Weight loss and climate change

Like a large proportion of the world’s population[1] I’m trying to lose some weight, in my case the extra kilos added over Xmas and the associated conference season. As those who know me would expect, this entails frequent (some might say obsessive) weight measurement, and it’s a frustrating business.

After some quick early gains (or rather, losses) I’m now losing weight at a rate of a kilo a month, or so. On the one hand, that’s good. I’ll regain my target weight well before the next round of temptations. And, on a sustained basis, it’s enough to go from obese to the lean side of normal in a couple of years.

On the other hand, measurement-wise a loss of a kilo is swamped by intra-day and inter-day variations due to all manner of causes. It’s easy for my inner weight loss sceptic to say I’m going nowhere, or for my inner optimist to say that I’m so close to the target that I can relax my efforts.

Thinking about that got me to thinking about broader parallels between weight loss and climate change.

First up, the basic physics of weight loss/gain is clear. As far as muscle, bone, fat and so on is concerned, the gain or loss in any given period is determined, pretty much exactly, by the difference between kilojoules digested and kilojoules burned (this source suggests a ratio about 40kj/g).

But as with climate change, water complicates things a lot. Men are roughly 60 per cent water. Although this proportion declines a bit with obesity, my understanding is that more solid body mass is associated with more body water, so we have a positive feedback.

The problem is that, in the short term, fluctuations in body water mass swamp (sic!) the modest changes associated with a positive or negative net energy intake. So, any kind of statistical estimate of a trend is highly problematic in the short run. Nevertheless, in the long run, statistics and physics agree, as they must.

The second problem is that, while the answer to weight loss is simple, it is far from easy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is a huge amount of wishful thinking. This is represented on the one hand by fad diets[2], and on the other by technological fixes of various kinds. We can subdivide those into easy fixes that don’t work (most of them) and apparently effective fixes that seem worse than the problem to be solved (stomach stapling and similar).

Seemingly opposite to wishful thinking, but in many ways aligned with it, are impossibility arguments. The archetypal argument of this kind is that we are endowed with a metabolism that gives our body a set ‘target weight’ which we cannot change – dieting or exercise will automatically produced countervailing metabolic changes that render them ineffective in the long run.

So, the problem is clear and, for many, debilating or even fatal. The science is equally clear, but its message is unpalatable to many. Result, delusion and self-delusion on a grand scale.

fn1 Fun fact to check for yourself. For the first time in the history of the world, more people are overweight than are underfed.

fn2. Unsurprisingly, for rightwingers there is a party line on this, as on most factual questions. And, as usual, it is determined as a mirror-image of a caricature version of leftism. Since leftists are seen as bean-sprout eating vegans, the orthodox rightwing diet is high in animal protein and low in carbohydrates. (If you think I’m joking Google Limbaugh + low-carb).

44 thoughts on “Weight loss and climate change

  1. The solution for both weight loss and reducing carbon in the atmosphere is to make permanent lifestyle changes. It might be uncomfortable for a month or two but after that you will wonder what all the fuss was about and why you didn’t do it earlier. Kill two birds with one stone and start cycling everyday.

  2. More seriously…

    The current emerging neuropsychological model of how the brain chooses is – loosely – a set of automated, mostly or totally unconscious, neural systems producing impulses that are summed to produce default behaviour. These are the choices that are statistically adaptive, or rather, they were statistically adaptive at some time in our evolutionary past. The final conscious process provides a opportunity to reject the “visceral” default choice and override with an alternative, eg, “no thanks” to that second sausage. We could describe this model as rather than having Free Will, we have something like “Free Won’t”. Actually using that “free won’t” capacity requires significant ongoing effort, and we often lapse. Some things help, like low stress levels and the comfort of narratives.

    What conscious mind is really good at is narrative, new and remembered, personal and cultural. On the down side, the capacity for creative narrative allows the individual “rationalise” the visceral choice (usually irrationally): “I’ll take the sausage now and skimp lunch tomorrow and sausages aren’t so highly calorific if well done.” There are some amusing cognitive psych experiments where the subjects make a choice, but are tricked into explaining their preference the choice they actually rejected. We do it well.

    On the other hand, the capacity for remembered narrative allows us to get smarter; “I can say I’ll skimp lunch but history says I won’t.” Science, as the pomos noted, is another narrative that can be applied to choice. What’s distinctive about science is the extreme effort made to ensure science robustly corresponds to reality. From a biological point of
    view science expends a crazy amount of time and grunt getting right answers, rather than using quick energy-efficient working judgements. We’re programmed to love the feel of quickly getting the gist of situations and relationships.

    What I really want to see at the next carbon tax rally is a not a “bitch” sign behind Tony Abbott, but one that reads: I know in my GUTS that climate change is CRAP!

    The corollary is, of course, “and I have endless narratives to prove it.”

  3. I gave up smoking on the 27th of January and since then I’ve blown up like a balloon. I’ve put on 20 pounds (Canadian scales are all in pounds, alas.) I’ve decided against worrying about my weight for now, but I can’t continue with this quantative easing of my body-mass indefinately.

    Confirming right-wing suspicions, I eat a near vegan diet, but you can still pack on the pounds by eating cookies and hot chocolate in large quantities inbetween the tofu, rice and pasta dishes. It’s a price I’m willing to pay to beat the cigarrette addiction though.

  4. Perhaps there’s also a parallel between people who say that being overweight is far less bad for you than commonly thought, and people who promote the advantages of a warmer Canada, advantages for plants of more CO2 and whatever other arguments are used to minimise the effects of climate change.

  5. John, there’s a few things that need to be said here. First, no one is overweight. It is all mismeasured. Second, people were just as fat in the past, such as in the mediaeval fatty period. Third, the consequences of bring fat are exaggerated by grant-grubbing doctors. Fourth, there is no proof that eating a lot and exercising little causes people to get fat. Fifth, there is no point in losing weight unless everybody else does too.

  6. I think you missed one — fat in some parts of your body is good for you, outweighing any negatives of fat in other parts of your body. Of course, you’re obviously just a fat denier, so you would miss that after all.

  7. Pr Q said:

    The problem is that, in the short term, fluctuations in body water mass swamp (sic!) the modest changes associated with a positive or negative net energy intake. So, any kind of statistical estimate of a trend is highly problematic in the short run. Nevertheless, in the long run, statistics and physics agree, as they must.

    I use a Withings wi-fi scale, which disaggregates fat from the rest of the body mass. Also has a cool graph with a curve which shows your basic weight loss progression which smooths out water “noise” flunctuations.

    Its a pity there is no withings scale that measures global heat gain, smoothing out for El Nino/La Nina “water” cycles.

    Its a pretty good present for the good friend who takes the scientific approach to weight-loss and every thing else.

  8. @Uncle Milton

    Well said Uncle Milton, but you forgot to mention the profits going to those with shares in Jenny Craig and that Tony Ferguson chain of chemists. It’s all connected.

    I’ve also heard it’s a gencidal conspiracy to starve the population.

  9. Prof says
    “I’m now losing weight at a rate of a kilo a month, or so”
    Im rather disappointed that this post doesnt specifically elaborate on the underlying methodologies used to induce scarcity.

  10. Only regimen that I have found for effective weight loss for me is;

    1. One moderate meal a day in early evening.
    2. Finish that meal with a weet-bix “dessert”.
    3. Fast all day next day living on black tea and water only
    3(a). no sweets, snacks, deserts, sugarary or fatty foods… ever.
    4. Take a few multivitamins as well.
    5. Do this for 3 to 6 months while exercising an hour a day.

    It is possible to lose about 2 kilos a month this way. It’s not much fun though. I think you can shrink your stomach this way. After a while you stop feeling hungry and start getting a slightly perverse kick from semi-starving yourself. I defy anyone to do it for more than 6 months thoough. Eventually one weakens and ends up on a new gain cycle.

  11. I follow the Isaac Asimov diet, eat a little less and exercise a little more. It’s only problem is that as one gets older, exercising makes you so tired that it’s hard to keep it up!

  12. Nicely done Uncle Milton – but you forgot to add that fat is of course a perfectly natural substance (“you call it fat we call it food”) so no amount of it could possibly cause the good professor any harm.

  13. As we advance in years the threat of chronic illness looms larger; luckily many are managable with medication. Unluckily, many medications cause metabolic alterations that convert once skinny people into little porkers, even if diet is left unchanged! What’s wrong with chips, icecream, donuts or gravy, I ask? Apparently quite a lot if you suddenly need one of these medications and have a genetic response to this medication, of the caloric-hoarding kind. My personal hoard is right in front of me, at belt level.

    So this once skinny specimen of a human being feels your pain, Pr Q. There are pounds (oops, kilograms) to be removed, and the answer seems to lie in exercise. The electric exercise bike – thoroughly modern convenience, that – lies await, in the corner of a dusty room…

  14. Exercise? Working families have enough to do all day without adding exercise to their burden!

  15. Does anyone know if the Atkins/low-carb diet actually works on a sustained, long-term basis? Just curious. Research seems to be conflicting on this.

  16. @Ikonoclast

    The regime sounds plausible, though having achieved your target weight, the trick would be to gradually reintroduce a more normally composed (but low LDL-fat) diet without the addition of convenience “foods” and to co-extensively increase aerobic exercise.

  17. @David Horton

    Nicely done Uncle Milton – but you forgot to add that fat is of course a perfectly natural substance (“you call it fat we call it food”) so no amount of it could possibly cause the good professor any harm.

    It’s as if the professor wants to reject surplus calorie budgeting and favours running longterm recurrent calorie deficits.

  18. @Bridiejo
    Fat has a slower metabolic pathway than sugar, so it’s less prone to put you in the high blood sugar zone where you lay down body fat. It’s important to remember that starch (aka, more-or-less, “carbohydrate”) is a bundle of sugar molecules that is quickly unzipped on entering the body. Thus, sugar is not the number you want, it’s sugar plus carbohydrate. Low glycemic forms of carbohydrate, typically those with a higher fibre content, are better in this regard.

  19. I too have recently started on a program to reduce weight.

    I also discovered that like global temperature measurement and seawater height measurement, daily weight measurement variations are swamped by variables that move from day to day.

    Like JQ, I have determined that a large variable is my bodies water load. At 1 kg per liter, it doesn’t take much to swamp the daily weight gain. But added to this is the variation of the amount of material in the digestive system.

    So I am looking for reductions of 1 kg per fortnight, but the natural variation in weight is about 1.5 to 2 kg.

    The way I have solved this problem is to weigh myself daily at a time when I think my weight is the lowest. (Before breakfast), and look for new lows. and try not to influence the measurement by doing stupid things by not drinking. (Weight loss is not my ultimate goal, fat reduction is. I am using weight measurement as indication of fat reduction, but it is only a good indication if I maintain good water and food balance at the time of weight measurement)

  20. Myles @ 16, the Atkins diet works, no doubt about it, short or long term, to reduce weight and keep it off. My neighboor tried it. There are several levels from extremely low carbohydrate intake at the beginning rising over the months to a sustainable level.

    The extremely low carb levels are not meant to be sustained and could cause malnutrition. As with all diets the trick is to sustain them. Best to have good eating habits for life.

    As an orchardist and sometime athlete I have always worked better on a diet high in protein and associated fats. It works better for sustained energy and now as I age, for not putting on the weight which would be piling on if I was in the habit of eating lots of bread and deserts.

    Morning is the best time to exercise aerobically and evening for using weights. It is vital to do both for losing weight. The aerobics will supercharge the metabolism for the rest of the day and make you feel good about yourself. Weights done after dinner will stimulate muscles into fat burning action for days while you sleep like a baby at night.

  21. Myles, the Atkins diet can have some negative effects and doesn’t seem to be more effective than a high carbohydrate low GI diet and so to me doesn’t seem to be worth it. But different approaches seem to work for different people and so an Atkins or other low carbohydrate diet could still be helpful provided one is careful not to damage oneself.

  22. Professor Q inadvertantly has just disproved AGW by forgetting that Al Gore is a fatty fat fat!

  23. (Just barely) apropos of the serious meaning of this thread, here’s a pretty interesting study from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School:

    Americans are culturally polarized on a range of societal risks–from global warming to domestic terrorism, from school shootings to vaccination of school-age girls for HPV. Reporting the results of surveys and experiments involving some 5,000 Americans, the study identifies the causes of this condition and steps that can be taken to counteract it.


  24. don’t weigh yourself every day.

    smaller plate.

    big nutritious brekky.

    small and slowly savoured evening meal.(with soup)

    lay off the alcocarbs,transfats,cornsyrup sweeteners.

    five minutes every now and then during the day for a bit of strenuosity( i made that word up–it fits)five minutes every now and then soon add up.

    getting older it can be a pain to keep fit but at least you have a body you can use and won’t clag out on you in an emergency.(you never know)

    getting older it can be downright agonising trying to be self reliant if you have allowed yourself to become not fit.

    my two cents.

    you’ll get there.

  25. I think the Prof may have overdone the diet and run out of energy – he hasnt been heard from for days?

  26. Ooh, goody gumdrops. I get to be a denialist.
    Possibly not entirely, in that I’m prepared to concede, in very general terms, that if you eat more you’ll get fatter. However…
    Whatever the aesthetic appeal of unfatness, in terms of the bigger picture it’s just not that unhealthy.
    (1) If you control for social class and activity, greater weight doesn’t have a massive effect on all-cases death rates (see, for example, ‘Obesity: How big a problem? by I. Wikelgren, Science, 1998, Vol. 280 no. 5368 pp. 1364-1367’)
    (2) if you look at the epidemiology, it’s very hard to see any input from obesity. Australian life expectancy has been rising at the rate of three months a year virtually uninterruptedly for the past century (see http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features10Mar+2011). Whatever year you date the start of the obesity epidemic to, and whatever the age group you think it’s concentrated in, I defy you to find any signs of it on the graphs. Yes, of course, you could say that the rise is due to other factors such as better health care or more aggressive medicine and that without it we would be improving by six months a year – hell, if we could punch our present rate up by a mere four times we could all live for ever – but that’s a hypothetical.
    (3) Whatever effect obesity does have is almost certainly swamped by the effect of where you stand in the social hierarchy (see the Whitehall studies, passim).
    If Al Gore is fat, it’s doing him no great harm.

  27. But JQ, eight lose contributes to global warming. Fat people carry trapped carbon in their adipose tissue. Depleting fat reserves through exercise releases CO2. If we all try to lose weight, then the carbon emissions will be catastrophic.

    Hmmm… perhaps fat people should get government subsidies for their carbon sequestration efforts!

  28. I knew it – Prof was lying unconscious after the event depleted of vital nutrients (somehow I dont even believe this myself – he probably rode home afterwards!).

  29. So all of those wilderness conservation decisions and World Heritage declarations by Bob Hawke happened because he went on the Pritikin diet and swore off the grog…

  30. Nobody has mentioned a “snack tax” yet.

    Should the government impose this? If there are obesity externalities (higher health costs, unpleasant scenes on the beach) a Pigovian Tax is warranted.

  31. Great post.

    It is also strikes me that the science of weight loss is as poorly communicated as the science of climate change. I know I could lose a few pounds but this BMI measure doesn’t work cause I am tall, also I don’t really understand the cost/benefit equation, having a lower weight reduces my risk of heart disease, etc but by how much, is it worth taking up marathon running or should I just jog a couple of times a weeks. The analogy with climate change is I know CO2 is heating the atmosphere and I am told we need to reduce by X% by 2020, but all I am told is the catastrophic consequences of doing nothing on CO2 (being obese) rather than what are the trade offs with doing something a bit less X-5% (being on the high side of normal weight).

  32. I’d like a levy food quality-based levy on foods. Staples and combinations of staples that passed muster as adequate in nutritional terms — (i.e. not high in LDLs, or highly concentrated in refined sugars or other highly refined carbohydrates) would be zero-rated and as their proprtion of these rose, the rate at which they were taxed would increase. Again, the funds raised would be hypothecated, going in part to support those dealing with obesity, bariatric care etc and also to sustain locally run quality food coops to which people on below average income would have relatively privielged access. As with the CO2 price, a stored value card would allow people to shop for quality food staples at a discount.

  33. @ChrisB
    Not true.

    Population studies that try to link average life duration and average obesity are confouded by numerous factors, especially medical progress. However, virtually every study that I have seen that correlates body weight with disease prevalence finds a U shaped curve with minimum incidence rates at a BMI of about 22/23. Lower than this you are probably starving yourself or sick; higher and you are hurting yourself. Besides the usual cardiovasular and diabetes these results are common across many cancers, a range of other diseases and aging in general. These results are backed up by physiological evidence of cumulative negative impacts of bloated fat cells on the body.

    There are some considerations that that weaken these results, especially the correlation between BMI and sedentry lifestyle. On the other hand, while BMI is easy to measure, it is an imperfect measure of obesity. Body shapes vary and research is indicating that it’s fat around the gut – aka “male fat” that is the problem more than distributed fat. (Or female fat on the breasts and hip which requires physiological effort to maintain so is a sign of youthful good health.) If a better fat measurements were used the impact of obesity on disease would probably increase.

    None of this stuff is completely rock solid but the indications are pretty plain. The fact that you might now have an increased life expectancy despite being overweight doesn’t mean that much if the extra life is spent in a poor state of health, unable to do much, and kept alive by drugs. I aim to get as close you can reasonably manage to a BMI around 23 while maintaining activity and equanimity. People should take general body shape and fat distribution into account as well as the simple number.

  34. Jim,

    There is an important caveat about what you say – for the over 65’s, higher BMI has a protective effect. Death rates, from pretty much every cause, are lower for those with a BMI over 23 . The most dangerous thing to be as you get older is underweight. Death rates pick up markedly as you head below 20.

  35. @Michael

    Does that exclude those whose low body weight was a consequence of some disease rather than simply their body type?

    One imagines that someone who, for example, developed cancer, and received treatment for it, would probably lose weight before they died. Similarly, someone who was sleeping rough and thus not eating well would be far more likely to get ill and die than someone who was not and one would not suppose that they would have a high BMI at that point.

    On the other hand, we do know that obesity is associated with a great number of life-altering and commonly lethal diseases, so the idea that high BMI could be protective calls for some pretty impressive controlled studies.

    One might also note that not all life years are of equal quality. If one is persistently ill through one kind or another of disease associated with obesity, and persistently unable to enjoy life as one would want it as a consequence of overweight, that we have the technologogy to prolong a ruined life is moot. A person in rude good health who requires few health interventions but who dies suddenly from some cause unrelated to her/his body type two years earlier than someone who almost certainly will die from such a cause has not been worse off.

  36. Great article and shot of the Prof in todays SMH money section page 3 – and Prof you are definitely looking nicely lean. The diet is working – now post it in here!

  37. Jim Birch –
    I don’t think you’ve really answered my points.
    (1) “virtually every study that I have seen that correlates body weight with disease prevalence” – OK, let’s say that’s true. If, then, the all-causes death rate doesn’t show much correlation this would imply that there’s a protective effect of overweightness generally.
    (2) You don’t address the issue of confusion of the data through class. The studies also include
    comments like “the mother’s education (MOMED) has a coefficient of -.161…. a one-unit increase in a mother’s years of education causes a decrease in the respondent’s future BMI by .161.” If, as the Whitehall studies suggest, hierarchy is an independent ill-health factor, and if fat people are poorer and lower in class than thin people, the issue of which is the predominant problem is not concluded.
    (3) “The fact that you might now have an increased life expectancy despite being overweight doesn’t mean that much if the extra life is spent in a poor state of health, unable to do much, and kept alive by drugs.” Well, yes, that would be relevant if the statistics said that while life expectancy was increasing healthy life expectancy wasn’t, but the stats don’t say that. The average period of disability at the end of life is remaining about steady. Again, the effect of obesity isn’t showing up in the stats. – perhaps because, as Michael says, the studies tend to reverse themselves in older people, where most of the deaths are, and perhaps because we’ve all allowed ourselves to be distracted by obesity when the real problem is social stratification.
    Though I will concede that the diagnosis of the problem doesn’t point directly to a remedy.

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