Sitting: worse than we thought

building fat cells

A new study suggests a necessary change for my favorite weight loss slogan “It’s the calories, stupid”.  The more correct version: “It’s the calories and the sitting, stupid.”  We’re living in the Sedentary Century, and we know from recent research that sitting is linked to obesity.  Now we have an explanation, and it’s pretty strange.  The study, from Israel, found that fat cells are actually stimulated to multiply and grow by the physical effects on the cells caused by sitting.  When we sit around, cells are stretched, and undergo mechanical pressure.  The more you sit, the more your cells are subjected to these effects.  It’s not just overeating calories while you’re slouched on the sofa; it’s the actual slouching that’s causing problems.

The researchers noticed that, in people who are paralyzed, fat cells actually invade muscles over time.  Could this have something to do with the constant stretching and pressure of sitting or lying down, combined with inactivity?  Isolated immature fat cells were subjected to stretching and similar effects in a specialized lab experiment.  Another set of cells were used as a control.  After 2 weeks, the stretched cells contained 50% more fat than the non-stressed cells.  Study author Amit Gefen, professor of biomedical engineering, concludes:

“It appears that long periods of static mechanical loading and stretching, due to the weight of the body when sitting or lying, has an impact on increasing lipid production.” 

So think about that during your sedentary day-to-day activities: sitting in a car on long commutes, sitting in a car shuttling kids around (the kids are sitting, too, subjected to the same ill effects), sitting at a desk, sitting in front of a computer, sitting in front of a TV.  The sad part is, even if you schedule in a mere hour of exercise daily, all that sitting might actually cancel out the positive effect.  Solution: get up.  Stop sitting.  Don’t structure your life so that you spend hours everyday in a car; walk for transportation, encourage your family to be more active.

Meanwhile more news on the calorie front in support of “It’s the calories and the sitting, stupid”: a new study shows again that it doesn’t matter what mix of calories you eat – high protein, low fat, low carb, high carb, etc – if you eat fewer calories you lose weight.  In fact, the study found that the main predictor of weight loss success was “adherence”.  Meaning, if you stick to the diet and eat fewer calories, you lose weight.  If you don’t stick to eating fewer calories, you don’t succeed.

Hundreds of overweight/obese subjects were assigned to one of 4 different diets, designed to provide a 750 calorie deficit daily:

  1. average protein, low fat, high carb
  2. high protein, low fat, high carb
  3. average protein, high fat, low carb
  4. high protein, high fat, low carb

After 2 years, some people had managed to maintain some weight loss, but many others had dropped out of the study.  And the people who stayed enrolled weren’t necessarily all following their original assigned diets.  In general, everyone ended up eating about the same level of protein.  Regardless of what diet they started with, they ended up losing about the same amount of body fat and lean mass.  Diet composition didn’t matter.  It was all about the calories.

What to do?  If sticking to some type of diet helps you stay the course and control your calories, then fine.  A high fat/high protein meat-heavy diet doesn’t magically melt fat, so you don’t have to feel obliged to follow that if you’d prefer to eat bread and fruit and vegetables.  It’s interesting to note that none of the subjects originally assigned to the high protein/high fat/low carb diet stuck with it for the whole 2 years.  That kind of rigidly limited food selection can get really boring.  And if you’re looking for a lifelong permanent solution to weight loss, you need to find a diet you can live with, not some temporary faddish quick fix that you can’t stick with.


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