13 Weeks: Weekend Update


The last two 13 Weeks columns could have been confused with science columns, which is good because I’ve actually missed the science columns, but bad because I haven’t talked about my progress or lack thereof at all. Well, the last couple of weeks have been confusing to me too, if it’s any consolation — I spent a week in San Francisco in an extended interview/audition for a new web startup called Sumazi. I’m now doing consulting for them, but they’re still operating under the radar so I can’t talk a lot about it, except to say they’re doing exciting things with social media data. But the result is that I’ve been busier than a — oh, hell, pick your own cliché. I’ve been really busy.

As a result, the whole diet-and-exercise thing has gotten away from me — hell, I haven’t left the house since last Sunday and last night I resorted to eating frozen burritos I didn’t even know I had because gleanings were getting pretty slim.

Yes, frozen burritos have wheat.

The results are interesting; my weight has crept back up to 269 — that same old stuck point. Glucose is doing fine, and with the exception of the burritos I have been quite good about eating few carbs — what carbs I’m getting are mostly in the yoghurt I’ve continued eating.

Of course we’re heading for the Season of Diet Horror — Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

So here’s my plan. I’m declaring this 13 week season a Learning Experience. As my old therapist Joe Talley called it, an AFOG (“Another F-ing Opportunity for Growth.”) This season would be over on 1 December anyway, so I’m gonna roll with it, and just maintain blood sugar and weight until 1 January — or rather until 4 January, which is the convenient Saturday after New Year’s Day. That will give me a chance to consolidate my other life changes.

In the mean time, the plan is to make this first year of 13 Week Experiments into a book, so I want to use the column to consolidate some of my thoughts about this, and to think more about what I can do to help other people start making their own experiments.

So, in no particular order, here are some thoughts about the process and the results.


Weight Loss is Hard and Poorly Understood

Kipling said, In the Neolithic Age, that

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

“And every single one of them is right!”

We’ve gone through various diets in the family of “low-carb high-fat” (LCHF) diets through the last year, and for me they’ve all been successful up to a point, that point being around 265 pounds. Now, that’s not a bad thing — that’s close to 40 pounds lost in a year, and that really does make a difference even when you start at 300+. On the other hand, the plateau is annoying, doubly so because there are so many anecdotal reports of people losing 60-100 pounds on an LCHF diet.

The thing is, there are about a million different approaches to diet, high to low fat, carnivorous to vegan, and all of them can point to people who have lost much more weight in a year than I have.

I think we are sort of forced into a new hypothesis and it’s one I can’t test on my own 13 Weeks program. That hypothesis is that there are several sub-populations of people who have different causes for their obesity, and so several differing types of diet that lead to significant weight loss depending on which of the sub-populations you’re in.

Diet Tracking is Helpful But Can Be Confusing

I’ve kept careful food diaries and tracked my weight and blood sugar very rigorously through most of this year. Here are some observations:

  • The food diary certainly helps; it literally helps “watch what you eat.” On the other hand, the relationship between what you eat and what happens to your weight is a lot less simple than it appears, because we are complicated organisms. The whole notion of calorie counting, I think, is flawed, not because the thermodynamics aren’t in some sense true — every erg you produce has to come from an erg you’ve consumed — but because the way we estimate food calories and how they’re used is not that great an estimate. We don’t consume calories by burning the food in pure oxygen in a calorimeter bomb, and we don’t use them by running a steam engine with the results.
  • Tracking your weight day to day is psychologically and emotionally risky, especially if you’re on a “sensible balanced diet” leading to a weight loss of a pound a week, or plateaued in some other diet — which can look a whole helluva lot like that sensible diet. In fact, I suspect that tracking your weight every week is a little chancy, especially if your weight loss is slow.Why? Because our normal variation in weight is a good bit larger than the amount of weight you lose in a relatively short period. Think about it — 1 pound a week is 0.15 pounds a day. Which is a little over the weight of 4 Tablespoons of water. A pound a week is 2 cups, a pint, of water. A weight loss of a pound a week can be hidden by drinking a glass of water at the wrong time.
  • Quantitatively, over the last year the variance in my weight day to day has been ± 5 pounds, and I know that salty popcorn or eating some wheat can spike my weight 6 pounds overnight. Those weight gains and losses aren’t meaningful, but if you’ve been on a strict diet for a while, the tiniest slip can translate to the appearance that you’ve completely blown it.

When you’re actually losing weight quickly, tracking your weight can really help your morale; when you’re losing weight slowly, it can destroy your morale.


The Science of Weight Regulation is NOT Settled

What’s more, there are plenty of people who will tell you it Is So.

We talked about that a couple of weeks ago — the way some scientists, doctors, and nutritionists treat human metabolic regulation as if people were more or less homogenous boiled eggs. The reality is that weight and body fat regulation is complicated, which probably accounts for why so many different diets have some good effect for some people.

What to make of this?

It seems to me that the whole issue of weight regulation, not to mention Type 2 Diabetes and other metabolic problems, needs a different approach. We need to think about all the different ways weight regulation can be affected — all the metabolic “knobs” that can be adjusted — and look for changes that can affect each of them.

Thinking about how to do this is the topic for next week.