This article is written so you can properly understand why eating a high saturated fat diet won’t make you fat and why counting calories and trying to burn more calories than you consume is a recipe for disaster. Elevated stress, fatigue, frustration and ultimately weight gain are the results of medium to long term calorie-restriction and/or excess cardio training.
You’ll see why a calorie isn’t just a calorie and why the calorie-in/calorie-out theory based on the law of thermodynamics when applied to a complex system like the human body is completely bogus.
Staying lean is not just important for aesthetics and self-esteem, but the mere fact of gaining fat means that you are already metabolically deranged and somewhat insulin-resistant. This means that your body is not functioning as it should and the risks of developing other metabolic problems in the future are high. Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and a weight-gain cycle are some examples.
Taking care of your health is about looking at the science and evidence more than listening to the current dogma. After all, as more and more people eat “healthy” whole grains and low fat and endure long hours of strenuous cardio exercise week after week, we see the general health condition of people getting worse and worse. If you’ve been following the standard recommendations and are still struggling with weight gain, you’ll learn that loosing weight is actually effortless when you start to work with your body instead of against it.
The calorie-in, calorie-out hypothesis
Most people believe that they get fat because they consume more calories than they burn. It’s an over simplistic way of seeing it and the human body is a complex system, not a machine that works the same with fuel of any kind. When we eat food, there is a complex hormonal system at play and those hormones ultimately decide if you’re going to store fat or not.
One of the major ideas that floats around that’s related to this theory and that tries to explain why so many people are fat today is the lack of exercise. It is believed that, because we exercise less, we burn less calories and the excess calories accumulate as fat over time.
Once again, the story is much more complex than that. If you believe in the calorie theory and you do the math, you’ll see that you’ll need to pedal and sweat for hours just to burn the calories in a few cookies. Even worse, exercise will increase your hunger so you’ll constantly have to fight the way your body wants you to act. Just sitting there and doing nothing, you’ll burn an amount of calories that’s not too far from what you burn while exercising. Your brain, digestive system and heart require a tremendous amount of energy just to run properly.
You probably already know that your body is mainly interested in survival and reproduction. In the wild, a major component of survival is energy conservation. Ancient humans weren’t interested in burning more energy than they had to and doing otherwise would jeopardize their chances of survival when food was scarce. For the purpose of energy conservation, the body uses a set-point and will try its best to keep its composition within that set-point. This is why people struggle so hard to lose weight when working against their nature and almost always put it back on later on. The body simply returns to its set-point. This also works the other way around. If you try to overeat in order to gain fat, it’ll work for a while, but you’ll shortly return to your normal weight once you stop overeating.
In fact, if we didn’t have that complex set-point system, it would take an accuracy of about 0.01% of your calorie intake to stay within a 5 pound range over a 5 year period, yet we see people staying basically at the same weight for years and years.
If exercising and burning more calories doesn’t work, then reducing your caloric intake and eating smaller portions will, right? Wrong!
When you suddenly spend more energy than usual (i.e: long sweaty miles on the treadmill), your body will give you strong hunger signals so you can regain the energy lost and stay within your body’s set-point. This is also true if you start eating more. You’ll have more energy and be inclined to get active and eliminate the surplus. At least, these happen to a normal and healthy person who isn’t metabolically deranged. You’ll also induce a similar situation when your energy input reduces with situations like starvation or hypothyroidism. You’ll have much less energy available and will feel sluggish and rundown in order to preserve energy.
The role of insulin on health
Insulin is an important hormone secreted by the pancreas that controls glucose metabolism and glucose uptake by the cells. In other words, it helps keep your blood glucose stable by delivering any surplus to liver, muscle and fat cells. This is the way the cells can get access to glucose to use as energy and your blood glucose can stay within a normal range.
You probably understand that if we don’t consume a high carbohydrate diet (carbohydrates are transformed into glucose in the body), we need much less insulin to deal with it. The opposite is also true.
The problem with the Western diet is that the amount of carbohydrates consumed is so high compared to what our ancestors were used to that our insulin is chronically high. This then triggers a chain of reaction that we call the metabolic syndrome and weight gain is often one of the first signs.
The muscles and the liver can only store a certain amount of glycogen (stored glucose) at any given time. Once those stores are full, insulin has to remove any excess glucose in the blood and put it somewhere else. The glucose gets stored in the fat cells as triglycerides. Et voilà! This is the basics of how you store fat.
The story doesn’t end there though. Chronically elevated insulin also disrupts another hormone called leptin. Leptin is a hormone that talks with the hypothalamus to signal hunger and energy reserves. When insulin is high all the time to deal with all the sugar, you get hungry and eat even more sugar even if your cells are overfed and don’t need more energy from food.
What happens next if the vicious cycle continues? Your cells become resistant to the effects of insulin to protect themselves from the damaging and inflammatory effects of too much glucose. Glucose then has trouble getting into the cells and more of it gets stored as fat, even when your cells are hungry and deprived. The problem is that your cells now don’t get the energy they would get from glucose, because they are resistant to insulin.
Your cells are now starving for food while sugar is being stored in the fat cells. Since your body needs energy and in the energy conservation optic, you get even hungrier, your energy levels fall while you gain weight.
Also note that excess fructose consumption (from sodas, fruit juices and anything with added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup) is also a big problem on the standard American diet and causes insulin resistance at the liver, which is very bad news. The focus of this article is not on fructose, but a whole article will be dedicated to the specific damage that fructose does. For now, just keep in mind that carbohydrates are less of a problem when fructose consumption is low, but in our present society almost any kind of carbohydrate comes loaded with fructose.
In this sense, obese people are sedentary and overeat because they are fat and not the other way around, just like teenagers who are not growing because they are overeating, but are overeating because they are growing. It’s not a defect in will-power or dedication, it’s a defect in ratios of macro-nutrients consumed which triggers an unnatural hormonal reaction.
If the vicious cycle continues even more, chances are your cells will become more and more insulin resistant and you run the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a situation where the pancreas becomes tired of producing all that insulin and now produces inadequate amounts to keep your blood sugar in the normal range.
Now this might seem quite unlikely to happen to you and might sound farfetched or extreme. Keep in mind that the metabolic syndrome presents itself differently and at different times for everybody. It can take years or decades, but as soon as your start gaining unnatural weight you’re already somewhat insulin resistant. It doesn’t mean it’s going to develop into full blown type 2 diabetes or other metabolic problems, but odds are not on the good side. Some people develop some form of the metabolic syndrome without getting fat, and it’s quite dangerous, because there is no prior sign or wake up call.
Some people will imitate their favorite athlete, who might be eating tons of carbohydrates while staying lean and fit. Athletes can afford to go harder with the carbs and fructose because their glycogen stores are more often depleted and there is no negative metabolic effect in repleting glycogen stores. It’s when you hammer them while they are already replete that problems happen.
Getting fatter had its advantages
If excess sugar and especially fructose is bad and is the root cause of all modern metabolic problems along with grains and omega-6/omega-3 imbalances, you probably wonder how our ancestors got by eating fruits, probably without restriction. After all, fructose got its name from the word “fruit”. The thing is, most fruits back then were much less sweet and much more fibrous and/or tart. The other thing is that in most parts of the world, fruits are only available at certain times of the year. Most of the time, this would happen right at the end of the summer when it was the ideal time to over-eat a bit and get fatter to go through winter, when food becomes scarce. Getting a higher amount of carbs a couple of times a year instead of chronically does not cause problems, especially when your metabolism hasn’t been messed up already.
How to lose stubborn weight
The good news is that most broken metabolisms can be brought back to normal with the proper approach. As a general rule, the more insulin resistant and metabolically deranged you are in the first place, the more rigorous you’ll have to be in your approach. Most healthy people will get by just fine and achieve their health and weight goals simply by following the 15 rules described in Paleo 101. Those who still struggle to lose weight though might need to take it up a notch to trigger their metabolism into a proper mode of fat burning. You have to put your body in a metabolic state different enough so your body decides to change its set-point and burn fat.
You’ll need to keep your carb and fructose intake very low, so low that you’ll go into a state called ketosis. Ketosis happens when your liver starts making ketone bodies out of fat as a fuel source that replaces glucose. Don’t worry, being in ketosis is perfectly healthy and most ancient humans were in ketosis probably more often than not. There are even metabolic advantages to being fat adapted and most of your cells prefer burning ketone bodies rather than glucose. If you don’t consume any carbs whatsoever, your body will make glucose by a process called gluconeogenesis for the few organs and cells that can’t run on ketone bodies (some parts of the brain and red blood cells mainly).
You’ll get into ketosis at about 50 grams of carbs or less per day. You can buy urine test strips at your local drugstore to test whether you are in ketosis or not.
For serious weight loss needs though, I recommend that you keep your carb intake near zero. 5% of your caloric intake as vegetables used as condiments to your meals is probably fine. Even excess proteins will be transformed into glucose so you should keep protein intake at around 20% of your caloric intake.
I also recommend against eating any fruits, nuts or starchy vegetables. Nuts and seeds contain some gut irritating properties from lectins and often have a very bad omega-6/omega-3 ratio. A good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is even more important when you are metabolically deranged, so I recommend keeping your polyunsaturated fat intake to a minimum and supplement 1 or 2 grams of a good quality fish oil every day to get those fats in the right balance. Also strive to only eat grass-fed meat and wild fish. Read my Paleo on a Budget article to learn how to save money while eating grass-fed and pastured animals. Grass-fed ruminants like beef, bison and lamb will have a better omega-6/omega-3 ratio in their fat than pork and chicken, even when well-fed.
None of the problematic Neolithic foods should be consumed. This includes all grains, legumes, vegetable oils, sugar and possibly even dairy.
Your diet should therefore be around 75-80% fat, 20-25% protein and 0-5% carbohydrates. This diet is also healthy in the long-term and you will get all the nutrients you need from muscle meat, organ meat, good quality animal fat, fish, shellfish and homemade bone broths. Most ancient humans in most regions of the world probably ate a diet very similar to that.
Your fat sources should be mostly from animals. Butter, tallow, lard, duck fat and egg yolks are some examples. Coconut oil is also fine, as is non-heated olive oil. If you buy the fatty cuts of meat, you’ll already get a good amount of fat just by eating all the trimmings. For those struggling to get enough fat, heavy cream from grass-fed and pastured cows or goats can be an easy way to increase your intake if you are positive that you tolerate dairy very well. You’ll have to experiment with it to really know.
If your body is not used to be in ketosis and using fat as a source of fuel, you might feel shaky and sluggish for two or three weeks. It will soon pass though and you’ll experience far less cravings for carbohydrates by keeping your intake very low.
Proper sleep and an optimal vitamin D level are also really important to let your body heal, regain its vitality and permit your hormones to fall back to a normal balance where you’ll lose fat. Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, try to wake up without an alarm and, unless you’re exposed to sunlight every day, get 4,000 IU of vitamin D every day.
Once your diet is in order, you’re past the initial sluggishness of becoming fat adapted and your sleep is optimal, you should start to lose weight effortlessly and feel generally great. You can stay on this stricter version of the diet for as long as you need to.
As for training and exercise, short and intense weight lifting with a focus on big compound movements (squat, dead lift, pull-ups, shoulder press and bench press) as well as short and sporadic sprinting sessions are optimal for proper hormonal balance, gene expression and ultimately, weight loss. You should rest enough between training sessions to fully recover and not train when you don’t feel like it. Ultimately, it’s proper diet and lifestyle habits that will put your body in a weight loss mode, not exercise.
I hope this article helped you understand some of the main mechanisms implicated with weight gain so you can better understand why some people always struggle to lose weight and why most people following a diet ultimately fail and regain all the weight. Proper dietary and lifestyle changes that align with what our Paleolithic ancestors were used to in nature is the only sure-fire strategy for long-term health and weight control.