being fat burns calories

In our recent post on how exercising may not make you thin, the (self-proclaimed) “Important Doctor” mentioned that muscles burn calories even while you’re not working out, including while you sleep.  And that’s true.  But there’s a lesser known fact that goes along with this — fat also burns calories while resting.  I’m not making this up!  Check it out:

The muscle-fat relationship is often misunderstood. According to calculations published in the journal Obesity Research by a Columbia University team in 2001, a pound of muscle burns approximately six calories a day in a resting body, compared with the two calories that a pound of fat burns.

So while muscles will burn more calories than fat, at least fat does burn some calories, even while resting.  So if you apply some basic arithmetic principles, you can deduce that the more fat you have, the more calories you are burning while resting.   You heard it here first!

some say exercise won’t make you thin

The blogosphere has been abuzz lately about an article in TIME magazine called Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.  It is interesting, because we’ve joked about such things before, yet here’s an article in a credible magazine suggesting it.  But before we dig into it, let me mention that the author of this article exercises regularly and talks about how he isn’t losing fat, yet he weighs only 163 pounds.  Unless he’s abnormally short, that’s not a bad weight for an adult male to be at.   I don’t see how he could be considered fat or obese.  Actually, my “ideal weight” is supposedly 190-200 for my height, so 163 seems too skinny to me.  Anyway, let’s get to the article.

First, let’s start with the author’s premise for his hypothesis:

Like many other people, I get hungry after I exercise, so I often eat more on the days I work out than on the days I don’t.  Could exercise actually be keeping me from losing weight? ~ John Cloud

He also quotes some other experts who back his claim: “In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless,” says Eric Ravussin, chair in diabetes and metabolism at Louisiana State University and a prominent exercise researcher.  That sounds extreme to me, but I’ll keep reading.

The notion that we eat more because exercise makes us more hungry and thus exercise makes it harder to lose weight sure sounds like something the “Important Doctor” came up with.  The article also mentions the idea that intense sessions of exercise may cause people to reward themselves by eating what they want.  I can see that — it’s much easier to justify a milkshake or snack if you’ve worked out.

Some scientists imply that it’s evolution’s fault that humans can easily get fat.  We don’t have much “brown fat”.  Rats, among other species, have a lot of it, which turns off their mitochondria (which are the cells’ power plants), so they don’t get an energy boost from eating too much — they just get warmer, which helps the calories burn effortlessly.  So for animals like that, it’s really difficult for them to get fat, even if they overeat.  In contrast, humans can barely overeat and yet gain weight, because unused calories get stored in regular “white fat” cells.

One example cited in the article explains why our compensation for exercise keeps us from losing weight:

A standard 20-oz. bottle of Gatorade contains 130 calories.  If you’re hot and thirsty after a 20-minute run in summer heat, it’s easy to guzzle that bottle in 20 seconds, in which case the caloric expenditure and the caloric intake are probably a wash.  From a weight-loss perspective, you would have been better off sitting on the sofa knitting.

Well, few people knit these days, but I think it would be fair to replace that part of the example with sitting on the sofa playing video games.  So there’s your proof that playing video games can help you lose more weight than running! (That definitely sounds like something from the “Important Doctor”.)

The article also says that self-control is like a muscle, that it gets weaker when you use it too much.  So if you force yourself to jog for an hour, your capacity for self-control becomes weakened, and you’re more likely to eat pizza than a salad.  (Although I’m always more likely to eat pizza than a salad, given those choices.)

Steven Gortmaker, who heads Harvard’s Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity, agrees that exercising makes you more hungry, therefore he’s suspicious of the playgrounds at fast-food restaurants: “Why would they build those?  I know it sounds kind of like conspiracy theory, but you have to think, if a kid plays five minutes and burns 50 calories, he might then go inside and consume 500 calories or even 1,000.”   One study has shown that exercise causes kids to eat an average of 100 calories more than they had just burned.

Of course, some sites have countered the TIME article, with one even saying it is an “Epic Fail”.  The TIME article makes some points, but we don’t have to give in to overeating because we exercise.  And I don’t think self-control is like a muscle from a physiological sense, but the analogy may work if you carry it out further.  The more you resist something, the stronger you get, instead of weaker — after a while.  For example, if you give up cokes, it may be hard for a few days, but eventually you don’t even miss them anymore.  (I know, because I gave them up.)

I reckon what all this debate results in is that you can find a study that backs up whatever lifestyle you want to live.   If you don’t want to exercise, then you shouldn’t, because it makes you gain weight.   But if you want to lose weight, well, it’s hopeless.  (Of course the last one isn’t true — but if you want to blame it on evolution or misinformation or whatever, there’s an excuse.)  To me, it still seems really simple — if you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight.  Maybe that seems too-good-to-be-true, but it adds up, if you do the math.

viewer mail, issue #15

It is time for another issue of viewer mail.  (I really should do these more often; they’re fun.)  As always, these are actual search terms that brought people to this website, followed by my own leading brand of analysis, commentary, and rambling.

* buffets make people fat — Buffets don’t make people fat — people make people fat.   Actually, you make yourself fat.  But that’s not meant in a derogatory way.  I mean, if you want to be fat, then you have that option.  But let’s not blame buffets, or the “politically correct” crowd will try to ban them.  Besides, even if all-you-can-eat buffets went away, there would still be fat people.  It’s just a matter of semantics or somethin’…

pickles are evil* pickles diarrhea — I haven’t heard of such things, but I also don’t research it in any way, because pickles are evil.  Some have posited that eating pickles will turn you into a zombie (which probably could lead to diarrhea as your body tries to reject that).  I don’t think that’s completely proven yet, but some important people are working on it.  We’ll keep you updated.  But in the meantime, avoid pickles at all costs, unless you’re throwing them into the sun to destroy them.  That would be okay.  (FYI, there’s a very funny discussion on pickles at that link.)

* shampoo fraud conspiracy — I have no idea about this one…  Does anyone have any clue what this could be referring to?

* potassium nitrate side effects — Potassium nitrate is an interesting compound.  It is used in fertilizer, amateur rocket propellant, smoke bombs, food preservation (in old days), cigarettes, tree stump remover, the heat treatment of metals as a short-term rust inhibitor, the manufacturing of ice cream, toothpaste, and it’s one of the three ingredients in black powder.  So if you were to eat it, who knows what the side effects could be?  There’s a lot to choose from among that list.  But given those options, I don’t recommend eating it.

* burn calories poop — Well, just about any activity burns calories, even tapping your finger on your desk, so I reckon pooping would, too.  I did a quick search, and someone estimated the process burns between 19 and 70 calories.  I don’t know how scientific and accurate that is, but that site claims to be the #1 source for #2.

* can the sun be dangerous — Certainly!  In case you weren’t paying attention in science class, here’s a brief recap.  The sun has constant fusion, where hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium atoms and release energy.  Or in other words, it’s a constant explosion.  So you don’t play with it!  IT IS NOT A TOY!  You wouldn’t want to put the sun in your pocket, because it would burn your butt.  Fortunately we’re 93 million miles from the sun, and Earth’s atmosphere refracts the direct sunbeams so it’s not instantly lethal.   But using a magnifying glass you can refocus the beams of sunlight and see just how dangerous it is — it creates fire.  So obviously it’s quite dangerous — sunlight plus curved glass creates fire.

That’s all the time we have for today.  I hope you learned something, or at least laughed.  (Laughing burns calories, y’know.  I’m not sure about learning, but it’s still good for you.)

overeating and inactivity doesn’t make you fat

I’ve always heard that eating too much and not getting enough exercise will make you fat.  That seems reasonable to me.   But I read somewhere online that this isn’t true.  Check out these “facts” someone posted:

The basic assumption here is that people become obese due to overeating and inactivity. This isn’t true. … Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating and not sedentary behavior.

Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter any more than it causes a child to grow taller.

Exercise does not make us lose excess fat; it makes us hungry.

We get fat because of an imbalance — a disequilibrium — in the hormonal regulation of fat tissue and fat metabolism.

So if I understand it, I’m not overweight because of overeating and being lazy, but because of excess fat accumulation.  And exercise doesn’t help you lose weight but actually makes you fatter because you’re hungrier!  (This sure sounds like that “Important Doctor” fellow, but it was someone else.)  And it’s my “hormonal regulation” that is to blame.  Hmm…

If you’re curious what that guy recommended to do to lose weight, his solution is to eat less carbs.  Although I thought he said consuming excess calories doesn’t make us fatter, so I don’t understand.   I just know that according to what that guy said, it’s not my fault!