Questioning The Calorie In/Calorie Out Theory of Weight Loss!

The basic premise of the New York Times magazine New Year’s cover story “Fat Trap” by Tara Parker-Pope is, “once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.”

Tara Parker-Pope came to this conclusion after exploring numerous clinical findings that dieting causes metabolic and hormonal changes, and that genetic variants tend to run in fat families. (She admits that these genetic predispositions are not always found in overweight people.)

“It’s possible that biological cards were stacked against me from the start,” Tara Parker-Pope writes. “Researchers know that obesity tends to run in families, and recent science suggests that even the desire to eat higher-calorie foods may be influenced by heredity. But untangling how much is genetic and how much is learned through family eating habits is difficult.” She writes that she is about sixty pounds overweight. Her mother was obese, and a failed serial dieter. Her sisters and extended family are all overweight. 

Even with all of the studies that Parker-Pope cited on the genetic variants that can possibly lead to increased hunger and obsession about food, I’m skeptical of the notion that obesity (and the often accompanying type 2 diabetes) are predominantly genetically driven.

Genetics do make a difference. Obesity can be exacerbated by polycystic ovary disease, thyroid disease, hormonal imbalances, and other serious health issues.

But I’d like to suggest other reasons people in fat families tend to “desire to eat higher-calorie foods.” For one, perhaps we should consider that by the time an overweight American child reaches the age of ten years old, he or she has consumed twelve hundred pounds of sugar, give or take several hundred pounds. This is not even counting the hundreds of pounds of other carbohydrates, like cereal, toaster pastries, chips, French fries, candy, cookies, cake, pie, pastry, donuts, bread, pizza, pasta, waffles, pancakes, muffins and cornbread that American families typically eat. If a family feeds their children huge quantities of sugar/carbohydrates over the prolonged period of their childhoods, that’s not genetics, that’s behavioral programming that creates the Pavlovian conditioned response (emotional pain eased by consumption of carbs) that some researchers are attempting to pin on genetics.

Like most of the weight loss articles and books I review, I felt “The Fat Trap” focused too much on the calories in/calories out theory of weight gain/loss. Fifty years ago, nutritional pioneer Adelle Davis wrote in her book Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, “To say that obesity is caused merely by consuming too many calories is like saying that the only cause of the American Revolution was the Boston Tea Party.”

I agree with Adelle Davis, that obesity is not all about calories. While Tara Parker-Pope touched on some of the broader issues of obesity (genetic predispositions), she missed one crucial factor: The brain is programmed for survival.

Even though obesity is a complicated issue, the vast majority of weight loss experts advise people to restrict calories to lose body fat. But could restricting food be the reason many people experience rebound weight gain?

Your body needs food regardless of how much fat you may have stored. I believe that the reason dieting can fail is that we are programmed for survival. As soon as food stops entering, the brain goes on red alert. It’s a time of famine.

Metabolism, comprising all the biochemical reactions in our bodies, can be loosely divided into two functions: breaking down and rebuilding. Once broken down, the used up materials such as cellular material, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters are swept out of the body. New building materials are brought in and rebuilding, remodeling, and replacing begin. This cellular activity goes on 24/7/365. Your metabolism can’t use stored adipose tissue to rebuild and remodel. Rather metabolic processes require that we eat the same biochemicals that we’re made up of—plants and animal foods.

When building supplies fall too low due to low fat or low calorie dieting, your body will break down internal stores such as bone and muscle to attain amino acids (proteins) for rebuilding. But your brain is smart enough to know that it can’t cannibalize your lean body mass forever, so it instructs your thyroid to slow down. At the same time, your pancreas will adjust so that more insulin–the fat storing hormone–will be secreted when you eat. Now as far as your prehistoric brain is concerned, you’ll survive the current famine longer and be protected to some extent from further famines. But to us modern humans, that just means that when we go off a diet, we get fatter (even without eating very much). To make matters worse, while you are dieting your modern eyes are scanning the landscape of food, food, food, and your primitive brain–programmed for survival–is telling you to eat, eat, eat.

I believe that dieting on prepackaged meals, snack bars, cereal, and other weight loss products is even worse. These are dead foods. Liquid diets are just as bad, in my opinion, even when prescribed by doctors. We need real, whole, living food. We are living beings.

Food deprivation sets us up for obsession and overeating. This was proven in semi-starvation studies done on conscientious objectors during WWII. Forty 20- to 33 year old men ate 1,570 calories a day for six months to lose 2.5 pounds a week or 25 percent of their body weight. When the three-month nutritional rehabilitation began the men’s resting metabolic rates had declined by 40 percent, their pulses and body temperatures had dropped, indicating hypothyroidism (down regulated thyroids). They demonstrated all the symptoms of malnutrition such as feeling cold, tired, hungry, having difficulty concentrating, insomnia, thinning hair, dry, thin skin, gastrointestinal problems, and no interest in sex. Even when given unrestricted amounts of food, researchers noted what they termed “semi- starvation neurosis”: the volunteers were agitated and nervous, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images along with extremely aberrant eating behaviors, such as voracious appetites followed by large and rapid food intake; they exhibited lack of control and distress over amounts eaten; they complained of hunger despite huge meals; they believed that eating “triggered” hunger; they suffered from cravings and obsession with food, as well as secrecy and defensiveness over food; they had a new preoccupation with body shape and weight; they scavenged or ate from garbage containers; they stole, hid, hoarded food and manipulated others for food; they made bizarre mixtures of food; they ate unpalatable and inappropriate food (raw meat, scraps); they used excessive spicing and flavoring; they exhibited poor table manners (licking knives and bottle lids, collecting crumbs, gnawing at bones); they preferred to eat in isolation; they induced vomiting or ate until they vomited; they suffered self-loathing; they took drastic measures to resist binges; they relapsed into binge eating despite attempts to rehabilitate them.

On a healthy diet, within nine months, the majority of the volunteers regained normal eating and emotional patterns, their previous weight and thyroid function. What this experiment demonstrated is that the experience of starvation compels us to binge in an attempt to provide our brains with fuel and our bodies with a fresh supply of nutrients necessary to restore hormone balance and heal from malnutrition. It also demonstrates that on a diet of real, whole food, cravings, binging and all the aberrant behaviors of unnatural hunger can be stopped.

I don’t believe Tara Parker-Pope’s plaintiff resignation that permanent weight loss has to be “very, very difficult.” Does it require effort, discipline to change eating habits, and the will to be different? Yes.

Peace, Fun, Love.

Your girlfriend in health,

Weight Loss



Nancy Deville

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