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Bad science: Weight loss. January 12, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. God bless scientists, and their constant quest to make life better through research. But when research projects derail due to too-narrow focus and the scientists miss the point, it drives me crazy.

Such was the case with a study published in our local paper today. The scientists wanted to find out if eating more slowly caused people to eat fewer calories, and specifically, if it caused normal-weight people to eat fewer calories than overweight and obese people.

This topic in its wider implications has been on the table, so to speak, for a long time. Most doctors, nutritionists, and research scientists who specialize in the subject of weight loss and obesity maintain that the more slowly you eat, the more time your brain has to process a feeling of fullness, which makes it possible to stop when you’ve eaten half a plate of food or when you’ve reached the Japanese ideal of 80% full rather than gorging on everything in sight.

“Put your fork down between bites. Chew each mouthful 50 times. Sip water between each bite. Never eat in front of the TV. Allow no distractions when you’re eating, just focus on the food. Just eat one kind of food rather than a variety. Use a tiny plate. Get someone else to put away the leftovers.” And so the diet advice goes.

I agree that eating more slowly will make you eat less, but you’ll eat less, in my opinion, because the food becomes less appetizing. Hot food cools down past its perfect temperature; cold food warms up past its ideal temperature. The result is a gloppy, gelatinous, unappetizing mess. If you eat slowly, you’re more likely to eat the three perfect forkfuls or spoonfuls, then look at the increasingly revolting remains on your plate and put your utensils down. Yuck! Thank God for leftovers that can be brought back to the right temperature.

But I digress. In the study, normal-weight and overweight or obese participants were randomly assigned to eat slowly or “as quickly as possible without feeling uncomfortable.” All were given the same dish of vegetarian pasta. A few days later, they were again given the same pasta dish, but this time, they were to eat it in the opposite manner to their first attempt. The scientists measured calories consumed from both groups.

They found that, sure enough, both groups consumed fewer calories when they ate more slowly: The normal-weight group consumed 88 fewer calories, 805 versus 893. The overweight and obese group only consumed 58 fewer calories, 667 versus 725. See, the scientists said, overweight and obese people can’t regulate their calorie consumption as well as normal-weight people!

Well, excuuuse me. But might you have noticed that the overweight and obese group actually consumed far fewer calories than the normal-weight group?! 667 versus 805 and 725 versus 893 seems like a significant number of calories to me, and a finding that refutes the idea of people becoming fat because they gorge on ten times their weight of fast and junk food every day, unable to stop eating. However, the researchers were so focused on slow versus fast eating that they completely failed to notice, much less mention, this glaring discrepancy.

What could it mean? A logical conclusion is that normal-weight people’s metabolisms are simply more efficient than overweight people’s, allowing them to burn more calories. It could also mean that normal-weight people exercise more than overweight people, burning more calories and revving their metabolisms. It could even mean that normal-weight people choose healthier, lower-cal foods than overweight people, so they can eat more and weigh less. What it clearly does not show is that overweight people eat more than normal-weight people. In fact, it appears that, given the same food and the same amount of food, they eat less.

So perhaps the reporters and the doctors and everybody else can finally let go of the gluttony label and start looking at the real causes of weight gain and weight retention, and stop labeling everyone who says they eat almost nothing yet are overweight as liars.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Comments»

1. brewer317 - January 13, 2014

While there are differences in metabolism between people, the difference is probably not as large enough to cause obesity (see http://examine.com/faq/does-metabolism-vary-between-two-people.html). Your post here is short-sighted. There are tons of confounding variables that could have caused the overweight people to eat less. Maybe normal weight people liked the vegetarian dish better because they are more used to eating more vegetables. Maybe it was because obese people felt pressured to eat less because they knew they were being watched and felt self conscious about eating because of the social stigma attached to being overweight. Maybe obese people eat more often rather than more at one sitting. The vast majority of people that are overweight are overweight because they eat more food (thus and/or exercise less. The tiny minority may have hypothyroidism or another metabolic condition that puts them at a disadvantage in this regard.

Thanks for checking in! Your points about overweight/obese people deliberately eating less because they felt self-conscious about their portion sizes and/or not liking vegetables are very well made, though unproven. (The photo that accompanied the article showed a plate of spaghetti that appeared to be doused in butter or oil, breadcrumbs, and Parmesan, with nary a veggie in sight, but I couldn’t confirm that the photo was the actual food served in the test so I didn’t mention that in the blog post. It would, however, explain the shocking near-900-calorie upper total for the dish.) I too think that not exercising, along with the prevalence of desk jobs and a slowing metabolism as we get older, are primary causes of overweight. Poor food choices—fast food, fatty food, white-carb food, and the “no meal is complete without dessert” mentality—could certainly also contribute. But the endless gorging? Sure, that concept is reinforced on TV shows like “The Biggest Loser.” And yes, I’ve seen people of all shapes and sizes in restaurants order (and eat) quantities of food that made me lose my appetite completely just by looking at them. But in my whole life, I’ve only known two people who truly couldn’t regulate the amount they ate, and neither was obese. That’s why I believe that the cliche of the fat guy pigging out in front of the game or the fat gal wolfing down a box-o-chocs while reading the latest Harlequin romance is incorrect, and so damaging to people who are already struggling with body-image issues. Why fat-shame them even more, instead of helping them get moving and eat better and take advantage of the latest studies that suggest that the right mix of gut bacteria is what really makes us the right weight?


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