Jul 6, 2019

Just Do the Math

Overweight and obesity have become national and world problems that do not seem amenable to easy fixing. My experience with the problems reveals an easy concept that obviously isn't easy to do. 

Since I can remember, I've often said "just do the math." Very young, I came to trust math as a system that holds true regardless of time, space or life itself.

Most of my life, I've also been aware of my weight and the prevalence of diets. It seemed that my mother tried them all, including the Air Force Low-Carb Diet. I don't remember any of them working.

The diet plans are endless: Grapefruit diet; low-carb, low-fat, low-proteins diets; Atkins, zone, fasting, Keto, Weight Watchers, South Beach, vegan, paleo, and of course, the Subway diet.

Tens of millions of Americans are on a diet each year. Amazon lists thousands of diet books. My hunch is there isn't much new said in most of them and that they mostly don't work well. I suspect that our society - busyness, cheap and processed food, a focus on wealth and prestige, and the low cost and availability of food - lends itself to easily gaining weight.

From young, I was mostly tall and thin until middle school when I gained some weight. I vividly remember moving into the "husky" sizing at that time. I lost the weight before I entered high school and one of my life goals still is to be buried in the same sized Levi's I wore as a teenager.

Over the past several years, I had gained a few extra pounds, and set out to lose them. I found that technology has come up with some quite accurate and helpful health tools. Mostly, they can track your exercise ("steps" plus more specific activities), what you eat, your weight and lots more. I have spent over a year logging everything I eat, my exercise and my weight.

What happened and what did I learn? Most of all, I learned how amazingly accurate your body is at balancing calorie intake and calorie burn. Yes, your body does seem to have some different responses depending on the food source and timing, and how they are burned. But mostly, it is just simple arithmetic.

When you ingest more calories than your body burns, you gain weight. When you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight. Yes, it isn't much more than that. Most discussions to the contrary are seemingly justifications for bad behaviors.

I quickly learned that if I ingest less than 2300 calories a day, regardless of their source, I steadily lose weight. If I increase the calorie input a bit or reduce my exercise, I quit losing weight and if I increase my net calories just one or two hundred a day, I start gaining weight.

I'm tall with a small build. I have often been told that I have a tape-worm and that I'm lucky to be able to eat so much and not gain weight. But that is not what the math says. The math says I move a lot and I don't eat excessively. My protein and fats are high and my simple carbs are low. That is, I mostly eat what the computers recommend.

I did learn some other things that seem to be true. There is ample evidence that how your get your calories can be significant to your health and diet. High protein foods stem hunger more than carbohydrates. The saturated fat story is overblown. I returned to whole milk a couple of years ago and it has had no negative effect on my weight nor my cholesterol.

Finally, I've learned that for me, it's much easier to control what I eat if I have to log it. I'm a grazer and it's a bit shocking how many calories I can eat if left to myself.

There are scores or even hundreds of ideas for controlling our weight. Most of them probably have some merit and have surely worked for someone. But behind these diets is some simple math that your body can't fight: They either are trying to reduce your caloric intake, increase your caloric burn or some of both.