Productive Why-ning


Back in the early days of the Asylum, there was a commenter who repeatedly fixated on "why do we overeat".  Eventually I coined the phrase "why-ning" for this questioning.

This post is about how seeking external whys in the scientific literature is most likely a futile effort.  Science can provide easy answers, it turns out, to how to eat to normalize weight.  Putting that into practice in the *real world*, is a whole 'nother issue!!!

If you struggle with weight ... if you're putting all manner of effort in anyway ... this post is a suggestion to alter your "why-ning".  From unproductive questions of why, to more productive, individual and personal questions of yourself as to why.

It is emotionally incorrect these days to acknowledge that for many, adult obesity is, indeed, a lifestyle choice.  It may not be conscious.  It may not have started out that way (e.g. if you have always been obese).  Nonetheless, it is far more within our power to reverse obesity than the Obesity Industrial Complex would lead you to believe.  If you don't believe me, ask yourself why it is often people with all the cards stacked against them, but with compelling motivation, who are able to take charge and lose and keep off more weight than they could ever successfully do decades before.

This is really it.  Nowadays it's becoming easier and easier to be overweight and obese.  It's more "normal", speaking for myself as a middle-aged woman, to be overweight/obese than it is to be normal weight.  There is a wave of body positivity that has helped this along as well.   Sometimes you really just don't have that *why* to make it work.  That is OK too.  Just accept it (for now?) and live life.  But if you're truly unhappy with your weight, keep searching INward.  You'll find the answers.  You may need professional, qualified, assistance.  You may not.

It is often said these days that obesity is a complicated, multifactorial disease.  The obesity experts (like the annoying Dr. Arya Sharma) will tell you that not only is it a chronic disease, but it is incurable!  All factions of what I'll call the Obesity Industrial Complex, have seized on this to profit off of the burgeoning ranks of overweight and obese people.    Not only is obesity never your fault, it's intractable so you shouldn't even bother trying to do anything about it.  Oh, but you have to do *just enough* to manage your disease ... whatevertheheck that even means.

Obesity research is a mess.  Diet wars, and all manner of interpreting of hormonal milieus to explain why it is so difficult for some to lose weight, and most to maintain that weight loss.  Study after study on rodents chasing some elusive homeostasis in a non-homeostatic world.  Almost to a one ignoring the psychological/behavioral elephant in the room.

I've been involved in a -- seemingly never-ending -- Twitter exchange asking the question -- among others -- "Why do we overeat".    The closest we get to research that answers that question is the neurobiological work, but even that just wildly misses the point.  Remember the CAF rats?   In that study they compared four diets:
  1. SC control (12% fat, < 5% simple sugars)
  2. HF chow - 45% fat, lard
  3. LF - low fat (10% lard & soybean oil) matched to HF chow with sucrose substituted for fat content, thus this is a 35% sucrose diet
  4. CAF = SC + 3 human snack foods varied daily from a list below

The CAF rats cut back their chow consumption to 15% of the SC controls, and ate ... and ate and ate ... from the human snack foods.  The intakes were almost identical between the SC chow and the high sugar LF diet (almost 700 kcal/week) while the HFD intake was even a little less (~550 kcal).  The CAF rats?   Well, they increased intake by 30% vs. the SC!  Even though the foods included many refined carbs, these rats ate more than 50% more fat (in absolute grams) compared to the HFD rats!

missing carb count on the SC calculated to be 110.5

And here's what happened to the rats:

I have a simple solution to obesity.  Don't eat a human snack food diet.  

While it is certainly possible to get fat on home cooked "healthy" meals, it is almost guaranteed if the majority of your diet is manufactured "foods".  Just don't eat them.   The same goes for homemade versions of same.

This is not rocket science.  There's nobody holding a gun to your head forcing you buy Doritos, drive through McD's, or to get that Unicorn thing at Starbucks.   If you're an able bodied adult, YOU get to choose the foods you put in your grocery cart and bring into your home.  Nobody else.

We can learn all we need to know from these CAF rats.  

Why did they get fat?  Because they ate more.  Why did they eat more?  Because those highly palatable engineered and processed foods hijack your appetite system and lead to moreish eating.  How do you get them to eat less?  Switch them back to standard chow and the rats stop eating so much.  Such was the case for another CAF-like diet study (see Unmotivated Rats).  


Do any of the old-timer inmates here at the Asylum remember a commenter named Christian from the early days?   He would go on -- and on, and on -- with Taubesian nonsense about CICO being a tautology and we need to know WHY we eat more.   I eventually coined the term "why-ning" for this constant questioning.    As much as I enjoy delving into the research, I never saw this as a quest for some external why for my own obesity.  All of these diet comparisons, all of these hormonal studies, etc.  You can get really caught in the weeds why-ning in this way.  Is it gut flora?  A damaged hypothalamus?  Your leptin?  Insulin?  Thyroid?    The reality is that there are few biochemical/genetic reasons for obesity that can be addressed.  If you're hypothyroid, get diagnosed and treated!  But please don't be mailing your poop away for a gut bug analysis because you're convinced that is what is causing your insatiable appetite for Krispy Kremes.

You'd think a lesson was learned with leptin, and the failure of treatments to fix obesity.  Sadly, not.

The reality is, if you were to survey a wide array of people who have lost a lot of weight and maintained that weight loss, while you will see some patterns (this is the point of the NWCR) if you look past those you'll see a wide variety of methods.  In the end, they have ALL found ways to eat LESS.  Even those who go on to become endurance athletes are still likely eating less than their formerly obese selves.  But these people, almost to a one, changed more than just their diets.  

More reality:  Different people get obese for different reasons at different times in life by different means.  For example me.  I got to my heaviest ever in my mid-40s, during a phase where I was living in sweats and PJs in the house while teaching online.  I consumed some alcohol nearly daily (note: it doesn't take much to add up!!) and we had and consumed a lot of junk food in the house.  Probably 6 nights out of 7 our dinners were either take out or frozen convenience foods (e.g. Mrs Paul's fish and Ore Ida fries).   When I first got obese in my late teens/early 20s, it was because of my eating disorder.  I couldn't stop the binging.    The reasons for the obesity, and failure to maintain weight loss during those times were completely different, and I could identify at least a third unique set of causes and reasons for weight gain in my early 30s after I married.  

So What is Productive Why-ning?

As much as the various diet gurus who claim everything from lack of sleep, to candida, to toxins, to gut flora, to insulin run amok, to mTOR stimulating foods, to whatever can be implicated for weight gain ... and as much as many remain wedded to a set point -- conveniently one that can only be reset higher -- and seemingly infinite capacity for metabolic adaptation, NONE of these hypotheses is anywhere near at a point where they consistently explain observations in real people.   While trips down various PubMed rabbit holes might be academically challenging, fruitful and/or rewarding, that kind of why-ning will get you nowhere in tackling your own overweight or obesity.

If you keep looking for some magic diet that will result in effortless weight loss and maintenance, you'll keep going in circles ... because that "why" has been asked and answered.  So why don't people just eat a low variety, somewhat bland, mostly whole foods diet?  (A number of paradigms from VLC to VLF to carnivore to vegan can qualify).  The "S" word -- sustainability.  For example, in my real world such a diet is fine and dandy until the husband brings home some treat or even junk food I fancy, or I'm on vacation and want to go out for a restaurant meal and a few drinks with friends.

Here is where the whole food-addiction-and-marketing thing falls apart for me.  Because it comes down to a combination of habitual choices, strategic bursts of will power, and working in a liveable amount of deviations.    THIS "magic" formula will be different for everyone, and it may be different from time to time.  It's always going to be balanced out by -- forgive me -- "how bad do you want it", and a good old fashioned balancing of effort vs. pay-off.    In this regard, for better or worse, a greater and greater degree of overweight and obesity is becoming normalized in Western culture.    More are becoming obese at younger ages, meaning more romantic pairings between those who share weight status.  Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but ALL of this factors in.

So ...

If I may get personal for a moment.  Because THIS IS personal.  Are you overweight or obese?

  1. Acknowledge that you are overeating.
  2. Determine what and/or how you are overeating
  3. Figure out how to eat less 
All of this in within your power.  None of it is all that difficult.  There are tools and tricks galore -- that other "why" stuff can help here.  Now comes the hard part:
  • You have to stick with it. The *it* can change, but there must be a plan of sorts. For some that will be more structured, for others less so. I cannot tell you what will work for you, only what has worked for me. I'll not go into that here (because it may or may not work for you, which is besides the point!)
  • If you find yourself slipping on your strategy for #3, you need to re-assess. Why are you not sticking to it? This may be as simple as re-tooling strategy, or you need to go back and re-assess #2.  If you're anything like me, there will be a few a ha moments along the way, and a few hard and/or uncomfortable realizations and choices along the way.
Again .... all personal.  One last thing.  Crazy cravings are not hunger.   They are disordered eating.  If your #3 strategies cause you to spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about -- thus craving -- certain foods, you absolutely need to fall back and regroup.  If you can't figure it out on your own, there's no shame in seeking qualified professional help, even if you don't fit some clinical definition of eating disorder.   The alternative is to go round and round in circles, and pour time, money and precious energy down various coaching program and n=1 research holes and such in search of some homeostatic nirvana.  

Speaking of which ... we live in a highly NON-homeostatic, artificial, obesigenic environment.  Anyone who has ever carried a fair amount of excess fat around for any amount of time is likely "broken" to a degree.  What is the answer?  To tinker and tweak in hopes of one day, one year hitting on some magical formula that allows you to eat ad libitum, "effortlessly" as weight normalizes?  OK.  Sorry to be blunt, but good luck with that.  Alternately you can accept that some deliberate effort will be involved.  Figure out how much you're willing to put in.  Find a way that works for you.

I wish everyone reading this who struggles success in your endeavors.  Cheers to some productive why-ning.