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Stay at Home, Lose Fat

April 27, 2020
Mary Kay

Everywhere you look…fashion, television, sports, medicine…the advice is the same.  If you’re overweight, it’s because you have poor control over the number of calories you consume.  I would state it a little differently which is, you have poor control over your energy balance.  In other words, the reason your body is holding onto fat is dependent on your biochemistry, of which food is just one factor.  Decipher that, and you’ll get control of that pesky belly bulge.  But where to start?  Well, I’m going to review the latest thinking about excessive anabolic models (and how that relates to body composition) and provide you expert tips to stay home and lose fat.

Old Theory:  The Calorie Deficit Model

For years, we were all told if you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories and move a little more.  Even the Food and Drug Administration recommended reducing calorie intake with smaller portions and replacing fat with more carbohydrates (because 1 gram of fat has 9 calories and 1 gram of carbohydrates only 4 calories).  You may recall the growth of packaged low-fat, diet foods in the 80s and the corresponding increase in childhood and adult obesity by 200% over the next 20+ years.  So, what happened?

  • Lower Calories/Smaller Portions – Yes, you’re getting fewer calories, but for some individuals, the portion size doesn’t satiate the hunger response.  In other words, if your brain doesn’t perceive an intake of adequate intake of fuel, it triggers cravings for more food. 
  • Lower Calorie/Low Fat, Packaged Foods - From a pure math perspective, switching from fats to carbs seems logical, but the reason that approach didn’t work either is because the refinement process removes fiber from food.  Without fiber, there’s nothing to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream leading the body to dump the excess into fat cells.  The other problem is low calorie foods are often made with artificial sweeteners (e.g., acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, neotame, etc.), and most of those are believed to be inflammatory foods which can also increase belly fat.
  • Lower Calories/Snacking All Day (Grazing) – Another popular method is the busy mom method of eating, also called “grazing.”  The idea is that by grabbing quick snacks, you can satisfy hunger while eating less food.  As it turns out, though, this advice promotes fat storage, not fat loss.  Why?  Think of the movement of substances into fat cells like the tide at the beach.  The tide either moves in or moves out, but never both at the same time.  The same thing happens in your body.  When you eat a snack or meal, sugar enters your blood.  That sugar causes insulin to be released.  When insulin is high, fat is stored…NOT burned (i.e. the tide is moving fat into cells, not out).
  • Lower Calorie/Low Carbohydrates – Probably the most popular approach to eating fewer calories of the last 20 years is the low carb method, which restricts carbs to <50-70 grams a day or with the ketogenic diet to <20 grams.  This method takes its lead from the carbohydrate-insulin model which is all about triggering less insulin and forcing cells to utilize fat versus glycogen for fuel.  On paper, this seems like this would be the best way to lose fat.  However, study after study have shown that while eating low carb does cause fat burning do go up, the number of total calories that the body burns only goes down SLIGHTLY.  This means the longer you’re on this method, you’ll find you have to DECREASE total calories more just to maintain the weight you’ve lost, which over time is not sustainable.

So, what does all this mean?  While the calorie deficit model works, it doesn’t always work, suggesting there’s more to the calorie or energy in / out model than first thought. 

New Theory:  Excessive Anabolic Drive

Models are only as good as the assumptions that go into them…something we’ve recently been reminded of with the spread/containment of the COVID-19 virus.  Well, when Dr. Ludwig recognized the mixed results of low-calorie diets on weight loss, he contemplated if there was a wrong or missing assumption in the calorie-deficit model.  (Dr. Ludwig is an author, researcher, professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School, professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital.) 

2 things stuck out:

  • There are plenty of macronutrient and calorie combinations that work for many cultures and populations.  (Vegans, for example, eat mostly fats and carbs.  The Inuits in the far North traditionally eat mostly fat and protein, whereas native populations in the tropics consume mostly carbohydrate.)
  • Weight management models assume the 1 calorie = 1 unit of energy model of consumption and expenditure when creating menu/diet plans. He wondered if something else could be triggering fat anabolism besides food consumption.  That’s when he decided to flip the direction of the arrows showing a relationship between fat storage to metabolic fuels.  The implications were eye opening.

As Dr. Lutwig re-conceptualized the model, he noticed how individual biochemistry (not just calorie intake) impacts fat storage.  Consider other learnings of the last 10 years:

  • Toxic overload --> weak/poor liver detoxification --> increase in fat (to protect the vital organs)
  • Carbohydrate consumption/metabolism --> high insulin producer --> hyperinsulinemia --> increase in fat to buffer the effects of too much blood sugar
  • Chronic perceived negative stress --> barrage of cortisol spikes --> encourages fat storage
  • Low thyroid and/or estrogen --> decrease in physical activity and energy expenditure --> promotes fat storage
  • Food sensitivities --> weak/poor digestion and absorption --> inflammatory responses --> Inhibit effective fatty acid utilization
  • Inadequate phytonutrient intake --> no protection from free radicals and reactive molecules --> inflammatory responses --> imbalances of circulating glucose and fatty acids

All these variables illustrate other cause-effect relationships with fat production/storage, and taken in isolation are all quite manageable.  So, why was weight loss so difficult for many adults?

Dr. Ludwig then wondered if there was a cumulative effect happening in the body where seemingly minor or routine biochemical actions were causing an unpredictably large reaction.  He called this reaction “excessive anabolic drive in adipose tissue.”  To explain, in a healthy body with ≤20% body fat, an uncrowded number of adipocytes (fat cells) facilitates the clearance and storage of ingested energy.  When too many fat cells (overloaded with toxins and/or glucose) are compressed together, however, their ability to assess energy requirements and nutrient availability becomes impaired leading cells to think it needs to produce and store more energy than it really needs. 

Imagine a factory with thousands of production and assembly lines and the intelligence to create/send materials exactly where they are needed…seamlessly, flawlessly.  Now imagine a factory overrun with bandits and miscreants stealing supplies, depositing debris across production lines and breaking everything in sight.  That’s sort of what’s happening in a body that’s lost control of its energy balance.  Trying to address one problem at a time isn’t going to make much of a difference.  Instead, you have to attack multiple problems SIMULTANEOUSLY to regain control over the factory.  Then, you can get it to run efficiently.

Breaking the Cycle – The 28 Day Challenge

While Dr. Ludwig believes more research is needed on effective macro and micronutrient combinations, he believes a multi-pronged approach is needed to regain control over energy balance.  His basic tips for the first 30 days are to:

  • Eliminate sugar (all forms), processed foods, fried foods, starchy foods, bottled salad dressings and alcohol. (Tip:  According to the Center of Functional Medicine, the elimination of inflammatory foods is critical to balancing the microbiome, blood sugar and hormones.  For more information, see the Mito Food Plan Guide here.) 
  • Eat more food with a 20:50:30 macro split of lean protein, fibrous carbs and healthy fats. (Tip: initially aim for 90 grams of protein and 800 grams of multi-colored vegetables and fruits, with no more than 25 grams of sugar from fruit.)  In addition to stabilizing blood sugar and neutralizing free radicals, eating this way allows the body to flow in and out of ketosis naturally and to utilize glucose or fatty acids where it needs them versus trying to dictate it.  That’s how the body regains its equilibrium.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week.  (Tip:  High frequency exercisers build and maintain more lean muscle mass and encourage fat burning more than non-exercisers.)
  • Fast for 12 hours between dinner and breakfast.  (Tip:  When you fast, blood sugar and insulin levels go down which encourages fatty acids to leave fat cells, thereby speeding up fat loss.)

In short, weight management involves more than counting calories. Your biochemistry matters too.  And while it may seem counter-intuitive to eat more food (when you’re trying to lose weight), imagine that you’re calling in the National Guard to regain control of your factory.  Amino acids from protein provide the brute force to combat invaders while the phytonutrients and fatty acids from fibrous carbs and healthy fats supply your army with the weaponry and shields to fight off free radicals and protect cellular DNA and nerve fibers. Food is the good guy and will help get the internal chaos under control.  So, why not try it for 30 days?  Once you witness new levels of energy and your mid-section shrinking, you’ll never view calories the same again.

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