The Hidden Struggles of Weight Loss

emotional eating
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Guilty confession time.

Throughout 2015, I focused on a number of goals for my health, not the least of which was losing (fat) weight. I managed to get below 200 pounds which was my initial goal, and then down to 190 on my way to my next goal which was/is 185 pounds.

But then I kept getting injured, primarily by improperly doing back squats and deadlifts, and shifted my priorities to learning proper spinal mechanics and techniques so I could heal my injuries and train to become stronger.

All this happened around December, which is the height of the American holiday season when we worship the consumption of fat-producing foods. An abundance of such foods and food-related occasions were happening at work, and I gave in to temptation.

The problem is, even after December, I didn’t return to my previously disciplined way of eating, and now, 3 or 4 months later, that last 10 pounds or so that took me forever to lose is back with a vengeance.

It would be nice to think that at least some of that weight is lean muscle mass, but I can tell by how my pants fit and what belt notch I use to fasten it around my waist, that a significant portion is nasty old fat.

So I’m returning to the “battle of the bulge,” and believe me, it’s not easy.

At my current weight, height, being male, and being over 60, this online BMI calculator considers me just slightly overweight. Overweight is a BMI from 25 to 29.9, and mine, as of this morning, is 25.4 (I did a few other calculations and it looks like to get into the high normal range, I’d just have to lose about 4 pounds). Not horrible, but not considered “normal,” either. (by the way, a BMI over 30 is considered obese).

Even 5 to 10 years ago, all I had to do was up my exercise level and I’d start losing weight. It’s something of a trait on my father’s side of the family. However, as I’ve gotten older, weight (fat) loss is a real struggle. I have to focus hard on portion control and the types of food I put in my mouth.

I used to think having multiple small meals throughout the day was the way to go, but I’m re-examining that wisdom. Maybe a big meal to start out the day will keep me feeling satisfied longer rather than hungry all the time.

mice food experiment
Photo: Olof Lagerlof/Ars Technica

Which brings me to an article I found at Ars Technica called Off-switch for overeating and obesity found in the brain.

This is a “mice study,” so don’t get excited just yet, but initial results seem to indicate that there’s a simple “switch” in the brain that, flicked one way, makes a mouse unable to determine when it’s full, and thus with an inexhaustible food supply, will cause it to keep eating its way into obesity. Switched the other way however, the mouse returns to “normal” eating and sheds its weight.

From the article:

When researchers knocked down a single enzyme in the brains of mice, the rodents seemed to lose the ability to tell when they were full. They ate more than twice their usual amount of food at meal times and tripled their body fat within three weeks. And—most strikingly—when the researchers reversed the experiment, the mice just as quickly stopped eating so much. Data on the enzymatic switch, published Thursday in Science, suggests a possible target for future drugs to treat obesity in humans.

The enzyme is O-GlcNAc transferase, or OGT, which is known to work in a chemical pathway controlled by nutrients and metabolic hormones, particularly insulin. That pathway has long been linked with obesity. But researchers knew almost nothing about how the pathway linked to the metabolic disorder or OGT’s specific role.

weapon of mass destruction
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Someday, this research may lead to the development of medications to help morbidly obese people lose weight. The takeaway from the research is this:

Overall, the data suggests that the OGT enzyme is a critical switch in a feedback loop that senses food signals, such as metabolic hormones, then fires up nerve cells to shut off the desire to eat. Without a properly working switch, mice ate more or less than normal.

Because the OGT pathway has already been linked to obesity in humans, the researchers are hopeful that the data could lead to a way to modify—or correct—satiation signals in people to treat obesity.

But we’re not there yet. There’s a long road between mice research and a FDA approved medication becoming available on the market.

However, this research reminds me that there’s a difference between someone who has a BMI of over 30 and someone like me, who just needs to work harder and become more disciplined about my eating habits.

No, it’s not impossible for an obese person to lose significant amounts of weight, but the OGT enzyme research is telling us that some people may not be able to tell when they’re full and they keep eating.

On the other side of the coin, people aren’t mice, and even if we don’t feel full, we can use research, education, and rational thought to gain an understanding of what we are doing to ourselves and to modify our behavior.

There’s a guy I see at the gym on some Sundays who, months and months ago, used to be huge, and not in a good way. The last time I saw him a few weeks ago, I noticed he’d lost a lot of belly weight. Yes, he was still overweight and has more to lose, at least as far as I can tell from his appearance, but whatever he’s doing, it’s working.

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The understanding of (more or less) normal weight people of obese people is complex and a lot of the time, unfair. I recently read a blog post called An Open Letter from a Fat Woman. It reminded me of the aforementioned guy at the gym who obviously has lost weight. I don’t know him, we’ve never spoken, so I didn’t mention anything to him. If I had, even to complement him, it might have been a mistake.

Here’s part of what the “open letter” had to say:

I realized something yesterday. I don’t enjoy being asked if I’ve lost weight or gotten smaller. This question is usually asked by those who are slender, generally healthy-looking, and physically fit. However, others who are also overweight will ask the same question. Often this question is accompanied by facial expressions and asked in a tone of voice which indicate the person is issuing a compliment and an encouragement. For those who are aware of the mental/emotional health issues I deal with, this question is followed up with, “You look happy, like you’re doing good/better.” It occurred to me that I feel neither encouraged or complimented most of the time. In fact, part of me feels frustrated and defeated, less than.

At first blush, it seems counter-intuitive for a compliment about losing weight to be discouraging to a heavy person. But the rest of us don’t have the same internal experience:

I had two people who I know love me and care about my well-being ask me at two different times yesterday if I had lost weight. Last weekend a third person asked the same and two weekends ago, someone asked me if I had gotten smaller. Four different people over a two-week period of time, all of whom hadn’t seen me in a month or more, asked me if I had lost weight. Each time, I felt obligated to say, “Thank you.” However, because I’m almost compulsively honest, I followed that up with, “No, I think I got smaller but then got bigger again,” because I know how the mental health disorders I experience have manifested in the past three months, as stressors in my life have multiplied, almost exponentially, and that I’ve been abusing myself with food. I know how my body feels, how clothing feels on my body, and how body has changed shape again in response to the binge eating and unhealthy food choices I’ve been struggling with.

As you can see from this narrative, there can be other forces at work in the life of a heavy person besides an enzyme malfunction.

To a much smaller degree though, even those of us who are just a tad overweight may have something similar going on in our lives.

I remember times when people have commented that I’d lost weight, and I really did feel complemented and proud that my efforts at weight loss had been successful. But then I thought, no one comments when they think you’ve gained weight (well, no one but my wife, who recently mentioned this to me). It seems a little disingenuous to mention weight loss positively but to go silent when you notice someone’s put on a few pounds, not that we’d like to hear that from anyone. I can only imagine what other people in my life have been thinking about my body lately.

What’s the bottom line to all this?

Some of us are fighting the weight loss battle because we overeat/eat the wrong foods without a significant physical or psychological pathology involved. As we get older, even if we don’t change our eating habits all that much, putting on pounds is easier, and taking them off is harder.

Women's GymBut just like using resistance training is a way to fight back against sarcopenia, and cardio is a way to increase our oxygen uptake, strengthen our cardiovascular system, and arguably, a method of promoting the replacement of brain cells that we lose through age, we can use a combination of exercise and diet to lose the fat cells we’ve taken on board because of our eating habits combined with age.

Just keep in mind, we can’t always know everything about someone else’s struggle. If they ask us for help, we should help, but entering someone else’s battle uninvited may not always be the right thing to do. We each have enough on our own plates, so to speak, to keep us busy fighting our own hard battles.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.

Dalai Lama


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