Saturday, December 5, 2009

Not A Calculator

Most days, I drink between one and four cups of tea. Each time, I put a splash of low-fat milk and one or two packets of Splenda in the tea. On a “big day” of tea drinking, I might consume as much as 50 extra calories in milk and sweetener, but I don’t count this in my FitDay calorie counting log. This doesn’t mean that I believe the calories don’t “count”, but rather that it’s unlikely that 50 or so calories one way or the other is going to hamper my weight loss efforts significantly and I’m going to explain why.

Awhile ago, there was some hoopla surrounding an article in the New York Times written by a man who proclaimed that exercise did not aid weight loss because all it would take was a mere 40 calories per day (the amount of a pat of butter) of increased consumption to nullify the effects of the exercise. Setting aside all of the obvious reasons why this is wrong, there is the fact that your body is not a calculator.

In this age when we live around machines that are capable of precision, we often make the mistake of believing our bodies are nothing more than a biological version of a computer, or in this case calculators. There is a misunderstanding that you if you enter the proper numbers, you are guaranteed to lose or gain weight. Bodies, unlike computational devices, are not nearly such simplistic mechanisms.

Your body is designed to adapt. Part of that function is to slow down or speed up metabolism in order to hold on to what appears to be the current state (unless you are ill). If you eat a few more calories today, it will likely boost your metabolism a bit to stop you from gaining weight. If you eat a few less, it will slow it down to stop you from losing. It’s only when we start to go to relative extremes in terms of exertion or consumption that we see an effect. This is one of the reasons that people plateau in weight loss.

The computational model is gratifying because it is logical and gives us the illusion of precise control, but our body simply does not work that way. You can do all of the exact calculations you like and it may refuse to cooperate or act in opposition to what appears to be logical. So, I don’t fret the low-fat milk that I splash into my tea when I calorie count. While I think eating hundreds of calories more per day would have an impact on my weight loss, I don’t think that 20-70 will have much of an impact. It also stops me from feeling that I have to fuss over and record every move I make and makes the chore of calorie counting a little more bearable.


justjuliebean said...

I really hate hearing about how an extra 100 calories a day makes you gain xx pounds a year, as I always figured it was bs. I totally agree with you, it's the excess that your body can't deal with over and over, not a few bites extra here, a few less there. I don't even pretend to understand hormonal effects, or if/how exercise affects anything, or other signals that we don't control either.

Great post!

dlamb said...

I remember, in the late 80's, as I was struggling with the start of my serious weight gain, I had a patient who was working out at the gym on a regular basis. He was a ROCK and spent, it seemed much of his time lifting weights.
He would say, occasionally, that he'd go out with his wife for a huge meal because it tricked his body into losing weight when he went back to his regular routine. This man did not have an ounce of visible fat and there I was, struggling, counting my calories, reducing or eliminating all fat and he was talking about going to town a few times a month and he was LOSING weight.
Here I am some 25 or so years later, applying his calorie cycling theory and actually understanding what on earth he was talking about and how something that seemed counterintuitive at the time makes absolute perfect sense biologically. The only thing I could consider at that time was "are you kidding me? I've been suffering and working so hard to keep my calories at ...whatever level and I am barely losing weight and I'm supposed to go crazy and not worry what I eat once or twice a month and undo all my effort? NOT happening". Ahh if only I had known then...and all that.

screaming fatgirl said...

I've never consciously tried calorie cycling, but I have acted upon the strong desire to eat more after long periods of operating at a reduction. I try to "listen to" my body in this way. It's a tricky business when you're a compulsive eating and a food addict, but part of the benefit I got from analyzing my head so much was knowing the difference between psychologically motivated eating and biologically motivated eating. I can feel when my body says "enough, eat more!" I guess this has brought one some "natural" calorie cycling. ;-)