The Leap to Fat Burning
Prince of Persia was one of my favorite computer games as a kid. In the game, time was running out, and Prince Aladdin had to save Jasmine from her captors by drinking potions, fighting swordsmen, and leaping across huge chasms. If he didn’t make it across the chasms he fell to a bloody death in a pit of spikes. It illustrates the great paradox in life that getting what you want requires a leap of faith in which total failure is a real possibility.
My experience with diet has followed this pattern, as well. Conventional wisdom suggests that one should not try to radically change their diet, instead making practical and incremental changes. But half measures can backfire when the necessary change is a more radical shift. I shifted many years ago from a fairly high carb, moderate fat, moderate protein diet to a high-fat, high-protein, moderate carb diet. The paleo gurus had informed me that fat is the body’s preferred fuel, and that eating more of it makes your body adapt to burn fat even more efficiently. Yet despite eating more fat, I did not instantly develop into a ripply caveman. I gained weight.
Just as “a little leaven leavens the whole loaf,” a little loaf of bread can also spike insulin so drastically that the body switches from fat-burning into fat-storing mode. What’s more, fat contains more than twice as many calories per gram as carbs or protein, so it’s easy to gain weight on a high-fat diet if you’re not maintaining the right internal signals modulated by the other foods you’re eating. I didn’t have the willpower to reduce carbs significantly enough to compensate for my increased fat intake, so I got fatter.
I am still not the lean, muscular archetype you see promoting the latest Caveman Cookbook™, and I’m fine with that. Weight maintenance through a higher fat diet is my goal. Toward this end, I try to keep a metabolism which prefers fat and is not addicted to carbs. Even this is not easy in the modern world — it requires consistency and single-mindedness of purpose.
TLDR: Why Low Carb Diets Work
A recent NY Times article [Which Kinds of Foods Make Us Fat? Sept. 25, 2018] looked at what foods make lab mice fat, and found that no mice that ate low-fat diets ended up fat, but that mice that ate the highest fat percentage of all did not gain weight either. It was only the mice that ate a roughly equal mix of fat and carbs that gained weight.
When you digest carbohydrates, sugar (glucose) levels rise in the blood stream. Sugar is great energy if you can use it right away, but an excess (hyperglycemia) has to be removed. The pancreas secretes the hormone insulin to usher the excess glucose from the blood into the cells, where it gets stored as fat (glycogen). In other words, insulin acts as the key opening the cell door to let the energy in to be stored as fat.
This is a great biological strategy for saving energy for later, and it enabled our ancestors eat abundantly in autumn and survive through the winter. Cian Foley (@wellboy), a bodybuilder and proponent of the “anti-autumnal diet,” noted that the results of the mouse study can be explained by simple evolutionary logic: certain combinations of food were once ideal to help us survive.
If you’re trying to store fat, there is no better way to do it than to eat calorically-dense food (nuts, fatty meats, etc.) simultaneously with sugar. It spikes your insulin, sending the “Open up!” signal to your cells to store the whatever calories you’re eating as fat. But it’s not always autumn, and the modern supermarket offers us endless opportunities to gorge ourselves on the deliciously fattening combination of fat and sugar.
Storage in fatty liver cells and new fat cells (adipose tissue) are the body’s first lines of defense, and provide a healthy buffer against starvation and stress. However, chronically elevated sugar and therefore insulin levels make cells resistant to the signal, which leads long-term to obesity (excess adipose) and diabetes (chronic hyperglycemia).
We know the best solution to metabolic syndrome and weight gain. It requires limiting carbohydrates, and in severe cases of obesity, severely limiting carbs, and substituting enough fat to make you feel satiated.
The good news is that fat is highly filling and tastes great. Eating more of it not only improves insulin sensitivity, but also leptin sensitivity, which makes us feel full after a meal. The mice in the study stopped eating once they consumed enough calories from fat. Knowing that many patients will not always follow this advice and cut out sugar, doctors instead prescribe low-fat diets.
That bad news is that the combination of sugar, fat, and salt is the evolutionary equivalent of manna from heaven — a cornucopia of energy that can be used later. We crave it like plants crave electrolytes. When we stop eating sugar, we find ourselves experiencing a hedonic deficit. This can partially be made up for by increasing delicious and satiating fatty foods, but the temptation will always be to sweeten meals up a bit, or get that comforting feeling of SUBSTANCE so cheaply supplied by carbs. As a species, we have already reached the Promised Land — the land of milk and honey. Now, the challenge is to be disciplined with our indulgences of such great abundance.
#LifeHack: Chronometric Seperation
Just understanding how insulin is the key mediator between how many calories you eat and how many calories you store should shift our preferences so that we naturally want to eat more fat. Still, we don’t have to cut carbs out altogether. There are many “safe starches” and sugary foods (i.e., fruit) that can be safely consumed because of the fiber and other nutrients they contain, which blunt the insulin spike. These can even be eaten in relatively high quantities as long as they are not complemented by high-fat foods at the same time.
Once again, it’s the bodybuilders — those who are most obsessed and neurotic about the science of body fat — who came up with the solution. A strategy of “backloading” carb intake to nighttime hours, separated in time from meals containing higher ratios of fat, has become popular among those looking to score “lean gains.” Not everyone’s objective is to achieve a minimum Body Mass Index (the ratio of fat to body mass), but to the extent you are looking to maintain a healthy physique without giving up rice, breads, and sugars altogether, carb backloading appears to be the way to go. In the same vein, there is a subtle art to gravitating towards high-carb, low-fat foods on some days, and high-fat, low-carb foods on others.
In this sense, the lesson I’ve learned can be boiled down to six words:
Don’t eat everything all the time.
Ketogenic diets are based on the logic of eating purely high fat, and require a greater leap of faith, which may be necessary for people with more advanced forms of metabolic syndrome. For most of us, however, it suffices to change our mindset such that we do not fear fat – consuming it until we are full – as long as we are able to limit our carbohydrate intake to 20% or less of total calories (usually around 150 grams per day). It still feels like a leap of faith, since most of us are used to a steady supply of sugar and it can take weeks to adjust to a primarily fat-based diet.
My adjustment is never optimal, but I have learned to find a balance. I do not obsessively count calories or worry too much about any given meal. I’ve also found that my sweet-tooth has abated to the point where a single piece of candy corn feels like a sumptuous dessert. And if you fall and gorge on pizza and ice cream, fasting for a dozen to 24 hours can cover a multitude of sins.
The fat guard was one of the hardest obstacles in Prince of Persia, but he was nowhere near as wily or foreboding as Aladdin’s dark-dog alter ego that awaited on the other side of the guard. Whatever you do, don’t be fooled into thinking that nailing your macronutrient ratios will be enough to complete your quest. Still, it’s been worthwhile for me to take the leap to high fat.
In my next post, I will look at what it means to practice non-neurotic nutrition — eating with your brain in mind (or more specifically, the building blocks it needs to function properly and be happy), while not obsessing or falling prey to dietary dogma.