20 July 2012

Calories - Eating less doesn't work

This is the conventional wisdom: we are gluttons and sloths, that's why we get fat.

Obesity is not simply a question of energy balance : you eat less and exercise more, then you will loose weight. It does not work like this.

If insulin is the only hormone responsible for the accumulation of fat in our tissues, then calorie-counting or eating less doesn't work. The goal is to reduce insulin concentration in our body. This can be achieved either by starvation (not recommended) or by lowering carbohydrates in our diet.

Why eating less and exercising more doesn't work:
  • What happens when you eat less and your diet still contains carbohydrates. Insulin levels will still be high and the calories you are consuming will be stored as fat. Your organs will not receive the necessary energy to grow or to function well. Your brain will notice that your organs are missing energy (starving internally) and will tell you to rest and eat more.
"Insulin works to deposit calories as fat and inhibit the use of that fat for fuel" - Gary Taubes
  • If insulin level is not elevated (in a diet restricted in carbohydrates), the energy will flow freely in and out of your fat cells and will go wherever it is needed. For example, to repair tissue or to grow bones and organs in the case of children.
"When insulin levels are low, fat escapes from the fat tissue, and the fat deposits shrink." - Gary Taubes

So the number of calories consumed has little effect on the fat deposits. You can eat very little calories and still get fat if the diet is based on carbohydrates (food pyramid). If you consume a high calorie diet and the majority of your calories come from fat, then weight loss will happen. As fat does not have an effect on insulin secretion. Bonus : you won't be hungry! 

We find examples of obesity in poor populations around the world. These people got plenty of exercise as they were working in factories or on fields. They were not sitting around watching "X-Factor" and eating chips. Their diet consisted mainly of refined carbohydrates and sugar. 

Just 2 examples:

- The Pima Indians (Arizona) today, have the highest rate of type 2 diabetes of any population in the world (77% of people 55 and older). When they lived in abundance (before the 1850s) they were reported as being sturdy and healthy. Their diet consisted of meat, fish, non-refined carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits. Obesity did not exist at that time. It appeared once they started to live on reservations and eat the settler's diet.

- Jamaicans in the 1960: Health officials reported that their daily calorie intake (2000 kcal) was less than the recommended daily intake of 2700 kcal. Nearly two-thirds of women were obese. Malnutrition was an important cause of childhood mortality. There is a kind of contradiction here: how come malnutrition and obesity coexist in the same population?

So, it is not about:
- the number of calories consumed
- the number of hours spent on exercise

It is not about how much you eat, but what you eat.

We should not ignore the biochemistry behind all this:
"Carbohydrate is driving insulin is driving fat" 
                         - George Cahill (retired Harvard professor of medicine and expert on insulin)

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