Why the Calorie Is Broken
January 27, 2016 11:48 AM   Subscribe

 
I found the parts about gut bacteria particularly interesting.

In 2013, researchers in Jeffrey Gordon’s lab at Washington University tracked down pairs of twins of whom one was obese and one lean. He took gut microbes from each, and inserted them into the intestines of microbe-free mice. Mice that got microbes from an obese twin gained weight; the others remained lean, despite eating the exact same diet.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:49 AM on January 27, 2016 [20 favorites]


Perhaps the link should point to this article's original home on Mosaic, instead of the for-profit Gawker Media?
posted by crazy with stars at 11:58 AM on January 27, 2016 [18 favorites]


Wrangham’s findings have significant consequences for dieters. If Nash likes his porterhouse steak bloody, for example, he will likely be consuming several hundred calories less than if he has it well-done.

YES.
posted by Huck500 at 12:01 PM on January 27, 2016 [18 favorites]


Of course, the comments are from folks chiming about what diets they have used to success and how theirs is the One True Way. Sigh.

In re: to TFA, this is very interesting if a little disheartening. If you are someone who does count calories (I am one of them sometimes), it's little wonder that the FDA considers most food to be all of a piece instead of actually thinking or looking at the science behind how food's caloric intake can change in various forms.
posted by Kitteh at 12:03 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


The unit, he says, has a “nebulous quality to it”.

No, the unit is quite precise -- energy required to heat 1 cc of water yadda yadda yadda.

The problem is how you interpret it and use it for guidance.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:08 PM on January 27, 2016 [21 favorites]


I actually just listened to the same story on the Gastropod podcast this morning! Although the article is unfortunately missing the minor note about how great pythons are for doing calorie research since all they do is sit and digest.

I also thought the micro-biome piece was really interesting, especially how risperidone is a drug that is well known for causing weight gain and now they know that it kills certain bacteria in the gut.
posted by carolr at 12:14 PM on January 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


Very interesting. So what I need is for a skinny person to poop into my butt. *checks MeFiIRL*
posted by cmoj at 12:16 PM on January 27, 2016 [34 favorites]


[Swapped the link, carry on.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:17 PM on January 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


Research on the human microbiome is one of the most exciting areas of modern biological science. It seems to indicate that individual responses to food stuffs are just that, individual.

Perhaps in time we can categorise people by gut bacteria type as we have long done with blood type. Until then the calorie is an objective measurement, it may not be as broadly useful as people had previously thought but it, or something like it, is likely to be the best we have for a long time to come.
posted by epo at 12:18 PM on January 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


Indeed. The calorie works, but only in a rough way in order to track what amount of consumption will cause weight loss or gain. The calorie measurement based on what you think you're eating is only an indirect measurement of what you're actually trying to track: how much energy you're getting. The real measurement of how much energy you're getting is whether you gain, lose, or maintain your weight. I have seen so many people try to lose weight, becoming completely stymied because they've been told that if they go under a certain number of calories they'll go into "starvation mode."

Overall, as a culture, we're oddly terrified of accidentally eating too little.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:28 PM on January 27, 2016 [12 favorites]


I have this vague worry that as the world modernizes/industrializes, we're going to lose our reservoirs of whatever it is (gut bacteria? specific ingredient/cooking culture? some other environmental factor?) that keeps people from being obese.

It'll be like the obesity epidemic in the Pacific, only everywhere, and no one will be left who is "immune".
posted by danny the boy at 12:28 PM on January 27, 2016


The next time that anyone anywhere on the internet says that losing weight is "so simple! You just take in fewer calories than you use!!!!!!!" I am going to quote this part. Over and over.

"There’s also the problem that no two people are identical. Differences in height, body fat, liver size, levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and other factors influence the energy required to maintain the body’s basic functions. Between two people of the same sex, weight and age, this number may differ by up to 600 calories a day–over a quarter of the recommended intake for a moderately active woman."
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:29 PM on January 27, 2016 [27 favorites]


Yeah, the FDA can't exactly - yet - replace calories with a bunch of exciting but preliminary research results.
posted by clawsoon at 12:30 PM on January 27, 2016


Well, taking in fewer calories than you use is actually how it works--it's just insanely hard to measure those two things unless you live in a science box

which, I really want to live in a science box
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:31 PM on January 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


Very interesting. So what I need is for a skinny person to poop into my butt. *checks MeFiIRL*

Get the skinny person to poop into a capsule.

Side note: Good lord I just googled "DIY fecal transplant capsule" and there's millions of hits.

"My God. It's full of shit."

"Roll sample like playdough"

roll

sample

like

playdough

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:32 PM on January 27, 2016 [28 favorites]


I have a feeling the fecal puns are only going to get shittier as this thread goes on.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 12:33 PM on January 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


Well, taking in fewer calories than you use is actually how it works--it's just insanely hard to measure those two things unless you live in a science box

Yeah, the part I'm ready to rage against is the "it's SIMPLE!!!!!!" claim, not the core concept of arithmetic.

It's like saying "living on the moon is so SIMPLE-- you just need to create a viable atmosphere!"
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:35 PM on January 27, 2016 [20 favorites]


Well, taking in absorbing fewer calories than you use is actually how it works.

It's not what goes in your mouth, it's what goes into your bloodstream.

This is a key difference that people miss. (apologies, ifds,sn9, if that's what you meant).
posted by achrise at 12:40 PM on January 27, 2016 [16 favorites]


If feckless fecal fear mongering doesn't show up, I'll be sorely disappointed.
posted by clawsoon at 1:00 PM on January 27, 2016 [23 favorites]


Yeah, other than the chemical research, there's not a lot here that will surprise anyone who's a) tried to lose weight for more than a year, or b) been paying attention to the research. Still, this stuff should get said Over and Over until the "just count calories" crowd shuts up.

The things that helped me the most lastingly over the years are a) satiety, b) exercise (mostly for improving mental health and self-care, it's not like it makes me want to eat less), and c) mindfulness (with a little side of watching carbs, because I'll eat the whole box of pasta if no one is looking).

Because counting calories, while it's often worked short term? Usually led to unhealthy restrictions that meant, eventually, binging. Eating healthy things that make us feel full, and stopping when full? Simpler than calorie math, happier, and more helpful, long term.
posted by ldthomps at 1:01 PM on January 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


Research on the human microbiome is one of the most exciting areas of modern biological science

Yes! One of my very favorite science stories these last few years was on Radiolab, about the centuries of records in a Swedish town: it revealed how a man's genetics changed according to the poverty/famine levels he experienced as a child and how that in turn affected their grandchildren's lifespans - and if they died of diabetes. (Simplistically paraphrased - if your grandfather experienced famine as an adolescent, then you should live longer and be less likely to die of diabetes. It's more complicated than that, though - your grandmother's experiences affect you too.)

When I read studies like this which mention the upswing in obesity in the '80s, I flash to that study and a generation's set of grandparents, many of whom experienced nutritional imbalances as a result of the Great Depression. Which, still simplistically speaking, is the opposite of what would be expected from that study. The results themselves are not my point; it's actually what epigenetics, the study of how our genes are affected by our experiences living, a sort of chemical marker that changes gene activity, can show us. The cool part is also the tiny window into how much work there is to be done with combining epigenetics and human microbiomes, because it's a natural leap to say, hey, maybe we introduced something(s) into the microbiome in the '80s to reverse the effect (among a thousand other ideas why). It's so exciting I can hardly stand it; I'm deeply envious of those researchers who stand on the precipice right now in either field.

(Of course, that's not much help to the frustrated and despairing out there *now*. To some it may be a small consolation that it's much more complicated; to others it's probably a source of despair at our current state of understanding.)
posted by barchan at 1:02 PM on January 27, 2016 [10 favorites]


Honestly, it seems like the real takeaway is that nutritionists should stop recommending going under by 200 calories as a reasonable goal, but instead work with people to find something that works for them.

The other problem is that not only is counting calories via label problematic, many people that count calories just eyeball serving sizes and stuff. Weighing things is the only way to even get close to the only-roughly-accurate official calorie counts. At the end of the day nobody's going to live in a caliromter full time, people just have to guess as best they can.
posted by Diablevert at 1:03 PM on January 27, 2016


Along with the epigenetics of our grandparents' deprivations affecting us (there was a great Dutch study, too), a lot of the chemical toxins of the 20th century (PCBs, dioxins, PBDEs) show signs of epigenetic (and possibly obesigenic) effects, too. There are no direct lines yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if our current obesity crisis turns out to be a combination of chemical exposures, genetics, epigenetics, sedentary lifestyles, and access to easy calories.

Which means that magic pill I've always hoped for probably isn't coming any time soon. All we can do is try to eat somewhat healthily (whatever that means for our bodies) in the meantime.
posted by ldthomps at 1:07 PM on January 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


None of these alternatives is ready to replace the calorie tomorrow. Yet the need for a new system of food accounting is clear. Just ask Haelle. “I’m kind of pissed at the scientific community for not coming up with something better for us,” she confesses, recalling a recent meltdown at TGI Friday’s as she navigated a confusing datasheet to find a low-calorie dish she could eat.

I agree that counting calories can be a fool's errand, given all the variances that come from the food we're eating, and our bodies' reaction to it. However, I think there is also something to be said for personal responsibility, starting with choosing what kind of food you eat, and where you get it from.
posted by slogger at 1:07 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


barchan, AFAICT the study pointed in the other direction, that going through a famine was correlated with obesity in grandchildren , so this could be linked in part to the Great Depression.
posted by Hactar at 1:10 PM on January 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


does this "invalidate" calories, or does it mean something more subtle - that the "correct" number of calories varies from person to person?

if the latter then reducing your daily instake by 200 calories a day (if that's what is referred to above) still makes sense. it's just relative to "whatever the amount is that you are stable at".
posted by andrewcooke at 1:13 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hactar, the Dutch study is a different study than the Swedish one, which is why I mentioned the grandmother affect. :)
posted by barchan at 1:13 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


Does the Depression count as a famine, in the US? Anecdotally there's a lot of talk of bread lines and soup lines, dunno that mass starvation was a thing. I mean, I'm sure some people went hungry in the Depression, not sure that you'd see the same effects as something like the Potato Famine or Biafra.
posted by Diablevert at 1:14 PM on January 27, 2016


Having been on various diets since my teens, I have always been perfectly aware of the calories in/calories out formula. However, this article really helps me understand what I've felt over the years, which is that there must be many other factors. I'm not saying this gives me an excuse for not losing weight, but for the first time in a long time, it makes me feel less guilty, less at fault about why nothing has worked completely for me.

I have lost literally hundreds of pounds. I've gone on medically supervised liquid fasts for 6 months on three different occasions (I dare any self-satisfied "just don't eat as much as you do" person to go on one of these fasts for a week, let alone 6 months--my "problem" is not a lack of willpower). I've lost a hundred pounds each time but always gained it back and then some because it is not a sustainable or realistic weight loss strategy. I've done Adkins, Weight Watchers, South Beach, Cabbage Soup, etc., etc. and lost 10s of pounds over and over and over.

Now in my 50's with a diagnosis of diabetes, I have cut all sugar (I mean, no alcohol, no food with added sugar, no sugar substitutes, little or no fruit, and very little carbs that my body is evidently super good at converting into sugar). I basically eat protein, vegetables, nuts and dairy (in small amounts). I've done this for two years (again, willpower, is not my problem). By eating this way, I've kept my blood sugar in check and lowered my A1C back down to a normal range. But I am still obese. My neuropathy is getting worse. I lost 40 pounds and then stopped. I know that part of this is that I'm not exercising as much as I should (because of a variety of other issues). But I now believe (and was coming to this conclusion before the article) that my body processes food very differently than all the tall, thin people in my family. Maybe at some point, I will learn why. Maybe if people (doctors) stop blaming overweight folks as if we all have some kind of moral failing that makes us fat, and start taking a more holistic approach, we'll actually find a solution that works.
posted by agatha_magatha at 1:15 PM on January 27, 2016 [38 favorites]


However, I think there is also something to be said for personal responsibility, starting with choosing what kind of food you eat, and where you get it from.

Are you suggesting that eating at mainstream chain restaurants is the sign of someone failing to take personal responsibility? Because, hi, my change-averse autistic brother doesn’t like to eat anywhere else except TGI Friday's, so sometimes my family eats there. Does that mean I shouldn’t be able to order edible food when I’m there? Does that mean I am "failing to take personal responsibility"? Does that mean that people who live in towns where that is the only restaurant available should be taking personal responsibility by never attending birthday parties, or go on dates, or have lunch with their friends in a public setting? The person who tried to eat there in the article is trying VERY VERY hard to take personal responsibility.

I mean, at some point, maybe there also has to be some corporate responsibility to allow people to find food they can eat, no matter where they are eating. Maybe ESPECIALLY when they are eating at mega-franchises that should, in theory, be able to provide options for every diner.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 1:15 PM on January 27, 2016 [21 favorites]


My takeaway was that 200 calories was probably too narrow a margin --- you might easily be a couple hundred over or under even if counting dilligently, so probably best to start with a larger deficit goal and tweak based on actual results, keeping in mind trying to find foods that induce saity for you personally and are nutrient dense.
posted by Diablevert at 1:17 PM on January 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


However, I think there is also something to be said for personal responsibility

Sure, there is something to be said for taking responsibility for your diet, but it's been said a billion times to every person who's a tiny bit overweight by doctors and friends and magazines and Reddit. It's not worth saying anymore.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:23 PM on January 27, 2016 [52 favorites]


Sure, there is something to be said for taking responsibility for your diet, but it's been said a billion times to every person who's a tiny bit overweight by doctors and friends and magazines and Reddit. It's not worth saying anymore.

That's about as perfectly and succinctly put as I've ever read it.

People who are fat know they are fat. People who are fat know that thin people think they are stupid because they are fat and fat because they are stupid. We know. I promise we know. Try challenging yourself to just keeping that information to yourself, since it's already widely distributed. Just try. You're not helping anyone. You're just being smug.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:31 PM on January 27, 2016 [65 favorites]


if the latter then reducing your daily instake by 200 calories a day (if that's what is referred to above) still makes sense. it's just relative to "whatever the amount is that you are stable at".

Leaving aside that 200 calories is a razor thin margin, really, that is quite easy to mess up regularly... I think that's right.

Telling people "eat 1800 calories and you'll lose weight!" is mostly useless. But you can still figure out, if you are careful and systemic, what level of calories maintains your weight and then eat less than that and you'll lose weight. It's just that it's very easy to mess up if you eyeball even one thing per day.
posted by Justinian at 1:39 PM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Just wait until people start telling you that you're fat because you haven't tried fecal transplant therapy. That will be an awkward conversation.
posted by clawsoon at 1:41 PM on January 27, 2016 [12 favorites]


When something is an epidemic, prevalent on a scale far beyond anything seen before, "personal responsibility" is revealed as more a shibboleth than a solution.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:43 PM on January 27, 2016 [17 favorites]


As a person who has fought obesity, and lost, my entire life, this article solidifies things I've often wondered about.

I for one, welcome our new gut-microbe overlords.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:03 PM on January 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


But you can still figure out, if you are careful and systemic, what level of calories maintains your weight and then eat less than that and you'll lose weight. It's just that it's very easy to mess up if you eyeball even one thing per day.

I certainly agree that if you eating fewer calories than you expend will lead to weight loss. However, part of what I find interesting is that even weighing / measuring every single item you consume isn't going to to give you an accurate picture of how many calories your body is taking in. An apple grown in New York might have a different number of calories/gram than an apple grown in Ohio. One of the apples might have more fiber than the other one, which might result in fewer calories being absorbed. I might be able to absorb 90% of the energy/calories contained in walnuts, but only 80% of the calories in almonds, while you might be able to absorb only 75% of the calories in walnuts but 90% of the calories in almonds.

And, even if calorie intake was measured precisely, that's still not the whole picture. The article mentions a study where rats were fed identical diets - half were fed from 9am - 5pm, half were fed over a 24 hour period. The daytime eaters gained significantly less weight than the 24-hour eaters. It's not clear to me whether the day eaters expended more energy than the 24 hour eaters, or whether the absorption of energy varied between the groups.

This article didn't specifically address it, but energy output seems to self-adjust based on intake as well - which is the idea behind "starvation mode". When I was underweight, I was freezing most of the time, and I noticed that I had (involuntarily!) stopped fidgeting. That was my body slowing my metabolism to conserve energy. When I was in the process of gaining weight, I was hot ALL THE TIME - which I suspect might have had something to do with my body not being able to process all the calories I was eating into fat and muscle, so burning them off as heat/energy. I wouldn't be surprised if bodies generally become more efficient at extracting calories from food when fewer calories are eaten, and less efficient when more calories are eaten.
posted by insectosaurus at 2:19 PM on January 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


It's not what goes in your mouth, it's what goes into your bloodstream.

This is a key difference that people miss. (apologies, ifds,sn9, if that's what you meant).

Indeed, it is what I meant, but it's good to clarify! We are not bomb calorimeters, as much as some of us might like to be. :)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:21 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


This article didn't specifically address it, but energy output seems to self-adjust based on intake as well - which is the idea behind "starvation mode".

Indeed--unfortunately, I've found that the answer to this is to drive caloric intake still lower, so that my body has no choice. So, while I've had much success with dieting for weight loss, it's essentially been a full-time+ activity.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:22 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


A calorie is a measure of the *potential* energy of food. The human body is not a one hundred percent efficient energy conversion machine, so the calories you eat either go toward immediate energy needs, get stored as fat, or pass through unprocessed.

This doctor says the amount that gets stored as fat has a lot to do with your insulin levels, and that those levels can be affected more by when we eat than by how much. I'd like to see more research to back it up, but it's an interesting theory.
posted by rocket88 at 2:24 PM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm on a fitness program that simply specifies daily calories and protein, so I've been writing tallies for a few days now. But articles like this point out the tremendous scientific and technological barriers to creating and planning a proper, personalized diet. So it seems like for most people, the rule of thumb "All things in moderation" reigns; though, not because it is wise, but because the entire problem is so opaque.
posted by polymodus at 2:32 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hey, sorry, I know I'm a little late to this discussion but if you need a skinny person to poop into a capsule, I'm here for you.
posted by komara at 2:43 PM on January 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


Hopefully no-one is telling you that you have to be skinny for Jesus. (Yes, that's a real book, part of the real Jesus-is-my-boyfriend movement.)

(Or, worse, eating poop capsules for Jesus. I don't think that's a movement yet. So consider it my free cultstarter idea.)
posted by clawsoon at 3:09 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


Hey, sorry, I know I'm a little late to this discussion but if you need a skinny person to poop into a capsule, I'm here for you.

That's pretty good aim!
posted by leotrotsky at 3:55 PM on January 27, 2016 [11 favorites]


I've had the article open all day but haven't had a chance to read it, but I have to know, does it answer that most burning question: How many calories are in poop?
posted by mittens at 3:57 PM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Are there less calories in bloody poop?
posted by oceanjesse at 4:17 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


These fecal puns are just going down the drain.
posted by annieb at 4:36 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Okay, but say you eat one of these poop capsules.

What if you burp?
posted by E. Whitehall at 5:08 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


It was mentioned in the Slate Money Podcast that daily adult caloric intake has increased by 550 calories per day between 1970 and 2010.
posted by BobtheThief at 5:23 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


550 calories a day is roughly a pound a week...so we should all be expanding at a rate of more than 50 pounds per year?
posted by mittens at 5:32 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


A lot has been published about the differences in nutritional uptakes of (cis-) women and men through their lifetimes, and also how they differently distribute body fat, which is also determined by genetics. However, I was unable to find literature about what happens in nutrition, energy expenditure and body fat distribution for non-athletes taking cross-sex hormones. Some of us on HRT are trans identified, but not all. Anecdotes say AFAB folks on testosterone might experience *exernal* body fat redistribution.

Well, was I surprised when I started accumulating internal abdominal fat. A LOT of it, while still retaining external fat - I'm talking about you, orchestra and balcony, plus an amazing double chin as external fat distribution migrated upwards a bit. At the same weight, exercise, and food intake, I grew 6" around the waist, and I felt like the only person getting bigger breasts on testosterone! And stopping testosterone didn't let me shed the pounds, although the internal fat began to shrink.

So, for n=1, even the same person can have very different outcomes with the only change being one hormone, and that one not even at high levels. I think my poop stayed the same, though.
posted by Dreidl at 5:51 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've had the article open all day but haven't had a chance to read it, but I have to know, does it answer that most burning question: How many calories are in poop?

More than you might like to think, hence dogs' interest in fecal consumption.

I like that conversations about diet are starting to get more complicated and interesting, rather than just simplistic calories in/out. The article summarized a lot of what I already knew, along with what was for me new details.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:55 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


550 calories a day is roughly a pound a week...so we should all be expanding at a rate of more than 50 pounds per year?

No, because your weight affects how many calories you burn metabolically. As your weight increases the number of calories you burn also increases, assuming all else is equal (which it usually isn't). This is (one reason) why a 250 pound person and a 100 pound person must eat different amounts of food to maintain weight.
posted by Justinian at 6:45 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think maybe people who say eating less is simple have never eaten too much at tea and found they couldn't eat dinner. You could try, but you'd feel terrible, give up midway through the meal and maybe even throw up, and you certainly couldn't keep it up the next day or the day after.
posted by xdvesper at 7:15 PM on January 27, 2016



The only effective way to manage weight I've found is to go straight to the bottom line. Weigh yourself every day. If you find yourself gaining weight, you'll soon learn why.
posted by storybored at 8:02 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's also the case that 3500cals/lb is true of fat, but not other tissues, and not all excess calories go to fat gain. It doesn't work the other way, either, even carefully controlled metabolic ward studies do not demonstrate linear gain/loss
posted by mrbigmuscles at 8:10 PM on January 27, 2016


I dunno, I think from a public health perspective, calorie is fine like bmi is fine. As a personal tool, however, it is of limited use. It is worth noting, from a public health perspective, though, there is a lot of evidence that sky rocketing calorific intake, along with increased sugar, salt and fats in diets with a concomitant decrease in fibre etc is behind increased obesity at a national levels. spam, and lots of it, drives the pacific Islander obesity crisis, not gut biota. The conflation of this kind of stuff between public health and personal levels is bad, I think. Getting people to stop eating shit wouldn't resolve the idea of obesity, but would probably have a huge impact on it as a public health issue.
posted by smoke at 8:48 PM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


The only effective way to manage weight I've found is to go straight to the bottom line. Weigh yourself every day. If you find yourself gaining weight, you'll soon learn why.

Weigh yourself every day. Use one of the many apps that computes a moving average and shows you how fast your weight is changing. If it's not changing fast enough, eat less. It helps to keep a food journal so you know how much "less" is.

Calorie counts are way too inaccurate to be useful, unless you're eating 100% processed food, which is horrible for you for other reasons.
posted by miyabo at 8:56 PM on January 27, 2016


I don't think that's true. It is true that calorie counts aren't very precise, but they should tend to be imprecise along something like a binomial distribution. So while you may be off 200 calories low one day you should be off 200 calories high another day.
posted by Justinian at 9:20 PM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


I was about 340 pounds when I quit smoking a little over a year ago. I've gained 25-30 pounds since then. So I'm heavier now than I've ever been in my life and have discovered that a lot of scales only measure up to 350 pounds.

I didn't think I could ever quit smoking after 25 years, but I did it and it wasn't that hard once I got myself into the right frame of mind. So now I'm ready to use the confidence I gained from that to attack the next-greatest threat to my health, my obesity.

The problem is how to do it. Diet and exercise are the most bullshit-ridden subjects in the world. I consider myself to be intelligent and scientifically literate, but it is impossible for me to separate fact from garbage. Everyone has an opinion and I've heard them all. Counting calories. Paleo diet. Gluten free. No carbs. All manner of ridiculous exercise routines. All of these have at least a whiff of bullshit to me. At best, none of them is a cure for everyone. I feel like we're living in the days when people used leeches to bleed away the foul humors when it comes to the science surrounding curing obesity.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:14 PM on January 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


Find a good dietician and do what they tell you.
posted by chrchr at 10:28 PM on January 27, 2016


this stuff should get said Over and Over until the "just count calories" crowd shuts up

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and that the "just count calories" crowd is never going to shut up.
posted by flabdablet at 10:30 PM on January 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm a member of the "just count calories" crowd and none of this is news to me! Calories aren't right at all, but as a way of measuring roughly how much food you're eating, they work well enough.
posted by chrchr at 10:38 PM on January 27, 2016


So what I need is for a skinny person to poop into my butt. *checks MeFiIRL*

[This post was deleted for the following reason: This was probably meant for ask. -- restless_organizer]
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:23 PM on January 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think everyone here is overthinking things; it really just comes down to pushups and cashews.
posted by Jpfed at 11:26 PM on January 27, 2016


Sounds like an learning algorithm could be programmed to monitor the user's daily weight (and caliper measurements), log the type and amount of everything eaten, and recommend diet perturbations towards a desired objective.

Where is my app, already?
posted by polymodus at 11:26 PM on January 27, 2016


> Yeah, other than the chemical research, there's not a lot here that will surprise anyone who's a) tried to lose weight for more than a year, or b) been paying attention to the research.

...or is over the age of 35 or so. I mean, this whole "calories in, exercise out" chirping is disproved by the average person who happens to live into middle age. I eat less and move more at 42 than I did at 25, but my weight has certainly trended up and I certainly store fat differently.

> People who are fat know they are fat. People who are fat know that thin people think they are stupid because they are fat and fat because they are stupid. We know. I promise we know.

I've been thin my entire life, and while I'm not happy about how my pants fit right now, I recognize that I read as thin by most people's standards. I've never thought that fat people are stupid or lazy or gluttons or any of those stereotypes, at all. None of us get to choose our genetics or how they tend to manifest; this was always utterly obvious to me.
posted by desuetude at 11:47 PM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Very interesting and useful article on the limits of calorie counting, it's good to have some solid information.

I think they're overdramatising a bit though. They say " Between two people of the same sex, weight and age, this number may differ by up to 600 calories a day" as if that's very shocking. Usually that would be put as "plus or minus 300". If the average woman burns 2,000 per day, that tells us one might burn 1,700 and another 2,300... not that shocking given that we all know metabolic rates differ.
"The discrepancies between the number on the label and the calories that are actually available in our food, combined with individual variations in how we metabolise that food, can add up to much more than the 200 calories a day that nutritionists often advise cutting in order to lose weight.
I've never heard of a weight loss diet advising 200 per day. NHS advice is 600 and used to be 500-1000. At 3,500 calories per pound, a calorie deficit of 200 would mean it took 17 days to lose just one pound.

The actual uncertainties in calories that they're talking about seem fairly small compared to the amounts you usually talk about with a calorie controlled diet. Moreover, on a calorie controlled diet you're supposed to monitor your progress anyway. If your metabolism is slow and you're burning 300 fewer calories than you thought, you can look at your progress and reduce your calorie intake if you need to lose faster.

To actually have a calorie controlled diet fail based on these uncertainties you'd have to be a pretty unusual dieter: aiming to lose less than 2 pounds per month, never weighing yourself, and not noticing that your weight loss diet isn't much different to your normal eating.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:09 AM on January 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


A dietitians take: all in all a solid article, I spotted here and there a few minor inaccuracies but yeah, it painted a nice picture of why calorie counting kind of sucks. Around here, most dietitians I know prefer to work with food recommendations and meal planning in stead of calories (except in a hospital setting).

For the record, I'm firmly of the opinion that there is no shame in being overweight or obese. At all. It is not a moral failure, personality flaw nor the result of one. It's a medical issue, and nobody else's business but the individual's in question, period. I am constantly appalled by the way people choose to talk about- or to - people with weight issues. It's like... flames, flames on the side of my face...

The nonstop monitoring, shaming and guilting, as well as the feelings of overwhelming shame and self criticism on the receiving end, really only compare to how religious sinners have been treated. In my book, fat shamers are the modern, secular version of religious bigots. More often than not, what's purported to be "helpful" is in reality propelled by feelings of superiority. And there is such hypocrisy to it. Why aren't people as vocally "disgusted" by, say, speeding drivers? Tax cheaters? Smokers? People who are detrimental to others' mental health through meanness and bullying? Or hell, even careless sneezers. In short, people whose choices actually harm or endanger those around them.

If that's too harsh for anyone who likes to dole out tough love to people with weight problems, then consider this: it's not helpful. Really. I've met so many people who are so completely overwhelmed by a sense of personal failure that it's actually kept them from looking for help. And it makes their progress fragile. And my work harder. So cut it out.

I also want to add that I've never met anyone overweight or obese who didn't have perfectly understandable reasons for being overweight or obese. I would say that even if most of them came to be that way because they ate a birthday cake every day - because there would be a reason why a person would need to try to nurture themselves that intensely - but of course, that's never the case. Most of the time I see weight problems arising from a combination of circumstances - external, internal and medical (and not knowing that overweight is bad for your health is never one of them).

I often see overweight as the result of an attempt to solve other problems, such as: trying to nourish yourself with minimal effort while poor, or depressed, or stressed, or in a constant hurry, or always on the road, or ill, or on medication, or not knowing what is good for you or unable to prepare it, or overworked, or lonely, or bored, or tired, or having a super low metabolism (often as a result of years of dumping muscle tissue during desperate crash diets), or being dependent on others, etc. These are not excuses, they are factual roadblocks that need to be taken seriously and dealt with, and sometimes with very limited resources. It is not easy. And when people tell you that, they deserve to be heard and believed.
posted by sively at 4:03 AM on January 28, 2016 [38 favorites]


chrchr: "Find a good dietician and do what they tell you."

I've seen three dieticians over the years. All three of them were rail thin and far more interested in making me feel terrible for being morbidly obese (hate that term) than they were in actually giving me useful advice. I was going to start a tirade about that, but then I read:

sively: "For the record, I'm firmly of the opinion that there is no shame in being overweight or obese. At all. It is not a moral failure, personality flaw nor the result of one. It's a medical issue, and nobody else's business but the individual's in question, period. I am constantly appalled by the way people choose to talk about- or to - people with weight issues. It's like... flames, flames on the side of my face..."

This was a wonderful comment. You're the kind of dietician I need to find.
posted by double block and bleed at 4:53 AM on January 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


Getting people to stop eating shit wouldn't resolve the idea of obesity, but would probably have a huge impact on it as a public health issue.

If anything, the article suggests that study of fecal transplants means that getting people to START eating shit might actually be a possible cure for obesity!

Ad campaign idea:

Try FECALAZOLE™. Eat shit...and LIVE!!!!!
posted by a fiendish thingy at 5:40 AM on January 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


Sively -- is there a way for people who would like to find a dietitian like you to do so? Or is it like therapy where you essentially have to try people on?

That was an excellent comment.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 5:55 AM on January 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Calorie counts are way too inaccurate to be useful

Not for me. With regular exercise and not counting calories I managed to lose about 10 kilos over 6 months. Add reducing calories (using a scale to help measure) to the mix and I lost 16 kilos in 2 months. The counting was useful and I knew the counting was never 100% accurate but is wasn't in any was not useful.
posted by juiceCake at 6:10 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


For me, calorie counting always works, but not 100%; there are differences based on the state of hydration, etc. The interesting thing is that I now have a watch which, among other things, tells me how many 'active' calories I burn a day just by doing stuff, and that number can vary a LOT. Like 280 calories for a particularly sedentary day and a thousand calories if I'm on my feet a lot. Which makes me wonder if that's partially responsible for my fluctuations.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:15 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


polymodus: Sounds like an learning algorithm could be programmed to monitor the user's daily weight (and caliper measurements), log the type and amount of everything eaten, and recommend diet perturbations towards a desired objective.

As a Type I diabetic, I have a simple set of parameters to track: Amount of carbohydrate in grams, amount of insulin, and amount of exercise. The output variable is blood sugar level, which I can get near-real-time feedback on.

You'd think this would be very simple for a learning algorithm to match. However: How do you quantify my exercise, the different between a day where I'm mostly sitting at my desk and a day where I'm mostly crawling under them? How do you tell the difference in carbohydrate amount between a big, sweet, juicy apple and a small, sour one?

People are trying, but we ain't there yet.
posted by clawsoon at 7:09 AM on January 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


How do you tell the difference in carbohydrate amount between a big, sweet, juicy apple and a small, sour one?

This mirrors my frustration with calorie counting. When I was trying very hard to log all my foods, I just found it impossible to know whether I was getting good information out of my app, or just some random internet person's guess, or what. Calorie counting assumes that good information is available, ready to hand, and easy to calculate...but the minute you eat anything other than a premeasured, prepackaged food, you're thrown into uncertainty. Is this biscuit I have made really 1/12 of the recipe?

Mild decreases in calories make sense in theory...allow the slightly lower intake to gradually and sustainably reduce weight...but in practice it is so hard to do. I like the more drastic calorie-cutting in intermittent fasting better, because at least then you know you're eating much less on alternate days, and really only having to count about half the time. (And it is much easier to count for just one meal, than multiple meals/snacks).
posted by mittens at 7:22 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sively -- is there a way for people who would like to find a dietitian like you to do so? Or is it like therapy where you essentially have to try people on?

That's a bit hard for me to say, because I'm located in the Netherlands and have only indirect experience with dietetics in other countries. But since you seem to be in USA, the first thing that comes to mind is the registry of professionals I've seen at the Health at Every Size website; it seems to me that their thinking and approach resembles mine (caveat, my knowledge of HAES is superficial).

Also, in my own (subjective, limited, judgy) experience, dietitians with a background in competitive sports and with sports nutrition as a stated speciality are more likely to be harsh, so check out the "about me" section on their website. On the other hand, dietitians who also work with kids or have a lot of experience in eating disorders tend to be more psychologically minded.

And you should feel free to be a tough customer! You're employing the dietitian and their job is to help you achieve your goals, the way you define them. It's ok to say e.g. that you're primarily interested in improving your health or condition and that weightloss itself is a secondary goal, and see if they flinch. And I've worked with people who don't want to weigh themselves at all because it causes too much anxiety or triggers them, and I believe a good dietitian should roll with that without any fuss, too.
posted by sively at 7:31 AM on January 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


I was going to start a tirade about that

and I was going to start one about taking no notice of any dietician who has not themselves been morbidly obese, shed the excess, and then kept it off for ten years. Here in Australia, I have never actually met a lean-shaped professional advisor with sively's wholly admirable attitude.

I have never had useful, actionable advice from a thin professional; none of those I've ever dealt with has had any clue at all how much demoralizingly miserable suffering they were recommending that I take on and attempt to sustain, or how incredibly fucking grating it is to hear the same glib and lazy platitudes coming from somebody you're paying as you'd get from any third-rate glossy magazine.
posted by flabdablet at 7:50 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


One of the core problems, which has been echoed here is that weight gain and loss is extremely personal due to variables such as metabolism, taste, body chemistry, microbiome, etc. Therefore any approach that is taken for any given individual should ideally take those variables into account.

One of the other core problems is that people want to be helpful and people want to be proud of their successes and share that. "The worked for me, it might work for you!" ignores the first problem and often fosters resentment, especially if the target in question is really just trying to communicate "I'm frustrated." If someone says that, they probably want validation/an ear/a hug, not a list of things to try.

Finally, in the US, a huge proportion of the food that is sold is optimized for profit and addiction rather than health benefits. The people who are designing/marketing/selling this food are not only really good at what they do, they are in competition with all the other manufacturers to be better at what they do and we are the petri dish. It's one of the reasons why one of the early lessons I gave my son when shopping was that the more effort that was put into the packaging, the more likely the contents were not particularly good. It's not 100% correct, but it's a good enough rule of thumb.

Another rule of thumb is "fewer calories in than out". The reason why "fewer calories in than out" gets repeated is that for many people it does work and it's simple. Yes, it ignores variability in people. Yes, it is imprecise. Yes, people are shit at estimating. Yes, it ignores that 400 calories of vegetables is nothing like 400 calories of peanut butter. Yes, people tend to give up. But in spite of all these, many people do lose weight this way.

I would suggest that instead of an end, it's is rather a means; a tool that can be used in the process of understanding your own body and how it responds.
posted by plinth at 8:02 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hey everyone: if you're in here spouting personal diet info or anecdotes, lemme tell you: no one cares. Just, please stop. Stop flooding every thread about diet/exercise/calories/food/the FDA with your incessant need to let everyone know what you did, how good you are, and why it's The One True Way.

Read the fucking article.
"Between two people of the same sex, weight and age, this number may differ by up to 600 calories a day – over a quarter of the recommended intake for a moderately active woman. "
And that's for people with the same demographic information. "What I did" or "It worked for me" or any variant is literally useless.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:25 AM on January 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


Hey everyone: if you're in here spouting personal diet info or anecdotes, lemme tell you: no one cares. Just, please stop. Stop flooding every thread about diet/exercise/calories/food/the FDA with your incessant need to let everyone know what you did, how good you are, and why it's The One True Way.

Thanks for the warning. Fortunately, no one is doing that in this thread. People are presenting examples that did work for them, sure, not because they are literally useless but because it may be something that others haven't tried and it may work, it may not. No one is making any claims that there way is the way and no one has an incessant need to let everyoone know what they did or how good they are. They're just being helpful. But this is Metafilter after all, where you can be shit on for any small effort.
posted by juiceCake at 9:30 AM on January 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


[I know dietary threads push buttons for folks but let's please keep it cool in here.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:39 AM on January 28, 2016


"Between two people of the same sex, weight and age, this number may differ by up to 600 calories a day – over a quarter of the recommended intake for a moderately active woman. "

In no way does that suggest that calorie counting doesn't work. It just means that the amount of calories one may eat is different from person to person. That's not remotely controversial. There are calculators on the web that estimate how many calories a person uses in a day based on height/weight/activity level but those are intended to be a starting point.
posted by chrchr at 10:04 AM on January 28, 2016


In no way does that suggest that calorie counting doesn't work.

Who said it did?
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:25 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


"I counted calories and exercised" is not something any fat person has not tried. And I, personally, am not interested in any anecdotes from men, when as a woman my experience is that my weight loss efforts work very differently from any man I've been close to.

And you know, Weight Watchers and stuff used to work for me. Back in the day, I lost 30-40 pounds on WW or counting calories a few times. However, that last two times I tried, at age 45, I counted calories obsessively for eight weeks, did not lose even a single ounce, and got so constipated (despite eating many veggies) that I had to take laxatives for the first time in my life. Two times during that year, exact same upsetting results. Right now I'm just being fat, because my mental health cannot take the multiple assaults of being hungry, having to weigh and measure every single fucking thing, and failing utterly in my endeavor.

I'm very interested in dietary science moving beyond "calories in, calories out."
posted by Squeak Attack at 12:19 PM on January 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


People often remark on how much weight I've lost. My secret? No longer having a job that made me stress eat at weird times, and being prescribed medical meth. While likely more significant, I often elide the second explanation.
posted by klangklangston at 7:22 PM on January 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


Heh. I knew somebody who was a bit of a self-appointed know it all about losing weight, klang. They'd tell you all about how they lost weight and how their diet wasn't hard to follow. It took lots of willpower for me not to point out that it was surely pure coincidence that they had concurrently begun taking something like 50mg of amphetamines daily.
posted by Justinian at 7:40 PM on January 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


The people I know who took/take ephedrine to lose weight are pretty vocal about it, actually. Evangelistic, some of them.
posted by Phyltre at 9:37 PM on January 28, 2016


"If weight were a matter of calories in and calories out, we’d all be the weight we choose. Everyone’s gotten the memo. We all know the ‘eat less’ principle. Losing weight should be as easy as choosing a shirt colour. And yet, somehow it isn’t, and the United States grows heavier. It’s time to consider the problem through an alternative lens. Whatever else it is, hunger is a motivated state of mind." (Michael Graziano in Aeon)
posted by mittens at 8:53 AM on January 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


People who take Adderall or similar to control their ADD often don't make the connection.

I recently interacted with a long-time friend of my husband's who definitely believed he knew how weight worked, disregarding the fact that he was a tall tiny-framed thin man with two tall tiny-framed thin brothers. I think a lot of thin people who are thin because of genetics and metabolism and maybe also gut microbiome and liver size/function and cortisol and insulin resistance think they are thin because they are virtuous and smart (ergo fat people are not), and I have run out of time or patience for them.

My husband is a thin person, with a build just like his thin father and one of his sisters. He eats the same food I do, plus has a monster sweet tooth. When he's "fat", it's maybe 25 pounds, all on his torso and face. If he goes for some walks and puts down the oreos and eats only what I eat, it comes off.

I am at best a thick person, with a build like my thick father and a booty like my mother's mother. In the 12 years we've been married, eating and drinking from the same sources and working similarly sedentary jobs, his weight has fluctuated that same 25 pounds up and down. I have gained 100. Even correcting for his oreos, the calories math alone doesn't explain it.

Is it the fact that I have not had an insomnia-free week of sleep since I was probably 12 years old? Is it 5 years of being the only stably-employed person in the house and the crushing stress and fear I am under 24/7? He's the one on SSRIs, which are often the cause of weight gain, so that's probably not a factor? There was a point in the early years where I might have said portion control, but I'm the one who plates the food and I have been giving myself a slightly to significantly smaller portion, depending on how hungry I am, for a long time. I drink too much diet soda, he drinks maybe one a day. I generally eat protein for breakfast, or some grisly fiber bread toast, and he eats candy instant oatmeal or bagel or Starbucks pastries or nothing. Neither of us drink enough water. I am the only one in the pair who menstruates and has been pregnant, if briefly.

There's more going on here than calories in/calories out. Certainly if you put me in a situation where there was no way for me to obtain more calories than a serious deficit, my weight would go down. Like, science has a long way to go but we mostly understand the basics of how starvation works. But even under wildly restrictive circumstances people don't lose weight in the same way, which is important information that still contains more questions than answers.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:30 AM on January 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


And that's for people with the same demographic information. "What I did" or "It worked for me" or any variant is literally useless.

Eh. It's not random. That's what makes it so infuriating -- there are clearly patterns, we're just not documenting them well. It's almost like there's severe market forces making hard demands on ground truth.

As it happens, it's pretty clear low fat was a giant distraction and low carb is actually a vastly more effective general strategy.
posted by effugas at 12:07 AM on January 30, 2016


Ritalin (for ADHD) dampened my hunger somewhat, but never helped to make an impact on my waistline even when I tried. Awhile back I was taking a medication to treat my chronic migraines. I stopped obsessively thinking about food, and satiety went way up. The obsessing was a bit like noticing the power went out because I couldn't hear the hum of electricity any longer. I used to think all that background noise was a character flaw, I didn't recognize much of it was actually related to hunger. Knowing that has made it easier.

There are calculators on the web that estimate how many calories a person uses in a day based on height/weight/activity level but those are intended to be a starting point.

That are so far off the mark I wonder how anyone could lose weight following their recommendations. Even the newer mathematical model which blows the "3500 k/cal deficit = 1 lbs lost" rule out of the water suggests that I can eat 2228 k/cal a day which overshoots reality by about 20%. Which coincidentally is more in line with studies, carried out by the researcher who discovered leptin, that suggest to counter the effects of a misaligned set point after losing weight you'll need to run a caloric deficit of 20%. It's been six years since I lost 100lbs, and I still have to take that 20% into account.

If weight were a matter of calories in and calories out, we’d all be the weight we choose.

Would we? I am at the weight I want to be, but I can't eat all the things I would like to to stay at the weight I am despite having a "if I want it I'll have it" attitude about my diet. And judging by his admission that he eats a lower carb diet to control his hunger, he can't either.

And btw that painting of the burger was cruel and unusual punishment ... I want a grilled cheeseburger just like that withn a warm pickle, and greasy bun.
posted by squeak at 3:45 PM on January 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


An article of tangential interest. I've been following the microbiome stuff for a while and it's very cool seeing the research come along. I've long been a proponent of the "my system is different than your system and our bodies see that chicken sandwich very differently" school of thought, but even I was surprised by the scale of variation mentioned in the link.
posted by Ilira at 1:51 PM on January 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


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