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The only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you eat.
Yup. That statement is elegant, inarguable, true…
…and really incomplete, disempowering, and not particularly useful if you’re trying to lose weight. In my not so humble opinion.
My point is that you can boil “truths” down to simple, parsimonious laws. And those laws are tremendous achievements, and tremendously scientifically useful. But when you’re operating instrumentally and strategically, “truth” is just the price of admission, and the cost is sometimes too high.
The cost is too high when you throw out useful stuff because that useful stuff seems to be ignorant of, or in violation of, the conservation of matter and energy (or the “laws” of thermodynamics, or whatever).
This is cutesy, but I have my own theory of the “epistemic hygiene hypothesis” Washing your hands is really important. But if you avoid anything and everything “unclean” (anything you can’t factor down into really simple stuff you can find in a textbook published decades ago) you’ll end up with an underdeveloped memetic immune system and you’ll develop memetic allergies. Impure/unclean information becomes existentially and emotionally dangerous and you won’t be able to extract value from it because of an overactive memetic immune system.
For example, messy, crazy communities of practice (blog networks, people connecting because they’re trying to figure shit out, because they have vested interest in getting an answer, etc.) can move faster than science. You can use communities of practice to move faster than science, especially if you apply scientific knowledge to the hypotheses being generated by that community of practice. Examples: powerlifting communities of practice, weight loss communities of practice, yoga, meditation. There is culty, scary, dangerous information out there, and there is really useful information out there.
I value being careful of other-optimizing. I value conditions of epistemic viciousness. I am very much afraid of sending people down dangerous or opportunity-costing rabbit holes. And the people who look in many different places and finally find an answer to their problem become convinced that they’ve found the one true answer for everybody. But, in general, I think people need to get their cognitive hands dirtier.
(I am a connoisseur of crack-pots. Crack-pots commit two sins, one much greater than other. The first sin is being wrong. The second sin, the far worse one, is being right but failing to link up their knowledge in a comprehensible way with the grand web of science. Crack-pots, rather, people constructing vast, weird edifices on the internet, can be very useful. Or they can be obsessed with lizard people or cherry pick to their confirmation-biased heart’s content. I have no regrets about reading the entire internet, rather, spending literally hundreds of hours carefully crafting search queries. Yes, opportunity cost.)
Alright, so here’s my take on weight loss. (Disclaimer: I’ve always been thin, until I very slightly wasn’t, and then I learned all this, and now I’m thin again. Regression to the mean? YMMV.) This is just an example of going “faster than science.” I’ve pulled this together from dozens of sources, peer-reviewed research, blogs, etc. (This was previously posted on a mailing list.) Maybe I’m wrong about bits and pieces. Maybe I’m not even right. But I’ve generated hypotheses that can be personally tested.
1. Chew your food until it is tasteless mush before swallowing, and savor it while you’re chewing.*
2. Aerobic exercise (within your target heart rate zone) sufficient to induce transient, post-exercise anorexia.**
3. Mix high intensity intervals into aerobic exercise (go hard for 30s to 2 min and go back to aerobic intensity. Don’t do this until after a few weeks of (2).
4. Differentiate different kinds of hunger: “Hungry” but can’t think of anything in particular that would taste good, and your energy level and mental acuity are fine, and you don’t keep getting distracted by the hunger, then it’s probably ok to ignore.
5. Keep you window of eating as small as possible (say all 3-6 meals within eight hours) so that your body has to build up and then dip into its storage system.
6. Don’t eat closer than four hours until bedtime (help body switch over into night-time fat burning). You need to make sure you eat enough during the day.
7. Exercise in the morning on an empty stomach to preferentially burn fat. (You need to fuel appropriately the day before.)
8. Don’t eat food that has been carefully designed. But, if you do all the above, you can eat a decent amount of food that has been designed.
(9. Not related to weight loss, but safely lifting heavy things using your whole body is good for you.)
10. Count calories only for a couple days every few months so you can calibrate your intuition. Generally, do NOT restrict or count calories. Your body will fight back. Do not worry about protein and carbs and fat ratios. Just make sure you’re eating enough fat. (See 11.)
11. If you are not eating milk or eggs, you are probably not eating enough animal saturated fat. You are probably not eating enough animal saturated fat anyway. If you’re not getting enough fat, you desperately try to get all your energy from carbs, and you desperately try to convert carbs to sat fat, but your metabolism can’t keep up with either, so you start offloading carbs into fatty tissue. Use all your metabolic pathways. Eat more animal saturated fat. I purchase non-hydrogenated lard and tallow. You can also give your carb pathway a break by eating more coconut oil. Don’t restrict carbs, though.
12. Long, slow walks >40 minutes use up all the fuel in your blood and teach your body to dip into your storage system for efficiently. Mix these in as desired.
Summary: Cycle your parasympathetic nervous system (and fuel tank system) so it doesn’t forget how to burn fat.
*This does something to your dopamine levels, I think. And it gives your mouth/stomach/brain better information as to what you’re eating for effective metabolic regulation. Palatability-taste-intensity-calorie-availability inference in the brain. This can be dehydrating initially because you’re using a lot more saliva. Be careful. After a week or month, it seems like you can go back to normal eating, or at least something somewhere in you has adapted to a healthier baseline. You can always do it again. Also, this sucks at first, like you’ll never enjoy your food ever again. It’s a weird trip. Be gentle and experimental.
**I.e. you dont feel hungry. You’re preferentially burning from storage. But if you’re hungry, eat. If your fuel tank is low enough, you’ll be hungry even if you’re preferentially burning fat. For me this is about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a session, 2-5 times per week. Start out with 1-2 times per week until your tendons and ligaments adapt.
1. If you ingest *more* than your body expects you to burn, in the *short term,* your metabolism either temporarily speeds up, you become predisposed towards more activity, or you store it. Usually it’s a careful balance of all of these.
2. If you ingest *less* than your body expects you to burn, in the *short term,* your metabolism either temporarily slows down, you become predisposed towards less activity, or you burn fuel from storage. Usually it’s a careful balance of all of these.
3. In the *long term,* if you keep ingesting *more* than your body wants you to burn, your body becomes inefficient at mobilizing fuel from storage, because there’s rarely a prolonged need for the stored fuel. When circulating fuel starts to run out, instead of mobilizing from storage, you get hungry much sooner than you would otherwise, and you feel that hunger very strongly because there’s a very slow, sluggish release of stored fuel. Overall, the body gets much better at putting fat into the storage system than getting it out. And you put on weight. (Eating too much highly palatable, carefully engineered food kicks you more quickly into this regime.)
4. In the *long term,* if you keep ingesting *less* than your body wants you to burn… you once again become inefficient at mobilizing fuel from storage (because at some point the body thinks there’s not enough food in the environment, and, instead of burning fuel to make up the difference, your metabolic rate and predisposition toward activity go down in order to conserve your fuel storage). Now the body preferentially puts fat into storage whenever it possibly can because it thinks there’s less food in the environment, and maybe there’s an approaching famine. So, if you do start eating more, you put on weight very quickly.
Restricting calories to lose weight is systematically undershooting what your body wants to burn. If you only undershoot by a very small amount, to lose weight very gradually, then you won’t be so hungry that you can’t sleep, you won’t be cold all the time, and you won’t feel sluggish and exhausted. But you’re still teaching your body that the environment is lacking and that your body should put on fat and keep it on if given the opportunity. You start to preferentially burn more muscle and tissue biomass for energy than you would if calories were abundant. Your body repairs itself more slowly. Plus, maybe it’s personal preference, but wouldn’t you rather your body handled hunger, desire for physical activity, and fat storage for you? It’s a delicately tuned system, and it’s hard for me to believe that getting within say a 25-200 calorie deficit every single day, with varying levels of activity and eating is easy (I don’t have any intuition for when it starts to suck). If your body is happily releasing fat at a steady burn, it can take a little getting used to as all the different systems rebalance, but you just feel steady and fine… YMMV.
The cycling and calorie-non-restriction I described upthread teaches your body that it’s safe to release fuel into the bloodstream whenever there’s the slightest hint of a need. You don’t feel transient intense hunger because your body efficiently cuts over to fuel release when circulating fuel runs low. It takes much longer to feel hungry and you naturally eat less if you’re overweight and burning off excess storage. For whatever reason (mimicking the ancestral environment?), the gazillions of carefully tuned interacting systems in your body are gently nudged into behaving properly. And you lose excess weight, and you don’t put on weight easily, and your weight control system is fast-acting and robust. And your energy is steadier because you have an endogenous fat burn buffer and your muscles aren’t desperately sucking sugar out of your blood after you eat.
Anyway, those are my wild claims and genuine expectations. They’re more like ideas for gently-ramped-up-over-a-several-weeks personal experiments than claims. Depending on what regime all the different systems one’s body is in, different things will help or hurt. (Systems: global parasympathetic activity, adrenal sensitivity, leptin sensitivity, insulin sensitivity, ratio of adipose tissue, cardiovascular adaptation, metabolic rate, history and genetics of macronutrient ratio consumption, history and genetic limit for gluconeogenesis…) Temporary calorie restriction might be a skillfully wielded tool in all of this. See some of the late-in-the-book references in Good Calories, Bad Calories for input/output/activity-level stuff (I don’t think the book’s main thesis is correct). See Mastering Leptin for some of the storage-release intuition and lots of references (again, I don’t buy into the whole book). Maybe other people can dig up some research on other pieces of this, and/or I’m wrong somewhere. This is all testable if it hasn’t been already.
1.) One friend did the calorie restriction route, did the restless nights, irritability, brain fog, and hunger, lost twenty pounds, is now eating normally and has kept it off, so, for some people this appears to work fine…
2.) The same friend, prior to the above, switched to whole fat yogurt, changed nothing else, and lost ten pounds. So there’s that, too.
3.) As for myself, the body of text above is consistent with my own N=1 retrospective experience and informal experiments with weight gain and loss.
In conclusion, truths can be thought-stopping. They can be true… and still be disempowering and counterproductive in their naive application. And, because of their “vast explanatory power” and inarguable simplicity, they can preclude people from finding more useful information, because they think there’s no more information to find. I am perhaps willing to concede that the truth is always true, but we don’t have truth, we have maps, and we will only ever have maps. And maps are more or less useful, depending on what you’re trying to do. Maps are contextually useful.
And, interventions have effect sizes. Some interventions are many orders of magnitude more useful than others, even if they’re all “statistically significant.”
And I bet most complex systems of instrumental levers don’t have a “what’s really going on.”
In other words, “what’s really going on” is of high Kolmogorov complexity, and anyone talking about simple laws and principles is using really lossy compression. Sometimes.
Sometimes you can find an initially (or perpetually) counterintuitive, highly personal, set of really indirect levers that, when used in the right sequence, gently nudge, say, a bazillion metabolic and hormonal pathways into balance. Having gotten your hands dirty on previous occasions helps you to be able to tell the difference.
If you agree with me, maybe we can raise the level of discourse:
1. Here are the laws (with vast explanatory power, yet counterintuitively sparse, anemic, slowly accumulated, and possibly not even true, anyway, whether contextually or just plain spuriously)
2. The naive application of these laws can be counterproductive. Here’s why.
3. Here’s some possibly counterintuitive things you might try, and here’s some scant evidence that they might work for you.
4. Here’s some communities of practice that you might want to explore, but be careful.