Why is so hard to lose weight? There’s more to it than just diet and exercise…
Why is it so hard to lose weight? How many times you have heard people saying they work their butt off, lose some weight just to gain it all back later? Why can’t we lose weight when we eat less and workout more? There is one simple reason:
There is a program running our metabolism, and its function is to maintain constant balance. Our body is a perfect machine that keeps a baseline. Fat buildup is associated with our fat cells and there is a biochemical metabolism which runs them. Behavior, genetic makeup and food environment are the main elements responsible for controlling our fat cells. Some of these variables can be changed but it will throw our equilibrium program off, hence the difficulty of loosing weight.
It is not so much what we eat but what these foods do to our metabolism. We have a sort of collision between genetics and modern life. For thousands of years we’ve been surviving with food scarcity. Now there is an unprecedented abundance food. Enough carbohydrates to fill every fat cell in the body and keep it there. To understand how the body stores fat and keeps it there we need first to understand a little about fat cells and how they work.
Fat cells have several important functions: energy storage, organ protection, cushioning, heat generation and many other metabolic functions. You are born with a certain number of fat cells and there is nothing you can really do about that. No diet will ever work. The only people that insist there is a diet that will work are the fashion and diet industries. The number of fat cells you are born with will determine if you will like to play sports or to sit and watch sports (while eating cupcakes). Once a fat cell is created, its next mission is to fill itself up with…fat. If fat levels drops, leptin will signal your brain to become hungry and lazy. Energy that is not lost is stored as fat. Your body is a perfect machine maintaining everything in balance, including your fat levels.
Think of fat cells as birthday balloons: when empty they can be stuffed in a bag, but when filled they will occupy the whole room. Fat cells don’t want to be trimmed down. They are designed to hold on to fat. They will not give it up without a fight. We are genetically programmed to keep our fat because fat is energy and it means survival in times of famine. Our ancestral family had to work really hard to accumulate that good protective fat layer. The problem is that today we barely have any famines (not true in some parts of the world), instead there is an endless overabundance of caloric foods, mostly carbohydrates. Most people think that your fat cells are filling up because we eat too much and exercise too little but that is not the complete story.
It’s true that how we gain fat has a lot to do with what we eat and how much energy we spend but there is more to this story. It is easy to say everyone is eating too much and doing too little but is harder to see what is at work under the hood or how energy is being stored. There are many other environmental factors such as how much we sleep, our stress level, how much time we spend in front of a computer at work and then again at home on Facebook. All of these contribute to our obesity epidemic but they are simple associations and not the cause. The reason we fill fat cells at an alarming rate is insulin (and how much we have in our blood stream at any given moment).
There is no fat accumulation without insulin; it is what makes your fat cells grow. Insulin turns sugar into fat and allows it to go into fat cells. Not a problem in small amounts but that is not what’s happening today. An adolescent today has twice the insulin as they did in 1975. High insulin accounts for perhaps 75-80% of all obesity. Insulin can be increased in different ways:
1) The brain can send an immediate signal to the your pancreas to make extra amount of insulin (hyperinsulinemia) in response to a high refined-carbohydrate meals.
2) If you eat certain foods you can end up building fat in your liver which will make the liver sick creating insulin resistance, in turn the pancreas has no alternative but to make more insulin.
3) And finally: stress. When your stress hormone cortisol level rises two things happen. It will make your liver and muscles more insulin-resistant thus raising your insulin levels even more and drive fat into fat cells.
In addition to that, people can increase their insulin levels by taking anti-inflammatory steroids, antipsychotics, and hypoglycemic agents to treat diabetes which are notorious for driving insulin levels up (causing excessive weight gain). These spikes in insulin become part of the metabolic program which runs our body’s energy consumption and energy storage. Once this program is in place it becomes much harder to get anything to change, including weight loss. These biochemical pathways are indeed powerful. So how can we get our fat cells to slim down?
How to get thin:
Once a fat cell is filled it just doesn’t want to give it up what it has gained. One of the main reasons why is so hard to lose weight is that when we lose fat we also lose leptin, the brain signaler. Leptin regulates your appetite and how much fat you need inside fat cells. It’s a catch-22. So what are our options? There is drug research which pursues the possibility of using chemicals called angiogenesis inhibitors (which could cut the blood supply to the fat cells) to lose the fat but it is years away from being approved. The only possible way to reverse the biochemistry and stop energy storage is to lower excessive insulin production.
Carbohydrates and Fat
Another way to change our program is to eat more fat(!). Ironically fat will not make you fat. When we eat more fat we activate gluconogenesis which is the mechanism used by the liver to produce glucose from fat. Fat has 9 calories, more then twice that of carbohydrates but interestingly enough it will not make you fat because fat does not stimulate insulin release. When you eat more fat your body will learn how to utilize this fat for energy. You’ll become a fat-burner. Soon your liver will seek more fat in other places. So eating fat burns fat. Try it.
To change our environment is one of the best chances for fat loss. We need to understand that it is not the amount of calories we ingest which makes us fat but the amount of insulin levels we are promoting with our lifestyle and the quality of foods we eat. There is a distinction here. The foods we eat and the amounts we eat have created a program, a metabolic biochemistry which needs to be reverted or changed to regain insulin at a reasonable level. Once that is achieved there will be less fat driven into fat cells. If this program is not changed, the body will keep doing a great job at keeping your fat cells filled with just that – fat.
Image credits: flickr.com