Updated: Sep 28, 2018
Ok ok, calm down. I’m not saying that you’re fat. But, if you are carrying some extra weight, have you ever wondered why? Do you think you know why? It’s a rather complicated question which I can’t answer fully here. In fact, to avoid writing a 300 page book, I need to oversimplify things a little. But, in this post, I’ll attempt dispel one fundamental falsehood about what makes you fat.
The conventional wisdom is that people are fat because they eat too much and/or exercise too little. It’s the old “calories in, calories out” paradigm. The idea here is that if you simply eat fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. It’s this nutritional world view that every diet plan that uses portion control is based upon (Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Richard Simmons’ Deal-a-Meal, etc). So, is it true? Well, kinda-sorta. Some people do successfully use calorie restriction and portion control as a means to manage weight. But others still can’t seem to lose weight even while eating fewer calories than their body needs. The reason for this has to do with the mechanism the body uses to store fat…more on that later. Calorie restriction never worked well for me. I was always hungry and always craving things I shouldn’t eat. Eventually, my willpower would fail me and I would cave. Does this sound familiar?
So, let’s talk a little about willpower. Intertwined with this notion that it’s all about how much a person eats is the idea that, if a person overeats, it’s because they lack the willpower to refrain from doing so. As it turns out, carbohydrates, and in particular highly processed carbohydrates (grains, sugar) stimulate appetite and cravings. I’ve experienced this myself. Perhaps you have as well. Have you ever been at a restaurant and, after vowing to eat just one piece of bread, you ended up having three? Or, there's a bowl of tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant that you demolish, sometimes even before your order has been taken. Trust me, this is not just you being weak. A diet that’s high in processed carbohydrates compels you to eat more carbs. It’s metabolic.
So, if it’s not how much you eat, perhaps it’s what you eat. As it turns out, this is much closer to the truth. Calories are not created equal. Your body metabolizes 100 calories of carbohydrates entirely differently than it does 100 calories of fat. The type of calories matters…a lot.
Here’s where it makes sense to describe a little about how the body processes carbohydrates. You may have heard of insulin. It’s produced and released by the pancreas when your blood glucose level rises. Most people think of insulin as the substance (it’s a hormone actually) that the body uses to reduce the blood glucose level. More accurately, it’s the hormone that facilitates the movement of blood glucose into the cells of the body. Without insulin, our cells would not be able to use glucose for energy. Insulin is also a key part of the body’s mechanism for the storage of excess glucose (glucose not required for immediate use by cells). A small amount of it is stored as something called glycogen in the liver and in the muscles. There’s only a limited amount of storage space in the body for glycogen. Whatever is left over is converted to fat and stored in fat cells. Put simply, insulin is the fat storage hormone.
Fat is not metabolized the same way as carbs. Fat is not converted to blood glucose (in general) so it doesn’t cause the pancreas to release insulin. As it turns out, cells can use either fat or glucose for energy. In fact, they’re slightly better at using fat. How all this works is a topic for another blog post.
So, what’s the most common reason people get fat? Typically, it’s from eating too many carbohydrates, in particular too many highly processed carbs like sugar and grains. Yes, it’s true. Fat doesn’t make you fat, carbs make you fat. I’ve heard people (including medical doctors) say that things like cookies, cakes, pies, and bread make you fat because of the fat they contain. This is complete nonsense. These things are fattening because they contain a huge amount of carbohydrates in the form of highly processed grain (flour) and sugar.
How do I know that carbs make you fat? Well, remember insulin? It’s the fat storage hormone. All those highly processed carbs dump an enormous amount of glucose into your blood. This excess glucose gets converted to fat and gets stored. How else do I know? Weight gain is common for type-II diabetics who require insulin injections. There also have been studies done where healthy people are given insulin. What happens? They gain weight.
So, there you have it. A diet high in carbohydrates is what often leads to excess weight. And, the reason has almost everything to do with your body’s production of and response to insulin. Now, sometimes achieving weight loss is not as simple as just restricting the consumption of carbs, although it often does work quite well. Whether this works all on its own depends on the individual and the current status of their body. It’s in these situations that Nutritional Therapy can help. Having said this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I advocate a diet composed of nutrient-dense, whole foods that includes plenty of high-quality fat and excludes processed carbohydrates. This kind of diet is not only foundational to blood sugar management, but is also one key to overall health.