Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lifestyle Change and Equilibria

I've been thinking a lot lately about weight loss and diabetes and heart health and metabolic syndrome. We talk a lot about the need to think of weight loss as a lifestyle change rather than something you can "fix" in a set period of time before returning to your previous lifestyle habits.

One of my favorite quotations is "the mark of an insane man is to continue doing the same thing while expecting a different result." (I checked wikipedia and can't figure out whose quote it is.) The lifestyle corollary is that your current lifestyle got you into your current state and if you go on a short-term "diet" and then revert to your current lifestyle then you'll get to this state again.

A few examples of these equilbria help illustrate this idea:

Per Taubes, an insulin resistant individual's fat stores that will release fatty acids at a lower rate than those of a healthy individual. The body recognizes this issue and grows their fat stores in order to compensate.  For example, if the fatty acid release rate is half of what it should be then the body compensates by growing its fat stores to twice their "normal" size. At this point, the body will have found a new equilibrium and will stop gaining weight. This helps explain why most overweight individuals don't put on weight indefinitely but rather put on weight until reaching an equilibrium that is above a "normal" or "healthy" weight.

What I'll call a starver is somebody who eats too few calories (lets say 500-800/day) and loses weight by starving themself.  They will lose weight until the body figures out how to compensate for the low caloric intake, generally by reducing "involuntary energy expenditures" as I tried to explain here.  This person will not lose weight indefinitely but will reach an equilibrium where their body has lower daily caloric needs that are met by this restrictive diet -- less involuntary energy expenditures and likely a lower mass.  But if the individual strays from the low-calorie diet then they'll quickly put on weight as the body isn't accustomed to burning that many calories.

Next I'll try to describe myself.  I spent 800 hours training for triathlons in 2008, or about 2.2 hrs/day.  I probably eat 3500-5000 calories in a typical day, depending on training volume.  My energy levels are generally quite high, bordering on hyperactive ... or "permanent caffeine buzz guy" despite rarely consuming caffeine.  My body is at an equilibrium where it makes a lot of energy available to me to power my workouts and my fidgeting and what have you and this requires me to eat a lot!

Finally I'll attempt to describe a healthy, balanced individual.  They get some sort of regular physical activity and they eat a balanced diet focused on unrefined foods and without a lot of starch.  Their energy level is more than adequate to get them through their day and their hormonal balance reinforces their status quo.

My takeaway message is that each of the last three individuals may appear to be reasonably healthy and to have a normal weight, and can maintain that weight indefinitely. But their bodies each have a very different hormonal balance... and each option may work better or worse with your other lifestyle constraints.  I don't condone the starvation approach but I believe that the athlete and the balanced individual are each a healthy steady state to strive for.

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