Or you know, keep doing what you’ve been doing. Your call.
About the Author
Matt Stone is an independent health researcher, author of more than 15 books, and founder of 180DegreeHealth. He is best known for his research on metabolic rate and its central role in many health conditions as well as his criticisms of extreme dieting. Learn more by signing up for his free Raising Metabolism eCourse HERE, which also includes THIS FREE BOOK.