Monday, January 28, 2008

Fatosphere, schmatosphere. It's all biology, people!

So about this "Obesity is undeniably bad for you" thing.

I was under the impression that it was poor diet and no physical activity that were bad for you. I understand that these things are related to weight: tossing high-calorie low-volume food down your gullet will result in consuming more cals than you need, and sitting on your ass all day will result in those calories having nothing to do but hang out around your thighs. And, yes, having grossly swollen adipocytes is linked to insulin resistance and other nasties like that. (Then again, so is consuming pound after pound of simple carbs, regardless of your body shape.)

But... you all know about the leptin/orexin system right? To sum it up, your body has an (ahem) homeostatic mechanism for regulating your food intake. If your fat stores go too far above 'normal', you don't eat as much. If your fat stores go below 'normal', you eat more. I don't think I'd be too far off to say that this system is intact in most fat people. It's not like your body is being 'tricked' by off-base leptin levels into thinking you're starving. It's more like your body thinks that a certain amount of fat is normal.

Let's say that a hypothetical fat person stops eating bacon-burgers and donuts and soda on a regular basis, and starts eating veggies and brown rice and lean meats. Let's say this imaginary fat person loses their car and starts walking everywhere they need to be. You will probably see a change in weight. But it won't be terribly drastic. Sure, you'll trim up some areas that used to be a bit more fleshy, but as far as weight goes, that person isn't going to drop below their normal leptin baseline.

Regardless of what these lifestyle changes do to your waistline, they will make that person much healthier. I would imagine, for reasonable people, this would be fine. In fact, spectacular.

However, our society tends to be unreasonable about health and weight. It's not enough that I am healthy. I need to be thin, too. Because the way most people see it, fat people are fat always and only because of unhealthy habits, and therefore if you have fat on you, you must be unhealthy.

If, like almost all of us, your baseline is somewhere between 20 and 50 pounds above our cultural 'ideal' (or 'ideal BMI'), there's no way to bring it down without continually fighting your body's natural weight maintaining system. Anyone who's tried to diet knows this. The continual hunger. The physical dissatisfaction after finishing a meal with only the allowed number of calories. The nagging obsession with food and eating. But...
"You wouldn't discourage a smoker from quitting just because it's difficult to make people quit smoking. Some will, and they will benefit from the change."

The difference between quitting smoking and cutting calories is that with smoking, your body pretty quickly (within a week) readjusts to a nicotine-free environment and the constant, aching cravings subside to an occasional nuisance. If you can grit your teeth and suck it up, quitting really isn't that terrible, just persistently inconvenient. Speaking as someone who's never quit for more than a month or two, I know that I can go pretty much indefinitely without a cigarette if I had to. If I were to be put in a magic 'No Smoking Allowed' bubble for any length of time, it wouldn't really bother me. But gathering the willpower to voluntarily resist smoking? Ech. Maybe next year, when things are a little less hectic.

That's because nicotine isn't actually required for survival. Sure, it can hijack you for a little while and make you think that you need it. But you still don't actually need it. I'd like to remind everyone here that we do need calories. We've always needed calories. Lots and lots of em. Your ancestors' survival absolutely depended on your ability to store extra calories on your body like that. When your energy stores (fat) go below 'well stocked', your mammalian body is absolutely driven to restore it to full capacity. I believe that this is a major factor as to why there is no empirically proven long-term weight loss technique.

This is also one of the major reasons I totally dig the fat acceptance movement.

(Of course, another one may be the fact that the last and only time I visited Victoria's Secret, the lady who was supposed to be sizing me stopped short of actually telling me what size I am and said, "We don't have anything that would fit you here. Try Lane Bryant." Yeah, and fuck you very much, too.)

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