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Why your thin friends don’t get fat and your fat friends don’t stay thin…

A few weeks ago, with a heavy heart and all the enthusiasm of… well, actually, with no enthusiasm at all, I went and joined my local Slimming World group. Again. My weight has been creeping up and I realised that I was getting a bit out of breath while doing energetic things like bending over and walking up the stairs.

As you have guessed by now, in the words of the title of this blog, I would count as a fat friend.

Experience tells me that if I work at it I can definitely lose some weight. I could become a thin friend. Or at least a thinner friend. What I’m not at all sure about is how much weight and whether I can stay a thin friend. Experience tells me that chances are, I will find that I can’t. Or at least, not for very long. In fact, the whole losing weight thing could turn out, in a few years, to be somewhat counterproductive.

So why bother at all?

It’s not particularly about appearance. I live too much in my head to care about my appearance for very long. I like to look nice, so long as I don’t need to expend much effort making it happen. My beauty routine generally consists of a cursory interaction with a hair brush and an early morning glance in the mirror to make sure I’m entering the day looking like a competent adult.

It’s also only partly about health. I used to worry about that more, but actually the research seems to show that the correlation between being overweight and being unhealthy is a bit more complicated than we’ve been led to believe. Sandra Aamodt, in her TED talk, cites a study which looked at relative risk of death over a 14 year period for people with different lifestyles. The study looked at four healthy habits: — Eating enough fruit and vegetables — Exercising three times a week — Not smoking — Drinking in moderation The more healthy habits the subjects had, the less likely they were to die. People of a normal weight, with no healthy habits were twice as likely to die as those with all four healthy habits. However, the risk increased for people for people who were overweight or obese. So people who had no healthy habits and were obese were not twice as likely to die, they were seven times as likely to die. Obese people with all the healthy habits had the same chance of survival as someone of normal weight with all the healthy habits. The likelihood of death if you had no healthy habits and were very obese was around seven times that of someone of normal weight

What this study suggests is that being overweight makes an unhealthy lifestyle a lot more dangerous. But if you have a really healthy lifestyle, you’re possibly not at that much more risk than anyone else.

The biggest incentive for me is that carrying this much weight is just a nuisance. It’s tiring. It makes life hard work. I want to be able to ride my bicycle and climb hills without lugging about half an extra person around with me. Not to mention the trauma of buying clothes, where I’m faced with the double whammy of being both wide and short.

The moment, this time, that made me seriously want to do something about it, was walking up a hill on a church weekend. Granted, it was a very long, very steep hill. But it was so tough that it almost wasn’t worth it, despite the fact that I love walking and we were in an utterly beautiful place with fabulous views. I was exhausted afterwards. Other people were striding up the hill with relative ease. I was horribly hampered by the fact that I was lugging an awful lot of unnecessary weight. More than once it occurred to me that I would have been at less of a disadvantage had it been possible to give everyone else something equally heavy to carry. Like a nine year old child, perhaps, or about thirty bags of sugar. So despite the fact that I know how flipping difficult it is not only to lose weight but, more to the point, to keep it lost, I am willing to give it a go just because I’m tired of carrying it all the time and I’d like to put some of it down.

Until very recently, I have seen my inability to stay reasonably slender as being entirely my own fault. A personality flaw. A result of a lack of effort and inner strength. If I was a better, healthier, more disciplined person I wouldn’t struggle with my weight. I would be thinner and fitter. Like my worthier, thinner, friends. However, the more I learn, the more I realise that there is more going on than the simplistic narrative of needing simply to eat less and exercise more. It turns out that the issue is far more about physiology than it is about personality and will power.

The received wisdom is that there is a simple equation of ‘calories in / calories out’ that determines weight. In other words, what you need to do is eat less and exercise more. And if you’re not managing that, you’re simply not trying hard enough. Obviously, this analysis has some validity. After all, we all need to eat and if there are no calories going in, you will eventually starve to death. Diet and fitness regimes work because you reduce the calories going in and increase the number of calories that you use. But these are not the only factors in play. Particularly when we look at long term weight profiles.

I recall a conversation with a friend once. A thin friend. In the all the years I had known her, she had never been a different size. In an attempt, I think, to give me some friendly advice, she told me how she kept herself in check. She put on weight at Christmas, she said, usually half a stone or so. But she was always careful in the fortnight following the festivities, to rein things in, to eat less. In this way, the half stone would disappear. In this way, she never let things get out of hand.

Why did I never manage to do that?

It turns out that the reason I haven’t been able to maintain a healthy weight, just like my friend, and so many like her, is that our bodies work differently. This should be an obvious point, but I have to confess that it’s one that eluded me — despite being surrounded by evidence of it. I thought the problem was entirely psychological. All about my relationship with food (which does have its faults, I freely admit) and my inability to be moderate. The lightbulb moment for me, was when I heard a researcher point out that if it was as simple as ‘calories in / calories out’, everyone would be heavier now than they were in the past because across society, food consumption has increased. But that isn’t what we see. It would also suggest that, if I’m eating a bit too much, my weight would simply keep on increasing. But it doesn’t really. I get to a point when it sort of levels out. That levelling out point has got steadily higher over the years, but there always comes a point when the increase in largeness slows down and more or less stops. At that point my appetite decreases a bit and being moderate becomes easier. It’s just that the stopping point has been getting higher over the years.

It turns out that the reason for this is that our bodies have what’s called a ‘weight set point’. In other words, there is a fairly narrow weight range which your body will do its best to stay within.

Our bodies are extremely good at maintaining status quo. They do it will with all sorts of systems. Like temperature control, the amount of fluid in our bodies, sugar in the blood stream, how much oxygen we take in. You name it. It’s called homeostasis, it’s controlled subconsciously by a vast array of hormones and behavioural controls and it’s incredibly efficient.

Weight, it turns out, is another of these systems. And with a few exceptions, our bodies fall roughly into two categories.

There are people who, like my friend, have bodies that are a normal, healthy weight and stay within that weight range quite naturally. The reason she was able to lose her Christmas weight was less about her personal, conscious efforts and more about her body’s desire to get back within its normal range.

Then there are people — and I seem to be one of them — whose bodies are particularly well attuned to the danger of starvation. And for most of human evolution, that’s been an advantage. It’s like your body plays host to an inner survivalist. They tend to start out by storing a bit more energy — just in case — than your average person. The biological equivalent of a couple of jerry cans of water and a few tins of beans in the garage. But then, if a crisis hits and it becomes necessary to actually use the beans and the water, the inner survivalist makes a calculation, which goes along the lines of:

“Ah. I thought I was well prepared. Just in case. But that was a bit close for my liking. We were running dangerously low. Time to restock. But this time, I’m making doubly sure. We need more jerry cans. And a couple of extra crates of beans. And maybe a container of rice.” So you start off a bit heavier than you’d like to be. You work hard, lose some weight, get fit. Your body goes along with it, but your inner survivalist is not happy. So the moment it spies an opportunity, it’s on a mission to restock. But this time, it’s going to make absolutely certain that it doesn’t run short in the future. Because the stock that it had before didn’t stave off the starvation crisis. Next time there’ll be ten jerry cans of water, two containers of rice, eight crates of beans…

You end up settling at a slightly higher weight than where you started. It’s really frustrating. Carrying lots of extra weight is no fun. So you find the energy and motivation to start the journey again. This time more determined that you’re not going to let it happen again. But your inner survivalist is already planning to restock the beans and is considering the purchase of a generator.

This is what creates that typical, up and down but steadily up, graph of weight gain and loss that those of us who struggle with this stuff, find ourselves battling. And nobody really seems to have a satisfactory answer to it. What really frustrates me is that all over the place, there are articles and bits of research saying, basically, DON’T DO YO-YO DIETING! IT’S A REALLY BAD IDEA!

As if anyone ever intends to do yo yo dieting. It’s not like anyone ever sets out to get thinner and fitter with the intention of giving up, putting weight on and having to start all over again. But our bodies are very, very determined to keep us safe from future starvation. And however carefully and sensibly you do it, your inner survivalist interprets dieting as starvation.

I am in my fifties now and I haven’t dieted that many times in my life. Partly because of the recommendations all over the place not to do the yo yo dieting thing. Partly because I didn’t want my weight to be the thing that was front and centre of my thinking.

About once a decade I’ve reached the point where, for one reason or another, I’ve worked seriously at losing weight. And I suspect my story is typical.

Throughout my teens and early twenties, I maintained a steady 12 stone (that’s 168lbs, if you work in pounds). I am 5'2" and all the BMI charts loudy proclaim that this counts as obese. And that I ought, ideally, to be between seven and a half and nine and a half stone. So it was consistently on my mind. At least a bit. With the glory of hindsight, I now think that 12 stone was a good, healthy weight for my body. A weight I would now be delighted to reach. But that’s another story.

The first time I lost weight I was 25. I decided I wanted to walk the Pennine Way, which is a long distance footpath, wending its way up the Pennines, across the Cheviot Hills and just over the border into Scotland. 265 miles in total. The plan was to carry everything. Tent, cooking equipment, clothes, the lot. While I was finding out how to travel light and weighing equipment, it became a bit of no-brainer to conclude that it was a bit daft to be considering cutting the end off my toothbrush while carrying more than 30lbs (according to the BMI charts) of excess body weight. So I decided to do something about it.

I did everything by the book. I didn’t “go on a diet”. I got some good advice about nutrition, did a lot of walking (I needed the practice) and was attentive to what I was eating, without being fanatical about it. More fruit and veg. Less snacks. The consequence was that I carried a lot less bodily ballast on my walk and came home very fit and weighing just over ten and a half stone. According to the charts, I had gone from being obese to simply overweight. But, quite honestly, I couldn’t have been fitter. My post walk gym assessment declared me to be fitter than 90% of people my age. So whatever the charts said, I was happy with that. When I got back, I went to the gym regularly. Without the incentive of a long walk on the horizon, I wasn’t quite as focused as I’d been before, but I was pretty determined to maintain my new physique. Then I fell in love. I took my new boyfriend with me on my next long walk. The following summer, we did 165 miles across Scotland.

But while I was busy being in love, my inner survivalist had found a chink in my armour. My weight was creeping up and by the time we got married, when I was 27, I was heavier than I had been before I started training for the Pennine Way. This I blamed on my inability to be disciplined about food. My thinner friends were obviously better people than me. I didn’t grow up with the healthiest of relationships with food and I definitely had a tendency to emotional eating. My response to stress, joy, tiredness, depression, celebration and boredom was to eat. I enjoyed cooking and eating and having people round for dinner. I had the dilemma of many people who struggle with their weight. I didn’t want the dieting thing to take over my life. I was very aware that constantly dieting is not a good idea. I was surrounded by people who were continually worrying about what they were eating and that seemed a miserable way to live. Maybe I just needed to accept the fact that I was bigger than average and get on with my life. I was reasonably active. There were periods when I wasn’t doing that much exercise, but also long periods when I was maintaining a pattern of exercising multiple times a week.

Being larger than average did bug me though. I resented the nightmare of clothes shopping and the extra effort involved in everyday life. So decided to do something about it and chose to join a local Rosemary Conley group on the grounds that it involved an exercise class as well as a weigh in. That, I thought, would kill two birds with one stone, with the added bonus that it would allow a lot less time for a slimming group consultant to be patronising. It was a difficult, pretty restrictive regime, but I got into the swing of it and lost a couple of stone.

It was all going really well and then I had a nervous breakdown. There had been a few years when life had been pretty difficult and the culmination of that and several difficult life events hitting simultaneously was too much all at once. I was depressed and off work for a few months. Everyday tasks were a huge challenge. Everything felt like climbing a mountain. Making a cup of tea or a piece of toast was a hurculean task. Trying to stick to Rosemary Conley’s plan just wasn’t going to happen. I absolutely didn’t have the mental capacity.

I was only out of action for about five months, but that was enough time for eighteen months worth of hard slog dieting to disappear in a puff of smoke. My weight increased rapidly until I was a good bit heavier than I had been before I’d started doing the Rosemary Conley thing.

And there’s the dilemma. If you’re prone to putting on weight, there doesn’t seem to be a neutral point. Your inner survivalist doesn’t care whether your weight loss plan is measured and sensible or involves eating cabbage and drinking diet shakes. You’re either losing weight, with difficulty, or heading back up to a size you really don’t want to be. There isn’t an option for giving yourself a bit of a break from the whole thing. The moment you lose concentration, the whole thing falls apart.

In my mid forties, I gave it another go. This time, with Slimming World. That seemed to be a programme that really suited me. Not nearly as restrictive as the Rosemary Conley thingy. In fact, once I’d got settled into the regime, I found it reasonably easy to stick with. I honestly thought I had it sussed this time. Life was pretty tough. I was managing some major stress and not letting it get in the way. Over a couple of years, I lost five stone (70lbs). And I got properly fit. I started running. First couch to 5k. Did some 5k races, a couple of 10k races, had a go at a mini-triathlon — which I loved…

…and then I split up with my husband and became single parent to two boys with significant extra needs. I kept going to Slimming World. I kept doing my best. But two things were conspiring. Firstly, life, which had been really difficult became ultra-demanding. Getting to meetings was becoming increasingly complicated. Secondly, it felt like my body was in rebellion. After months of getting myself to meetings in the midst of a life that was increasingly difficult and unpredictable, and seeing my weight see-sawing but starting to creep up, I eventually decided that I really wasn’t being kind to myself. It was a demand too many. I continued to run when I could and even ran a quarter marathon as part of a relay team. But I had lost momentum and over the coming months saw three years worth of hard work evaporate.

Every time I’ve lost weight, I’ve got to a place where the eating plan that’s helping me shed the calories becomes normal and reasonably simple to maintain. But it’s never without effort. It requires a level of continual vigilance that is more sustainable at some points in life than others. But beneath that, is the underlying sense that my inner survivalist is biding its time, just waiting for a chink in the armour, waiting for the moment when it can restock the garage. And the moment it sees that chink, it starts storing resources and bulk buying in a way that is incredibly difficult to resist. And once you’re on that slippery slope, climbing back up again is just about impossible.

What I’ve learnt over the last couple of years means that I am starting the journey with some new insights and some different perspectives. I now know for certain that the sense that my body rebels is not my imagination. The problem is not my will power. It’s homeostasis. My body really is on a mission to make me fatter.

If your body is on a drive to prevent weight loss or to create weight gain, metabolism decreases and your muscles become more efficient. Your brain sends out signals that control hunger, activity and metabolism. Consequently, if you lose 10% of your body weight, your body will burn between 250 and 400 fewer calories per day than someone the same weight, who hasn’t dieted. That’s quite a lot of food.

There is a hormone called leptin that make you feel satisfied and one called ghrelin than creates hunger. And when your body is on a mission to gain weight, there’s a lot more ghrelin and a lot less leptin kicking about. And although you don’t have to eat just because you’re hungry, it takes a fair amount of effort to resist.

All this means that to maintain your new, thinner physique, you are going to need to eat substantially fewer calories per day than someone your size who has never needed to diet. For the rest of your life. While your body is sending out signals constantly to tell you that you are hungry and you really ought to eat more.

One of the unexpected consequences of weight loss surgery is the discovery that if a particular part of the intestines is removed, it actually alters the production of hunger and satiety hormones, meaning that some patients find that surgery doesn’t just remove the ability to eat too much, it removes the desire. People who’ve had surgery report that they find themselves thinking about food a lot less. They don’t want to eat as much. They find that they can go for hours at a time without thinking about eating. Which is interesting, because I know slim people for whom this has always been the case.

It has, stupidly, taken me quite a long time to put two and two together in this regard. I think I have generally given my slimmer friends more credit than is warranted for their ability to eat boxes of chocolates slowly and to order coffee instead of desert. For many people, that behaviour simply comes naturally. For me, those things take deliberate, consistent will power. The situation of not thinking about food for hours doesn’t occur.

Refusing to look at a desert menu is a very deliberate act. Being in sight of a bowl of crisps and not eating any of them is quite a feat. My inner survivalist is a fanatic and it doesn’t take days off.

So I’m not embarking on the whole dieting thing with rose tinted spectacles. I know that losing weight is hard and that keeping it off is harder. But I really would like to start running again, to walk up hills more easily and generally have more energy. So I’m giving it a go. I know a small number of people, including my mum, who have achieved the incredible feat of not just losing weight but staying slim for years at a time. Knowing just how hard that is, I find it inspirational.

I know that losing weight is not the most important thing in life. But it is something I would like to do if I can manage it, without it becoming an obsession. The difference this time is that I am seeing myself differently. I’m not seeing myself as someone who’s weak and ill disciplined. I’m going to give myself credit for what I am achieving and for the efforts I’ve made over the years to stay fit and healthy, understanding just how difficult it really is. Ref: Dr Andrew Jenkinson (2021) Why we eat (too much) Published by Penguin Life.

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