food for thought

About a year ago, I decided to drastically modify my diet. At the time, I was about thirty pounds (13.6 kg) overweight. While probably “average” by American standards, it made sense to take action, as it seemed like I was gaining an additional pound every month or so.

Fast forward to today: I’m approximately thirty pounds lighter. The bulk of that weight was lost in a few months and never re-gained. For what it’s worth, my BMI is now normal, rather than overweight. I can now wear a T-shirt in public without feeling self-conscious (convenient in the summer).

So what is this multi-billion dollar secret to long term weight loss? The not-at-all-a-secret way to lose weight isn’t to eat less food, but to eat low-glycemic food. If this sounds very Robert Atkins-ish then you’re on the right track. The Atkins diet became famous and slightly infamous. At the time, I was skeptical as well. The medical community and many-a-misinformed-journalist were in arms about imaginary kidney and heart damage. But then people discovered that low-carb diets actually work. I don’t remember any apology to the previous condemnation from the medical community, though I wouldn’t expect one either. The point is, on the low carb diet, people lose weight, so long as they stick to the diet. In contrast, if you want to gain weight, then by all means, eat comfort food.

The rationale for all this isn’t hard to understand. Fat, protein, and carbohydrates are different, and our endocrine (hormone) system responds differently to these different sources of energy. So the idea that a calorie from fat is the exact same as a calorie from carbohydrate is flawed. Our bodies respond differently to fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and we can use this knowledge to our advantage.

(A moment ago, I stated that I was on a low-glycemic diet rather than a low-carb diet. This was on purpose, though the distinction between the two is semantic. In fact, it would be correct to say I’m on both a low-carb and a low-glycemic diet, though for reasons aren’t particularly relevant, I prefer to say that I’m on the latter rather than the former.)

The glycemic index approximates how your blood sugar (glucose) levels will be affected by a particular food. Unless you want to gain weight and/or develop type II diabetes (insulin resistance), then your goal should be to consume low glycemic foods. Processed foods with refined flour, starches like corn and potatoes, and anything with sugar in it increases the glycemic index of whatever you’re eating. Consumption of such foods prompts your body to produce insulin. Insulin will cause glucose and triglycerides that happen to be floating around in your bloodstream to be stored on a more permanent basis–you know, in your thighs or abdomen (I’m ludicrously over-simplifying this process, of course). Hence, high-glycemic foods are more than empty calories. They’re food sources that guarantee weight gain.

Insulin isn’t all bad. If you are an avid weight lifter, a carb load immediately before (or during) a workout might be a great idea. In addition, elevated carbohydrate intake might be acceptable to assure that amino acids and glycogen are transported to muscle tissue. Even then, you’re probably getting more carbohydrates than you need, giving a workout to your pancreatic cells (that secrete insulin) and your liver (that break down sugars with a fructose component; this includes sucrose).

And so, if this diet works so well, why are American adults so fat? Allow me to grossly oversimplify by proposing the following.

Stress

Let’s face it. People don’t eat a steak or a salad when they’re stressed. They eat comfort food. Whether it is because it is “easier” to eat comfort food or because we explicitly crave carbohydrates and sweets when we are stressed is uncertain, though I suspect both are factors. The bottom line is that people don’t have the discipline to stay on low carb diets when they get stressed. If they did, they wouldn’t be overweight.

Less Activity

A lot of us work in jobs that involve a lot of sitting, typing, thinking, emailing, and occasionally doing fifteen minutes of actual work. Note that I did not say “lack of exercise.” There are plenty of people who exercise who are still overweight. That’s because, unless you run a marathon every week, you have zero hope of actually working off the thousands of extra calories you take in. Our bodies are just way too good at energy preservation and our western diets are just too god-awful. Cognitively demanding jobs also necessitate glucose. Although your body can create glucose from non-carbohydrate sources, it’s easier to reach for a soda, is it not?

The problem isn’t so much lack of exercise as it is less activity. Sit in a chair all day at work and you’re bound to snack. Sit at home on the couch and eating will be forthcoming. Bored? Go out to eat. Staying active gives you something to do, other than eating. The benefit isn’t that staying active burns more calories (sitting and doing mentally intense work also burns calories), the benefit is that you’ll likely eat less, esp of the food that encourages weight gain.

Western Diet

The most important factor as to why most Americans are fat (despite dietary regimes that work) is simply our habits, most convenient food sources, and lack of education. We all eat “low fat” food, oblivious to the fact that low fat=high carb, and that high glycemic carbs (sugar) in particular stimulate weight gain more than dietary fat. We drink a tall glass of 100% natural, no-sugar-added fruit drink; of course, fruit itself is loaded with sugar (fructose), which is broken down in the liver and converted to blood sugar, stored in our fat cells, etc. The less-unhealthy option of just eating fruit (much more to be said on this subject later) is too inconvenient, so we drink fruit juice. And we get fat, since fruit juice is as healthy as, well, fruit-flavored sugar water.

Speaking from personal experience, my weight loss success is contingent on discipline. Not willpower, but discipline. Diets that depend on willpower will always fail. They’re too hard to sustain. But discipline is a different story. All of my meals, from breakfast to dinner, are low glycemic. Non-starch vegetables (carbohydrates), and then a lot of meats and non-carb sauces (I’ve always been a carnivore anyway). So my entree will be chicken, steak, bison, pork, or whatever I feel like. I can eat as much as I want. Sauce? Sure, as long as it’s low carb (and most sauces are not low carb; read the label or just make your own). I also moderate salt/sodium intake, simply to avoid raising blood pressure.

There you have it. Lose weight by drastically cutting your carbohydrates, esp of the sugary kind. People will wonder why the “thin guy” is having the taco salad at the restaurant rather than the burritos (which are carb heavy), but no matter. The big fat joke will be on them.

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