This is a bit of a confusing topic for most people. You know, of course, that I’m not counting calories, and yet I’m losing weight by the bushel. So does that mean that calories don’t matter? Clearly not. Science! says that energy is neither created nor destroyed, and since calories are a measure of energy, they have to go somewhere. I’m going to link to Gary Taubes‘ video lecture called “Why We Get Fat” here and you can watch that to hear him explain this very well, or you can continue reading to hear me explain it poorly, but probably with more Battlestar Galactica references and profanity. That’s really why you come here anyway, isn’t it?
Gary Taubes – Why We Get Fat (The video cuts off before the end, but you’ll get the idea.)
For reference, I’m going to be referencing and paraphrasing Taubes, Naughton, Sisson, Wolf, Gedgaudas and probably a buttload of other big names in the field. All respect to these folks, of course. I just don’t remember what I heard where at this point, so footnotes aren’t going to be an option. Just know that none of this is my idea, this is just me filtering a ton of very good information.
So, here are our two paradigms. One is a very simple “Black Box” type scenario. Calories go into the box, calories come out of the box. If more go in than come out, the box gets chubby. Simple as can be, right? This is the most common paradigm in the fitness industry, and you’ll hear a lot of “Calories In, Calories Out” talk from them. Just restrict the calories going into the system, keep the calories going out of the system the same, and the black box gets all svelte and sexy. Alternately, you can keep the calories in the same and increase your calories out. Basically, you want a caloric deficit, and you can achieve this by altering input or output without changing the other. Your conscious mind is making the choices about how much to eat and how much to work.
The other paradigm says that calories definitely count, but that hormones are the door men, and they control how much goes in and how much comes out. Under this paradigm, just increasing your calories burned may not be enough to effect significant fat loss, if your hormones aren’t in line. Because hormones are in charge, if they see a lot of people leaving the club, they may just usher a lot more in the door to keep the dancefloor jumpin’ (you can tell precisely how many dance clubs I’ve been to). If the door guys are letting fewer people in, they may also try to make it harder for people to leave, so the party doesn’t get too…unpopulated. I am miserable at this.
Maybe I should switch to a sci-fi convention analogy instead so I don’t feel like I’m so far out of my element.
Anyway, you get the picture. One of them basically puts your conscious mind in full control of how many calories go into and come out of the system, the other suggests that maybe your pesky body has some say in the matter. Based on the first paradigm, if you’re fat it’s because you’re weak. Too weak to go work out or too weak to resist that delicious pie.
Here’s the problem. The first paradigm is easily disproven, or at least shaken significantly. I’m pretty much stealing directly from Taubes here: In many third world countries, and in poor populations everywhere, mothers are obese and children are undernourished. The “Calories In/Calories Out” paradigm suggests that these mothers are consciously, willfully eating extra food they could be giving to their starving children. Anyone who knows a mom knows that this is violently opposed to how moms work (If you know a mom who would literally starve her children so she could eat an extra Snickers bar, rest assured that she is the exception. Most moms aren’t assholes to their kids.).
So what’s really going on here? It’s the hormones! Hormones make you feel hungry or full, they make you feel energetic or lethargic, they tell your body to store or release body fat, they tell your body when to do damn near everything. This is where the convention staff analogy comes back. In this analogy, the “bouncers” are being played by the 501st Legion, Vader’s Fist.
We’re assuming that we have a science fiction convention running, and there’s one main hall where all the tables are, with some stages set up for the panels and all that jazz. I’m going to paraphrase Taubes here again (because he’s dreamy and so right about so many things). If the hall starts to get crowded, and you ask “Why is it so crowded in here?” The dork who thinks he’s much more clever than he really is says “Because more people have entered than have left.” Yes, jackass. I know, and I’m sure your Realdoll girlfriend thinks you’re hilarious. But why? There has to be an actual reason for an increased number of people in the convention hall, right? Is #6 doing a sexy pole dance around Peter Mayhew? Is Dolph Lundgren eating a xenomorph? Something is drawing people in and keeping them here. The helpful dork reiterates, while looking at you like you’re an idiot, “A larger number of people have come into the convention hall than have left the convention hall. It has to be more crowded. People don’t just come into the hall and then apparate out or something. *Snort* You can’t apparate inside Hogwarts.” This dude, while technically correct (about the situation and about not being able to apparate inside Hogwarts), is not being helpful. That’s exactly how helpful your favorite TV diet guru is being when they tell you to just eat less than you burn. Yes, technically they’re correct. But they’re missing the whole point.
Now, add in the 501st legion as door security. Let’s say the troopers at the entrance door start telling people outside that there’s a panel about to start where George Lucas commits seppuku with a 12″ Jar-Jar Binks figurine. That’s going to get some people in that door. And let’s say that the troopers at the exit door decide to bump up security at the same time, so now they’re going through bags to check for contraband (tribbles) before people are allowed to leave. This is your Why. The hall is crowded because the guys at the door are trying to get more people in and then are keeping them from leaving. Yes, more people are coming in than are leaving. But that’s not why it’s getting crowded, that’s more how. And knowing the how isn’t very helpful for figuring out how to get the hall cleared out unless you know the why. So if you want to clear the hall, you have the guys at the entrance start telling people that it turns out they were wrong, and it’s actually going to be George Lucas doing a sexy striptease around Jar-Jar Binks, and the people heading into that hall should slow to a trickle (I’m not willing to test this theory). Then you tell the guys at the exit to worry less about tribbles and more about fire hazards and to open up those doors and let people move on out as they please. Maybe even entice them to leave with some kind of gift bag that involves sentient jelly or whatever. Geeks be easy to entice. So now, you’ve got a trickle coming in and a stream heading out and the hall starts getting a lot less crowded. Knowing the reason why it got crowded allowed you to formulate a plan to get it emptied out. You can do the same thing with your diet.
There have been studies (I’m thinking specifically of the ones referenced in Naughton and Taubes’ work) that show that insulin is the big mack daddy of these hormones. Between insulin and leptin, you can pretty well screw yourself over, or set the stage for easy weight loss. Let’s talk about insulin. There have been studies done where researchers inject mice with insulin and let them eat all they want. The mice get obese. “Jabba the Mouse” kind of obese. Then the researchers stop feeding the mice, but continue to give them the insulin injections. The mice literally starve to death without mobilizing their body fat. The insulin is so powerful, that they will break down their muscles and organs for fuel before they can feed off stored body fat in the face of insulin. Yeah. Are those mice just too lazy to get on the treadmill? They’re not eating anything at all, which means they’re not taking in more calories than they’re burning. This same thing happens to people who are insulin resistant and keep eating their high-carb/low-fat weight loss diet. You put yourself on a big blood sugar roller coaster that ends up with you feeling lethargic, hungry and fat. You have to keep stuffing your face with carbs to avoid a blood sugar crash, which is why you’re trying to eat six meals a day. Seriously, who has time for that nonsense? All the carbs spike your insulin over and over again, which causes tons of other problems in the body. Not least of which is the fact that you’re not mobilizing your stored body fat when you’re doing this whole thing. It’s bad.
You could be working out, right? Sure. But when you reduce your caloric intake too far below maintenance, your body gets busy trying to conserve energy and makes you feel more lethargic, so it’s tougher to get to the gym. Working out then bumps up other hormones that make you hungry so you’ll replace those calories you just burned. You remember when you used to “work up an appetite” when you were a kid? You’re still doing that. Many studies have shown that people who exercise will increase caloric intake and pretty much wipe out any caloric deficit. So unless you’re weighing and measuring your food and are plenty fine being hungry all the time, that won’t work. Oh and if you’re too hungry for too long, your body sees it as a stress and releases cortisol, which then releases stored liver glycogen (the blood sugar bump causes an insulin release) and starts you on the path to catabolizing your muscle. Awesome!
Sounds like you can’t win, doesn’t it? But you can win. You just have to work with these processes instead of working against them. Eat lots of veggies, protein and fat at your meals. The veggies get you your micronutrients, and the protein and fat fill you up faster and keep you full longer so you’ll eat fewer calories overall. Most people get about 25% of their total daily calories from snacking between meals. That makes it tough to get to your deficit. Remember, you still do need to get more people to leave the convention than come in, you’re just getting your troopers to start hollering helpful things to make it easier on yourself. You’re not spiking your blood sugar, which means your body finally gets a break from all the insulin and can get to work on improving sensitivity again. If you want to go work out, that’s fine. That also helps improve insulin sensitivity. You’ll probably feel more energetic than you have in years, so it’s a great time to get started. If you don’t like the idea of a super-low carb diet, eat your carbs after your workout. You put a dent in your glycogen stores with a short, intense workout, then you eat a few carbs to replenish. You’ll want to eat plenty of protein at the same time, which should help fill you up so you don’t go too crazy eating post-workout carbs. You’ll feel full all the time, you’ll probably start sleeping better, and you’ll be losing weight. How awesome is that? And you’re not weighing food and counting calories. You’re just eating until you’re full and you’re using your body’s systems to help you instead of fighting them.
So there you go. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing, and it works like gangbusters. Everyone I know who has actually given this sort of diet a chance, it has worked well for them. They lose fat faster than they ever thought possible, and they feel great doing it. It’s almost like it’s a natural way to go about eating and maintaining a healthy weight. Crazy, right? Thanks for reading, and please feel free to ask questions. I’m happy to share what I know or at least point you in the right direction.