2021 | 384 p. | £ 20
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“Don’t expect to lose weight through more exercise,” said the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today program in the introduction to an interview with physiologist Herman Pontzer in March this year. I admit an initial skepticism, but I was excited to read the full story in Pontzer’s new book Burn. I was not disappointed.
Burn is both exciting to read and very informative. The central message is very clear: if you want to lose weight, exercise alone is not enough; What works is eating less. While few would dispute the effectiveness of the latter, the reason for the former is that, after millennia of evolution, our bodies are very well adapted to regulate and maintain the number of calories we burn every day. It is no longer easy to burn.
Pontzer admits that this may seem counter-intuitive at first. Surely the calories you burn while exercising are simply added to those your body burns every day just to keep you going. But we are not like simple machines. A much better analogy, according to Pontzer, is to think of our bodies as a business where calories are the currency. The remaining solvent requires that as we spend more in one area (sport), we spend less in another (basic metabolism). If we burn more calories during exercise, our body will compensate for this and use less supportive other functions.
The downside of the calorie coin, however, is that while evolution has made sure that we use calories sparingly, and for good reason, it efficiently stores excess calories that we eat as fat. Weight is really all about calories in versus calories out – you can’t escape the laws of thermodynamics. Of course, if you run a marathon every day or wander around Antarctica for weeks, you burn so many calories that you are sure to lose some weight. But that’s not most people’s idea of an exercise program aimed at shedding a few pounds.
Pontzer emphasizes, however, that while exercise is of little value in any weight loss program, it has a host of other health benefits and we avoid them at our own risk. Besides all the physiology, Burn looks at the evolutionary history of primates and why they burn fewer calories than other mammals, along with some aspects of human physical anthropology. He also has a lot to say about certain diets and food trends that break many myths and discard certain buzzwords along the way.
If you are interested in a well-written report on how our bodies use calories based on some of the most important research in the field, Burn is a book that you will love to read.