As most folks with too much to eat, I've always wanted to lose weight. I've tried a few things here and there, but I wasn't able to make anything stick. However, lately, it seems pop-research has been narrowing in on a more complete understanding and worked out a few effective plans.
Learning about metabolism
There are a few ways to learn about how and why we make fat in the body. If you're scientifically inclined or have taken a course in biochemistry you have a few great optons. The first is "Sugar: The Bitter Truth", a 90-minute lecture by a UFCF MD, a Dr. Robert H Lustig, that explains it pretty well. If you like books, there's "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes (cliff's notes or lecture version). Finally, a list well-run, peer-reviewed studies can be found here
If you're not a super geek, or would rather learn about this in a more entertaining way, check out the movie Tom Naughton's "Fathead" (You can also watch it on hulu, or digest a 3 min excerpt on YouTube). Also, you could read the book "Why We Get Fat", again, by Gary Taubes. This time, Taubes explains it all with the minimal amount of biochemistry.
The short of it is this: you're eating too much sugar and fiberless carbs. Maybe you're eating it through juice, or Coke, or junk food. Maybe you're eating too much bread and potatoes and not enough protein and fat. "Calories in, calories out" is only part of the story.
Disclaimer: I've read/seen all of these except "Good Calories, Bad Calories" (but the cliff's notes are amazingly well done)
Calories In Calories Out
I often forget the arguments against the "Calories In Calories Out" model, so I'm writing them down. The key bit is that the thermodynamics equations doesn't imply cause and effect. Conventional wisdom says it does. So it's time for maths!
Let's say Calories In = CI and Calories Out = CO. Change in Fat is F.
Starting with the standard equations CI - CO = F.
This means that in steady state you have
2000 CI - 2000 CO = 0 F (you eat 2000 calories, burn 2000 calories you have zero fat change)
Say we increase CI, too much taco bell
3000 CI - 2000 CO = 1000 F (oh no, 1000 calories of fat)
Say we increase CO by working out
2000 CI - 3000 CO = -1000 F (yay, we lost weight!)
Now it's time to play, let's rearrange this equation: CO + F = CI
So steady state still works, if you worked out like normal and didn't gain fat, you must have eaten or wanted to eat 2000 calories of food.
2000 CO + 0 F = 2000 CI
Let's work out extra, and say we didn't lose weight
3000 CO + 0 F = 3000 CI (we must have eaten more, we worked up an appetite)
Similarly, we were lazy
1000 CO + 0 F = 1000 CI (lazy, in active people have small appetites)
Rearrange once more! CI - F = CO
2000 CI - (0 F) = 2000 CO (We ate 2000 calories, had no fat change, we must have been 2000 calories of activity)
Let's eat extra with no fat change
3000 CI - (0 F) = 3000 CO (wow, we must have been active)
Or we go on a diet, but we're not losing weight
1000 CI - (0 F) = 1000 (oh no, we got lazy)
If you think is stupid, you're right. Thermodynamics isn't totally applicable because the variables aren't totaly indepedent/dependent. Saying you got fat because you consumed too many calories and didn't burn enough, is like saying the stadium was crowded because lots of people came in not enough left. The stadium was crowded because of the game. Similarly you're fat because of how your body processes the different things in your diet.
Doing something about it
There are lot of different things you can do about it, ranging from common sense, to the extreme.
Common sense: Don't eat sugar or fiberless carbs and balance your calories well between protein, fat and carbs. I suppose this is the "Zone Diet" or limiting daily carbs to 100g, as found in "Fathead"
Extreme sense: Eat only what our ancient, ancient ancestors would eat. This approach is popularly called the "Paleolithic Diet", that is eat only raw foods and plenty of meat. It's not particularly compatible with a vegetarian's diet.
Weird sense: Read up on Tim Ferriss and the "Slow Carb Diet" in "The Four Hour Body". I'm mildly ashamed to say that this is the route that I'm following. It's fun because it's fast, 10lbs/month, and because it incorporates a "cheat day".
My favorite tactic is tracking. Since I've started recording my weight and what I've been eating, life has been better. All I use is a piece of paper, a tape measure, and a pen at the bathroom sink. I write down my weight and what I ate the previous day every morning. Once a week, I might record my body measurements. Often, my inner geek takes over and transfers it to a spreadsheet. I think this tactic works because it brings awareness to something that is often too easy to overlook.
As I've gone on this journey, I've realized a few things.
Calories in vs. calories out, is indeed incomplete. It's true in the thermodynamic sense; however, since your body does not metabolize all incoming calories identically, you can't rely on counting calories for weight loss. Sugar and fiberless carbs tell your body it should keep eating and store fat.
Craving food, being distracted by food, snacking, "needing" a particular food and hunger are all a result of your hormones which are misregulated when you eat too many carbs. It's not a moral failing. It's not a lack of will power. The cravings are caused by the hormones in your body telling you that you need more food. It's exceedingly difficult to override hormones with thought, just ask any teenager. If you change the way you eat, after a couple of weeks, the cravings go away.
To paraphrase Taubes, you don't get fat because you overeat, you overeat because you're getting fat. The analogy that illustrates this concept is that if you came across somebody with gigantism, would you tell him to stop eating too much? Of course not. You'd look for a hormonal cause. The same is true with obesity. Obesity is the result of hormones being out of order and sugar and fiberless carbs are the cause. Get those out of the diet and you won't eat too much because your body is no longer growing horizontally.
Fiber is necessary to healthily consume carbs. When a carbohydrate-rich food comes with fiber, you'll feel full just like you will when eating protein and fats. Without fiber, the carbs make you hungrier.
"Feeling full", aka satiety, is a feeling that is easy to overlook and eventually forget. Once you remember what it feels like, and you remember to listen to it, life is better.
I'm not all the way to my goal, but I'm close. We'll see what the future brings!