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Why a calorie is not a calorie
August 27, 2012 8:08 PM   Subscribe

The known knowns, known unknowns, and perhaps even the unknown unknowns of why a calorie is not a calorie.
posted by NortonDC (96 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
A Body is Not a Body—Amazingly, there are more ways in which a calorie is not a calorie. Even if two people were to somehow eat the same sweet potato cooked the same way they would not get the same number of calories.

I don't think this is controversial, but I do think it's not said enough. People are different and if I lost or gained weight on dietary regimen X it doesn't mean the same will be true for you.
posted by escabeche at 8:14 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Calories in < Calories Out = Weight Loss" is gospel in some quarters, sadly, the notion that people are different and different diets may work differently is tantamount to treason.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:18 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


...Joules in Joules out?
posted by odinsdream at 8:21 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I really enjoyed that article, thanks.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:34 PM on August 27, 2012


Working in Japan, I often wonder how it is that all of my coworkers can eat so much rice but stay so generally small. It's not simply a matter of exercise, since some of said coworkers are fairly sedentary women — I've wondered for a while whether they simply digest rice less efficiently, to be honest.
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:43 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


A new study this year found that in a lab experiment individual humans who ate 600 or 800 calorie portions of whole wheat bread (with nuts and seeds on it) and cheddar cheese actually expended twice as much energy, yes twice, in digesting that food as did individuals who consumed the same quantity of white bread and “processed cheese product.” As a consequence, the net number of calories the whole food eaters received was ten percent less than the number received by the processed food eaters (because they spent some of their calories during digestion).

Color me shocked!

Really, a lot of this makes sense, and I'm glad that the writing about food and nutrition seems to be getting increasingly nuanced all the time. Our bodies aren't simple, and simplistic explanations are unlikely to be completely true.
posted by Forktine at 8:47 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interesting.

on a related note: Debunking the Hunter Gather Workout
posted by caddis at 8:55 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


A calorie is not a calorie, but an excuse is still an excuse. The body is nuanced, frequently inexplicable, but it is still fundamentally a machine that adheres to physical principles like thermal dynamics. Each individual has a caloric level where they will lose or gain weight, regardless of their diet composition. Yeah it sucks that if you're at the end of the continuum you have to eat 20% less than someone else. But you may also be 20% slower, shorter, dumber, uglier, etc, etc, but at the end of the day you get what you put in, literally.
posted by dirtyid at 9:01 PM on August 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


The problem with that dirtyid, is that appropriate diet does not appear to be simply a point on a continuum, but rather a complex interaction of a variety of genetic and environmental factors. Hence people have to exercise thought and apply evidence in order to make useful decisions, not just conform to some quasi-moral standard in order to overcome what you appear to conceive of as a weakness of the flesh.
posted by howfar at 9:08 PM on August 27, 2012 [21 favorites]


Each individual has a caloric level where they will lose or gain weight, regardless of their diet composition.

Did you not read the article, or are you disagreeing with it? In the last paragraph, for example, the author says:

Over the last thirty years the number of calories we eat has increased, but so has the number of those calories that come from highly processed foods. In this light, we would do well to eat fewer processed foods and more raw ones. This is not a novel insight (Such foods, after all, tend to have more nutrients such as B vitamins, phytonutrients and minerals and so are good for reasons having nothing to do with counting calories). But what might be novel is the realization that in eating such foods you could lose weight while keeping the precise tally of the calories you consume exactly the same. (Emphasis added)

The author's point is directly that crude "thermal dynamics," with every calorie being the same increment of input, are not actually the explanation for what happens when we eat. Intuitively, there's truth to this, while also acknowledging that it's bounded -- no matter how raw your food is, if you eat too much you can gain weight, and you can lose weight eating only Twinkies.
posted by Forktine at 9:10 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was forwarded the same article today from friend who has exercised every excuse in place of discipline. I came off unnecessarily critical and I should have been more moderate with my tone. Every piece of information is useful, I agree with the points in the article, but I do contend that the inability to change your weight when you are at the fringes is a product of mental weakness. You can and should take the informed approach, but many informed dieters suffer from information paralysis and nick pick over details that are secondary to calories in and calories out. If education is not matched by discipline, these type of dieters will fail and often misappropriated bits and pieces of studies like this to reinforce the notion that their stumbling block is genetics instead of work ethic. Blame genes, microbes, longer intestine, whatever. Sometimes brute force is the most effective strategy. Eat 800 calories of meat a day and some multivitamins for a couple weeks and you will lose weight.
posted by dirtyid at 9:36 PM on August 27, 2012


not just conform to some quasi-moral standard in order to overcome what you appear to conceive of as a weakness of the flesh.

A body is an experiment of one. Forget reading about calories. Forget Oprah, forget Weight Watchers, forget points, forget all that shit. I've worked in a lot of offices and the people who are the fattest are the people who talk endlessly about Weight Watchers points. They always talk about food. They're also the people who do the least exercise. Why? It's built in to their lifestyle, their family culture. I don't blame them - it's hard to have 2, 3, 4 kids and work and find time to exercise, especially after sitting all day and burning so little. So, they're fat. It's not complicated.

I've been an elite distance runner, and a fatass office worker, and everything inbetween. Currently I'm a little overweight, and I know why, even though I usually eat pretty well and I ride my bike to work and am doing the occasional run. It's because I eat too much for what I'm expending. I'm a guy who has to work very hard and watch what he eats to be stay thin. Working very hard means 10 miles of running a day. Three meals, no snacks, no eating after 7pm. It's hard.

The fatal mistake people make is that they dismiss the hard reality that very hard work and a very strict diet is sometimes what it takes to lose weight, especially at first. It's a measure beyond what most people think possible - it's especially true for people who have exercised very little in their lives and likely have very little muscle driving their metabolisms. It's a very hard mountain to climb.

Whenever I hear of someone who has 'tried and tried' to lose weight but can't, it's almost always because the measures to get themselves out of those holes are so foreign to them that they can't conceive of the work to do it, let alone do that work. It takes serious, very difficult, emotionally and physically draining work to arrive somewhere where the work can be done, and gets done. It's not a simple solution, but the solution is there.
posted by jimmythefish at 9:56 PM on August 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


What about the unknown knowns?
posted by clarknova at 9:59 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Very informative article. I wished it had touched a little more on genetics, this is a frequent conversation between me and the other people at my gym, whether the next step in the paleo eating continuum is some sort of gene sequencing to let you know whether you might be able to eat rice, even though it's technically not paleo, because you have genetic/microbial/ancestral/whatever precondition that allows you to process rice/corn/dairy/whatever much more efficiently than others. You could then tailor your diet to genes in order to maximise effectiveness while not losing out on delicious sushi/corn tortilla tacos/cheese/whatever..
posted by youthenrage at 10:22 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


on a related note: Debunking the Hunter Gather Workout
posted by caddis at 8:55 PM on August 27 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]


Ooh.

Obviously exercise is good for you, and it's pretty well-known now that being sedentary is not. But that does punch some very large holes in many arguments.
posted by Foosnark at 10:23 PM on August 27, 2012


I'm a 300+ lbs man. I have never been athletically inclined. I competed in three sprint distance (I came in last every time, though I did win a swim leg once) triathalons in my early 20's when I was only 240-250 lbs. I wouldn't have been able to do that without the desperate desire to make my older brother proud (he has competed in an Ironman distance tri). He ran every step of my training with me.

Not eating isn't the only hard part. Not exercising isn't the only hard part. The hard part is when you eat the same amount as your genetic brother, work out as hard as you can 7 days a week, and don't lose the desired amount. The hard part is going to work and hearing from other people how if you just did this, or ran another mile (if your knees or shins can even take that) that you would be normal or fit like them.

The hard part is when you quit trying because becoming someone who feels/is healthy or looks 'normal' is more painful than how shameful you feel when you look in the mirror.
posted by Drumhellz at 11:37 PM on August 27, 2012 [19 favorites]


All people may have different metabolisms, but the differences should be measurable. You should be able to go to a doctor for tests that determine the sort of diet that will work best on you.

Eat nothing that morning, get a blood test, eat a certain breakfast, get another blood test, eat lunch, get another blood test, exercise, get a blood test, etc. It might take a series of tests over several consecutive days or weekends, but eventually you will know exactly what works for you, with real numerical results to back it up, not just your own amateur assessment of how dieting works for you. Not "Oh, I just have a very slow metabolism; every little thing I eat goes immediately to my thighs" based on your own sloppy observations, but, for example, "According to tests, I have a completely normal metabolism. Apparently I just need to eat three simple low-carb meals a day [and you have a printed diet plan from the doctor], stop munching between meals, and get just a little more exercise every day."

And because your metabolism might change as you diet, you could go in for a supplemental test now and then to see whether anything has changed significantly enough to make you change your diet and exercise. That's the kind of thing that insurance companies and employers should pay for and encourage.
posted by pracowity at 11:59 PM on August 27, 2012


I'm working in (farm) animal nutrition and it's amusing that notions that have been driving the rational feeding of pigs, poultry, cattle, fish etc. for the last century are still somehow new in human nutrition. Optimising the delivery of energy, protein etc. to the animal gut and their transformation in meat, milk, wool, work etc. is a century-old field of research and industry. Today, every animal production has its own energy system (digestible energy, metabolizable energy, net energy) with parameters for fine-tuning and equations (disclaimer: I'm a co-author) for the prediction of energy values. Ditto for protein.
Of course, for humans, that's a little bit more difficult to investigate, as stated by the article:
Digestion is difficult to study. It is hard to make participants, even college students, eat, say, nothing but raw beef for several days.
posted by elgilito at 12:02 AM on August 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


The hard part is when you quit trying because becoming someone who feels/is healthy or looks 'normal' is more painful than how shameful you feel when you look in the mirror.

The problem is when you try to model things off of what works for an Ironman triathlete when you are a 240-250lbs man. That's not your fault, that's the model of fitness and eating patterns you're given and your lack of experience means you have no idea you're getting information from people who are misinformed at the least. For instance, a 240-250lbs not-athletic man should not be running because, as you said, your knees or shins can't take it. That's not your failure, that's physics, even people who are skinny can get knee and shin problems from running. Also, the carb-heavy diet often recommended to endurance athletes is wholly unsuited for someone who is overweight and unathletic, as most of those carbs just wreak havoc on your insulin levels and get stored as fat rather than fueling your muscles.

It sucks that you went through such a demoralizing experience. Believe me, I know how it feels. I am really glad I've found an activity I deeply enjoy. I'm of the belief that there is a physical activity out there for everyone, but everyone's favored activity is different and it's silly when we start trying to get everybody to do the same thing despite their body type or weaknesses and strengths. Please don't let it stop you. The issue is not that you are a failure, but you haven't found a plan that's been properly tailored to your specific needs.
posted by schroedinger at 12:04 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


tl;dr: EVERYTHING involved in "Calorie Counting" is an estimate, therefore the results are inconsistent.

I would suggest that the issue is more of choosing shitty metrics than anything else.
posted by mikelieman at 12:18 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


You should be able to go to a doctor for tests that determine the sort of diet that will work best on you.

Eat nothing that morning, get a blood test, eat a certain breakfast, get another blood test, eat lunch, get another blood test, exercise, get a blood test, etc. It might take a series of tests over several consecutive days or weekends,


Or just track your Daily Rate of Weight Change using a daily raw values and a moving average. Sixty seconds a day, and you have real numbers to work with.
posted by mikelieman at 12:33 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


After reading the article, I think the author is being disingenuous in one point: the calories you get from bomb calorimetery may be an estimate of the calories you will get by eating the food, but it's always a conservative estimate. Your body may not be able to extract the calories from some foods as efficiently, but there's no way it will extract more than what is available. This is bad news for dieters, not good: it means that you still have to restrict calories, but you may actually be getting less than you think, and end up with less energy than you need. Conversely, if calorie restriction is not working out for you, it's not because something you are eating is giving you more calories than you think - something else is wrong, and you still need to figure it out.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:58 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sometimes it seems the greatest threat to understanding nutrition are the people who have appointed themselves the Gatekeepers of the Fatties—those who would rather stick with something obviously simplistic rather than risk letting those pesky fatsos get the wrong idea and thereby stop feeling bad about themselves. Or horror of horrors: presume to think they should get to be treated with respect anyway, instead of as the unsightly disgusting mental weaklings that they are.
posted by fleacircus at 1:26 AM on August 28, 2012 [19 favorites]


Or just track your Daily Rate of Weight Change using a daily raw values and a moving average. Sixty seconds a day, and you have real numbers to work with.

But just a weight. I would want to know my body chemistry, to be aware of exactly what's happening depending on what I eat, how much exercise and sleep I get, the time of day, etc.
posted by pracowity at 1:50 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Calories in < Calories Out = Weight Loss" is gospel in some quarters, sadly, the notion that people are different and different diets may work differently is tantamount to treason."

Except nothing in the article suggests that that isn't true. It just suggests that counting those calories is a lot more complicated than we thought. It is absolutely true that if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. But if you can't actually figure out how many calories you're consuming, the value of that truth is significantly diminished.
posted by valkyryn at 1:57 AM on August 28, 2012 [6 favorites]



But just a weight. I would want to know my body chemistry, to be aware of exactly what's happening depending on what I eat, how much exercise and sleep I get, the time of day, etc.


If you're trying to manage your weight, what insight do these metrics give you which your Rate of Weight Change doesn't?
posted by mikelieman at 1:59 AM on August 28, 2012


But if you can't actually figure out how many calories you're consuming, the value of that truth is significantly diminished.

My favorite question is "And how many calories did you burn yesterday?"
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:32 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is absolutely true that if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. But if you can't actually figure out how many calories you're consuming, the value of that truth is significantly diminished.

I think the two are independent. I think the VALUE of a net caloric deficit of a non-trivial period of time is undiminished by the inconsistency and inherent inaccuracies in "Counting Calories" as a weight change tactic.

The tragedy is that so many people believe that counting calories is anything more that a vague guideline, and blame the failures of the model on themselves.
posted by mikelieman at 3:32 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


My favorite question is "And how many calories did you burn yesterday?"

Just make up a number. It's what the treadmill does anyway... I advise people counting calories to disregard the 'calories burned' part of the process. I'm convinced that the only purpose of 'calories burned' is to fuck with people's heads.
posted by mikelieman at 3:33 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you're trying to manage your weight, what insight do these metrics give you which your Rate of Weight Change doesn't?

Surely the hope is for an insight into what food choices will make it easiest to manage weight? There is a difference between an excuse for failure and a strategy for success.

Simply telling people that in order to lose weight they need to just eat less is bit like telling a man who is unsuccessful in his career to just work harder. It is true as far as it goes, but without good evidence about effective choices, it will lead a proportion of people to fail despite doing exactly as advised.

Fat doesn't defy any thermodynamic laws, but the insistence that fat people just need to try harder, while ignoring the fact that they also need to try smarter, smacks more of fat-shaming than it does of reasoned analysis.
posted by howfar at 3:36 AM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, again, insight into your food choices in the past 24 hours do those metrics give you which your Daily Rate of Weight Change doesn't?

I know, as of a few minutes ago when I weighted in and plugged my numbers into the computer what the effect of my choices yesterday were ( good enough, with a rate of -0.14 lbs/day, not even close to my peak, but it's below zero, therefore scored as a Win ). So I still don't see the value of spending more than 60 seconds on the process.
posted by mikelieman at 3:49 AM on August 28, 2012


Argh. "WHAT insight into your food choices..." is what that should read. My point isn't that one should simply tell people to "eat less/move more", but rather that "counting calories" is a potentially dangerous metric, and that better ones are more effective without the hazard of blaming yourself when you don't fit the model.
posted by mikelieman at 3:51 AM on August 28, 2012


That's a fair point mikelieman. Less daily data probably gives rise to more potential confounding factors, but the real key to getting good information is likely to be keeping an accurate log of amount and type of food consumed and observing its relationship to daily rate of change over time.
posted by howfar at 3:54 AM on August 28, 2012


Let me suggest that FREQUENCY of assessment and feedback are more important that accuracy in logging.

I'm assessing and getting feedback every 24 hours, so I never have to remember more than what I ate yesterday ( and since I do a 16/8 Intermittent Fasting schedule, I only have to remember 8 hours or so of choices, perhaps that's a factor in the effectiveness of this technique ).

Would strict logging get me more insight? Perhaps. But I hate bookkeeping. And one of the things I strive for is sustainability. I'm not 'dieting'. I'm managing my weight, and like any chronic health issue, for me "Weight Management" is a lifelong task. So, I need to do things TODAY which I can do the rest of my life.

As the Bugzilla people say, "WORKSFORME"
posted by mikelieman at 3:59 AM on August 28, 2012


If you're trying to manage your weight, what insight do these metrics give you which your Rate of Weight Change doesn't?

If you're trying to manage your weight and all you care about is pounds, there are ways to do it, but not necessarily good ways to do it. You can eat exactly the right amount of calories (just french fries?) and still have a shitty diet.

If you're trying to manage your weight as a part of trying to manage your health through diet and exercise, you might want to know, for example, what's going on with your glucose and cholesterol levels. People with weight problems are often people headed for diabetes, heart attacks, gall bladder trouble, and other shitty situations they could avoid if they ate the right foods, not just the right number of calories. Knowing the numbers can help you decide what's what. You might not be concerned about this stuff, but other people are. How your body handles the things that you eat is an important part of deciding what and how much to eat.
posted by pracowity at 4:05 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]



'm assessing and getting feedback every 24 hours, so I never have to remember more than what I ate yesterday ( and since I do a 16/8 Intermittent Fasting schedule, I only have to remember 8 hours or so of choices, perhaps that's a factor in the effectiveness of this technique ).


Isn't this a little too fast? I thought water was a huge confounding factor in interpreting day to day results.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:11 AM on August 28, 2012


I thought water was a huge confounding factor in interpreting day to day results.

I think I mentioned this before. You get the "Rate of Weight Change" metric by using a moving average on the (noisy) raw data values. John Walker's 1991 book, "The Hacker's Diet" goes into the math, and he used spreadsheets. I homebrewed my own solution which renders the data in an easy to understand way.
posted by mikelieman at 4:15 AM on August 28, 2012


This is excellent to know because between the fact highly processed foods will likely cause you to absorb more calories and that nutritional packaging can be off by something like 10% on the calories (and I think it can often be higher), it makes cooking from scratch that much better of an option and for a lot of people may explain why they aren't losing weight because they are inadervently eating more calories than they realize.
posted by whoaali at 4:23 AM on August 28, 2012


Great post! I'm a biologist, not a nutritionist so I'm not up to date on all the literature, but it has always surprised me that bomb calorimetry is the gold standard for figuring out how much energy we get out of food. If you do a super simple experiment using bacteria you will see that's not true - just grow E. coli in minimal media (just chemicals and sugar) or the same caloric density of rich media (had all sorts of other stuff like pre-made lipids and other building blocks). The bacteria growing in the rich media will grow faster and reach a higher density than the bacteria growing in the minimal media. It's always been obvious to me that humans should be the same - if we are fed food with components that are easily put on the biochemical pathways to turn into fat, we will probably get fatter eating that than food that would require more biochemical processes to turn into fat.

I'm super excited that someone is going through and figuring out where some foods fit on the spectrum for mammals/humans. Though as elgilito pointing out, a lot has been done with farm animals - though I bet the goal for most farm animals is to fatten them up.
posted by fermezporte at 4:26 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know about The Hacker's Diet - I would be following it if I was more disciplined. I am somewhat uncertain about interpreting the effect of your food choices in such a small interval from any kind of measurement. The moving average is smoothing out noise in the output, but then you are treating your food choices as an instantaneous input signal - shouldn't you also be calculating (some sort of) moving average of calorie input?
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:28 AM on August 28, 2012


I don't bother tracking calorie input. The ONLY data I care about is the daily weight value with feeds the Rate of Weight Change.

Rate of Weight Change less than 0 ; Losing weight

Rate of Weight Change == 0; Maintenance

Rate of Weight Change > 0; Gaining Weight

So, as long as the rate less than 0, everything else is just details, which I've learned are pretty much pointless over the long term.

This is a 60 second TOTAL approach to daily weight management. I get on the scale, I plug in the raw data, I see what the results of yesterday's choices were, and then I go on with my life and when lunchtime rolls around, I consider whether or not I'm losing weight as fast as I'd like to, and then eat my lunch.

The beauty of this is that I don't have to spend one second thinking about 'how many calories does this have', consequently, there's pretty much no dietary restrictions. Family wants pizza and wings for dinner? Ok, from experience I know I can have a slice with whatever on it and maybe 1/2 dozen wings. Depending on where my numbers are for the day, maybe TWO slices. And if I blip over and DROWC > 0 for a day? Well there's 250 other days where it was below zero, so there's no stress there.
posted by mikelieman at 4:34 AM on August 28, 2012


I'm a guy who has to work very hard and watch what he eats to be stay thin. Working very hard means 10 miles of running a day. Three meals, no snacks, no eating after 7pm. It's hard.

Yeah. See... this ain't no kind of normal. That sort of self-discipline is mostly fantasy (as is the 800cal + Vitamins "diet" similarly prescribed.) Some people can do it, most can't, and unless you're an elite athlete, you shouldn't have to. Something is fucked up and out of balance on a biological level.

At some level, processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle can reasonably be blamed for being out of shape - but if you need to run a half-marathon and monitor every morsel entering your mouth, daily, just to maintain a normal weight, then I would propose your diet and exercise regime are a symptom of something larger behind the obesity epidemic.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:37 AM on August 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


Scales are also very approximate... at least the kind of scale you're likely to own.

Four Mondays ago, I weighed X + 4.
Two Mondays ago, I weighed X.
Last Monday I weighed X - 2.5.
Yesterday I weighed X - 1.
This morning *before* my shower I weighed X + 1.5.
After my shower, I weighed X + .5.

The week in which I gained 1.5 pounds, I actually did more physical activity than the weeks in which I lost 2 to 2.5.

Honestly what is the lesson I can take away from this, other than "fuck scales?"


I've been eating and exercising with the goal of controlling my blood sugar; I don't count calories but keep a very sharp eye on sugar and other carbs. I test my blood four times a day and I know what works. I tend to eat oatmeal for breakfast (no sugar), salads of raw spinach and mushrooms and other stuff for lunch (no sugar, very few carbs) and a relatively low-carb, low-sugar dinner. I have a FitBit and while circumstances haven't allowed many of the sort of long walk I'd like to do, I get in extra steps and stairs when I have the chance. I have a standing desk at home and at work to burn a bit more. I fidget.

Before this effort? No FitBit, a half-standing desk at work that I usually sat at, and a fairly healthy diet but certainly higher in calories and carbs than now.

This diet/exercise has been working wonders for my blood sugar. It's been pretty disappointing in terms of weight loss though.
posted by Foosnark at 5:47 AM on August 28, 2012


Foosnark: Honestly what is the lesson I can take away from this, other than "fuck scales?"

You move about sixteen pounds of food and liquid through your body, every day. The majority of changes you see on your scale are fluctuations in where all of that weight is in its journey through your body. Very carefully weighing at a specific point every day is a start, but you're still going to be overwhelmed by noise.

Your goal is not to track your exact daily weight, but rather your weight loss. It's actually relatively easy to extract accurate fat weight information from that noisy, daily overall weight measurement. The financial markets use it for exactly that purpose every day: you need to graph your moving average.

I don't actually agree with or follow the Hacker's Diet, but the chapter on weight tracking using moving averages is phenomenal. If you dread the scale every morning, please read this chapter, starting here. If you're not an Excel wiz, there are iPhone and Android apps, as well as web apps, that do the math and graphing for you.

The result is real information from your scale, without the noise and stress of natural, unavoidable daily fluctuations.
posted by gilrain at 6:00 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]



Honestly what is the lesson I can take away from this, other than "fuck scales?"


1. Zero before each use

2. Use a moving average to gain useful metrics over short time scales.
posted by mikelieman at 6:02 AM on August 28, 2012


I get on the scale, I plug in the raw data, I see what the results of yesterday's choices were

If you are tracking a moving average of your weight, you are going to be tracking the moving average of the past few days' choices, not just yesterday's choices.

I'm not trying to lose weight, but I do step on the scale fairly often just to see what the number is, and it's interesting how much day-to-day variation there is. Unless you are watching a moving average, it would be hard to know what is really going on, I think. I've thought about, but haven't even taken the first step of doing the research into, buying a more accurate scale to at least remove that variation. It might well be money well spent.
posted by Forktine at 6:24 AM on August 28, 2012


Keeping track of the data long-term is the real hassle - manual recording is ok for a while, but then you lose interest. A scale with a few years' worth of memory and a network connection is the answer to this, so you can get a proper control chart, alerts on your e-mail when you reach the 3 sigma level either way etc.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:34 AM on August 28, 2012


Yeah. See... this ain't no kind of normal.

Oh, you're wrong. It's normal in that often I do little else. Humans weren't meant to sit in an office for 8 hours a day...I do. If you were up and active and doing physical things all day, you'd burn at least as much as me on my 70 minute run. See my post above re: expectations. We weren't meant to be sedentary. We're meant to move and work actively for a good portion of the day.
posted by jimmythefish at 6:36 AM on August 28, 2012


When I trimmed off seventy pounds, I did it with math based on calories in, calories out, and burn rates, and I was pretty lucky that I'm essentially as predictable as a mathematical simulation. If I stuck to my calorie counts, regardless of what I ate, my spreadsheet would accurately predict my future weights with astonishing accuracy.

The thing I learned in this process was (a) if your body works like a mathematical simulation, you're the perfect candidate for mathematical weight management, and (b) for me, a calorie was a calorie (or sometimes a bit less than a calorie), but the energy level response could be very different from food to food. White rice knocks me out. Nuts energize me, but don't knock me out. Potatoes—holy crap, they're just tranquilizer darts with eyes. There's also (c) you may not work like a mathematical simulation, which is why experimentation is a good thing.

I'm particularly glad I snubbed the whole "never weigh yourself" mantra, because getting on the scale four times a day was a lot like having an engine vacuum gauge for a car. You have to divorce yourself from value judgments, which suck anyway and do no one any good, and just log everything and pay attention. Tracked my numbers, developed a feel for what the ebb and flow of weight means (salt, for instance, would knock my numbers off by very specific amounts, from water retention), and ended up being subconscious and autonomous about the whole process, which held until I had a six month chronic pain issue that dropped my physical activity to nearly zero and revived some bad eating habits.

A calorie may or may not be a calorie, but if you don't approach your life with awareness and precision, you'll never know how things work.
posted by sonascope at 6:59 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Calories in < Calories Out = Weight Loss" is gospel in some quarters, sadly

The article points out that the measurement isn't precise and varies between people, but the basic math still applies. Unless the variation is so great that we can prescribe specific foods to match the microbial profile of the person there isn't any reason to consider this equation invalidated. Even a personal diet prescription were available it would only work within the bounds of this equation.
posted by dgran at 7:00 AM on August 28, 2012


It's a digital scale, and perhaps superstitiously, I do the tap-to-wake-up thing and make sure it reads 0 three times in a row before I get on it. I could probably use a better one though. (I've been thinking about the FitBit Aria just to integrate with the rest of my tracking, though it's kind of overpriced.)

But the advice about using a moving average could be useful.

I've been pretty frustrated with it compared to the almost immediate feedback I get with blood glucose tracking.
posted by Foosnark at 7:08 AM on August 28, 2012


...Joules in Joules out?

Only if you assume that every possible joule consumed is digested. Consuming food that appears to contain 1000J (as measured by a bomb calorimeter) that isn't digested gains you nothing -- indeed, given that it takes energy to move it through the digestive tract, it would cost you total energy.
posted by eriko at 7:08 AM on August 28, 2012


I'm always surprised by how much exercise is emphasized in weight loss. Not that exercise isn't healthy, but diet is significantly more effective in weight loss.

Here's a meta-analysis of almost 500 weight loss studies.

"Depending upon the variable measured, the D and DE programs
produced a three-to-five fold greater change in body
composition than the E programs."

"In particular, weight lost, weight of fat lost, reduction in
percentage fat, BMI decrease and percentage of initial
weight lost, for the E programs were only 20±60% of
that seen in the D or DE programs. These differences
were conspicuous regardless of whether the analysis
on mean data was done with or without the covariates
of initial body weight, initial percentage body fat or
initial BMI."

"The ES analysis also revealed that E programs were
least effective in producing body compositional
changes"


This is consistent with the Hunter Gatherer Workout article above.
posted by Adamsmasher at 7:11 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you were up and active and doing physical things all day, you'd burn at least as much as me on my 70 minute run.

I doubt it. Obesity as it is today wasn't as rampant in the '60's, '70's or '80s, when people weren't as recreationally involved with physical activity, and used the car just as much. Street cars, elevators and indoor work has existed since the late Victorian. Why now?

Conversely, construction workers and other professions that require non-sedentary work are afflicted with obesity rates mostly in line with the rest of the public as well. Professionals, which are all office workers, have the lowest rates of obesity.

While there is some truth to the notion - transportation (bus and truck drivers who are obligated to sit on their butt all day) has the highest rate of obesity, and farming/forrestry (field hands and lumberjacks) has the second lowest, the rest of it is pretty random and is all within 5 percentage points of each other, anyhow. It could almost be argued it's a class thing, except Management is right in the middle of the pack, and not near professionals or business owners down at the low end.

More to the point, ever see a skinny toll-taker? Stuck sitting in a booth hours at a stretch on odd shifts? I have. Lots of them. I don't think they're all running 70 minutes a day.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:11 AM on August 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Good article. Now someone debunk the concept of diet soda.
posted by destro at 7:17 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


While there is some truth to the notion - transportation (bus and truck drivers who are obligated to sit on their butt all day) has the highest rate of obesity, and farming/forrestry (field hands and lumberjacks) has the second lowest, the rest of it is pretty random and is all within 5 percentage points of each other, anyhow. It could almost be argued it's a class thing, except Management is right in the middle of the pack, and not near professionals or business owners down at the low end.

That looks like it has something to do with access to fast food combined with the type of work you do. Non-sedentary work burns calories, which is good for obesity rates, unless you make up for it by eating a ton of calories during the day.

Forestry workers are doing non-sedentary work and they don't have ready access to fast food. Construction workers are non-sedentary, but they frequently have easy access to fast food for lunch (and my limited observations are that they tend to eat pretty badly). Office workers usually have access to fast food for lunch, but they're sedentary, so I'm guessing more of them are able to limit their caloric intake during the day (you don't need to eat that many calories to sit at a desk all day).

I think there's also a class element here (in my office it's the non-professionals who tend to favor McDonald's for lunch and the professionals who tend to bring salads), but I think who can and wants to eat a ton of calories during the day plays a big role.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:25 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


This article points out the difficulty of an overly precise calorie counting approach to dieting. It cannot be done, because you cannot get the proper information about how many calories you will absorb from a particular amount of a particular food. The article does point out the benefit of eating what we mostly consider "good" food, fresh, unprocessed etc., as these foods often don't give up their total possible calorie content to our bodies, or cause us to burn some calories in their processing. Counting calories is still valuable as many people without counting have gross misconceptions about their own consumption. The point is merely that you cannot be overly precise here. Eat good foods, avoid bad foods, keep a general track of how many calories you consume and you should have results.

There are some ill informed comments in the thread about mental weakness etc. These fail to appreciate how different people react to different stimuli and also how different foods and eating patterns affect appetite. A person who lacks food cravings cannot truly appreciate the power these cravings have over people who do have them. It is more than just mental weakness, and an inability to understand that may itself be a mental weakness. I think a lot of diet systems out there are kind of crazy, but the ones that work on the cravings seem to have potential and seem to have worked for many people. For instance, a low-carb diet dramatically cuts cravings for many people. There was a great post here a few years back about some guy who lost weight with a diet in which he consumed small quantities of unflavored sugar water or light olive oil paced throughout the day - in essence a starvation diet - without feeling hunger. I don't know that that kind of diet is for everybody, but it illustrates how different foods and eating patterns can affect our hunger level.
posted by caddis at 7:30 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Counting calories is still valuable as many people without counting have gross misconceptions about their own consumption. The point is merely that you cannot be overly precise here. Eat good foods, avoid bad foods, keep a general track of how many calories you consume and you should have results.

This is really the thing I got from counting calories. When I was younger, I ate a ton of junk food, and it made me pretty fat. I knew that "junk food was bad for you," but it's hard, without knowing generally how many calories you should eat in a day and how many calories are eating to know how bad it can be for you. Even general estimates are helpful in that regard.

When I was in high school, I drank a two liter of soda every day. I didn't know or care anything about calories then, so I didn't think about it other than "am thirsty, must drink). Now, I know that that is INSANE and was basically 1/3 of the calories I should have been eating in a day. Is that precisely right? No. Is it information I wish I had understood? Absolutely.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:38 AM on August 28, 2012


I doubt it. Obesity as it is today wasn't as rampant in the '60's, '70's or '80s, when people weren't as recreationally involved with physical activity, and used the car just as much. Street cars, elevators and indoor work has existed since the late Victorian. Why now?

That one is easy. So seductively easy you have forgotten what life was like in those days. You had no TV remote. Your phone was attached to a wall by a tangled cord so if you wanted private conversation you had to go meet your friends. Your car broke down all the time and you had to push it. Snow blowers did not exist. Bicycles had 1 gear. Maybe 3 if you were rich. Alloys didn't get used. Carbon fibre didn't exist. That thing weight 45lbs. You had no A/C and winter heating was pretty crap too. You walked to school. Stairs. You lawn mower had no motor.

All those hundreds of sneaky little fraction of percent efficiencies we have developed add up to weight gain in the long run even with an increase in sporadic recreational fitness activity.
posted by srboisvert at 7:43 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Most overweight people I know do not start losing until they start counting calories. Not because there's a magic formula, but because keeping track of calories means keeping track of portions, and people get overweight by intaking more food than their body can process--things like a diet of processed foods, high in sugar, etc expedite this process, but ultimately it boils down to the calories you're currently taking in, whatever they are, are too much for your individual metabolism. Where people start getting fucked up is they start comparing their caloric intake to the caloric intake of other people or using calculators or points or whatever. The best way to figure out what amount of calories is right for you is to record your food for a week, adding up the calories each day, and then aiming to eat less than that the next week, slowly reducing each week until a healthy rate weight loss is achieved.

Of course, the problem with this strictly mathematical method is it doesn't make allowances for the psychological underpinnings that often accompany being overweight--binge eating disorder, anxiety about weigh-ins, anxiety about calorie counting, impatience about rate of results, self-sabatoge, etc. These things and the difficulty of maintaining long-term lifestyle changes are what undoes weight loss more than anything else.
posted by schroedinger at 7:46 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Your car broke down all the time and you had to push it.

:)
posted by caddis at 7:48 AM on August 28, 2012


While there is some truth to the notion - transportation (bus and truck drivers who are obligated to sit on their butt all day) has the highest rate of obesity, and farming/forrestry (field hands and lumberjacks) has the second lowest,

I bet there's an element of selection/vicious circle in this, though probably not dominant: if you are overweight, you are probably inefficient for work that requires a lot of physical labor or endurance, so it makes sense to move away from this type of work if at all possible.
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:54 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I bet there's an element of selection/vicious circle in this, though probably not dominant: if you are overweight, you are probably [seen as] inefficient [by judgmental people] for work that requires a lot of physical labor or endurance, so it makes sense to move away from this type of work if at all possible [because you will not be hired by biased and ignorant employers]
posted by prefpara at 7:59 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


All those hundreds of sneaky little fraction of percent efficiencies we have developed add up to weight gain in the long run even with an increase in sporadic recreational fitness activity.

70 minutes worth of 7-minute-mile running more efficient? Again, I doubt it.

Also, obesity is still not the dominant body type, only around 25% of the population. Why them? Do they have more remote controls or something?
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:02 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]



Also, obesity is still not the dominant body type, only around 25% of the population. Why them? Do they have more remote controls or something?


Yes but if you view it is a distribution of weigh rather than a binary category of obese / not obese you will notice that the entire distribution has shifted to heavier.

70 minutes worth of 7-minute-mile running more efficient? Again, I doubt it.

I run the lakefront in Chicago every couple of days. Out of the hundreds of runners I encounter on the path maybe 2 or 3 go faster than me and I run around 9-minutes miles over 5 in this heat (And those bastards are 20 year old gazelle hybrids and I hate them with the fire of thousand jealous suns ).

Very few of the recreational fitness crowd are running at 7 min/mile speeds.

Probably because we are almost all too heavy to pull it off.
posted by srboisvert at 8:22 AM on August 28, 2012


if you are overweight, you are probably [seen as] inefficient [by judgmental people] for work that requires a lot of physical labor or endurance,

Are you arguing that being overweight - for whatever reason - would not be a disadvantage in doing lots of physical labor every day? I can't really tell from the way your comment is written.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:29 AM on August 28, 2012


Are you arguing that being overweight - for whatever reason - would not be a disadvantage in doing lots of physical labor every day? I can't really tell from the way your comment is written.

Here's a picture of the strongest woman in America. Most people look at her and see an overweight woman who should probably work out and go on a diet. Because our culture has programmed us to see thin as healthy and strong and fat as lazy, shameful, and weak.
posted by prefpara at 8:32 AM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here's a picture of the strongest woman in America. Most people look at her and see an overweight woman who should probably work out and go on a diet. Because our culture has programmed us to see thin as healthy and strong and fat as lazy, shameful, and weak.

That might be true of "most people," but don't people hiring for physical jobs have a fairly good grasp of the minimum physical requirements. Construction sites aren't selecting the thinnest people they can find, for instance, even if there is some societal myth about what constitutes "healthy." Plenty of fat guys are strong, and the people doing construction hiring know that.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:42 AM on August 28, 2012


don't people hiring for physical jobs have a fairly good grasp of the minimum physical requirements

If hiring were rational, we wouldn't be breaking our brains trying to figure out how to deal with pervasive racism and sexism. Irratonal bias and prejudice defies even rational economic self-interest.
posted by prefpara at 8:46 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there's also a class element here (in my office it's the non-professionals who tend to favor McDonald's for lunch and the professionals who tend to bring salads), but I think who can and wants to eat a ton of calories during the day plays a big role.

Huge class element. Have you seen the cost of a healthy lunch these days? Tasty, healthy and convenient food is expensive. Not that McDonald's is cheap - but a Mars bar is (says the person who ate Mars bars for dinner through university when doing evening classes - $1 dinner couldn't be beat for cost, but really not a good idea. On special days, I had poutine for $3. A healthy dinner/lunch cost at least $7 at my uni).

Not to mention the cost of access to exercise (either space in your home or in a gym), and the time to exercise (I only have anecdata on that, but generally the working class people I know commute 2-3 times longer than the professional/upper class people).
posted by jb at 8:57 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


If hiring were rational, we wouldn't be breaking our brains trying to figure out how to deal with pervasive racism and sexism. Irratonal bias and prejudice defies even rational economic self-interest.

I don't deny that people hire irrationally, but you haven't shown any evidence that people aren't hiring physically capable overweight people for physically demanding jobs. The numbers regarding obesity by job sector show that they probably are. Construction is more obese than office jobs, and manufacturing and transportation (both of which contain a physical component) are highest of all. I'd wager that I would have an easier time getting a job in construction at my 200 pounds than my roommate would at 140, even if society at large is going to call him healthier. That woman that you linked to might have trouble getting a construction job, but it would be because of her sex, not because anyone on a job site thinks she's too fat to do the job.

Honestly, I'm guessing the worst discrimination against overweight people in hiring is going to be for jobs that require little to no physical skills (like professional jobs) based on the perception that they're lazy, etc.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:59 AM on August 28, 2012


Irratonal bias and prejudice defies even rational economic self-interest.

Entirely different can of worms here, but bias and prejudice do not necessarily work for or against economic self-interest. Arbitrarily refusing to hire people with, say, surnames starting with the letter K probably will not affect your business one way or the other - you might pass on an exceptional employee, but for a large enough organization it most likely won't matter. It's bad for lots of other reasons though, that's why you need other measures to stop people from doing it.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:00 AM on August 28, 2012


you haven't shown any evidence that people aren't hiring physically capable overweight people for physically demanding jobs

I was responding to:

if you are overweight, you are probably inefficient for work that requires a lot of physical labor or endurance, so it makes sense to move away from this type of work

Please consider this "evidence" that people hold the view that overweight = weak.
posted by prefpara at 9:01 AM on August 28, 2012


Anyways, this research is interesting because it really ISN'T a case of calories in and calories out.

Yes, calories matter, but 100 calories of whole wheat bread != 100 calories of white bread. 100 calories of nuts =! 100 calories of chocolate.

The type of food matters AS WELL as the calories. And I can tell you, working class diets are filled with some of the most easily digested foods because they are not only cheap, but also tasty and convenient (meat, especially processed, white bread, white pasta, rice, convenience foods) -- and frankly, working class people are less obsessed with being thin than upper-class people. It's just not on their radar -- they have more immediate things to worry about.
posted by jb at 9:04 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyways, this research is interesting because it really ISN'T a case of calories in and calories out.

Yes, calories matter, but 100 calories of whole wheat bread != 100 calories of white bread. 100 calories of nuts =! 100 calories of chocolate.


How is it not still a case of calories in versus calories out? The difference between whole wheat and white bread seems to be the calories used in digestion, which is a type of calories out. The point more seems to that the numbers are complicated, not that it isn't ultimately a numbers game.

Please consider this "evidence" that people hold the view that overweight = weak.
I was taking it as a given that Dr Dractor isn't a construction foreman. Many people (most of whom are also not construction foremen) believe that overweight = weak, my point was that I don't think these people are doing the hiring for labor intensive jobs. The people doing that hiring are, I think, generally capable of distinguishing between overweight people who are weak and overweight people who aren't. The higher rates of obesity in physically demanding fields suggests that I'm right on that point.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:12 AM on August 28, 2012


This is great. I have always considered my self undecided on the issue of whether a "calorie is a calorie" or not, mostly because it seemed inconceivable to me that it would be so, precisely for the reasons stated in this article.

One thing I love about being a biologist is that biology is almost fractally complex... the closer you look the more detail you find. It's pretty amazing to be living and doing and creating using bodies that we are just barely starting to comprehend.
posted by Cygnet at 9:21 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


if you are overweight, you are probably inefficient for work that requires a lot of physical labor or endurance...

Sarah Robles invalidates that statement as much as Spud Webb invalidates the statement:
if you are a basketball player in the NBA, you are probably too tall for work that requires a lot of time in cramped spaces...
posted by bashos_frog at 9:27 AM on August 28, 2012


How is it not still a case of calories in versus calories out?

It still is, but most people equate 'calories out' with exercise, and not 'exercise + poop'

Counting the calories you excrete is both difficult and unpleasant.
posted by bashos_frog at 9:30 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yes, calories matter, but 100 calories of whole wheat bread != 100 calories of white bread. 100 calories of nuts =! 100 calories of chocolate.

It's actually less interesting than you think if you do the math.

It'll be used an explanation for people who are way overweight even though the differences in actual energy from 100 calories of each food type will be off by very small amounts.

It's like telling someone they can drive a 1970s chevy impala as long they hypermill.
posted by srboisvert at 10:37 AM on August 28, 2012


It's like telling someone they can drive a 1970s chevy impala as long they hypermill.
posted by srboisvert at 1:37 PM on August 28 [+] [!]


No, it's like telling someone that if they are going to eat 2,500 calories a day, they are better off eating those 2,500 pre-ingestion calories from healthier, less processed foods. And that when looking at snacks (because everyone gets hungry), some almonds would be better than some potato chips.

This isn't going to help someone who is 100lbs overweight magically lose all of that weight (nothing will, easily - it's a hard, hard slog). But it will help the vast majority of us who are 10-30lbs overweight to maybe lose a little and certainly eat better so that we don't gain more -- and will help our kids be healthier too. I would NEVER put a child on a diet, but I certainly would serve a kid a cheese sandwich with collard greens and tomatoes on whole wheat preferentially to white bread and cheese spread.
posted by jb at 11:05 AM on August 28, 2012


Sarah Robles invalidates that statement as much as Spud Webb invalidates the statement:

No, neither invalidates anything. Webb is an outlier and Robles partake in an event that lasts less than 30 seconds. Beside, there is no written rule that strong=healthy. BUT this whole line of argument is a waste of time because neither of these people are YOU. Set your goals and figure out how YOU can achieve your goals. The point at which you have the same skills, abilities, metabolism, age, along with everything else almost equal, and your goals align with being the strongest woman in America or one of the shortest NBA players around THEN you can start pulling out their pictures and using them as an argument.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 11:16 AM on August 28, 2012


Robles partake in an event that lasts less than 30 seconds.

The length of the event does not in any way correlate to the amount of training that goes into preparing for it. Would you be similarly dismissive of McKayla Maroney? Her event lasts less than 30 seconds also. Oh wait, she's skinny.

Dismissing the fitness of any athlete who qualifies for the Olympics based on how long their event lasts reeks of red herring.
posted by ambrosia at 12:27 PM on August 28, 2012


Who's dismissive? Why are we even talking about Olympic athletes? Is anybody here planning on taking up their training or diet? Do you know what either of those consist of? FFS, this whole line of reasoning is a red herring.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 12:54 PM on August 28, 2012


By the way, the length of an event to which someone is specifically training for kind of does correlate to the amount of endurance they most likely have. So I'm not sure how you crossed the streams and jumped over to amount of training plus "oh wait, she's skinny".
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 1:00 PM on August 28, 2012


The length of the event does not in any way correlate to the amount of training that goes into preparing for it. Would you be similarly dismissive of McKayla Maroney? Her event lasts less than 30 seconds also. Oh wait, she's skinny.

This started as part of a conversation about overweight people being hired to do non-sedentary work, so I'm not quite sure I get your point. I think we can safely assume that Robles is 1000x more likely to be hired to do (typical non-Olympic) non-sedentary work than Maroney. Typical non-sedentary works looks a lot more like weight-lifting than vaulting. Maroney has an edge when it comes to getting sponsor and endorsements, but I don't see her working construction anytime soon.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:18 PM on August 28, 2012


Totally fair point, Bulgaroktonos.
posted by ambrosia at 1:29 PM on August 28, 2012


This started as part of a conversation about overweight people being hired to do non-sedentary work,

FWIW, the original point was about overweight people being less likely to end up doing non-sedentary work, in the context of profession/physical fitness statistics - correlation and causation in particular.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:42 PM on August 28, 2012


Read the article, did not read the discussion. Yes to the article, very much yes.

The problem that we have when we think of the human body as mechanistic and deterministic is thousandsfold in that we simply still do not understand the human body in detail as a mechanism even if that will ever be possible (with the tiniest instruments and the most powerful computers).

Pretending that we do or can or will is, I think, dangerous and likely to put those of us who believe in the totality of science as the only faith we will ever need to understand the world, including ourselves, in a very bad situation - of thinking that we know more about how the world works than in fact we actually do understand.
posted by kalessin at 2:49 PM on August 28, 2012


Typical non-sedentary works looks a lot more like weight-lifting than vaulting

There's a bit of an overlap but typically it is not. Really it depends on the work and anything that has to do with constantly picking things up looks nothing like an average strength training routine.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 3:15 PM on August 28, 2012


Fat and strong are in no way contradictory. In fact, recent articles about Olympic lifters and steroided strongman competitors both emphasized the role of using your own mass as counterweight to allow huge lifts. Every construction site I have worked on or visited has had plenty of guys with big guts working right alongside the wiry skinny guys. Every crew I've worked on always has at least one big guy with big slabby muscles covered by some fat, because there's always a moment where you need 300 pounds of raw strength and a skinny guy like me just isn't going to cut it. You see the same thing on fishing boats and other settings where people have to be able to exert huge amounts of lifting and pulling, sometimes over long periods -- big guys pay their way.

Fat and endurance work, though, maybe aren't such a good fit. I'm thinking tree planting or other jobs where you are hiking up and down steep slopes all day -- that's when it's a huge advantage to be about 5'8" and built more like a marathon runner.
posted by Forktine at 4:54 PM on August 28, 2012


Calories in has never meant calories in your mouth; calories out has never meant calories out in the gym. Undigested food isn't a part of calories in, and digestion is a part of calories out.

In fact, if calories in didn't equal calories out, the findings discussed in this article would be impossible to ascertain.

There is no reason to suspect that when food is not fully digestible that it leads to weight loss. If 10% of the calories are indigestible, people just eat 10% more of it. There is no reason to suspect that food that is more difficult (calorically) to digest, that it leads to weight loss. If it costs you 100 calories to digest, you'll just want to eat 100 more calories than you would otherwise.

Otherwise, weight loss would not be the problem that it is. We'd just eat celery whenever we wanted to lose weight.

The only thing that this article suggests is that the caloric values on those food labels are noisy. Hey, that's true. If anybody wants to know with more accuracy how many calories they are consuming, I heartily recommend that they keep track of their water intake and output, their weight, the weight of food they eat and void, and the carbon dioxide that they exhale.
posted by nathan v at 6:06 PM on August 28, 2012


Pop-Pop E. (a friend of the family rather than a direct relation, who moved to New England from the Azores in the '50s) to my Dad as we had to move him out of his house at 85:

"Good boy! Strong boy!"

This is just after I picked up his antique and imported cast-iron stove and put it in his nephew's van after both the ramp and hand-truck broke at the same time.

Now my Dad trots out that line in what he thinks is an Azores accent whenever I have to hoist aloft something heavy for another family member. I'm constantly asked if I play for the local pro-football team when it's observed I can go up an incline without breathing heavily.

If you ever look up "bouncer fight" on You Tube for all the wrong reasons, you'll notice a particular body-type routinely getting the best of it.

I would much rather live to see my little girl graduate college as a skinny weakling, than leave her only a memory of how strong I was when I was alive, thanks.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:36 PM on August 28, 2012


Metafilter: nuanced, frequently inexplicable, but still fundamentally a machine that adheres to physical principles like thermal dynamics.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:46 PM on August 28, 2012


It seems absolutely impossible on its face that a person can gain weight (or, over the very long term, survive) eating fewer units of chemical energy than they expend. I don't think anyone can seriously doubt that without invoking a lot of woo and pseudoscience.

However, there are an awful lot of approximations and shaky models that become involved when you move from the traditional domain of thermodynamics and into human nutrition, and that seems to be where all the problems crop up.

I've been counting calories for years (with much success), but I'm still not entirely certain of how the calorie values on the side of a food package relate or are derived from the actual bomb calorimeter value you'd get if you took a gram of that food and completely oxidized it. The bomb calorimeter values would be nice to know if you're a dieter, because they're the absolute worst-case scenario, and represent an absolutely perfect GI tract that extracts all available energy from whatever hydrocarbons you shove down your pie hole. (Of course, we know that's a terrible model, because you can't digest grass soaked in kerosene, delicious as it might be.) Instead, the value that gets printed on the side of the Twinkies box already takes into account somebody's assumptions for a "typical" human gut, rather than a 100% efficient one, and that's where the worse-than-worst-case possibilities sneak in: if you're cursed with guts that are better at extracting energy from food than whatever the model suggests, then it's possible that a "100 calorie" portion could actually have 120 calories available to you. And that's ignoring the 10% margin of error on the packaging's value to begin with, which is probably not in your favor.

But, hypothetically, if you could knew what the calorimeter-based calorie content for a food item was, you'd have something that really would work, every single time, in a brutally simple physics based diet plan. It would just be a really grueling diet, because it would almost certainly underestimate the number of calories you can eat in a day. (But hey, at least it would never overestimate!) Unfortunately it's very difficult to get that number for most foods, to the point where it's easier to work out empirically how you deviate from the underlying model used to create the numbers on the package, than try and create your own.

Where the proponents of physics-based diet fail — and you see this over and over on forums and in everyday life — is they typically proceed from a very firm theoretical grounding (namely, conservation of energy and the laws of thermodynamics) but then apply this to food, without really considering that the value they're using for "food energy" (i.e. label calories) isn't what they think it is: it's not what you'd get from burning that food in a calorimeter.

That fundamental misunderstanding of what the "calorie" count on the back of the Twinkies box represents is at the heart of much of the disagreement between pro-calorie-counting and anti-counting partisans.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:52 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Counting the calories you excrete is both difficult and unpleasant.

The voice of experience?
posted by pracowity at 11:54 PM on August 28, 2012


Kadin2048, great explanation, thanks. It's not that calories in = out is wrong, it's that the calories on one side of the equation aren't the same as the calories on the other side.
posted by odinsdream at 8:07 AM on August 29, 2012


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