Archive for the “Real Food” Category
Hey Fat Heads,
Happy New Year!
Thought I’d sneak into the Big Chair for a couple of quick items.
The big news is that the Fat Head Kids book is getting close enough that Tom sent a script to The Middle Son and The Youngest Son so they can start prepping to help with voice work for the DVD version. He included a preview copy of the book so they can relate to what they’ll be voice acting.
Naturally, I had to sneak a peek and I can say that it’s more than worth the wait. Just terrific.
In my completely unbiased opinion, of course.
Next, this isn’t in the breaking news category, but I thought my fellow Fat Heads might enjoy it. We’ve got a good-natured banter going with The Youngest Son’s fiancée about what grandson 2 will be eating as he starts the move from formula to people food. (This guy:)
I keep saying he’s going to be eating only eggs, chicken livers and steak (with some lard and bacon fat) before he’s one; future DIL threatens to feed him tofu.
Anyway, after being impressed with Jason Fung’s Obesity Code and his follow up book (with Jimmy Moore) The Complete Guide to Fasting, I got interested in fasting, especially after my annual Thanksgiving through New Year’s gluttony. I’ve done a couple of 24-hour fasts, a 36-hour last week, and am 36 hours into a two-day (maybe 60 hours) fast right now.
So last night, I was putting a coffee mug in the microwave, prompting the following:
DIL: What’s that – are you having some tea?
Older Brother: No, I’m having a cup of beef broth.
Youngest Son (to DIL): See that? – even Dad’s water has meat in it!
The Older Brother
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Well, it was certainly fun to point out all the processed carbage sporting health claims like 100% WHOLE GRAINS on the package. But now let’s turn to the flipside: more evidence that people are ignoring the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! and healthywholegrains! nonsense promoted by The Anointed at the USDA, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, etc.
First, let’s take a trip to the grocery store … not a Whole Foods, but a local Kroger. As I’ve mentioned before, Kroger introduced a line of minimally processed foods under the brand name Simple Truth. Here’s what Fortune magazine had to say about the brand’s success:
Shoppers are still shopping, but they’re often turning to brands they believe can give them less of the ingredients they don’t want—and for the first time, they can find them in their local Safeway, Wegmans, or Wal-Mart. Kroger’s Simple Truth line of natural food grew to an astonishing $1.2 billion in annual sales in just two years.
Our local Kroger also proudly displays big posters telling us where they get their produce:
I’ve mentioned the Boulder Canyon line of chips, which contains just three ingredients: potatoes, sea salt, and a natural oil:
A reader emailed some pictures of other foods he found at his local grocery store. I went and found the same foods at Kroger:
Who the heck would have bought riced or mashed cauliflower 20 years ago? Now Kroger is obviously catering to people who want convenience, but also want to reduce their starch intake.
I also found several flavors of stevia-sweetened soft drinks at Kroger:
The folks who make Zevia sodas don’t use any artificial ingredients, so those colas are clear as water. I guess the color of Coca-Cola isn’t natural.
So the food choices I’m seeing at grocery stores are evidence enough that the times, they are a-changing. But a couple of recent media articles also drive home the point. Here are some quotes from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled Fats find favor on U.S. tables again:
In recent years, many prominent scientists, journalists and diet gurus have been sounding the alarm that our decades-long obsession with choosing carbs over fat is only making America more unhealthy, and that the government has overplayed the role of dietary fat in heart disease and obesity, among other chronic illnesses. Like almost everything in nutrition science, the issues are far from settled, but the new ideas about fat are taking root in grocery shopping.
Petaluma dairy producer Clover Stornetta Farms saw that trend play out in sales of organic full-fat milk, yogurt and other dairy products, which saw double-digit increases in 2015 and 2016. Because organic products are typically bought by more health-conscious shoppers, the attraction to these products is probably due to the fact that they are less processed, director of marketing Kristel Corson says.
Yeah, maybe. But I think it’s also because health-conscious shoppers have gotten the message that arterycloggingsaturatedfat! and other pearls of dietary wisdom from The Anointed in government are nonsense. To underscore that point, here are some quotes from a Mintel.com article on consumer attitudes about food quality and health:
Today’s health-conscious consumers are staying away from products containing high-fructose corn syrup (50 percent), sugar (47 percent), trans fat (45 percent) and saturated fat (43 percent). What’s more, over one quarter (28 percent) believe a food is unhealthy if it has artificial ingredients, with consumers actively avoiding products with elements described as “artificial,” such as artificial sweeteners (43 percent), artificial preservatives (38 percent) and artificial flavors (35 percent).
Okay, you probably noticed the bad news within the good news: 43 percent of health-conscious consumers still believe saturated fat is bad for them. But that’s less than half. I’d bet dollars to donuts (and you can keep the donuts) that 30 years ago, closer to 90 percent of health-conscious consumers would say they avoid saturated fats.
And now for the really good news. As I’ve been saying ever since Fat Head was released, my goal isn’t to convince the USDA to change its advice. My goal is to convince people to stop listening to them. So check out this quote:
What’s more, a mere one quarter (23 percent) of consumers agree that the US Dietary Guidelines are good for them.
I’m not religious, but that quote makes me want to jump up and down and shout HALLELUJHA!!
We’re winning. Better yet, The Anointed are losing.
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Chareva’s parents, Alan and Nancy Smiley, sold their Chicago-area home last month and have moved in with us temporarily, along with her brother and sister-in-law. They’re looking around Franklin now for a new home. For those of you who asked in comments, yes, Alan is the one who built a train line around his property some years ago. That’s one of the things I always liked about the man: his go-go-go, get-things-done drive. That drive is the reason he was able to buy a luxury home in the same neighborhood as mobsters and movie directors at an age when most young husbands are saving for a starter home.
Unfortunately, Alan had a significant stroke in April. As a result, he can no longer move his left arm. He can walk, but has to shuffle along with a cane because he can barely lift his left leg. He’s been plagued by insomnia since the stroke and has occasional hand tremors. The doctors who treated him in Chicago said he might have Parkinson’s.
I’d hate to see this happen to anyone. I especially hate to see it happen to the bundle-of-energy guy who barely left the dance floor at our wedding reception and exhausted several dance partners who were considerably younger. Some people are happy to retire to an easy chair. Alan would have preferred to retire to a workshop and a string of projects that require expertise with tools.
Alan’s cousin, a neurologist with more than 30 years in the field, offered to drive down from Kentucky last weekend for a visit and a consultation. I was upstairs working on a programming project when Chareva’s mom told me the conversation was turning to nutrition, and Alan thought I might want to listen in. Nutrition? Well, of course I wanted to listen in.
On my way downstairs, I hoped I wasn’t going to hear the standard-issue advice about avoiding fat and eating those hearthealthywholegrains. I promised I’d bite my tongue if need be. After all, Dr. Mike Mayron, the neurologist, made the trip from Kentucky out of the goodness of his heart.
Imagine my relief when Dr. Mayron began by telling Alan that sugars and grains are bad for the brain. We weren’t programmed by evolution to deal with the high levels of glucose those foods produce, he said. We’re programmed to thrive on a diet in which fat is our primary fuel. The best diet to help heal your brain and give it the fuel it needs is a ketogenic diet.
Dr. Mayron explained that he prescribes a ketogenic diet as part of the therapy for a number of brain conditions, then added, “There’s a book I want you to read. I recommend it to all the patients I put on a ketogenic diet, because it was written by a layman and it’s easy to understand. It’s called—“
Holy @#$%, I bet he’s about to say “Keto Clarity.”
“—Keto Clarity, by Jimmy Moore.”
“I’ve got a copy upstairs, Doctor.”
“Actually, Jimmy and I good friends.”
“You’re friends with Jimmy Moore? Seriously?”
“Yeah, in fact he and his wife will be visiting us for Thanksgiving. They were here last Thanksgiving too.”
“Wow. Well, be sure tell him I said thank-you for writing a book that’s helped a lot of people.”
“I will. Actually, hang on, I have a better idea. You can tell him.”
I went and grabbed my iPhone, dialing up Jimmy on FaceTime as I returned to the room. When Jimmy’s face appeared onscreen, I told him I was with a neurologist who wanted to thank him for his work. I handed the phone to Dr. Mayron, and the two of them had a nice chat.
Jimmy then mentioned that he was in Australia to give a speech, and it was 1:00 AM. He should probably try to go back to sleep. Oops. Sorry, Jimmy. It’s a credit to your character that you answered the call cheerfully instead of denigrating my manhood and/or place in the food chain.
After the call with Jimmy, Dr. Mayron continued explaining the many reasons Alan should be on a ketogenic diet, both as a stroke survivor and a type II diabetic. He explained that it normally takes a few weeks to make the adjustment, but there are drink mixes available now that help boost ketones right away. One of them, this one, was originally developed for Navy Seals. Apparently the military figured out Seals have more endurance and focus during long missions if they’re in ketosis.
I was, of course, delighted that Alan was hearing all this from a neurologist. I want him to control his diabetes and be as healthy as he can for as long as he can. After all, he just moved to the same town as the daughter and granddaughters who love him. We’d all like for him to stick around for awhile.
But I was also delighted to see another example of how more and more doctors are catching on. I didn’t know Dr. Mayron before this weekend. He didn’t know I produced a movie called Fat Head. In fact, as he was assuring Alan that a ketogenic diet doesn’t have to be boring, he said he makes a low-carb pizza crust that taste just like real pizza crust. As he described the ingredients, I asked, “When you found that recipe online, was it by any chance called Fat Head Pizza?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, I’m pretty sure it was.”
“I’m Fat Head.”
I tried not to sound like Michael Keaton saying “I’m Batman.” I also felt obligated to explain that people call it Fat Head Pizza even though all I did was post a recipe my nephew found elsewhere online.
Anyway, my point (and I do have one) is that once again, I saw the Wisdom of Crowds effect at work. I can guarantee you that when Dr. Mayron was in medical school, he wasn’t taught about ketogenic diets as a therapy for brain issues. But thanks to the internet and the astounding ability we all have to acquire and share information, he’s quite familiar with the benefits of a ketogenic diet now. (He lost a lot of weight after going ketogenic himself.) The information gatekeepers don’t control the gates anymore, because the gates are gone. The overlords at the USDA have lost their grip on the conversation about diet and health.
Now when a neurologist wants to educate patients about a good-for-the-brain diet, he recommends a book by a blogger named Jimmy Moore.
And I believe there’s a good chance you’ll hear from Dr. Mayron on a future episode of Jimmy’s podcast show. Let’s keep that Wisdom of Crowds effect growing.
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Yes, it’s possible to have real foods delivered to your door. I love it that we live on a mini-farm and grow much of what we eat these days, but hey, it’s nice to know there are products you can have delivered that are made with real-food ingredients. I’ve received some nice samples over the past several weeks and thought I’d give a shout-out to the people and companies making the good stuff. (I don’t receive commissions or anything, but the samples were sent to me at no charge.)
We’ll start with Mark Sisson’s company because WOW, that was a big box full of goodies we received.
Primal Fuel is a protein shake mix. The ingredients are: whey protein, inulin (a pre-biotic), guar gum, natural flavors and stevia extract. Since Sisson is smart enough not to muck around with low-fat food, there are 9 grams of fat per serving, along with 9 carbs (3 of which are fiber) and 20 grams of protein. The mix makes a nice, thick shake even if you just blend it with ice water.
I pretty much only drink protein shakes after my workout on Wednesday, but I like this one rather a lot. There’s just a hint of coconut flavor, and the sweetness is subtle. I don’t like food where the sweet flavor is overpowering, even if it all comes from stevia.
Chareva and the girls were also big fans of the Dark Chocolate Almond Bars. (I probably would have been a big fan, but only managed to get my hands on one before they disappeared. The bars, that is, not the girls.) So many snack bars sold online are garbage, even if they’re low-carb. Soy protein, maltitol and whatnot. By contrast, look at the ingredients in Sisson’s bars:
Almonds, Roasted Pumpkin Seeds, Grass-Fed Hydrolyzed Collagen, Cassava Root, Water, Coconut Flakes, Honey, Natural Flavors, Coconut Oil, Bitter Chocolate, Cocoa Powder, Cocoa Nibs, Himalayan Pink Salt, Monk Fruit Extract, Tocopherols.
Again, as with the Primal Fuel, the sweetness is subtle. Each bar provides 15 grams of protein, eight net carbs (14 minus six grams of fiber) and 15 grams of fat. You can eat these as a treat and actually be doing yourself a favor.
Our care package included some salad dressings we haven’t tried yet, so I won’t comment on them other than to say they’re made with real ingredients. Avocado oil provides the fat, and most of the dressings also contain red wine vinegar. Pretty much everything on the label is listed as “organic.”
My favorite item in the care package is the mayonnaise. Why? Because it tastes just like mayonnaise! I’ve made mayonnaise that’s okay, but doesn’t quite taste like, say, Hellman’s. I ordered some paleo mayonnaise awhile back that tasted more like a mustard spread than mayo.
But Sisson’s mayonnaise tastes like the real deal. And unlike the real deal (assuming we’re calling Hellman’s mayo “real”), this stuff is actually good for you. Here are the ingredients:
Avocado Oil, Organic Cage-Free Eggs, Organic Egg Yolks, Organic Vinegar, Sea Salt, Rosemary Extract.
I don’t know how Sisson’s people managed to make real-food mayo that tastes like commercial mayo when so many others have tried and failed, but they nailed it. I spread this stuff on a slice of turkey breast when I want a quick protein snack.
By the way, you know how often one of us wishes that someone would open a chain of paleo restaurants? Well, Mark Sisson is doing that, too. The current plan is to open a Primal Kitchen Restaurant in three locations: South Bend, Indiana; Anchorage, Alaska; and (of course) Los Angeles. Sisson will be conducting a webinar next week for people who are interested in becoming franchise owners. You can read more on the topic here.
If there was ever a sign that people’s attitudes about fats are changing, here it is: there’s a company now that sells fat. Specifically, FatWorks sells lard, tallow, chicken fat and duck fat. The animals are all raised in cage-free environments, and the cows who provide the tallow are grass-fed. In other words, these are the good fats.
The only one I’ve tried so far is the tallow. I’m old enough to remember when McDonald’s still fried their French fries in tallow, and man, those were good fries. So for breakfast on Sunday, I asked Chareva if she’d mind frying up some taters in tallow. She told me later the tallow gave her iron skillet a nice, non-stick quality. She never had to scrape the potato slices from the pan.
No wonder our great-grandmothers cooked with the stuff. I remember reading somewhere that Teflon helped the low-fat diet movement gain momentum. It was suddenly possible to fry or bake low-fat foods without having them stick to the pan. If only we’d all known better.
I noticed right away that the potatoes became crispy without us having to fry them to the burning point. Can’t say that about vegetable oils, which don’t taste good anyway. And according to Nina Teicholz’ book The Big Fat Surprise, heating those “heart-healthy” vegetable oils to frying temperatures produces a chemical relative of formaldehyde. So the bad news is that those oils will kill you. The good news is that you’ll already be preserved when you die, which saves the undertaker some work.
Anyway, the taters fried in tallow were awesome. Crispy, delicious, satisfying. I ate a few as a stand-alone snack, then put three eggs fried in butter on top of the rest. Heckuva tasty breakfast.
I don’t eat meals at work very often these days, since I usually leave at 3:45. But when I do decide to eat at the office, it’s often a soup I like called True Primal. No grains, soy, preservatives, sugar, MSG, vegetable oils or any of that other nasty stuff. The ingredients are:
Water, tomatoes, diced beef, carrots, onions, green peas, green beans, tomato paste, chicken broth, rendered chicken fat, pork gelatin, sea salt, spices, garlic.
Each one-can serving contains 18 net carbs, 10 grams of fat and 20 grams of protein. If you’re on a strict ketogenic diet, the peas and carrots might be a no-no, but it’s a good lowish-carb soup and pretty tasty. Beats the heck of out Campbell’s.
Enjoy. I certainly did.
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I’ve mentioned this story a couple of times before, but given the topic of this post, it bears repeating:
The Older Brother and I had a conversation some years back as our dad was fading from Alzheimer’s. The Older Brother noted that while our great-grandfather was sharp until nearly age 100, our grandmother developed Alzheimer’s in her 80s, and our dad had (in retrospect) started succumbing in his late 60s. Seeing the progression, The Older Brother said, “Well, we’re screwed.” (That’s the family-friendly version of his analysis.)
I replied that Alzheimer’s is probably a form of diabetes, not a genetic destiny. We can avoid or delay it for decades by eating a good diet.
Turns out a good diet might even reverse the condition to an impressive degree. Here’s part of the abstract of a 2014 pilot program published in the journal Aging:
This report describes a novel, comprehensive, and personalized therapeutic program that is based on the underlying pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease, and which involves multiple modalities designed to achieve metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration (MEND). The first 10 patients who have utilized this program include patients with memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), or subjective cognitive impairment (SCI). Nine of the 10 displayed subjective or objective improvement in cognition beginning within 3-6 months, with the one failure being a patient with very late stage AD.
Six of the patients had had to discontinue working or were struggling with their jobs at the time of presentation, and all were able to return to work or continue working with improved performance. Improvements have been sustained, and at this time the longest patient follow-up is two and one-half years from initial treatment, with sustained and marked improvement.
Sustained and marked improvement? Six of 10 patients able to return to work? Why wasn’t this all over the news?! Perhaps because there’s no miracle drug involved. The therapeutic program employed here was mostly about diet and other lifestyle changes.
The paper opens with a long discussion of the biology of Alzheimer’s and the history (not an impressive one) of drug therapies. Let’s skip those and get into the therapies employed with these patients. Here are two examples:
A 67-year-old woman presented with two years of progressive memory loss. She held a demanding job that involved preparing analytical reports and traveling widely, but found herself no longer able to analyze data or prepare the reports, and therefore was forced to consider quitting her job. She noted that when she would read, by the time she reached the bottom of a page she would have to start at the top once again, since she was unable to remember the material she had just read.
She was no longer able to remember numbers, and had to write down even 4-digit numbers to remember them. She also began to have trouble navigating on the road: even on familiar roads, she would become lost trying to figure out where to enter or exit the road. She also noticed that she would mix up the names of her pets, and forget where the light switches were in her home of years.
Sounds a lot like my dad around the same age. Long before we realized he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, my mom complained to me that my dad just wanted to vegetate in front of the TV at night and didn’t read anymore – which seemed odd, given that he used to devour books and could quote facts from them years after reading them. His driving also became so erratic, we had to talk him into giving it up before he killed someone. Later, of course, we realized he’d stopped reading because he couldn’t remember what he’d just read.
Here’s the therapy for Patient One:
As noted above, and following an extended discussion of the components of the therapeutic program, the patient began on some but not all of the system: (1) she eliminated all simple carbohydrates, leading to a weight loss of 20 pounds; (2) she eliminated gluten and processed food from her diet, and increased vegetables, fruits, and non-farmed fish; (3) in order to reduce stress, she began yoga, and ultimately became a yoga instructor; (4) as a second measure to reduce the stress of her job, she began to meditate for 20 minutes twice per day;  she took melatonin 0.5mg po qhs; (6) she increased her sleep from 4-5 hours per night to 7-8 hours per night; (7) she took methylcobalamin 1mg each day; (8) she took vitamin D3 2000IU each day; (9) she took fish oil 2000mg each day; (10) she took CoQ10 200mg each day; (11) she optimized her oral hygiene using an electric flosser and electric toothbrush; (12) following discussion with her primary care provider, she reinstated HRT (hormone replacement therapy) that had been discontinued following the WHI report in 2002; (13) she fasted for a minimum of 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, and for a minimum of three hours between dinner and bedtime; (14) she exercised for a minimum of 30 minutes, 4-6 days per week.
No simple carbs. Ditch the gluten. Exercising, some over-the-counter supplements, more sleep and more exercise. Now here are the results:
She began System 1.0, and was able to adhere to some but not all of the protocol components. Nonetheless, after three months she noted that all of her symptoms had abated: she was able to navigate without problems, remember telephone numbers without difficulty, prepare reports and do all of her work without difficulty, read and retain information, and, overall, she became asymptomatic. She noted that her memory was now better than it had been in many years. On one occasion, she developed an acute viral illness, discontinued the program, and noticed a decline, which reversed when she reinstated the program. Two and one-half years later, now age 70, she remains asymptomatic and continues to work full-time.
Big Pharma, eat your hearts out. No drug has come close to those results.
Let’s look at one more case history. Here’s what the paper says about Patient Two:
A 69-year-old entrepreneur and professional man presented with 11 years of slowly progressive memory loss, which had accelerated over the past one or two years. In 2002, at the age of 58, he had been unable to recall the combination of the lock on his locker, and he felt that this was out of the ordinary for him…. He noted that he had progressive difficulty recognizing the faces at work (prosopagnosia), and had to have his assistants prompt him with the daily schedule. He also recalled an event during which he was several chapters into a book before he finally realized that it was a book he had read previously. In addition, he lost an ability he had had for most of his life: the ability to add columns of numbers rapidly in his head.
Here’s his therapy:
The patient began on the following parts of the overall therapeutic system: (1) he fasted for a minimum of three hours between dinner and bedtime, and for a minimum of 12 hours between dinner and breakfast; (2) he eliminated simple carbohydrates and processed foods from his diet; (3) he increased consumption of vegetables and fruits, and limited consumption of fish to non-farmed, and meat to occasional grass-fed beef or organic chicken; (4) he took probiotics; (5) he took coconut oil i tsp bid; (6) he exercised strenuously, swimming 3-4 times per week, cycling twice per week, and running once per week; (7) he took melatonin 0.5mg po qhs, and tried to sleep as close to 8 hours per night as his schedule would allow; (8) he took herbs Bacopa monniera 250mg, Ashwagandha 500mg, and turmeric 400mg each day; (9) he took methylcobalamin 1mg, methyltetrahydrofolate 0.8mg, and pyridoxine-5-phosphate 50mg each day; (10) he took citicoline 500mg po bid; (11) he took vitamin C 1g per day, vitamin D3 5000IU per day, vitamin E 400IU per day, CoQ10 200mg per day, Zn picolinate 50mg per day, and α-lipoic acid 100mg per day; (12) he took DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) 320mg and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) 180mg per day.
And his results:
He began on the therapeutic program, and after six months, his wife, co-workers, and he all noted improvement. He lost 10 pounds. He was able to recognize faces at work unlike before, was able to remember his daily schedule, and was able to function at work without difficulty. He was also noted to be quicker with his responses. His life-long ability to add columns of numbers rapidly in his head, which he had lost during his progressive cognitive decline, returned. His wife pointed out that, although he had clearly shown improvement, the more striking effect was that he had been accelerating in his decline over the prior year or two, and this had been completely halted.
Ditch the processed foods, eat real foods. Exercise and get enough sleep. Take some supplements to replace the nutrients that were plentiful in hunter-gatherer diets, but are missing in modern diets. Next thing you know, the guy can add columns of numbers in his head again.
I think we’re seeing why Alzheimer’s was rare in hunter-gatherer societies. It isn’t some harsh sentence handed down by fate or genes. It’s a condition caused by (in many cases, anyway) the same garbage diet that makes people fat and diabetic.
So no, I don’t believe The Older Brother and I will succumb to the disease that caused our dad to fade away in front of our eyes. I expect to be blogging and making wisecracks at age 97 … with The Older Brother sitting in when I need a vacation.
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Pardon the delay in posting and responding to comments. I was on Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama for a wedding last week. I couldn’t ask The Older Brother to sit in, since it was his Middle Son getting married.
Anyway … in my last post, I commented briefly on a video presentation of a study that, in some people’s minds, nailed the coffin-lid shut on the Carb-Insulin hypothesis. I replied that I don’t believe the hypothesis is dead, but needs some revising. Based on personal experience, lots of reading and listening to podcasts, conversations with other people and so forth, I’ve been slowly revising it my own head for years. So let me reach up there between my ears and pluck out some thoughts, then see if I can work them into a coherent post.
More Carbohydrates => Higher Insulin => Fat Storage
That’s the Carbohydrate-Insulin hypothesis in a nutshell. The more carbohydrates you eat, the more insulin you produce, and the more insulin you produce, the fatter you become. Or to express it in reverse for those trying to lose weight: the fewer carbohydrates you eat, the less insulin you produce, and the less insulin you produce, the leaner you become.
Simple is certainly appealing. But I happen to know the linear equation of more carbs = more body fat isn’t true in my case.
But wait … didn’t you finally lose weight after going low-carb?!
Why, yes, I did. And it was easy. Unlike when I tried low-fat/low-calorie diets based on cereals, pasta, bread and rice, I dropped the pounds fairly quickly and wasn’t hungry. Like a lot of people, I figured if low is good, lower is better. So I stayed on a very-low-carb diet for a long time.
But after reading The Perfect Health Diet, I put real-food starches like potatoes and squashes back into my diet. After listening to Jimmy Moore’s podcast with the guys who designed the Carb Nite protocol, I started enjoying a high-carb Saturday night (but with a Mexican dinner, not donuts). After reading about the gut microbiome, I started eating tiger nuts for the fiber and resistant starch. After reading a book called Natural Hormone Enhancement, I decided to mix things up even more. Some days my diet resembles The Perfect Health Diet. Some days it resembles an Atkins induction diet, all meats and eggs and green vegetables. Some days I skip breakfast. Some days I fast until dinner. Saturday is still the high-carb night.
I average more carbs per day now than I did a few years ago, but haven’t gotten any fatter. So more carbs = more body fat clearly isn’t true for me, at least not as a linear relationship.
Does that mean insulin doesn’t drive fat accumulation? Nope, not at all. I don’t think we’ve seen the final word on the research, but let’s just say I’ll be stunned if turns out insulin has little to do with gaining weight.
Insulin inhibits lipolysis — the breakdown and release of fat from fat cells. Any book on metabolism will tell you so. That’s one of insulin’s many jobs, and it’s a crucial one. When you eat a meal that raises your blood sugar, insulin brings the blood sugar down partly by storing fat and keeping it stored. That way your cells burn the glucose first.
Take a look at this graph from a study by Dr. Jeff Volek. It shows the relationship between the concentration of insulin in our blood and the ability to release fat.
Here’s a quote from text accompanying the graph in the Volek paper:
Adipose tissue lipolysis is exquisitely sensitive to changes in insulin within the physiological range of concentrations. Small to moderate decreases in insulin can increase lipolysis several-fold, the response being virtually immediate. Insulin also stimulates lipogenesis [creating new body fat] by increasing glucose uptake and activating lipogenic and glycolytic enzymes. Small reductions in insulin levels, such as that easily achieved with dietary carbohydrate restriction, remove the normal inhibition on fat breakdown.
I’ve seen several studies in which giving diabetics higher concentrations of insulin made them fatter. In a study of the effects of obesity on rats, the researchers stated matter-of-factly that they made the rats obese by pumping them full of insulin. When they stopped pumping the rats full of insulin, the rats returned to their normal weights. So yes, high insulin levels encourage fat accumulation and inhibit fat breakdown. And yes, your body releases insulin when you eat carbs.
But it’s not the temporary spike in insulin after a meal that makes you fat. That’s when insulin is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: partitioning nutrients, shuttling glucose into cells, storing fat so glucose is burned first when glucose is high, etc. Later, insulin is supposed to drop and allow fat to flow from the fat cells. Lower insulin also allows glycogen to be converted to glucose. It’s all about keeping glucose within a safe range.
In a lecture I watched online, a biochemist described insulin rising as the building/storing phase and insulin dropping as the burning/using phase. Both phases are necessary for good health. The problem is that for metabolically damaged people, insulin stays high when it ought to be low. They spend too much time in the building/storing phase, and not enough time in the burning/using phase.
During his presentation on hyperinsulinemia on the cruise, Dr. Ted Naiman showed a chart of the insulin responses of normal vs. obese/insulin-resistant people to the same meal. The obese people not only had a much higher initial insulin spike, their insulin levels stayed higher for several hours. Take another look at Dr. Volek’s graph. It doesn’t take much extra insulin to inhibit lipolysis rather dramatically.
But those are metabolically damaged people. (We’ll get to what I believe causes the damage shortly.) For metabolically healthy people, a high-carb meal will certainly raise insulin temporarily — as it should — but that doesn’t necessarily mean insulin will stay high. When I first started hearing from paleo types that tubers have been part of the human diet for eons and are perfectly fine foods, they usually pointed to the Kitavans – native people who live on a high-carb diet (mostly sweet potatoes), but aren’t fat or diabetic.
So I looked up some articles and a study of the Kitavans. Yup, they eat a lot of sweet potatoes and they’re not fat or diabetic. But here’s the interesting part: their average insulin level is 24 pmol/L. If you check Volek’s chart, you’ll see that’s down in the range where fat breakdown occurs. (By contrast, one study puts the average insulin level for American adults at around 60 pmol/L.) So for the Kitavans at least, a high-carb diet of whole unprocessed foods doesn’t lead to high insulin levels throughout the day. In other words, they don’t become insulin resistant. I’m sure we could find plenty of other paleo people who ate natural starches without becoming fat and diabetic. Quite a few Native Americans, for example, grew squashes and beans.
No doubt the potatoes and other starches I eat now temporarily spike my insulin. So why haven’t I gotten any fatter? Well, I don’t have any way of checking my fasting insulin level at home, but I’d wager a large sum it’s no higher now than it was a few years ago, when I rarely ate starch. I’d also wager a large sum that when I was living on low-fat cereals, low-fat pasta, whole-wheat bread with margarine and other vegetarian delights, my fasting insulin was much higher.
So the first revision of the “alternative hypothesis” I carried around in my head looked something like this:
Damaging Diet => Chronically High Insulin (Insulin Resistance) => Fat Storage.
What is or isn’t a damaging diet certainly varies among individuals. Back in this post, I recounted a section from Denise Minger’s excellent book Death By Food Pyramid in which she wrote about the huge variations in how much amylase we produce. People who produce little amylase experience much more dramatic blood-sugar surges when they consume starch than people who produce a lot of amylase. The low-amylase producers are also eight times as likely to become obese.
I doubt that’s a coincidence. Excess glucose damages cells. It makes sense that cells would protect themselves against high-glucose assaults by developing resistance to the insulin that’s trying to shove glucose through the door. So perhaps for some people, it really is as simple as too many carbs => insulin resistance.
But having said that, I doubt many type II diabetics got that way by eating potatoes and fruit. I think it’s much more likely that the carb culprit was processed carbs. It isn’t just that they spike blood sugar (although they certainly do). These “acellular” carbohydrates also produce inflammation – and inflammation is a likely driver of insulin resistance.
Which brings us to a major non-carb culprit: the crap oils that have been displacing natural fats in our diets for decades. We didn’t just start eating more breads and cereals after the Food Pyramid came around. We also started replacing butter and lard with soybean oil, cottonseed oil and other industrial horrors that drive inflammation. If inflammation in turn drives insulin resistance, then the “heart healthy” diets people started adopting in the 1980s were a double whammy: too many processed carbs, combined with industrial oils. Pass the (ahem) “whole wheat” toast with margarine, please, because I’m being good to my heart.
The second revision of the “alternative hypothesis” I carry around in my head took it from this:
Damaging Diet => Chronically High Insulin (Insulin Resistance) => Fat Storage.
Damaging Diet => Hormonal Disruption => Fat Storage.
Yes, insulin resistance is a form of hormonal disruption, and yes, I believe chronically high insulin drives fat accumulation. But other hormonal disruptions can make us fat too. I’ve mentioned seeing a documentary called The Science of Obesity that featured a woman who’d been lean her entire life, then started blowing up. She cut her calories to 1500 per day and still got fatter. Doctor after doctor accused her of lying about her diet.
But finally an endocrinologist ran some tests and found she had a small tumor on her brain. The tumor was preventing her brain from sensing the hormone leptin. Since leptin tells the brain how big our fat stores are, her brain concluded that she had no fat stores and needed to build them up. Fat stores are, after all, a crucial part of our fuel system. So each time she restricted her calories more, her body responded by slowing her metabolism more.
Few obese people have a brain tumor, but once again, a bad diet can lead to leptin resistance. Inflammation may cause leptin resistance directly, and chronically high insulin can block the leptin signal from reaching the brain. So we’re back to the same likely suspects: processed carbs and crap oils.
A baked potato with butter contains neither, which is one reason I now eat the occasional baked potato with butter. I may have surprised a few people on the low-carb cruise by eating the potato that came with my dinner on several nights. Then again, I saw others in our group doing likewise. Like I said, the low-carb movement is becoming more of a real-food movement, at least among the people I know.
But I don’t just eat the potato because I think I can get away with it. I eat the potato because I believe I’m better off with it than without it. Yup, you just heard me say that … er, write that.
Once again, the reason has to do with hormones. Going down to near-zero on the carbs and staying there can cause hormonal disruptions in some people. In the Natural Hormone Enhancement book I mentioned above, author Rob Faigin praised low-carb diets as a way to jump-start weight loss, but cautioned that going very-low-carb permanently can reduce testosterone and raise cortisol in men. He cited several studies to back up the point. Here’s one I just dug up.
He also cited evidence that going permanently low-carb can lead to a slower thyroid. I know Dr. Ron Rosedale insists the change in thyroid hormones is a healthy adaptation, but come on … if you’re trying to lose weight, do you really want a “healthy” slower thyroid?
Faigin’s solution is to mix it up: a VLC diet five days per week to promote weight loss, then high-carb (but not processed carbs) with reduced fat two days per week to prevent hormonal disruptions. The Carb Nite protocol is based on a similar idea. Paul Jaminet’s solution, of course, is to eat some “safe starches” daily while still keeping carbs on the lowish side overall. I can’t say if one solution is better than the other. It probably depends on the individual. Like I said, I mix things up and go with different diets on different days.
Having said all that, I would never encourage type II diabetics to run out and eat potatoes. During a Q & A session on a previous low-carb cruise, Denise Minger put it something like this: a low-carb diet is an effective treatment for type II diabetes, but that doesn’t mean metabolically healthy people have to give up fruit and potatoes to avoid diabetes. In other words, just because someone with a broken leg needs crutches, it doesn’t mean we must all use crutches to avoid breaking our legs. On the other hand, just because people can eat potatoes and fruit without becoming diabetic, it doesn’t mean diabetics should eat potatoes and fruit. In other words, just because walking without crutches won’t break your leg, it doesn’t mean people with broken legs don’t need crutches.
So to wrap up a very long post:
I don’t believe obesity is as simple as the more carbs we eat, the higher the insulin, and the higher the insulin, the more fat accumulation. Losing weight also isn’t as simple as the fewer carbs we eat, the lower the insulin, and the lower the insulin, the leaner we become. Cutting carbs can certainly promote weight loss (as it did for me), but when most of us go low-carb, we not only cut out the acellular processed carbs completely, we also embrace real fats and give up the crap oils. We eat bacon and fry our eggs in real butter. So I suspect the benefits are partly the result of reducing inflammation, which in turn reduces insulin resistance and perhaps leptin resistance.
To keep the benefits coming, it’s not necessary (or even advisable for many people) to stay at near-zero-carb levels permanently. For non-diabetics, I believe it’s better for overall hormonal health to mix it up, adding in some real-food starches, or cycling VLC days with higher-carb days.
To me, the golden nugget of the “alternative hypothesis” is that getting fat isn’t about calories; it’s about hormones. When our government told everyone to eat plenty of grains and cut the arterycloggingsaturatedfat!, following that advice created hormonal disruptions for many, many people. The cure is to 1) eat real, unprocessed food and 2) reduce the carbs to a level appropriate for your metabolism.
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