The “Fat Trap” and biological determinism
I’ve received a few e-mails asking what I thought of Tara Parker-Pope’s recent New York Times Magazine piece (“The Fat Trap”), which talks about how the body fights off your attempts to make it lose weight. In general, I thought it was a good piece. The basic message I came away with is the same one I hear from people like Yoni Freedhoff: if you want to lose weight — and keep it off — you have to do so using an approach that you’re prepared to maintain for the rest of your life. You can’t go on a diet for six months, lose weight, and then resume your previous diet and lifestyle (or even go halfway back to your previous diet and lifestyle!). Many (perhaps even most) people who are trying to lose weight still see it as a temporary transitional stage. That’s not how the body works, and the more widely that message is spread, the better.
Having said that, a quick note about the apparent “biological determinism” that opposes weight loss. Parker-Pope discusses some of the research by Rupert Leibel’s group at Columbia University, in which subjects are placed on carefully controlled liquid diets to make them gain or lose weight in order to observe what changes take place in their metabolism:
The research shows that the changes that occur after weight loss translate to a huge caloric disadvantage of about 250 to 400 calories… Muscle biopsies taken before, during and after weight loss show that once a person drops weight, their muscle fibers undergo a transformation, making them more like highly efficient “slow twitch” muscle fibers. A result is that after losing weight, your muscles burn 20 to 25 percent fewer calories during everyday activity and moderate aerobic exercise than those of a person who is naturally at the same weight.
I also discuss this research in (plug alert!) my book, Cardio or Weights. And the part Parker-Pope doesn’t mention is that, when you feed people extra calories, exactly the opposite adaptation takes place. In other words, after gaining weight, your muscles burn about 15 percent MORE calories during everyday activity and moderate aerobic exercise. Parker-Pope presents the research as a part of the explanation for why it’s near-impossible to lose weight — but looking at the whole picture, that would mean that it should be impossible to gain weight in the first place! Sure, the barrier is a little bigger when you’re trying to lose weight (20-25% vs. 15%). But the point is, these changes in metabolic efficiency aren’t insurmountable barriers — otherwise no one would ever change weight at all.