Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Food thoughts

with 14 comments

Steve of Kafeneio has an interesting post in which he comments on weight loss:

Diets and exercise regimes often turn into ‘isms. It’s painful to read the research on obesity and realize that the failure rate is around 98% (98% of people who lose weight regain it and more, within 18 months). It turns out that the 2% who succeed are those who turn dieting and fitness into ‘isms, often to the exclusion of almost all other activities. They become obsessed with their bodies, counting every calorie and gram of fat or carbohydrate, spend hours at the gym, and eventually only associate with others within their “cult” of body worship.

This interested me because I have some experience in this arena, and I don’t fit either of the two categories that he recognizes. First, I have not regained the weight I lost (much less gained more). I did gain 23 lbs from my low, but then simply applied the skills I had learned in the process of losing 80 lbs, and let the weight drop as it will if I eat right and do some walking. As of this morning, I’m at 176.6, down from the 192.9 of 10 May. (Average: 1.36 lbs/week lost. Seems to be the rate I lose.)

I don’t find that I’m obsessed with my body, nor do I count calories or grams of fat or carbohydrates, nor spend hours at the gym. Indeed, I don’t even go to the gym, though I did get Pilates instruction for some months—but that was for strength, flexibility, and balance, not for weight loss.

I have to say that I don’t think I could or would follow the path he describes, but he clearly sees only the two alternatives.

You’ve seen me cook grub: very little measuring, and no calorie counting at all. I guess I do measure when I cook rice—I want the proportion of rice and water right. And I do look how much the protein weighs, since I look for 3-4 oz per meal. And when I eat it, I use a bowl as the measure: one bowl full at lunch, 1-2 bowls at dinner, depending. The oil I use in cooking the grub I now measure by eye, and for a 6-qt batch it looks to me like 2-3 Tbsp. I use a light hand with the starch (type 2 diabetic), but I think of it in servings rather than grams: I usually add enough so that I get a little less than full serving of starch per meal, and I favor starches that take time to digest. Sometimes I don’t even measure them: if I’m using a jewel yam for the starch, I just pick a nice-sized yam and dice it into the grub.

My approach is pretty relaxed, but I do feel I know what I’m doing and the results bear me out. The bounce to 192.9 lbs after hitting goal was simply because I started indulging myself. That was more or less to see if I could get away with it, and I can’t, so I’m back to sensible eating. But I’m not obsessive, and I continue to enjoy the food.

Next batch I’m using Brussels sprouts for one of the greens, possibly spinach for the other. And for protein I have a pack of tempeh, but I’ll also cook some black beans (soaking now) and have black rice along with the beans: more protein. The usual onion, garlic, Serrano pepper, and a selection of vegetables (yellow squash, maybe some frozen corn, canned tomatoes). All of that added to the pot and cooked together. I don’t feel as though I’m in the grip of an ‘ism, I’m simply eating a mostly-plant-based diet with a focus on foods that I know are rich in nutrients and l0w in calories. Measurement and obsession seem quite remote.

There’s something missing in Steve’s analysis.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 August 2012 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Fitness, Food, Grub

14 Responses

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  1. Some more optimistic studies show slightly lower failure rates, e.g. 80%, although most studies show much higher. And the time-frame can also vary by study, some looking at 18 moths to 3 years. But in general, the results are not very optimistic.

    While your mileage may well vary, you also have a context that is more favorable to success but may not be generally available to most people, i.e., you are retired and have mastery over your time, you live alone and don’t need to cater to the dietary needs of others on a daily basis, and you have a disciplined and methodical attitude to problem solving. You may well be in the group of people who can achieve better long-term success without necessarily becoming OCD.

    OTOH, you did regain substantial weight rather quickly, which does show how easily that can happen. Fortunately, you were able to regain control.

    That being said, your method does require attention and discipline, even if it’s not at obsessive levels.


    2 August 2012 at 2:29 pm

  2. Good points. Successful weight-loss without attention or discipline seems to be what you seek, and I hope you find that. I found that for me, some attention and some discipline were indeed helpful.


    2 August 2012 at 2:42 pm

  3. I should mention that I was struck by the fact that you recognized only two possibilities: utter failure or crazed obsessiveness. That seems wrong on the face of it: surely the range of outcomes is broader than those two extremes.


    2 August 2012 at 3:41 pm

  4. I recognize the need for attention and discipline. What I am trying to find is the internal, intuitive sense of what hunger is and what satiety means. You can be sure that for thousands of years human beings didn’t scope out their meals with near-scientific discipline, in fact, I’m sure they didn’t give it much thought. But they worked so hard that they had difficulty eating enough even if they ate to capacity.

    I have said this before. We are starving ourselves into obesity. It is not normal to eat so little and still gain weight. We simply don’t work enough physically to satisfy our real hunger for nutrients.


    2 August 2012 at 3:45 pm

  5. Of course the range is there, although it isn’t nearly as diffuse as you may think. There aren’t too many people who succeed in losing weight and keeping it off without tremendous and permanent effort.


    2 August 2012 at 3:50 pm

  6. Recent research contradicts your statement: hunter-gatherers expend little more energy than do modern adults. An article to which I linked a couple of posts ago:

    Two groundbreaking new studies address the irksome question of why so many of us who work out remain so heavy, a concern that carries special resonance at the moment, as lean Olympians slip through the air and water, inspiring countless viewers to want to become similarly sleek.

    And in a just world, frequent physical activity should make us slim. But repeated studies have shown that many people who begin an exercise program lose little or no weight. Some gain.

    To better understand why, anthropologists leading one of the new studies began with a research trip to Tanzania. There, they recruited volunteers from the Hadza tribe, whose members still live by hunting and gathering.

    Providing these tribespeople with a crash course in modern field-study technology, the researchers fitted them with GPS units, to scrupulously measure how many miles each walked daily while searching for food. They also asked them to swallow so-called doubly labeled water, a liquid in which the normal hydrogen and oxygen molecules have been replaced with versions containing tracers. By studying these elements later in a person’s urine, researchers can precisely determine someone’s energy expenditure and metabolic rate.

    The researchers gathered data for 11 days, then calculated the participants’ typical daily physical activity, energy expenditure and resting metabolic rates. They then compared those numbers with the same measures for an average male and female Westerner.

    It’s long been believed that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle involves considerable physical activity and therefore burns many calories, far more than are incinerated by your average American office worker each day. And it was true, the scientists determined, that the Hadza people in general moved more than many Americans do, with the men walking about seven miles a day and the women about three.

    But it was not true that they were burning far more calories. In fact, the scientists calculated, the Hadza’s average metabolic rate, or the number of calories that they were burning over the course of a day, was about the same as the average metabolic rate for Westerners.

    You can read the rest of the article at the link, but based on that research your supposition that the root cause is lack of sufficient physical activity seems not to hold. I suspect rather it is the nature of foods commonly eaten these days: low-nutrient, calorie-dense, and addictive. My own food choices definitely changed as I learned the practical skills of weight loss, but my activity levels did not change all that much. And I lost weight without the kind of obsessive behavior you see as required.

    I did put some weight back on, but I had absolutely no problem in knowing why, and no problem in losing it: I simply resumed a sensible way of eating. And somehow I find it hard to believe that this way of eating is available only to those who are retired and live alone.

    Maybe I should write that book. 🙂


    2 August 2012 at 3:57 pm

  7. Speaking for myself, the effort is not at all tremendous, but obviously one does have to stick to sensible eating permanently. But it would seem silly to expect to maintain a good weight while making foolish food choices—no news there.


    2 August 2012 at 3:59 pm

  8. Not sure what the revelation is from the two studies identified. First, studying one genetically homogeneous group offers only limited insight for genetically diverse populations. Secondly, the first study simply determined that traditional hunter-gatherers from one genetic pool do not burn more calories than the average Western office worker. So what? Human beings, even in hunter-gatherer or even agrarian societies, are lazy when not working and will try to conserve energy. So will dogs and cats. In times of plenty they grow fatter and in times of famine they grow lean. It would have been interesting to see hoe traditional agrarian societies would fare under the same conditions and without mechanization.

    The study did not test the idea that providing these same people with an ad lib and plentiful diet would result in weight gain. It might or it might not. I would guess that it would because we are genetically designed to “load up” when food is readily available (the survival gene). THAT would be an interesting study!

    The second study is one in a string of recent studies that confirm that the brain/body immediately puts in place mechanisms to slow down weight loss during lean times or diets. It’s a reason that repeat dieters have so much trouble losing weight at the same rate as they did initially. A couple of weeks ago we discussed a study that showed that high protein diets do not slow down subsequent calorie burn as much as moderate and high-carb diets. But they ALL slow down the metabolic rate regardless. This is all part of the same phenomenon. Even if you increase physical activity, the body will find ways to conserve energy.

    There was a piece in the paper a couple of days ago about how many Olympic athletes have to consume junk food in order to get sufficient calories in a day because they can’t accomplish it with healthful foods that have lots of bulk and fill you up before providing the needed calories.


    2 August 2012 at 5:17 pm

  9. Well, the ideas I got from the study was that that earlier humans did not work so hard that they had difficulty eating enough even if they ate to capacity, which I thought was what you were saying. Rather than working so hard, what they ate maintained their weight. They did not have to think much about food selection: they ate what was available. But in our society, “what is available” covers a MUCH greater range, including foods that are, as you say, junk foods: high in calories, low in nutrients, low in fiber (filler), and addictive by design. So modern man has to be more selective in eating choices than primitive man.

    Your point about genetic diversity is interesting, and I am probably genetically dissimilar to the tribe studied, but stil it seems that picking healthful foods, primarily plants, and eating a good balance and paying attention to reasonable limits on protein, fat, and starches—and preferring complex starches—works quite well. It’s not an “all you can eat of anything you want” buffet, but it’s a tasty diet, and I can control my weight pretty easily with it. And FWIW, I’m losing weight at exactly the same rate this drop as I did in the initial drop: just a little over a pound a week.

    But different strokes for different folks. What I’m doing works quite well for me, and perhaps would not work at all for you. But I do present myself as a counterexample to your statement that those who try to stop being obese fall into exactly two groups: the utter failures and the madly obsessive. I don’t fit either, so far as I can tell, so perhaps your taxonomy is incomplete. That’s the point I initially addressed.


    2 August 2012 at 5:48 pm

  10. Of course, there are grey zones and not everyone is either a dismal failure or obsessive compulsive. And there will different degrees of OCD as well as different degrees of failure. But in general, the failure rate is very high and there is a high degree of compulsiveness among those who succeed long term.

    As I write there is a CBC documentary on “obesogens”, hundreds of chemicals in the food supply that are now believed to interact with diet to facilitate hunger and fat deposition. Very synchronistic.

    The unnatural availability of vast amounts of food (much of it unhealthful) is a core issue. I think we are designed to overeat when there is plenty.


    2 August 2012 at 6:04 pm

  11. It does seem likely that we’re driven to load up when food’s available, and in general our tastes probably are evolved to direct us toward the most energy-rich foods—that served us well when we were hunter-gatherers. But with the rise of agriculture and even more in modern times, food processors have kicked energy-richness up an amazing amount (while separating out nutrients) and moreover done lots of research into how to get us to eat more and more (due to the incessant drive to grow profits). So we now must exercise choice in a way not required in primitive times. But those choices are fairly simple and easily learned. It does, alas, require paying attention and a modicum of discipline, but there are tactics that can greatly reduce demands on willpower—and I use them as much as I can. Having a sensible meal template helps a lot, and I have to say that I view food differently now: a lot of the emotional issues seem to have drained away. I described it earlier as “breaking up” with food: we’re still friends, but the passionate love affair is over, so I view food quite differently, which makes a more healthful relationship easier. (I don’t watch TV and so do not see food/restaurant commercials, but I bet they push the “passionate love affair” button pretty hard: strongly pushing food as a way to satisfy all sorts of emotional/psychological needs.)


    2 August 2012 at 6:57 pm

  12. I agree 100%. For hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies the food choices were limited and weight fluctuated with the environment, a little fatter in good times, a little leaner in bad times. The impetus to “stock up” was still there but the opportunities were more limited.

    Modern food technology and corporate greed have really tuned into the basic drives to stock up on food and to use food for comfort, bypassing the third drive to balance intake with output, hunger with satiety.

    That being said, I don’t want to accept the “end of the affair”. I like your metaphor, but don’t like its implication, i.e. turning eating into a more-or-less “mechanical” activity of hunger negation and nutritional balance. As you say, “the passionate love affair is over”. That’s where I believe you and I disagree. I am still a romantic seeking a way to keep the passion alive without its killing me :-).

    When you said earlier that your weight spiked because you indulged yourself and finally figured you couldn’t continue to do so, I found it sad in a way. We should be able to enjoy all the pleasures of life and to drink passionately from the fountain. I find inspiration in the fact that certain cultures have managed to do so while maintaining the health and well-being of their citizens, most notably the French and Italians. I am still looking for the Holy Grail of internal Locus of Control and Locus of Awareness, whereby I can fully and passionately enjoy my food but know when to stop. It may just be a delusion I guess.


    2 August 2012 at 11:09 pm

  13. The Hadza study woke me up in the middle of the night as my brain wrestled with its findings. I grew up in a fairly rigorous scientific environment that encouraged a tough view of research. I haven’t lost that attitude despite so many years in Psychology! 🙂

    I am always sensitive to “silly science”. A first way to get a hint if it’s silly-science is to look at where it is published. I did some checking on PLOS One and this is an “open access” journal to which researchers pay for publication of their work when traditional specialty-specific journals refuse to carry the research. It’s like publishing a book yourself.

    Secondly, the conclusion (from the research article directly) that: “We hypothesize that human daily energy expenditure may be an evolved physiological trait largely independent of cultural differences”, is incredibly presumptuous given the fact that only one small population was compared to much larger studies of Western population groups. And in fact, it flies in the face of the study’s own findings that the Hadza results were NOT consistent with agrarian societies, who in fact have significantly higher energy expenditures. To quote from the study: “The greater energy demands of traditional farming lifestyles evident in this study (Fig. 1, 2) suggest that the adoption of agriculture brought with it an increased workload for Neolithic foragers”. Hmmmmmmm…….

    Now, comparing one small group to much larger groups lends itself to all kinds of spurious results. For example: The Hadza may well still survive and thrive because they have easy access to food. The study makes no mention of what time of year it was done, but clearly if it was done in the late Spring and Summer, the volume of game and growing things would be much higher than in the late Fall or Winter. So it is easy to have a hypothesis and then find a group to study who will facilitate verifying the hypothesis!

    In all these studies it is crucial to go to the source study and read it in detail, looking for all the contradictory stuff that scientists love to bury in the morass.

    What this study actually tells us is that ONE small group of people following a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in an area of undetermined plenty, expend the same energy as a large and very varied population of Westerners pursuing diverse lifestyles. OTOH, this same small population burns less calories than traditional agricultural societies.

    What can we possibly make of such results?????


    2 August 2012 at 11:54 pm

  14. First, read again my comment on food: I do not say that I am “turning eating into a more-or-less “mechanical” activity of hunger negation and nutritional balance”—quite the contrary. I continue to enjoy my meals immensely, but friendship is not the same as passionate love, and enjoyment of food can be done without wanting food to satisfy desires well beyond the capability of food to assuage—indeed, trying to satisfy needs and wants that food cannot satisfy may be one reason people eat to excess: trying to get enough food so that, for example, they no longer feel lonely. It’s that sort of misplaced passion that one must release: that’s the “break-up” of which I wrote. One can certainly enjoy and relish food as food, which I do. You have taken my position—a friendship with food—and reduced to a level I don’t recognize.

    Yes, I agree in agrarian societies people did work much harder. I thought we were talking of humanity prior to the introduction of agriculture—specifically, hunter-gatherer societies. At least, that was what I was talking about in the comment that begins:

    It does seem likely that we’re driven to load up when food’s available, and in general our tastes probably are evolved to direct us toward the most energy-rich foods—that served us well when we were hunter-gatherers. But with the rise of agriculture and even more in modern times, …

    At any rate, I am satisfied with my own route, and I hope that you find one equally satisfying for you.


    3 August 2012 at 7:21 am

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