The Black Box: A NEW Way of Thinking about Fat Loss
The Actual, Legit, For Real (Seriously!) Reason Why You Cannot Lose Fat, Even Though You Are, Indeed, “Eating Less And Moving More”
If you’ve been confused and overwhelmed about how to crack the fat loss riddle, you’re obviously not alone.
Our society is obsessed with dieting, and there are more theories about what causes obesity — and what has the potential to cure it — than there are fish in the sea.
This article introduces a NEW perspective on why the universal diet advice to “Eat Less and Exercise More” doesn’t seem to be working for many of us, despite our best efforts. It’s the synthesis of my five year journalistic enquiry into the obesity question.
Perhaps you can relate to experiences like these:
- “I’m eating 1200 cals a day, working out no less than 40 mins a day… There’s got to be something wrong. How can I work out, eat right and all the rest and be heavier than when I started?” – Briana
- “I count my calories and keep an average of 1200 cals per day i have been working out and eating less for over a year with absolutely no weight loss. What other options do i have Because i am about to go f*** shoot myself if i cannot stop being fat.”- catnight3
- “I’ve been following [a 1400 calorie/day diet] very strictly, have eliminated alcoholic drinks during the week to avoid the extra calories and other high fat/high calorie items that got me to my current weight, and I haven’t lost a pound.” – robin
Since when is the answer to any problem “just do more of what’s clearly not working”?
Your doctor, friends, and family may pay lip service to your difficulties and acknowledge your diligence. But even if you’ve logged your calories in detail and kept them low — and even if you’ve gone to the gym religiously — the advice will remain the same: “Yeah, sure you’re dieting. But you’re not being strict enough. Try eating even less and/or working out even harder.”
Friends may even accuse you of lying about how much you’re eating. It can get pretty vicious!
So why might this be happening to you and to millions of others? And what can be done?
Most people assume the problem is either the HOW or the WHAT. You haven’t found the right diet (the “WHAT”); and/or you’re not doing the diet right (the “HOW”). Your goal then becomes an endless quest to find the right calorie-balancing recipe.
I’d like to suggest a radical, third perspective. Perhaps the problem is not the WHAT or the HOW as much as it is the WHY. In other words, perhaps your beliefs about why people get fat and why fat loss happens, when it does, are somehow misguided.
If you indeed have the wrong “WHY” in mind, that core mistake may make it difficult, maybe even impossible, for you to find the right WHAT and HOW.
Where Do Our Conventional, Moralistic Beliefs about Obesity Come From?
Everyone “knows” that the twin sins of gluttony and sloth cause fat gain and that the twin virtues of restraint and productivity fix it. But why do we believe these ideas?
This perspective is rooted in the laws of physics themselves. According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy and mass must be conserved. There is no free lunch in the universe. When you gain fat on your body, that fat mass must come from somewhere.
For example, let’s say you weighed 120 pounds in your 20’s. Over two decades, you gained 30 pounds, so now you weigh 150 pounds. During those decades — per the laws of physics — you had to “overeat” 30 pounds’ worth of calories to make that excess fat. (My regrets for the 4th-grader-like drawings, by the way. This is a beta-version of this article, and I hope to have more professional looking graphics in future versions.)
Now let’s say you go on a starvation diet. You drop from 150 pounds back down to 120 pounds. During that journey, you must burn off 30 pounds’ worth of calories.
This is why dietitians tell us that gluttony/sloth causes obesity and why “Eat Less, Move More” fixes it. It sounds simple and bulletproof. You can’t argue around the laws of physics, obviously.
But while this model appeals, it misses a piece of the puzzle: The Black Box. And this missing knowledge, I believe, is at the root of why you and millions of others are struggling.
So what IS this “Black Box”?
Here’s a metaphor to introduce the concept. The TV show South Park once featured villains called the Underpants Gnomes. These gnomes had a crazy three-phased business scheme that involved stealing underpants from the good people of South Park.
Here was their plan:
The joke, of course, is that without a “Phase 2,” the gnomes’ scheme makes no sense.
Believe it or not, the mental model of how most of us think about obesity — the universally accepted model that we just discussed — uses a similar kind of logic. It leaves out Phase 2!
Here’s how most of us think about obesity:
We know that when we “eat too much,” we will “store fat.” But we never give much thought to HOW this process happens. How exactly do excess calories from our overeating transform into our beer bellies or double chins? Surely something must happen inside our bodies, but what?
Indeed, something does. A lot of things, actually.
Technically, “Phase 2” happens inside our fat cells themselves. We store excess calories in the form of a kind of fat known as triglyceride. So what puts triglyceride into our fat cells? What keeps it in there? What regulates this process?
The answers here are complex. A whole raft of stuff may come into play, including hormones, enzymes, genes, the bacteria that live in our guts, adipokines, and beyond. For the sake of sanity and brevity, we can call these diverse biochemical forces the “Black Box.
The big question is: Does this Black Box matter? And if so, how does it matter?
According to the conventional model, the answer is no, it doesn’t matter:
If you look at the logical chain of cause-and-effect, the implications are clear. Sure, complex biochemistry is needed to fix fat in your fat cells. But who really cares? If you eat too much, you will store calories as fat, by hook or by crook. It’s the laws of physics. End of discussion.
Or IS It?
Put a pin in that question. We’ll come back to it in a second. To get clarity, we need to approach this “Calories vs. Black Box” question from another angle.
Consider Other Situations in Which We Gain Mass on Our Bodies
The laws of thermodynamics don’t just apply to our fat tissue. They apply whenever we gain any kind of mass on our bodies.
- For a pregnant woman to go from 120 pounds (pre-pregnancy) to 150 pounds (at full term), she also needs to “take in more energy than she burns off” to build the growing baby. Per the laws of physics, she must “overeat” 30 pounds’ worth of calories.
- A 13-year-old who goes through a crazy growth spurt — and grows five inches and gains 30 pounds during it — also technically must “overeat” 30 pounds’ worth of calories.
- The same physics apply to the guy who grows the world’s longest moustache. If he starts off at 120 pounds and grows a 30 pound moustache over a few decades, he must “overeat” 30 pounds’ worth of calories to make that moustache.
Likewise, whenever we gain mass on our bodies, calories must pass through some sort of Black Box — they need to filter through a biochemical process to become our tissues and structures.
Two Truisms about Growth in the Body
TRUISM #1: You always need substrate (calories).
TRUISM #2: You always need a Black Box (biochemistry that transforms that substrate into tissues and structures).
Both of these truisms hold when you grow hair, when you grow cancer, when you grow muscles, when you grow bones, when your brain grows, when the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, etc.
So What Matters in All These Other Growth Situations: Calories or the Black Box?
If we talked about these other types of growths using the same frame that we use to talk about fat tissue growth, we’d reach absurd conclusions.
Eating “excess calories” does not cause a woman to grow a baby, otherwise any woman (or man, for that matter) could grow a baby by overeating. If your moustache is growing out of control, the way to fix it is not to eat less and exercise more. :]
On a more serious note: no one tells cancer patients to starve themselves in the blind hope that the creation of this whole body “energy deficit” will selectively burn-off their tumors. We conceptualize cancer properly as a medical problem. It’s a problem of tissue in our body growing in an abnormal fashion. True, the tumor is hoarding energy. But to understand WHY it’s doing so and WHAT to do about it and HOW to do it, we need to appreciate and possibly manipulate the biochemical forces at work on the tumor itself.
The point, I hope, is clear. In all these other cases of growth, the overeating is always of secondary importance. Yes, substrate is needed. But we intuitively recognize that what really matter are the biochemical signals that regulate the growth. A.k.a. The Black Box!
- In a pregnant woman, a complicated mixture of hormones, genes, enzymes and other signals drive the woman’s body to build the baby.
- In a growing teen, growth hormone causes the growth spurt.
In our moustache guy, testosterone and other hair-growth-signals determine how, when and where his moustache will grow.
Did you see where we’re going with this?
The biochemical stuff that regulates how our bodies grow the way they do always matters, whether we’re talking about hair tissue, muscle tissue, bone tissue or… drumroll… fat tissue.
The calorie thing is a Red Herring. The conventional mental model — how we all learned how to think about fat loss and fat gain — is backwards. Our diagram from earlier, which nearly everyone in the world implicitly accepts, puts the Black Box in the wrong place in the chain of cause-and-effect.
This changes everything! This changes our entire frame of reference.
No longer should we ask “why am I overeating and/or failing to exercise?”
No longer should we ask “how can I eat less and exercise more?”
These questions fail to address the core problem, which is that biochemical forces are, for whatever reason, compelling your fat cells to store too much triglyceride.
The fundamental questions then become: “Why? What’s making my fat tissue suck up and hold onto these excess triglycerides? What’s messing up my Black Box?”
In his remarkable book on this topic, science journalist Gary Taubes encapsulated this insight with the Yoda-like phrase “we don’t get fat because we overeat; we overeat because we get fat.”
A pregnant woman does not get bigger because she overeats. Otherwise anyone could grow a baby by overeating. Instead, she overeats because she is pregnant.
Imagine if she went on a low calorie diet while growing the baby. First of all, she’d quickly get really hungry. Secondly, her energy levels would crash. And if she really forced herself into an energy deficit — by going to the gym, taking appetite control pills, etc — she could maybe blunt the growth of the baby, but only at great cost to both her body and the body of her child.
Why? Because the growing fetus has its own energy needs: it’s in many ways “in business for itself,” and it will hoard calories at the expense of the mother’s other metabolic needs.
The same exact logic applies when we talk about obesity. Your fat tissue is getting bigger, or it has gotten bigger. That’s obvious. The fat is growing in an abnormal fashion, as if it’s “in business for itself.” In many ways, it’s behaving exactly like a fetus or like a tumor, narcissistically sucking up calories without a care in the world about the rest of the body.
The question we must address is WHY?
Here’s how Taubes put it in his bestseller Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It.
“If something gets more or less massive, then more energy or less energy has to enter it than leave it. [This] says nothing about why this happens. It says nothing about cause and effect. It doesn’t tell us why anything happens; it only tells us what has to happen if that thing does happen. A logician would say that it contains no causal information.
Health experts think that the [law of energy conservation] is relevant to why we get fat because they say to themselves and then to us, as The New York Times did, “Those who consume more calories than they expend in energy will gain weight.” This is true. It has to be. To get fatter and heavier, we have to overeat. We have to consume more calories than we expend. That’s a given. But thermodynamics tells us nothing about why this happens, why we consume more calories than we expend. It only says that if we do, we will get heavier, and if we get heavier, then we did.
Imagine that, instead of talking about why we get fat, we’re talking about why a room gets crowded If you asked me this question, and I said, well, because more people entered a room than left it, you’d probably think I was being a wise guy or an idiot. Of course more people entered than left, you’d say. That’s obvious. But why?” (Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, Gary Taubes, Knopf, p. 74-5)
The “But, But, Buts”
The insight seems simple, hopefully. But it took me five years of twisting this idea around and talking to Taubes (and his biggest critics) to come up with this way of framing the issue.
But the revelation inevitably stirs up lots of questions. Here are a few common ones:
- “If I eat ‘too many’ calories, don’t they still have to go somewhere? If they don’t go into my fat, where do they go?”
- “If I starve myself, I must lose weight, per the laws of physics. Where will that weight come from if not from my fat?”
- “How can you explain all the people who lose lots of fat on starvation diets, like on The Biggest Loser?”
- “Why did calorie counting work for me in the past, and why it does it work for so many people I know?”
- “How come no one talks about this Black Box concept? If the situation were this clear cut, how come more experts haven’t figured this out and come on board?”
These are all excellent questions. They and hundreds of others like them must be addressed. This article is far too short to tackle them all. But let’s address one of the most critical:
If the Black Box really “counts,” then why does calorie counting work for so many people?
Here’s the quick answer. People who go on starvation diets often change many things in their lives at once. They usually get rid of “junk food” and “empty calories” from soda and candies. They might exercise, too, and get more sun and take supplements, etc. All these changes can impact how much fat they store and burn — i.e. they can help the Black Box.
For instance, almost everybody who diets cuts out soda, or at least switches from regular to diet soda. Liquid sugar may actually be the most obesogenic (“obesity causing”) food out there — not because of the “empty calories” in sugar or the appetite problems it causes — but rather because sugar messes up your biochemistry itself. It drives your body to partition fuel into fat.
(Pediatric obesity specialist, Robert Lustig, builds the case against sugar in this video lecture.)
But here’s the big point: When you do a typical calorie-counting diet, you might neglect to address key factors that are messing up your Black Box and causing you to over-store fat — factors that may not have anything to do with what you are eating or how you are exercising.
Furthermore, when you focus only on calorie quantity and not on calorie quality or hormonal issues, you might engage in tactics that are downright useless or even counterproductive.
A Metaphor to Help Clarify…
Imagine you go to your doctor complaining of a fever, runny nose, headache, sore throat, and body ache. This is similar to how obesity presents. When you get fat, you often “get sick” as well with problems like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.
Your doctor checks your body temperature and finds that you have a 103 degree fever. That’s bad. You need to cool down before your brain boils.
What advice should she give you? Imagine she says: “It’s simple physics. You are too hot. You have overheated. Go home and take an ice bath until your temperature cools down to 98.6 degrees.” So you do. Lo and behold, the ice bath cools you, as it must. It might even relieve your body ache and other symptoms.
But this treatment only hits at a symptom. It fails to address the root cause.
Dousing a fever with ice water doesn’t make sense, because the core issue is an underlying infection, not the fever. You want medicine, not an ice bath. The cures are totally different!
Once you hop out of that bath, the fever may return with a vengeance, and your other symptoms will likely persist, unless and until the core, root problem — the infection — gets addressed.
And so it likely is with obesity!
We have all been doing the equivalent of dunking ourselves in ice water, when we should be searching for and addressing the infection.
So Is There a Metaphorical Equivalent of Penicillin for Our Black Boxes?
Perhaps there might be.
Dr. Peter Attia and Gary Taubes articulated the following compelling view in a recent petition to the New York Times — a document that’s been signed by over 250 medical experts.
Fat accumulation in the human body is regulated primarily by the hormone insulin**; we secrete insulin primarily in response to the carbohydrates we consume. These facts support an endocrinological view of obesity as a hormonal disorder caused by carbohydrate-rich foods, particularly refined grains and sugars, elevating insulin levels.
Clinical trials repeatedly demonstrate that obese individuals who consciously restrict carbohydrates but not calories lose weight — often without hunger — while experiencing significant improvements in heart-disease and diabetes risk factors. Those of us who have lost weight ourselves and/or witnessed the effect of these diets on our patients can confirm that this is exactly what happens.
** bold is mine
An Exciting Insight: Low Carb Diets Might Work, Even When Low Calorie Diets Fail
For many, this “Fix the Black Box by Normalizing Insulin by Counting Carbs” shortcut to fat loss works much better and leads to more lasting results than the “Count Calories” method.
Count me in that group!
If you’re itching to apply theory to practice (after talking with your doctor), my ebook, The Low Carber’s Survival Guide, explains how to live low carb in our “high carb” world. At the risk of being overly self-promotional, here’s what the most popular low carb blogger, Jimmy Moore, said about the book: “With so many voices telling you what’s right, what’s wrong, and how you should be eating and exercising, don’t you wish you had a teacher who could clearly explain it all to you in language that is understandable? Well, now you do. His name is Adam Kosloff.”
The LCSG comes with in depth bonus interviews with Taubes and strength trainer Fred Hahn.
All that said, achieving optimal fat loss/better health may not be as simple as “control insulin by going low carb.”
Here’s how Taubes put it in Why We Get Fat:
Multiple hormones and enzymes affect our fat accumulation**, and insulin happens to be the one hormone that we can consciously control through our dietary choices. Minimizing the carbohydrates we consume and eliminating the sugars will lower our insulin levels as low as is safe, but it won’t necessarily undo the effects of other hormones—the restraining effect of estrogen that’s lost as women pass through menopause, for instance, or of testosterone as men age—and it might not ultimately reverse all the damage done by a lifetime of eating carbohydrate- and sugar-rich foods.
This means that there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for the quantity of carbohydrates we can eat and still lose fat or remain lean. For some, staying lean or getting back to being lean might be a matter of merely avoiding sugars and eating the other carbohydrates in the diet, even the fattening ones, in moderation: pasta dinners once a week, say, instead of every other day. For others, moderation in carbohydrate consumption might not be sufficient, and far stricter adherence is necessary. And for some, weight will be lost only on a diet of virtually zero carbohydrates, and even this may not be sufficient to eliminate all our accumulated fat, or even most of it.
** bold is mine
What Taubes means (and what I believe) is that lots of “stuff” other than carbs might impact insulin and other key fat storage hormones and enzymes (a.k.a. The Black Box), including, for some people, perhaps, the overall quantity of food they eat. That means you may need to pay attention to these second and third order issues as well.
Low Carb Diets Vs. Low Calorie Diets re: What They Might Do to the Black Box
Conclusion: New Hope and a New Framework But Probably Lots of Questions
Your struggles on low calorie diets hopefully now make a bit more sense. I hope they do!
I believe our incorrect emphasis on calorie control has caused untold catastrophe and hardship.
It’s a perspective that meanly and wrongly blames the failed dieter for sinning (a.k.a. being slothful and/or gluttonous) while simultaneously obscuring potential solutions that you can only find if you think to address the root biochemical problem or problems.
While this insight resolves many paradoxes about the fat loss puzzle, it also raises tons of questions. If you’re interested in my take about HOW we might be able to use this Black Box Perspective to meet these challenges, please sign up to my email list below. (Note: you’ll get a duplicate copy of this article/report when you do – for the time being – but you’ll also get very cool follow up emails that answer common FAQs about this stuff. Also, to reiterate: I am not a doctor or dietician, so I cannot treat you or provide any medical advice!)
Lastly, again, if you’re interested in my journalistic introduction to low carbing, check out The Low Carber’s Survival Guide. 30% of proceeds will go to Dr. Peter Attia and Gary Taubes’ non-profit, the Nutrition Science Initiative, which is funding research to help definitively answer crucial questions about what causes and possibly cures obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Thanks for your time, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. We can all do this! We can move “beyond calories” in a way that serves life, helps the planet, and leads to a better tomorrow.
All it takes is a few, subtle shifts in perspective…
p.s. Did you enjoy this article? If so, I have a request for you: please share it with one person in your life, who might find it useful and encouraging. Help spread the word that obesity is NOT a moral failing! Thank you – Adam