By Jesse Jost
I’ve struggled most of my life with being overweight. So the subject of diet and weight loss is fascinating to me. Lately I’ve been on a research binge, devouring several books on the topic as well as running a two week experiment on myself by wearing a blood glucose monitor to see how different foods affected my blood sugar levels.
After processing all this information, I wanted to write up some basic conclusions that I have gleaned.
Weight gain is at root a basic issue of calories in exceeding calories out. Everyone knows this, right? Except for the fact that while that is true at a physics level, there are so many more additional psychological and biological factors that complicate the equation. Simple ideas about calories in and calories out are very unhelpful.
Take the calories in portion of the equation. Some calories are far more satiating than others. 100 calories of broccoli will fill your stomach far more than 100 calories of Reese’s Cups.
There are calories that will incite a raging fire of cravings and desires that cause you to overeat.
And there are calories that will leave you feeling satisfied.
There are calories that will trigger fat storing hormones, and there are calories that will boost your metabolism.
Now let’s look at the calories out. It’s easy to think that our bodies are a basic machine right off a Ford assembly line that come with preset daily caloric needs.
We think that some bodies need 3,000 calories to maintain weight, and other bodies need 2,000.
With this understanding, it seems like weight loss should be an equation of eating less and moving more.
Some weight loss books tell us that if we can just cut back 100 calories a day, that will translate to 10 pounds lost in one year. Conversely, adding 100 calories a day (1 banana or a slice of bread) will lead to 10 pounds gained.
What this completely misses is that our bodies have powerful regulating systems.
For instance, our body temperature will stay in a narrow range because, when we are in the cold, it will raise our temperature and when we are in the heat, it has cooling systems.
In the same way, our bodies have developed a set point of weight. While many of the factors contributing to this are still unknown, our bodies seemingly do have a set point of weight.
The body will struggle valiantly to resist a change to the set point in weight gain or weight loss.
There have been people who have eaten up to 9,000 calories a day in an attempt to gain weight, and they do. But only temporarily. After their challenge is done, their body goes back to the set point weight.
Conversely when people try to lose weight, their body fights them tooth and nail, and roughly 95% of weight loss is regained within 1-2 years.
How does the body regulate this?
One way is basal metabolism. This is our system that regulates our breathing, heart rate, digestion, and all other subconscious mechanisms.
Our metabolism can increase or decrease by as much as 40%! That means if your basal metabolism required 2,000 calories a day, and you start eating 1,500, your metabolism can easily drop down to 1,500 calories to keep you from losing weight.
Of course, you can then starve yourself with 1,000 calories a day, but your body will fight you tooth and nail, and when your will power is depleted, you’ll go back to your old eating habits. Your reduced basal metabolism will make it way too easy for you to have a calorie surplus and all your old weight and more will come back.
Conversely, if you try to lose weight by exercising, you can burn an extra 120 calories by running a mile, but your body can compensate by making you just a little more lethargic the rest of the day, or drive you to have a Reese’s cup, and boom, your body has been regulated – no weight loss.
I have been fighting this set point for the last 13 years. For most of that time my weight has hardly fluctuated more than + or – 5 pounds. So is long term weight loss possible?
I’ve been on a quest to find out. I think it is, but the truth is far more complicated than calories in vs calories out. And simple beliefs about calories are sabotaging many people’s weight loss efforts.
I’ve gained a new understanding about how our bodies gain or lose weight, and I want to look at three areas that are critical to understand if you want to lose the weight and keep it off: hormones, satiety, and psychological issues.
For the next couple paragraphs, please ignore that I have no degree in endocrinology. Nonetheless, hormones fascinate me. It is crazy how much they determine about our life. Our hormones regulate our height, blood sugar levels, energy levels, and stress levels, and so much more.
Hormones are a huge player in our total weight, including muscle gain and fat loss. For proof of how hormones cause weight gain, you need look no further than how a young mom can gain 45 pounds during a pregnancy, while eating the same foods in the same environment. And also lose it all within months after giving birth.
Hormone levels affect our appetite with leptin signalling satiety, and ghrelin signalling hunger.
People unable to make leptin put on massive amounts of weight. But others who have high levels of leptin in their blood have a brain that is leptin resistant, meaning they don’t get the satiety signal.
Some foods seemingly cause inflammation that make us leptin resistant, meaning we don’t absorb enough of the leptin signal to be able to stop craving food.
Also our fat sends out leptin signals, so when we lose fat, we send out less leptin. Less leptin, less satiety, more eating, more weight gain.
But the biggest hormone affecting our weight is insulin. Insulin is the hormone that unlocks our cells and opens them up to store the extra sugar in our blood in our cells as fat.
Insulin is a fat storage hormone.
The more insulin type 2 diabetics inject in their body, the more fat they will gain.
When the body stops producing insulin, as is the case with type 1 diabetics, the first sign is fat loss.
The more insulin your body has to produce to keep your blood sugar levels in range, the more fat you will gain.
Also as your cells, especially in your liver, become over full with stored fat, you will develop insulin resistance, meaning it will take even more insulin to lower your blood sugar. More insulin, more fat storage.
High insulin levels prevent the body from burning its fat stores as energy. When insulin levels are high, your body will only burn the available sugar from your blood or your liver. It’s not until insulin levels drop that your body able to access your stored fat as energy.
Any effective long term weight loss must deal with insulin levels.
Here is where calories differ: 100 calories of Cola will cause a major insulin spike to deal with your blood sugar spike as the body rushes to store the extra sugar as fat. It does this by converting it in your liver. (Fructose, half of what makes up table sugar, can only be processed in the liver, leading to fatty liver disease.)
If our blood sugar spikes too fast, our body will often release too much insulin, leading to a reactive low blood sugar. This can cause cravings for more sugar.
Refined carbs like white flour and cold cereal will also cause a major insulin release.
Foods that cause a high insulin release will cause you to gain weight.
Now wait, you ask: what about the young skinny guys who drink liters of Coke, and eat cakes and cinnamon rolls, and don’t gain weight?
The key is that their metabolism is burning off the sugars and the rest of their body is still very insulin sensitive, so that even though they are eating high carb, their bodies are not needing to produce high amounts of insulin.
But that doesn’t change the basic insulin problem. Sugar, and refined grains, pasta, cakes, muffins, and cold cereals, all cause major insulin releases and can eventually lead to weight gain.
When the cells become saturated with fat they become insulin resistant and the risk of type 2 diabetes increases.
If you want to lose weight, you have to lower your insulin levels. This means cutting back on sugar and pastries, and refined grains, and rice and bread and potatoes.
It’s so tempting when you are trying to cut calories, and you see how low calorie bread and cold cereal are compared to cheese and bacon, to turn to the carbs.
But the cereals will spike your insulin, making it harder for your body to burn its own fat and you will be starving again in a short while. If you have another “low calorie” but high carb snack that causes another insulin release, your insulin levels stay high. Because your body cant’ access it’s fat for energy, it goes into “starvation mode” and starts eating muscle and slowing the metabolism.
Butter, cream, and bacon on the other hand are fats that are high in calorie, but cause a very minimal insulin release.
Because insulin levels are low after eating your eggs and bacon, you will remain satisfied as your body more quickly starts burning your fat stores. When your body has free access to burn body fat, there is no reason for the body to go into starvation mode. The body will keep the metabolism high, and will burn fat not muscle.
Two final factors that raise insulin often derail people who try to eat keto/very low carb: protein and artificial sweeteners.
Because neither of these raise blood sugar, dieters often feel like these are free foods.
But protein can cause an insulin release to rival sugar. And artificial sweeteners, even stevia, because of their sweet taste, will cause an insulin release in the body because sweet normally means carbs.
The sad truth about humanity is that we have limited stores of will power. We can only fight our body’s hunger signals and food cravings for so long.
Some foods will increase cravings and cause hunger to return far sooner than other foods will.
Here is another key factor: Calorie density. We talked about the different insulin effects a calorie of carb will have on your body vs a calorie of fat.
But there is a huge difference in how a calorie of broccoli (a carb) hits your body than will a calorie of bagel (also a carb) or a calorie of cantaloupe (again a carb).
Making weight loss all about carbs vs. fat misses out on the critical carb factor of calorie density.
Whole food carbs, the way God made them, such as fruits and vegetables, are tightly bound up in water and fiber.
These extra non-caloric ingredients change the equation through how they satisfy us, and how much insulin our body has to release for them.
The fiber in whole foods slows the release of the carbs and sugars into our blood stream, and therefore reduces how much insulin our bodies release.
The fiber also plays a vital role in carrying nutrients to our lower intestines and keeping us regular and feeding our healthy gut biome.
When fiber hits our colon, it actually causes an appetite supressing hormone to be released.
The fiber and water content of whole fruits and vegetables means our stomachs fill up far sooner, with far fewer calories consumed than with highly processed foods.
2000 calories of broccoli would fill our stomachs 16 times, compared with 2000 calories of cake or cookies which could be 1-2 stomach fulls.
The more you can fill your stomach with vegetables, and fruits, the less room there will be for insulin spiking breads and pastas.
You can eat more actual pounds of food and lose weight or eat less and gain weight all depending on your satiety levels and the hormonal response your food triggers.
The more fiber and water content of your food, the more satisfied you will be per calorie and will help you lose weight without a painful sense of deprivation.
You can see there are powerful biological factors that cause weight gain or prevent weight loss.
These biological factors drive hunger and fullness, but we also must deal with psychological factors that drive us to eat.
Sometimes we eat because we are bored or stressed. Or we eat to soothe or distract from our emotional pain.
It’s sad, but the foods we turn to for emotional reasons are the foods that cause the biggest insulin spike, and are so calorie dense we can consume tons of excess calories in a short time.
Ice cream, fudge, brownies, and rice and pasta, and potato chips are examples of foods that are calorie packed and insulin spiking.
Too bad we don’t find broccoli and carrots more comforting.
We also have sabotaging thoughts and mindsets that cause us to gain weight.
One of the worst is the “what-the-heck” effect or the lost cause effect.
Irrationally, we feel that if we cheat on our diet, or fail to stick to our eating guidelines, we feel the day is a lost cause. “No point in sticking to our diet for the rest of the day so we might as well binge. Go big or go home. We can always start again tomorrow.”
Or I found that I had a terrible all or nothing habit. I was either in diet mode, where I was really careful with what I ate, or I wasn’t dieting and I binged far beyond what I physically needed.
I also realized that I had subconscious eating scripts that were sabotaging me. I always binged with certain meals.
Losing weight will require watching what we think as well as what we eat.
So after months of research, what are my conclusions?
The challenge for long term weight loss is how to stay in calorie deficit.
This process is sabotaged by hormonal responses to certain foods. When insulin levels are high and the body can’t access stored fat, the body responds by slowing the metabolism and lowering the “calorie out” part of the equation.
The process of calorie deficit is also derailed by satiety levels and psychological factors. If a diet makes you feel hangry and deprived, no one has enough will power to keep it up. Everyone will snap at some point and go back to old eating habits. Thus increasing the “Calories In.”
So the million dollar questions are how to stay in calorie deficit without our hormones and metabolism sabotaging the calorie out equation?
And how to keep satiety and cravings and habits from sabotaging the calories in part of the equation?
The answer is going to be slightly different for every person. But for me here’s what I’m aiming for:
Eat whole fruits and vegetables every chance I get. Don’t focus on what I can’t have but get creative with what I can.
I add mushrooms to our ground meat, I have fruit instead of flour desserts. I have spaghetti squash instead of pasta. I have cucumbers or celery instead of crackers. I try to cut out as much sugar and processed foods as possible.
Because all foods cause some insulin release. I also try to fast from 6 or 7PM to 12 PM the next day. This ensures that I have 17 or 18 hours of low insulin levels and my body can have periods of burning stored fat, abdominal fat especially.
Because while fasting, insulin levels are low, my body has full access to my stored fat. I really don’t struggle with hunger during the fast, and I don’t feel deprived.
I also love that this is an easy way to reduce calories without the body entering starvation mode or cannibalizing muscle. In fact a fast that long releases Human Growth Hormone which helps build muscle.
Lately I have also been being more careful with my fat intake.
I believe that saturated fats are healthy for our bodies in moderation, but they are also very calorie dense.
Cheese here, whipping cream here and it’s easy to add a 1000 calories which could sabotage my weight loss efforts and put me into caloric surplus.
I’ve also been cutting back on artificial sweeteners. Even though things like stevia or Splenda are calorie free, the sweet taste causes our bodies to release insulin, making us more hungry and making it harder to access our fat stores.
I’m trying to be far more mindful of what I put in my mouth. I’m also watching for the “halo” effect. This is where we convince ourselves it’s okay to binge on this food because it’s healthier. So I try to no longer have a third plate of pasta because “it’s resistant starch.”
Mainly I focus on putting my efforts in to eating more of the foods that are helpful, and if I succeed there, it’s not near as much of a struggle to say no to the foods that are unhelpful.
Here are my final keys. (Modified from The Obesity Code by Jason Fung)
- Cut out sugar!
- Greatly reduce starchy carbs like white rice, bread, and potatoes.
- Increase my fiber intake by eating more whole foods. Aim for foods that aren’t calorie dense.
- Moderate protein and fat intake.
- Add vinegar by drinking it, or adding it to the meal as it has been shown to reduce insulin levels.
- Fast 16-20 hours regularly.
There is evidence that we can change our set point for weight as long as we watch our insulin levels, and eat foods that are low calorie but physiologically satisfy and trigger our satiety hormones.
Small changes are the most effective. Months ago, rather than adopting I’m on a diet/I’m not on a diet mindset, I decided to look for mini health upgrades.
I may eat half of what I did before, eat more slowly, chew more times, drink more water, eat more vegetables and less grains.
This regular mini health upgrade habit is a fun challenge, and leaves me feeling in control. I don’t feel deprived or like I’m stuck in an unfair diet.
I’m finally seeing some results. I’m down 8 pounds this year, and more importantly I’m building muscle and losing inches of belly fat. Not that you will notice, but Heidi does and that’s what matters…
Most importantly, I don’t feel deprived at all. I eat till I’m full at all my meals, and feel very free from cravings. I don’t focus on eating Keto or cutting out all carbs, I just aim to eat as many vegetables as I can and aren’t calorie dense. I still eat small amounts of pasta, bread, and rice, but I aim for a different balance.
I eat more fruit even though it causes more of an insulin release than vegetables. In the real world the comparison is not between fruits and veggies, but fruits and cakes and pastries. I have found that small amounts of fruit really satisfies my sweet tooth, and makes it far easier to avoid cakes and muffins and bagels.
We’ll see how this all affects my body long term, and I hope to report successful weight loss.
But it’s a complicated field full of contradictory information. The issues are made even more complex because of our individual genetic and biological differences.
So if these don’t work, I’ll be back to the drawing board!