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Small changes, big difference

Posted Mar 01 2010 2:48pm
Today's New York Times had an eye-opening article on small changes in diet and exercise and obesity . The hallmark of some of the most recent anti-obesity initiatives seem to be small changes. How many times have you heard that if you cut just 100 calories a day, you can lose 10 pounds in one year? I don't have enough fingers and toes to count how many times--and perhaps even more annoyingly, it's flat-out wrong.

The secret to weight loss, we are told, is that you have to burn more calories than you consume. Which is technically true, it's just that the body's metabolism doesn't use the kind of straightforward arithmetic that we learned in elementary school and that you'll find in calorie counters and on pedometers everywhere. It's more like ultra-advanced calculus, where there are numerous factors that go into how many calories we consume and how many we use.

From today's article by Tara Parker-Pope
A person’s weight remains stable as long as the number of calories consumed doesn’t exceed the amount of calories the body spends, both on exercise and to maintain basic body functions. As the balance between calories going in and calories going out changes, we gain or lose weight.

But bodies don’t gain or lose weight indefinitely. Eventually, a cascade of biological changes kicks in to help the body maintain a new weight. As the JAMA article explains, a person who eats an extra cookie a day will gain some weight, but over time, an increasing proportion of the cookie’s calories also goes to taking care of the extra body weight. Eventually, the body adjusts and stops gaining weight, even if the person continues to eat the cookie.

Similar factors come into play when we skip the extra cookie. We may lose a little weight at first, but soon the body adjusts to the new weight and requires fewer calories.

That's not to say that doing small things is useless--they can have profound impacts on our health even if our weight doesn't budge one bit.

Writes Parker-Pope
“There is a much bigger picture than parsing out the cookie a day or the Coke a day,” said Dr. Jeffrey M. Friedman, head of Rockefeller University’s molecular genetics lab, which first identified leptin, a hormonal signal made by the body’s fat cells that regulates food intake and energy expenditure...“I’m not saying throw up your hands and forget about it,” Dr. Friedman said. “Instead of focusing on weight or appearance, focus on people’s health. There are things people can do to improve their health significantly that don’t require normalizing your weight.”

Which pretty much hits the nail on the head. Weight is not a behavior we can change at will. I'm all for kids playing outside more and watching TV less, for them to eat wholesome foods and a variety of treats and sweets. Maybe no one's weight will change as a result of this, and that's just fine.

I've found small changes to be some of the hardest--and therefore most worthwhile--changes I've made in my recovery. Small things, such as getting rid of "low-fat" foods and working to get to bed at a reasonable hour, haven't budged my weight but have had a noticeable impact on my recovery.

What small change have you made that's helped (or hindered) your recovery?
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