Thursday, January 5, 2012

Burning Fat - Do Calories Actually Matter?

With the start of a new year I know that a lot of people are making resolutions about weight loss and a lot of those resolutions are doomed to failure. The reason they are doomed is that people are basing their weight loss plans on the false principle that a calorie is a calorie and that weight regulation is based on balancing the calories you consume with the calories you burn through exercise. Even worse, people tend to especially fear and avoid calories from fat under the assumption that it is inclined to just continue being fat after it is digested. I’m going to spend the month of January experimenting with those myths by increasing my calorie consumption, primarily by greatly increasing the saturated fat in my diet.

Tuesday was my first day back at work after the New Year and it was also when I worked a new snack into my daily routine. My goal was to come up with a calorie-rich snack that mimics that macro-nutrient content of our paleolithic ancestors’ diets. That meant I needed something high in saturated fat, with moderate protein and a very low amount of carbohydrates. So between lunch and dinner each day I’m going to start drinking a shake made from mixing a third of a can of organic coconut milk, a scoop of whey protein isolate and water. Whey is a complete, easily digestible protein found in milk and one scoop of the whey isolate I’m using has 76 calories from 25 grams of protein and just one gram of carbohydrate. 

The organic coconut milk I’m using says it has five servings in a can with each serving containing 140 calories and 14 grams of fat, with 12 grams of that being saturated. So by using a third of a can each day I get about 233 calories from coconut milk with the vast majority of that coming from the 20 grams of saturated fat. Interestingly, 20 grams of saturated fat is the exact amount that the USDA refers to as 100 percent of a day’s allowance. Keep in mind that this is going on top of my regular diet that is based around eggs, bacon, unhomogenized whole milk, barbecue, real butter and braised, grilled and roasted meats and vegetables. I’m not worried since I’ve already seen that eating lots of natural saturated fat while shunning sugar, grains and vegetable oils is actually good for my cholesterol ratios. Remember, the USDA’s goal isn’t to make people healthy. It’s to sell the overproduced crops that are subsidized by the government.

So is my weight going to go up, down or stay roughly the same? And if I gain weight, where will it go? I’ll still be keeping my carbohydrates around 100 grams a day, and I’ll still be avoiding sugar, corn syrup and wheat as much as possible. I have a job that causes me to routinely walk about five miles a day. If you read this blog on a regular basis you can see that I travel all over the Mid-South for my job. You may be surprised to learn that I generally put a little less than 20,000 miles on my work vehicle in a year. I go to a different part of town each day, then spend most of the day on foot. The only additional exercise I get, besides biking around Midtown for fun, is doing kettlebell swings with a 50 pound kettlebell about twice a week. I plan to keep my routine the same, but add over 300 calories a day to my diet. Those 308 calories will include 50 percent of the RDA for protein and 100 percent of the RDA for saturated fat with almost no increase in carbohydrates.  

Fat storage is primarily controlled by two hormones -- insulin and leptin. Since high blood sugar is toxic to your body, your body uses insulin to guard against it. As Gary Taubes explains in his excellent book Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, When your blood sugar goes up, your pancreas should respond by releasing insulin, which should tell your body to hold onto its fat reserves while burning as much of the glucose as possible and storing the rest as additional fat. In the absence of insulin your body will happily burn fat for energy. The higher you spike your blood sugar, the higher your insulin will go in response which can result in a blood sugar crash that leaves you feeling weak, light-headed and extremely hungry, despite all the energy you’ve stored as fat. Chronically elevating your blood sugar by constantly consuming foods like sugar, corn syrup and starches like bread and potatoes, which become pure glucose when digested, can eventually wear out the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin and/or make your cells resistant to the effects of insulin.

Humans evolved eating a diet that didn’t contain bread, cookies, pasta, and soda. Insulin worked fine for controlling the blood sugar that came with foraged nuts, berries, root vegetables, the occasional bit of honey, etc. Meanwhile, leptin is the hormone that made sure our prehistoric ancestors stored enough fat to make it through times when food was scarce. Nutrition expert Sean Croxton wrote an excellent piece on leptin for his Underground Wellness blog. Leptin is a hormone that your fat produces to let your body know if there is enough of it around. If you begin drastically cuting your calories, especially if you simultaneously begin exercising more, the drop in leptin levels will tell your brain that a famine has left you unable to get enough food no matter how hard you work to find it. Your brain will respond by slowing your metabolism so that your body can hold on to its precious fat stores until the famine is over.

Once you get frustrated with your diet and give up your body will pack on some extra fat, beyond what you had at the start of the diet, in preparation for any future decrease in food consumption. Also, just as cells can become insulin resistant, your hypothalamus in your brain can become resistant to to Leptin. This is primarily caused by high blood sugar, high stress levels, high triglycerides, and consuming fructose, which becomes triglycerides in the liver. If your hypothalamus is leptin resistant, your body will think it needs more fat stored away regardless of what your mirror and scale are saying. 

 By largely avoiding processed junk foods containing sugar, corn syrup, wheat and processed vegetable oils while generally keeping my carbohydrates under 100 grams a day, I’ve had no trouble maintaining a steady BMI of just under 22. I currently have a 32 inch waist, which is where my body stores fat. I don’t care if my BMI goes up during my experiment as long as my waist isn’t getting bigger, since BMI only looks at height and weight. I still won’t count calories, so I don’t know if my snack will cause me to eat more or less at other meals. I’ll just eat until I’m full three times a day in addition to my shake.

UPDATE: The results from this experiment are posted here.


  1. You are So RIGHT! I already have done your experiment at least once a year for the past 20 years. The first time I did this I lost 80 pounds. Mid way (4 months) into the diet I decided to see how much I could eat and if I would still lose weight. I consumed 4000 calories a day of Bacon, Eggs, Chicken, and Beef with little or no carbs. I still lost at least 1 pound per week eating 4000 calories. Prior to going low/no carb, it would take me 2 to 3 weeks to loose 1 pound eating just 1000 calories a day on a NO FAT diet.

    Like you said, the government doesn't want us to know these things.

    However, I don't think they are doing this for conspiracy reasons. There simply is NO WAY to raise enough cattle, chickens, pigs,a nd fish to supply everyone with the needed PROTEIN and Saturated Fat they need to live healthy lives. All of the available land would be consumed for live stock. For feeding the masses, we have no choice but to use plant based foods that are high in starches. By letting this secret out we stand to lose everything. 2012????

    1. Most figures you see on how much land and other resources it takes to raise livestock assume that you are raising huge monocrops of foods like corn and soy to feed to the animals in separate feedlots, instead of largely eliminating those crops, along with wheat, and switching to rotational grazing. Rotational grazing is the only kind of agriculture that adds to topsoil instead of steadily destroying it. Monocrops of grains are what turned the former "fertile crescent" in the Middle East into a giant desert.

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