by Adam Kosloff
Why do we get fat? What can we do to lose unwanted fat?
These questions are at the root of the biggest public health crisis in American history — arguably in the history of our species.
The universal diet advice, Eat Less and Exercise More, doesn’t seem to work for many of us. Still, health authorities relentlessly beat the Eat Less Move More drum. This view of obesity is highly moralistic. It blames the problem on the twin sins of Sloth and Gluttony and assures us that the cure lies in the twin virtues of Restraint and Productivity.
Where Does This Moralistic View Come From?
Weirdly, it comes from the laws of physics. Per the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, the law of energy conservation, when any growth occurs on your body, you must take in more energy (calories) than you burn off.
You can’t make something from nothing: When you gain fat, you must “eat more than you burn off.”
That’s why we believe that “overeating” makes us fat.
But here’s the rub. Something else must happen, too! Something that no one really thinks about. You also need to transform those calories into “stuff” on your body.
Think about it. How exactly does that cheeseburger and milkshake “become” fat on your thighs and hips? Biochemistry is required! The raw calories must transit through a process inside your body in order to get fixed as fat. For the sake of simplicity, we can call all the relevant biochemistry “The Black Box.”
To sum up: whenever any growth happens in your body, two things must occur:
- You need substrate (a.k.a. calories)
- You need biochemistry to turn the calories into your body’s tissues and structures (a.k.a. a black box)
So What “Counts” — Calories or the Black Box?
When we talk about anything related to body growing (other than your fat tissue, which we’ll get to in a second!), the answer is obvious. The Black Box counts, and Calories are a sideshow. For instance, eating “excess calories” does not cause a woman to grow tissue in the form of a baby. Similarly, if you want to stop your moustache from growing, you wouldn’t eat less and exercise more.
On a more serious note: no one tells cancer patients to starve themselves in the blind hope that the creation of this whole body “energy deficit” will selectively burn-off their tumors. We conceptualize cancer properly as a medical problem. It’s a problem of tissue in our body growing in an abnormal fashion. True, the tumor is hoarding energy. But to understand WHY it’s doing so and WHAT to do about it and HOW to do it, we need to appreciate and possibly manipulate the biochemical forces at work on the tumor itself.
The point, I hope, is clear. In all other cases of growth on the body, calories are always of secondary importance. Sure, substrate is needed. But we intuitively know that what really matter are the biochemical signals that regulate the growth. A.k.a. The Black Box!
In a pregnant woman, a complicated mixture of hormones, genes, enzymes and other signals drive the woman’s body to build the baby.
In a growing teen, growth hormone causes the growth spurt.
In our moustache guy, testosterone and other hair-growth-signals determine how, when and where his moustache will grow.
Did you see where we’re going with this?
The biochemical stuff that regulates how our bodies grow the way they do always matters, whether we’re talking about hair tissue, muscle tissue, bone tissue, tissue making up a baby, or… drumroll… fat tissue.
The calorie thing is a Red Herring. The conventional mental model — how we all learned how to think about fat loss and fat gain — is based on a logical error, the confusing of cause and effect.
This Changes Everything!
No longer should we ask “how can I eat less and exercise more?”
This question fails to address the core problem, which is that biochemical forces are, for whatever reason, causing you to store too much fat.
The key questions then become: “Why? On a biochemical level, what’s making my fat tissue suck up and hold onto excess fat? What’s messing up my Black Box? (or, as Jonathan would put it: What’s clogging up my sink?)”
A pregnant woman does not get bigger because she overeats. Otherwise anyone could grow a baby by overeating. Instead, she overeats because she is pregnant.
Imagine if she went on a low calorie diet while growing the baby. First of all, she’d quickly get really hungry. Secondly, her energy levels would crash. And if she really forced herself into an energy deficit — by going to the gym, taking appetite control pills, etc — she could maybe blunt the growth of the baby, but only at great cost to both her body and the body of her child.
Why? Because the growing fetus has its own energy needs: it’s in many ways “in business for itself,” and it will hoard calories at the expense of the mother’s other metabolic needs.
The same exact logic applies when we talk about obesity. Your fat tissue is getting bigger, or it has gotten bigger. That’s obvious. The fat is growing abnormally, as if it’s “in business for itself.” In many ways, it’s behaving exactly like a fetus or like a tumor, narcissistically sucking up calories without a care in the world about the rest of the body.
The question we must address is WHY?
Once you’ve changed your perspective, the problem of obesity becomes much more tractable. We can start asking the right questions — finally!
Instead of wasting time fiddling around with calorie counters and treadmills and such nonsense, we can look for the REAL constraints that make people fat and keep them that way: The problems with the Black Box. Or, to use Jonathan Bailor’s apt metaphor, the hormonal clogs in our metabolic sink.
The good news is that, at least to a first degree, the answer appears to be remarkably simple: fix your diet to avoid consuming food that messes up your Black Box — or that “Clogs your Sink,” if you prefer. That’s it!
Obesity epidemic solved. Humanity saved. :)
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