Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"The Secret Life of Fat"

I've been reading what must be one of the most depressing books I've ever read:  The Secret Life of Fat by Sylvia Tara.  Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely fascinating from a biochemistry prospective, and it is very well-written, including lots of interesting anecdotes and scientific studies.  In fact, I was able to bring up points from it both in last week's biology class as well as this week's life science class, thus firmly cementing my reputation as the one who reads really weird books for fun, lol.  But the end result is pretty much no hope for losing weight and keeping it off, biochemically speaking.

Dr. Tara has struggled with her own weight since she was a teen, so when she went for her PhD, she studied fat.  She wanted to understand fat--and why her body seemed to be so good at holding onto it.   Fat, it turns out, is actually really interesting.  Did you know it is classified as an organ now?  As a short summary, "fat is involved in the management of our energy stores, thermal regulation, keeping our cells intact, and, surprisingly, in sending signals within our bodies." (p. 25)  Cell signaling is a huge emphasis in the AP biology curriculum framework, so that part was really intriguing to me.  Fat secretes its own hormones (at least 7 different ones!), which can make you feel hungry or suppress your appetite, depending on the balance of hormones--and so that makes fat part of the endocrine system.

One of these fat-secreted hormones, leptin, also binds to immune cells, and affects their signaling.  People with very low body fat often do not have a very effective immune system, and they get sick more often.  And of course, we know that puberty in girls especially relates to body fat.  It turns out that girls experience a 120% increase in body fat before getting their first period, which the book says is 13 pounds on average.  "There was a minimum requirement of 17 percent body fat in order for menstration to begin at puberty, but 22% body fat was needed to continue regular menstration as girls approached the age of sixteen."  (pg. 49)  I thought this explanation of why was fascinating:  "The subcutaneous fat (fat directly under the skin) in a woman's body can convert male hormones, called androgens, into estrogen.  Fat makes this conversion by means of an enzyme called aromatase.  Young women make estrogen both in their ovaries and in their fat.  (The latter is the primary source of the hormone in postmenopausal women.)  However, younger women who are very lean make a weaker form of estrogen that does not prepare the uterus to host an embryo the way the hormone normally does.  As one can imagine, these women also have challenges with lactation."  (pg. 52)  There are actually quite a few reasons why it is "healthier to be overweight and fit than simply to be thin."  (pg. 62)

So fat is great . . . except it does cause problems, such as activating the immune system too often, which impacts our metabolism and triggers diseases like diabetes. So just lose some weight, right?  "Eat less, exercise more!"  Except it's not that simple.  Our bodies literally fight to keep fat.  Doctors studying this have done some absolutely fascinating studies proving this.  Here is just one conclusion:  "So once we lose weight, our bodies are more efficient and conserve energy at rest, and are even better at doing so during exercise.  Put another way, a person who has lost weight has to run five miles for every four miles a person who is naturally at the weight does in order to burn as many calories.  If the dieter who's achieved a new lower weight eats and exercises like a person naturally at that weight, the dieter will put on pounds.  It's unfair.  But after the hard work of shedding fat, we have to work harder than those who have not dieted to keep it off, and are forever at higher risk of getting it back.  So even a temporary weight gain can have lifelong consequences."   (pg. 84).

So that's depressing.  But it gets worse!  Another researcher "correlated the changes in patients' weight to the measurement of their hormone levels at the various points in time.  He noticed something both fascinating and sobering--his patients' hormone levels seemed to have been permanently altered in a way that actually made weight gain easier after a successful diet.  The hormones were reprogramming the participants' bodies to be hungrier after they had lost weight than before, driving them to regain fat."  (pg. 89)

Our bodies literally coordinate an over-arching strategy, using multiple mechanisms to make sure we regain any weight we have lost--and then keep on gaining! Gender plays a huge role in this (women gain weight much easier, and it's much harder for women to lose and maintain weight loss), as well as genetics (of course!) and things you don't normally think of, like viruses and bacteria.

Chapter 8, which focuses on women and fat, was the most interesting to me.  It really listed out exactly what I have noticed as I have done Whole30 diets through a menstrual cycle.  During the second half of a cycle, we crave fats and carbs because our estrogen levels have dropped, and then one the period starts, the progesterone peak that happens causes more fat to be stored.  And during pregnancy, a female adds 5-13 pounds of fat even if she is undernourished, and it looks like that is because the gut flora actually changes during pregnancy, and women's gut bacteria increases absorption of food!

So anyway, at the end of all this really very interesting information, Dr. Tara details her weight loss journey as she tried to lose 25 pounds, the same amount I would love to lose.  She started intermittent fasting, which as I have also read, is somewhat effective at losing fat.  She would eat 200 cal. for breakfast at 8:00, then 500 cal. at lunch, and then a snack of 200 cal. at 3:00.  A total of 900 calories a day, and a 17 hour window of fasting!  After a few months, she had lost a grand total of 4 pounds.

So she added in exercise, running in the morning for 30 minutes, every other day, before eating, since that is supposed to be more effective at preventing fat storage.   She lost a total of 5 more pounds in 7 weeks before plateauing. and this whole time she was obsessed with food, thinking about it all the time.  Fun!

She started keeping a very detailed food log, and she could then see how food choices directly impacted her weight.  If she ate one cookie, or a slice of pizza, she would gain at least a pound the next day.  So absolutely no cheating ever, if she was expecting to actually lose weight.

After 13 weeks, she'd only lost 10 pounds, so she starting running for 40 minutes, and added high intensity interval training as well, which helped her lose a few more pounds.  But then holidays came, and she did indulge a little, so no more loss. But she also didn't gain, which was big.  She added in weight training after the holidays, but then she dropped weight even more slowly.  Her fat had already adapted, so her body was no longer responding well to her intermittent dieting or all her exercise.  So she removed even more carbs from her diet (only no more than 1000 calories a day already), and increased her fasting window to 19 hours, which helped her lose about 1/2 pound a week.  Eventually, months later (over a year?), she achieved her goal of losing 25 pounds.  But now she has to be constantly vigilant, since it is very easy for her to regain it.

The thing is, the way she describes this fight against fat is really how I think of fighting sin in my life!  Constant vigilance, not letting it get a foothold, etc.  And when you come down to it, eating and enjoying food is not sin, as long as you aren't a glutton (and we've already established that people who are dieting are often eating much less and exercising more than the average--but still gaining weight).  As Ecclesiastes 9:7 says, "Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do."  That doesn't sound like starving yourself on a 1000 calorie a day diet, honestly.  I'm afraid if I focus all my efforts on losing weight, then I would lose any motivation or mental energy to not do actual sinful things, like get angry and irritable, or be impatient--or even just not be able to focus on someone other than myself.  During my Whole30 months I found myself not wanting to cook meals for others (even my own family, honestly) because it was just having temptation right there in my face, and dealing with food more than absolutely necessary.  I didn't want to do social things, since those usually revolve around food, and I just didn't want to deal with it.  It was definitely harder to think about others, and it's hard to imagine the rest of my life like that, of my own choosing, simply because I thought losing 25 extra pounds and keeping it off was worth it.

And for her, this battle was a 24 hour thing.  I am not at a point in my life where I can dedicate 2-3 hours a day to intensive exercise, and I *want* to be able to sample things my kids make.  I still have to cook boatloads of food, and you don't feed a bunch of hungry boys cheaply with salmon and salad.  That's why the book was so discouraging.  Everything she wrote confirmed my findings last summer.  But I don't have the mental margin to do those things during the school year--and the weight I lost came back on much more quickly, which is scary.

I don't know if it is mentally or emotionally healthy to be so focused on what I eat, and how much fat I am losing or not losing, especially given that it is likely I won't lose much at all.  I don't want the rest of my life to be a miserable starvation experience, you know?  I read the reviews for this book an amazon, and some people there recommended a book called The Obesity Code by Jason Fung.  They felt he gave more practical potential solutions and helps.  I was pretty discouraged after this current book, so maybe I'll give that one a try next.  Of course, our library doesn't have it in book form, so it will have to wait until I'm ready to buy it off amazon!

Before reading this book, I was trying to gear myself up for another month of Whole30, but now I'm thinking I'm just going to try to be more consistent in exercising, and not worry anymore about trying to get rid of my permanent pregnant belly.  Bob and I went to a Family Life "Weekend to Remember" conference this past weekend.  The speakers were so good and funny, as usual.  The wife of one of them was a mother of 10 (8 c-sections, one adoption, and one niece they are raising as their own).  She named her belly "Eunice"--it's like another baby, lol.  So I guess I should just roll with it, and try to be healthy, and not be consumed with my poor-fitting clothes.  It is what it is, and I certainly wouldn't trade away any of my kids for my pre-kid flat belly!

1 comment:

Kim Brandt said...

Well, 10 babies certainly changes our bodies! Age doesn't help either. As I read this post, I kept thinking that you might enjoy reading The Fast Metabolism Diet. Have you heard of it?