Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cortisol and Metabolic Syndrome X

In my blog, you'll hear a lot about the stress hormone cortisol. If you have ever listened to a stress reduction briefing, or you exercise regularly, then you are likely aware of this hormone. However, what you might not be familiar with is cortisol's connection to the diseases that make up Metabolic Syndrome X. There is good evidence that cortisol is the "X" in Metabolic Syndrome X.

What is Metabolic Syndrome X?
Metabolic Syndrome X describes a mysterious connection between heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol. For someone to be diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome, they must have three or more of the following risk factors: (1)
  • Blood pressure equal to or higher than 130/85 mmHg
  • Fasting blood sugar (glucose) equal to or higher than 100 mg/dL
  • Large waist circumference (length around the waist):
    • Men - 40 inches or more
    • Women - 35 inches or more
  • Low HDL cholesterol:
    • Men - under 40 mg/dL
    • Women - under 50 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides equal to or higher than 150 mg/dL

The most interesting part about these risk factors is that they tend to appear together. For instance, if you are obese, then you are more likely to have (or develop) poor blood sugar control, high blood triglycerides, and high blood pressure. (2) Because these risk factors tend to appear (and disappear) together, they likely have a common cause.

While searching for this cause, I happened to read The Potbelly Syndrome by Russell Farris. It was here that I discovered that cortisol was likely the central cause of Metabolic Syndrome. I now believe that chronic stress (from any source) can cause chronic elevation of cortisol, which can cause serious dysfunction in the body. This dysfunction manifests itself as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol (as well as muscle wasting, low energy, accelerated aging, osteoporosis, suppressed immune system, and cancer).

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Is There such a Thing as an Ideal Body Weight?

As a troubleshooter, I love hard numbers, ideals, and useful theory. This information gives me an important set of benchmarks to measure my performance (or the performance of the systems I maintain). When it comes to diet and lifestyle, I like to use several health markers to measure the effectiveness of the theories I employ. From blood glucose to hip-to-waist ratio, I use every health standard I can find to see where I stand. If I discover that something is off (like body temperature, for instance), then I start to investigate. That's just how I am and this approach has helped me to stop (and often reverse) many health problems without the use of medication.

In this post, I'll be asking the question: Is there such a thing as an ideal body weight? In America, maintaining weight is so difficult that many people believe that they were born heavy. After all of my research, I can't agree with this belief. To me, if you are overweight, then you are displaying one of the many symptoms of dysfunctional health.

So, I believe that everyone has their own ideal body weight; but if a person is over (or under) this weight, then their diet and lifestyle are preventing their body from maintaining a healthier weight.

Body Weight Set Points
Before I get too far, let me recap how I believe your brain maintains body weight. Your body weight is not randomly assigned; it is established by your DNA and by feedback from your environment. All of this feedback determines a body weight set point that your brain identifies as ideal. This set point is always changing as you interact with your environment.

Your DNA establishes a low end for body weight. If you did absolutely nothing, everyday, then your brain would fall back to this minimum body weight. Up until recently it was impossible to do nothing and still survive. So, under normal circumstances, as a person interacts with their environment (hunting, building, moving), the brain uses this physical activity as feedback, increasing or decreasing body weight to build just enough muscle to easily accomplish daily tasks.

An over-simplified way of describing how the brain adapts to any environment is this: It has a default body weight set point that is defined by a person's genetic code. As this person interacts with their environment, the brain will redefine its body weight set point to adapt to that environment.

However, in the West, if someone is overweight, then the brain is unable to get accurate feedback from the environment. This feedback interference simulates starvation, causing the brain to slowly adjust its body weight set point much higher than normal. Essentially, even if a person can see in the mirror that they are not at a healthy body weight, the brain cannot. This results in a person maintaining a body weight that is too heavy.

Determining Your Ideal Body Weight
I believe that most people naturally achieve their ideal body weights in high school, when they are usually most active. However, this isn't the most reliable gauge because obesity now affects newer generations at younger ages. This is where the Body Mass Index (BMI) can be helpful.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Body Weight Self-Regulation in the Real World

The human body does not like to be over (or under) weight. When you don't eat the correct amount of calories, your body will try to defend its genetically- and environmentally-determined body weight. This means that if you over- or under-eat, your body will react defensively to maintain this established body weight.

Not convinced? Living in a world of calorie-counting, portion control, and starvation diets, it's hard for many to imagine a world where gaining fat weight is extraordinarily difficult. But this world exists and it used to be the world that all humans lived in.

A Real World Example of Body Weight Self-Regulation
In the West African country of Mauritania, extreme amounts of body fat is seen as beautiful. To attract the attention of a man for marriage, women in this country will try to gain hundreds of pounds before their teenage years. 

Not having Western foods to break their hunger and appetite feedback systems (only whole foods like "raw goat's milk, meat, millet, couscous, dates, and peanuts"), these women have to force-feed themselves to the point of nausea and vomiting for many years to gain extra fat weight. Some of these women will eat upwards of 16,000 calories a day to try and pack on the pounds in a couple of months. (1)

Apparently, when you are healthy and eating whole foods, gaining fat weight isn't easy. This has led some successful women in this country to become professional fatteners. These older women will restrict the physical activity of their "students," beating girls who refuse to eat the required amount of food every day. (1) One girl reported that she was forced to drink 5 liters of raw milk per day (which contains about 3,000 calories). But all of this hard work eventually pays off: Another women who went through this process said that she was able to gain 176 pounds in just ten years (or about 1.5 pounds per month). (2)

Zeinebou Mint Mohamed, 26, showing the results of being forced-fed for years. She is now 5'4" and 200 pounds.

It Really is Hard to gain fat Weight
While 176 pounds is a lot of weight, you would think that these girls would gain even more weight after eating thousands of extra calories every day for up to ten years.

Hypothetically, given that a pound of fat can hold 3500 calories, if a person was eating 3,000 calories per day for five years, and only storing about half of these calories, then they should gain more than 700 pounds of body fat*. But the girls in this country who overeat don't gain anywhere near this much weight. For instance, the woman who gained 176 pounds in ten years was only storing an average of about 170 calories every day.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

There are NO Optimal Macro-nutrient Ratios

For several decades, the West has been obsessed with establishing an ideal, disease-free macro-nutrient ratio. First it was low-fat, then low-carb. But none of these extreme dietary macro-nutrient prescriptions seems to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Do these macro-nutrient ratios really matter to your health? Yes and no.

You Need to eat All Macro-Nutrients 
No single macro-nutrient class is unhealthy. In fact, the human body has evolved to require all three macro-nutrients (e.g., protein, carbohydrate, and fat) in your diet to be healthy. (1)

Humans, being highly adaptable creatures, have the ability to survive on a broad range of macro-nutrient ratios. If you look at the table below, you will see the ratios that are believed to have produced healthy Paleolithic humans: (2)

This table represents the range of estimated macro-nutrients consumed by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers in different parts of the world. 
Given that humans can be healthy on such a wide variety of macro-nutrient intakes, why are diet gurus now trying to establish a single "ideal" ratio? The truth is that every person is different, which means that they will each require different macro-nutrients based on what they do every day.

Setting Up Your Personalized Macro-Nutrient Ratio
You can set up your own personalized ratio by following this guidance:

1) Protein Intake is Determined by Your Lean Mass
If you look at the table above, you'll see that humans have always eaten a fair amount of protein (no less than 19% of total calories). Today, protein represents only 15% of total calories for the average American. Protein is very important to your health and well being, and 15% of total calories is just not enough.

Generally, you should eat about 1 gram of protein for every pound of lean mass you have. (To identify your lean mass, use an electronic body-fat analyzer.) This never changes. If you increase your lean mass, then you have to increase your protein intake as well. (3)

For example, if someone weighs 200 pounds, and has 30% body fat, then they would have 60 pounds of fat and 140 pounds of lean mass. At 1 gram per pound of lean mass, this person would need to eat 140 grams of protein every day. For an average energy intake of 2200 calories per day, 140 grams is 25% of total daily calories, which is well below our historical maximum protein intake of 35%.

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