20 July 2010

Hormones and Hunger--Which is the chicken; which is the egg?

Recently, a person close to me revealed that he had been using anabolic steroids for almost a year in an attempt to increase his weightlifting. This caused quite an uproar in his family for a number of reasons (it was done surreptitiously, school studies doing poorly, misalignment in prioritization, etc.). That's not what I want to talk about though.

I want to talk about the calories in v calories out concept.

So first a little about steroids:

from Wikipedia:
Body composition and strength improvements
A review spanning more than three decades of experimental studies in men found that body weight may increase by 2–5 kg as a result of short term (10 weeks) [anabolic steroid] use, which may be attributed mainly to an increase of lean mass. Animal studies also found that fat mass was reduced, but most studies in humans failed to elucidate significant fat mass decrements. The effects on lean body mass have been shown to be dose dependent. Both muscle hypertrophy and the formation of new muscle fibers have been observed. The hydration of lean mass remains unaffected by AAS use, although small increments of blood volume cannot be ruled out.

During the year that he was on steroids, he gained about 50 pounds. There was a lot of muscle as well as fat. He was continually ravenously hungry. In that time, he ate "everything that didn't eat him first" according to his mother. Grocery bills in his home went up by about $500 per month.

So the question is did he gain weight because he was eating more, or did he eat more because he was gaining weight? I believe the main influence was the latter. I believe that he was forcing food in as well, so perhaps to some extent that forcing increased his fat mass, but his ravenous hunger was coming from someplace. It was the change in his hormonal environment caused by the steroids.

So obviously, this is not directly applicable to you or me, but the question I put to you is "how different is this really from the normal obese person?" Changes in hormones caused by stress, exercise, sleep, or lack thereof, the foods we eat, the bad stuff we eat that we call foods and the music we listen to, all change our mix of hormones. So what causes the obese to eat more than they consume? Are they eating because they're getting fat or getting fat because they are eating? Understanding the arrow of causality is fundamental to fixing obesity.

Our national assumption that overeating causes obesity has failed miserably (after all calories in minus calories out is the first law of thermodynamics). It's time to take an engineering approach and understand the real root cause, not just the simple-minded math/physics.


  1. First of all, you should realize that obese men naturally have drastically reduced levels of testosterone, so elevated T, as in anabolic steroid use, is not directly responsible for hunger and obesity. In fact, elevated leptin, a sign of elevated fat mass, is correlated with low testosterone. (I don't have the PubMed links for the studies handy, but it's an easy search for anybody interested.)

    Secondly, you can take anabolic steroids all day, every day, and you won't gain muscle mass unless you also eat a lot of protein AND exercise a lot. Anabolic steroids are no magic bullet for muscle gain.

    Since testosterone and steroid levels are inversely related, you can see that artificially increasing testosterone will force lower leptin (also demonstrated) and increase hunger. (http://jcem.endojournals.org/cgi/content/full/83/9/3243) So eating more would be expected when taking anabolic steroids.

    The trouble arises in that many people simply don't know how to eat, especially for strength. Most anabolic steroid experimenters could easily achieve the same gains without steroids if they ate scientifically. Steroids are for use only after you've achieved everything your genetics can do using advanced eating and exercising techniques. Plus if you shovel in Twinkies as well as protein, you'll gain fat mass as well as muscle.

    Unfortunately, even a calorie in vs.calorie out (ie. diet) approach is not a panacea for obesity, and diets fail as you suggest. The body is a complex machine that dynamically adjusts it's efficiency and composition via dozens of hormonal control loops. Its functions are not intuitive at all. That's why G-Flux principles (http://www.tmuscle.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_nutrition/gflux_redux) of "eat more-exercise more" are surprisingly effective at improving body composition.

  2. Great info Eric.

    The lad in question was lifting really big weights, so I suppose the anabolic effect of the testosterone exacerbated his hunger by increasing growth of his muscles.

    I have a lot of time for John Berardi who was the interviewee in the G-flux article.


  3. I'm becoming more and more convinced that hormones drive hunger, eating and weight gain rather than the other way around. Too bad the USDA food guideline committee doesn't see it that way.

    I wonder too what happens with these anabolic steroids, as in individual variation in metabolism of these hormones. I remember a Hormones and Behavior class in college where the pathways connecting the numerous metabolites were laid out. There is interconversion of androgens and estrogens to some extent, and it seems that there may be a variety of individual responses because of that, depending on an individuals health and physiology.