In This Article
- Your body’s calorie- balancing act
- Why your genes may not determine your jean size
- Choosing nutrient density over energy density
- Managing your weight by listening to your body
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, excess body weight accounted for 4 million deaths and 120 million disability-adjusted life years (the exact inverse of healthspan) around the world in 2015. Almost 70 percent of those deaths were caused by cardiovascular disease. In the United States alone, 70.7 percent of adults are overweight or obese. That means less than one third of the U.S. population is walking around at a healthy weight. Excess fat on your body puts you at risk for most chronic diseases. For the first time in history, malnutrition is due to overnourishment for a majority of the population. With unlimited access to food, we’re eating too many calorie-dense foods, too much, and too often, all the while we’re growing more chronically ill decade by decade.
Why are we having so much trouble winning at what seems to be a simple task: eat no more than is needed? One reason may be that humans—like every other living organism—evolved and adapted to a world of scarcity. Historically, we were naturally limited by season and availability; food, overall, had times of abundance and scarcity. Even after the rise of agriculture, food remained economically scarce for some time. But things began to change about a century ago when refrigeration and transportation entered the scene, allowing food to be stored and sold year-round. Consider that for the first time in history, obesity is now a symptom of poverty. The only species struggling with obesity and chronic disease are humans and the pets we keep cozy and overnourished. Unnatural access to food may be more of the problem for you and your pets than lack of willpower.
Fortunately, inherent factors of a whole food, plant-based nutrition plan naturally aid weight-loss efforts. Mind-boggling though it is—even to scientists—you can eat enough to stay satiated as you lose pounds and maintain that loss with ease.
Why Calories Count (If You Count All the Calories)
We discussed the role of metabolic macronutrient hierarchy, or oxidative priority. Recall that the energy components of the meal—alcohol, proteins (amino acids), carbohydrates (starches and sugars), and fats—are absorbed in the intestinal tract resulting in a blood plasma–concentration peak a couple of hours after eating or drinking. Those blood plasma levels return to premeal values 4 to 6 hours later. The body is constantly striving for homeostasis in many of its systems, and this includes the various nutrient levels in the blood. After ingesting any calorie-containing food, those calories are either stored, eliminated, or metabolized (burned) in order to maintain blood plasma–nutrient homeostasis.
Homeostasis is the tendency to return to a stable or balanced point and is maintained by various physiological processes. For example, the rise in blood alcohol, lipids, or glucose after a meal is returned to normal pre-meal levels 4 to 6 hours after eating.
Oxidative priority explains why certain eating patterns will lead to maintenance, accumulation, or reduction of fat reserves. This understanding will take the guesswork out of gaining and losing weight. It is important to note that in the fed (postprandial) state, the body is actively trying to dispose of the energy in the food just eaten. Consequently, energy use is necessarily directed away from storage (fat) reserves accumulated during prior meals. A simplified way to conceptualize this is to imagine your body either in the fed state, lasting 4 to 6 hours after eating, or in the fasted state, and continuing that way until the next meal. Similarly, you are either disposing of a recent meal or burning off reserves. It is that latter state, burning reserves, which results in the elimination of excess fat storage.
When you eat, the body must burn, store, or eliminate the energy components of the meal. Food doesn’t just hang around in the stomach or intestinal tract waiting for a push-up or a sprint to the mailbox. You might ask, “doesn’t the metabolism respond to a meal?” Or wonder, “what is the importance of the metabolic boost after a high-protein meal?” Indeed, the body does respond to meals with a rise in metabolism. It is true that with a high-protein meal, your metabolism increases. It is similar for alcohol and carbohydrates. These post-meal rises are due to the energy requirement of digestion, but also to eliminate macronutrients the body can’t store. These metabolic rises from meals do not lead to significant depletion of your fat reserves. Remember, the only weight loss on the scale that matters is fat loss and the only metabolic increases that help are rises fueled by fat stores (as opposed to dietary fat).
Each minute you spend in the metabolically fed state is another minute you aren’t burning calorie-dense fat stores. We’ve all read the headlines about the latest fad calorie-burning food or how frequent meals stoke your metabolism, but the simple truth is that our fat reserves are an evolutionary resource for times of no food. With the exception of explosive exercise or when drinking alcohol, you are always burning some percentage of fat. Normally, in the fasted state, you are typically burning about half fat and half glucose. If you’ve been dieting for a couple of weeks without exception, fat percentage burned could rise to about 75 percent. Yes it’s true, your fat percentage burned will rise during longer periods of dieting. Your fat stores are the result of an adaptive strategy for times with no food; we don’t use muscle, brain, or organ tissue when faced with calorie scarcity; we use our fat from adipose tissue.
Not all calories are treated equally when it comes to digestion, absorption, and storage of food. And for those who believe a calorie isn’t a calorie, the point could be somewhat correct and relevant. Scientists can, with good accuracy, account for the energy used and stored in a wide range of food products, but it requires careful analysis that is often left out of blogs, books, and news stories to the contrary. The fabulous news is that eating whole-plant foods take much of the guess work out of weight loss, make calorie counting unnecessary, and whittle away pounds with ease.
Genetics and Upbringing
Which came first—the seed or the tree? Similarly, is your weight innate or learned? The truth may lie somewhere in the middle. You may have genetic tendencies predicting how much you will weigh, and behavior patterns you learned from your family as you grew up also play a part. But which has more influence over your eating and weight? No clear-cut answer can be given yet, but no matter who you are, it’s not a question of genetic doom. There is an eating volume and frequency that will comfortably maintain you at a normal, healthy weight. You’re not broken.
For decades, scientists thought that genetics might be deterministic and that DNA predicted everything about your health—which diseases you’re at risk for, your tendency toward obesity, how tall you’ll be, and factors such as dental health and hair growth patterns. What we’ve come to understand is that genes can also be expressed (turned on) or silenced (turned off) through a process known as epigenetics. These changes can come about through diet, sleep, exercise, and even where you live. There are many factors that can cause chemical modifications of the genes, which may turn them on or off over time.
Epigenetics is a trait resulting in changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence. Epigenetic traits may be inherited, silenced, and expressed resulting in a wide range of traits and possible outcomes.
You started as a single cell in your mother’s womb with genetic material from both parents. That DNA contained all the instructions for your life. As these cells grew and multiplied, all with the same DNA, some cells were turned into toes and, others, into lung tissue. In every case, individual genes were suppressed or expressed. Otherwise, you could end up with toe tissue in your lungs.
Consider the following examples. In 1981, researchers at Oxford University determined that only 2 or 3 percent of cancer risk can be attributed to genes. Children born into poverty are thought to never reach their genetic height potential due to malnutrition. Migrant studies show clearly that incidence of obesity and chronic disease change when a person moves from one society to another. Girls are starting puberty at a younger age than their mothers did. All these findings disprove the idea that your genetic tendencies are set in stone but are affected by lifestyle choices.
Your DNA is simply your book of life or your life’s script. One analogy for epigenetics, is that it is like the director on a movie set with the same actor, props, and script. By directing what words and scenes to emphasize and suppress, the movie takes on a wide range of artistic and dramatic expressions. Likewise, you aren’t destined by genetics for any single outcome, and the most powerful tool in your epigenetic toolbox is a healthy, whole food, plant-based diet.
Regardless of whether scientists agree, the take-home message is simple: you can, at the very least, set the stage for optimum health by managing your behaviors and lifestyle. Only positive benefits can come from making healthful choices. If you don’t provide the fuel to the genetic fire (eating animal-based and processed foods, for example), lifestyle may just win over. You have absolutely nothing to lose.
Many people use their genes, age, or metabolism as an excuse to remain overweight. They give up any effort to lose weight by deciding they have no control anyway, so what’s the point? The genetic component certainly complicates the question, but it’s not the primary cause of failed weight loss attempts. It’s well established that overweight parents can have lean, healthy kids, and vice versa. It’s time we let go of this myth that’s holding back a majority of the U.S. population from reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. Now is the time to take back control of your body.
The Food Triangle is a simple tool to help guide you through healthful food choices. It is also a great tool for weight loss. At the top of the Food Triangle are leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, kale, and bok choy), mushrooms, stems (e.g. celery and asparagus), and bulbs (e.g. garlic and onion). These can be loosely thought of as everything in the produce world except starchy vegetables and simple-sugar fruits. You can’t live on the food at the top of the food triangle alone as it simply doesn’t have enough energy to sustain you for long periods of time, but it does offer an abundance of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber, and other phytonutrients.
Now, as we add foods from the bottom of the Food Triangle, starchy vegetables and simple sugar fruits, we are adding the energy storage components of a plant. These are the foods that will allow you to maintain your weight or even grow new tissue, depending on your goal. These bottom-right foods have many of the same phytonutrients contained in the top. Of course, this works on the left side of the Food Triangle in much the same way, except the animal-sourced food contains fat and the other storage tissues of animals without any phytonutrition or fiber. This is why people can lose weight by eliminating whole-food simple sugars (fruits) and starchy vegetables. It’s also why you can lose weight by eliminating animal products.
Our simple goal for weight loss is to burn our own energy-storage adipose reserves (fat) instead of burning the storage organs of plants or animals.
Recall that “bottom feeding” (burger and fries, pasta and meat sauce, curry and rice, fish and chips, etc.) is a nearly perfect formula to gain weight; we burn the excess alcohol, amino acids, starches, and sugars, and then store the fat for later. Four to six hours later, when our body gets back to burning our internal storage reserves from previous meals, what do we do? Yes, we eat again. The cycle continues: burn a little, store a little more, and so on, until we have weeks, months, or even years of stored fuel. After 4 to 6 hours, your body naturally returns to burning its reserves. It is a myth that skipping meals causes your metabolism to crash and that you’ll hold onto fat. We store fat for periods of no food and those fat reserves are a perfect complement to the low-energy plant foods from the top of the Food Triangle.
Fiber, Fasting, and Fat Loss
Fiber is a dietary component that passes through your stomach and small intestine without being affected by your digestive processes, though it does feed some of the many bacteria that inhabit your digestive tract microbiome. Dietary fiber—both soluble and insoluble—keep the stool moving along. When people fast for days consuming only water, bowel movements cease. What is a little surprising to most people is that weight loss can almost reach the rate of a water-only fast when food intake is limited to the right side of the Food Triangle. With a plant-based diet, that extra dietary fiber feels filling, keeps things moving, and causes the scale to drop.
There are many ways people describe hunger: headache, lack of focus, lethargy, irritability, or even shakiness. Here’s a shocker—none are really hunger symptoms. They are very similar to the symptoms of giving up caffeine, nicotine, or even alcohol. There are many types of withdrawal, but what they have in common is a period of habituated ingestion followed by a sudden stop. That survival brain wants more and so urges surge. It turns out that after a few days or so of not getting what it wants, the brain kicks into a new expectation and the urges are silenced. For someone who has experienced a longer fast (5 to 7 days or more), they recognize that only the first couple of days are uncomfortable.
By eating on the right side of the Food Triangle, you don’t need to fast a single day to lose weight. Rather, you can group your meals a little closer together, increasing the block of time between the last meal of the day and the first. Remember, it is the time after 4 to 6 hours when the body begins tapping into reserves, because the energy component of the meal is now gone. Wait, I thought everyone says to eat every 2 hours to keep my metabolism boosted?
Let’s think about this critically.
We wake up at 6:00 A.M. and have breakfast (hint: we break fast) at 7:00 A.M. Now we take the next 4 to 6 hours to digest that meal. We get to work and grab a pastry and some coffee, once again 4 to 6 more hours in the fed state. Assuming there are no more coffee breaks, we eat again at noon and reset the timer for another 4 to 6 hours. At which point, it’s happy hour and we grab some wine, crackers, and olives. Then, we have dinner reservations at 8:00 P.M. (another 4-6 hours from meal end) and get to bed by 11:00 P.M. Digestion is now well into your sleep period and may end about 1:00 to 2:00 A.M.! For most people, this results in a narrow window logging 5 hours of fasted time, at best. Then, it’s once again time to eat all day long. Do you see why you never pay down any of that accumulated “fat debt?”
Here is an alternate day to consider: Wake and have some black coffee or tea (no sweeteners or creamers), and breakfast at noon with a large salad and a nut-based dressing. Sometime between 5:00 to 6:00 P.M., have a second meal with potatoes, steamed vegetables, and some fruit. On this day, you were in the fasted state from 10:00 P.M. until noon the next day. That’s 14 hours. That’s nearly 3 times the fasting period of the typical day described above spent burning fuel reserves. On which day do you think you’d burn more from the fat stores?
If you’re not positive you’re hungry, you aren’t hungry. Have a cup of tea instead.
We’ve been deluged to think that all this swallowing and wiggling is the secret to success. People want to blame the battle on food deserts, knee injuries, GMOs, broken metabolisms, and hormones. The reality is that a century ago, food was economically scarce and many handed-down, traditional recipes are built from the bottom of the Food Triangle. That’s a plus when food is scarce. But, today, it is maladaptive.
Keep It Simple
Losing weight is easy if you look through our new lens. We start with the toughest part: acknowledging that if you aren’t losing weight now, you are eating at a level above your minimum requirement. However, there is a wide gap between not losing and gaining weight and this may cause confusion. You can eat a lot more than you think and not gain weight, but, conversely, you may need to eat less than you think in order to lose weight. With a whole food, plant-based diet, you will be pleasantly surprised by just how much food you can eat and still lose weight every single day until you reach your goal. During this time, you may be taking in lower levels of nutrition, so limit physical activity.
Here are some simple guidelines for sustainable success:
- Eat on the right side of the Food Triangle, with an emphasis on foods from the top.
- Reduce the daily window in the fed (postprandial) state, which expands the fasted time for the body burn reserves.
- Limit nuts, seeds, and avocado to approximately 1⁄4 cup (1 oz) and eat these whole or in sauces only with non-starchy vegetables.
- Realize it may take a couple of days to feel comfortable with your new eating patterns.
- Don’t snack in between meals; even small snacks activate the digestive tract.
- Chew your food slowly, don’t allow distractions while you eat (watching television, driving, etc.), and put down the fork between bites to take time to savor each bite.
- Avoid concentrated sweets like pure juices and dried fruits.
Your body is constantly in flux, striving for homeostasis, or equilibrium. We are either fed and the body is burning, eliminating, or storing the food ingested, or we are fasted and running on stored reserves. After assaults with diets and poor food choices, you may have lost touch with your intuition and actual needs. We may get away with eating more than we need without gaining weight, but the only way to extend an organism’s life or increase healthspan is with dietary restriction without malnutrition. Fortunately, it’s never too late to regain control. The same foods that promote optimum health naturally allow your body to reach its desirable size. Think simply, effortlessly, and healthfully, and you’ll achieve your goals.
The Least You Need to Know
- All calories count, but the real test is whether or not the number on the scale is moving down every few days.
- Metabolic boosts after meals do little to dispose of energy (fat) stored away from previous meals
- Eating on the right side of the Food Triangle, with an emphasis placed on foods from the top, is the most rapid way to lose weight.
- Consuming fiber is the single factor experts agree on that helps promote weight loss.
- Avoiding refined oils, sugars, and flours eliminates lots of mindless calories from your diet
- Practice reconnecting your mind to your body’s hunger and satiety signals. The more carefully you listen, the more natural it will become.