Book Review: The Obesity Code

I finished reading The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung on Monday. First things first – it is extremely readable, while still bringing the science. I blasted through it in record time, because I just didn’t want to put it down. Page after page of “a-ha” moments for me kept me glued to the book.

The thesis he lays out makes so much sense that I found myself wondering if it made too much sense. Like, I’ve been through the weight loss roller coaster before so many times, that I found myself trying to remember if I’d felt this same sense of “OMG EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE NOW” when reading other weight loss books. Because who hasn’t felt they’d found the answer before? Didn’t the Zone, South Beach, Atkins, Grapefruit Diet, Low-Fat Diet, VLCDs, pH Balance, Low Carb, and Grain-Free Diets all make so much sense before eventually being debunked or just not working?

Dr. Fung lines ’em up and shoots ’em down. He lays out in the first half of the book why all the methods people have been using to control their weight since the middle of the 20th century have not worked – particularly that classic we all know and love: Eat Less, Move More. He reviews the science and studies that prove they don’t work over the years. He shows that the USDA Food Pyramid has been an unmitigated disaster from the first year it was introduced – the whole country is in an obesity crisis and all the usual advice we’ve been getting is doing nothing to stem that tide. So if we know what doesn’t work, what will?

The premise of The Obesity Code is that the body’s control mechanism for set weight is hormonal, not caloric, and the main hormones that control your weight are insulin and cortisol. In order to allow them to do their job, you have to be aware of how they work and what they do.

The biggest Eureka! moment for me was when I put it down and realized that even though I thought I’d tried everything, there was one thing I hadn’t actually tried: JUST NOT FUCKING EATING. Total revelation right there. His guidelines are that in order for the insulin cycle to work, you have to not be stuffing your face every 2-3 hours (and thereby demanding a constant insulin response), which is the program I’ve been following for years and years (while watching my weight climb and climb). I particularly love where he shows a list of diet industry advice that is basically admonitions to eat this, eat that, eat those, eat, eat, eat…and then points out, hey, you don’t lose weight by eating. Try not eating constantly, FFS.

The other part of the equation is to cut out refined carbs and sweets. I don’t eat a lot of those, but there are a few changes I can certainly make. On the flip side: eat all the fat you want, it doesn’t provoke an insulin response. That’s a trade I’m willing to make. Avocados, sour cream, olive oil – here I come!

The other big revelation: He puts forth the first believable argument I’ve ever seen for cutting out artificial sweeteners. See, all the other arguments around are based upon nothing but conjecture and faulty science without rigorous studies to back them up. His argument is based upon actual, testable, verifiable facts. That’s something I can work with.

Also his system requires no calorie counting whatsoever. Wow! I haven’t been this excited about experimenting on my body in years. The only weak point I found is that he doesn’t really say anything about what you do once you’ve readjusted your system by following his advice and, presumably, losing some weight. The book lays out a pretty clear guide for how to lose weight, but doesn’t say much about what’s after that. I’m guessing it’s just a matter of tweaking things until you find the right balance, but it’s not really covered.

Bottom line: I’m willing to give it a try. I finished the book Monday mid-morning. That very day I started by cutting out snacks between meals, artificial sweeteners, and processed food. Tuesday I did a 24-hour fast with absolutely no ill effects – as promised, I had plenty of energy for my workout and daily routine. This morning I’ve started my day with a modified version of my usual breakfast, cutting out sugar from my oatmeal (replacing it with a cut up banana instead) and Splenda from my coffee. I plan on having no snacks between meals today, and upping the fat content in the meals I do eat.

I’m going to do this for a week and see how it goes. Will report back. If you’re intrigued by what I’ve written, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. For me, it explains a lot of the questions and issues that have come up over the years about my body and obesity. Even if you’re not looking to lose weight, I think this book is a really fascinating read and introduces concepts that are worth entertaining.

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Book Recommendation – Thin For Life

Most of the strategies that I talk about here aren’t anything new. Let me tell you about one of the most valuable books I’ve read regarding long-term weight management.

There is a conception that losing a lot of weight is almost always followed shortly thereafter by gaining it back. This has happened to everybody who has lost weight. But some people lose it for good So, when trying to learn to keep weight off for good, doesn’t it seem somewhat obvious to go find the people who’ve lost it and kept it off, and ask them how? All of the “Masters” interviewed for Thin for Life by Anne M. Fletcherhave succeeded in losing at least 20 pounds and keeping it off for at least 3 years. Most people lost more and kept it off for longer – the average was 63 pounds and over 10 years. These people know what they’re doing.

Highly Recommended!

The book is organized into 10 “keys for success” from the Masters. It’s not a weight loss book by any stretch. It’s a collection of stories and tips from people who’ve mastered their weight. There is no “Thin for Life” diet – the author stresses over and over that everybody must find their own way, a method that works for them, and it’s different for everyone. Some people need the structure of a group, some people need to go it alone. I have done both. The first 100 pounds I lost I did alone, the rest was done in a very structured environment. I will point out that the first go-round I didn’t know what I was doing and ended up needing major surgery to remove my gallbladder due to my drastic caloric restriction, lack of research into the matter, and extremely poor health care at the time. The basic truth, however, is that no matter how much support a person uses to lose weight initially, maintenance eventually and inevitably comes down to flying solo.

Most people have to try several times to lose weight and keep it off. The losing part is relatively straightforward – it’s a limited period of time, and most people can stand a little discomfort or inconvenience when there’s a foreseeable end. But, most will inevitably go back to the old habits. But, as I’ve mentioned myself, just because you’ve lost and then regained several times does not mean you shouldn’t try again. All of the Masters interviewed for the book stressed that they had tried many different times and many different ways before finally getting it right. God knows I’d lost and regained countless times before I found “my way.” But the really important point is, how can anybody be expected to get it right the first time around on something so complicated and emotionally charged? Especially with next to no education on the underlying concepts? I personally believe that weight management should be taught in school – not just in some health class you go to in 5th grade to learn about your period and eating from the food pyramid. The basic weight maintenance math needs to be taught, and the basics of how to eat lots of tasty food without getting lots of calories – preferably in high school. I had no idea what a calorie was or how it worked until I’d put on over 100 pounds in the 4 years after college and became desperate to change my ways. All I knew was I should try to reduce my calories. I didn’t know how to figure out how many I needed, or how to balance what I was doing. This is becoming increasingly and vitally important in our sedentary culture.

One of the insights I appreciated was that the Masters in the book had readjusted their goal weight over time, as I have myself. Some of them decided after achieving a too-low goal that it was entirely too hard to maintain such a weight, and gained 5, 10, 15 or even 20 back just to be at a weight they could maintain without killing themselves with exercise and hunger. Some had decided, like me, that if getting to that elusive super-low weight was so difficult, imagine how hard it would be to maintain it forever? Because maintaining it forever means basically eating like you’re on a diet forever. I really liked the discussion of finding a good goal weight and what factors to take into account.

I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in what it takes to lose and keep weight off. Nine of the ten “Keys to Success” in Thin to Life ring very true for me. Maybe they will for you too.

Feeling Deprived Is No Way to Go Through Life, Son

I was at a wedding yesterday, which was lovely, and a friend of mine mentioned that she was enjoying my posts here, and that she really needed to work on weight management, but was finding it challenging to eat smaller portions. Everybody says eat smaller portions if you want to manage your weight, right?

Not me. I’m what’s called a “volume eater.” I need to fill my stomach to feel satisfied. Not because I am a glutton but because that is one of the grab-bag of crappy hands I was dealt biologically. Some people can feel satisfied on three bites of very rich food, I cannot. Regardless of how delicious my food may be, if portion control is my weight management strategy, in the end, I will fail. If I eat a tiny portion of delicious food, no matter how delicious, I’m still hungry. And the compelling thing about feeling hungry is that if I’m hungry I will find something else to eat, and it probably won’t be very supportive to my weight management goals. Say all you want about humans being highly evolved, where hunger is concerned we’re all driven by the lizard brain.

Therefore I cannot live my life on tiny portions – spending my days feeling hungry and deprived won’t work because I’m in this for the long haul and the long haul is not going to last long if I’m miserable. So it’s a good thing I have another option. And that is to choose foods with a low caloric density and eat a lot of them. Low caloric density means foods that have a high water content and a low fat content. That means vegetables, fruits, lean meats, soup.

I have about a hundred different ways* to prepare veggies, because I can basically eat an unlimited volume of them. A cup of veggies has about 50 calories. I can eat 5 cups of veggies for fewer calories than a tall mocha at Starbucks. And I can’t even eat 5 cups of veggies at a time – that’s a lot of food! A cup of fruit has about 100 calories. I can have 3 pieces of fruit for less than that same tall mocha.** And I will feel a whole lot more satisfied if I do.

So that’s it, there’s one of my tricks. I eat until I’m full, but I choose foods I can eat a lot of. If you’re interested in further reading on caloric density and seeing some of the really interesting comparisons of various high- and low-caloric density foods and their values, I highly recommend the book Picture Perfect Weight Loss, the visuals are quite compelling.

*Roasted, sautéed, chopped in salads, broiled, raw, baked, made into soup, spitted and grilled. Ok, that’s slightly less than a hundred, but I add flavor using spices, herbs, vinegars, soy sauce, hot sauce, salsa – there are dozens of ways to add flavor without adding calories.

**Not to knock Starbucks, because there are definitely reasonable options to be found there – if I’ve got a spare 125 calories knocking around in my budget I’m a sucker for a non-fat latte.