For starters, let me just say that the science of weight management is unimaginably complex; and not just for us lay-people, but for the scientists and researchers, too. When you think about all the variables at play, the food we eat, activity levels, exercise, our metabolism, our endocrine system and all of the hormones involved, stress, inflammation, insulin sensitivity; the list is exhaustive. So it comes as no surprise, then, that we’ve yet to fully understand, let alone ‘cure’ overweight or obesity. Yet while a cure may be elusive, prevention or reversal is attainable assuming you take the right approach. The trouble is many popular approaches are ill-conceived and, inexplicably, relegate or completely ignore the most important variable in the weight-loss equation: our food! Instead they focus on exercise fads or contraptions, ‘magic’ dust to sprinkle on our food, drugs, special pre-packaged food systems and any number of other things that all have one thing in common: a pricetag. That explains why the most
important element of weight loss, your diet, is the least talked about: there’s not a lot of money to be made by telling people to eat healthy. But the truth is the quality of your food (much more so than the quantity) will play the biggest role in helping you look better, feel better, and fit easily into those skinny jeans.
Having said that, it seems as if the entirety of our collective insight into weight-loss has been boiled down into one conveniently packaged, easy-to-remember slogan for public consumption: calories-in, calories-out. Perhaps no other four words have captivated a populace at large like these. In technical parlance this is known as the 1st law of thermodynamics, but when applied to the human body it basically states this:
So if you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in, you would be in negative energy balance and losing weight. But if you begin to consume more than you expend, it’s time to loosen the belt. This is all good and well. After all, it is a law of physics, and you can usually take those to the bank. So the issue isn’t with the science, but rather how this is misinterpreted to undergird the two most commonly-held beliefs about weight-loss: eat less and exercise more. Sounds good. Seems logical. But are they true?
When you consider that the human body has finely tuned homeostatic systems in place to regulate everything from respiration and pH to temperature and heartbeat, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that weight is no exception. This is done by matching our daily caloric expenditure to our intake so that a stable weight is maintained. For those obese or overweight, something has managed to
disrupt this process. When we consider the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, it would suggest that weight gain is due to overeating. And while correct – a person must consume more energy than they burn or excrete to gain weight – it doesn’t really suffice; it’s like saying a room is full because more people entered than left. Rather than state the obvious the answer we really want is why! Why are these people in the room, or why are we overeating? Once we understand what’s driving overeating our advice to dieters can move beyond, “hey, just stop eating already” or “find a salad bar”, and instead offer something of substance that might actually help them.