Part 4 What To Actually Do
In the previous parts, we looked at how our evolution has affected the way we eat, and the way we store fat. We talked about how food companies can take advantage of those evolutionary traits to create products that we find hard to resist, and how the composition of our meals can further drive us to overeat. Finally we discussed the relationship between our food, our fat and our hormones.
So, what do we actually do with all this information? How DO we lose fat?
Firstly, we need to be a little more specific with our goals. As we’ve established, losing weight isn’t complicated: If we maintain a calorie deficit, we will shrink. But losing weight isn’t the sum total of our objectives. We want to lose fat specifically, not lean mass, we want to do so while keeping our metabolic rate high so that we don’t immediately regain the fat that we’ve lost, and we want to achieve this by establishing a new, satisfying way of eating that we can stick to indefinitely, so that we no longer need subject ourselves to the misery of dieting.
Now we can’t get around the fact that calories matter. All the other factors that affect our fat loss – hyperpalatable foods, nutrient to energy ratio, meal composition and hormone balance, all do so by virtue of the way they influence either how much we take in, or how much we expend. Energy balance is still at the core of things, and while it’s far too simplistic to say that it’s just ‘calories in’ on one side, and exercise on the other, the caloric value of our daily intake is still the most significant lever we can pull.
Of course we’re going to talk about ways to make that lever easier to pull, and ultimately we want to be pulling it without thinking about it, but the fact remains that the first thing to do in any weight-loss journey is to get some idea of what we’re really eating. Our ultimate goal is that we won’t be weighing and tracking our food, but initially, and certainly if we’ve never done so before, it’s extremely useful to go through a period of calorie counting. Most of us honestly have no idea what 100g of a given food actually looks like on a plate, or how much energy that portion contains. Just the painstaking process of weighing and logging our food can be quite enlightening, and for many of us, a competitive urge to ‘beat the numbers’ begins to establish itself. So to start with, we want to get ourselves a digital kitchen scale and a calorie-counting app – Chronometer is a popular one. By putting our details into an online macro calculator, we can get a rough idea of what our daily calorie allowance should be.
In establishing that allowance, we don’t want to opt for too aggressive a calorie deficit – that’s going to risk a downregulation of our metabolic rate. It’s hard to say exactly where that point lies, but it’s better to lose fat slowly – we don’t want our primal brain to infer a dangerous level of scarcity, and start reducing our energy expenditure. Studies show that people who increase their calories back to maintenance level at the weekend, for example, maintain their metabolic rate more effectively, even if they do take slightly longer to reach their goal weight – we want to play the long game here. But eating at maintenance doesn’t mean a ‘cheat day’ or going on a binge – we will still need to carefully track our intake.
A period of calorie counting is going to get us moving in the right direction straight away, and allow us to calibrate our expectations to some degree. But for most of us, it’s not a permanent solution. If we want to dispense with that rigmarole, we need to get our bodies working properly, to regulate our appetite, and to get our satiety back in line with our requirements.
The most crucial step in achieving this is to remove processed food. In doing so, we protect ourselves from foods that are engineered to be hyperpalatable, and drastically increase the ratio of satiating nutrients to energy. We will likely see improved blood glucose regulation, and so hormone balance. Whether we choose to be vegetarian, carnivore, ketogenic, pescatarian, whatever…removing processed food is the single biggest upgrade we can make, and should be top of our list from day one.
So, what constitutes processed food? Well, we need to be suspicious of any food product – anything with an ingredients list. It might be that after careful consideration, we allow certain products – we might need mustard, pickles, canned fish – that sort of thing. But packaged foods should be rigorously scrutinised, and made to justify their place in our kitchen. Fundamentally, we want to focus on fresh, seasonal foods that remain in their natural form. We can ask ourselves ‘If I had a knife and a spade, could I obtain this food, in this form from nature?’
At first, we might find whole-foods rather bland. They contain none of the flavour enhancement of processed foods, and in particular, far less salt. We can certainly afford to season our food more aggressively, more like a professional chef, because we’re no longer getting all that hidden sodium.
When we completely exclude hyperpalatable foods, our taste-buds recalibrate, and we quickly begin to taste the true sweetness in things like onions, peas, carrots, and very much in relatively low-sugar fruits, like berries. A portion of frozen blueberries or strawberries tastes like the most intense sorbet, and 95% dark chocolate has a sense of sweetness that we previously associated with milk chocolate. The notion of a dessert, without the unwanted energy, and with some genuinely useful nutrients seems too good to be true, but it’s well within reach – we just need to allow that recalibration.
At this point it’s worth mentioning processed seed oils. These polyunsaturated oils have become a huge part of our diet following the demonisation of saturated fat in the later part of the last century. The levels of inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids in our modern diet have risen far beyond our ancestral intake, in large part due to the introduction of vegetable oil. There is increasingly compelling evidence that these oils – like sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, rapeseed, corn and soybean oils are harmful to humans, and that they may be obesogenic by virtue of the way they affect our fat itself. Some researchers and doctors believe that they’re responsible for much of our chronic disease, obesity included. While omega 6 fatty acids are an essential part of our diet, we should probably get them from whole-food sources, where they exist in the right ratios, not in the form of oxidised, chemically-extracted, deodorised industrial lubricants.
Our next step could be to prioritise protein. Studies show that the more protein we eat, the more satiating our meals become. As those nutrient-rich sources of protein increase, so they displace nutrient-poor sources of energy, reducing our caloric intake. Not only do we eat less energy, but that protein has the highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients – digesting it increases our energy expenditure. Furthermore it supports our metabolically active lean mass, keeping our basal metabolic rate high.
So how much protein are we talking about? Well, opinions vary. Some researchers point to evidence that suggests that we recycle a lot of our protein endogenously, and so don’t need to take in more than the current recommended daily allowance of around a third of a gram per lb of bodyweight. Others strongly disagree, stating that that’s the bare minimum needed for survival, and that we ideally need more like 1g per lb of ideal weight, particularly if we’re doing resistance exercise, which we’ll talk about in a later episode. Some bodybuilders eat far more – 2g per lb or even higher, but there’s no evidence that those very high intakes are beneficial. Equally, it’s important to note that there’s no evidence of harm either: Just because those with compromised kidney function can not process large amounts of protein, that doesn’t mean that large amounts of protein cause compromised kidney function. Considering the benefits to satiety, nutrient-density and lean mass retention, we are likely going to benefit from that 1g per lb of ideal body weight mark, and anecdotally that seems to be where people do well. It’s worth noting that we need at least 30g of protein per meal, to get the 3g of the amino acid Leucine that we require for muscle protein synthesis.
Organ meats, like liver, are the greatest source of micronutrients of all. Many people note that their satiety increases when they include organ meats, which gives further credence to the notion that we have specific hunger signals for different nutrients. Of course it may just be that if you hate liver, you eat less when your meal contains liver. It’s worth trying to include more of these things, but don’t worry if you find that you really don’t like them.
While we’re looking to shift our intake away from energy-dense, nutrient-poor ’empty calories’, we shouldn’t be afraid of consuming nutrient-rich sources of energy. Those animal fats that come part and parcel with our protein, contain fat-soluble vitamins, phenolic compounds and essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. Equally, some energy-dense plant foods like fruit offer us further micronutrients, vitamin C for example. Whole foods provide us with the balance that tends to work, and while we do need to be a little wary of meat that has been deliberately bred to be excessively fatty, or fruit that we’ve selectively bred and modified to contain processed-food levels of sugar, by and large, if we can stick to meat, fish, eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, we won’t be over-doing our energy intake simply because we’re hungry for nutrients.
There are those that will argue that we don’t need any carbohydrates, or plant foods whatsoever. They argue that they’re a minefield of anti-nutrients and toxins, and that not only do we not need them, we do much better without them. And of course there are people who claim the opposite – that animal foods are bad for us and that we can thrive on plants alone. When people adopt these diets they often do well initially, because they’re excluding all that processed food that was causing them problems on a standard diet. Some may do well on carnivore diets because their gut dysfunction has reached a point where they seem to react badly to almost all plant material, and that was the case for me.
So these diets can be helpful, but over time, for some people, cracks may start to appear, and we seek to explain this by pointing to deficiencies in the RDA’s – the recommended daily allowances of certain micronutrients. People then often try to supplement their way out of trouble, but there are problems with that. Not only are supplemental forms of these nutrients different, sometimes chemically, sometimes in the way we absorb them, but our understanding of those RDA’s is limited. They’re based more on opinion than on concrete evidence – they’re our best guess. We don’t know how those guesses might need to change in the context of more extreme diets, where our bodies might up or downregulate our requirements for certain nutrients. Furthermore, we’re focused on only a tiny fraction of the compounds that mass spectrometry now reveals exist in whole foods. We have no idea what some of these things do, or how important they might be.
So for my money, the smartest thing to do is to try to eat as much as possible like our ancestors would have done. Evolution favoured their combination of biology and diet. The human animal hasn’t changed all that much – the 10,000 years that have passed since we adopted agriculture isn’t all that long in evolutionary terms, and the processed food production of the last 50 years doesn’t even amount to the blink of an eye. We can hedge our bets against all that we don’t know about what’s really in our food and how it affects our bodies, by following an approach that, by virtue of being judged by evolution, is likely to be optimal almost by definition.
It’s tricky for us to construct a truly ancestral diet, because we now live in a different environment – the soil, water, air, plants and animals have all been altered, and not perhaps for the better. In a future episode it might be interesting to talk about how we can best mimic our ancestral diet, but for now, let’s imagine what it might have looked like:
I don’t think there are any historic examples of humans completely excluding plants, with the possible exception of certain groups in the arctic circle. Neither were our ancestors vegan. While it is worth noting that the nitrogen isotope data indicates that meat was the lion’s share of our diet – no pun intended, that doesn’t mean that plants didn’t have an important role to play. Our ancestors were omnivores, albeit ones who prized and based their diet around animal foods – a sharp contrast to the modern food pyramid. They used cooking and fermentation to make a wider variety of plant foods tolerable. Their intake of sugar was limited in frequency and quantity, and their dietary energy sources were less consistent than ours – they might have had fat one day, and carbohydrate the next. They likely had more fat at certain times of the year, and more carbohydrate at others. They would have had more food one day, and less the next. Overall, their diet was, by modern standards low-carb, but not no-carb. They had to be flexible – if not, why would evolution have given them the ability to tolerate carbohydrates at all? Depending on the latitude at which they lived, their diets would have varied, and this is likely one reason why we have individual variations in how well we tolerate different foods today.
So, the first actionable steps on our fat-loss journey should be to get some perspective on how much we’re eating, to remove all processed food, and to prioritise protein – to shift the balance of our meals away from energy, and towards satiating nutrients. Just these steps alone are going to make a huge difference, and they form the basis of a happier, healthier approach to food.
We’ve talked a lot about carbohydrates, and established that our ancestors certainly ate them, but unlike us, in a quantity and frequency that their endocrine system was well-adapted to dealing with. In the coming parts, we’ll take a closer look at low-carb, zero-carb and ketogenic diets, and ask ourselves whether, in the context of fat loss, we should be adopting them or not. I’ll share some of my own personal experience with those diets, and how they’ve affected me. We’ll talk about exercise, and what particular types of training might best suit our goals. And we’ll look at tips, tricks and pitfalls – what behaviours or mindsets might help or hinder us as we continue to lose fat.
For now, keep cooking you guys.
Disclaimer: I am not qualified to give any sort of medical or dietary advice, and nothing in this material should be considered as such. The opinions expressed here are my own, and for the purposes of discussion only. Please consult a qualified medical professional before undertaking changes to your diet.
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Protein leverage affects energy intake of high-protein diets in humans: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23221572/
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Ghrelin and glucagon-like peptide 1 concentrations, 24-h satiety, and energy and substrate metabolism during a high-protein diet and measured in a respiration chamber: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16400055/
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The Hateful Eight: Enemy Fats That Destroy Your Health, by Dr Cate Shannahan: https://drcate.com/the-hateful-eight-enemy-fats-that-destroy-your-health/
Ketogains Macro Calculator: https://www.ketogains.com/calculator/#body-composition
Ketogenic Girl Macro Calculator: https://www.ketogenicgirl.com/pages/macro-calculator