TDEE, CICO and Other Diet Fallacies

In the weight-loss industry, there are a lot of acronyms. TDEE, CICO, VLCD, BMR, HR, and many others depending on what little corner of the weight-loss world you occupy. In most cases, they are proxies for other things, and provide an illusion that you have control. They have little to do with the reality of daily life.

TDEE – Total Daily Energy Expenditure – and CICO – Calories In, Calories Out – are the mainstay of the industry. The idea is if you know how much energy your body is expending in a day, you know how many calories you can eat and lose weight. The eating is the Calories In part of CICO, and the energy expenditure is the Calories Out part. This is the reason why Teh Fatz are sternly lectured to maintain an accurate food log, so that we can tell exactly how much we’re stuffing into our fat faces and thus how much we have to exercise to work it off.

The all important food log becomes the club with which the self-indulgent fatty is battered when she fails to lose the desired amount of weight in the measured amount of time. The formula is if you are at a “deficit” of 3500 calories over the course of 7 days, you should be 1 pound lighter at the end of the week than at the start. A small allowance is made for some variations on rate of loss (say, 1.5 pounds one week and “only” .5 the next), but failure to lose is inevitably followed by bellows of “Show us your food log!” and accusations that the fat-loss failure is “lying” and “not logging” their food. The other variation is that they are over-estimating their calorie burn in exercising, and so need to either exercise harder/longer/more intensely or eat less. Even then, they are sternly warned about “lying” on their food log, and told to “weigh everything.”

I’ve been through this wringer often enough to know that the fantasy that the body takes in and burns off food with mechanical efficiency is simply bullshit. I know the accuracy of my food log, I have my HRM (Heart Rate Monitor) that (allegedly) tells me how many calories I’m burning based on my heart rate, I have diligently dedicated myself to the task of reducing my body mass through meticulously recorded and monitored controlled starvation on multiple occasions. What I’ve learned over the years and through the various ups and downs of my weight is that these are vague tools at best, and can only hint at the metabolic processes going on inside my form.

Simply put, bodies that have been subjected to gain-loss-gain-loss cycles (and that is the majority of female bodies and an increasing number of male bodies in this country) don’t behave with the precision that the CICO model would have you think. Bodies that have been subjected to years of controlled starvation (followed by years of relatively normal eating) are going to be more efficient at taking in and storing calories than bodies that have not been treated this way. The environment in which such bodies exist is one of want, deprivation and erratic resources, and they have learned to adapt. With each round, the caloric deficit has to be deeper, the period of deprivation must last longer, the amount of food required to regain goes down, and the metabolic cues from the body indicate a need to eat because of conditions of want. If you cut enough calories long enough, you can achieve pretty much any weight loss. They will be totally out of whack for a TDEE/CICO/BMR calculation, but you can force the weight off.

Here’s my deep suspicion – that the alleged “balance” between TDEE and CICO is not true of people whose weight is stable, either. If it were possible to measure every bite of food that these people ingest and accurately measure the energy expenditure of their bodies, you’d find people who should be losing weight because intake is less than output and others who should be gaining, because intake is more than output. The imbalance would not be terribly large in either case – a few hundred calories per day on average at most – but it would be enough to demonstrate a variation in metabolisms, some being hyper efficient, some being quite inefficient.

The idea of the body as a machine that is static until deliberately acted upon is the problem here. We are organisms that adapt to our environments. The body automatically responds to events and experiences that may harm survival chances. It will fight itself to stay alive. This is one of the factors why weight regain is so prevalent after a dramatic loss. The regain is usually very slow because the individual is trying very hard to maintain, but the tiniest bit of excess has an increased effect compared to the pre-loss balance. It doesn’t have to be very much. If my body is suppose to “maintain” @ 1450 calories per day (a woman of my height and age, in the center of normal weight range and sedentary activity level), but that 1450 is actually 1400 (50 calories, less than 4% reduction, barely a plain rice cake), then just that little change means an extra pound every 2.5 months. A slight excess of that 1450 ends up being bigger in truth than it looks on paper, and the extra pound comes on every 6 weeks.

Just a tiny bit of excess calories. An extra bit cheese grated on your pasta. A few spoonfuls of sauce tasted as you’re cooking. A half a cupcake at an office party. The half-and-half instead of non-fat creamer in your coffee because the shop is out of the latter today. Was that 3 ounces or 4 ounces of sliced turkey on that sandwich? And you’ve gone over your allotted calories for the week without even thinking. You lard ass!

Except, how are the examples I give above any different than what non-fat people do all the time? I’m talking about ordinary nibbles here and there, not binge eating or consumption to an excess. The common sense answer, of course, is that people who eat in small but steady excess of TDEE are on their way to becoming fat(ter). How quickly they get there will depend on their personal metabolic balance, which may or may not be equivalent to the official CICO calculation. Some never will gain, others will gain very slowly over a long period of time, and others will gain rapidly as the metabolism of youth gives way to that of middle age.

Let’s turn this around. Why should someone have to be so hyper-aggressive about monitoring every tiny little bite of food that passes her lips for fear of some weight gain? This is what the obsessive attention to the what of eating (vs. the how or even the when of eating) does to you. Every single morsel is implicated in the war between you and your fat ass. Every bite is over-loaded with guilt and self-recrimination and regret. If only I hadn’t eaten that half-bagel at the staff meeting! If only I had been strong enough to skip lunch today! How could I have munched that Snickers fun bar over at Mary’s desk?

As long as the relationship between yourself and your body is constructed as an adversarial one, and as long as the view of your body is a simple machine topped with a weak-willed, self-indulgent brain, there’s no winning. The complexity of your metabolic functions in concert with the even greater complexity of your psychological needs are not going to fit within a mechanistic model. The discipline you are expected to marshal is not normal and may even make things worse. The levels of physical exertion needed to keep an expanding body under control are not sustainable. The Greek chorus that you are a liar, a lazy lard ass, a failure proportionate to your pounds doesn’t help, though it may make the (for the moment) thinner contingent feel better about themselves.

Long story short, diets are mentally and physically destructive and in the end they don’t work. Time to handle obesity a different way.


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Posted in Health, Obesity

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