Weight Maintenance

By: Shahin Soltanian (PhD in Philosophy).  Checked for Scientific accuracy by: Dr. Ameneh Khatami (MD, FRACP)

Pictured Zahra Soltanian
                                               Pictured: Zahra Soltanian (Photography: Shahin Soltanian © 2020)

When it comes to weight maintenance there are many prevalent misconceptions.  There is no shortage of advice for a person who is trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.  The problem is that much of that advice is based on unproven methods spread through the word of mouth, advertisement by companies trying to sell a specific product or claims of traditional medicine.  In this article I will go through some of the misconceptions and conclude with some notes about what are the main factors for weight management.

Calories versus Volume

Volume alone is not an indication of how the body produces mass using food.  When a person consumes food, the digestive system goes on to break down the food into the chemicals that the body can use to produce energy in order to function.  The energy the body uses to function is measured by the unit of measurement commonly referred to as calories (kilocalories or Kcal to be exact).  Food calories provide energy in the form of heat.  The amount of calories (Kcal) in a specific type of food is the amount of energy it can provide the body.  One misconception about weight maintenance is that if a person just eats less they would not gain weight and go on to losing weight.  This is an oversimplification of the relationship between the human body and food.

If a person’s body takes in more calories than it uses it will store the rest of the energy in one form or another and adds to the body mass (fat, muscle or both depending on the activity of the person).  If it takes in less than what it uses it will utilize the existing mass in the body to produce the required energy and as a result lose weight.  If the body takes in the same amount of calories as it uses the mass will stay the same (a person’s weight is maintained).  It is important to mention that there are medical conditions that might disrupt the normal system of the body by affecting appetite and/or metabolism.  That is a separate case that needs appropriate medical treatments and a person’s nutrition supervised by a dietician.  The basics of how the body uses food however are the same across human beings.

Some foods contain more calories in smaller volume than other foods.  For example, 100 grams of lettuce has around 15 calories whereas 100 grams of cashew nuts has about 553 calories.  A person can eat quite a bit of lettuce before getting nearly as much calories as 100 grams of cashews.  Hence, volume alone is not a good indication of whether the body gains, maintains or loses weight.  To lose weight a person needs to count calories.  This does not mean necessarily measuring everything meticulously (although if you cannot achieve it otherwise go ahead and do that).  It does mean that a person must get a grasp about the amount of calories their body is taking in versus the amount it is using for everyday energy use.

Eat for the Body’s Need

A person needs to calculate the amount of calories they need or what food it should include that sufficiently satisfies the body’s nutritional needs and maintains energy levels without exceeding the body’s calorie intake.  The fact of the matter is that if a person with no other underlying medical conditions affecting their calorie intake (such as conditions that increase appetite, reduce energy, disrupt metabolic pathways, etc.) is gaining weight they are consuming more calories than their body needs.  If a person only consumes the amount of calories their body needs to function they should not be gaining weight.  Simply reducing portion sizes of meals is not enough for weight loss or weight maintenance if calorie intake is not considered.  If a meal is small in proportion but high in calories, in the sense of more than what the body uses, there will be weight gain.  Also reducing portion sizes without a plan in place to deal with a person’s hunger cravings (such as replacing some foods with higher portion low calorie foods) could have a negative effect on weight control and lead to any diet plan being short term for some individuals.  In most cases, to maintain weight, some portion control is needed but must also include reducing calorie intake.

The other issue that is an important factor in weight maintenance is the essential nutrients a person needs to maintain a healthy body.  Food, in addition to being a source of energy, also provides other vital chemicals needed for the body to function in a healthy manner and its longevity.  Again here is where people misunderstand the difference between getting the required nutrients and energy from a healthy diet plan versus calorie intake.  A person can maintain a low calorie intake with food that lack sufficient healthy nutrients.  Similarly, a person can have a high calorie intake by eating a lot of unhealthy foods and not get the required nutrients they need for a healthy body.  For example, it used to be commonly assumed (and for some this assumption continues) that a healthy child is one that is overweight.  Whereas being overweight as a child leads to weight issues and other medical conditions as an adult.  For weight maintenance each individual needs to balance their diet so that 1) Their calorie intake does not exceed the amount used up by their body and 2) They receive the nutrition they need for a healthy body.

Natural Foods

One of the most harmful rumors that have gained traction in our modern technological world is the idea that everything natural must be good for our health whereas anything made in a factory is harmful.  Based on such an irrational reasoning medical treatments, health benefits of such things as fluoride for the teeth and many medications are rejected and replaced with unproven so called natural remedies.  The idea that anything natural is good has led many to believe that weight gain is only the result of consuming non-natural products.  The reality on the other hand is different.  There are many things in nature that are harmful for the human body (poison ivy and malaria are just two examples).  There are also many things that are not naturally produced or are not produced in large quantities in nature but can be made or isolated in factories that are beneficial for the body such as medications.

In a conversation with Dr. Ameneh Khatami, she made the example over the hype around Himalayan salt.  Himalayan salt is promoted as having health benefits due to it containing extra minerals not found in ordinary table salt.  Dr. Khatami points out, “The best example of this is the idea that Himalayan salt is better for you than table salt because it is “natural”.  The number of people I have had to have this argument with is alarming.  Salt = NaCl whether it comes from a mountain, the seas, deserts or is “produced” in a factory, its effects on your heart and blood vessels is the same.  And the absence of iodine in many of these “natural” salts is a major health hazard.”  An article in healthline (link: Is Pink Himalayan Salt Better Than Regular Salt?) examines the claim of Himalayan salt as having extra minerals beneficial for health and concludes that any extra minerals contained in Himalayan salt are not in significant enough quantity in a serving to have any impact on a person’s health.

Hence, whether or not the source of the caloric intake is natural or not does not change the fact that the body will put on weight if it takes in more calories than it needs, will maintain weight if it takes in the same amount and will lose weight if it takes in less calories.  This is not to say that the way food products are processed or what is added to them does not have an effect on the functionality and health of the body.  Each individual case needs to be examined independently.  However, whether or not something is natural is not an indication by itself of whether it will or will not cause weight gain or is or is not healthy.

Nutrition versus Exercise

One of the false expectations that many people have is that weight maintenance is all about exercise.  If a person just exercises a little more they will lose weight.  There are many individuals who spend hours exercising wondering why it is they are still putting on weight, specifically fat mass.  I have emphasized numerous times in this article that weight maintenance has to do with the body’s calorie intake.  Again when it comes to exercise whether exercise will be effective in any kind of weight management goes back to the body’s calorie uptake.

Exercise has its own benefits.  Many health benefits have been attributed to various kinds of exercise which include both physical and psychological.  There are also the obvious aesthetic results that people could achieve with exercise (think six packs).  But to maintain or lose weight, exercise alone does not have a significant effect.  Exercise will only be effective in weight maintenance if it is coupled with an appropriate diet plan.  For example, if a person’s calorie intake is only at maintenance level for an ordinary no exercise routine then adding exercise to that routine without any addition of calorie intake will cause them to lose weight.  If a person is at a desired weight and eats at maintenance level in terms of calories (including their exercise routine) then they will see the aesthetic result of being more toned as well as the health benefits.

In conclusion

The most important factor for weight maintenance is the amount of calories your body takes in.  So what you eat and how you eat it will indicate how you manage your weight.  There are many other factors that also play a role in the effect different kinds of food have on a person’s body, appetite and energy levels.  However, the most important thing to remember is that food calories are what decide whether a person gains, maintains or loses body weight.  Exercise can be helpful only if accompanied by calorie counting.

Dr Shahin Soltanian has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Auckland. He is the author of The Kashfence Philosophy (Discovering Through Rational and Scientific Analysis). His undergraduate studies included in addition to philosophy, psychology and civil engineering. He has helped many people with weight management and fitness.

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