But look at the view! John Hancock Tower Facing Foreclosure

One of Boston’s landmark buildings, the John Hancock Tower, is facing foreclosure. The current owner bought the tallest building in Boston (and all of New England) back in 2006, near the peak of the housing/commercial real estate dual bubbles, for $1.3 billion; however, current estimates put the I. M. Pei building’s value between $700 and $900 million. That’s nearly a 50% haircut on the low-end. Ouch!

I lived in Boston back from 2003 to 2004 while working in audit (AABS) for Ernst & Young. E&Y’s offices were then located in the Hancock (not sure if they are still there) at around the 40th floor. One Saturday while having to stop by the office to drop off some files, I brought along my Canon digital camera and took photos to construct a panorama. As you can see below, you get quite a view of downtown Boston forty stories up!

From Hancock Tower — Maximize your window to get the full view!

The Tower’s profile is a long and slender parallelogram. Combined with the reflective glass exterior, this made the building an enormous mirror. The 60-story Hancock Tower was the third John Hancock building, being built immediately across the street from the first two Hancock buildings. Thus, from a certain vantage point, the third building reflected the first two. You can see the top of the second Hancock building at the bottom right of the panorama above or in the picture to the left below.

Additionally, the building-as-mirror was meant to make it blend in with the sky. You get a slight feel for this in the shot to the right below.

No doubt I. M. Pei et. al were high-fiving on their sky-high mirror, which did make for a nice addition to the Boston skyline. This was even as some of the mirror-finished windows were occasionally falling out. During the brief time I had the (dis)pleasure of working in the Boston E&Y offices, I grew to dislike the functionality of this skinny building. The skinny layout looked pretty on the outside, but with conference rooms at either end of the parallelogram, one wrong turn out the elevator banks and you found yourself a long walk away from where you intended to go. The Hancock Tower is a great example of choosing form over function.

Finally, as it heads into auction on March 31, the Tower is just one more victim of the real estate bubble and crash — but look at that view!

Confirmation Bias and the Internet

The internet is vast playground where every opinion is aired, fiction can masquerade as fact, and the answers to your most bizarre questions can be just a google search away. This abundance of cheap information and ideas is overwhelmingly positive even as there are latent problems.

One problem is that the internet can encourage and reinforce bias — like confirmation bias. According to wikipedia, confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.”

Thanks to Google, we can instantly seek out support for the most bizarre idea imaginable. If our initial search fails to turn up the results we want, we don’t give it a second thought, rather we just try out a different query and search again.

Armed with this power to search, it usually doesn’t take long to find someone or something that confirms our bias. If you happen to be a blogger or have a website, you can then reinforce your own bias by by writing on the subject and linking to the support you found!

To wit, one of the first things I did in writing this article was search for “confirmation bias” internet, which led me to a cached page and then a quote from a WaPo article titled The Year of Living Gloomily. The quote snappily nails my overarching point:

I’m sure some of these stories are true, or true enough to satisfy an editor somewhere, but there’s something else going on here: It’s what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” That’s the human tendency to seek out only facts that fit what we already know to be true while downplaying or ignoring contradictory evidence. As Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

People have always been prone to confirmation bias, but the Internet amplifies the phenomenon since we need not look far to confirm our particular bias. It’s always a click away.

By making the search for confirmation so easy — a mere “click away” — the internet rapidly exacerbates bias.

It happens just like that.

(Expecting a) Happy Birthday to Me

Today is my 28th birthday — here are a few birthday reflections:

  • Changing when and what I eat over the past year (more on this topic here) while engaging in regular, intense exercise has changed my body composition. I actually weigh approximately the same as a year ago, but am carrying around considerably less fat and a lot more lean tissue.
  • As a result of improved eating habits and nutrition, I’ve gotten much better at cooking, particularly on my trusty cast iron skillet. Last night I made carnitas for the first time (Tweeted with pics 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9).
  • Thanks to Facebook, twitter, Linkedin, Mobog and my own site I’m (theoretically) better connected to my friends, family and network than I was a year ago. My Facebook “Wall” today has been absolutely bombarded with birthday wishes (Considerably moreso than a year ago — perhaps this chart hints at an explanation). Thank you all, even if you only knew it was my birthday because Facebook told you so!
  • My business continues onward despite an increasingly turbulent economy and frivolous litigation (Related).
  • Tragically, cancer took someone dear to my wife and me this past year.
  • I now have a nephew via my older brother.
  • And my wife and I are expecting our first kid to arrive in August 2009. I’m going to be a dad.
  • Do I feel any older? Not really. What I do feel is an increased tolerance for uncertainty. This peace despite life’s unpredictability is welcome (On stochasticity).
  • No matter what may come, I am optimistic about this next year of life.

Happy Birthday to me! Thanks for all your well wishes!

Update 5:35, Feb. 4: I had no idea that today was also Facebook’s Fifth “Birthday” (as much as a website can have a date of birth, anyway), and also something called Basecamp’s birthday, too. Maybe that is why Facebook greeted me with this odd message (odd coming from a computer/website):

Happy Birthday, Justin!

From all of us on The Facebook Team, have a great day!

Er . . . thanks Facebook!

Follow me on Twitter

I have caved in to micro-blogging. I’m on Twitter, which I keep mis-typing as Twister (Brain fail). You can follow me at http://twitter.com/justinno.

I remember when I was first told about twitter a couple years ago by @MatthewKrivanek. At the time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would be willing to blog about the mini-events of their day-to-day lives. It seemed a bit vain. The name “twitter” put me off, too — after all, “twit” doesn’t have the greatest of connotations.

A long while later I stumbled upon Mobog, which is a photosharing site that users can link up to their cell phones either via MMS or email (I use the latter as I have a Blackberry Curve and unlimited data). Mobog made sense to me almost immediately as it took a tool most people have, cameraphones, and enables individuals to take snapshots of their lives. I used mobog a great deal when I was traveling in India. My family thought it was great because they could follow along with me on my travels as they were happening. That may not seem like a big deal, but traveling is an inherently spontaneous adventure, by live-blogging it with pictures, family/friends can vicariously travel with you. You can even ask them from around the world if they would like some item at a store you’re at (I.e. bangles in Baroda).

In short, live-blogging via photos has been a lot of fun. Twitter is simply live-blogging with words or photos (via twitpic.com).

You’re still not convinced? Why the fuss? And isn’t this vain?

The fuss is simple. Full-on blogging serves a purpose, but takes a more concerted effort of time and energy. The cost of traditional blogging is not insignificant. The cost of micro-blogging via services like mobog or twitter, on the other hand, is next-to-nothing. I can quickly fire off a photo with a 100 character blurb on a dish I just made. I can micro-blog a sentence on a movie I just watched. It’s simple to fire off an email (or SMS). Since the expectation (nay limitation) on twitter is 140 characters, you can blog life that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Really, much of life is the stuff of tweets, where you go, what you see, what you eat or do — the stuff that stretches between the big events and big ideas you can blog 500+ words on.

Micro-blogging fills in the space between, thereby capturing much of the stuff of life.

Is it vain? Maybe but it is useful vanity. It keeps you plugged into your friends. In a way, it encourages you to be more active and do more interesting things. After all, if you’re only tweeting “just watched tv” for the umpteenth time, it won’t be long before you realize that a) no one cares and b) your life is kinda boring (not that I don’t watch tv).

Of course, getting your friends and family plugged in and using a service like twitter isn’t easy. But twitter is free and simple to set up. So give it a try and see if you aren’t surprised to find yourself a little addicted to micro-blogging.

You can follow my latest tweets either on twitter.com or at this site’s home page.

Admin Note: Now that I have twitter set up, I might discontinue mobog as it seems a bit redundant. Just FYI if you see my mobog disappear.

Revamped Home Page

Just an administrative note, I have re-vamped the home page of this site:

https://justinowings.com

In the process, I have killed my “Furl” page and eliminated the “Out & About” page, as the latter is sort of what I was going for on the index page, anyway. Now, my main index has considerably more purpose as it is serving as a map to the content on this site, as well as off-site content that you might (or might not!) enjoy. It contains a lot of what you’ll find in the sidebar to your right, but perhaps in a more user-friendly, grid format. Feedback is welcome!

HFCS and Mercury, Food Processing Mysteries and Not Worrying About It

Just read an article discussing a recent study that found an association between mercury and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS, which is chemically just a smidge different than your run-of-the-mill table sugar, has been much-maligned in recent days being characterized as the reason Americans have such poor health. To combat this image, the corn industry has been raining down propaganda in the form of asinine commercials that browbeat apparently clueless HFCS-naysaying nincompoops by reinforcing that HFCS, like regular sugar, is natural (it’s made from corn!) and “fine in moderation” (Examples here and here). This HFCS propaganda has humorously spawned a number of youtube spoofs (See here, here and here). God bless the internet.

I won’t delve into this debate other than to say that sugar, HFCS, pure glucose, pure fructose or just sucrose, all have similar, blood-sugar and insulin-spiking effects, which may have drug-like consequences for the human body, and only offer raw energy (But no other nutrients). And one more thought: the appeal that “everything is okay in moderation” is little more than a meaningless justification for behavior, which due to its vague effectiveness at silencing criticism, actually leaves an otherwise meaningful debate worse off than before the “appeal to moderation” is made.

Back to the article. Here’s the gist of the study:

In the first study, researchers found detectable levels of mercury in nine of 20 samples of commercial HFCS. The study was published in current issue of Environmental Health.

In the second study, the agriculture group found that nearly one in three of 55 brand-name foods contained mercury. The chemical was most common in HFCS-containing dairy products, dressings and condiments.

The use of mercury-contaminated caustic soda in the production of HFCS is common. The contamination occurs when mercury cells are used to produce caustic soda.

The last two sentences are worth reading twice.

Caustic soda (Sodium hydroxide) is a chemical base (OH) used to effect various chemical reactions (often used in paper/textile industries). I don’t know the exact use of caustic to create HFCS from corn, but suffice to say that whatever magic is used requires a chemical base as an intermediate. Caustic soda is most commonly formed as a by-product of chlorine extraction from brine (salt water). There are various ways to separate the Chlorine (Cl) from brine, which leaves behind the NaOH, but one process of chlorine/caustic production involves using mercury cells (Notably, the word on the street is that mercury cell chlorine/caustic production technology is slowly being phased out). Apparently, some of this mercury is leaking into the HFCS, and thereby leaking into any foods that contain HFCS. Yikes.

However, all of the above is more than you need to know because the big takeaway is fairly elementary: HFCS is produced by man. It aint natural (appeal to nature)! HFCS has to be created via any number of chemical processes, one of which requires caustic soda, a chemical that may be contaminated with mercury, which may pass on to the HFCS. It’s complicated.

Cane and beet sugar require processing, too, though the processing seems less complicated and doesn’t require caustic soda (Though it does require chemical enzymes!).

So what does this mean and what should we do about it? Is HFCS the evil sweetener health-advocates love to hate? It certainly gets an extra strike against it for the mercury. Is cane/beet sugar better? Probably. Really, these questions are detractors from the bigger reality, which is twofold. The first is obvious: sugar is unhealthy (no matter the specific form). The second is that the production methods used to create processed foods can introduce harmful mystery ingredients. In short, processed foods are not natural.

Yes, the “natural” criticism is a tautology and a non sequitur. Processed foods aren’t inherently unhealthy and can often times be quite good for you (Coconut oil, red wine, extra virgin olive oil, vitamins). It would be silly to construct a diet that insists on totally abstaining from processed foods. When you get right down to it, even raw honey is processed by bees. Nutrition is much too complex for bright-line rules.

But that doesn’t stop us from creating them. As a rule-of-thumb, the farther a food gets from a virgin state, the more exposure it has to being modified in ways we don’t understand and can’t expect to know. Rather than spend countless hours getting comfortable with each and every processed food item and ingredient (And the processing these ingredients underwent ad infinitum), I can simply follow food preferences that minimize my exposure to the unknown.

In theory, by deferring to “natural” foods over produced foods, I should get so many nutrients and health-benefits from consuming nutrient-dense meats, fruits and vegetables that my body will be keyed to overcome whatever other junk manages to sneak into my diet (Chocolate, coffee, ice cream — little vices).

In practice, to the extent that it’s reasonable to do so, I already avoid HFCS and sugar. I do this by enjoying more natural, tasty and self-prepared meals over processed alternatives. Should I worry about the mercury that sneaks into the store-bought ice cream via the ubiquitous additive, high fructose corn syrup? Naah. If you maximize your health in simple ways, you get the by-product of minimizing the impact of the unknown — all without worrying about the nitty gritty details! So the big takeaway of this study? Stop worrying about HFCS and start preferring better, less processed foods! The rest will take care of itself.

Update 2:24 PM 1/28/09: Not surprisingly, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has released a statement to refute the above-cited study on mercury in HFCS. Here’s their side and a snippet:

?This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance. Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years. These mercury-free re-agents perform important functions, including adjusting pH balances,? stated Audrae Erickson, President, Corn Refiners Association. ?For more than 150 years, corn wet millers have been perfecting the process of refining corn to make safe ingredients for the American food supply.?

The CRA is their own worst enemy here. First off, “outdated information of dubious significance” is a pretty strong statement that is no way backed up by the rest of their press release. The study cited above used samples from 2005, which is recent enough for me to consider relevant.

I also found it odd to read how the CRA speaks for all corn refiners in saying “[o]ur industry has used mercury-free versions.” How do they know that? Do they strictly enforce that all corn refiners only buy caustic soda, a globally-produced commodity chemical, from non-mercury-cell producers? We aren’t told. What we are told is that the FDA has approved HFCS and that it uses re-agents for refining and refining has been going on for 150 years. Breath a sigh of relief!

I updated this post to include the CRA response to point out that there are powers that are out actively talking their books — that includes both the HFCS-cheerleaders and the anti-HFCS activists. Thankfully, us enlightened folk can rise above their lunacy.

Good Investments for Bad Economic Times: Investing Amidst Uncertainty

A common question I get nowadays is “What should I invest in?” My best answer to that question is probably not what you’d expect.

My default financial response to this query over the past two years has been to go long on commodities, particularly gold, silver and energy, short the stock market, particularly financials and builders, and stay out of bonds and real estate.

Despite my default advice being proven correct as the months have gone by, getting the timing right on entering and exiting these positions has been incredibly difficult, if not downright impossible. Buy and hold has brought both pleasure and pain for commodity-bulls. Equity shorts have had to endure both the unpredictability of government intervention and market reactions to said intervention. That “timing has been paramount” is just another way of saying that luck has been the determining factor in investing success. And success has meant not so much whether you’ve made a lot of money, but more in how little money you’ve lost. I take solace in treading water in an environment where a 10% or greater annual loss in this market is a job well done.

As far as financial investment advice going forward, I maintain that gold, silver and energy, and commodities generally are going to be big winners in the next few years as investors swap paper assets for real assets. This thesis is built upon the reality that debt financing by governments is exploding, which will ultimately mean higher yields on bonds and running the printing presses on the shortest-term debt around, the Federal Reserve Note — a.k.a. the dollar.

The above advice is my best guess. Use it at your own peril.

Setting that question aside, there are irrefutably good investments that you can make in bad economic times. They require setting aside more of your time than your money. Since time is the most scarce resource you can spend (And your happiness one of the most precious assets you can buy), these investments are arguably exponentially more important than your physical wealth, anyway.

Good Investments

Family

Your family is a wealth of advice, laughter, entertainment, and support (Sure they can be a PITA, but focus on the big picture!). Parents love you even when you screw up. Siblings understand you in ways others can’t. And who doesn’t have warm memories of holidays spent playing with cousins or aunts and uncles? There’s no good reason family moments should be isolated to major Judeo-Christian holidays or the occasional birthday.

Keep in regular touch with your parents. They brought you into this world: you owe them the occasional phone call. Encourage them in their endeavors and reap the benefit of mutual support.

Call up extended family and make potluck dinner plans. Play games with nephews and nieces. Chastise balding uncles. Play card games. Eat food.

Simple pleasures spent with family are hard to beat. It doesn’t take much money to share a laugh and make a memory with your family, even if at first it seems like setting something up takes some element of work. The time-investment pays off.

If you are young and married, investing in family presents a huge opportunity for wealth: you can have children. Having a kid (or two or three) is perhaps the most fundamental, biologically-innate way to build wealth around. A kid is an investment in your future. Though I don’t have any kids to speak of, I’ve got a nephew and enough intuition to see a good investment when I see one. Of course, having a child is one massive investment of time (And money), but it is one that enriches parents for a lifetime. My powers of observation also note that people all around the world, at all different levels of financial wealth, are able to support children, so even in bad economic times, you can still make this pivotal investment.

Friends

Similar to family, friends are bastions of wealth that merely take investments of time. These days, with social applications like Facebook, it’s even easier to stay in touch and make plans with friends — even those you haven’t seen in awhile.

As for making new friends, check out meetup.com. I’m just getting into this site myself (I’m a bit behind the curve on this one!), but Meetup is a way to use cyberspace to meet people in real space. What more, you can find folks with similar interests to yours, attend a gathering of said individuals and potentially find a kindred spirit who shares other interests.

Pet(s)

Get a cat or dog. Pets are fantastic because they typically require only a marginal investment of time and money while providing an immense amount of love, entertainment, perspective (ever watch a cat or dog lounge in the sun?) and stress-reduction. Pets can provide exercise (dog-walking) and even boost self-esteem by reminding you that this cute furry being depends on your caring for them for their survival.

Cats (my preference though I like dogs, too) are likely the more cost-efficient pet from a time and money perspective. Having a cat requires:

  • Maintaining a litter box. This is the worst part of cat-ownership. At the same time, cats instinctively know how to use a litter box and can even be trained to use the toilet. Alternatively, if you can let your cat outside, they’ll prefer pooping in nature, which will drastically reduce your litterbox duties (pun very much intended).
  • Feeding regularly. Usually you can do this once a day and be done with it as cats regulate their own eating
  • Cleaning up fur/shedding.
  • Cat-proofing your world. This mainly means stopping your cat from destroying your furniture.

As far as breed, I happen to be big siamese/tonkinese fan as they tend to be personable, people-friendly, smarter and sociable. In other words, they seem to exhibit some of the more desirable qualities typically associated with dogs. I found Zeke (pictured above, in the youtube video) via petfinder.com. He cost me a hundred bucks to “rescue.” That was about seven years ago. I’m guessing he costs about a dollar a day to take care of, and that price is well worth it for the enjoyment he brings. Just as an example, when I haven’t seen Zeke in awhile, he usually jumps up from the ground for me to catch him in my arms at which time he licks my nose with his raspy tongue (Exfoliates the skin?).

I know less about having a dog, but caring for a dog takes a good bit more work as they must be walked and taken out to “do their business.” They demand a bit more attention/companionship, too, which is why getting a dog should never be taken lightly. Dogs also provide some unique benefits that accompany the additional cost of ownership. I don’t go into dogs here because I can’t speak from experience.

Suffice to say that having a pet can be an incredibly rewarding investment.

Health

You can invest in your health right now by taking a walk outside. This will not only get your body moving but it will expose your skin to the sun, which will boost your Vitamin D production. Mind, taking a walk and getting some sunlight is only marginally going to improve your health, but health is maximized by simple things.

If you are ready to step it up, getting a solid workout in is as simple as setting aside 30 minutes and doing some bodyweight exercises. For example, maybe you should try Craig Ballantyne’s Bodyweight 300 Cardio Circuit, which requires no more equipment than a wall, floor and watch.

Even simpler, run some sprints up a hill outside. Or just do some push-ups or lunges during commercials while you watch television. Add in some social interaction for some investment-synergies by playing Ultimate Frisbee, kickball or basketball with friends and family. Alternatively, go toss a ball with your kid or walk your dog. Unlearn the notion that exercise is accomplished in a gym, for a set period of time, at certain times of the day. De-complicate your health (See my workout blog for other ideas).

As for the other key way to invest in your health, eat real food that you cook in your kitchen. It’s cheaper than going to a restaurant, better for you (you know what you put in it), reaps creative benefits and if you’re up for entertaining, you can synergize again by inviting over friends and family.

If you’re not hungry, try fasting for 24 – 30 hours. There are health benefits to fasting (More on this here). If you’ve never fasted before, I recommend it for nothing more than the experience of purposefully breaking your eating habits.

Books and Knowledge

Reading a book is a cheap way to live vicariously, acquire knowledge on the cheap and amass immense quantities of accretive, intangible wealth. Gleaning just one good idea, paradigm or perspective from a book makes the hours it takes to find it worthwhile. Why is this? Because useful ideas are transferable and can be combined with other ideas to create even more useful ideas, theories, paradigms, etc. Ideas (and knowledge) compound your wealth in ways you can’t predict.

For just two books that may bring you some comfort during turbulent times, I highly recommend:

If nothing else reading allows you to reap the rewards of someone else’s hard work and research — even if you’re just reading a blog.

Summary

The above suggestions are just a few ways to make valuable, high-return investments in uncertain economic times. At the risk of presenting advice that may be obvious, I focus on the elements of life I can control, which happen to be the elements of life that I’d deem most fulfilling. I have little control over the economic or political environment. I can scarcely predict what will happen today, much less can I predict tomorrow or the coming months and years. I encounter immense uncertainty, a stochasticity of life, that I can either lament or embrace. By investing in wealth that is more intangible than financial, I am better able to manage the uncertainty of these troubling economic times, and no matter what happens to the stock market or our economy, I’m assured to live a rich, fulfilling life.

Ants

(CNN) A picture is worth a few hundred thousand people.

Comparing the mass of humanity (as observed from space) at Obama’s inauguration to ants might be interpreted as criticism or distaste for our new President. That isn’t the case — I have no love for any President or politician (and any reader of autodogmatic.com knows my distaste for democracy).

Rather this is just inescapable observation. So many people flocking around a central hub to ring in the new ruler — it is plain bug-like. As for interpretation, I see it as a manifestation of the self-domestication of human beings, tragic. Restoring individuality — freedom — to man (finding a more favorable equilibrium between human nature and modern existence) isn’t something that can be accomplished easily, if at all. I don’t know many who even desire such a freedom, which makes me sad.

Individuals seem lost in the shuffle of our modern age: are human beings more like ants than lions? I’m afraid that may be the case. If I’m right, the consequences could be disastrous.

More on modern zoo-manity from Richard.

Update 1/23/09: Patri Friedman compared two pictures of mobs and got a bit of flack for it (one picture was from Nazi Germany). I get it. His point wasn’t to compare Obama to Hitler, but to point out the following:

So to me, the massive crowd at Tuesday’s inauguration represents part of the dark side of human nature. (as do lots of other things in life). The desire to worship and subsume one’s will to a leader, who is elevated about the mobs, who is perceived as superhuman and special and wonderful, and who will fix all our problems. To me, that is the opposite of the messy reality of complex systems, spontaneous order, individual preferences, and distributed systems that is life.

Emphasis mine. I couldn’t agree more, and I sense there’s a correlation between strong feelings of individualism and distaste for monstrous crowds. Mobs are the anti-individual even as they are nothing more than the sum of the individuals present. How do you keep sacred the indivisible parts — a mother, father, child — when all you see is a mass (?mess?) of humanity? What is lost in the mob?

A lot.

What I’m reading

If you’ve ever surfed over to my books section, you have seen an attempt to catalog the various books that I have read. Unfortunately, I’ve not done a good job of keeping that page updated. It’s a page best updated by batch, so I’m sure I’ll get to updating it soon.

To offset the batch-iness of my books page, I’ve created a sub-blog that I’m posting to as I finish a book. You can find posts to this sub-blog in the sidebar of the main blog or go directly to it here. The idea in maintaining this “reading blog” is first and foremost to keep track of my library. I’ve always taken pleasure in recalling the books I’ve read, and I enjoy the maintaining the chronology of the order in which those books were read.

A secondary purpose is to jot down impressions/mini-reviews of books I’ve read as I finish them.

I’m not sure how far back (if at all) I’ll go in backfilling the reading blog with past books, but going forward, it should be simple enough to maintain. Check it out!

Understanding Bodyweight and Glycogen Depletion

Quick take — If you diet or are planning to start a diet, understanding the relationship between bodyweight and glycogen (Glycogen is carbohydrates as stored by your body) depletion is paramount.

Your body stores energy as fat and glycogen. Whereas fat stores can vary dramatically from person to person, your body can only store so much energy as glycogen.

Glycogen requires water to be stored. In the initial stages of diet/caloric restriction and exercise, your body depletes these glycogen stores, reducing your bodyweight from the elimination of both the weight of the stored glycogen and the weight of the water. Note that nowhere in this process is the much-desired loss of fat!

Thus, even as it will feel good to shed 5 – 10 lbs. simply from a few days of exercise mixed with a caloric-restricted diet, the weight loss will be primarily from a reduction in glycogen stores and water. In other words, what you’ll have lost in the beginning is really little more than water weight.

Take heart in understanding the relationship between glycogen stores and bodyweight as an improved understanding will help you set realistic expectations on whatever diet or exercise regiment you are undertaking in 2009.

A deeper dive:

I first learned about the relationship between stored carbohydrates and water retention from Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. The gist is that for every gram of stored carbohydrate (Stored as glycogen) in your body, there is a set amount of additional water storage that is required.

Taubes had pinned the carb/water storage ratio at two grams of water per one gram of carbohydrate. A random Googled source (Vitanet) pins it at 2.7 gram water per gram of glycogen. I found a research paper titled, Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition, which offers the following data on the ratio:

Glycogen is stored in the liver, muscles, and fat cells in hydrated form (three to four parts water) associated with potassium (0.45 mmol K/g glycogen). . . .

Glycogen losses or gains are reported to be associated with an additional three to four parts water, so that as much as 5 kg weight change might not be associated with any fat loss.

Lyle McDonald of Body Recomposition has also weighed in on this subject:

Carbohydrate (stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen) is accompanied by a good bit of water. For every gram of glycogen stored, you store anywhere from 3-4 grams of water with it.

How does this relationship affect bodyweight? In short, diet and exercise will deplete glycogen stores. If your diet is working, the depletion will occur early and have a significant impact on your bodyweight without impacting a permanent change in your body composition.

Let’s take me as an example. I estimate that I have around 155 – 160 pounds of lean tissue. Tack on another 12 – 17 pounds of fat. After a week or two of being on a low-carbohydrate diet that involves intermittent fasting and plenty of exercise (see here), my liver and muscle glycogen stores will be completely depleted. I’ll weigh about 172.

If I go on to eat a bunch of carbohydrates — cookies, pretzels, breads, fruits and other starchy foods (by eating a bunch, I mean consuming something on the order of 1000 grams of carbohydrates over the course of 24 hours, which is about 4000 calories), I will fully replenish my glycogen stores. In the process of replenishment, the 1000 grams of carbohydrates will require anywhere from 3000 to 4000 grams of water for storage! Converting from grams to pounds, the impact on my bodyweight should be an increase of 9 to 11 pounds, taking my weight up to 183*! Of course, the same change would happen in reverse: re-depleting glycogen stores would drop my weigh back to the low 170s.

Mike over at the IF life alluded to this fact in three bullets back on his Trainer Tells All post:

Muscle size is mostly glycogen and water . . . I can go up and down 10lbs in a week easily depending on glycogen and water balance . . . The first big amount of lbs you lose in the first week dieting is mostly water

Mike’s anecdotal experience is explained by the storage ratio between glycogen and water. What it means is that in the early stages of a diet, the magical drop in bodyweight will be mostly water weight.

Another implication of the water/glycogen relationship on bodyweight is that whereas the first 4000 calorie deficit you create will reduce your weight some ten pounds, the next 4000 calorie deficit is likely only going to reduce your bodyweight a paltry two pounds! This is because a pound of fat stores 3500 calories and requires about a pound of water for storage. Thus, the initial weight-loss will seem easy compared to the drudging continued weight-loss when you’re actually burning stored fat.

Failing to understand what is going on with glycogen stores and water retention will set yourself up for a shock when you inevitably “fall off the wagon” — even if the “fall” is only for a day or two of heavy-carb or more “normal” eating.

Understanding the impact of glycogen depletion/repletion on bodyweight is just one more reason why merely weighing yourself on a scale provides a poor indication of your body composition. You’re better served by taking some physical measurements (waist size, for example). Or even better, take some periodic camera phone self-portraits — over time, you should be able to compare them and get a great feel for your progress (or lack thereof).

* I’ve witnessed this fluctuation on numerous occasions over the past year, but I didn’t quite fully understand it until today. You see, I was fully glycogen depleted going into New Year’s Eve. I proceeded to go on a pre-planned “refeed” (that just happpened to coincide with NYE, of course!). The refeed involved eating plenty of pretzels, chips, breads, fruits, cookies, cereal, donuts, etc. Some incredibly unhealthy, albeit tasty, foods. I also drank a good bit of Pinot Noir NYE, which is the opposite of what you should do if you are re-feeding in that your body will be needing water and alcohol will dehydrate you past certain levels of intake. Anyway, after a 24 hour refeed, my bodyweight went from 172 to 184. Hard to believe unless you understand what is going on. And this kind of fluctuation would be entirely disheartening to the ignorant dieter who might feel they just blew their diet in one day! As it is, I expect I’ll be back in the low 170s within five days after I do a fast and get two or three workouts in.

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