13 Weeks: Misunderstanding Obesity


I was thinking about my old cat Radar this morning. I was having my usual low-carb breakfast of hardboiled eggs with mayonnaise, salt and pepper — sort of Philip Glass egg salad — and bacon, and remembering how much Radar loved bacon. Now, my other two cats don’t have much interest in people food — oh, Ali’i will deign to accept some scraps of roast pork or turkey skin, but most of the time if I offer them something they’ll investigate it politely, maybe take a taste and then look at me clearly saying “are you nuts?” Radar really liked bacon and chicken.

Radar was something like 13 years old when he died, which is pretty old for an Abyssinian — they tend to have limited shelf lives, which is too bad as they’re incredible cats otherwise — and, unusually for an Aby, he was … plump. And a bit of a chow-hound. Ali’i and Kaleo, the current players in the role of masters of the house, are not at all plump; neither was Vashti, my first cat, nor was Yeshimbra, Radar’s predecessor in the goofy Aby role.

They all have lived on effectively the same diet — some good dry cat food freely fed, and a can of Friskies wet food split among them every day, half in the morning half at night. Oh, sometimes I try different kinds of wet food, but honestly they always seem to like Friskies the best and I can buy it at Costco in 48-can megapacks.

So, okay, you might think the difference is the human food, but Shimbra was even more gluttonous than Radar — his opinion was that if I was eating it it must be good, and that you should never eat anything much bigger than your head unless it’s a chicken — and Vashti was quite willing to accept part of any meal of mine, and was an absolute nut for pudding, especially tapioca.

And yet, four out of five cats had no weight problem at all, and Radar was … plump.


This got me to thinking about something I’d seen linked on Facebook a few days ago. It was to someone who was pushing a high-carb, high-grain, low-fat, low-calorie diet who said in so many words that anyone who didn’t lose weight was just killing themselves with non-compliance. So anyone that he put on this diet who didn’t lose weight was basically dismissed from his program.

Long-time readers of this column know that this attitude bothers me, and has bothered me since I was first on a low-calorie diet when I was 12, because I know that I have repeatedly kept to a low-calorie diet, been painfully compliant, and haven’t lost weight.

And no, I’m not going to link that article: to hell with him.

This attitude is awfully convenient — if you eliminate everyone who doesn’t lose weight for being non-compliant, then your success rate is going to look pretty damn good. But let’s think about the whole crude-thermodynamics model, counted-calories in vs. counted-calories out and 3500 kilocalories (or Calories if you prefer) per pound. Across the whole United States population, there is a significant population of people who are not obese; there’s a pretty significant population who have trouble keeping weight on. I’ve got one young friend who has trouble keeping her weight up to 100 pounds, and she’s mad for sweets and breaks my heart with stories of her family’s home cooking.

So here’s the deal. The usual explanation for that is that some people don’t eat as much fast food, have a better diet, and so on. But go to a McDonald’s and look: are the skinny kids eating salads? No, pretty much they’re eating the greasy hamburgers and fries like everyone else — if not more, the little bastards. And then think about the arithmetic — one number I’ve heard around is that Americans tend to gain about 5 pounds a year. So let’s do the arithmetic: 5 pounds at 3500 Calories a pound is 17,500 Calories; divide that by 365 days, and we find out that this average person gaining 5 pounds a year is eating, on average, 48 Calories a day too much.

That would be roughly 3 teaspoons of sugar, or a heavy pat of butter. A day.

Long-time readers of this column know that it’s often more about my questions than my answers, and this is definitely one of those places. But I look at my cats — four out of five of whom regulated their weight just fine, one of five who was … plump — all eating basically identical diets, and I look at people who are gaining 5 pounds a year versus the people who don’t, knowing we’re talking about a difference of a quarter coke or a single pat of butter, and I wonder.

Is it possible we have some basic misunderstanding of obesity?