Fat People Are Heroes

post by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2018-11-13T08:50:47.129Z · score: 29 (20 votes) · LW · GW · 22 comments

Contents

      The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer
      The fit get fitter, and the fat get fatter
    1. High testosterone
    2. Faster metabolism
    3. Flexible eating
    4. Insulin sensitivity
    5. Vitamins and minerals
    6. Muscle memory
    7. Enjoyment and motivation
    8. Cruise control
  The Virtuous Cycle
  A Brief Aside…
  The Vicious Cycle
      Notes:
None
22 comments

Cross-posted and lightly edited from The Deep Dish.

Epistemic status: Trying to outline a general phenomenon; may not be correct on every specific point. I am not a doctor; this post is not advice.


“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought, with some reason, that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.”
—ALBERT CAMUS, THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS

When I see an overweight person slogging away on the treadmill, I think to myself: that person is a goddamn hero.

Here’s the dirty little secret that fit and muscular people don’t mention in their Instagram #fitspo posts: if you’re already in decent shape, you can get away with all kinds of shenanigans.

It’s been years since I last counted calories. Hardly a day goes by without committing some minor sin; an ice cream here, a fizzy drink there. I’m quite partial to pizza. I rarely do more than three hours of exercise a week.

In spite of all this, I’ve probably never been fitter. Blood pressure, lipids, resting heart rate; all fine and dandy. And it’s easy.

This is not meant to be an elaborate humblebrag. It’s infuriating when people do something hard, then act like it was effortless. I promise I’m not trying to be cute. The point of this post is that momentum is a force of nature.

Everyone is at least vaguely aware of how interest and debt work: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But money is not the only thing that compounds. Momentum seems to be an underlying feature of the universe; an entropy pump responsible for everything from the coalescence of galaxies, to towering sequoia trunks, to income inequality. Recently, I realised that it also extends to waistlines:

The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer

The fit get fitter, and the fat get fatter

It takes a special kind of nastiness to blame the poor for their own misfortune. The naive view is that they should just try harder, work their way up, and generally stop being losers. There’s a tiny grain of truth there, if you squint, but it’s blind to the systemic forces at work.

Fat-shaming is equally myopic. Even if we accept that we are wholly responsible for our decisions—which may go back as far as childhood, were probably influenced by genetics, and certainly by our environment—those initial steps set us on a path which becomes increasingly difficult to deviate from.

Path dependence: as feedback loops tighten, so do the options available. (Sydow, Schreyögg & Koch)

To understand how this works, it might help to look at it from the opposite direction. What’s life like for a moderately fit and muscular person? Well, everything works in your favour. The wind is at your back. You’ve got momentum. Let us count the ways:

1. High testosterone

Testosterone levels in men are closely linked with body fat.[1] Belly fat in particular harbours aromatase, an enzyme which converts the male sex hormone into estrogen. The leaner you are, the easier it is to build muscle and burn fat, the better your hormonal balance, and so on.[2]

2. Faster metabolism

The more lean mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate. Muscles are expensive to maintain, and they’re burning calories all the time. Even when you’re sitting on your ass![3] For example, my basal metabolic rate increases by as much as 400 calories a day, depending on how much lean weight I’m carrying. After factoring in activity levels, it’s more like ~1000 calories.

3. Flexible eating

Having a few hundred extra calories to play with every day gives you a whole lot of leeway. There’s certainly no need for super restrictive diets. Martin Berkhan, who looks like he’s carved out of marble, likes to devour entire cheesecakes at a sitting. As far as I can tell, there is literally no downside to occasionally performing these kinds of feats (apart from having your Thanksgiving invite rescinded). There is a superpower which allows people to eat an entire cheesecake in a sitting, and suffer zero negative consequences. I can’t believe we’re not talking about this all the time.

4. Insulin sensitivity

Muscles are big old glucose sinks. After you eat a meal, your liver only has so much room for short-term storage of sugars. Fortunately, the spillover can be stashed in your muscles.[4] The bigger your sinks, the better your insulin sensitivity, and the lower your risk of becoming pre-diabetic.

This is one of the reasons why an athletic person can get away with eating the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup, or cheesecake, or whatever. Sometimes, simple sugars are actually beneficial. Floyd Mayweather chugs Coke during his training sessions. You can argue about whether it’s ‘optimal’ (probably not to his face) but it sure isn’t going to hurt him.

5. Vitamins and minerals

Simply eating more food is an underappreciated way of getting more micronutrients. If you’re taking in 3500 calories and aren’t a total slob, you’ll be over the RDI for most-everything without even trying. By contrast, someone on a measly 1300 calories has to be extra careful to cover all the bases, which makes their diet even more restrictive.

6. Muscle memory

If you take a few weeks or months off, it’s not the end of the world. It takes much less time to regain muscle than to build it in the first place. The body remembers, and it wants to go back there.[5]

7. Enjoyment and motivation

The fitter and stronger you are, the more enjoyable exercise tends to be. Partly because you can pull off more impressive feats; mostly because it sucks less. I hated running until I built up some basic cardio fitness. Now I merely strongly dislike it.

And so, I can’t honestly claim the few hours I spend exercising are a ‘sacrifice’, or proof of my ability to defer gratification. They’re occasionally joyous, usually fun, and at the very least, satisfying.

8. Cruise control

I can’t pretend exercise requires any heroic effort, either. It’s so thoroughly ingrained as a habit that it no longer takes much in the way of willpower. Sure, I’ll blow off a session now and again. But in the last 10 years, I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than a month without consistently doing some kind of resistance training.[6] This might be the one area of my life where I have no trouble with self-discipline.

The Virtuous Cycle

Notice how none of these effects operate in isolation. The fitter you are, the better your hormonal and metabolic health, the lower your bodyfat, the more relaxed you can be with your diet, the more fun life is, the more motivation you have to train, the cooler feats you can perform, the deeper the habit is ingrained, and so on, in an endless positive feedback loop.

In fact, it’s even better than that. Almost all these factors are mutually reinforcing. If you do screw up, and drunkenly devour an entire box of cereal, or take a week off from the gym to clock a new video game, it’s no biggie. Any one link in the chain can seize up for a while, and the cycle will keep on turning without it.

It’s not a loop, so much as it is a spiral:

A Brief Aside…

To head off the horde of buff people furiously powerwalking to my house right now: this is not meant to imply that athletes have it easy, or to diminish their achievements, sacrifice, and general impressiveness. Please don’t roundhouse kick me in the face!

Momentum has diminishing returns. Pro athletes are the equivalent of the rocket scientists at NASA, trying to push the boundaries of the possible. They’re running up against hard physical limits; putting in more and more effort for smaller and smaller gains.

That’s a completely different scenario to what we’re talking about here. I am a rank amateur, with no competitive ambitions. To extend the rocket analogy; the average person would be quite happy to get into space in the first place, where they can cruise along with zero resistance at 32,000kph.

The Vicious Cycle

Way back down on Earth, the big guy on the treadmill is still pounding away. Gravity is working against him; literally and metaphorically.

Consider how much thrust a rocket has to produce to leave the launchpad. It only starts to pick up speed as it burns off fuel, and escapes the Earth’s gravitational pull. Even if it voyaged all the way to the surface of Mars, half the energy would have been consumed in that first gruelling 400km ascent.

Treadmill-guy has a body fat level of 35 per cent, which means his testosterone is much lower than it otherwise would be. He’s in a strict calorie deficit, so his metabolism has slowed down, in an endlessly frustrating game of cat-and-mouse. He can’t eat many of the foods he loves. Exercise physically hurts his joints.

Maybe he feels self-conscious about going to the gym at all. Maybe he feels like the guys lifting big weights are judging him. Quite possibly, they are judging him. Exercise is not an ingrained habit, so he has to force himself to do it with sheer bloody-mindedness, every single time.

And, of course, he’s hungry. This is the worst part of all, which makes everything else pale in comparison. Something like 95 per cent of people who lose weight put it all back on. Almost every attempt is doomed to fail.

Fit people have muscle memory; overweight people have ‘fat memory’. Even after slimming right down, their hormones and metabolism remain out of whack. It can take six years to re-calibrate a new setpoint. Imagine six years of always being hungry, of steely discipline, of having to fight against your own body, which is trying to drag you down at every turn.

(it took me forever to make that last gif, so just pretend that these factors are interconnected too)

Notice how none of these effects operate in isolation. They’re all mutually reinforcing. The guy on the treadmill has to push the boulder up the mountain, every day. And if he stumbles, he slips backwards faster and faster, until he’s right back at the bottom again.

Fat people who are trying to lose weight are heroes, engaged in a struggle worthy of Sisyphus. Every conceivable force is levelled against them. Let’s not make it any harder than it already is.


I’ve accidentally ended up writing a mini-series on momentum, in the domains of wealth, popularity, art/entrepreneurship, and now, health. In real life, obviously there’s no clean delineation between these fields. For the final post, I want to look at some of the higher-level interactions, and try to tie it all together.


Notes:

  1. The relationship is not as straightforward for women, but being overweight can cause abnormalities in sex hormones, and vice versa (apologies if this article is a bit male-centric; I’m more comfortable talking about my personal experience, but the general principles are the same for everyone.)
  2. Up to a point – if you’re a bodybuilder about to step on stage at 4 per cent body fat, your endocrine system is all kinds of messed up. The sweet spot for men seems to be around 10-15 per cent.
  3. At rest, muscles don’t actually use up much energy. But they still burn three to five times more calories than fat, and if you’re regularly strength training, they’re almost always in a state of repair, not rest. Your metabolism remains elevated for up to 24 hours after training, on top of the calories burned during the exercise itself.
  4. The liver can store ~100g of glycogen; your muscles can store ~400g. All up, that’s about 2000 calories’ worth of fuel.
  5. Muscle cells are so big that they need more than one nucleus. As they grow, the surrounding cells heroically sacrifice their own nuclei to the noble cause of getting you jacked. These ‘myonuclei’ each control a certain area of the muscle fibre, and stick around for years after the contractile proteins have atrophied. When you start training again, they ramp up protein synthesis, and expand their deflated domain to its former glory. You also benefit from the colloquial ‘muscle memory’ (motor learning) which takes place in the brain: once you’ve drilled a skill long enough, it becomes automatic.
  6. I’ve tried to deliberately steer clear of ‘advice’, but it would be remiss not to at least mention that strength training has a much higher ROI than cardio. Of the eight effects listed, only the two psychological factors (willpower and enjoyment) could reasonably be said to apply to cardio: it doesn’t burn many calories, doesn’t build lean mass, and is gained and lost quickly (there is no ‘cardio memory’).

22 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Zvi · 2018-11-13T20:18:34.508Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is definitely not my experience. Once I got thin, I had to keep working hard every day to keep it that way. Knowing it was worth it made it easier, but I work way harder on it now than I ever did in the past.

comment by cousin_it · 2018-11-13T22:57:11.513Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think the virtuous cycles described in the post require having muscle mass, not just being thin.

comment by namespace (ingres) · 2018-11-13T22:51:53.736Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yup. Empirically, people who lose lots of weight and keep it off have a CONSTANT VIGILANCE mindset going.

This isn't to say that OP's post is untrue, but rather they're underestimating just how badly the odds are stacked against those who are obese.

HBO's The Weight Of The Nation documentary goes into the Weight Control Registry study on long term weight loss, and the common factors between people who manage to keep it off:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLv0Vsegmoo&t=1h1m28s

comment by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2018-11-14T01:06:40.849Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW · GW

From the post:

Something like 95 per cent of people who lose weight put it all back on. Almost every attempt is doomed to fail.

Fat people who are trying to lose weight are heroes, engaged in a struggle worthy of Sisyphus. Every conceivable force is levelled against them.

Not sure what gave you the impression I'm underestimating the odds, or the difficulty of the endeavour? That was literally the whole point of the post. If it wasn't communicated clearly enough, my apologies- I'd be interested in any feedback on which bits were confusing.

comment by namespace (ingres) · 2018-11-14T01:07:21.664Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I missed that line and I apologize. A strong upvote for your troubles.

comment by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2018-11-14T01:04:03.207Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

One of the points I was trying to make here is the underappreciated importance of path dependence and homeostasis (so a person who has always been thin will have a much easier time than someone who had to get thin).

comment by CronoDAS · 2018-11-15T00:08:42.744Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Can I get a source on that "six years to recalibrate a set point" thing?

comment by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2018-11-15T02:54:25.130Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sure.

Reading the original study, it seems like one problem is that even though leptin returned to normal, it was out of sync with resting metabolic rate, which meant appetite was no longer linked to energy requirements. There is some suggestion that a slower rate of weight loss might have more success in changing the set point, but that's also contentious.

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2018-11-14T18:55:30.037Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Being always hungry is a lousy way to loose weight. It means my body is always trying to conserve energy, as if this was a famine.

Part of the vicious cycle is addiction to food that doesn't make us feel full (see the Satiety Index for ideas about which foods). Remember that obesity is virtually unknown in hunter-gatherers, even when they have plenty of food available. It takes modern foods to make obesity common (see Stephan Guyenet).

Intermittent hunger can work somewhat well for weight loss, but mainly I need to eat food that's less addictive and that makes me feel full.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-11-14T12:44:11.294Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Maybe he feels self-conscious about going to the gym at all. Maybe he feels like the guys lifting big weights are judging him. Quite possibly, they are judging him.

If that's what you associate with being at the gym, why go to the gym instead of buying free weights and exercising at home? It also saves travel time.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2018-11-14T16:55:57.571Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Not everyone has room at home. I have a barbell, a few dumbbells, a pull-up bar, and my own body weight, and go everywhere on my bicycle, but I also go to the gym because there are exercises I want to do that I can't do at home.

Gyms can also provide training (of variable quality, but everything on the market is of variable quality), and communal activities like Cross-Fit. A gym is a resource to be used.

The guys lifting big weights are seeing to their own business. They are not thinking about you, and you need not think about them, except as an inspiration to become them.

I see a lot of people at the gym much stronger than me, and and a lot much less strong. But we are all doing the same thing: what we can.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-11-14T18:17:28.569Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are people for whom communal activities are valuable. When it however comes to people who feel uncomfortable with company while exercising I don't see why they would go.

comment by ryan_b · 2018-11-14T19:46:32.049Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

They usually don't, which is sort of the thrust of the OP.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2018-11-15T00:15:43.979Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If being fat is a problem for this hypothetical person, that makes embarrassment about using a gym also a problem. Maybe they can work around that problem instead of solving it, but it still would be valuable to them to solve it.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-11-14T12:41:37.717Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Up to a point – if you’re a bodybuilder about to step on stage at 4 per cent body fat, your endocrine system is all kinds of messed up. The sweet spot for men seems to be around 10-15 per cent.

Given that my own body fat levels are less then 10%, do you have links that suggests that 10% is better then anything below?

comment by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2018-11-15T03:12:56.034Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can't find good sources, it mostly seems to be anecdotal based on the ranges that strength athletes choose to stay in. My guess is that if you went too low, you'd know about it (stage-ready bodybuilders are in a world of pain). Also, kudos for maintaining a single digit body fat percentage - impressive!

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-11-16T08:52:56.768Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My body-weight is far from that of a stage-ready bodybuilder, so my biology is not the same.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-11-14T12:38:35.387Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Simply eating more food is an underappreciated way of getting more micronutrients. If you’re taking in 3500 calories and aren’t a total slob, you’ll be over the RDI for most-everything without even trying.

I would be intersted in having more background on this claim. I always considered most RDI in the official documents to be values for the average person. If your body runs on much more foot you are likely also need more of a lot of micronutrients. Do you have a source that suggests my conception is false?

comment by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2018-11-15T03:27:35.555Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are no guidelines on this that I'm aware of, but it seems unlikely that the RDI scales linearly with lean body mass. Some proportion of micronutrient intake goes towards the likes of bones and organs and the brain, which is unchanged by having more muscle mass.

I'm less confident of this than I am of the opposite framing: people with a low caloric intake have to be more careful about eating nutrient-dense food.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-11-16T08:54:11.289Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

http://blog.vitaminddrops.com/myth-reality-vitamin-d-dosing-body-weight/ suggests for Vitamin D3:

Typically, if you are “overweight” you can multiply your age’s RDI by 1.5, and if you are “obese”, you can multiply your age’s RDI 2-3 times, and these numbers are an idea of what your daily recommended amount should be.[3]  For example, the RDI for a 30-year-old is 600 IU.  If that 30-year-old is overweight, then they should be taking close to 900 IU daily.  If that 30-year-old is obese, they require 1200-1,800 IU daily. For an adult, doses up to 4,000 IU are considered safe.[4]
comment by ChristianKl · 2018-11-14T12:34:17.637Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
There is a superpower which allows people to eat an entire cheesecake in a sitting, and suffer zero negative consequences. I can’t believe we’re not talking about this all the time.

This seems like a strange sentiment and just because a person doesn't need to control their calorie intake doesn't mean that there aren't negative consequences from eating a cheesecake in a single setting. It will still mess up the insulin levels.

Just because my scale considers me having only 2.7 kg of visceral body fat doesn't mean that I would consider eating an entire cheesecake in a sitting a good idea.

comment by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2018-11-15T03:31:38.506Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are no negative consequences, because nothing happens in isolation. Obviously there'd be negative consequences if the average person did this, or if Berkhan ate an entire cheesecake every day. I'm not really sure what point you're making here.