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Even in this age of fast food and automation, our body's natural balancing mechanism brings us within a hair's breath of weight equilibrium.
Americans desperately seek a cure for fatness. In his 1977 best seller Fit or Fat?, Covert Bailey quipped: "The American public has been dieting for 25 years - and has gained five pounds." Actually, it's no laughing matter. About 58 million Americans are currently overweight and more are joining the ranks of the overfat every year. The 1996 update of the National Institute of Health conference on "Methods for Voluntary Weight Loss and Control," provided to us by lead author G. Ken Goodrick, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, reported that the prevalence of obesity increased nearly eight percent over the last decade. What's more, the conference report added: "Current trends predict that all Americans will be obese by 2230." (This is not likely to happen, but the trend is certainly ominous.)
The degree of desperation is evidenced by the fact that Redux, the first new weight loss drug in 22 years, became a national sensation. Before Redux and a related product were withdrawn from the market in September of 1997 after being linked to heart valve problems, doctors wrote an estimated 1.8 million prescriptions. Clearly, Americans long for a solution to the problem of creeping obesity.
In fact, we don't need to wait another day. Our bodies, with a few rare exceptions, already have a marvelous ability to balance calorie intake and expenditure. All we have to do is start working with - rather than against - our biology. It takes a little longer, but the payoff for most people is permanent leanness.
Few of us get fat fast. We get fat very slowly. According to Physiology of Sport and Exercise, the beautifully designed textbook by Jack H. Wilmore and David L. Costill (Human Kinetics, 1994), the average person in this country will gain approximately one pound each year after age 25, or a total of 30 pounds of excess weight by age 55. But that's not the whole story. We also lose 1/2 pound of muscle each year due to the lack of exercise. That means the average person actually gains 1.5 pounds of fat each year, or 45 pounds of fat over 30 years. Wow, you might think, that sounds unrelenting, even a little scary.
One Potato Chip Away
To the contrary, considered day by day, it's not at all insurmountable. In fact, it's quite manageable. The average gain of 1.5 pounds of fat represents an excess of only 5,250 calories per year (one pound of fat contains 3,500 calories). That's less than 15 calories a day or, as Wilmore and Costill observe, the amount found in one potato chip. Amazingly, even the average sedentary person comes within one potato chip each day of energy balance.
The body's ability to balance energy intake and expenditure to such a remarkable degree has led scientists to propose that bodyweight is regulated similar to the way in which body temperature is regulated. Wilmore and Costill say there is excellent evidence that the body adapts to major changes in calorie intake by altering the metabolism. When we go on a very low calorie diet, our metabolism slows down to conserve energy. Conversely, when we overeat our metabolism speeds up to "waste" the surplus calories.
Tweaking Nature's Balance
Imagine:. Even in this age of fast food and automation, our body's natural balancing mechanism brings us within a hair's breath of weight equilibrium. If we just help the system a little each day we can achieve absolute balance, and by tweaking it a little more we can create a negative balance - and lose fat. Here's some suggestions how.
As noted, our metabolism slows in response to severe calorie restriction. Robert Robergs, Ph.D., who did his doctoral work in exercise physiology under Dr. Costill at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, and who is now director of the Center for Exercise at the University of New Mexico, says the metabolism slowdown can be as much as 500 calories per day after six weeks on a very low calorie diet. "That's a huge problem," he emphasizes. "It makes it harder and harder for people to lose weight."
That's why Arno L. Jensen, M.D., who practices preventive medicine and radiology at the world famous Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas, urges his patients to lose slowly, not more than 1/2 to one pound a week. To convince them Dr. Jensen uses a model of five pounds of fat. "That shocks them," he says, because they don't realize how much flesh five pounds of fat represents. He shows them the model and then explains: "You can lose five of these in a year's time by losing [only] a half pound a week." "That just really motivates them" to lose slowly. "That makes them feel good," Jensen adds, because people dread severe dieting.
It's common knowledge, of course, that rapid weight losses are usually temporary. A slowed metabolism is one reason why the weight is soon regained. Another reason, according to Wilmore and Costill, is that rapid losses are often mostly water. The body has built-in safety mechanisms to prevent an imbalance in body fluid levels, so the lost water is eventually replaced.
Similarly, it's not a good idea to limit the quantity of food you eat. Forcing yourself to stop eating before you're full and satisfied doesn't work very well. My observation is that few people can do it for long, and it's not necessary anyway. As explained in my book Lean For Life, eating a diet low in fat and high in natural carbohydrates will usually put your weight on a downward path. Dr. Goodrick and his colleagues, in the 1996 weight loss methods update cited earlier, explain that a diet low in fat and high in fiber is best, "because it is easier to eat fewer calories without having to eat small portions." You don't have to worry about restricting the amount you eat, because you become full before exceeding your calorie needs. Your body's appetite control mechanism tells you when you've had enough.
Dr. Jensen cautions, however, that you must focus on the whole diet, and not just low fat. "America is getting fat eating a low fat diet," he maintains. "People are keen on eating a low fat diet, but forget that low fat diets have calories." Like Dr. Goodrick, Jensen urges eating plenty of bulky and filling - but low calorie - whole grains and cereals, fruits and vegetables.
Exercise Makes It Work
Everybody knows that exercise burns calories and speeds up the metabolism, but less well known is its appetite curbing effect. Exercise facilitates the body's natural regulatory ability. This was first demonstrated in 1954 by world-renowned nutritionist Jean Mayer. He reported that animals exercising for periods of 20 minutes to one hour per day ate less than non-exercising animals. He concluded from this and other studies that when activity falls below a certain minimum level, food intake does not drop a like amount - and fat begins to accumulate. Apparently, this is one reason why the average person gains fat every year. A sedentary lifestyle throws the body's appetite control mechanism off, causing us to eat more calories than we expend. That's not to say that lumberjacks, marathoners, bodybuilders and other very active people eat less than sedentary individuals. They eat more, of course. The difference is that people who exercise have an easier time balancing calorie intake and energy expenditure. Dr. Robergs notes, for example, that Tour de France cyclists maintain or lose weight consuming more than 5000 calories a day.
Fat Burn Fallacy
Now, let's end with an activity that doesn't live up to it's billing. (This is in the FAQ section, but bears repeating.)
According to Wilmore and Costill, low-intensity aerobic exercise does not necessarily burn more fat than high-intensity aerobic exercise. It's true that the body uses a higher proportion of fat for energy at lower exercise intensities. However, total calories expended are greater during high-intensity aerobics - and the fat burned is the same. For example, an average 40-year-old male will burn the same number of calories from fat exercising for 30 minutes at 50 percent of capacity and at 75 percent. He burns about 145 calories of fat in both cases. Importantly, however, during the higher intensity workout he expends approximately 50 percent more total calories, about 435 compared to only 290 in the course of the low-intensity session.
Dr. Robergs isn't sure how the fat burn fallacy got started, but he believes that people simply like the word "easy." He thinks they grab on to the idea, because it makes easy training "more readily acceptable." Nevertheless, he says, "you can't convert a relative contribution to an absolute value; it's the total amount of calories [burned] that's most important."
"There is another issue too," Robergs adds, which makes the intensity of the workout all the more important for fat loss. A more intense approach, he explains, "is more conducive to improving the muscle's ability to use fat." The more fit you become, the more likely you are to use fat as fuel. "When you become more fit," Robergs stresses, "you are just better able to metabolize fat for any given activity you do."
Give Mother Nature's weight control method a try. No prescription is required. It's inexpensive. It feels good. It's good for you. Done properly, it's challenging and enjoyable - even fun. And it works. I guarantee it.
(For many more details on no-hunger dieting and how exercise - weights and aerobics - facilitates fat loss, read the Ripped series, The Lean Advantage series and Lean For Life. For descriptions of each book go to the product section in the navigation line below.)
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