Weight loss math isn’t as simple as they thought

The Wall Street Journal wrote recently that research doesn’t actually support the notion that permanently increasing your food intake by a certain amount will correspond to indefinite weight gain.  Instead, the body finds a new setpoint and adjusts itself.

Consider the chocolate-chip-cookie fan who adds one 60-calorie cookie to his daily diet. By the old math, that cookie would add up to six pounds in a year, 60 pounds in a decade and hundreds of pounds in a lifetime.

But new research—based on studies of volunteers whose calorie consumption is observed in laboratory settings, rather than often-unreliable food diaries—suggests that the body’s self-regulatory mechanisms tamp down the effects of changes in diet or behavior. If the new nutritional science is applied, the cookie fiend probably will see his weight gain approach six pounds, and then level off, pediatrician David Ludwig and nutrition scientist Martijn Katan wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year. The same numbers, in reverse, apply to weight loss.

Mother Jones points out that this may not be totally new data, but I think this has been lost on many weight-loss counselors, health writers, and medical practitioners over the years:  Bodies don’t gain (or lose) indefinitely.   Health At Every Size discusses animal studies where rats were fed more or less calories than a control group.  Yes, the rats fed more gained some weight — but then leveled off to a new, stable weight.   They didn’t gain indefinitely.   So did the rats who were fed less — they leveled off at a slightly lower, stable weight.

It’s almost as if those dreaded “weight loss plateaus” part of normal body functioning.

Oh, and going for a daily walk may not cause weight loss either.

8 thoughts on “Weight loss math isn’t as simple as they thought

  1. No! Nononono!!!! It IS simple!! It has to be! What about the CRISIS??!! Cal in – cal out?! Nooooooooo!!!!…. Wait…. *I* never believed any of that ‘simplicity’ garbage anyway. Never mind.

  2. Reading this article the other day, and now again here, I have to admit, the bubble burst. The bubble that I lived with that hovered over my head that said “It’s just as simple as calories in/calories out! You’re just not TRYING HARD ENOUGH!” Believe me, I WANTED to believe it. What could be simpler than simple math? ANYONE can do it!

    But…..you see, I have known through years of dieting that it wasn’t just as simple as calories in/calories out. My last I’m-really-gonna-do-it-this-time diet lasted almost a year. I spent 12 months tracking my food and exercise amounts. I kept calories below 1800 to start and did 45 minutes of cardio 5 days a week. A month into it, and seeing that the math did not calculate, I reduced my caloric intake to 1600 and upped my exercise to an hour. This cycle continued again and again as I continued this diet plan for nearly a full year. By the end of the year, I had lost 50 lbs……about a third of what I needed to lose. The last 3 months I had tried atkins, weight watchers, and diet shakes, and was only eating maybe a 1000 calories a day while working out for 90 minutes 6 days a week.

    Psychologically, I was broken. I mean, I did the math!!! Why wasn’t it adding up? Why would it take me 3 weeks to lose one single pound during that last diet? Especially when I was doing everything “right”? The last straw was when I spoke to my WW leader and told her my story, with tears in my eyes, despair on my face, begging for motivation or a suggestion. Her response was the same one I got from my doctor…..”You MUST be eating more than you are aware of if you’re not losing weight.” *ker-plunk!!* There went my last ounce of sanity.

    Then, the righteous anger began. I became snippy with my doctor on subsequent visits, then switched doctors. I stopped going to WW and told her why. I stopped weighing and writing down every morsel of food that passed my lips. I began to LIVE again…..as a real person with a family, and family meals, and family outings that didn’t include side salads and a glass of water. I ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full….and my body responded by gaining back the weight and bringing its’ friends.

    The math does not compute. It just doesn’t. No matter how you calculate it. No matter how much you call the calculator a liar. No matter how much you WANT to believe that math doesn’t lie. IT DOES NOT COMPUTE! So stop performing your little math olympics during 2 minute sound bytes on the Today show, and The Doctors, and Dr. Phil, and CNN, and in allllllllllllllll those diet books, and on allllllllllll those dieting websites, and in alllllllllll those fitness magazines, and in alllllllllllll those medical studies and textbooks, and everywhere else you need a place to showcase your awesome math skillz are!!! THE! MATH! DOES! NOT! COMPUTE!

    *whew* I feel better now :)

  3. This is something that has always just seemed intuitively true to me. I haven’t really dieted since high school. Since the time I was maybe 20, my weight has been very stable (with some exceptions I’ll mention in a moment). But, my eating and exercise habits have been all over the map, from being really conscientious about health eating and very very active to eating a lot of junk and eating out a lot and being very sedentary. Those sorts of “lifestyle habits” tend to have a very small impact, if any, on my weight. Usually I find that if I go into a phase where I start focusing more on healthy eating and/or exercising more, I’ll lose a small amount of weight pretty quickly (5-10 pounds) and then it stops. Same thing if I start adopting less-than-ideal health habits and am eating less well and not exercising: I’ll gain 5-10 pounds pretty quickly, but then the gain stops. I think I may–at least for now–have a more defined and stable set point than many people, but I do wonder if that’s due to the fact that I really haven’t done my dieting in my life.

    The times I have seen significant changes (more than maybe 10 pounds up or down) in my weight have had nothing to do with eating or exercising. It’s been when I’ve been pregnant (obviously), when I’ve been breastfeeding, and when I’ve gone on or off of an SSRI. Those are the things that caused my weight to shift quite a bit, not my eating and activity habits.

  4. Your title nails the stupidity of this. It’s not only not simple, it is too damn complicated for anyone to do it at the moment, which is why those who sell easy answers spout truisms which are as meaningless as they are formally correct.

    No one would be surprised by something as obvious as “moving more weight needs more fuel” or “‘you need more gas if you drive more’ does *not* tell me the gas milage of that car” if it were about vehicles. Which are complex mechanical systems and obviously not suited to elementary-school arithmetics.

    Yet for some reason people seem to believe that mind-breakingly complex biological systems with more interacting feedback loops than we even *know* about can be calculated by a 7yo.

    The math will compute when the variables are known, the model is correct, and we get sufficient computation power. It’s only that we do not know the variables, and the model we are using is like trying to understand the weather on “when it’s hot it rarely snows”.

  5. This all makes sense. We all know those people who can eat anything they want and NOT gain weight. It makes sense that there would be people with whom the reverse is true.

  6. The math is that simple. It’s simply a lie, just like everything Barack Obama says about the economy, health care and obesity. Michelle Obama, too. Just like everything AIG and Goldman Sachs told its clients and the public about its business practices. Just like everything that the advocates and apologists for the bailouts have said and are saying. “If you just keep giving us money, more and more and faster and faster, and stop asking embarrassing questions, all of your troubles will disappear!”

  7. Pingback: April Monthly Round-Up « Living ~400lbs

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