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Fundamental Principles

August 25, 2014

Weight LossFat HealthFat ScienceExerciseDiet Talk

Trigger warning: Discussion of weight loss.

Earlier this summer I tried to make a comprehensive chart of all the logical inconsistencies in the conventional wisdom about how fat operates physiologically. Here’s one example: for around half a century now our culture has taken it for granted that fat tissue itself (at least above a certain “ideal” minimum) presents significant dangers to the human body, so that the more of it you have the worse your health is likely to be (and the less, the better). Let’s call this Belief A. More recently, starting in the late 1990s, I started to see news reports about studies showing that losing a mere 5-10% of body weight provided people with dramatic health improvements. This gives us Belief B: no matter how much “excess” fat tissue you might happen to have, the first 90-95% of it is relatively harmless and can remain right where it is without any significant risk to your health. Now, Belief A and Belief B cannot both be true; they are incompatible. How could anyone possibly manage to believe both? Yet some people do, amazingly enough.

If people were logical in their thinking about fat, the studies that gave rise to the very peculiar Belief B would instead have caused Belief A to be reexamined. Dramatic health benefits without dramatic weight loss? Hmm … maybe the weight/health linkage is not so reliable after all? If fat tissue is actually doing any harm, it must be a pretty small harm, or else be Homeostasiseasily overridden by other factors, since all these now-way-healthier people lost so very little of their initial fat. Pretty plainly, something else had an effect on these people’s health that completely dwarfed the (supposedly bad) effects of their continuing to be overfat.

But people aren’t logical about fat, and there are fundamental articles of faith that have been embraced so deep below the level of rational thinking that a whole alphabet of incompatible beliefs can be stacked one on top of another. And even Belief A isn’t the true cornerstone of fatphobia, it’s just the most officially presentable one. The truly fundamental principle, inhaled from the surrounding culture like the invisible air since before we could read, is that fatness is contemptible; that’s why not too much in the way of evidence is required for beliefs like A to get entrenched: if you already know in your bones that fat is vile and fatties are an inferior breed of human, A just seems commonsensical.

Now you see how long it took me to explain that, and this is just one small corner of my enormously complex and still-growing chart of fat-related reasoning disorders. People who are really attached to their fat-phobic ideology are never going to sit still for the whole exposition. And what about people who are on the fence, or wrestling to clear their heads from all the confusing inputs … what can I do to help them?

I’ve been struggling with my chart and trying to think how to simplify: if I could wave my magic persuader wand and get just one thing across to people, which would be the very most important part of the structure? My own, so to speak, most fundamental principle for understanding fat? The cornerstone of my own Health at Every Size® (HAES) philosophy and practice for the last three decades is this: there exist homeostatic mechanisms in the body which regulate fat storage at a global level. If we could get the public and the medical profession to fully appreciate this one concept, we’d be a lot closer to the world we want to live in.

At this exact instant, I’m not going to trot out all the empirical evidence in favor of the homeostatic systems. I’ll do that later, or someone else will. At this moment, I’m just going to try to give you a little intuitive support for the idea, just enough to combat the seemingly “commonsensical” idea (Belief C) that there are no such systems, that all there is to understand about fat storage is calories in, calories out.

Have you ever gotten a callus? When people work with their hands, their skin starts to toughen up at exactly the place necessary to provide some protection against the stresses their work puts on it. Have you ever done exercises to try to get stronger? People challenge their muscles, push their current strength limits and by doing so, increase them.

It’s really remarkable, how live bodies adapt to resistance training, and this is exactly how exercise works: we put a challenge on the body, thus pushing it to react. In response, it doesn’t just compensate but actually overcompensates, rebuilding itself in exactly the way needed to meet the challenge and then some. Only live bodies can do that. You’d never take a piece of leather and try to build up a callus on it — watch me make this object tougher by applying friction to it! You’d never try to make a rope stronger by dragging gradually heavier and heavier weights from it — these are ridiculous, insane projects. Dead things only erode when we challenge them with external pressures.

Well, Belief C, the idea that body fat can always be melted away to the tune of one pound per every 3,500 calories (of extra exercise or caloric deficit), is basically treating a live body as if it were something dead, that can’t react in any way except helplessly eroding when pressure is applied to it. In reality, in the world of living things, many, many people who have attempted to lose weight have found that in the long term they ended up training their bodies to be even more efficient retainers of fat.

To grasp this concept, it is not necessary to understand exactly how the body regulates itself, only to recognize that it does. How does your body manage to stay at a highly precise 98.6 degrees almost all the time even when the surrounding environment is cooler or warmer than that? I don’t claim to know how it works, but it must have systems both for noticing its own current temperature and for reacting to neutralize external conditions that would otherwise push it away from its target temperature.

That’s not to say that the body’s thermostat is so powerful that it can never be overwhelmed. Of course, if you’re subjected to extreme enough conditions for a long enough time, your body can’t compensate enough, and you will freeze or overheat. Or things can go wrong with your other physiological systems so that you run a fever, but if these adverse conditions don’t actually kill you outright, your body will always be trying to return to its target zone.

Analogously, the body at any given time has a target level of fat stores that it wants to maintain, and tries to maintain by adjusting appetite or metabolism or both, monitoring the situation continuously by means of hormonal signaling (leptin and who knows what else).

Belief-C fundamentalists would like you to think that the only alternative to their simplistic views is an opposite-but-equally simplistic view: that unless you sign on for 3,500 calories always being “equal” to one pound of fat under all circumstances (a notion which is easily refuted experimentally) you must be insisting on miraculous suspension of the laws of physics. This is nonsense.

Do we violate the laws of physics by maintaining a body temperature higher or lower than room temperature? Nope, not if we’re not a corpse. Nor do we violate them by getting hungrier and/or more energy-conserving when we dip below whatever is the body’s current acceptable fat-zone safety margin. No one, not even the most extreme set-point fundamentalist, claims that the body is a perpetual motion machine. No one claims that bodies can never be starved thinner, just that they won’t tend to stay that way.

The widespread idea — belief C again, new heads are always sprouting from this hydra — that anyone can always lose weight by “simply” eating less than the amount their body needs to maintain itself has a big flaw in it. If you think about it, an organism capable of not noticing anything wrong when its own living tissue is being used up without replacement would be pretty poorly designed. It would be like being capable of falling asleep with an arm sticking into the fire — insensitivity like that would save you a little inconvenience and discomfort in the short term, but be disastrous in the long run. All animal bodies have built-in safety features to prevent such negligence.

The body is known to have a wide variety of homeostatic systems that (try to) keep it on an even keel. If there were no such system pertaining to fat stores, it would be possible to starve to death just by accident, without even noticing it was happening.

Jean Braithwaite


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