Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You Should Never Count or Restrict Calories

It seems like most diet gurus talk about the need to count and restrict calories to lose extra fat weight. This is an idea that I've always had a problem with. Why do we need to count calories and consciously starve ourselves to stay thin when most modern hunter-gatherers are usually ripped and muscular without knowing what a calorie is? (1,2) How do they stay so thin while eating whatever they want? The answer is self-regulation. 

The Body can Self-Regulate Calorie Intake
Your brain uses powerful feedback systems to regulate appetite and hunger. These feedback systems allow the brain to maintain very specific body weight and body fat set points (I'll delve into these set points in a later post). (3) These feedback systems are designed to ensure that you are getting enough calories and micro-nutrients from the foods that you eat to supply your cells with energy and support your daily physical activities.

There are four main hunger/appetite feedback systems. (4)
  • Stress-Leptin Feedback (which makes you hungry when our actual weight drops below a given set point)
  • Glucose (blood sugar) Feedback (which makes us hungry when our glucose level drops below a given set point)
  • Ghrelin Feedback (which makes us hungry before meals)
  • Empty-Stomach Feedback (which makes us hungry when our stomach is empty)

All of these feedback systems have to be satisfied for your hunger and appetite to be satisfied. If a person is healthy, then these feedback systems easily maintain a healthy body weight.

When Hunger Feedback Systems Break
With a few exceptions (e.g., drinking alcohol, consuming sugar), being overweight often has very little to do with a lack of willpower. Since calories support weight, (5) if you are overweight, then you are overeating; if you are overeating, then one or more of these hunger/appetite feedback systems are likely malfunctioning.

For instance, the hormone leptin tells the brain how much energy is stored in fat cells and when enough food has been eaten. If something interferes with your brain's sensitivity to leptin, then it cannot know exactly how much body fat you have, or when your stomach indicates that you are full. This can lead to overeating.

Poor blood sugar control is another feedback system that can cause overeating. Because your brain primarily uses glucose for fuel, it strictly regulates how much sugar is in your blood. If anything causes blood sugar to spike and crash, then your brain will increase the secretion of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (as well as increase cravings for sweets) to quickly force blood sugar back up. This can also lead to overeating. (6)

Personally, I believe that the 7 Deadly Foods each interfere with these feedback systems in their own way, essentially forcing you to overeat.

Forced Calorie Restriction Never Works
So long as you feel the need to overeat, forced calorie restriction will always fail to produce permanent fat weight loss. Forced calorie restriction means that you are hungry, but you refuse to allow yourself to eat (as opposed to voluntary calorie restriction, where you just don't want to eat the amount of calories that you normally do).

When you force yourself to eat fewer calories than you need, your brain will interpret this reduction of calories as starvation. Unfortunately for those who restrict calories, the brain is exceptionally good at dealing with starvation.

If you were to try and lose weight by forcing yourself to cut calories, at first you might be able to easily sustain this calorie restriction, resulting in some weight loss. However, as you continue to restrict calories, you will become more and more hungry, to the point of feeling physical pain and obsessing about food 24-hours a day. (7) At some point, you will start eating more food, ultimately gaining back all the weight you lost.

Perhaps the worst part about calorie restricted diets (for me) is the loss of lean muscle mass. As a person calorie restricts, they lose fat and muscle. When their weight eventually rebounds, this missing muscle mass will be replaced with additional fat. Each time a person attempts to lose fat weight through calorie restriction, they lose more muscle mass and gain even more fat weight when they return to their original weight. This means that every time that someone starves themselves to lose weight, their body composition gets worse with every round.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you don't have to feel helpless as you suffer through this yo-yoing of body weight. If you reset your hunger and appetite feedback systems, then your body will lose the extra fat weight for you.

Rebooting Your Feedback Systems
It may seem too good to be true, but if you repair these feedback systems, then you don't have to count a single calorie to effortlessly maintain a healthy weight (or lose extra fat weight).

For instance, when someone "goes Paleo," they often lose a healthy chunk of their appetite and hunger. Soon, they find that they can't eat as much food as they used to (they just don't feel like eating extra food). This voluntary drop in appetite is always followed by an effortless 1-2 pounds of weight loss every week (until their weight stabilizes at a more healthy weight).

Once this person reaches their correct body weight, their hunger and appetite will improve, allowing them to effortlessly maintain their new weight so long as they continue to eat their Paleo diet.

How can someone who switches to a Paleo diet lose (and maintain) weight so easily? I believe it is because they have removed the 7 Deadly foods from their diet, as well as increased their consumption of high-quality, nutrient-dense meats, eggs, vegetables, and fruits. These changes repaired their malfunctioning feedback systems, allowing for the automatic maintenance of a healthy weight without counting or consciously restricting a single calorie.

Conclusion
Starvation diets (either by not eating or exercising too much) don't work and can ultimately cause you to gain more fat weight. It is more likely that your overeating is due to malfunctioning appetite and hunger feedback systems, which tell your body to support higher body fat and body weight set points. This means that even if you know that you are overweight, your brain does not. So, no matter how overweight you might be, if you try to force your body to lose weight, then it will believe that it is starving, increasing your appetite and hunger and lowering your metabolism.

However, if you are overweight and remove the foods that are damaging your feedback systems, then your body will recognize that you are overweight. Within a week or two you will experience lower hunger and appetite, as well as a raised metabolism as your brain attempts to rapidly get rid of all the excess body fat it can now detect (at a healthy rate of about 1-2 pounds per week).

Once you get to your correct body weight, your appetite and hunger will adjust back to normal. So long as you continue to avoid the 7 Deadly Foods, your body will then be able to effortlessly maintain this new lower body weight. All without counting a single calorie.


References
1. Lindeberg, Staffan. Food and Western Disease. Ames, Iowa : John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010.
2. Price, Weston A. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. La Mesa, CA : The Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Inc, 2008.
3. Role of Set-Point Theory in Regulation of Body Weight. Harris, Ruth. December, s.l. : The FASEB Journal, 1990, Vol. 4. 3310-3318.
4. Farris, Russell. Potbelly Syndrome. Laguna Beach, CA : Basic Health Publication, Inc., 2005.
5. Colpo, Anthony. Fatloss Bible. s.l. : Self Published, 2011.
6. Symposium on 'Nutritionof the Brain'. Amiel, Stephanie A. s.l. : Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 1994, Vol. 53, pg 401-405.
7. Minnesota Starvation Experiment-Results. Wikipedia.org. [Online] [Cited: February 24, 2012.] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment#Results.

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