Conventional wisdom is wrong.
Few people ever achieve their fat loss goals. If they manage to drop the weight it quickly reappears, often with interest. It’s also no secret that obesity rates in the UK and the US are higher than ever… and increasing. Think of it like this. If you were trying to cure a disease with a drug, and levels of that disease were spreading throughout the developed world, despite prescribing the drug to millions of people each year, would you really claim that the drug works, but diseased people are not taking it? It sounds ridiculous, but this is exactly what is happening in the world of nutrition, the disease: obesity, the drugs: exercise + conventional weight loss advice. Authorities blame the ever-growing numbers of obese people in our society on excessive gluttony and sloth. However, despite religiously following the guidelines set out to tackle obesity, most dieters fail to get the result they seek. Overwhelmingly, the overweight remain fat, or get heavier. Diet programmes from the government and the majority of diet companies fail spectacularly.
But why? Surely it’s not the advice that’s wrong, it’s the adherence to it. This is the authorities’ rather simplistic and convenient explanation for the obesity epidemic. We’re getting lazier and eating too much, and few truly wants to lose weight, hence the small numbers of success. This is certainly a convenient excuse for the sugar industry. Whilst America’s strong, world influence may have driven a growth in food portions, gym membership is booming across the Western world. As per the conventional advice, you need to exercise to lose weight – so we are exercising. This can be taken as evidence that people are health conscious, and want to lose weight. Regarding portion size, perhaps we do now eat “too much”, or perhaps portion sizes are growing of the wrong kinds of foods: pizza, soft drinks, chocolate bars. The thing is, eating is driven by hunger. People rarely eat if they’re not hungry, so control hunger and you have a shot at controlling obesity.
Based on the salient calories in- calories out hypothesis, we are told that weight gain is just a matter of putting too much into our mouths and not burning enough energy. Everyone believes this, because it is easy to understand and makes sense. It’s logical that if you eat more calories than you burn that you will gain weight, otherwise where else do the excess calories go? Surely if this wasn’t the case we would be violating the first law of thermodynamics?
This view of human energy regulation is completely wrong. To measure the calorie content of food we literally burn it and measure the energy (heat) released. Unsurprisingly your stomach doesn’t digest food in the same way, so merely contemplating a comparison of the 2 systems is ludicrous. In short, the mammalian metabolism is far more complex. Crucially, your body reacts differently to the food you eat depending on its macronutrient composition. That is to say, how much carbohydrate, protein and fat you eat, and to some extent what type. As the Atkins Diet proved, you can eat more than your daily quota of calories as protein and fat, and still lose weight. No laws of physics are broken. This is partly because your body expends more calories digesting protein compared to carbohydrates, and mainly because protein and fat do not stimulate a fat storage hormone (insulin) response. Fat and protein are also more satisfying than carbohydrates. The most important thing to remember is: carbohydrates stimulate insulin, which in excess leads to fat deposition. Fats has no effect on insulin. Protein does, but less so than carbs, and simultaneously causes a glucagon release- the hormone with essentially the opposite effects of insulin (it makes us use rather than store energy).
On the other hand, insulin is very helpful, indeed it’s vital. We have insulin to thank for keeping our blood glucose levels in check. When you eat a high-carb meal, particularly one with sugar or refined grains, you get a sudden spike in blood glucose as the breakdown products of your meal enter your blood. This tells your pancreas to release insulin. The more carbs, the more insulin. Insulin then circulates in the blood and makes the cells in our bodies soak up the high levels of blood glucose, so that we don’t become hyperglycemic. The ensuing fall in blood glucose as a result of insulin action is thought to be a key part of hunger signalling. Back to controlling hunger to control obesity, does it not make sense that the hormone response from eating carbohydrates could be to blame for fatness and dysregulated hunger?
But isn’t eating carbohydrates natural? Surely humans have been eating carbs for ages to no ill effect, our bodies must have learned to deal with them. Anyway, aren’t they part of a “balanced diet”? To get this into perspective you have to realise that the carbohydrate content of our diets has increased significantly in recent times. There’s no denying that the world has changed a vast amount in the last few centuries with the rapid technological revolution, and the repeated agricultural revolutions. These have lead to incredible food production and globalised food transportation. As a result we can now get sugar and fruits of all kinds, year-round, imported from different countries with different climates in different hemispheres. Needless to say this was impossible for the vast majority of human history, and this is a critical point. We did not evolve eating such high levels of sugar, fructose, or indeed carbohydrates in general. Genetically, we’re almost exactly the same as we were roughly ten to twenty thousand years ago at the end of the Paleolithic era. Evolution is a very slow process indeed. It stands to evolutionary reason therefore that our “optimum” diet is that which we evolved eating. The problem is that we have a relatively limited amount of archeological evidence to conclude what we ate over the majority of evolution. The short answer to what constituted our ancestors diet is that we ate whatever we could hunt or forage, which varied specifically depending on location. However, we know it was light or completely lacking in sugar, grains, dairy and legumes, and that it was largely based on wild meat and fish, various vegetables and other plant matter, berries, nuts, seeds and insects. This is the uncomfortable, logical thought-train of evolutionary reasoning. Why uncomfortable? Because we’ve been coming up with funny ideas about optimal human nutrition for decades, so the above logic requires a devolution of accepted nutrition advice. That, and a whole host of modern epidemiological studies, seem to put the health benefits of this kind of diet into question. Rather than question the suggested associations drawn by epidemiological studies, which are themselves inherently incapable of establishing cause and effect, we trusted them unquestioningly. More than that, we based our national dietary guidelines on this bad science.
Unfortunately for Western waistlines, the world of nutrition has more than its fair share of bad science. Just read Gary Taubes’ excellent Good Calories Bad Calories, or Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It. Quite honestly, the majority of advice espoused by authorities (e.g. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and British Dietetic Association), is quite simply wrong. Subjected to higher standards of scientific rigour which should be expected in the modern day, such organisations would know better than to dish out advice based on half-baked ideas from flawed research.
Despite the modern, authority-promoted zeitgeist being to base your diet around carbohydrate rich, grain-based foods, I’m not the only person who thinks this is hardly the best solution as far as health is concerned. Just look at the rising popularity of Paleo-style and low-carbohydrate diets. We’ve done some good tests of late (the gold standard placebo-controlled, double-blind, Randomised Controlled Trials) and found that Atkins-style diets win out every time in key health indicators when compared to other, higher carbohydrates regimens.
So where’s all this taking us?
Fundamentally, the standard modern diet provides us with too many carbohydrates. Rather than basing our diets on carbs as the authorities still have us do, we should limit them appropriately, basing our meals on vegetables and protein. As animal and fish naturally contain fat and protein, dramatically reducing carbohydrate in our diets will bring us, and our health, more in line with evolutionary trends. Unsurprisingly, cutting carbs leads to weight loss (or normalisation, if you look at obesity as a fat accumulation disorder) for those who need it, and greatly improved health.
Give low-carbohydrate or Paleo a try, and stop wasting your time with conventional, high-carb dieting. You’ll get most of the benefits by just avoiding sugar and gluten. I for one am looking forward to when the authorities update their official position to take into account recent, and better conducted research. After all, you can only ignore the truth for so long.
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