"I need to lose ten pounds". At some point in our lives, we've probably had that self dialog about how we need to shed a few. We do this for some specific issue, for the bikini season or any other myriad of reasons. Judging by the number of products and advertisements out there claiming to help people lose weight, I expect most people have faced this dilemma.
Calories in, calories out
The common advice which has been prescribed is the calories in, calories out model. The idea is that your body requires a set amount of calories to function on a daily basis. To lose weight, all you have to do is either reduce the amount of calories (food) coming in, or increase the amount of calories going out (exercise). If you are able to create a negative gap between what you need and what you consume, then you will lose weight. On the other hand, if you increase your consumption and reduce your expenditure, you will gain weight.
Further refinement to this model looked at the specific types of food that we consume or the types of activities to increase expenditure. The result of this is the availability of an endless number of diets. They preach different ways to eat; low carb, low fat, all protein, etc. Similarly, we have lots of different exercise plans to help us lose weight; P90X, HIIT, Orange Theory, etc. They all filter down to increasing your metabolism, more calories out and less calories in.
A new perspective
An article published last month in the Journals of the American Medical Association (JAMA), dispels this idea that the key to weight loss is to reduce the amount of calories you consume. The study finds that eating better quality whole non processed foods was more important.
The study was designed to compare how overweight and obese people would do on low-fat versus low-carb diets. Participants of the study were trained how to eat nutrient dense, minimally processed foods. The participants were also asked to meet guidelines for physical activity, but were not asked to increase their activity levels. On average, participants in both groups were able to lose substantial amount of weight - the low carb group 13 pounds and the low fat group 12 pounds. Most importantly for participants, is that they realized that they did not have to count calories.
As interesting as this study is, these ideas are not new. Research regarding the folly of the calories model has been available for a long time. In the 1940's, the Minnesota Starvation Experiments demonstrated that restricting calories can have a short term effect on weight loss, but in the longer term, it is unsustainable and weight will be gained again. The only way to keep the weight off, would be to infinitely reduce the amount of calories or infinitely increasing the amount of exercise.
So what is it then?
If calories are not the answer, then are we doomed? Not at all actually, and the answer is quite simple. I had the fortune of coming across a book, The Obesity Code, written by Dr. Jason Fung who provides a good argument of why our current model of weight loss doesn’t work. He explains that the hormonal balance in our body, particularly of insulin is the key to weight loss. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas which regulates the amount of sugar in our body. When we consume carbohydrates (sugars), our body secretes insulin in response to store the energy for usage later. If we constantly have carbs in our bloodstream, the body desensitizes itself against the effects of the insulin. Therefore, to keep everything in balance, the body has to secrete additional insulin. It is this constant presence of insulin which causes weight gain.
Now that we know all of this, what can we do to keep the weight off? Firstly, it's still important to make good dietary choices and keep active. These are important for general health and the study above demonstrates that we should focus on nutrient dense, minimally processed foods. Secondly, it emphasizes the importance of keeping insulin levels in check. This can be accomplished in different ways and popularized currently by intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets. While those are more aggressive, there are gentler ways to implement these ideas.
What to do?
To reduce the constant presence of insulin, we need to stop eating all the time. It's actually in direct contrast to the idea of eating constantly to keep the metabolism going. Eating three meals in a closer timeframe will give the body a better balance of low insulin (not eating) versus high insulin (eating) times. Reduce the amount of snacking in between meals, and of course making good choices for what you eat. Even at one meal a day, having pizza, beer and sweets still won't get you anywhere. In the end, don't worry about the actual number on the scales; eat well, stay active and understanding the mechanism of weight gain will help you get to a healthy weight.