Bob Johnson —
Trigger warning: This post is in response to a bunch of dimwitted meatheads who valiantly attempt to defend calories in, calories out. As such, it’s chock full o’ weight loss science and the links may lead to rage-inducing stupidity.
An interesting thing happened yesterday. Every once in a while we get some traffic from a reddit site called Fitness Circlejerk, which is a weightlifting community with a distinctly roid-ragey vibe. They refer to themselves as Fagocrats and they loathe fat people. Some of their more intelligent troglodytes write blog posts that compare human bodies to steam trains, and the rest of them bob their heads to the extent that their cinderblock necks will allow.
The author of one of these choo-choo train science posts is Fagocrat Jacques Chester (aka Dr. Og) who tries to dismiss the many factors that influence weight loss:
All of the hundreds of factors involved in body weight control have an impact. Sometimes quite a significant impact. But not one of these factors can overpower the simple fact that a body can’t burn dietary calories it didn’t receive… Controlled starvation studies have shown it; history has shown it (look at photos of Changi POWs) and — though it distresses me to draw a connection between acute human misery and chronic diseases of abundance — current events in Niger show it.
First off, I would love to know what “controlled starvation studies” he is talking about. There are starvation studies that take place after a disaster, most notably the Dutch famine winter of 1944. And then there is the one controlled starvation study, which also took place during World War II. That study used conscientious objectors in Minnesota, and no, it did not prove that calories in, calories out is a valid concept.
It seems that Dr. Og and his fellow Fagocrats were whipped into a the chest thumping over one of my blog posts. It’s an overview of why calories in, calories out (CI/CO) is bullshit and why health is much simpler than you think.
The concept of Health at Every Size®* (HAES) infuriates the Fagocrats because they firmly believe in the bootstrap theory of weight loss. If you just exercised some self-control and discipline, then the fat would melt right off your body and you would finally achieve what you’ve never been able to achieve before on a permanent basis. And this is coming from a bunch of weightlifters, almost entirely men, who seem to hate anyone who isn’t also a weightlifter or at least a perfect 10 by their standards.
The CI/CO bootstrap theory is the standard belief for pretty much the whole country, but like the Fagocrats themselves, the theory is bulked up beyond recognition. There’s a hostility to the idea that CI/CO could be wrong, and they verbally sputter their rage by going after our commenters, rather than the arguments outlined in the post because (and I’m paraphrasing here) words hard.
The most coherent argument of the bunch comes from MikeHolmesIV, who managed to skim enough to discern the following:
Her proof that calories-in/calories-out is a myth is that
the human body has a system in place to compensate for energy expenditure through adaptive thermogenesis.
She then spends 11,000 words citing studies that show that your calorie expenditure can change, and claims that this is proof that the whole thing is a lie.
Basically she spends the entire article attacking the wrong idea (that weight is purely about calories-in), and in the process accidentally proves calories-in/calories-out. Then she draws it to a hasty conclusion as she realizes that burger king is about to close. Fatties gonna fat, but not for the reasons she’s thinking. [emphasis mine]
Um… no, Mike. Sorry. You’re gonna have to try harder if you’re going to be King of the Cromags. The point was, actually, that when you reduce calories in, your body adapts by controlling calories out. That’s adaptive thermogenesis in a nutshell: turning down the thermostat to conserve energy. And that’s what they found in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which unlike Dr. Og, I’ve actually read about (Pro tip: if you’re going to say that something substantiates your claim, you should at the very least brush up on Wikipedia. But if Dr. Og like book, I recommend The Great Starvation Experiment: Ancel Keys and the Men Who Starved for Science by Todd Tucker).
During the control period, subjects had an average basal metabolic rate (BMR is the amount of calories it takes to keep your body running throughout the day) of ~1,600 calories (PDF). The men began the control phase of the study with a 3,200 calorie diet to maintain their weight and began walking 22 miles per week. During the starvation phase, they consumed 1,560 calories per day. That’s 1,640 fewer calories per day. The 1,600 calorie diet should have been enough energy to fuel the BMR, notwithstanding the expected 3,000 calories per day total.
Yet, after 12 weeks of starvation, BMR dropped to ~1,090 calories, and at the end of the 24-weeks of starvation, BMR dropped to ~980 calories. After adjusting for body composition, the drop in BMR looked like this:
After 12 weeks, subjects burned 356 fewer calories per day and by the end of starvation they were burning 408 fewer calories. This is adaptive thermogenesis at work.
And so, even though Ancel Keys predicted that subjects would lose 2.5 pounds per week, or 60 pounds, subjects actually lost an average of 1.5 pounds per week, or 37 pounds. In the end, weight loss under these conditions looked like this:
One of the more ridiculous Fagocrat claims is that caloric levels determine your weight… that everyone who eats 2,000 calories will settle at the same weight over time and that if you drop your caloric intake by 200 calories, then you’ll then be at the weight that people settle on when they eat 1,800 calories per day. We call it the Elevator Theory of Weight Loss. Know what you want to weight? Just plug in the calories and go!
But of the handful of Fagocrats who actually came to rebut my post, one stands out. Steve links to a blog post by Lyle McDonald that supposedly explains the “practical side” of weight loss.” The post begins with a question:
If someone is looking to reduce body fat and is not showing progress at 20% below their calorie maintenance level, what would be the next logical step to induce fat loss? This person engages in regular aerobic and resistance training.
So, you’ve got a person working out and not losing the predicted amount of the weight. The blogger explains that there are some highly technical, scientific reasons for this:
Trainees would be doing everything ‘right’ and absolutely nothing measurable would happen for the first four weeks. And then sometime after week 4, there will be this big change in body composition, seemingly overnight. On the Internet, this is often called the ‘whoosh’ (which usually comes after a ‘stall’).
Ah, yes, why look into the actual scientific research on adaptive thermogenesis when you can just turn to the internet to make up some terms for you. After all, reading is hard, folks. But stand back, McDonald’s going to try SCIENCE!
Some of it may have to do with gene expression in terms of mobilizing and burning fat off the body, these pathways seem to take some time to get up to full speed when people are just starting out. Some of it may simply be the error in terms of making caliper measurements and our ability to measure small changes with current technology. I suspect a lot of it has to do with water balance. When in doubt, I just chalk it up to voodoo magic and acknowledge that it happens even if we don’t exactly know why.
So here’s our three options: genetics, measurement errors, water retention and voodoo magic (I love it when so-called experts throw out theories without substantiation). It’s like McDonald just throws up whatever comes to mind and all the knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers grunt and nod, while their simple minds drift to oats and squats.
I discussed the ‘whoosh’ phenomenon in The Stubborn Fat Solution and honestly think that water retention and such tend to ‘mask’ true fat loss in a lot of cases, at least over the short term. Then seemingly overnight, it looks like someone has lost several pounds of fat; people wake up leaner and lighter. At some point in the future, I’ll write a full article about the topic.
McDonald’s theory (with absolutely zero evidence to back him up, mind you) is that when weight loss “stalls,” the person is still losing fat, but that water retention “hides” the fat loss. So, the trainer is melting the fat, but your body retains more water and your weight remains the same. Then one day, the water retention ends and VIOLA! you’re skinny.
Except that actual, medical experts, like those at the Mayo Clinic, explain that initial weight loss is due largely to water weight:
During the first few weeks of losing weight, a rapid drop is normal. In part this is because when calories from food are reduced, the body gets needed energy by releasing its stores of glycogen, a type of carbohydrate found in the muscles and liver. Glycogen holds on to water, so when glycogen is burned for energy, it also releases water, resulting in substantial weight loss that’s mostly water. [emphasis mine]
Given the choice between Lyle McDonald’s voodoo magic theories or the explanation given by the Mayo Clinic, who are you going to believe?
Which brings us back to Dr. Og, whose steam train analogy tries to conflate engineering with biology by dismissing any evidence to the contrary with a wave of his hand:
My objection is that very few people have a genuine reason why simple calorie counting won’t work. Very few people. Yet everybody is quick to self-diagnose. “Oh!” they say when they hear the latest health journo blurb. “I must have that condition. I guess I’ll never be able to lose weight. I should just accept it. Pass the gravy, my glass is empty.”
Because that’s what is really going on here, right? People who claim to restrict calories and exercise, but don’t lose the predicted amount of weight, are just quitters who can’t wait to chug from the gravy pitcher. If only they had some will power, they would hit that magic WHOOSH! and reach their goal weight.
But after spending so much time explaining his theory on why weight loss doesn’t work, Dr. Og explains that he’s really just rehashing someone else’s work:
I am not the first to think of this analogy. Probably the best expositor of this way of thinking about the body is John Walker. In his book The Hacker Diet, Walker spends the first section discussing body weight as a control system. In fact, he does such a thorough, readable job of it that I recommend this book to anyone who wants a serious look at the bottom line of weight loss.
Ah, yes, why do the research yourself when you can simply read one pop-diet book and rewrite it with your own clever twist. No need to back up anything you claim with controlled or population studies. Some other guy wrote a diet book, so clearly it’s real!
And what’s more, Dr. Og came here to personally challenge to my CI/CO post, asking, “So … how does anyone starve to death?” He follows it up with “So why doesn’t adaptive thermogenesis work for poor people?”
Sadly, Dr. Og seems to have disproven the old maxim, “There are no stupid questions.”
People starve to death when they lack the calories needed to run the basic functions of your body (your BMR) for an extended period of time. With absolutely no food, you can last 30 to 40 days with hydration. And according to the Scientific American, a person can live on limited sustenance longer than you might thing:
Unlike total starvation, near-total starvation with continued hydration has occurred frequently, both in history and in patients under medical supervision. Survival for many months to years is common in concentration camps and during famines, but the unknown caloric intake during these times makes it impossible to predict survival. What is evident is that the body can moderate metabolism to conserve energy and that individual survival varies markedly. [emphasis mine]
Wait, you mean that adaptive thermogenesis is present during near-total starvation? You don’t say!
So, yes, if you restrict someone’s calories against their will and you can reduce their body weight drastically until they look like the men in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. But if you keep them on that diet indefinitely, the ones who survive are the ones who have the best adaptive response to starvation.
Those who can’t effectively store and preserve their energy balance will burn through their emergency energy sooner, triggering catabolysis (burning fat and muscle stores for energy), which causes organ damage. Those whose bodies are extremely efficient at both storing and spending energy during famines will survive.
People ill-equipped to survive starvation are those who, in our contemporary society, can eat whatever they want and never gain an ounce. They burn every calorie they take in and have a difficult time storing them. Meanwhile, those who are equipped to survive famines will store every single calorie as fat. These are the same people who are weight loss resistant because their body manages adaptive thermogenesis better. These are the people who look at a Twinkie and get fatter.
This is part of the reason why African Americans have higher rates of obesity in the United States. Africa is highly susceptible to famine, and African ancestors had to adapt to periodic starvation. But transplant that African into a country with food security for even the poorest among us (and poverty plays a role too, mind you) and you get people who are extremely efficient at storing calories, even when they don’t need them.
The Fagocrats scoff at adaptive thermogenesis because they don’t understand it. They think they do because some of their more literate members have espoused convenient analogies that reassure them that all fatties are just lazy, ne’er-do-wells who aren’t putting in the work necessary to achieve their goals.
But HAES has never been about saying that eating fewer calories and exercising more won’t lead to weight loss. It damn well may. What HAES means to me is that if you want to get healthy, you need to eat a healthy, balanced diet and get some exercise (both cardio and resistance). Whether that leads to weight loss is irrelevant because it is the behavior, not the size of your butt, that will ultimately determine your health.
And what really seems to gall the Fagocrats is not so much that I’ve written a heavily-sourced post that explains why calories, in calories out is nonsense, it’s who I am that bothers them, if the title of the reddit post (and the subsequent thread) is any indication:
[Science][Word Count: 11,000] Local mom EXPOSES calories-in/calories-out myth in this SHOCKING report! Thermodynamics DEMOLISHED! (Spoiler: she “disproves” it by showing that calories out is not a constant)
Local mom? Really?
I realize that the hostility and hatred that dudebros have toward Fat Acceptance is largely due to the fact that they believe their pool of token wives is reduced by an increasing number of self-accepting fatties, but come on — not everybody in Fat Acceptance is a woman.
Get this, Fagocrats: I’m a guy. With a penis and everything. And thanks to the fact that I’m not pumped full of steroids, I still get to use mine!
Yeah… blew your fucking minds didn’t I? Now the only question left is, how are you going to insult me when you can’t rely on monosyllabic misogyny?
*Incidentally, HAES is a registered trademark to prevent it from being co-opted by commercial entities that may turn it into a pseudo-HAES weight loss diet.