Monday, March 1, 2010

Book Review: S.P.E.E.D.

This book was sent to me by Matt Schoeneberger, who co-authored it with Jeff Thiboutot. Both have master's degrees in exercise science and health promotion. S.P.E.E.D. stands for Sleep, Psychology, Exercise, Environment and Diet. The authors have attempted to create a concise, comprehensive weight loss strategy based on what they feel is the most compelling scientific evidence available. It's subtitled "The Only Weight Loss Book Worth Reading". Despite the subtitle that's impossible to live up to, it was an interesting and well-researched book. It was a very fast read at 205 large-print pages including 32 pages of appendices and index.

I really appreciate the abundant in-text references the authors provided. I have a hard time taking a health and nutrition book seriously that doesn't provide any basis to evaluate its statements. There are already way too many people flapping their lips out there, without providing any outside support for their statements, for me to tolerate that sort of thing. Even well-referenced books can be a pain if the references aren't in the text itself. Schoeneberger and Thiboutot provided appropriate, accessible references for nearly every major statement in the book.

Chapter one, "What is a Healthy Weight", discusses the evidence for an association between body weight and health. They note that both underweight and obesity are associated with poor health outcomes, whereas moderate overweight isn't. While I agree, I continue to maintain that being fairly lean and appropriately muscled (which doesn't necessarily mean muscular) is probably optimal. The reason that people with a body mass index (BMI) considered to be "ideal" aren't healthier on average than people who are moderately overweight may have to do with the fact that many people with an "ideal" BMI are skinny-fat, i.e. have low muscle mass and too much abdominal fat.

Chapter 2, "Sleep", discusses the importance of sleep in weight regulation and overall health. They reference some good studies and I think they make a compelling case that it's important. Chapter 3, "Psychology", details psychological strategies to motivate and plan for effective weight loss.

Chapter 4, "Exercise", provides an exercise plan for weight loss. The main message: do it! I think they give a fair overview of the different categories of exercise and their relative merits, including high-intensity intermittent training (HIIT). However, the exercise regimen they suggest is intense and will probably lead to overtraining in many people. They recommend resistance training major, multi-joint exercises, 1-3 sets to muscular failure 2-4 days a week. I've been at the higher end of that recommendation and it made my joints hurt, plus I was weaker than when I strength trained less frequently. I think the lower end of their recommendation, 1 set of each exercise to failure twice a week, is more than sufficient to meet the goal of maximizing improvements in body composition in most people. My current routine is one brief strength training session and one sprint session per week (in addition to my leisurely cycle commute), which works well for me on a cost-benefit level. However, I was stronger when I was strength training twice a week and never going to muscular failure (a la Pavel Tsatsouline).

Chapter 5, "Environment", is an interesting discussion of different factors that promote excessive calorie intake, such as the setting of the meal, the company or lack thereof, and food presentation. While they support their statements very well with evidence from scientific studies, I do have a lingering doubt about these types of studies: as far as I know, they're all based on short-term interventions. Science would be a lot easier if short-term always translated to long term, but unfortunately that's not the case. For example, studies lasting one or two weeks show that low glycemic index foods cause a reduction in calorie intake and greater feelings of fullness. However, this effect disappears in the long term, and numerous controlled trials show that low glycemic index diets have no effect on food intake, body weight or insulin sensitivity in the long term. I reviewed those studies here.

The body has homeostatic mechanisms (homeostatic = maintains the status quo) that regulate long-term energy balance. Whether short-term changes in calorie intake based on environmental cues would translate into sustained changes that would have a significant impact on body fat, I don't know. For example, if you eat a meal with your extended family at a restaurant that serves massive portions, you might eat twice as much as you would by yourself in your own home. But the question is, will your body factor that huge meal into your subsequent calorie intake and energy expenditure over the following days? The answer is clearly yes, but the degree of compensation is unclear. Since I'm not aware of any trials indicating that changing meal context can actually lead to long-term weight loss, I can't put much faith in this strategy (if you know otherwise, please link to the study in the comments).

Chapter 6, "Diet", is a very brief discussion of what to eat for weight loss. They basically recommend a low-calorie, low-carb diet focused on whole, natural foods. I think low-carbohydrate diets can be useful for some overweight people trying to lose weight, if for no other reason than the fact that they make it easier to control appetite. In addition, a subset of people respond very well to carbohydrate restriction in terms of body composition, health and well-being. The authors emphasize nutrient density, but don't really explain how to achieve it. It would have been nice to see a discussion of a few topics such as organ meats, leafy greens, dairy quality (pastured vs. conventional) and vitamin D. These may not help you lose weight, but they will help keep you healthy, particularly on a calorie-restricted diet. The authors also recommend a few energy bars, powders and supplements that I don't support. They state that they have no financial connection to the manufacturers of the products they recommend.

I'm wary of their recommendation to deliberately restrict calorie intake. Although it will clearly cause fat loss if you restrict calories enough, it's been shown to be ineffective for sustainable, long-term fat loss over and over again. The only exception is the rare person with an iron will who is able to withstand misery indefinitely. I'm going to keep an open mind on this question though. There may be a place for deliberate calorie restriction in the right context. But at this point I'm going to require some pretty solid evidence that it's effective, sustainable, and doesn't have unacceptable side effects.

The book contains a nice bonus, an appendix titled "What is Quality Evidence"? It's a brief discussion of common logical pitfalls when evaluating evidence, and I think many people could benefit from reading it.

Overall, S.P.E.E.D. was a worthwhile read, definitely superior to 95% of fat loss books. With some caveats mentioned above, I think it could be a useful resource for someone interested in fat loss.

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