A calorie is a calorie is a calorie

Gina Kolata‘s informative article in Monday’s New York Times about the recent study published in JAMA suggesting that a diet high in fat and protein burns more calories than one high in carbs includes this quote from Dr. Jules Hirsch, emeritus professor and emeritus physician in chief at Rockefeller University:

Perhaps the most important illusion is the belief that a calorie is not a calorie but depends on how much carbohydrates a person eats. There is an inflexible law of physics — energy taken in must exactly equal the number of calories leaving the system when fat storage is unchanged. Calories leave the system when food is used to fuel the body. To lower fat content — reduce obesity — one must reduce calories taken in, or increase the output by increasing activity, or both. This is true whether calories come from pumpkins or peanuts or pâté de foie gras.

To believe otherwise is to believe we can find a really good perpetual motion machine to solve our energy problems. It won’t work, and neither will changing the source of calories permit us to disobey the laws of science.

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. You can eat better foods, like avoiding simple sugars (because they don’t keep you full as long) and making sure all of your nutritional needs are covered (vitamins and minerals), but in the end, your body takes in calories — simply a unit of energy — and burns them off. Take in less than you burn and you’ll lose weight. Burn more by exercising or being more active and you’ll lose weight. Simple math (though not nearly as simple to actually start counting, and keep counting, right?)

Shadowing myself: Getting fit as I approach my 50th birthday

On January 7th I turned 49 years old. I weighed 325 pounds, was still recovering from knee surgery almost two years earlier, back problems a year earlier, and generally felt closer to 70 than 50.

My wife, Doreen, had been walking at lunch with some of her colleagues at work for some time, and she had decided to make some other changes to see if she could lose some weight as well. Her early success helped motivate me to make a similar decision, and that evening, I decided that I didn’t want to weigh 325 pounds when I turned 50. I decided I wanted to lose 100 pounds and weigh 225 on my 50th birthday.

I’ve lost weight before. A few times I’ve lost 30 or 40 pounds using one dieting technique or another, but eventually I grew tired or frustrated with the big changes or deprivations and went back to my old habits. I also rarely did much in the way of serious exercise in tandem with the eating changes.

Today is July 7th. Six months to go to my 50th birthday. So I got on the scale (which I do about once a week) this morning after my bike ride: 276.9! I’m down 48 pounds from January 7th! Not quite exactly halfway to 100, but damn close.

Here’s a photo from last year’s Rotary Parade in downtown Port Huron in July 2011, and a photo taken today with me wearing the same t-shirt:

I started counting calories, every meal, every day, on the day after my birthday. Doreen was using a web site called MyFitnessPal, which also has iOS and Android apps so it’s easy to track when you’re out. They have a huge database of foods, most added by MyFitnessPal users, and you can add your own as well. When I started using it, I decided to enter the foods I’d eaten on my birthday. When I was done, I discovered I’d consumed over 6,600 calories that day! (That’s not good.) And that wasn’t an aberration; it was a lot closer to a normal day for me.

The program suggested around 2100 calories a day initially. Now that I’m down almost 50 pounds, that number has dropped to 1780 per day in order to lose 1 1/2 to 2 pounds per week. At first, I went over the goal two or three times a week. Now that I’m quite used to the reduced calorie intake, I occasionally go over, but not more than once every couple weeks.*

Probably even more importantly, I joined the YMCA in Port Huron in February and worked out three times a week through early June. I’ve backed off the Y visits for the summer, but have started riding my bike instead. I did a lot of stationary biking at the gym so when I hit the road with my bike about three weeks ago, my legs were already in pretty decent shape. I’m riding 16 to 20 miles three times a week and enjoying it more than I ever have. I track my rides using MapMyRide, another web-based service that also has iOS and Android apps available. It uses my phone’s GPS to track my route, distance, pace and speed.

I feel great! I can run again without worrying about my knee going out or my back seizing up. I have a chin again. I’ve dropped from 44 inch waist jeans to 38s; I just bought some shirts in XL instead of the XXL I’ve been wearing for years. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been this fit. And I’ve got a long way still to go to next January.

I’ve had friends who haven’t seen me for awhile do double-takes. That’s a lot of fun!

Can I get to 225? I’m pretty sure I didn’t think so six months ago. I think so now. But I’m not competing against anyone except the guy I was on January 7, 2012. I’m still not the strongest, fastest, fittest man I can be, but I am beating the crap out of the guy on the couch I was on my birthday.

* Keep in mind, please, that I’m not a doctor. This isn’t medical advice. If you need to lose some serious weight, I recommend you see a doctor first (I did) so you can get solid medical advice. Also, while the calorie goals suggested by programs like MyFitnessPal are based on legitimate medical concepts, you also have to make sure you do eat at least a minimum number of calories each day, which varies by gender and current weight, but is usually somewhere around 1200 to 1500 calories per day. Don’t trade one eating problem for another!

The Internet: Cancelled because of bad ratings

Another way to think about SOPA/PIPA is to compare it to the pending cancellation of a favorite show. You love the show, and you’ve heard something about low ratings and that it might be cancelled. But you don’t tell anyone else to watch it, you don’t write the network to tell them how much you love it… and one day, the axe falls and the show is cancelled.

Then you get angry and write your letter, or join in a rally to support the show. Now it’s too late, though. The cow has left the barn and it’s too late to close the door. Oh, well.

That’s why today’s blackouts of several popular websites is important. It’s bringing the discussion of these potentially important pieces of legislation to the forefront. You certainly haven’t seen much about SOPA/PIPA on broadcast or cable news. Why? Could it be that all of those networks are owned by corporations that are fully in support of the legislation?

I’ve already noted that I’m not in support of piracy or stealing of intellectual property. It stinks, and if we could figure out a way to really eliminate it, I’d support that. But these bills don’t do that. Piracy can’t be completely “stopped,” and IP owners who witness infringement of their copyrighted material already have legal remedies to have those violations prosecuted (see the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or DMCA).

(By the way, I also find it hard to believe that IP owners would actually demand that a major website be shut down over a single violation. The outcry over Facebook being blacked out involuntarily by the government – without due process of law but simply over an allegation – would dwarf the frustration Wikipedia or Reddit users are feeling today. Smaller sites, though, will surely be subject to such harassment.)

None of this justifies codifying bad law to appease wealthy corporations in exchange for campaign contributions. I find it depressing that when Congress is debating something of real national importance, like raising the debt ceiling or guaranteeing access to basic human services like healthcare, nothing can be done because of partisan bickering. Yet when the entertainment behemoth comes calling, it’s suddenly sweetness and light between the two parties? (Although those speaking against the bills are an interesting mix of conservatives and liberals as well.)

My email to Candice Miller regarding SOPA

Text of the email I sent to Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI 10th) this morning. Similar emails were sent to Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). You can easily contact your Congressional representatives using this site.

Dear Congresswoman Miller:

I’d like to add my voice to those concerned about the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261), also known as SOPA. I am sympathetic to the concerns of intellectual property creators, artists and owners, as I am a writer, photographer and artist myself.

I am opposed to this legislation, however, because it is like trying to destroy a hornet’s nest with a howitzer; it may kill the hornets, but the collateral damage isn’t worth it. The Internet has spawned an amazing range of creative and useful ideas and has been a major factor in our country’s economic growth in the past two decades. Much of this growth has come because of the freedom to spend time innovating. SOPA proposes to place an enormous regulatory burden on every website based in the U.S., to somehow “ensure” that their users haven’t infringed on anyone’s copyrights. I believe these provisions will prove to be practically unenforceable; plus, there are already adequate legal remedies for IP owners to demand that copyrighted material be removed from an infringing site that are less apocalyptic than shutting down an entire website domain without due process of law, as SOPA (and its Senate counterpart, PROTECT-IP) propose to do.

I hope that you will consider the potential damage to free expression and economic growth that SOPA represents when you are considering your decision. The U.S. is an example to the rest of the world, and SOPA’s passage will be seen as permission by other, less open countries to similarly clamp down on the openness of the Internet. It would indeed be ironic for the nation founded on freedom of speech and expression to be the leader in shutting down the most powerful voice individuals worldwide have had in human history.

I appreciate your time and your consideration of my comments.


Tom Kephart
Marine City, Michigan

UPDATE (5:47 p.m.): Rep. Miller replied by email. She opposes SOPA. Here’s a quote from her response:

I am opposed to the SOPA and PIPA legislation currently under consideration in Congress because I believe it threatens legitimate online commerce which has been one of the few areas of growth in our economy and the freedom of speech on the internet which has become so central to life in the modern world and must be defended.  I am pleased that House leadership has indicated that this legislation will not be considered until major changes are made which will stop online piracy of intellectual property and protects American jobs while also ensuring the protection of freedom of speech on the internet.

White House reacts to SOPA/PIPA opposition

The Obama administration issued a response to two petitions that oppose SOPA/PIPA today. It contains some encouraging information regarding the White House’s position on the bills and some of their more drastic elements, but also encourages the petitioners to come up with better ideas. The concept of accepting suggestions from a wide-ranging, social media centered audience is good, I think, but as Sherwin Siy notes at Public Knowledge today:

There’s something that I think is just slightly missed here. There’s nothing wrong with trying to crowdsource solutions to online infringement, and maybe the signers of these petitions isn’t a bad place to start. But the White House, and Congress, and others should know that there’s only going to be a smaller subset of people angry about SOPA and PIPA who are interested in finding solutions to infringement. Not because they’re only concerned with saying “no” rather than “yes,” but because they’re not concerned with copyright—they’re concerned with the Internet.

The reason they’re saying “no” to PIPA and SOPA isn’t because they’re extremely picky and opinionated about the proper methods of copyright enforcement; it’s because PIPA and SOPA so fundamentally alter the technical and normative structures of the Internet—the milieu within which they speak, work, and play. Saying “no” to SOPA doesn’t necessarily mean they should have something they can say “yes” to on copyright enforcement; just as often, these are the people saying “yes” to freeing speech in repressive countries; to educating new generations of makers, scholars, artists, and inventors; to just making it easier to communicate with distant friends and family.

Most Internet users aren’t pirates; they just want to use this technology to stay in touch, to make our own videos, to post funny pictures of cats, and, yes, to watch TV shows, movies and listen to music – legally. They’re not policy makers, in fact, most of the time they don’t pay a great deal of attention to details about public policy at all. At this point, most Internet users don’t seem to know or care much about SOPA or PIPA at all, which is good for the supporters of the bills.

They’re not going to be happy if they have their Facebook and YouTube taken away, though. That’s why I have the feeling that the actual applications of SOPA/PIPA by the government would be less drastic than they seem (though not having them pass at all is still the best option, rather than depending on them not being fully enforced).