Change Your Thoughts on Weight Loss

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Scott: You mentioned something interesting about exercise earlier. The conventional thought i eat less, exercise more, you burn more calories, you lose weight. What's your thought on exercise?

Jonny Bowden, PhD: I think that those two platitudes are like trying to solve the Middle Eastern Crisis (that's been going on since, I don't know how long, by saying everyone should love their brother. Well, yes, that's true, that doesn't make for great diplomatic subtlety and diplomatic policy and negotiations. It's simplistic to the point of being idiotic.

We're not fat because we eat too much and exercise too little. We're fat for a variety of reasons that involve hormones and metabolism. You know, you talk to the best obesity researchers in the world and they'll tell you that the more they study it the more it's mystifying and baffling. We now know that what your grandmother ate affects the size of your fat cells. We now know that the fetal environment affects it.

There's a fabulous, a really interesting study people don't know about, the Dutch Famine Study. During World War II there was a period in Holland when they had to ration calories, and people got between 400 and 800 calories a day. That's starvation, less than the concentration camps. When they traced the babies that were in utero during that period . . .

Scott: Mm-hmm.

Jonny Bowden, PhD: . . .  in other words, women who were pregnant during that period, and they looked years later, the babies born to mothers during the Dutch winter were double-digit more likely to have metabolic syndrome, obesity and diabetes. That's the effect of the fetal environment. The fetus learned it's a tough world out there, ain't no food comin' in, anything that comes in I better store it!' You give that kid water and it gets fat. 

So obesity is not just about eating less. Yeah, sure, there are some people who just eat too much; no question about it. 

Scott: Mm-hmm.

Jonny Bowden, PhD: But I'm very passionate about, you know, it's sort of the last acceptable prejudice in America, that people can still look at fat people and go, you're slovenly and gluttonous. It's really more complicated than that. 

I forgot what you were asking, I think that you were asking me about exercise.

Scott: Exercise, yeah. Why do you say that that's not such a . . . 

Jonny Bowden, PhD: Because the studies are very depressing when it comes to exercise and weight loss. Tiny amounts of weight are lost with enormous amounts of exercise. And you know, from time to time you read these studies where yeah, they figured that if you do an hour and 10 minutes a day, six days a week, you might lose a couple--you know, it's just not the most efficient way to lose it. 

A number of things happen: number one, we don't burn as many calories during exercise as we think we do--certainly not what those machines at the gym tell us. Which have a vested interest, folks, in telling you that you just burned 900 calories walking five minutes. That's one thing.

There's some troubling evidence that we get hungrier after we exercise, and that people give themselves permission, 'I just exercised, I'm going to get one of those lattes from Starbucks! What can that do? Nine hundred calories of sugar! 

So there is some disturbing evidence that by itself . . . trainers, I came from the personal training world, trainers have a saying that's great: You can't out-train a bad diet. 

You're eating seven times a week at McDonald's, I don't care, unless you're Michael Phelps and you're burning up 10,000 calories a day in the pool, dude, you are not going to out, you can't fight that diet with twenty minutes of walking three times a week.

Now, you can benefit your heart, your brain, a hundred other metabolic parameters. And paradoxically, you can't keep weight off without exercise. When they look at the National Weight Control Registry, the people who have successfully kept weight large amounts of weight off for many year, they all exercise. So it may not be the best way to lose it; it's the best way to keep it off.

Dr. Jonny Bowden discusses the role exercise and eating play in weight loss. He says the thought of exercising more and eating less is too simple. He describes how much more we're learning about the topic and how that might lead to different ways of looking at weight loss.

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