Trust me, I wanted and want VERY much to be wrong, but I have, depressingly, proved that I’m right.
These boards brim with threads about obesity and diet and what works and what doesn’t, and almost without exception these threads feature some contingent of people sneering and judging and insisting that all obese people “stuff their faces” and if they just stopped being such pigs they’d lose weight, alongside another contingent of fat people describing how they try, they can’t, it doesn’t work, they have genetic and metabolic issues… on and on and on. I’d venture to say that there are at least a hundred threads that include some of this.
And probably every thread that ever talked about diet is filled with people saying “it’s just calories in vs. calories out, it’s just that simple!” and in the purest possible sense, they are right: if you subtract enough calories over a long enough period of time, virtually every human being will lose weight.
But the question, the argument, and of course, the sneering ensues when we start talking details: how much are the fat people eating? How much less should they eat to lose? What about to maintain that loss?
And of course there’s almost always someone telling fat people who claim they don’t eat that much that if they aren’t knowingly lying to everyone else, they must be lying to themselves. And I dont’ doubt for a second that that is very frequently true.
MY PERSONAL HISTORY:
I used to be a serious compulsive overeater, from my childhood through my mid-thirties. I’m 5’8", and my top weight prior to age 40 was 250 pounds, but over most of those years I was around 220. I looked very good at 165, and could fit in what was then, many years ago, a size 10. And through the years that I was traveling up and down between 170 and 250, I was alternately binging compulsively on a lot of food, and then dieting intensely to lose.
The serious compulsiveness has been almost entirely shed over the last 20 years or so, (really only popping up when I smoke a lot of pot, which happens about once a year: I totally remember what it used to be like, that real inability to stop myself and total obsession with food.) During that same period of pretty normal eating my weight crept up. In the early part of the century I hit a max of about 340. That was pretty miserable, and mostly a result of quitting smoking and spending a long time eating sunflower seeds as compensation, combined with a general lack of concern about controlling what else I ate - but not compulsive facestuffing.
Through various changes in my life, I got down to about 270 a few years ago. But then I didn’t monitor or restrain myself eating wise, I just ate exactly what I wanted, which included very self-indulgent food choices, doing all my eating at night, and making zero effort to curb anything: if I buttered my bread, I used exactly the amount of butter I genuinely wanted. And over four years, ages 48 to 52, I gained 30 pounds.
So about a month ago I realized I jsut wasn’t comfortable anymore and I wanted to lose just 10% of my body weight. Maybe more after that, but that was my only goal. They say that even that much makes a big difference to your health and the way you feel.
And I’m doing this for me, not anyone else. My knees are screaming, I have no energy, I know I can’t stay like this and count on a healthy life of a lot more length. So I have no reason or desire to do anything other than succeed, and bullshitting myself just wastes time - something I want more of and bullshitting myself doesn’t help with that.
Therefore I committed to being absolutely rigorous in faithfully and accurately recording every swallow of food and drink so I could really know what was working and what wasn’t, where I failed where I succeeded. I used the tools available to determine what my caloric goals “should” be (see next) and I’ve recorded every swig of juice, every nibbled nut. I’ve weighed and measured everything so that I would have a true accounting of what I was doing: eating nuts and seeds in the shell slows the consumption, so I’d grab a handful, weigh them, eat them and weigh the shells to get the true weight of the nuts consumed. I have been completely honest and careful with myself, not fudging a thing.
According to several different tools, ***to lose the widely recommended MAX of 2 pounds ***weekly, I should eat no more than 1,437 (webMD) 1,445 (livestrong.com) - 1,679 calories (1.5 pound loss weekly, per caloriecount.about) 1615 (mynetdiary.com, the tool I finally settled on) daily. This is an average of 1544 and all the calculations were based on age, height, sex, and an activity level described as “sedentary”.
THE RESULTS SO FAR
Well, I am here to tell you that when you see my obese ass walking down the street and you are absolutely sure that I sit up nights stuffing my face with Cheetos and ice cream, think again. Because to my everlasting dismay, I now know for sure that in order to stay exactly as fat as I am right now, I only have to consume as little as 1,388 calories per day, which is 156 fewer than the average they say should result in a loss of 2 pounds per week.
The average suggested by the same tools for maintaining my weight is around 2450, making the reality 56% of the prediction. Assuming the ratio holds, it appears a 2 pound per week loss would only be possible if I reduced my calories to about 860 daily, almost a third below the number considered safe.
And how do you suppose that will operate on my metabolism?
For the record, this is what an 860 calorie day would look like for me:
Coffee with milk
1 cup low fat cottage cheese
3 oz of turkey
6 oz broccoli
3 oz chicken with a light cornstarch dusting, sauteed in a tablespoon of olive oil
2 slices of bran bread.
And that’s it for the whole day, no additional dressings, flavorings, sides, beverages…that’s all of it.
If I am ok with losing less, I could add up to another 200-400 calories: a few more ounces of turkey, an apple, maybe a little mayo on the bread to make a sandwich.
And of course, this is entirely possible to do. But for how long, and how completely food-obsessed is one likely to become when restricted to this extent over long periods of time?
And yes, exercise can and should be added…which studies have repeatedly proved does not actually boost calorie use by that much AND is certain to increase the hunger and appetite, making it likely that any gains in calories used will be lost in calories consumed.
But again: CAN be done. And again… almost no one has ever claimed it was genuinely not physically possible to do. But just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it’s simple, or easy, or even not-that-hard. Something which is technically possible can be insanely difficult, agonizingly so. And while almost anything is possible over short periods of time, sustaining it over long periods, over one’s entire life, really, is something else altogether.
So don’t mistake me: I’m not saying I’m special, I have a glandular problem or anything else. Quite the reverse. I’m saying I don’t. I’m saying what I’ve always said, what I knew was true, and what I now know for sure is true: being obese, and dieting, in and of itself lowers the metabolism, making it harder and harder and harder to lose weight and keep it off, and that decades into the cycle the degree of control and management required to attain anything close to a healthy weight and maintain it is a much, much, much higher bar than simply cutting out the face stuffing - exponentially more difficult for someone like me than someone like, say, a man or women who was a healthy weight throughout their childhood and young adulthood, and just found the weight creeping up in middle age until they woke up one day and needed to lose 50 pounds. If that kind of person pays attention and applies themselves. the degree of deprivation and control is going to be much less severe and much more attainable.
Which is all to say this: weight loss and weight maintenance is NOT the same for all people, and in fact, the fatter someone is, the longer they’ve been fat, the less likely it is that what it takes for them to lose weight and keep it off looks anything remotely like what it is for you or people you know who have battled occasional pudge, babyweight, or middle age spread. So until you really have walked a few hundred miles in their shoes, you are not in any position to know or judge what their failure really is: a failure to control gross overindulgence, or a failure to consistently restrict consumption to a bare subsistence level, or something in between.
So those who are absolutely sure that people fighting obesity are deluding themselves about what they eat, are lying to others, and that they must be eating unreasonable amounts of food in order to be so fat: You are wrong. Not always, but a lot more than you are probably willing to believe. And since you don’t know when you’re right or wrong, maybe you should just embrace a little more compassion and a little less judgment across the board.
As for me, I’m going to keep plugging away and recording and tweaking and adjusting, and I’m definitely going to apply myself to weightlifting and other exercise to try to boost my basal metabolic rate. Because I will find the point that works and I want the benefits of even a small loss. But it’s hard, very hard. Always hard. A hundred times harder for me than for most people. So if I succeed even a little, that’s a good thing. And if I don’t completely transform into a relatively normal weight person, that’s not a terrible thing I should feel shame about. (In fact, ftr, I don’t even want to; I’ve been so fat for so long the skin issue if I lost all the weight would be intolerable without surgery, something I wouldn’t do even if I could afford it. So the best case scenario for me would be to get as fit as I can and hope I can still look and feel pretty decent at 225 or so.)
And Finally, My Theory About Why So Many are So Obese Now:
It’s multiple factors, the most obvious being the fast-food junky eating lifestyle, the lack of activity, the huge portions.
But during the same period that we’ve all gotten so much fatter something else has also happened: our cultural standards for what constitutes beauty and a healthy weight have not only become incredibly stringent, they are imposed earlier and earlier in life.
So, where I was pretty unusual among my peers 30-40 years ago, little mes are being created all the time now: instead of emotional compulsive eating,it’s normal to eat the Big Gulp and your half-pound muffin… and unless you can proudly walk down mainstreet in a string bikini, your washboard abs rippling in the light, you’re fat, so when you aren’t stuffing yourself with Big Macs, you need to starve yourself.
And the ping-ponging is doing to others what it did to me: making people MUCH fatter than they would have been otherwise, because every diet that starves them lowers the metabolism, so when they go back to “normal” eating they are more efficient than ever at storing every calorie, making them fatter, more miserable, more likely to hate themselves and try to starve…which is too hard and collapses into binging, and on and on… until you have an insanely high number of people who are 200, 300, 400 pounds by the time they are 40 who, in order to lose weight, HAVE to nearly starve and continue to semi-starve NOT to be so fat.
And since that’s insanely difficult for most normal human beings, we just cut up and rewire their internal organs instead.