Saying we gain weight because we eat too much and exercise too little is like saying a crowded room gets crowded because too many people have entered. In neither case is the underlying reason explained: why do people keep entering the room or why are we eating too much/exercising too little? Why do we keep eating when we should be “full”? Once you start looking at the underlying mechanisms behind appetite and fat storage, you quickly realize more is at work than so-called “willpower” or “laziness”.
Appetite and energy utilization are both regulated by hormones (like leptin, ghrelin, insulin, and estrogen) and if our hormones are out of whack, then we will keep eating and have problems with fat storage that calorie restriction and exercise will do little to reverse, let alone help in shedding the pounds and keeping them off. We have to restore proper functioning to the system, which requires proper chemistry from the foods we eat or avoid. When we do that, our appetites and fat storage normalizes.
This is what Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, points out. In his groundbreaking work, he pours through the evidence that hormones regulate our appetite and fat storage and that our modern diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates compromise our system’s ability to function properly. When insulin, the hormone primarily tasked with fat storage and release, becomes compromised, weight gain and a host of other modern ills result. While some of this is genetic, Taubes points out that the modern diet is pretty much to blame for our increasing problems with weight. Curing obesity is not about calorie restriction or allocation. It’s about the type and quality of our food and its ability to nourish us so that our bodies correctly regulate our hormones, which then correctly regulate our appetite and fat storage – and waistlines.
Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Dieting & Exercise
At ground zero in the bulging waistlines of the past one hundred years has been the change in our diets to insulin spiking foods like sugar and other refined or quickly digested carbohydrates. These foods wreck our metabolisms, in particular our insulin sensitivity, leading to obesity and metabolic disorders like diabetes, among others.
Unfortunately, most health and fitness researchers haven’t been looking at the underlying physiology of the human body and its chemistry, namely the endocrine system, which regulates appetite and fat storage. Instead, they have looked primarily at calorie consumption and energy expenditure. These two paradigms are the “calories in calories out” and “exercise to lose weight” beliefs. Yet neither of these truly impact the endocrine system’s proper functioning, meaning they don’t affect our underlying hormone-regulated appetite and fat storage system and therefore cannot produce sustainable weight loss either. Here’s why.
In Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes scours the research on dieting and exercise to point out their abysmal weight loss results and their failure to solve the obesity epidemic. Despite these results, researchers continue to promote the same formula for weight loss they have for decades: eat less, exercise more. This prescription finds its way into governmental and medical health recommendations. Yet it doesn’t work.
A calorie is not just a calorie. The type and quality of the food matters. We are chemical beings and we need the nutrients found in food to function properly. Calories devoid of nutrition will keep us undernourished and may actively interfere with our body’s ability to maintain and repair itself while foods rich in nutrition will keep us operating optimally, including our ability to eat when hungry, stop when full, and properly store and release energy (i.e. fat storage). But this isn’t what researchers have focused on until more recently. Instead, they have remained hooked on the calories in, calories out and exercise to lose weight mantras.
Want to lose weight they say? Eat less. As anyone who has ever dieted knows, calorie restriction can help in weight loss but it’s not sustainable and it’s not natural. After all, we can’t continue eating only 1000 to 600 calories a day indefinitely. That’s practically a starvation diet. We do need a certain amount of calories (energy) to function but the makeup of those calories is what is important. A calorie restricted diet has to end at some point or our bodies will begin breaking down muscle for energy – including our heart muscle after a while. Once the diet ends as it must, the weight always comes back. Calorie restriction has never been the sustainable answer to the obesity question.
Surprisingly, neither has exercise. Taubes goes over the studies on exercise and weight loss and finds them underwhelming. While exercise provides plenty of benefits, weight loss arguably isn’t one of them. As Taubes points out and backs up with the scientific research, an increase in exercise invariably leads to an increase in appetite and calorie consumption. In one notable experiment, researchers trained overweight participants for a marathon. At the end of the experiment and after all that effort, on average participants only lost 5 pounds. Among women, the results were even more negligible.
Let that sink in.
Training for a 26.2 mile race yielded middling weight loss results at best and didn’t help women noticeably. Why go through all that pain and effort in the first place? It’s a good question and it points to the underlying issue with weight regulation. Our bodies like to balance energy expenditure. Exercise or work more and your body will demand you compensate with more food consumption.
Why the focus on exercise? Plenty of lean people and cultures exist around the world without any zeal for exercise. The Japanese are not known as a nation of dieters or exercise faddists. They just eat wholesome, nourishing food. Yet we in the west, with the largest amount of gym memberships and dieting programs per capita, are the ones with the health and obesity problems.
The medical community still clings to the motto of eat less, exercise more and will blame poor health outcomes on participants’ lack of willpower to restrict their eating or a failure to exercise sufficiently. In doing so, they blame the victim and fail to address the underlying biology that drives appetite and fat storage. They’re not asking why people can’t stop eating, remain constantly hungry, or lack the energy to be active. And they’re ignoring the ways our food choices chemically impact us – whether to stimulate fat storage or impede the proper functioning of the hunger and satiety signals to the brain.
Blaming the Victim
In the battle of the bulge, most people and even scientists like to blame the short-comings on the victim: obese people lack the willpower or moral fortitude to lose weight. As if anyone who is overweight or obese hasn’t tried to lose weight repeatedly. Yet “willpower” and “moral fortitude” are in no way scientific. How do you measure them? What chemically or genetically causes willpower or moral fortitude and how does that relate to appetite and fat storage? Instead of using nebulous reasoning not backed up by research, scientists should – and some finally are – asking what causes people to eat more, store fat, or burn less energy in the first place. When these questions are asked, the culprit leads to human physiology and hormone regulation.
In other words, willpower doesn’t tell us when to eat or not to eat, when to store or release fat. Our hormones do. And when we sabotage that system with poor food choices, weight gain and modern dietary ills follow.
So What Regulates Appetite and Weight?
As Taubes notes in Why We Get Fat, the endocrine system regulates our appetite and energy usage via hormones. The endocrine system also controls sex hormones as well as growth. These hormones affect the distribution of fat in our bodies. It’s the reason why men and women have different percentages of body fat and in differing areas of their bodies. Genetics plays a part obviously via the X & Y chromosomes of sex but also in heredity. Your inherited genes will control fat distribution to some extent via hormonal signals. Body types vary after all.
But genetics only go so far. In modern society, we are pulling a third lever when it comes to controlling our fat gain and distribution, as well as regulating our appetites and feelings of satiety. That third lever is diet, i.e. the foods (and their chemistry) that we consume. As Taubes chronicles, the types of food we’re eating have a huge impact on our endocrine system – and therefore on our appetite, fat distribution, and energy use. It has nothing to do with willpower or laziness. In fact, you might actually say willpower and laziness are a result of the foods we eat. When our systems are out of whack, we’ll lack the ability to control our appetites (willpower) or the energy to be active (laziness).
Here’s what controls appetite and fat storage in our bodies via the endocrine system.
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls appetite via the gut-brain axis of neuronal and hormonal signals. Its main stimulating hormones are ghrelin and leptin, respectively the hunger and satiety hormones. Leptin tells the brain there’s enough fat in storage and no more is needed, which helps prevent overeating. In obese people, leptin resistance is common and the leptin signaling is impaired. The message to stop eating doesn’t get through to the brain, so it doesn’t realize you have enough energy stored. In essence, the brain thinks it is starving so you’re driven to eat.
Meanwhile, ghrelin is the hunger hormone that relays the message to the hypothalamus telling you to eat because the stomach is empty. However, in overweight and obese people, fasting and post-meal ghrelin levels are often lower than in normal weight people. Because of this, the hypothalamus doesn’t receive as strong a signal to stop eating, which can lead to overeating.
In both cases of leptin and ghrelin impairment, one of the first recommendations for their improvement is to avoid sugary and inflammatory foods like high-fructose corn syrup, sugar-sweetened drinks and trans fats – you know, the staples of the standard American diet. The top suggestions also include eating anti-inflammatory foods like those found in a whole foods diet and quality fats and protein found in fatty fish, nuts and seeds.
Hormones play the leading role in fat storage too. The main hormone here is insulin. It tells fat cells to store fat and prevents stored fat from being broken down. It also allows your cells to take in blood sugar for energy or storage depending on what is needed at the time. When insulin regulation gets impaired, this system gets disrupted and leads to insulin resistance, which means both blood sugar and insulin levels go up significantly. Chronically elevated insulin levels can lead to many health problems, including obesity and metabolic disorders like diabetes and even Alzheimer’s (sometimes called type 3 diabetes). In the US, 12.2% adults are diabetic and another third are pre-diabetic, reaching 25.2% with diabetes for those over 65 years old (1, 2).
Guess what drives insulin resistance? Sugar and refined carbohydrates. Similar to improving ghrelin and leptin regulation, top suggestions for improving insulin regulation revolve around avoiding sugary, refined carb, and trans fat foods but eating quality foods with proper vitamin and mineral levels, quality proteins and fats such as those found in whole foods and fatty fish.
In addition to insulin and in women especially, estrogen regulates the distribution of fat and weight gain. It is estrogen that promotes fat storage at puberty, leading to the female bust and hip changes. It also may stimulate fat gain in the first half of pregnancy. During menopause, estrogen levels drop and the site for fat storage shifts from the hips and thighs to visceral fat in the abdomen, which promotes insulin resistance and increases disease risk.
In general, when estrogen levels are too high or too low, wight gain may occur. The trick is to keep the hormonal levels in balance. The body does this naturally or it used to. Again, we have disrupted the system primarily via our food choices. The main way to get our bodies back on an even plane seem to revolve around giving the body what it needs chemically to maintain and repair itself – all best found in a fiber, vitamin and mineral rich whole foods diet.
In the west our terrible diet is poor in estrogen or phytoestrogen containing foods like soy, beans, nuts, and fruits – all part of a whole foods diet. Yet in Japan, diabetes is only recently becoming a problem as the traditional diet comes under attack. Go to Japan and you rarely see an obese person, at least not like a walk down any American street.
Maybe we should be looking at the chemistry of weight gain – and the hormones that control our weight – rather than looking to exercise and calorie restrictive diets. Reversing insulin resistance requires a change in the underlying chemistry and the best and easiest way to change that is not through calorie restriction or exercising but by changing the foods we eat. Once we do that, we give our bodies the elements they need to repair our endocrine systems – i.e. the hormones that regulate our appetite and fat storage.
Looking through the research, Taubes points out that telling people to eat less and exercise more isn’t working and it never has. What has worked is getting people to shift their way of eating to better quality foods that satiate them and repair their out of balance physiology. Varying types of diets do this. Even high fat, low carb diets and ketogenic diets. Taubes spends a great deal of time on these diets and their researched benefits. Whole food diets do this too, providing the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to properly regulate our insulin – and therefore our fat storage – as well as impacting the chemical receptors in our hypothalamus that regulate appetite.
Food is chemistry. By eating refined carbs we sabotage out appetite and fat storage systems, messing up their chemical messengers if you will. The answer isn’t calorie restriction or more exercise but nourishing foods that will turn on and repair our appetite and energy use regulators.
Grab a copy of Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. Let it enlighten you as to the failed and misdirected research of the past century when it comes to understanding appetite and fat storage and how the scientific and medical community is finally coming around to the real culprits behind our obesity and related disease epidemics. You’ll see that what we are eating impacts our appetite and fat storage regulation – including the messages we receive to keep eating despite increased weight gain. The book will be eye-opening. Better yet, it offers you the keys to taking back your health.
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