Friday, July 02, 2010

Where I've Been

I've been scarce. I'm writing a book, backwards. Didn't know if I wanted to post any of it here, but what the heck.

Here is a simple set of four points summarizing the prevailing theory of why people get fat:

1) Human beings, having evolved in feast-or-famine conditions, are designed to store excess food as adipose tissue, which their bodies then consume to keep them alive when they don't have enough food.

2) By a simple exertion of will, such as that by which a person can make their bed each morning, a person can simply decide not to eat as much as they want.

3) Some people simply will not make the effort. These people get fat.

4) It doesn't matter what they eat. It's simple arithmetic: if you eat more calories than you expend, you get fatter; if you expend more calories than you eat, you get thinner.

I grew up believing these to be true. They are not abstruse propositions, nor are they particularly difficult to verify or disprove. In fact they are all false, and have been proven to be false: but their hold on the public consciousness is tenacious. Here are some contrary propositions:

1) Human beings don't “bank” calories, or not much. Fat people don't starve much more slowly than skinny people. When the body lays in excessive adipose tissue, it's because the endocrine system is malfunctioning.

2) People have no long-term control over how many calories they consume, just as they have no long-term control over how much oxygen they consume. The cerebral cortex can override the rest of the brain temporarily, but not permanently. The amount we eat is no more under our voluntary control than breathing is. If we found that people were taking in more oxygen than was good for them, we could tell them they ought to breathe less. We'd get results similar to the results we have gotten by telling them to eat less.

3) Some people have vulnerable endocrine systems. The homeostatic processes break down in these people, under certain environmental pressures, and they get fat. Some people do not have this vulnerability, and they do not get fat. There is no observable difference in the amount of will power between the two groups. Normal weight people, of course, think that their conscious decisions determine their weight, for the same reason that normal people confronted with lights that randomly switch on and off, and a switch that is disconnected from these lights, think that their flipping of the switch influences whether the lights come on and off. If there is supposed to be a causal connection between random events, people will perceive it.

4) It is indeed true that if you eat more calories than you expend, you will get fatter, and if you eat fewer, you will get thinner. But since the regulation of calorie intake is not under the long-term control of the cerebral cortex, this is not really useful information for someone who wants to lose weight. Human beings in general cannot, or will not (at the public health level, it doesn't matter which), regulate their calorie intake. If we can't change how much our bodies want to eat, we can't lose weight. We can torment ourselves, and struggle heroically, and lose weight for weeks or even months at a time, but in the end we will be fatter than ever.

I have arrived at these conclusions after a lot of reading and a lot of observation. I believe the second theory fits the observable facts much better than the first theory. The motivation for fat people to lose weight is overwhelming. They are led to believe (far more than is true, actually) that their health, their love lives, their sex lives, their careers – basically, their whole happiness – is at stake. If these motives don't suffice, it's hard to see what motives would. Far the simplest explanation for why people don't restrict their calorie intake, is because they can't.

The tantalizing thing is that diet obviously does affect weight. People can, to some extent, change their eating habits, and they do. They can induce great see-saw swings in the amount of fat they carry. What they can't seem to do is the one thing they want to do: lose fat and keep it off.

Some time ago I read quite a bit about weight loss, and I was startled by how little real science had been done. The real scientists considered the problem solved – people simply had to eat less: if they didn't, that was their own problem, not the scientists'. The field was left largely to hacks, who proposed diet after diet, claimed great success rates, and who rose and fell like the tides.

What the pop diet people understood – the solution they were groping for – was that there might be some kind of diet that would make people less hungry, some way of eating or thinking about eating that would solve the real problem. The real problem being that our bodies think they need more food than they do.

I believe this problem has now been partly solved: the single thing in the diet that most confuses our bodies are refined carbohydrates. Sugar and corn syrup, especially in liquid forms – the obvious and glaring culprits being soft drinks, fruit juices, “sport drinks,” and beer, which deliver incredible amounts of sugars virtually direct to the bloodstream – are the worst. After that come all the starches: the potatoes, and the overrefined grains: white flour, white rice, pasta. Nothing in our evolutionary history prepares us for these foods, and for some people – but not for others – they wreak havoc on the endocrine system.

Exactly how or when this damage is done, we really don't know. Some of it is observably “real time”: when I've been in a phase of eating lots of sugar and carbs, I am hungry virtually all the time, often savagely, ferociously hungry. But some of the damage may be done before birth, or in infancy. Some of it may be irreversible. And some of it may not be dietary at all.

I've done a lot of experimenting with diet and eating: I've become interested both objectively – interested in the science of it – and interested, as someone who practices meditation and introspection, in the mental processes involved. I've been overweight all my life – according to the usual (totally unscientifically arrived at) standards, by thirty to seventy pounds: that is, I tend to waver right around that magic line between “overweight” and “obese.” I have been as motivated as anyone else to lose that weight, and tried as many things as anyone else, and failed as miserably as everyone else. My knowledge of diet and nutrition is not that of an expert, but that of a well-read amateur. Likewise my knowledge of brain science. The only expertise I can claim is that of introspection. I have observed very closely what happens in my consciousness as I overeat, or do not overeat. It's fascinating and humbling to actually watch one's will crumble.

Will. It's an interesting concept, largely unexplored in the West, except among people who have a special interest in it: addicts and contemplatives, who are daily brought up against the fact that it doesn't work at all as advertised. We of all people know that will power is a very finite commodity, which has to be deployed with exquisite care. We can't afford the luxury of believing the cerebral cortex always controls our behavior: we know – by dint of repeated excruciating failure – that it does not.

I am writing this as part of an experiment. I already know that I am incapable of restricting my calorie intake. Whether this “should” be true is a question that I will leave to theologians, or anyone who thinks it is a meaningful question. That it is true, I have discovered empirically by repeated experiment, and I'm not interested in running any more (emotionally painful, if not devastating) experiments on that question.

My present experiment is to see if I can change what I eat (not the amounts, but the kinds of things), permanently. I am hoping, of course, that I can. And I am hoping that if I do, I will lose weight. But really at this point I am motivated more by curiosity and irritation than by hope. I'm ready to be done with this whole sorry business. If I can change what I eat, and maintain that change for six months, I will declare the experiment a success, regardless of whether my weight changes much. If I can't, I'll declare it a failure. This is not an experiment in diet so much as an experiment in will. My hypothesis is that if I deploy my will power carefully, at the points of maximum leverage, I can change my diet from one that makes me obese, to one that makes me merely overweight.

No comments: