21 pounds lost: which approach gets the credit?

October 9, 2007

This past Friday we went out to dinner with one of G’s childhood friends and his wife, and I ate a diet-busting plate of delicious mixed-grill meats, including a fatty, spicy link of chorizo, a couple of juicy barbecued pork ribs (true nirvana) and some supremely tender dark-meat Peruvian chicken.

Ah, if my 20-year-old militant vegetarian self could see me now.

Including the two Herradura margaritas I threw back, this meal came out to something like 1900 calories, which is about 500 more than I typically try to eat in an entire DAY, let alone for just one meal. My total intake for Friday, even keeping breakfast and lunch light since I knew we were going out, was something like 2350 calories. Whoa. Since then I’ve kept my calories around 1500 or so per day, but it takes a lot more post-infraction calorie-cutting than that to make up for this kind of “cheat.” I fully expected my weight to fluctuate up by a pound or so within a few days.

But I was wrong. This morning (Tuesday, four days after Operation Fatty Mixed Grill) I weighed myself — down a total of 21 lbs! Since my last post here on October 2nd, my weight had gone up just a bit, and I’d been hovering between 19 and 19.5 lbs lost. After my gigantic meal, I stayed at -19.5 until this morning, when my weight went down another pound and a half.

Question is, what explains this medical miracle? There are only two things I’ve done differently in the past four days: 1. I started incorporating weight-lifting, and 2. I eased up overall on the exercising. I did cardio plus upper- and lower-body strength training on Friday morning, then skipped working out entirely on Saturday, the first day I’d skipped in a week. Sunday I did weights and cardio again, and Monday once again I did not so much as lift a finger in the direction of the elliptical machine or the mat, meaning I’ve skipped two days out of the past four–something I haven’t done in months.

So what pushed me out of my mini-plateau, the weights or the extra rest? The other day I read an article adapted from Gary Taubes’s new book, in which he argues against received wisdom about weight loss by suggesting that maybe, just maybe, exercise is not as crucial to weight loss as we tend to believe (he also has a lot of unconventional arguments about diet and nutrition, but I was most intrigued by his thoughts on exercise). Notes Taubes:

There was a time when virtually no one believed exercise would help a person lose weight. Until the sixties, clinicians who treated obese and overweight patients dismissed the notion as naïve. When Russell Wilder, an obesity and diabetes specialist at the Mayo Clinic, lectured on obesity in 1932, he said his fat patients tended to lose more weight with bed rest, “while unusually strenuous physical exercise slows the rate of loss.”

The problem, as he and his contemporaries saw it, is that light exercise burns an insignificant number of calories, amounts that are undone by comparatively effortless changes in diet. In 1942, Louis Newburgh of the University of Michigan calculated that a 250-pound man expends only three calories climbing a flight of stairs—the equivalent of depriving himself of a quarter-teaspoon of sugar or a hundredth of an ounce of butter. “He will have to climb twenty flights of stairs to rid himself of the energy contained in one slice of bread!” Newburgh observed. So why not skip the stairs, skip the bread, and call it a day?

More-strenuous exercise, these physicians further argued, doesn’t help matters—because it works up an appetite.

As such, Taubes argues, while exercise might do a lot of things for us–improve overall fitness, make us happy, boost our self-esteem–it likely doesn’t quite help us lose weight, because if we exercise only modestly, we aren’t burning enough calories really to matter. And if we exercise vigorously, we’ll get hungrier and eat more. And you know what? Historically, this has been the exact reaction that I’ve had to vigorous exercise, especially weight training. The stronger and fitter I get, the hungrier I get and the more I eat, which makes the calories burned through exercise pretty much a wash. Even with cardio only, on days when I wake up and do 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, I find it nearly impossible to eat less than 1400 or 1500 calories per day, while on days that I skip the exercise, I can stick to 1200 calories or so quite easily. Exercise days are the only days that I actually feel hungry on restricted calories (I mean real, stomach-growling hunger, as opposed to a random emotional craving for something).

On the other hand, most people know that muscle burns more calories than fat does. So over time, weight training helps speed up your metabolism, as your body will burn more calories at rest if it is leaner and more muscular than it was before. Adding weights to my recent workouts will no doubt have the net effect of increasing my body’s ability to burn calories overall. Not that I think I managed to increase my lean muscle mass significantly with only two days of weight training! Maybe there’s a little bit of a placebo effect going on here.

In any case, I’m going to try keeping up both of these practices–strength training and more rest days between workouts–from now on, at least until I get caught in another plateau. Maybe full-on rest days between big workouts will give me a fighting chance to regulate my calories on a day when I’m less likely to be ravenously hungry, and maybe keeping up with the squats and leg lifts and bicep curls three or four times a week will rev up my metabolism too.

Or maybe I should just eat more pork ribs and chorizo. Perhaps a big plate of meat once a week was the secret all along.

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