Thursday, January 5, 2012

"The Fat Trap," the New York Times and the cheap copout that it invites

I wonder if you've seen it yet. It's called "The Fat Trap," and it ran in the New York Times on December 28, 2011.

And it has made me very angry.

I first learned about it from a (non-paleo/primal) friend who asked me, "Did you see that New York Times article? Basically it says that because of changes in hormonal signaling, and other chemical reactions, fat people who lose weight are almost predestined to put it back on. You'd have to live a life of misery to keep it off. I think what it really means is that we should all just quit trying."

My mind exploded. First, I was heartened by the fact that a dietary-focused article was, apparently, discussing the role of hormones, like cortisol, insulin and leptin, in weight and body-composition management. So, a small part of the mental explosion was fueled by a positive thought of: "Hey, did the mainstream media just finally get off the epic failure of calories-in/calories-out, and start focusing on cortisol, insulin and leptin regulation as a big key to health? That has amazing possibilities."

But, obviously, based on my friend's ultimate takeaway from the article -- that it's all futile anyway unless you want to be over-exercised, miserable and hungry forever -- somewhere the wheels came off the cart. Could it just be that my friend reached the wrong conclusion?

Sadly, no.

I went and read the article. And while my pal's doom-and-gloom/eff-it-all conclusion is a bit, shall we say, dramatic, I see how she reached it.

The article begins with a statement from an Aussie weight-loss doctor who claims to find it "very strange" that overweight people whom he put on a 550-calorie-a-day diet of "two special shakes called Optifast and two cups of low-starch vegetables" first lost "an average of 30 pounds" in eight weeks, and then, within a year, almost always gained much of it back. The patients feel hungry much of the time, and are "more ... preoccupied with food than before they lost the weight."

550 calories a day? To steal a (paraphrased) line from strength coach Greg Everett, "I just wiped more than 550 calories off my chin after breakfast. You can't live on that."

I am not a doctor. I have a B.S. in Biology that I never use because I am a lawyer (and, just to review, we don't talk about that here, ever). Everything I know about nutrition I have learned from reading smart things written by smart people like Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, Richard Nikoley and Liz Wolfe, to name but a very very smart few. But even I know that if the way you lose weight is to starve yourself -- and let's be clear: 550 calories per day is starving yourself -- when you stop starving yourself your body is going to react like, duh, you've been starving yourself. It is going to freak out.

The amazing, and frustrating, thing about this article is that it briefly seems to express an understanding that weight loss and gain is related to leptin and insulin regulation -- rather impressively noting that some people, the metabolically deranged (my term, not the writer's), seem to turn everything they eat into more body fat -- and then all that progress gets trashed in a nearly instantaneous reversion into calories-in/calories-out thinking, with a nod to "low-fat is good/high-fat is bad" nonsense as well.

Yes, insulin resistance and leptin resistance -- brought on, most often, by years of eating processed foods, particularly grains -- is bad and will absolutely trash your metabolism and your body's ability to deal with the food you consume. That much the article got right. But the "solution" -- a low-fat, drastically-low-calorie regimen, causing massive weight loss, followed by a slow return to more calories, but still with a low-fat focus -- is nonsense; it's potentially dangerous nonsense at that because it does nothing to reverse insulin/leptin-regulation issues. All that "diet" does is starve a metabolically-deranged person, and then start feeding him or her again, while the person is still metabolically deranged.

And this routine surprised someone -- a doctor, no less -- when it caused hungry, grumpy, starving patients who couldn't manage their weight?

It's madness.

So what is the solution? The simple solution is to read either or both of Gary Taubes' book "Why We Get Fat" or Robb Wolf's "The Paleo Solution." Both of those books will teach you that calories-in/calories-out is garbage. What matters is hormone regulation and there are three components to weight loss/management that targets hormone regulation: sleep, nutrition and exercise.

In. That. Order.

I repeat: sleep first, then nutrition, then exercise.

Again, that article got one thing right: it's all about hormone regulation, particularly cortisol, insulin and leptin. You cannot get those issues together if you are not getting a good night of sleep in a dark room. Once you do that, stop eating grains. Stop eating seed oils, like canola, cottonseed, etc. Stop eating soy. Stop eating things in boxes and bags. They are all processed. Eat only animal protein, good fat (avocado, coconut oil, even olive oil if you don't overheat it), vegetables and a little fruit.

The changes are amazing. Most of all, they are sustainable. You can eat to satiety (that's fullness, kids). The good fat will make, and keep, you full. You will get your metabolic derangement in order. Once your hormone regulation is in order, you will lose weight if that's what you need to do because your body is now properly regulating cortisol, insulin and leptin and so it isn't turning everything you eat into body fat. It also is avoiding the insulin spikes and crashes of the metabolically deranged. (You know, the ones that cause the "crazy hungry" feeling so common to the standard low-fat/high-carb diet? I know them well.... They ruined my life for years). And when you lose that excess weight, if you just keep eating this way, you will keep it off. Why, because you have gotten those hormones under control.

Throw some weight-training in, and maybe even a little of what you call "cardio," and you will accelerate the whole process, and feel even better. But exercise is not the grail here. Sleep and proper nutrition are far more important.

The thing that makes me angry about the NYT article isn't that it made mistakes. Hell, it seems like all the mainstream nutrition writing falls back on nonsensical calories-in/calories-out thinking, when, in fact, how your body handles those calories is all about proper insulin, leptin and cortisol management. No, my anger -- or maybe "frustration" is a better word -- stems from the fact that unlike all the completely wrongheaded nutrition info out there, this article came tantalizingly close to the answer. And then threw it all away, likely causing the casual reader to toss up his or her hands and think that it's all a lost cause, anyway, so eff this and pass the cookies.

And, really, it is so simple. Note: not "easy," but simple. It just takes time and a commitment to a lifestyle change -- a really delicious, satisfying change at that-- not a crash "diet" that never fixes the underlying metabolic derangement. Rather, how about a new way of eating that has you eating real food and feeling full and satisfied, with barely a need to snack?

This article makes weight management seem impossible and painful and, in the end, not worth the effort. Yet, when done with the correct focus, it is simple and well worth it. You *will* have to change your life and your habits. You will *not* have to go on a crash "diet."

Don't give up. Go paleo.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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