The how and why of weight loss

Even before I actually got started with this blog, I knew I had to do a post about weight loss. I like watching the reactions of people who see me for the first time since last winter. That is, if they even recognize me. From the late February to the beginning of April I had lost 4.7kg’s of body fat, bringing my overall weight to below 80kg (I’m 183cm tall) for the first time in some 7-8 years. Since April I have continued getting leaner. And yes, I said body fat.

First let me give a little background information: I had always been fairly active, going to gym, running, cross country skiing, playing squash and rigorously practicing Kung Fu. Then in 2006 I had my student exchange in Malaysia and the active lifestyle just buzzed out. When I came back to Finland I had already gained quite a bit of weight. And I had lost my drive to exercise as well.

South Korea, August 2008

I kept gaining on weight and getting in worse shape until late 2008 when I realized that this is not who I want to be. I got a gym membership and started exercising again 4-5 times a week. I managed to keep this level going for 3-4 months, and even though I felt a little bit better about myself I did not really see any changes in my physique. That was depressing.

It became more evident day by day that my approach was wrong. I had always thought that exercise would help me lose the growing belly, but it didn’t seem to have any impact at all. So when I stumbled upon this article about weight loss I thought what the heck. Might as well try it since I have nothing to lose. That was the beginning.

One thing I have to mention at this point is, that I don’t consider what I did as a diet. For me it was a lifestyle change. I was aware from the start, that if I wanted to achieve results and keep them, I couldn’t go back to my previous way of eating. So, if you want to start this, keep in mind that it’s not a “12 week program” or anything you can just go through, then get back to your unhealthy eating habits and expect the weight loss to be permanent.

 

What to avoid?

This is actually so simple, that you might be inclined to think that there’s no possible way it could work. There is only one thing you need to keep in mind and that is to avoid sugar. There. The real problem is, that many things we eat are changed into sugar by our bodies. And another thing that counts is how fast they get changed. Can you see where I’m heading to? Yep. Carbohydrates.

These are the things you should not eat:

  • “White” carbohydrates (rice, pasta, potatoes, bread and anything else made of grains)
  • Sweets (cookies, candy, chocolate etc.)
  • Sugary drinks (fruit juices, sodas etc.)

In addition to the things to avoid there are also a few things that should be eaten in moderation:

  • Fruit (I’ll explain why later)
  • Dairy (Cheese is fine, but e.g. milk contains enough carbohydrates that I only use it with coffee. Flavored yoghurts are sugar bombs so eat only natural yoghurt.)

All in all, what should happen in your diet is that protein intake increases somewhat, fat intake increases quite a bit but carbohydrate intake goes much lower – and the carbohydrates that you eat come from sources that are rich in nutrients, such as vegetables and fruit.

 

…And what to eat?

Minced meat, mozzarella cheese, beans and mixed vegetables

I can see the question starting to form in your mind; what is there left to eat anymore? I’ll admit that in the beginning I, too, had problems figuring that out every now and then. The biggest problems for me were breakfast and snacking. I have experimented with different foods quite a bit, and here’s what I have settled in:

Drinks

  • Water
  • Coffee
  • Tea (normal tea and unsweetened iced tea)
  • Sugarfree soda (these contain enough artificial substances that you should not drink a lot of them)
  • Beer, wine (only occasionally, and a maximum of one small bottle or glass a day)

Breakfast

  • Boiled eggs (I bought an egg-cooker for this, which has proved useful)
  • Few slices of salami
  • A bit of cheese (occasionally)
  • Tomatoes
  • Fruit (occasionally)

Snacks

  • Almonds and nuts
  • Natural yoghurt
  • Cheese
  • Salami
  • Eggs
  • Finnish quark (or curd, I’m not entirely sure of the English translation)
  • Fruit

Sausage, bacon and mixed vegetables

I usually have lunch at a restaurant, but I’m mindful about the things I eat, so my lunch tends to consist of plenty of vegetables, possibly legumes and some meat. Below is the list of some of the ingredients I regularly mix if I am cooking my own dinner or lunch:

  • Protein (eggs, sausages, chicken, turkey, beef, pork, fish etc.)
  • Frozen vegetables (I’ve found these to be incredibly handy when cooking my own food)
  • Fresh vegetables (used mostly when I’m making salads)
  • Dairy (cottage cheese, mozzarella, feta etc. but used in small portions alongside other protein sources)
  • Legumes (peas and beans)

When I started to drop carbohydrates and sugar from my diet, I increased my portion sizes significantly. Earlier I would’ve had some bread for breakfast, a large cooked lunch at work, a small snack in the afternoon (bread or yoghurt, maybe a little chocolate) and again some bread for dinner. Now I doubled or even tripled the amount of meat I had during lunch and took a huge plate of salad to go with it, and when I earlier had just one warm meal a day, now I started cooking large dinners with vegetables, meat and legumes.

I noticed, that it is very important to add legumes to your food if you’re feeling hungry or low on energy. Vegetables do not contain much calories so legumes are necessary to ensure that you are getting enough of them. Even after eating a huge lunch it was not uncommon for me to have some 150-200g of meat with 200-300g of vegetables and 200g of beans for dinner.

There are couple more things I’d like to add: Do not eat right before going to sleep. Give at least couple hours for the food to digest, or otherwise your body will store more of it in fat cells. Always eat breakfast and always eat when you’re feeling hungry. Breakfast is important to get your metabolism back on track. During the night your body has gone into “starvation mode” and continues to preserve energy unless you send it a signal in the morning that food is again available. Hunger, on the other hand, is your body telling you that it requires nutrition. This diet is about working with your body instead of against it, and if you follow the advice I have given, you can eat as much as you want while still be losing weight.

 

Exceptions and happy fun times

Now that you have some idea about what to eat, let’s talk about exceptions. Even if you follow this diet you can still enjoy all the food in the world and indulge yourself to whatever vices you might have. The key is not to do it all the time. If you are on a holiday, don’t stress about what to eat and consequently drive people crazy. Just enjoy yourself, and when you are back home continue with the diet.

It has been already seven months since I changed my own eating habits, and from the beginning I have been keeping a practice of taking a day off once a week. During this day I indulge myself excessively; eating donuts, chocolate, ice cream, cookies, pizza, burgers and whatever it is that I want to. Usually this day follows a night of clubbing, as I’m already getting started by having a few beers the night before.

People tend to wonder how I can still lose weight while eating all these sweets. Sounds crazy, but it works. One theory is, that if you get this kind of massive burst of calories, it will prevent the thyroid from adjusting your metabolism to burn less of them. Studies have shown, that people on low carbohydrate diets tend to automatically adjust themselves to eat less calories, as the diet is rich on nutrients and keeps you satiated longer.

Another time when I purposefully increase my carbohydrate intake is within 2 hours after exercise. This is done to restore the high muscle stores of glycogen, a body fuel that is essential for high-level performance and gets depleted during intense exercise. At these times I consume more starch and sugar. Usually I eat some Finnish curd with yoghurt and fruits immediately post-exercise, and a larger meal of pasta and meat about an hour later.

 

This can’t possibly work…

So here I am telling you that you should stop eating the foods that form the base of the food pyramid. Not only that, but I’m also telling you to eat more foods that contain fat – especially saturated fat. This will most likely go against most of the common sense conceptions that you have about nutrition, but bear with me and read along. After all, it used to be common sense that Sun rotates around Earth, too.

This is what Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades say about insulin: “[It] regulates blood sugar… It controls the storage of fat, it directs the flow of amino acids, fatty acids, and carbohydrate to the tissues, it regulates the liver’s synthesis of cholesterol, it functions as a growth hormone, it is involved in appetite control, it drives the kidneys to retain fluid, and much, much more.” In other words, insulin is very likely the most important hormone when it comes to your metabolism.

As stated above, insulin controls nutrient storage and its main purpose is to get excess sugar, amino acids and fats out of the blood and into the cells. In the context of this article, the take-away message is that the higher your insulin levels, the more inclined your body is to store nutrients as fat. And notice, that I said “nutrients” instead of “fat”. Our bodies will turn the excess protein and carbohydrate into fat. You can eat all the no-fat or low-fat food in the world and still accumulate body fat! On the other hand, lower insulin levels promote the usage of stored fat, leading to weight loss.

So, the key factor is this: control the insulin levels! Insulin is produced by pancreas as a consequence of a rise in blood sugar, which is a consequence of eating. What matters, though, is how much insulin is produced. And as you might have already guessed, the more there is sugar in your blood, the more your pancreas has to produce insulin, and the more your body will store that energy instead of burning it.

So why am I telling you to stop eating foods that are rich in carbohydrates? Because those foods are – in essence – sugar, leading to elevated insulin levels. Meat, fish, vegetables etc. on the other hand are digested slowly and contain very little sugar, or none at all. As a result your blood sugar levels will stay more stable, reducing the amount of insulin needed. Not only that, but the slower digestion means you will also feel satiated for longer.

In other words; fat does not make you fat. The real culprit that causes your body to store fat is sugar – disguised as carbohydrates. Cut that from the equation while leaving fat and protein, and your body will not only happily use the dietary fat for energy, but it will also start burning the fat stored in fat cells. And don’t worry, humans do not need dietary carbohydrate at all. Our cells are able to make all the sugar that is required.

This is the reason why I mentioned earlier, that fruits should be eaten in moderation. Especially the sweet ones, as they contain higher amounts of fructose – natures own sugar, which also causes the insulin levels to rise. On the other hand, fruits do contain a high amount of important micronutrients (e.g. vitamins and minerals) so by all means eat them, but as I said, in moderation.

There are also other health benefits in addition to weight loss that are connected with steady insulin levels. Eating a diet that is high in sugar and carbohydrates will cause the insulin levels to go up and down like a roller coaster, as our bodies have a tendency to overcompensate a rise in blood sugars. When the insulin levels vary a lot from high to low – as is normal with low-fat high-carbohydrate diet – the insulin receptors will get damaged over time and lose their sensitivity. This causes a condition called insulin resistance, in which your body will end up producing more and more insulin to control the blood sugar levels. Not unlike drug addicts needing larger and larger doses as they get used to their hallucinogenic of choice.

When you have insulin resistance, an increase in blood sugar will be countered by too much insulin. By the time that excess insulin is absorbed your blood sugars have already gone too low (the job of insulin is to get sugar out from blood and into the cells, remember?). This is called hypoglycemia. A band-aid cure to get blood sugars back to a sufficient level is to eat another dose of… sugar! That will help for an hour or two, but as you know by now, the body will again respond by producing too much insulin. Eventually the blood sugar levels crash again and the whole process starts over.

At some point comes a time when your pancreas simply cannot produce enough insulin to meet the demands of the desensitized insulin receptors, resulting in chronic excess sugar. This is when you get to experience your very own slice of adult onset diabetes, or type II diabetes; a disease that has reached epidemic levels according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Not only that, high insulin levels are also the primary cause of, or significant risk factor for heart disease, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, blood clotting problems, colon cancer (and a number of other cancers), gout, sleep apnea, obesity… The list goes on.

We humans have evolved to eat meat. For millions of years we have found nutrition as hunter-gatherers, with most of the food coming from animal sources that are rich in protein and saturated fats. Agriculture and the resulting increase in carbohydrate consumption took place only about 10 000 years ago, which is not a long enough time for evolution to adjust our metabolism to be better suited for eating grains.

Civilization has been said to have born when humans learned agriculture, but so did the diseases of civilization: The mummified remains of ancient Egyptians have been found to indicate worn teeth, gum disease, obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and heart attacks. And this did not just happen to the Egyptians, but wherever people changed from a high-protein to high-carbohydrate diet they became less healthy. This pattern is so predictable, that archaeologists use bone and teeth to identify whether a prehistoric society consisted of farmers or hunter-gatherers. Excellent, non-decayed teeth, and strong, dense and long bones tell the story of hunter-gatherers, whereas decayed teeth and frail, deformed bones are the signs of an agriculturist.

 

What about exercise?

It has been touted everywhere, that low-fat diet and lots of exercise will make you fit. That’s what I thought, too, but as I said in the beginning of this article; I did exercise 4-5 times a week and ate low-fat food, yet I did not see any changes in my physique. My weekly exercise regime consisted mainly of two 45-60 minute sessions of weight training and two or three 60 minute sessions of cardiovascular activity such as running, squash or cross training.

After starting with the diet, I also changed my exercise regime. For the first two months or so I only went to the gym once every 4-5 days and did 30-40 minutes of full-body resistance training. Later, I added one day of cardiovascular training in between the gym workouts. This was usually a one-hour session of squash, or going for a high-intensity interval run. In pure numbers I ended up spending about 1/3 of the time exercising compared to what I did before. And guess what? I started to see results too.

However, before you start thinking about lifting weights and jogging, there is something I need to tell you: exercise won’t help you lose weight. You will burn more calories when exercising, that is true, but according to recent research exercise also stimulates hunger, so you will be eating more and end up where you started. I am not saying you should ignore exercise altogether, as it will bring numerous health benefits. Weight loss just isn’t one of them.

 

Final words

China, April 2009

Every now and then I imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t discovered what I now know about nutrition. I would probably weight closer to 90kg’s and feel rather miserable. It is amazing how big an impact the food you eat has not just on your physical well-being, but also on your mental health. About five days after I started my own diet, dropping the white carbohydrates and sugar, I began to feel much more energetic and focused than normal, and surprisingly this feeling of being energetic is still with me.

Another thing I noticed was, that my stomach started to feel good. Earlier when I had lunch, my belly was always bloated for the next two-three hours and there was a lot of activity going on; rumblings and quakes. Even though my portion sizes increased on a low-carb diet, my belly was always calm and I never felt bloated even after a huge lunch.

I am not expecting you to change your eating habits. In general, getting people to change their preconceptions or attitudes without resistance is next to impossible. You must have the desire to change within you, and perhaps in that case this article will give you some tools, information and paths to further knowledge about how to make that change a reality.

 

Sources and references:

Cordain, Lorel. Friel, Joe (2005). The Paleo Diet for Athletes
Eades, Michael R. Eades, Mary Dan  (1996). Protein Power
Keith, Lierre (2009). The Vegetarian Myth

Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin – A Time.com article

The Blog of Tim Ferriss

The Blog of Michael R. Eades, M.D.

The Blog of Antti Heikkilä

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