Wordywort – Is the “fat trap” really a trap?

There have been a number of interesting stories on obesity in the news in the past few weeks. Approximately one-third of Americans are currently obese, but this story projects that 78% of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2020. On the other hand, a new survey indicates that the numbers may have plateaued. Perhaps this is due to the amount of attention the problem has been getting. For example, the state of Georgia has released a new series of television ads targeting childhood obesity, but these have been criticized as being too harsh. (For the record, Canadians are less fat than both the Yanks and the Brits, but government data indicate that this could be due in part to demographic differences among national populations.)

But perhaps the most interesting recent story I’ve seen is “The Fat Trap,” by Tara Parker-Pope, published in the New York Times on December 28, just in time to put a damper on your New Year’s resolutions. I think it’s worth a read. Even if you find fault with some of the data or some of the lines of argument contained within the story, Parker-Pope has gathered enough evidence to make a case that’s worth thinking about: we all know it’s damn hard to lose weight, but it’s so hard to keep it off that you can never stop trying. I will point out up front that toward the end of the article, Parker-Pope notes that many researchers question “whether losing weight more slowly would make it more sustainable than the fast weight loss often used in scientific studies,” which was actually my first question when I read about the dubious methods used to induce weight loss by some of these scientists. But keep reading.

Have you ever wondered whether the numbers lie? Calories-in/calories-out may not be a matter of simple math after all. If you eat 3500 extra calories, you are supposed to gain precisely one pound, and if you burn 3500 extra calories, you can lose it again. But Parker-Pope cites a Canadian study on twins that indicates that given the exact same diet and exercise, individuals may gain more or less weight due to their genetic predisposition, among other variables. One woman profiled in the story, Janice Bridge, has calculated “her own personal fuel efficiency” to demonstrate that her body does not burn the amount of calories it is supposed to (11 calories per minute of biking, for example). Even scientists have argued that you may think you are burning 200 calories during a thirty-minute walk, but you may actually be only burning 150–160; this is due to changes in muscle fibers that dieting can cause. In other words, your mileage may vary. I am actually relieved to see this in print because it chimes with my own experience, especially where exercise is concerned. For example, this is one reason why you may not be able to eat all your exercise calories or points, as many of us have found.

Parker-Pope also delves into the National Weight Control Registry, comprised of 10,000 people who have succeeded in maintaining their weight loss of at least thirty pounds for at least a year. Their habits seem to demonstrate what the new research indicates: “to lose weight and keep it off, a person must eat fewer calories and exercise far more than a person who maintains the same weight naturally.” In other words, let’s say I manage to get my weight down to 159 pounds, which is about the maximum that Weight Watchers prescribes for someone at my height. When I weigh 159 pounds, I will have to work to stay there, whereas someone who “naturally” weighs 159 pounds can eat more and exercise less than 159-pound-me will have to do in order to maintain that weight. I have no problem believing that. And if that naturally-occurring 159-pound woman ate as much cheese and drank as much wine as I would like, then she wouldn’t weight 159 pounds either! So let’s keep “work” in perspective. But in fact, there’s not much I’m doing now that I want or need to stop, ever – exercising more, drinking less alcohol, eating healthy food in healthy portions. I’ll admit that tracking is a bit of a pain, but it’s also become a habit, and without it, I know that I would eat less deliberately and make poorer decisions. I’m not trapped into making healthy choices for a lifetime; I’m choosing to be healthy for a lifetime. What is a bit harder to accept is how hard I am having to work to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight of 178 pounds, after topping out at 218. I’m afraid that the new 178-pound-me is going to have to eat less and exercise more than the old 178-pound-me had to, even though I had been approximately that same weight since high school. Researchers don’t know whether there is a window for losing temporary pounds easily, but I know that when I gain a few pounds due to travel or holidays, for example, they come off much more quickly than the pounds I already knew I had to lose. But I’m afraid that 42 weeks of pregnancy (in my case) plus multiple months post-baby (when maintaining sanity, not losing weight, was top priority) had already taken its toll before I began to lose the baby weight. In other words, my own experience predisposes me to accept Parker-Pope’s argument.

By the end of the story, though, I began to wonder what the tone of the piece would have felt like if a different author had approached the same data, both scientific and anecdotal. Parker-Pope seems to be exhausted by hearing about the effort that weight loss maintenance requires, but this is exactly what we mean when we talk about “lifestyle change” rather than diet. I also realized that I have begun to adopt some of the same habits as the members of the Weight Loss Registry she cites. For example, Lynn Haraldson “became a vegetarian, writes down what she eats everyday, exercises at least five days a week and blogs about the challenges of weight maintenance.” Well, the same could be said of Wordywort, except that I’ve been vegetarian for over twenty years, and I’m not maintaining . . . yet. But I would rather keep moving in that direction with my eyes open, intending to change not just my weight but my mindset (and, most importantly, my life expectancy), instead of daydreaming that someday I will be able to just go back to being normal, which is something that I never was to begin with. 

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8 Responses to Wordywort – Is the “fat trap” really a trap?

  1. Shona says:

    So interesting! When I was losing weight steadily, I didn’t eat my ‘exercise points’ but rather thought of them as back up in case I underestimated points somewhere else, or had an oops moment in the week. I think it’s so easy to overestimate how many calories you have burned doing exercise…. and finding out that it’s not the same math for everyone makes a lot of sense.

    • wordywort says:

      Yes, this seems to me like a good argument against eating those exercise points. I assume that the calorie counter on my treadmill can tell me if I am burning more or less workout to workout, but I can’t assume that the numbers are really accurate otherwise.

  2. I missed the article but appreciate the part about needing to exercise more than a “natural” weight person. I’m going to think some more about it.

    I think some calories are “better” than others – if fibre or protein is involved, it’s better than if sugar is. Some calories pull their weight better than others. ;)

    If you haven’t read about set points, you might want to. Basically, your body gets to a point where it “likes” being at a weight and you plateau sometimes. When that happens, it’s sometimes easier to stop cutting calories more and more and just wait it out a few weeks as though you’re maintaining,. before trying to reduce again.

    Thanks for this post. It’s very informative.

  3. wordywort says:

    That’s a good point that all calories are not created equal. And thanks for the tip about set points. I’ll have to look into that. I think I am at a plateau (or something) now, actually.

  4. moosilaneous says:

    Well said, Wordywort!
    The other place I saw discussion on this article was http://www.weightymatters.ca/2012/01/are-you-doomed-to-regain-thoughts-on.html. Dr. Freedhoff agrees with you – whatever we do to get it off, we probably need to do to keep it off. But this is not a trap, it is, as you say, just reality.

    Unfortunately, we will continue to be bombarded by hard-to-beat images in our world, which “is now a Willy Wonkian treasure trove of calories and dietary pleasure” as Freedhoff points out.
    A world in which we have to make choices, some of them hard. And where, a lot of the time, we don’t have exactly accurate information – your mileage may vary, indeed.

    • wordywort says:

      Thanks for that link! I hadn’t heard of that blog before, but it’s kinda nice to have my own take on the article reinforced by an expert.

  5. Cindy says:

    Great post, Wordy! I enjoy receiving these and Dr. Freedhoff’s emails daily. He, too, is from Ottawa. Set points and exercise points are both of interest to me. Prior to both of my pregnancies, I was successful on WW, getting to Lifetime, but I needed to eat my exercise points – or I gained weight. Let me tell you, I wasn’t pleased to be paying for a program that I gained on, so I tried eating the points and it seemed to help. It may have had something to do with half marathon training too ;) At a plateau, as Barbara has said, waiting it out and taking the time to examine what you’re doing will definitely help; you may just need to tweak your plan…or eat more veggies to feel fuller! Regardless, fantastic post. I’m looking forward to getting back on the train once this baby is out and I’ve found some sense of sanity again!

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