The Science of Fat

May 13, 2019 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Books, Health, Science | 1 Comment
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Recently, I read The Secret Life of Fat, a book by Sylvia Tara on modern fat science. Some content is commonly understood but a lot of details are not, even in modern medicine.

For example, we can consider fat an organ that supports our immune system and bones. We need fat and our body keeps a store on hand for times of shortage. Fat works to sustain itself and the body around it.

But belly fat crowds and overloads organs so is seen as the most problematic.

It’s well-known that as we age, our metabolism gradually slows. We often get less active as well so need less food to meet our energy needs. Yet our food habits can be deeply ingrained. As a result, it’s common to gain weight in our middle years.

It’s also become clear that our hormones change substantially in the same period (for men too) which exacerbates the problem.

Not to mention career progress into more desk-oriented work.

Weight is thus gained more easily while also becoming harder to lose. Things that worked for us before become much less effective.

The electric light allows us to stay up later and be perpetually tired. Being tired also slows our metabolism while reducing quality of life.

Stress increases metabolism but encourages fat (energy) retention. Emotional repression can also lead to fat buildup as a natural protective response. Similarly, Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP‘s) often carry extra weight as an ineffective kind of “protection.”

Genetics is another area that influences our tendency to gain weight. Ease at gaining, losing, or not gaining can all be seen in our DNA, if you’ve been tested. Genetics also influences where we put weight on. We’ll usually see examples in our family around us.

Our microbiome has a larger population than all the cells in our body. Many live in the gut and help us with digestion. The kinds of food we eat culture our gut bacteria. They’ll signal the brain went they want more, making it more challenging to change our food habits. They create a momentum to our diet. We have found some kinds of bacteria and viruses shift the bodies tendencies to store fat too. They can affect the bodies hormones and thus our mood and motivations.

Fat can also store toxins. If we’ve had a “leaky gut” problem, there is a tendency for toxins to leach into the blood stream. The liver will then try to store these toxins in fat. If we lose weight, the fat can release the toxins again so the body may work to restore fat as a toxin repository. Toxic load can thus create resistance to weight loss.

Similarly, plastics, pesticides and preservatives can all create a tendency to keep fat. Some chemicals behave enough like hormones to change our behaviour.

As we gain weight, our fat system will create a new set point and seek to sustain itself, despite our efforts otherwise. Obesity drifts into becoming a chronic disease and a major contributor to our largest health issues.

Overall, we have a growing list of influences outside of diet and lifestyle that can influence our tendency to gain and retain fat. Also, refined carbs and sugars are addictive.

The last section of the Secret Life book talks about ways to lose weight and keep it off using vigorous exercise and counting calories. This part of the book is weaker and based on older science.

Curiously, she closes with her own process, some of which conflicts with the previous section. Personally, I’ve never found “fighting” with my physiology productive. Instead, it’s more useful to get to know your body and understand what it needs and what throws it off. Each of us need our own formula to find balance.

Once middle aged, we usually have to move beyond dieting and shift into lifestyle changes or we won’t be able to keep excess weight off.

This isn’t just a personal issue. Our common diet is destroying our health and our environment. It’s unsustainable in multiple ways. Obesity contributes to our most common serious illnesses. It’s a preventable epidemic and yet there is strong medical and industry resistance to change.

The Lancet British medical journal published EAT-Lancet, the “Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.” They titled it “Food in the Anthropocene.”

They recommend a revolution in our modern diet towards a goal of a “healthy reference diet” of 2,500 calories a day based on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), with just 150 calories from animal protein like beef, pork, lamb, poultry, eggs, and fish. In short, a diet that emphasizes whole, plant-based, unprocessed foods. This matches the CHIP program I’ve also written about.

Does that sound like starvation? In 2015 the average American consumed over 3,600 calories daily. In 1961, they consumed just 2,880. Canadians are close behind. In the rush away from dietary fat and an increase in processed foods, we shifted to sugar and low-quality carbs, considerably increasing out daily caloric intake.

Canada has updated its Food Guide, similarly reducing the emphasis on dairy and meat.

The CHIP program and the more stringent Ornish program emphasize changes in lifestyle that supports health:
– a whole foods, plant-based diet. This is naturally low in fat, refined carbs and sugar.
– moderate exercise, like walking. CHIP suggests working up to 10k steps a day.
– stress reduction, such as through meditation and yoga asana
– healing emotionally and culturing close relationships

The benefit of such an approach corresponds to the degree to which you adopt it.

NutritionFacts website has a free phone app for tracking a dietary balance of 12 food groups. The idea is helping you transition to a healthier diet. They also offer a free downloadable eating guide from this page.

Ayurveda
I next read The Prime, a book by Kulreet Chaudhary. “Give up the fight and win the war.” She’s a neurologist who had to take some medication she prescribed her patients and realized how badly it served them. Her mother recommended an Ayurvedic doctor she went to in desperation. Long story short, Ayurveda worked, she ended up referring patients, then training as an Ayurvedic doctor herself.

She brings up many similar points to the Fat book, but with less background science and more application. She covers food addictions, neuroadaption, the buildup of ama (undigested sludge), and why that leads to inflammation, weight gain, and other issues.

While Western medicine is very good for broken bones and infections, it’s much less effective at systemic issues as it doesn’t know how to balance the physiology as a whole. That is where Ayurveda shines. It focuses on restoring balance so the body can heal itself.

Dr. Chaudhary realized that many of her neurological patients were also losing weight because of restoring balance through Ayurveda. No dieting, just a natural restorative healing. She ended up developing a 4-step program for weight loss without dieting or exercise. Instead, gentle detoxification, healing, and balance bring weight loss as a side effect.

More broadly, Ayurveda recommends a vegetarian diet and recognizes we all have different physiologies that are supported by somewhat different diets. A gentle approach like The Prime, supplemented with points like CHIP above will place you in good stead long term.

If you have the opportunity, I recommend an Ayurvedic cleanse. It’s a great way to jump-start the restoration of balance and health.

The ideal is panchakarma in a spa or clinic. This is a more focused and personalized treatment including warm oil massage, steaming, and related treatments. Several friends have traveled to India for less expensive treatment but there are spas in N. America and Europe. You have to be careful their Vaidyas are properly trained and the herbs well-sourced. Those trained in Maharishi Ayurveda have high standards and use a milder approach suitable for westerners.

But such things are not cheap and can take time and attention. The Prime is a simple approach and a good way to get started.

I’ve also found it’s good to have support during and after a program so you sustain the lifestyle changes. Otherwise, you have more influences to fall back again and undo the benefits in short order.
David

1 Comment »

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  1. The chemistry of fat and how we actually shed fat itself.

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