Why We Get Fat
We get fat because we eat too much and exercise too little. And, in order to lose weight we must restrict our food intake to some infinitesimally small fraction of our current consumption or subject ourselves to an almost endless amount of aerobic activity. At least that’s what we’ve been told. Funny how such reasoning and recommendation has been around since the dawn of the obesity epidemic yet our collective weight has continued to grow.
It is widely believed that obesity is the result of (a) improved prosperity and the greater distribution of wealth, (b) a toxic food environment that encourages the overconsumption of nutrient poor foods, and (c) a fundamental shift that incentivizes less physically demanding work and more passive leisure activity. However, evidence validating these beliefs is lacking and such notions are largely held in place by a blind faith on the part of nutrition and public policy ‘experts’ in the calorie-in, calories-out theory of weight loss and a refusal to acknowledge evidence discrediting the actions that are believed to be good for us.
What are the productive behaviors that can cure obesity? Well, according to ‘conventional’ wisdom, nothing other than undereating and exercise, which is deeply embedded in the calories-in, calories-out theory of weight loss. According to this theory, low-calorie, or semi-starvation, diets that dramatically reduce intake coupled with increased levels of physical activity that can moderately increase expenditure are the only ways to tip the scales in favor of weight loss. This belief has become so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that diet and exercise are often considered unavoidable truths in the fight against obesity. However, studies suggest that extreme dieting produces ‘modest’ and ‘transient’ weight loss, at best, and increasing physical activity may actually have the opposite effect of that which is desired.
How does this happen? When severely reducing caloric intake, dieters will actually shed a good deal of excess weight, but once the body realizes that its stores of energy (fat) are being depleted, it will slow down its metabolic engine while encouraging us to move less in order to conserve what’s left. Without further reductions in intake, dieters become discouraged by plateaus in weight loss that can lead to disenfranchisement with the limitations in consumption, which, more often than not, leads to the reincorporation of the previously forbidden foods. Concerning the expenditure side of the calories-in, calories-out equation, participation in exercise, be it moderate or intense, tends to increase appetite and, eventually, intake so that any weight loss benefit experienced is quickly negated.
The Science of Blood Sugar
Although it would be nice if the straightforward, easily understood calories-in, calories-out theory of weight loss was correct, the real reason as to why we get fat requires a little better understanding of human physiology and the endocrine system. Starting at the top: anything that works to force fatty acids, the fats that flow around the body in our blood, into fat cells or prevents the breakdown of triglycerides, the fats found in our cells, serves to make us gain weight. The primary influence on fatty acid storage and triglyceride breakdown is insulin, whose production is determined by the quality and quantity of carbohydrates consumed. Insulin does this by ‘activating’ LPL, which encourages the movement of fatty acids into fat cells and by suppressing HSL (hormone-sensitive lipase), which works inside fat cells to break down triglycerides. Insulin also works to pump glucose into fat cells to provide the glycerol molecules that bind with free fatty acids to form triglycerides. A quick aside: cortisol, our stress hormone, also influences weight gain and weight loss by magnifying insulin’s effect when its levels are high and minimizing its effect when levels are low.
Taking this insulin thing a step further, insulin resistance occurs when cells become desensitized to the signals sent by insulin and interferes with the ability to remove glucose from the blood to encourage greater insulin production to help stabilize blood sugar. This process of resistance and greater insulin production encourages more energy to move into our fat cells, which, unfortunately, sparks the manufacture of even more insulin that exacerbates the vicious cycle that typically ends with obesity.
One last thing about insulin is that its production encourages us to eat certain foods. When insulin levels are high, the body uses glucose as its primary fuel source so that fatty acids and glycogen stores are preserved. As energy gets sucked into fat cells, we fatten and our appetite increases to accommodate said growth. Naturally, we crave quick sources of energy to accommodate our growing need, which happens to be best served by carbohydrates that stimulate the release of even more insulin and further promotes fat accumulation.
Eating for Weight Loss
It should now be apparent that regulating insulin production is the key to weight loss and that this is best accomplished by minimizing or completely eliminating fattening carbs while consuming a moderate amount of the carbohydrates that have a minimal effect on blood sugar. So, we should do our best to avoid foods that contain refined flours (white bread and pasta), liquid carbs (beer and soft drinks), and starchy vegetables (white potatoes and corn) while incorporating foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, water and fiber (fruits and non-starch veggies). However, frequent or heavy consumption of fruit (fructose) may cause gastrointestinal distress in some and it therefore may be a good idea to periodically do a full-body scan when adopting a diet rich in fruits to check for any adverse reactions. Also, we should completely abstain from foods that contain excessive amounts of artificial or refined sugar like cakes, candies and ice cream because they are the most readily converted to glucose and can cause dramatic swings in blood sugar. I understand that there may be special occasions or holidays well suited for a small treat and in such instances I recommend enjoying a small piece of dark chocolate, the darker the better, or a piece of fruit dipped in the organic nut butter of your preference. Another consideration that must be made, a diet low in carbohydrates is inherently high in protein and fat, which may be an adjustment to some. Consuming foods that we have been taught to scorn is a difficult hurdle to overcome, but the health benefit these foods will have is well worth any adjustments that must be made. It is important for us to consume the highest quality sources of these macronutrients as possible. This means that we should strive to eat grass-fed and –finished, pastured, organic, antibiotic free and ethically sourced animal foods in addition to healthy fats like avocado, butter from grass-fed cows, ghee and healthy vegetable oils like coconut, flaxseed, almond and olive oil in moderation.
Another helpful strategy in eating for weight loss is to consume several meals or small snacks throughout the day to prevent our blood sugar from dropping to dangerous lows. The longer we go between meals and the more we allow hunger to grow, the more likely we will be to consume fattening carbs for their quick source of energy, which, as mentioned, are the greatest contributor to weight gain. Further, these foods are very efficient in providing the body with a quick shot of energy that, once consumed on a regular basis, we can become highly dependent upon them and the body may generate cravings and addiction in a fashion similar to that of cocaine and nicotine. Snacking frequently on high quality carbohydrates, proteins and fats is undoubtedly the best way to provide the body with a steady stream of nutrients to fuel our activity and prevent the insulin response that can ‘prime’ the body for a binge that will harm both our physical and psychological health. Here are a few suggestions for meal composition and timing:
- Consume generous breakfast that contains a good amount of protein and fat (approximately 30 grams each) in the form of eggs, avocado and lean meats with a large serving of low glycemic veggies like squash, zucchini or broccoli.
- Take in a snack between breakfast and lunch to help keep blood sugar steady and prevent overeating at lunch. A few viable options include raw, sprouted nuts and seeds, fresh or dried fruit, or a homemade energy bar. The key to snacking is that it needs to be something that is quick, easy and can be prepared in advance. The last thing any of needs is to interrupt our hectic schedules in order to prepare a sandwich or salad.
- Lunch, for me, typically consists of a giant salad that celebrates an abundance of seasonal veggies and lean proteins like salmon, tuna or chicken with a small high quality carbohydrate inclusion like half a sweet potato or a small serving or rice or quinoa. Preparing this meal is generally pretty simple because this is when I utilize leftovers and canned seafood. It is important that we consume only the highest quality animal products that are wild caught and have little or no added ingredients.
- For dinner, following the same macronutrient breakdown as breakfast may be best, but replacing eggs with animal protein in addition to incorporating a high quality carb may serve the body best. The reason I typically include carbohydrates with dinner is that they promote serotonin production, which facilitates more restful sleep. A typically dinner for me includes a 4 ounce serving of beef or chicken, seasonal vegetables sautéed in a healthy fat like coconut oil or butter and a small baked sweet potato.
I know that it will be tempting to eliminate all carbs to improve weight loss results, but personal experience has taught me that such a strategy is not sustainable and may even prove detrimental to physical and psychological wellbeing. I have found that I sleep better, have more energy, am better able to maintain a positive outlook and feel more grounded when I integrate a modest amount of carbs into my meals later in the day.
A few practical considerations about a high fat and protein, low to moderate carbohydrate diet include the cost and time commitment it may take to be successful. Cost is often cited as the most limiting factor is adopting this type of lifestyle on a long-term basis and, although organic, grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free, wild, etc. produce and animal foods are more expensive than the more conventionally raised variety, I have found that the flavor, morality and reported health benefit far outweigh any additional cost. Also, avoiding the highly processed foods that are pervasive in our food system warrants more time spent cooking and preparing our meals. The time commitment required to prepare high quality, healthful meals may be an adjustment for some, but an hour a day in the kitchen is well worth the nutritional benefit and piece of mind I gain from cooking my own meals.
Eating to lose weight in this healthful and sustainable manner runs contrary to the dietary tenants that have been forced upon us since our youth, but with a little practice and patience, eating a high protein and fat, low to moderate carbohydrate diet that emphasizes nourishment not calories is the best way to achieve the level of health and wellness we all desire.