“…obesity is impossible in the absence of adequate tissue concentrations of insulin.” – M. Goldberg, in Journal of the American Medical Association
In the last post we touched on how hormones control the metabolic conversation that determines if we are storing or burning body fat. Let’s now dig into the hormone insulin’s role in this conversation as it is known in scientific circles as, “The most important hormonal factor influencing lipogenesis [body fat creation].”
Insulin’s job is to get energy into cells. For example, after we eat lunch, our body digests it and then releases insulin to carry those freshly digested calories into our cells. Since insulin is activated only when we need to get fuel into our cells, our metabolism “hears” insulin in the bloodstream “communicating” that we have energy on its way to our cells and therefore do not need to use any stored energy—aka burn body fat. So the hormone insulin—not the calories we ate—blocks the burning of body fat. That point is extremely important.
“[Insulin signals an] abundance of [external] energy, [and]…fat breakdown is suppressed and its synthesis promoted…” – researcher G. Wilcox, Mepoundourne Pathology
Our metabolism does not decide to burn or store body fat based on calories. It makes these decisions based on the hormones those calories trigger. That is why the quality of calories matters so much. As we have already seen, higher-quality calories trigger body-fat-burning hormones while low-quality calories trigger body-fat-storing hormones.
“Fat is mobilized [burned] when insulin secretion diminishes.” – The American Medical Association
We can cut calories all day and will not burn body fat effectively if we are eating low-quality calories which trigger excess body-fat-storing hormones such as insulin. Why? Hormones like insulin remove our ability to burn body fat regardless of whether or not we need to according to calorie quantity. That is why scientists refer to the hormone insulin as the “principal regulator of fat metabolism.”
Here is the sad part. Calories from inSANE starch and sweets trigger the release of ridiculous amounts of insulin. All that insulin gets those inSANE starch and sweets’ calories into our cells, but then we still have insulin left over in our bloodstream. That excess insulin clogs us up and removes our ability to burn body fat.
Where the Average American Gets Calories
“…obesity [is characterized by] defects in insulin action, whole-body insulin resistance, and hyperinsulinemia” – researcher D.A. York, Pennington Biomedical Research Center
Things go from bad to worse if this inSANEity keeps up for too long. Not only does all the excess insulin destroy our ability to burn body fat, it makes the metabolism resistant to insulin. How does this process work? Compare becoming resistant to the effects of insulin with becoming resistant to the effects of alcohol. When people drink alcohol in moderation, everything is fine. It takes relatively little alcohol to generate the desired effect, so people don’t drink too much of it. However, if people drink too much alcohol, they become resistant to alcohol’s effects. Then they have to drink more alcohol to get the desired effect. This volume of alcohol eventually destroys their liver and makes them gain body fat. This leaves heavy drinkers in an unfortunate place where they have become resistant to alcohol and have to drink an unhealthy amount of it to get the desired effect.
Similarly, when people eat mostly SANE foods and just a little inSANE starch and sweets, everything is fine. It takes little insulin to get energy into cells, so the body doesn’t produce too much of it. However, if people eat mostly starch and sweets, their bodies become resistant to insulin’s effects. Then their body has to produce more insulin to get energy into cells. This volume of insulin eventually destroys their pancreas and makes them gain body fat.
“Foods made from wheat flour account for about 20% of the calories in the American diet…” –Marion Nestle, New York University
Even more unfortunate, at least one in four Americans are insulin resistant. All this excess insulin forms the backbone of the hormonal dysfunction causing us to gain fat. Not only does it crush our ability to burn body fat, it also increases the rate at which we store body fat because excess insulin preferentially puts calories into our fat tissue. This happens because no matter how resistant other tissues become to insulin, our fat tissue is always receptive. And while that is technically good because it keeps insulin resistance from killing us, it can crush any dreams of losing weight. We end up with more body fat and no ability to burn it. This sad state is know as internal starvation and will be the subject of the next post.
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by Adam Kosloff
Why do we get fat? What can we do to lose unwanted fat?
These questions are at the root of the biggest public health crisis in American history — arguably in the history of our species.
The universal diet advice, Eat Less and Exercise More, doesn’t seem to work for many of us. Still, health authorities relentlessly beat the Eat Less Move More drum. This view of obesity is highly moralistic. It blames the problem on the twin sins of Sloth and Gluttony and assures us that the cure lies in the twin virtues of Restraint and Productivity.
Where Does This Moralistic View Come From?
Weirdly, it comes from the laws of physics. Per the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, the law of energy conservation, when any growth occurs on your body, you must take in more energy (calories) than you burn off.
You can’t make something from nothing: When you gain fat, you must “eat more than you burn off.”
That’s why we believe that “overeating” makes us fat.
But here’s the rub. Something else must happen, too! Something that no one really thinks about. You also need to transform those calories into “stuff” on your body.
Think about it. How exactly does that cheeseburger and milkshake “become” fat on your thighs and hips? Biochemistry is required! The raw calories must transit through a process inside your body in order to get fixed as fat. For the sake of simplicity, we can call all the relevant biochemistry “The Black Box.”
To sum up: whenever any growth happens in your body, two things must occur:
- You need substrate (a.k.a. calories)
- You need biochemistry to turn the calories into your body’s tissues and structures (a.k.a. a black box)
So What “Counts” — Calories or the Black Box?
When we talk about anything related to body growing (other than your fat tissue, which we’ll get to in a second!), the answer is obvious. The Black Box counts, and Calories are a sideshow. For instance, eating “excess calories” does not cause a woman to grow tissue in the form of a baby. Similarly, if you want to stop your moustache from growing, you wouldn’t eat less and exercise more.
On a more serious note: no one tells cancer patients to starve themselves in the blind hope that the creation of this whole body “energy deficit” will selectively burn-off their tumors. We conceptualize cancer properly as a medical problem. It’s a problem of tissue in our body growing in an abnormal fashion. True, the tumor is hoarding energy. But to understand WHY it’s doing so and WHAT to do about it and HOW to do it, we need to appreciate and possibly manipulate the biochemical forces at work on the tumor itself.
The point, I hope, is clear. In all other cases of growth on the body, calories are always of secondary importance. Sure, substrate is needed. But we intuitively know that what really matter are the biochemical signals that regulate the growth. A.k.a. The Black Box!
In a pregnant woman, a complicated mixture of hormones, genes, enzymes and other signals drive the woman’s body to build the baby.
In a growing teen, growth hormone causes the growth spurt.
In our moustache guy, testosterone and other hair-growth-signals determine how, when and where his moustache will grow.
Did you see where we’re going with this?
The biochemical stuff that regulates how our bodies grow the way they do always matters, whether we’re talking about hair tissue, muscle tissue, bone tissue, tissue making up a baby, or… drumroll… fat tissue.
The calorie thing is a Red Herring. The conventional mental model — how we all learned how to think about fat loss and fat gain — is based on a logical error, the confusing of cause and effect.
This Changes Everything!
No longer should we ask “how can I eat less and exercise more?”
This question fails to address the core problem, which is that biochemical forces are, for whatever reason, causing you to store too much fat.
The key questions then become: “Why? On a biochemical level, what’s making my fat tissue suck up and hold onto excess fat? What’s messing up my Black Box? (or, as Jonathan would put it: What’s clogging up my sink?)”
A pregnant woman does not get bigger because she overeats. Otherwise anyone could grow a baby by overeating. Instead, she overeats because she is pregnant.
Imagine if she went on a low calorie diet while growing the baby. First of all, she’d quickly get really hungry. Secondly, her energy levels would crash. And if she really forced herself into an energy deficit — by going to the gym, taking appetite control pills, etc — she could maybe blunt the growth of the baby, but only at great cost to both her body and the body of her child.
Why? Because the growing fetus has its own energy needs: it’s in many ways “in business for itself,” and it will hoard calories at the expense of the mother’s other metabolic needs.
The same exact logic applies when we talk about obesity. Your fat tissue is getting bigger, or it has gotten bigger. That’s obvious. The fat is growing abnormally, as if it’s “in business for itself.” In many ways, it’s behaving exactly like a fetus or like a tumor, narcissistically sucking up calories without a care in the world about the rest of the body.
The question we must address is WHY?
Once you’ve changed your perspective, the problem of obesity becomes much more tractable. We can start asking the right questions — finally!
Instead of wasting time fiddling around with calorie counters and treadmills and such nonsense, we can look for the REAL constraints that make people fat and keep them that way: The problems with the Black Box. Or, to use Jonathan Bailor’s apt metaphor, the hormonal clogs in our metabolic sink.
The good news is that, at least to a first degree, the answer appears to be remarkably simple: fix your diet to avoid consuming food that messes up your Black Box — or that “Clogs your Sink,” if you prefer. That’s it!
Obesity epidemic solved. Humanity saved. 🙂
“Saying that obesity is caused by eating too much is like saying that allergies are caused by breathing too much.” – Jonathan Bailor
Commenting on his recent study at University of Colorado School of Medicine Dr. Guido Frank stated: “It is clear that in humans the brain’s reward system helps to regulate food intake…The specific role of these networks in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and, conversely, obesity, remains unclear.” Dr. Frank’s commentary reminded me of an analogy between anorexia and obesity that I find useful in illustrating how calorie quantity is not the cause of obesity and should not be our focus when trying to cure it.
A couple of posts back we covered the hormonally horrible condition known as internal starvation.
Internal Starvation: When the metabolism is so clogged that it encourages us to overeat to compensate for all the calories it is leaking into our fat cells.
We then looked at an example that showed how inSANE food causes the hormonal clog that leads to overeating and then obesity. More simply, that inSANE food is the cause of obesity. Not overeating. Chronically eating an excessive quantity of calories is a symptom of the metabolic disaster caused by inSANE low-quality calories.
While it took me a while to wrap my head around thinking of overeating as a symptom rather than a cause, I found that the thought process became easier when I flipped the problem on its head. By thinking about under-eating. By examining anorexia.
Let’s look at an example. Say we have an anorexic individual named Ann who heads to the doctor to get help. The doctor sits Ann down, looks at her chart, and tells Ann, “The cause of your problem is that you are eating too few calories. The solution to your problem is eating more calories.” We would all agree that doctor was not helpful. Ann knows she is eating too few calories. What she does not know is why she keeps eating too few calories. What she needs help with is the cause of her chronic low calorie consumption. Taking in too few calories is a symptom, not a cause. Making Ann aware of the cause is the key to helping her long term.
Like eating too few calories is not the cause of anorexia and focusing on calorie quantity does not lead to the solution, eating too many calories is not the cause of obesity and focusing on calorie quantity does not lead to the solution. Telling overweight individuals that they are eating too many calories is useless. Telling overweight individuals about the cause of their chronic high-calorie consumption (a hormonal clog cured via high-quality food and exercise) is useful. But as long as we are told calorie quantity is all that matters, we will never get that far. Why? Because the government, food, fitness, and pharmaceutical industries already believe they “know” the answer and therefore ignore the last forty years of scientific research proving the importance of food and exercise quality.
Consider this incorrect and condescending three-step weight loss plan from the American Council on Science and Health:
“1. Don’t expect a government bureaucracy to solve your problems.
2. Don’t single out one substance and complain that addiction to it has caused your lack of overall self-control.
3. When you’re ready to start dealing rationally with your weight problem, if you have one: eat less and/or exercise more.”
Why Focusing On Calorie Quantity Is Bad
It is a scientific fact that cure for obesity is not 100 calorie snack packs. It’s also not low-fat food products. And it’s definitely not about starving yourself until the suffering becomes unbearable. It’s not about calorie quantity at all. Until we free ourselves from this scientifically disproven theory, we will continue to experience the 95.4% failure rate of eating less and exercising more. So why do we keep hearing about counting calories and exercising excessively? In short, our government started and keeps fueling this fat-loss fiction to fund the food, fitness, and pharmaceutical industries.
We’ll start digging into that data in the next couple of posts.
“What could be better than an industry whose products do not work, or work only as long as you use them, for as long as you live, but whose customers believe that they have no other choice?” – Geoffrey Cannon
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