With two-thirds of Americans either overweight or obese, the severity of our weight crisis has relegated thin people to a relative minority. To make matters worse efforts by the government and public health authorities don’t seem to be having the desired effect in combatting the problem. In the summer of 2010, knowing nothing about weight-loss but finding myself in the unfamiliar position of needing to lose a few, I read a book about this very problem; specifically, the science of weight regulation. Rather than harping on portion sizes and sedentary lifestyles, it attempted to divine what influenced and underlay these behaviors and whether our problem was more physiological than behavioral. If overeating was making us fat, wouldn’t it be good to understand why we were overeating? It was a real eye opener for me and sparked my interest in weight-loss and health in general. It also led, at least in part, to the creation of this blog so that I would have a way to connect and share what I learned with others.
My take-away from that book – and my personal philosophy today – is that despite someone’s weight or the number of times they’ve tried and failed to lose it, the good news for dispirited dieters is that their failures probably have a lot more to do with their approach than a lack of commitment or effort. Rather than fixating on calories, exercise or portions, or blaming one’s size on lack of willpower or self-restraint, we instead should pay a little more attention to the relationship between our food and metabolism and whether our diet & lifestyle are contributing to weight-loss or gain.
For starters, let me just say that the science of weight management is unimaginably complex; and not just for us lay-people, but for the scientists and researchers, too. When you think about all the variables at play, the food we eat, activity levels, exercise, our metabolism, our endocrine system and all of the hormones involved, stress, inflammation, insulin sensitivity; the list is exhaustive. So it comes as no surprise, then, that we’ve yet to fully understand, let alone ‘cure’ overweight or obesity. Yet while a cure may be elusive, prevention or reversal is attainable assuming you take the right approach. The trouble is many popular approaches are ill-conceived and, inexplicably, relegate or completely ignore the most important variable in the weight-loss equation: our food! Instead they focus on exercise fads or contraptions, ‘magic’ dust to sprinkle on our food, drugs, special pre-packaged food systems and any number of other things that all have one thing in common: a pricetag. That explains why the most
important element of weight loss, your diet, is the least talked about: there’s not a lot of money to be made by telling people to eat healthy. But the truth is the quality of your food (much more so than the quantity) will play the biggest role in helping you look better, feel better, and fit easily into those skinny jeans.
Having said that, it seems as if the entirety of our collective insight into weight-loss has been boiled down into one conveniently packaged, easy-to-remember slogan for public consumption: calories-in, calories-out. Perhaps no other four words have captivated a populace at large like these. In technical parlance this is known as the 1st law of thermodynamics, but when applied to the human body it basically states this:
So if you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in, you would be in negative energy balance and losing weight. But if you begin to consume more than you expend, it’s time to loosen the belt. This is all good and well. After all, it is a law of physics, and you can usually take those to the bank. So the issue isn’t with the science, but rather how this is misinterpreted to undergird the two most commonly-held beliefs about weight-loss: eat less and exercise more. Sounds good. Seems logical. But are they true?
When you consider that the human body has finely tuned homeostatic systems in place to regulate everything from respiration and pH to temperature and heartbeat, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that weight is no exception. This is done by matching our daily caloric expenditure to our intake so that a stable weight is maintained. For those obese or overweight, something has managed to
disrupt this process. When we consider the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, it would suggest that weight gain is due to overeating. And while correct – a person must consume more energy than they burn or excrete to gain weight – it doesn’t really suffice; it’s like saying a room is full because more people entered than left. Rather than state the obvious the answer we really want is why! Why are these people in the room, or why are we overeating? Once we understand what’s driving overeating our advice to dieters can move beyond, “hey, just stop eating already” or “find a salad bar”, and instead offer something of substance that might actually help them.
So, what’s the skinny on calories? Do they really matter or have your efforts to meticulously record every last calorie on your SlimKicker account been in vain? Well, the short answer is yes and no. They do matter, but fortunately for your brain, a calculator or a calorimeter aren’t necessary.
First off, a little background on the foremost health buzzword of our time: the calorie. I’ve always found it odd that for a word so widely used, so few people actually know what it is. In 1824, French chemist Nicolas Clement defined a calorie as the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius (though for our purposes a unit of energy will suffice). All of the food we eat has a caloric value which equates to the amount of energy it provides to our bodies. Over the course of a day all of the calories we ingest are either stored, burned or excreted, and as I mentioned above with the first law of thermodynamics, the net gain or loss translates to the change in our weight. Everybody still with us?
Now given how fundamental the calorie has become to our perception of health, eating and exercise, it’s not a stretch to say that for many, a de facto 11th commandment would be, “thou shalt count thy calories”. But if calories and calorie-consciousness are so intrinsic to our health and weight, how is it that until the latter half of the 20th century few of us even knew what one was, let alone kept a daily running tab? That’s right, for the bulk of human history we managed to survive sans calorie-counting and maintained relatively low rates of overweight and obesity. Yet, in the past half-century since adopting this dubious practice we’ve managed to cement ourselves as the fattest nation on the globe. Now, I’m not saying our new-found obsession with the calorie is the cause of the obesity epidemic, but is it not fair to say that it would be irrational to think it’s the solution?
Of the two prevailing hypotheses involving weight-gain, the positive caloric balance is easily the most pervasive, due in large part to the fact that the government adopted this view in the 1970s. Eat too much, exercise too little, gain weight: it sounds so logical it seems undeniable. In this hypothesis overeating and inactivity (hunger and lethargy) are the causes of weight gain. It suggests that the problem is merely a behavioral one; we choose to eat Swizzle-Stix and chug Mountain Dew incessantly and/or lounge in our Laz-y-Boy for hours on end watching Honey-Boo-Boo marathons. To fix this, we must create a caloric deficit by eating less and/or expending
more energy. Now, underpinning all of this is the notion that intake and expenditure are independent variables; in other words, we can change or manipulate one of them without any effect on the other. For instance, this rationale suggests one could drastically cut calories (eat less) while at the same time upping their expenditure (exert more). To quote Gary Taubes, it is “almost impossible to overstate the extent to which this hypothesis now pervades all thinking and research on obesity and weight, and underlies every accepted method of treatment and prevention.” Does this logic sound plausible to you?
If not, fret not! For the past century there has been an alternative to this hypothesis, one that is inclined towards a physiological, not behavioral, explanation. Let’s remember that far from just an excuse to stuff our face with some sweet tasting confection, eating has a real function, to fuel our body and its many cells. Hunger, therefore, is not a phenomenon of the brain or a matter of willpower as is often perceived, but a response to a lack of fuel and an effort by the body to replenish your energy supply.
So let’s suppose that upon eating, something was causing those calories to be locked away as fat in our adipose tissue, preventing them from being used for energy by the body. What would happen? Well, for starters, the fuel deficit which prompted your appetite to begin with would persist. This would trigger hunger, of course, but also inactivity, because in the absence of adequate energy stores your body’s natural response is to fiercely conserve what energy it does have. This would then induce more eating, and though it may satisfy our hunger, this would only be temporary. The metabolic defect would redirect much of the energy to our fat tissue and in a matter of hours hunger would rear its ugly head again, and the vicious cycle would repeat itself. As a result, energy levels would fluctuate wildly, hunger pangs would be frequent, and weight would be almost impossible to control. Sound familiar?
So what could cause such a defect to exist? Well, if indeed obesity is a disorder of fat accumulation, the answer would lie in whatever it is that regulates fat accumulation. In this case, it’s the hormone insulin. When we eat sugar-laden, easily digestible foods our blood sugar spikes, leading to a coincident rise in insulin, whose job it is to take glucose (sugar) out of the bloodstream and deposit it in the body’s cells. Under normal circumstances – eating traditional foods with moderate amounts of sugar and fiber to go with it – this process occurs routinely without a hitch. However, the past century has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of processed, sugar-rich foods. Digestion of such foods is very problematic for our bodies, and the repeated surges in insulin which accompany the rapid digestion of such foods result in the loss of sensitivity of our cells to insulin. And when the cells lose insulin sensitivity, the glucose in the bloodstream has to go somewhere. That somewhere is often our adipose tissue. Now this is a normal process that occurs in all people daily as a way to temporarily store energy reserves. The problem arises when more energy is coming in than going out, that’s when weight begins to rise.
Given this bit of information, understanding why modern peoples struggle with weight when our ancestors managed to remain relatively thin with apparent ease becomes much easier. It isn’t simply a matter of gluttony and sloth, of eating too much and being inactive. Something changed in our environment which led to those behavioral and physiological changes: it was our food.
In light of this, our approach (by our I mean the government, public health authorities, doctors, trainers, just about anybody who gives diet and health advice) to combat excess weight seems rather…well, ill-conceived. Catch phrases like “a calorie is a calorie” and “calories-in, calories-out” were adopted, ostensibly, to simplify a complex subject for public consumption; but in doing so they fostered fundamental calorie-related myths in generations of Americans that have played a key role in the obesity epidemic. Stating that one must burn more calories than they ingest for weight-loss is fine but it misses the point. It suggests that the responsibility of monitoring this balance should fall to the individual, which seems an unnecessary burden considering no society in history ever bothered dealing with it. Secondly, it creates a calorie-republic, where all calories are thought to be created equally and your only concern should be to limit your intake to a certain number. This certainly isn’t the case and is evidenced by the various ways in which our bodies react to, and metabolize, certain macronutrients.
The bottom line is this: calories have taken on a persona akin to that of fat and cholesterol as the arch-enemy of health-loving creatures. But of course, they aren’t the enemy any more than fat or cholesterol, or water or vitamins for that matter; they are essential to life. The only thing one should really focus on is the quality of calories eaten, not the quantity. If you’re eating the right foods, the quantity takes care of itself.
Along with eating less food, the belief that exercise will lead to sustained weight loss forms the basis of most Americans’ attitudes towards weight-management. As I mentioned earlier, this one seems straightforward enough. Exercise leads to burning calories, which leads to lost weight. While this is true, it again is the result of an oversimplification of the First Law. Like the positive caloric balance hypothesis of weight-loss, it operates on the belief that intake and expenditure are independent variables; that you can change one without affecting the other. We know this not to be true and can easily demonstrate this at home by simply fasting for a whole day and then trying to engage in a vigorous workout, or conversely, engaging in a vigorous workout and then measuring the effects that has on appetite afterwards. The truth is that intake and expenditure are dependent variables and any change in one will induce a compensatory change in the other. Therefore, burning say, 400 calories over the course of an hour-long, intense workout is great, but if it leads to consuming 400+ calories post-workout to satisfy our hunger, how does that help? In what must be a sobering realization for the exercising public, studies show that the calories consumed post-workout tend to exceed those burned.
So is exercise unnecessary? Should we all cancel our gym memberships? Not at all. Exercise still plays an important role in our health, but we must realize it’s not in the immediate burning of calories. More than anything else, exercise and activity work to stimulate our metabolism so that our bodies are able to burn fat throughout the day, not just when we’re exercising. In fact, moving frequently at a slow pace is essential to spurning our endogenous (inner body) fat-burning mechanisms which can work to our benefit at all hours of the day. This is a tough concept for many to understand, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to achieve optimal health and fitness.
In the previous section, Diet, you can find links to food lists for primal diets. Naturally, this will double as a weight-loss “diet” because the foods that promote a healthy and vibrant body also promote a lean body. However, there are some foods which you may find it better to limit or eliminate when weight-loss is the goal. Based on your current weight and overall health, your bodies’ ability to adequately metabolize things like sugar and starches will vary. Here are some things to consider when it comes to eating fruits and starchy veggies.
We love fruit for many reasons: vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, polyphenols, anti-oxidants, the list goes on. However, fruits tend to have fair amounts of sugar (glucose and fructose) as well, which we don’t like so much. Most have negligible amounts, which would necessitate you eating copious amounts to experience detrimental effects. Some fruits often considered taboo because of an elevated glycemic index (GI), such as watermelon, pineapple and cantaloupe, are actually more benign when you consider their more palatable glycemic load (GL). One thing to be aware of, however, is the elevated sugar content of dried fruits. Dried fruits are great in trail mix or perhaps on top of a nice cup of full-fat yogurt, but be sure not to get too carried away as many varieties have more than a fair amount of the sweet stuff.
As much as we love veggies, many sects within the primal community eschew the starchy variety because of their carbohydrate load and perceived hyperglycemic effects. A few of the usual suspects include potatoes, sweet potatoes, and rice. But who doesn’t love a fully loaded baked potato, right? Well it turns out our ancestors sure did. Evidence tells us that our hunter-gatherer predecessors ate diets full of tubers, roots and corms – starchy foods similar to our modern potato and taro. So from a primal perspective these foods (and others like yams, plantains and squashes) are considered safe starches (meaning they contain minimal toxins after cooking) and are okay in moderation assuming we follow a couple of guidelines: how we prepare them and what we eat them with. Believe it or not, boiling or steaming keeps foods’ glycemic index (GI) lower as opposed to methods using higher temps, like roasting. Additionally, pairing safe starches with fiber, fats, such as butter (so long as it’s real butter), cream, and olive oil, and acids such as vinegar and lemon juice, can significantly reduce GI and its attendant toxicity. And if you do include safe starches in your diet, it’s worth noting that a post-workout meal is an ideal time for consumption. After we workout our body is primed for glucose absorption and the carbohydrate load can be more readily absorbed by the cells, reducing any hyperglycemic effect.
More so than worrying about how much you eat it’s much better to focus on what you’re eating and also what you’re doing when it comes to weight-loss. The following steps are a great jumping-off point for anyone contemplating a weight-loss regimen; implement them and you’ll supercharge your body’s ability to burn fat , shed excess pounds, and reach its full potential.
#1 eat real food
The importance of this can’t be overstated, hence, it’s #1. And if you’re not sure what real food is, consult this.
#2 reduce carb intake
No, you don’t need to eliminate all carbs, but removing the primary offenders (grains, legumes, added sugars) is a great start, leaving you with healthier carb options, like fruits and veggies. Try reading this, or for our visual learners check this out.
#3 move frequently at a slow pace
An often misunderstood, but nonetheless critical component to optimal health. Chronic cardio is not only unnecessary, but is often harmful. Instead, take time to walk, hike, bike, garden, play ultimate-frisbee or whatever else it is you enjoy doing that requires movement (excepting trips to and from the fridge). Read this for more insight into the wonders of low-level aerobic activity.
#4 reduce stress
While acute stress can be desirable and healthy, chronic stress wreaks havoc on our bodies and serves to impede weight-loss goals.
#5 get your sleep!
For many of us there just never seem to be enough hours in the day, but do yourself a favor and don’t cut into your sleep time. Getting adequate sleep each night plays a significant role in your overall health, as well as weight-loss efforts.
I mentioned earlier how acute stressors can be good for the body, and occasional sprinting is a tremendous way to make that happen and spur your fat-burning capability.
#7 intermittent fasting (IF)
Believe it or not, skipping meals occasionally and reducing our feeding window can do wonders for weight-loss and overall health in general. Check this out to learn about how advantageous skipping an occasional meal can be!