When it comes to weight loss, we’ve all heard about counting calories. We know that the more calories we consume, the more calories we have to burn to keep from gaining weight. We see people do the mental math of this this lifestyle ledger all the time. After Thanksgiving binge week we hear things like, “I’ve got to get back to the gym. Gonna take some work to burn that off!” And gym membership revenues soar after the gluttony that has come to epitomise Christmas season celebrations in our culture.
Why, then, do people rather consistently lose excess body weight on a high calorie, high fat, carb restricted diet? What is going on with those crazy fats, which, by the way, have twice the kcal of carbs or proteins? Well, it turns out, in fact, not all calories are created equal – and we’ve been seriously duped about the best methods to maintain optimal weight.
Just to be clear, this does not mean calorie restriction does not produce weight loss. It certainly can. But it’s almost never sustained and it’s not optimal for health and longevity. So, to recap, calorie counting is a) ineffective as a long term weight management strategy and b) not giving you the best health you can have. Thus, it’s kind of a no-brainer that if there’s a better way, you seriously want to learn about it and try it. Keep reading to understand the reasons and what you can do instead.
First, let’s cover a few basics you may not yet understand. Everything you put in your mouth gets translated into 1 of 3 macronutrients (macros) by your body: fats, carbos, or proteins, or a mixture of these. Fats get broken down into glycerols and fatty acids, carbs get broken down into various sugars, and proteins get broken down into amino acids. These nutrients are each used for various functions in the body. A steak is protein and fat, for example. A potato, bagel, or corn are all mostly carbs. Butter and oils are fats. Some other foods also have a lot of fat in them, like eggs, nuts, chia, hemp, and avocados. Most foods have at least a little of two macros in them.
Fats are used in the body for making steroid hormones, for the outer lining of cells, for reproduction, for healthy nerve and brain function, for transporting the fat soluble vitamins through the body, and as messengers for other functions, among other things. They can also be used for energy. Proteins are used for building and repairing tissues, and to make enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals. Hair, skin, nails, cartilage, bone, and muscle all require proteins. And, they can be used for energy. Carbs, in contrast, are used exclusively to provide energy. They have no other function and are usually processed so as to have very little nutritional benefit. And, you can get all the carbohydrates you need to survive and thrive by eating proteins and fats.
It’s commonly thought that the body prefers carbs for energy because that’s how our standard modern agriculture sustains profit and such foods have become the norm. However, those that subscribe to the Fat Paradigm point to the evidence that mankind evolved using fats for the bulk of energy production. This process is done in the liver, and is called ketosis. It’s often confused with the dangerous state of ketoacidosis – even by physicians. (great articles to start understanding ketosis here) Ketosis, on the other hand, is either benign to desirable for human health, depending on whom you ask and to which research they are referring (see link above to begin to delve into this issue). When carbs are metabolized for energy, the process is called the Krebs or citric acid cycle and it takes place in the mitochondria of the cell. Humans can also turn proteins into sugars for energy via gluconeogenesis, although this is not as efficient a process.
When carbs are consumed…
When carbs are consumed and broken down the hormone insulin is released by the pancreas to liberate the glucose molecules for energy. Insulin also causes storage of the excess glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscles, and as saturated fat in our adipose (fat) cells. It always amazes me that dieticians, physicians, and the majority of nutritionists believe that the body – incredible efficiency machine that it is – converts glucose into fat to store as an energy reserve – yet glucose is the body’s preferred form of energy. Ugh yeah. Because that makes all kinds of sense.
So insulin is necessary. It can save your life because excess glucose circulating in the blood stream causes all kinds of damage to the body. Just look at what happens in advanced stages of uncontrolled diabetes – vision problems to blindness, nerve and circulatory problems that can lead to amputation, and kidney, liver, and even heart disease. So while it serves a purpose, it is also a metabolic villain, the dangers of which are only starting to be understood. Insulin causes incredibly quick plaque build up in the arteries, high blood pressure and hypertension, excretion of magnesium and calcium in the urine, loss of bone density and resulting bone and dental decay, blood lipid abnormalities (‘bad’ cholesterol), sodium potassium dysregulation (leads to heart disease), excess growth (insulin is anabolic – cancer is excess cellular growth), cellular oxidation, glycation, and inflammation (aging and all ‘itis’ disease states like arthritis, bursitis, colitis, rhinitis, etc). Chronically elevated insulin is just bad news. A moderate to high carb diet is elevating insulin chronically. In short, it’s a recipe for disease and early death. Having said this, not all carbs are created equal. But that’s an entirely different post for a different day.
I observed the effects of elevated insulin very markedly in my father after heart surgery several years ago. He was hospitalized and unconscious. He was resting, hooked up to an IV and monitors. On the day that I went to visit him his heart rate was racing above normal, even though it had been down the day before. This put him at grave risk. The only changes from the day before were my visit and insulin. The first thought was that it was possibly the visit that was making his heart race. But I went home and did some research on the impact of insulin and subsequently asked that the family ask for it to be removed. My family is not the make waves type, so they did not. But it was removed later the next day and his heart rate normalized as soon as it was. In a similar article on the deleterious effects of insulin, Dr. Mercola says:
They way to treat cardiovascular disease and the way I treated my stepfather, the way I treated the high risk cancer patient, and the osteoporosis and high blood pressure – the way to treat virtually all of the so-called chronic diseases of ageing is to treat insulin itself – in the liver and body.
So if blood glucose drives insulin and insulin causes so much disease, it makes sense to follow a diet that keeps blood glucose low, does it not? Especially when the evidence is that humans evolved to use fat as our primary source of energy. In Mark Sisson’s words, (author The Primal Blueprint and Paleo expert):
It boggles my mind that such a large segment of the so-called health and fitness community would continue to defend high carbohydrate diets with such tenacity. It should all be very obvious by now. The studies keep piling up indicating that carbohydrate intake is the major variable in determining body composition and that excess glucose from carbohydrate intake (especially from processed grains and sugars) is the primary culprit in obesity and in many disease processes. It follows logically that if you can limit carb intake to a range of which is absolutely necessary (and even up to 50 grams a day over) and make the difference up with tasty fats and protein, you can literally reprogram your genes back to the evolutionary-based factory setting you had at birth – the setting that offered you the opportunity to start life as a truly efficient fat-burning organism and to continue to do so for the rest of your life as long as you send the right signals to your genes.
He points to the faulty Carb Paradigm for high carb diets – the one upheld by those people who insist you need small meals (carbs) all day to fuel your body, which you then need to work off with long durations of high intensity cardio activity. But even IF you can burn off all those calories so you don’t gain weight, you would still be damaging your cells by exposing them to insulin repeatedly, and you would still have joint deterioration and inflammation over time, still be predisposed to a host of diseases, still gain weight very fast as soon as you stop exercising so much. And you would still not be reprogramming your genes to function optimally.
And there are variables…
The calories in calories out model is also inept because calories expended fluctuate from person to person and over time, depending on various factors. We have the resting energy expenditure (sitting, reading, resting), active energy expenditure (how active you are), and the thermic effect of food (how much energy it takes to break that food down and metabolize it. Whole foods, for example, take much more energy to metabolize, as do proteins. The resting energy expenditure is greater when you have greater muscle mass and possibly with greater mental activity. And, resting energy expenditure (metabolism) drops when we restrict calories. Thyroid dysfunction also greatly impacts metabolic rate, and (often undiagnosed) thyroid dysfunction is rampant in our society today. So how do we ever calculate accurately what the expenditure is for a one in one out analysis?
The case for using fat and protein for energy just keeps getting stronger.
But fat makes you fat, right?
Wrong. And the reasons are complicated. I go into them in more depth below.
First let us look at a great summary of 23 studies comparing the effects of low fat vs low carb diets for weight loss very concisely and clearly put together by Kris Gunnars, BSc: https://authoritynutrition.com/23-studies-on-low-carb-and-low-fat-diets/. Each study is broken down and includes graph data. The graph below demonstrates the summary data on weight loss, but if you click the link above you will note that there were also significant improvements in other biomarkers for disease on the low carb diet in many of the studies. These studies are a great source of information because they were performed by various groups with various interests and methodologies, which helps to create a more balanced outcome.
So enough preamble. Let’s get listy about why a low carb, high fat diet of unprocessed foods is superior for fat weight loss (after all, it’s fat you want to lose right?) and healthy weight management.
Why low carb, high fat weight loss is superior to low fat weight loss:
- Fat causes you to eat less. It’s hard to overeat on this diet. Fats trigger satiety on a biochemical level, signalling your body to release the satiety hormone leptin – meaning you feel satisfied and stop eating. You won’t have cravings and won’t feel hungry for a long time.
- Fructose (the most common sugar in processed foods and candy/ soda today – and also the sugar naturally present in fruit and fruit juices) causes you to eat more. After a hit of frucotse, leptin isn’t registered by the brain. You do not get the message that you are satisfied, no matter how much you eat thereafter. You eat more and will feel hungry soon after. (Does anyone else wonder if processed food manufacturers know this and use it to manipulate us to consume more of their products??)
- Fat does not cause blood sugar fluctuations that cause cravings and mood swings. It’s a slow, steady burn molecule because of the way it is metabolized. Carbs cause a spike and drop in blood sugar, which sets you up for craving more carbs to get energy again. Carbos are meant to supercharge energy or pack on fat for a famine. Think about it: they are typically available in the autumn, when humans needed to pack on body fat to survive the winter. Body fat is the body’s natural, sustaining form of fuel. Fat does not cause a spike and crash in energy, as carbos do.
- Carbs and sugars do cause blood sugar fluctuations that cause intense cravings and mood swings. High blood sugar can induce a euphoric state of lots of energy and good mood – even mania – which people generally like because they can get a lot done. However, the low blood sugar that follows shortly after can be debilitating. It can cause you to feel fatigued, shaky, angry, irritable, with brain fog and intense cravings for a pick me up. It brings out the hunter in many people (especially those of O blood type, I’ve observed) because it is a signal to the brain that food is needed NOW. I have yet to see a client with a mood disorder or chemical addiction that does not have a problem with blood sugar regulation and usually, a sugar addiction.
- When you acclimate your body to burning fat instead of sugar as the norm, your insulin sensitivity goes up. This reduces your risk for a number of diseases – cardiovascular, diabetes, obesity, auto-immune disorders, cancer, and mental health issues – and promotes longevity more than any factor we know of.
- When you acclimate your body to burning carbs/ sugars as the norm, your insulin sensitivity goes down. This increases your risk for all the above mentioned disorders and even predisposes your unborn child to them, too. This promotes disease more than any factor I have seen clinically.
- When you use fat as your primary fuel source, you become a fat burning machine, switching your genes to automatically go seeking excess body fat whenever there is a need for energy.
- When you use carbs/ sugar as a fuel source, you become a carb craving machine – always seeking another hit and getting shaky, sometimes weak, and usually irritable (see above) when you don’t get it. This causes a lack of self control and it also causes your body to never metabolize your body fat for fuel – because you are too uncomfortable to remain in a state of glucose deficiency for long enough.
- Becoming a fat burner means you will lose the fat around the middle. The fat around the middle, which is the worst for your health, is a direct result of insulin. So often I see misguided trainers and athletes advocating high rep, high intensity cardio exercise to burn fat to lean out the core. Smarter lifters know that you can strengthen the core with exercise, but leaning out is how you show the muscle underneath, and this is the direct result of diet. Think about it. How many people know long distance runners? At least half the year they typically have belly flab and they rarely have good muscle tone. Google Fu images of sprinters vs distance runners and you will see what I mean. Remove carbs and sugars and you will limit insulin secretion and your body will metabolize all that middle fat. Bye bye muffin top.
- Being a carb/ sugar burner keeps you in a state where insulin will keep adding fat to the middle zone – to protect the organs. We are seeing an epidemic of diseases related to this in our society now – type II diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and fatty liver disease. It’s all a direct result of over exposure to insulin from a carb heavy diet.
- If you use fat for energy you will not need to do starvation diets to look good for special events because you will already be lean. When you do starvation diets your body catabolizes (eats) your muscles for fuel. Using fat for fuel you will lean out and maintain your muscle integrity. This means more muscle density on your body, as opposed to that flabby stuff. This is good, not just for how you look, but for bone density and to protect against ageing. And, muscles burn far more energy in a resting state than does adipose tissue, so the mo muscle the mo better in terms of your metabolic rate.
- If you use carbs/ sugar for energy you will need to diet throughout your older life in order to look the way most of us want to look. And people are obese and dieting younger all the time due to the abundance of garbage carbo food stuff now available to youth and the absence of healthy home cooked meals to nourish them, since often now both parents are working and there is an explosion of single parent families. Nobody is available to do all the planning and prep of well rounded, homemade meals. Moreover, when you do those fad starvation diets your body will burn your muscle for energy. You will not look or feel your best and it is not sustainable to starve yourself in the long run. This sets you up for yo-yo dieting. We all know how fun that is.
- Using fats for energy means healthy teeth and bones. Dietary fats enable your body to use the fat soluble vitamins properly (if you get enough of them from the right foods and supplements) and these are essential for bone and dental health. We have an epidemic of bone and dental health issues in our population now that is not normal in societies where unrefined foods and low fat diets don’t exist. In the 1920’s Ontario’s own Dr. Weston Price travelled the world and documented this. A short biography and video can be found here http://www.westonaprice.org/about-the-foundation/dr-weston-a-price-movietone/ I have used his methods successfully to reverse dental disease in children and adults alike.
- Using carbs and sugars for energy will damage teeth and bones, no matter how much milk you drink. Insulin displaces calcium and magnesium in the body. Grains contain phytates that leach minerals from the body to be digested. Sugars are highly acidifying and pull calcium from the bones to maintain blood pH. All this mineral robbing means less minerals for bones and teeth. And, high carb diets are usually deficient in fat soluble vitamins and healthy fats to transport and store those vitamins for bone building and repair.
- When you become concerned with eating healthy fats you will become much healthier overall. Processed foods denature fats and contain lots of carbs. In removing these and turning to natural foods, your overall health will soar. Natural foods contain abundant nutrients encapsulated in cells, which the body has adapted to thrive on from thousands of years of doing so. Thus, deficiencies and imbalances will minimize over time. Once you are satisfied with natural food and your health is thriving from it, processed foods become very unattractive and even disgusting. (Most people gape when they first hear this. But clients continually tell me they have never tried a store bought treat that even remotely compares to my grain and sugar free, low carb, all natural, high fat goodies. And you will never eat McFries again once you have homemade poutine made with herbed fries and the jus of grass fed prime rib. Healthy food is incredibly delicious! Take one of my cooking classes if you need help to find healthy foods you love.)
- When you consume mostly carb calories you often rely mostly on processed, low fat foods that are nutrient deficient and which do not have nutrients stored in cells. They are unlike anything humans have been exposed to in our evolutionary journey with food. They offer condensed calories in tastier and tastier forms, to encourage over eating. They cause deficiencies and imbalances over time. I teach my clients that when you read the words low fat on any product, you can be sure the nutritional translation is simply, “Chemical Shit Storm.”
- When you eat fats for energy, rather than carbs, it’s easy to avoid toxins like fructose and wheat.
- The most prolific carbs in our foodstuff today are wheat and corn based. They are both problematic for health. Fructose from corn is a metabolic time bomb – which you can see in the attached video (a youtube sensation) from the world’s leading expert on fructose, Dr Lustig. Fructose shuts down the satiety centre of the brain, which he goes into in his video. Translation: you eat more! Wheat, on the other hand, is actually addicting, so you are set up to crave more after you eat it. It contains glutomorphin and gliadomorphin, which trigger opioid receptors in the brain and cause cravings. BTW, the dairy we have access to today does the same thing. This explains the obsession with mac n’ cheese and pizza in susceptible people. It’s hard to stop it until you are off it completely for a period of time – then it does not seem nearly as attractive. I do not, however, advocate everyone remove dairy from their diet. Unlike wheat, dairy – especially high fat, from grass fed cattle – is full of nutrients and a great way to add flavour to recipes. Although it’s inflammatory and mucous forming in some, it’s not a carb, so it’s not going to spike insulin or drive weight gain, and we need to make our food choices according to what works for each of us with our particular tastes and biochemistry. Wheat, however, has no redeeming factors. It is a hybridized, mono-cropped, denatured, addicting, and nutrient deficient foodstuff that wreaks havoc on the intestines over time. It is not fit for human consumption.
- Eating healthy fats for energy will make you sexier. It will give you better skin, a better sex drive, better sleep, better energy, fewer yeast infections and UTIs, better ovaries and sperm, and healthier babies with better brains, better nervous systems, and better insulin sensitivity. You will have a stronger immune system and less colds, less bowel problems, and better teeth, hair and nails.
- Eating carbs for energy will make you less sexy. It will give you acne, psoriasis, eczema, libido and sexual performance issues, sleep apnea, insomnia, obesity, snoring, anxiety attacks, mood swings, PMS, polycystic breast disease, polycystic ovarian disease, a predisposition to breast cancers, bowel problems, flatulence, acid indigestion, arthritis, athlete’s foot, jock itch, skin tags, foul breath, mucous and regular sinusitis, head colds, irritability and many more less than sexy disease states.
- Eating healthy fats for fuel makes you invested in good farming practices and you become political with your grocery money. That’s a win for animal rights, a win for the environment, and a win for sustainable farmers. Daaaamn.
- Eating cheap carbs and sugars for fuel usually means your grocery money funds mono-cropping, commercial pesticides R&D, genetically modified food production, corporate agriculture, inhumane commercial animal farming practices, factory food production and all the pollution from that, and global desertification. (I teach a class on this if you are interested to learn more.)
- Fat does not feed Candida albicans (unhealthy yeast in the body). Candida is huge factor in dysbiosis (digestive woes) and disease of all kinds and needs to exist in balance with the good bacteria in the intestines for optimal health. Eat more fat and less carbs, reduce candida. Add probiotic foods – part of any healthy ancestral diet – and take the benefit even higher. (I teach a class on this, too!)
- Carbs and sugars do feed Candida albicans. There is a growing body of evidence that an imbalance of gut microbes is one of the most important determinants of health. Candida takes over the healthy balance in the gut when the diet staples are carbs and sugars.
- On a calorie restricted diet of mostly fats, people become more emotionally and mentally healthy. A very low carb, high fat diet can be used to reverse epilepsy, the schizophrenias, and mood disorders. I have done all of these clinically.
- On a calorie restricted diet of mostly carbs people become mentally and emotionally ill. They develop eating and mood and digestion and nervous disorders. I see this in my clinical practice all the time.
So why not use proteins instead of fat for energy?
Put simply, it’s inefficient. Also, proteins do not produce satiety and you are going to crave carbs like crazy on a high protein low fat diet. Long term use of this diet will keep you lean if you are active enough, but you will have joint problems, aged looking skin, and other age related health problems that you do not see with high fat, moderate protein diets.
Well, what can you eat then?
In summary, substituting your calorie counting with a low carb, high fat, Paleo or ancestral diet, composed of quality meats, veggies, nuts, seeds, some fruit, herbs, spices, fermented foods, healthy oils, and optional quality dairy, has numerous benefits and is superior at producing and sustaining weight loss. The macros ideally are 60-70% calories from fat, 20-30% calories from protein, 10-20% calories from carbs. Your specific needs can be determined when we meet and do your intake. Eating this way means you will feel more satisfied, have less body fat, have less food cravings, have less mood swings, enjoy better sleep, enjoy more steady energy, have better sex hormones, produce healthier cells, have greater insulin sensitivity and less risk for all the metabolic diseases and inflammation, have a better gut biome and all the benefits of that, have a greater chance of longevity, have better bones, nerves and brain health, and have no calorie counting to do. Just eat all the natural, low carb foods you want until you are satisfied. The real trick is to learn how to replace the meals (usually under 10 staples we go to) with easy, delicious substitute meals that you will enjoy just as much. For this I offer numerous cooking classes.
Let me give you a teaser: instead of spaghetti with commercial beef and tomato sauce bolognese, you could have kelp noodles with grass fed beef and homemade bolognese sauce or zoodles (zucchini noodles) bolognese. Instead of hamburgers with frozen fries you can learn to make slider sticks (shish k bob of mini burgers) or meatballs or meatloaf with quality beef and hidden veggies and my own special seasonings, with seasoned, roasted veggies. Instead of fajitas you can have a fajita salad. Pizza can even be done beautifully with a cauliflower crust. Cauliflower makes a great substitute for rice, as well. The possibilities are endless once you learn to cook for health. And really, you only need 6 recipes or so for each meal to build on.
If you want assistance to make this transition for weight loss or the health benefits, contact me or sign up for a class to get started today.