Weight loss and dieting: Why do we gain weight so easily

Thomas Secrest's picture
Thomas Secrest

To be successful at weight loss / dieting it is essential to have a good understanding of how your body uses and stores calories (food energy).

You may recall that in the first article in this series I made the point of saying that a lot of people want you to diet, but not everyone wants you to lose weight. In particular the weight loss industry has a huge financial interest in you failing to lose weight or you gaining weight.

For their own benefit, the weight loss industry has supplied you with lots of facts about diets, but very little knowledge about weight loss. Our goal is to fix that situation and give you the knowledge, and the power that comes with it, to better manage your weight loss / diet for better success.

In the second article in the series we took a close look at calories to discover what they are and where they come from. We also popped a few myths about calories as well.

In yesterday’s article we drove home something you never hear about and is perhaps counter-intuitive. The take-home message was that: Your body doesn’t know where your calories come from, it simply knows how many you eat.

Yesterday we also talk about Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR); I hope you had a chance to try the link to the BMR calculator and now have some idea what your BMR is. Keep in mind it is a difficult number to calculate and the number from BMR calculators is an approximation, nonetheless, it is a useful number to know.

Your BMR is your baseline. It represents the number of calories your body needs when it is doing nothing but staying alive -- no activity.

There are two other numbers you need to know before you should dive into your weight loss plan. The first is calories of daily living (CDL). Sometimes BMR calculators include this, however, daily living calories are not technically part of the BMR calculation. Your (BMR + Calories of daily living) is the number of calories you need to support your life (BMR) and the extra activity that you burn day-in and day-out (CDL); these are things like your job. {How to calculate CDL.}

You can think of it like this: If you take two women of the same age, height and weight, their BMR would be the same (it’s not really, but it’s close). If one woman is a pilot and the other woman is a mail carrier, if they both want to maintain their current weight, then the mail carrier can eat more calories per day than the pilot, because she burns more calories each day as part of her calories of daily living.

The third number is discretionary calories (DC). These are calories you chose to burn by doing some type of exercise in addition to you life activities. These are things like walking for exercise, skiing, swimming, aerobics, dance classes, etc.

Almost every human exercise has been measured and the number of calories burned per minute have been calculated; all you have to do is look them up on the internet.

With these three numbers you are ready to set your goals; however, I suggest not setting them yet. In a few days I plan an article on “setting goals” that might be useful for you. Right now your goals would likely be based on information you received from the weight loss industry and their goals are designed for you to fail.

I want to conclude today by talking a little more about calories. Take a look at this formula that we talked about yesterday.

Calorie intake = (BMR + CDL + DC) = WEIGHT MAINTENANCE
Calorie intake Calorie intake > (BMR + CDL + DC) = WEIGHT GAIN


Notice that I changed it a little to reflect what we’ve discussed today. Yesterday (CDL + DC) was “all other activities” -- now we know that there are two components to “all other activities.” Note which things you can control and which things you cannot control. You can control your calorie intake and you can control your DC; however, you really can’t change your BMR or CDL, unless you get a different job or change your lifestyle.

Why do we store extra calories as fat?

From the formulas it is clear that if we eat more calories than our body burns each day, then we WILL gain weight and if we eat less, we WILL lose weight. But why?

Yesterday I mentioned that you had probably seen many of those horrific images of hungry people slowly starving to death in refugee camps. The images are almost too painful to look at. However, in those images lies the answer to the question why we gain weight if we eat more than we use.

Our body is still a throwback to the early days. Our civilization has changed dramatically, but our physiology has barely changed at all. Our body still functions much as it did 25,000 years ago, even if our minds don’t.

We are designed to stay alive at all costs, which means you have to be able to survive times of famine. Today we can store our excess food in cans or jars for those future times when food is scarce. However, 25,000 years ago this wasn’t the case. Excess food still needed to be stored, but there were no cans or jars. Therefore, the excess food had to be stored in our bodies -- and it is stored as fat.

Every spare calorie that wasn’t needed to stay alive was greedily stored away for those days when there was little or no food. Since days with no food were fairly common, each new generation was birthed from parents who were better than most at storing calories as fat. For thousands of years each new generation was better than the preceding generation, until humans became very, very efficient at converting every excess calorie into fat.

Even so, it was not a big problem in the past, because there weren’t so many excess calories lying around. There were probably few overweight cavewomen, although there might have been a few overweight cavemen. Things were a bit less enlightened back then.

So why fat? Why not protein or carbohydrates?

You may remember the old joke from elementary school; which weighs more, a ton of feathers or a ton of lead. Since a ton is a ton, they both weigh the same. Think of fat as lead and think of carbohydrate and protein as feathers. For the exact same space you can store twice as many fat calories than you can carbohydrate or protein calories. Which means our bodies would have to be much, much bigger -- something that was impractical 25,000 years ago.

The problem is our mind-body disconnect

Fast forward to present times and our bodies, with unchanged physiology, are still very, very efficient at storing calories, however, unlike 25,000 years ago, now there are unlimited calories and days of famine never occur, at least not for those that are overweight. Our bodies don’t know that there are cans and jars and therefore we don’t need to scavenge every extra calories from our diets and store them as fat. Our bodies are always preparing for the next famine.

Recall the hungry woman in the refugee camp? That she is still alive is a testament to the power of our physiology. At some point before she became a refugee, her body had stored some fat, and now that fat is the key to her survival. For her a weeks worth of calories are what we consume in a day, sometimes in a single meal, yet she lives, not the way any human should have to live, but she is alive, thanks largely to her physiology and the physiology of her ancestors.

Tomorrow we will look at another physiological problem faced by those trying to lose weight. We all have the same experience, weight goes on easily and fast but it comes off painfully slow. Now we understand the first part. Our species has thousands and thousands of years of practice at gaining weight fast and we are really good at it. Next we look at the second part, why does weight loss happen so slowly. I hope to see you tomorrow.

If you have any special questions you want answered as part of this series of articles, please let me know and I will address your question in one of the upcoming installments. You can contact me at: Thomas Secrest

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