I think you will agree with me that the struggle most people have with weight gain is real.
In a world that is saturated with contradicting information on what we should eat, what we shouldn’t eat, the threat of carbohydrates, calorie counting and a whole host of other misinformation it’s easy to see why we get fat – it is all so overwhelming!
Science Explains: Why We Get Fat – And What We Can Do About It.
I can assure you, however, that there is nothing to be afraid of. With a little guidance you will see that there is an exciting, healthier version of yourself just around the corner.
Knowledge is power and by the end of this article you will have the power to change your eating habits, and you will do that by first understanding how your body works. We will look at carbohydrates and insulin and the roles they play in how our bodies digest and utilize food.
Note. Knowledge is power!
You will discover the benefits of fiber and nutrient dense foods and also the dangers of too much protein in your diet. I will explain why convenience is not always a good thing.
You will understand why overweight people need to lower their carbohydrate intake and the difference intermittent fasting can make to your life. By the end of this article you will recognize that the keto lifestyle is the way forward and you will have the knowledge and the tools to make better health choices. But first on our journey to understanding why we get fat, and learning what we can do about it, we need to address the issues with something that all of us have been indoctrinated into basing all of our food choices on since we were children: the food pyramid.
The Issues with the Traditional Food Pyramid
Food pyramids were introduced after the second world war, when food rations were prominent and governments needed the population to fill up on easy to produce cheap foods.
The food pyramid that most of us grew up with was released by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1992 and sectioned off a pyramid in 6 chunks with recommendations on how to structure your daily diet. A large portion of carbohydrates (up to 11 servings a day!), smaller amounts of vegetables and fruits followed by smaller again servings of dairy, meats and sweets.
This made sense in a time when the cost of food production was at an all-time high and the food industry realised how cheap it was to create so many products from grains, which laid the basis of the traditional food pyramid.
It makes less sense now. In his 2005 published book Eat, Drink and be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating, Dr. Walter Willett outlines a number of reasons why the traditional food pyramid is not accurate or for that matter, a suitable reference for healthy living.
He explains that the food pyramid is a big contributor to why we get fat. Here are a few of the misleading recommendations suggested by the food pyramid:
- The traditional food pyramid leads you to believe that all complex carbohydrates are good for you and that we must eat six to eleven servings of carbs every day. This is far too much. There is also no clear definition between complex (starches) and simple (sugars) carbohydrates and there is no mention of refined carbohydrates which include foods like biscuits and chips. Our main source of carbs should come from whole grains which include fiber, to make us feel fuller for longer.
- It leads us to believe that all fats are bad. This is simply not true. While saturated fats (like those found in cream, butter and cheese) should absolutely be consumed in moderation, monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats (like those found in nuts, whole grains and fish) are actually good for your heart.
- The traditional food pyramid encourages a daily intake of dairy and that dairy products (like milk, cheese and butter) are crucial to a healthy diet. This is not true. In fact, studies have shown that a daily consumption of dairy products has been linked to a higher risk of developing cancers to the reproductive system, especially to prostate and breast cancers. ¹
- The food pyramid determines that all proteins are the same. Again, this is not true. While it is important to include good amounts of protein in your diet, not all proteins are created equal. For example, chicken, pork and turkey all contain as much protein as red meat does, but they don’t have the same amount of cholesterol, which is better for your heart health.
- While the traditional food pyramid recommends what, and how much, of each particular food group you should eat on a daily basis there is no guidance in regards to exercise, weight, vitamins or water intake – all of which are essential to optimal health.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrate – one of the most common and yet misunderstood words of the last century. We hear about them, we talk about them, we count them, we love them, we hate them, but what exactly are they?
Carbohydrates are macronutrients and are the body's main source of energy. They are called carbohydreates beacuse they are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Carbohydrates are macronutrients and are the body’s main source of energy. They are called carbohydrates because they are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Most of the food we eat contains carbohydrates (with the exception of meat) and we absolutely need carbohydrates to function. In fact, the National Institute of Health suggests that the recommended daily amount of carbs is 135 grams for adults, however all individuals are different, as are our health goals. We need carbs for energy and for brain function and to keep our muscles healthy.
Now you might be wondering, how do carbohydrates actually work?
When we eat food that contains carbs our stomachs break down the carbs into smaller components – namely glucose and fructose. The small intestine absorbs these sugars and transports them to the liver, which converts all of the sugars into glucose. As soon as we eat anything that has carbs in it our pancreas releases insulin, which is needed to move the sugar out of the blood and into the body. With the help of insulin, glucose travels through the blood stream and is converted by the body into energy. We either use this energy or store it for later, as fat.
Are all carbs the same? I’m glad you asked. No, they are not. Not all carbohydrates are created equal. There are two types:
Simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are also known as monosaccharides (if they contain just one type of sugar like glucose) or disaccharides if they have two sugars (like glucose and fructose). Simple carbs include refined sugars like those found in candy and soft drink and processed foods like a lot of our favourite take away meals.
Complex carbohydrates have three or more sugars in them and are also known as polysaccharides. Complex carbs generally refer to foods that are quite starchy like breads, pasta, potatoes and cereals.
But what is the difference between simple and complex carbs?
Simple carbs cause short bursts of energy while complex carbs release energy over a longer period of time. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, too much sugar in our diet is why we get fat.
Another popular term that is used when we talk about why we get fat is calories. What exactly is a calorie?
Calories are the amount of energy found in any piece of food. We need energy to live, and this energy comes from the food that we eat.
We already know how the food breaks down (carbohydrates become sugar which gets converted to energy) and it’s important to understand why calories are important as well.
Some foods have a high calorie content, like dried fruits, pasta, rice and bread, potatoes and processed foods and others have a low-calorie content like vegetables, berries and beans. The higher the calorie content, typically the fattier the foods are.
While we need energy to live and for optimal brain function and to keep our bodies healthy, it is vital that we don’t consume too many calories. Everybody is different but as a general guide, adult men need about 2,500 calories and adult women 2,000 calories per day, to maintain a healthy body weight. You can find the calorie content of any foods you buy at the supermarket on the packet (sometimes listed under Energy or Kilojoules) and there are a variety of calorie counters you can access online; my favourite one is MyFitnessPal which includes lists of foods and the number of calories per serving.
One of the main reasons why we get fat is not being aware of our calorie intake. It’s important that we use the energy that we consume, or we will find our waistlines getting bigger.
Insulin Explained: Why it is so Important
Most people when they think of insulin immediately relate it to diabetes.
While high insulin levels can absolutely lead to a variety of health issues including diabetes, most of us don’t really know what insulin is, or how it works. Let me break it down for you.
Insulin is a hormone that is created and released by the pancreas, to help move the sugar in our blood stream into the cells in our bodies.
Everything we eat is broken down into nutrients, which fuels our bodies, giving us energy and the ability to function. Our main source of fuel is glucose (or sugar) which comes from the carbohydrates that we eat.
If we eat too many carbohydrates, our body produces more insulin to help clear our bloodstream of all the sugar, and too much insulin can be dangerous to our health. With the help of insulin, the sugars in our bloodstream are moved into our cells, and too much sugar means you guessed it – our cells get bigger, filling up with excess glucose. This is why we get fat.
Too much insulin causes our bodies to store more fat and we crave more sugary foods. Eating more sugary foods means we produce more insulin and eventually we get bigger and bigger and start to build a resistance to insulin, which leads to diabetes. Too much insulin in our blood also makes us feel sleepy and lazy.
Foods that promote a large amount of insulin to be released in your body are known as insulinogenic foods.
Sweet, baked goods like cookies and cakes, processed foods with a high sugar content like cereal and white bread, pasta and rice are all foods that are high in carbohydrates which lead to high levels of insulin production. Eating foods that are high in sugars and carbs causes our bodies to produce more insulin, which can be very dangerous to our health, and to the size of our pants.
Fiber is your friend
Fiber plays a large role in our health and unfortunately most of us have no idea why. According to the Mayo Clinic, dietary fiber – which is found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains – has many health benefits including lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes and helps you to maintain a healthy weight.
There are two types of fiber:
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance that helps to lower blood glucose levels and cholesterol. It is found in beans, apples, citrus fruits, oats, peas and carrots.
Insoluble fiber cannot be digested by the body and moves through your digestive system pushing out all the things your body doesn’t need. Potatoes, nuts, vegetables, wheat-bran and beans are all good sources of insoluble fiber.
For optimal health and a smaller waistline include a variety of high fiber, low calorie foods in your diet like berries, broccoli, peas, avocado and oatmeal.
Pace your protein
When we eat food, our digestive system breaks down that food into nutrients, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. Carbohydrates become sugars, and proteins are broken down into amino acids. When carbs are broken down into sugars (glucose) this raises our blood sugar level and triggers the pancreas to release a blood sugar lowering hormone: insulin.
Insulin is also a protein, and too much protein in your diet can lead to a spike in insulin. Insulin is what drives the glucose out of our bloodstream and into our cells, where the glucose is either used for energy, or stored for later (too much stored glucose becomes fat).
If there is too much insulin in your bloodstream it forces too much of the glucose to be absorbed into your cells, dropping your blood glucose levels. To be able to function we all need the right amount of glucose in our blood. Too low, and we stop being able to function properly, we suffer from fatigue, an inability to focus and our bodies start craving sugar.
This is why we reach for sugar-filled, carb loaded snacks that only make us feel (and look) worse.
Vitamins and mineral – what is all the hype about?
Almost every piece of media advertising that tries to sell us anything we can put in our mouths never fails to include the phrase ‘vitamins and minerals’. They want us to have them, they want us to know their food products contain them but why should we be eating them?
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that our bodies need to do the things our bodies do. Growing cells, skin, muscles and bones, communicating messages between nerve endings, breathing, blinking, speaking, moving.
All these things that we do on a daily basis are possible with the help of vitamins and minerals. The majority we can manufacture on our own but a large number do come from the foods that we eat.
Vitamins and minerals help our immune system, help us to heal when we are wounded, they repair cellular damage and they help convert food into energy.
Including high nutrient dense foods – foods that are high in vitamins and minerals – into our diet is vital to good health. The best part is that these foods are not only good for us in that our bodies get a lot of benefits from eating them, but they fill us up for longer.
Plants like avocado, blueberries, garlic, acai berries and (my favourite) dark chocolate are nutrient dense and delicious as well.
The inconvenience of convenience
One of the biggest issues we face in a time when we are finding ourselves more and more time poor is the production, ease and accessibility of convenience meals.
The issue with the majority of frozen meals on the market is that they contain little to no nutritional value.
The labels on the packets list fat content, salt content and sugar content but do not list the vitamins and minerals.
On the rare occasion that they do, the content mentioned is typically what the ingredients contained when they were raw, not what nutritional value is left after it has been produced and packaged. Another concern is the additives and preservatives added to convenience meals to ensure longevity on the shelf. At the end of the day, it is a much healthier option to make your own meals using fresh ingredients.
Your body will thank you for it.
Why we need to lower our carbohydrate intake
One of the main reasons why we get fat is the consumption of high carbohydrate foods.
It is that simple.
It takes longer for our bodies to break down the carbs and convert them into sugars and before we are able to use those carbs as energy we eat more carbs and before you know it you are piling on the kilos.
It’s easy to do, because our brains are tricked into thinking that carbs are delicious (I’m talking about pasta and bread and donuts and macaroni and cheese and chips and all the other foods that we love) but that’s because those foods are loaded with sugars and sugar is addictive. It’s just as easy to break those bad habits and start living healthier and, ultimately, happier.
Here’s the thing:
The formula to a successful weight loss journey is 80% diet and 20% exercise = 100% new healthier lifestyle.
The key to a successful diet is to limit your carbohydrate intake.
I know it sounds impossible at first and I also know that you may start out with the best of intentions and clean out your cupboards on Day 1 and load up your shopping trolley with salads and nutrient dense foods and berries but by Day 2 you have a raging headache and you are questioning all of your life choices as you stare into the fridge and wonder if you have the energy to reach for the phone and order a pizza.
That is totally normal.
It takes about three days for the sugar cravings to wander off and for your body to switch from using carbs to fat for energy. By limiting your carbohydrate intake and minimizing the amount of fat that is added to your diet (anything fried) overweight – and not so overweight – people are able to kickstart the process to a healthy, happy and sustainable lifestyle (with a much smaller waistline!).
Intermittent fasting – the benefits
Intermittent fasting has numerous health benefits and cultures all around the world have incorporated some kind of a fast into their routines for thousands of years.
I know you must be thinking:
What’s the difference between fasting and starving?
Put simply, think of fasting as an eating pattern. It doesn’t determine what you should eat, but when you should eat.
Intermittent fasting encourages the body to access the fat stores that it wasn’t able to use because of a regular eating schedule.
There are a number of ways that you can incorporate fasting into your lifestyle but the easiest and most common method is the 16/8 method.
This means that you eat during 8 hours of the day, and fast for 16. For example, you would have your first meal of the day at 1pm, your last at 9pm, and not eat anything for the 16 hours until the following day at 1pm.
This method is the easiest to maintain, because you will more than likely be asleep for 8 of the 16 fasting hours overnight.
Professor of Neuroscience Mark Mattson at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore maintains that intermittent fasting decreases insulin levels in the body, increases ketones and helps improve cognitive function.
The plant based keto lifestyle: success starts here
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the keto lifestyle – the term is used across a wide variety of social media platforms, in blogs and articles and from the lips of many celebrities and world renown chefs, media personalities and lifestyle coaches. But what exactly is the keto diet?
First, we need to understand how our bodies use the food we put into it. Our bodies preferred source of energy is from carbohydrates. When we eat food, our bodies digest it by mixing it with fluids like enzymes and acids in our stomachs.
This process causes the carbohydrates in the food we have eaten to break down and turn into glucose, a type of sugar.
The glucose is released into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestines and is the primary source of fuel (or energy) our bodies use to function and can be used straight away or stored for later. As I’m sure you know, not all foods are the same, and we know (or think we know) what foods are good for us and what foods are bad for us. Now that we know how our bodies process the food that we eat, we can take a look at why the keto lifestyle will change your body for the better.
The keto (or ketogenic) diet is a low carb, moderate protein, high fat diet. That means lots of above ground vegetables like spinach, broccoli, mushrooms and lettuce, plenty of protein including fermented tofu, tampeh and good fats like coconut yogurt, avocado and flax seed oil. All of these food examples are low in carbohydrates and high in protein and good fats. By keeping our intake of carbohydrates minimal, we encourage our bodies to use a different source of energy: stored fat.
But how does that work?
Remember how the food we eat gets broken down in our stomach and the carbohydrates become sugar? That sugar then travels through our blood and is either used for immediate energy in our day to day lives and is expelled through breathing, sweating and urination, or it gets stored in our fat cells.
The more carbohydrates that we eat, the more sugar there is being stored in our cells. If we stop eating carbs, our bodies will start to use the fat that is stored for its energy, and that puts our bodies into what is called ketosis.
By adopting the keto lifestyle, we can use our own fat stores as energy!
Other benefits of a keto lifestyle are:
So, there you have it.
Now not only do you have a better understanding of how our bodies absorb and convert carbohydrates into sugar and why the pancreas produces insulin, you’ve also got a better understanding of the dangers of too much protein and why fiber is so important.
An information overload over the last few decades, especially through the insurgence of the health and fitness industry has made it incredibly challenging to sift through what is right and what is wrong. Fads are dangerous and trends or movements are exactly that: movements.
They shift with the seasons.
If we take the time to get to know our bodies, to understand how they work on a cellular level we will be better equipped to take care of them, to nourish and feed and heal them.
Science explains why we get fat – we are running our bodies on the wrong fuel and then feel frustrated that we don’t look or feel the way that we want to.
Your body needs to be nourished, you can’t expect it to run well when it’s drowning in fat.
Know your body. Keep your carbohydrate intake low and make sure you are eating the best possible sources of protein, fiber and vitamins. Forget everything you know about the traditional food pyramid and give intermittent fasting a go. You will see and feel the results almost immediately and this will give you the determination to keep moving forward.
Embrace the keto lifestyle and you will never look back. You now have the knowledge and the tools that will be instrumental in lowering your weight and increasing your appetite for life!