Friday, August 21, 2009

How (Perennially) Fat People Diet: Part 2: Skipping Breakfast/Lunch

In part 1, I described how lots of (perpetually) overweight people approach (perpetual) dieting. Now we'll go down the list and find the mistakes, starting, today, with the top-most entry:
1. Little or No Breakfast or Lunch
They just don't get hungry early in the day. And that's ok. Not eating is good! It feels virtuous. Time spent not eating is time well-spent: an accomplishment. Eventually, the hunger reflex departs and it's hard to imagine eating more than a yogurt or a piece of fruit early in the day. The righteous feeling of asceticism somewhat offsets the shame of being overweight. I may look like someone lacking self control, but if you only knew...!
Here's the problem: when you fast, your body has an unfortunate tendency to burn muscle rather than fat. There are three problems with that:

1. You're not losing fat. In fact, muscle loss leaves you with an overall greater percentage of fat.

2. Losing muscle is unhealthy, saps your strength and energy, and makes you look lousy even after you've lost all your fat

3. Muscle mass is a dieter's best friend. It's like a pulsing metabolic engine; the more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolism, allowing you to burn fat faster and more easily. As you lose muscle, it becomes much harder to lose fat, because your body is burning fewer calories. Dieters need to add muscle, not lose it (we'll talk more about that in a few days)!

The true experts on weight loss are body builders, who constantly cycle between "cutting" (slimming) and "bulking" (gaining). These guys/gals, with their great discipline, shed fat on schedule as part of their sport, and have built an impressive trove of shared wisdom. And any of them will tell you that, when trying to lose weight, they'd rather drop heavy barbells on their feet than skip a meal or two, because losing muscle is definitely not the goal. In fact, some top weight lifters wake up in the middle of the night for a bite to eat, to ensure their muscles don't shrink between dinner and breakfast. Importantly, they do this - carefully attend to getting enough food - while cutting (losing), not while bulking (gaining). Because that's when muscle loss is of greatest concern!

Skipping breakfast won't burn up all your muscles. But it will burn some. Skipping breakfast and lunch, much more so (if you haven't eaten since the previous night, that's nearly a 24 hour fast!). Your metabolism will shut down as your body does its utmost to conserve calories, figuring you're in danger of starving to death. And then you're really in a bind. It's vastly harder to lose weight with a low metabolism.

Once your metabolism shuts down and your hunger reflex fades after you've conditioned your body to withstand the apparent famine, the meals you do eat will be digested sluggishly by your semi-dormant gastric system. And you'll lack energy. And you'll be vaguely hungry much of the time. Your blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides may increase. You will be neither happy nor healthy. You may chalk that up to the rigors of dieting, but that's not it. It's the rigors of treating your body in a ghastly, unhealthy manner. Which is, of course, what many do in the name of dieting, though they rarely lose much weight for very long.

You became overweight via unbalanced, unhealthy eating patterns and via a disconnection in your relationship with your body. You will not resolve things by heightening the imbalance and deepening the disconnection - by forcing your body into ever more extreme, unhealthy, and unnatural circumstances. Imbalance is fixed via balance, not via opposite extremes.

Losing weight requires eating more, not less. Frequent, regularly-scheduled, balanced, modest meals of healthful foods. Not simply dropping the number of calories. And there's no need to impose your will on your body. You needn't discipline it, force it, shove it, starve it, or otherwise battle it.....because your body is just trying to accommodate you by following your lead. The best way to lead it is by giving it healthful, balanced, regular meals. In less than a week, your body will embrace that and ask for nothing but more of same. You'll soon even find yourself growing hungry for breakfast and lunch - a sign that your digestive fire has reignited and your body's ready to start burning calories again. You'll feel great, too!

I noted, above, that a habit of meal skipping makes digestion sluggish. At that point, eating will leave you feeling dull and bleary, which feeds the vicious circle by encouraging meal skipping. We refrain from eating, because it will slow us down. And we blame our bodies for all this. We don't get hungry at lunch time, that's all. We simply don't digest food well early in the day. We're not morning eaters. Hey, our systems are what they are!

No. They are what we are because we've trained them to follow our patterns. Change the pattern for just a few days, and the body will follow. If you choose to starve during daylight hours, don't blame your body! It's following you, not vice versa!

What's more, the meal that's actually eaten, after one or more skipped meals, tends to be eaten in an unhealthful way: overly large portions, carb cravings, trailing snacks, etc.. And that throws the next meal out of whack...or else leaves you feeling so wretched you'll want to skip that next meal (i.e. breakfast) entirely. And so the vicious circle remains vicious!

Finally, ayurvedic medicine suggests losing weight by eating larger lunches and smaller dinners. I can't explain why, but it's true. Eating at night is more fattening and jarring to the system. And many people who skip breakfast and/or lunch chow all night along. That's a serious - and common - enough practice to be its own syndrome.

Continue to Part 2a


TomMeg said...

Sensible tips.  I'd add that there's been a fair amount of research showing that meal frequency (assuming you're controlling for calories and macronutrients) doesn't matter much in terms of body composition.  That information kind of liberated me to experiment with different eating patterns.  When I lost almost 30 lbs last year, I found that I was a much happier dieter if I ate fewer, larger, later meals, feeling quite full and satisfied right before bed.  Skipping breakfast bothered me the first few days, but I soon adjusted and felt fine.  I also didn't seem to lose any muscle (at least based on my strength in the weight room).  

Probably some people would be unhappy eating like this, and of course it's easy to screw it up if you're just winging it and not paying attention to your calories and macros (and have them set at sensible levels in the first place!).

Jim Leff said...

That's fine (and interesting!), Tom, but, as you know, I'm not speaking to people like you here, who are quite healthy, disciplined and informed on these issues, and who get tons of exercise. You can make those sorts of changes and make them work. I'm talking about those caught in a stagnant cycle of sluggishness, poor eating habits, obesity, and low metabolism, who reinforce that cycle via unhealthful habits of starvation and overeating, resulting in glycemic plunges and bursts whose effect ripples forward to "feed" the cycle. Not only are they "not paying attention to calories and macros", or setting them "at sensible levels in the first place", they're miserable, anguished and sickly.

So while you've wound up behaving in precisely the way many obese, semi-indolent people "misbehave", you're operating under a very different set of circumstances. And so I'd hesitate, if I were you, to offer your example to those helplessly/mindlessly stuck in that loop who might use it to justify staying there.

I'm working hard in this series to persuade people that there's even a problem with that, much less a need to solve it! I lived within that loop for twenty five years, and I regret every moment of it.

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