I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I’m pretty sure that nearly all of the various weight loss theories, diets, fads, and beliefs fall under four primary categories:
The calorieists believe that body fat is regulated purely by surpluses and deficits of energy. If you take in more than you burn off, then you gain fat. If you take in less than you burn off, then you lose fat. Plain and simple. Because both common sense and an endless array of short-term studies show that this is true, the calorieists feel that science is firmly on their side, or that they are firmly on the side of science. Calorieism is notoriously defended with arrogance and vicious condescension when met with contradiction of any sort. Ironically, it’s science and long-term studies that show how short-sighted and incomplete the calories in calories out model of body fat regulation really is. Manipulating energy surpluses and deficits forcefully with either diet or exercise will result in temporary changes in weight, but it also results in extensive bodily compensation for the change in energy balance, making forced calorie manipulation ultimately a fruitless strategy for the vast majority of those who attempt to rely upon it for permanent fat loss. More comprehensive studies reveal the dark side of calorieism, showing not only futility when it comes to lasting weight loss, but psychological, emotional, and metabolic harm as a frequent end result.
Qualityists believe that if you change what you are eating to include more wholesome foods that your weight will gravitate towards a healthy range automatically. There are many qualities to the iconic health foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean protein–that result in higher satiety scores, meaning that people feel full after eating fewer calories. These qualities include lower palatability, higher water content, higher fiber content, and other qualities that, at the end of it all, result in food with a lower calorie density. There are other complex factors at play as well that are too complex to discuss here, but overall this point of view has great scientific credibility. While people may eat fewer calories when eating a nutritious diet, and this diet may be equal in calories to someone losing weight by counting calories, I do believe there is a fundamental difference psychologically and metabolically to losing weight while feeling full as opposed to losing weight and feeling hungry. That’s why I’ve endorsed the book Forever Fat Loss as well as spent time discussing this with obesity researcher Stephan Guyenet. But I do feel the qualityists are missing something, namely how unrealistic it is to attempt to eat a perfectly clean diet in a society that doesn’t eat that way. For most, it’s not sustainable, and it can make restricted foods all the more attractive and fuel binge eating behavior. Not for everyone, but that is definitely a common reaction to trying to eat a puritanical diet.
The hormonalists are those that step outside of calories completely and start looking at the hormonal triggers of fat storage. This includes the low-carbers (insulin is the enemy), the anti-estrogenists (estrogen is bad m’kay), and others. While the anti-insulinists are wrong about many tenets that have been grandfathered into the low-carb movement as fact (when indeed they aren’t the least bit factual), there are some highly sophisticated hormonalists out there. I consider myself to be one of them, as hormones such as leptin and a bunch of molecules and biochemicals you’ve never heard of are hormonal controllers of energy balance in the body. I’m unaware of any research that denies or contradicts this. The basic position of hormonalists is that human beings have differences in fat cell size, number, appetite, fat storage, desire for physical activity, etc., and that hormonal differences between individuals is primarily responsible. This is an easily-observable truth, as you can go pretty much anywhere in the United States and similar countries and see an assortment of absurdly lean people ordering the same thing off of the same menu at the same ghetto chain restaurant as the morbidly obese people sitting next to them. It’s also easy to observe that young people are lean eating a lot and as they get older they eat less and get fat due to a variety of hormonal changes that occur with aging. To say that weight regulation is all about conscious food choices is an utter absurdity for those with two eyes and an ability to use them. The fact that females have a higher bodyfat percentage than males the world over should be another sign of complete irrefutability that hormones play a dominant role in bodyweight distribution.
I’m obviously a metabolist as well as a hormonalist, and really, the two are interchangeable since ultimately it is hormones that control metabolic rate, and metabolic rate that has a huge impact on bodyweight distribution and obesity-proneness. As anyone here has experienced I’m sure, the ability to gain weight eating to appetite drops in direct proportion to a rise in body temperature–one strong indicator of your metabolic rate on a pound-for-pound basis (total basal metabolic rate is an irrelevant and misleading figure, as the bigger people are, the lower their mass-specific metabolic rate as a general rule, and the higher their basal metabolic rate, making it seem that big people have higher metabolic rates when the opposite is true). The lower your body temperature, usually the easier it is to gain fat. As body temperature rises, fat gain slows down and eventually stops altogether almost regardless of what or how much you are eating. Much research is needed here.
If I were an obesity research scientist I would put all my focus on studying the hormones, body composition, fat cell count and size, and resting metabolic rates of infants after performing various metabolic interventions on the parents prior to conception and during pregnancy and lactation. That’s ultimately where I think the battle of the bulge will be won–basically figuring out what makes some people fat proof even in the modern world (naturally lean people), and trying to intervene before children are even born and during the first two years of life to prevent obesity-proneness. Sadly, I think there is more promise in this area of research than any other, yet research here is extremely scarce. The limited research I’ve seen suggests that linoleic and arachidonic acid levels in the mother’s tissues and breast milk could be primary determinants of obesity-proneness. Anyway, that was a fun exercise. Hopefully it makes for good discussion and a good summary.
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. You can read more of his work in over 500 free articles on the site or in his books HERE.