Are High Fat Diets Good For You? (Part 2)

In last week's article, we looked at recent research that demonstrates the metabolic advantage of eating a diet higher in fat and lower in carbohydrates. As a reminder, several decades ago, Americans naturally ate a diet higher in fats. However, that all changed in 1977.

"Prior to 1977, no government agency told us what to eat.  Our mothers told us what to eat and what not to eat.  If we were obese, they told us to lay off the sweets and the starchy foods (bread, pasta, potatoes).  And hey, guess what – usually that was enough to control the weight problem." -Dr. Jason Fung

Everything changed 1977 when the United States government waged a "war on fat," pointing the finger at dietary fats as the culprit for heart disease while recommending Americans consume 60% of calories from carbohydrates (all based on questionable evidence). This, of course launched a craze of highly processed, low fat and fat free food, which were stripped of its fat content and replaced with added sugar. Sadly, 74% of items found in the modern grocery store have sugar added to them. As we saw in last week's article, eating a diet lower in carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates) and higher in healthy fats confers a significant metabolic advantage, allowing you to burn more calories throughout the day without any change in physical activity.

This week, I would like to introduce the Hormonal Theory of Obesity (HTO), also known as the Carbohydrate Insulin Hypothesis (CIH), which will show us why we are more likely to lose weight on a diet consisting of 3500 calories of Alaskan Wild Caught Salmon versus a diet of 2500 calories worth of snickerdoodle cookies (Let's say that my body burns 3000 calories per day).

To understand this model of weight gain/loss we need to contrast it with conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom reduces weight gain to a simple accounting problem in which you consume more calories than what you burn. This paradigm conveniently shifts the blame from the big food industry, which fills our grocery store isles with endless junk food, and places it on the consumer for his utter lack of self control.

The conventional weight loss equation (calories in minus calories out) over simplifies the billions of metabolic processes that occur in the human body every second and deems all calories as equal. The biological reality is that the way in which our body metabolizes calories from different macronutrient sources (fat, protein, and carbs) is fundamentally different. In fact, the way in which the body metabolizes different types of calories within each macronutrient group (ex. complex carbs vs simple carbs. Saturated fat vs unsaturated fats, etc.) is fundamentally different.

Instead of asking how many calories we are consuming versus burning, the much better and more biologically accurate question to ask is: how fattening are the calories that we consume? The answer to that question is much more nuanced and complicated compared to the reductionist thermodynamic equation. The simplest, most concise way to determine how fattening the calories we consume are depends on how they biologically change our hormones. Why? Because the hormonal response that is triggered by the foods we eat determines whether calories are burned or stored as fat. Hence the name Hormonal Theory of Obesity. Hormones also dictate whether we feel hungry or satiated. Hormones dictate our cravings and tell us if we've had enough to eat. According to this model, shaping your diet to optimize your hormones is the most effective way to modify your weight.

Fundamentally, the HTO/CIM argues that overeating isn't the underlying cause of long-term weight gain. Instead, it is the biological process of gaining weight that causes us to overeat. As Gary Taubes wrote in his book Why We Get Fat, “We do not get fat because we overeat. We overeat because we get fat.”

It's really quite logical to accept that hormones dictate our eating habits and determine whether we gain or lose weight. Let's analyze some simple examples. During a normal, healthy pregnancy, the mother tends a gain a sizable amount of weight. In this time of weight gain, it's likely that her rapidly changing hormones are dictating her appetite and signaling her to eat more. Her hormones also dictate her cravings, hinting at her nutritional deficiencies. We wouldn't say that that the mother is gaining weight because she is consuming more calories than she burns. Rather, her body, with the help of her hormones, is prompting her to eat more and store extra fat.

Likewise, anyone who has ever been or has witnessed the eating habits of an adolescent teenage boy knows that they tend to be like walking trash compactors, able to consume large quantities of food without significant weight gain. Again, this is a time of significant hormonal change, which is dictating his voracious appetite. We wouldn't say that he is growing because he is eating significant amounts of food. Rather, he is eating voraciously because his body is growing rapidly and is therefore prompting him to change his dietary habits.

Another interesting factor to consider is the varying patterns in which men and women tend to gain weight. Men tend to gain weight starting from the waist and continuing upwards toward the abdomen, neck, and shoulders. Women tend to gain weight in the rear and in the legs. Weight gain again, as demonstrated in this example, is dictated by hormonal patterns and not by calorie balance.

Which hormones dictate weight loss and gain? We'll see in next week's article. (hint: The answer can be found in the videos below)

This article will appear in the 8th edition of my newsletter, "5 Big Ideas to Upgrade your Health."

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