Status update: pounds coming off—punching more—eating less. Situation improving. Evil-doers be where, your reign of crime is about to come to an end.
I read a lot about health and fitness. While I sometimes find gems of wisdom, I more often find pseudoscience and personal opinion masked as fact. As a result, regular readers know that I’ve been more than a little annoyed lately with the American public’s obsession with terms like diet and obesity. Take an article I heard on NPR a couple weeks ago where the scientist challenged the idea that someone could be fit and fat. The tone of the presentation had more rebuttal in it than objectivity. The subtext was something like “Hey fat people, the only answer to your problems is losing weight. So stop kidding yourselves.”
Since the brunette and I began using fitbits and the aria scale, we’ve talked a lot about the subjective nature of “weight.” Society is obsessed with the ideal. For women it’s a 120 pound toned body with an hour glass figure—not cut, just smooth and toned. For guys it’s six feet of chiseled steel at about 190 pounds. These are the ideals against which all of us tend to compare ourselves. It doesn’t matter that certain body types can’t obtain that ideal or that even if they did they’d incur serious health risks, that’s what we’ve been taught. Similarly, modern “health science” is obsessed with the idea that obesity is the root of all evil. I’ve read several studies that jump strait past correlation to causation because being fat is associated with certain risk factors—which must mean that being fat causes all of those issues. Its possible these studies are double blind peer reviewed pieces of research perfection. All I hear when a scientist adopts that lecturing tone about being fat though is “confirmation bias!”
Let’s talk about weight and what it means. Weight is a measurement of how much gravity is pulling your mass down. More mass=more weight. It’s a measure of quantity not quality. The body mass index (BMI) is centered on the idea that if you are ‘X’ tall and ‘Y’ pounds there is a healthy range and an unhealthy range. To be sure, if you stand five foot four and you weigh 250 pounds, you probably aren’t in a great place health wise unless you are a professional weight lifter. The problem with our weight obsession is that we’ve come to see the ideal as an objective and anything less as failure—“If you’re not first you’re last” as Ricky Bobby would say. Looking at weight as an absolute number completely ignores the reality of healthy eating and exercise.
For example, I started April consistently weighing 298 pounds. Since then I’ve stepped up my exercise in quantity and quality. I’ve put serious effort into my diet. Currently I start a workout day at around 277 pounds and can drop as low as 271 pounds after a 90 minute boxing workout or an hour on the elliptical. On a typical gym day according to fitbit I’m burning between 3500 and 4000 calories. It’s probably a lot more than that since the pedometer doesn’t make any adjustments for my arms. So there’s six pounds or more of variance depending on when I log my weight. A portion of that loss is caloric, but the bulk is water. I could think of myself at 271 pounds, going with the lowest number, but the truth is that as soon as I get home I’m going to rehydrate and get some protein in my system. I’ll probably weigh close to 271 the next morning, but the day after that I’ll have had a complete rest day and have fully rehydrated. I’ll be up 5-7 pounds—and that’s fine. I need that water so I can go back in two days and do it all over again. I need that protein so I can refuel and heal up the damage I just inflicted on my muscles and joints. If I don’t give my body the resources it needs, it will cannibalize muscle and organ meat to make up the difference. It won’t heal the damage and I’ll perform at a lesser level. This is why people are encouraged to weigh themselves in the morning right after they wake up. Doing so gives you a consistent point for comparison without subjecting that number to the vagaries of your daily regimen.
“Diet” functions in the same manner in that eating healthy, counting calories, or going organic isn’t enough individually. I used to hate counting calories because I didn’t understand what they represented. If a serving of food contains 500 calories, then it represents 500 units of potential energy. When we talk about “burning calories” we’re really talking about consuming that many units of power. Your body burns calories keeping itself going, processing food, breathing…etc. The easiest way to look at what most people think of when they want to lose weight is caloric intake VS. Expenditure. A single pound equals about 3800 calories so if you eat 1700 and burn 1800 each day then it will take a little over a month to lose one pound. That’s why exercise helps; if you’re running a 100 calorie daily deficit and you burn 700 extra calories through exercise each week, you’ve doubled your loss rate—and 700 calories is about what you can expect to burn from a solid 45 minute run on the treadmill.
Calories are not an absolute. Water for instance has weight even though it has no calories. If I “retain water” then I’m retaining weight. It isn’t adding to my body fat percentage but it does increase my mass. There are plenty of 0 calorie sodas that fall into the same category. You regularly expel respiratory and digestive byproducts. That material has weight too. When you lose 1 pound of fat and build 1 pound of muscle you’ve made a net 0 weight trade but significantly improved your fitness. It’s very easy, especially in a good exercise program, to have large weight swings that have nothing to do with your core body fat percent. When you are sick your body will often cut your appetite and consume muscle fiber and organ meat. This results in weight loss, but not the kind most people are looking for. This is why I’m not fond of the body mass index. It’s a simplistic way of evaluating health. It certainly has validity on a macro scale, but when you go micro you start seeing where it breaks down.
There are other ways of looking at weight and health as well. There is an ongoing debate in the health media right now over “diet.” I’ve talked before about Atkins, palio, South Beach, the fermented diet, and primal. Each of these philosophies has nutritional benefits and drawbacks. In general they represent a focus on reducing sugars and carbohydrates while focusing on nutritionally rich food sources. Each diet takes a slightly different angle; but Regardless of how you come to it, if you cut out sugar, reduce your processed foods intake, and focus on lean protein you are probably improving your diet even if you don’t lose a single pound. The catch, there is always a catch, is that you need a balanced selection of nutrients to operate at peak efficiency. We need fat to manufacture hormones. Carbs are used for ready energy after exercise burns out the reserves held in your blood and muscles. Fiber aids in digestion. There are a host of nutrients your body craves. So if your diet focuses on one side of the equation too much, you can actually lose weight and still take a hit on health. You can eat 2000 calories of leafy green veggies; however, if you only burn 1800 calories each day you are still gaining weight. You can dehydrate an apple and make it smaller but you are not reducing the calories—just the size and amount of water in it. Weight loss is…complicated.
I think one of the reasons we love diets so much is that they make thinking about weight loss easy. Outside of the philosophical appeal some plans present, it’s nice to have all your choices distilled down to a couple words of wisdom or an easily actionable process. After the novelty wears off it becomes difficult to sustain the momentum and we fall off. One of the reasons I’ve had success lately is that working with fitbit, counting calories, and monitoring my intake VS. Expenditure means that I’m not sweating the number any more—you know “Oh Noes! I gained 2 pounds since yesterday, how did that happen?!?! Whatever am I going to do?” I know why I gained those 2 pounds. It takes the mystery out of stepping on the scale and the guilt out of reading the results.
Speaking of fitbit, I love it. There’s something about the abstraction of “steps” that keeps it from being one of those diet things I hate. It does the tracking for you, which takes all the effort out of the process. If you want to log your food or water consumption you can do that, but it’s not required. The result is a process that encourages me to walk more, to get up and move, to compete with friends for the better number. It’s a no-stress positive way of getting me up and moving—which is good. It also gets me to pay attention to tracking so after a while being more active is second nature. I realize it isn’t for everyone, but it’s been great for me.