Weight-loss is easily one of the most common health and fitness-related goals we see and hear about in society today, especially as the weather warms up. We are obsessed with losing weight. But not all weight loss methods are the same.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at how to best fuel your body for weight loss, but first, I’d like to share with you the physiological effects of low-Calorie diets (i.e., semi-starvation) - the standard approach to weight loss.
The Physiological Effects of Starvation
In 1944, a researcher named Ancel Keys conducted a study to investigate the effects of semi-starvation in 36 healthy men. The study called for the men to lose twenty-five percent of their normal body weight so that the researchers could measure the physiological and psychological changes.
For six months, these men reduced their total Calorie intake by fifty percent, consuming a daily energy total of 1570 kcal from foods that were available during the war – potato, root vegetables, bread and macaroni.
During this semi-starvation phase, the changes extended far beyond the gaunt appearance of the men.
The decrease in their strength and stamina, body temperature, heart rate, libido, attention span and alertness were significant.
They also experienced depression, mood swings, anxiety and irritability. They withdrew themselves from work and social situations and preferred the comfort of isolation.
It didn’t stop there. The men became utterly obsessed with food. They would dream and fantasize about food. They read and talked about it so much that they could not focus on their usual work.
Interestingly, these disordered eating patterns did not stop at the conclusion of the starvation phase of the experiment. These patterns continued into the rehabilitation phase, where there were no limits on the amount of food the men could eat.
Many of the men engaged in extreme overeating and even, uncontrollable binge-eating.
Many of them also failed to resume their usual habits, lifestyle and diet long after the experiment had finished and their weight had been restored. This study demonstrates how disordered eating can be a consequence of low-Calorie dieting.
What Does This Have to Do With Society in 2020?
Unfortunately, it appears that we didn’t learn from this research. General population advice consistently recommends a Calorie-restricted, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet for weight management and prevention of chronic disease.
And yet, we are getting fatter, sicker, and more depressed and anxious. We are literally losing years from our lives due to food and weight obsessions. We are being ruled by our decisions surrounding food, and have been for many years.
Many of us have wasted too much time feeling guilty for what we did or didn’t eat that day… And for some of us, the black hole of dieting and weight loss has consumed years of our lives.
It all sounds a bit morbid and sad doesn’t it?
The good news is that there is an alternative to low-Calorie dieting. There is a way for you to reach your healthy weight and experience good health without worrying about restricting fat and Calories.
Adjusting Our Language Around Weight-Loss
The first thing we often think about, when we talk about weight loss, is what we are not going to eat. What foods are we going to say good-bye to and how many Calories are we going to restrict ourselves to?
But how does this process of restriction serve your mental health?
With the negative connotations surrounding restriction, we are setting ourselves up to focus on the things we can’t have, instead of the things we can.
For example, when you tell a child that they can’t have ice cream for breakfast, what do they immediately want? Ice cream for breakfast. The reality of human nature is that we all want what we can’t have.
So, why use this type of approach for dieting and weight loss?
The key to successful weight loss is not just about the foods you are restricting, but more about the foods you are choosing to fuel your body with.
Choosing the Right Fuel for Your Body
If you’re planning a road trip, you could fill your car with the cheapest petrol available and save a little money (at first). But, because this fuel is cheap and not the best fuel for your car, you will burn through it very fast and be filling up again multiple times before reaching your destination.
Or, you could fill your car with the highest quality petrol right from the get-go.
Sure, you’d have to invest a little more initially, but this high-quality fuel would burn a lot more slowly and efficiently in your car’s engine, allowing you to get all the way to your destination without having to fill up again!
Nutrition is the fuel for your body.
So, if we want to fill our tanks to reach our destination without multiple fuel stops - we need a premium source of fuel that is going to give us more bang for our buck.
It is so important to be eating the right foods every single day to maximise nutrient density and nourish your body with essential proteins, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
There is a misconception that we need to refuel our tanks with low-fat, low-Calorie foods at regular intervals across the day to “boost” our metabolism. But every time we munch down on these nutrient-void foods, we get a rise in blood sugar levels (glucose) and a corresponding surge in the hormone, insulin.
Insulin is known as the “fat-storage hormone” because it signals our body to turn fat-burning “off” and fat-storage “on”. So despite the fact that these foods are low-Calorie, they can still signal your body to store fat (instead of burning it!).
If you want to instead burn fat for fuel, the premium fuel source, you need to focus on eating more whole foods that contain plenty of healthy fats and proteins.
Are you thinking, “But Jess, all my life I’ve been told that fat will make me fat!”? I know that it’s hard to break misconceptions you’ve believed your entire life, but hear me out...
Energy-dense foods contain more energy (kcal) per gram weight than others and are typically labelled as bad foods when it comes to weight management. You see, pure fat (energy-dense) contains 9 kcal per gram weight, while pure carbohydrate and protein, both contain 4 kcal per gram weight.
But when you acknowledge that food is simply a vessel designed to provide your body with energy, then energy-dense foods don’t seem so bad after all.
What’s more, is that fat has the least impact on your blood glucose levels when compared to protein and carbohydrate (Figure 1). Therefore, consuming healthy fats in your diet actually allows your body to burn its own stored fat because it keeps circulating insulin levels nice and low (low/stable blood glucose levels = low insulin = access to stored body fat).
Avoiding the spikes in your blood glucose levels will also help you to prevent ‘the lows’. You know the times when you are swamped with cravings, hunger, irritability, mood swings, tiredness and reduced mental capacity?
These symptoms are all thanks to your blood glucose levels crashing down from their high. ‘The lows’ are why, after 2-3 hours after consuming a high-carbohydrate, low-fat meal or snack, you’re back at the fridge door to seek out your next high.
Consuming a low-Calorie diet that is high in dietary carbohydrate and low in fat, forces us to use glucose as our primary fuel source and thus rely on regular top-ups across the day. These top-ups are like roadblocks to using our stored body fat.
Alternatively, if we eat a diet that is rich in healthy sources of fats, then we can use fat as our primary fuel source and access our own stored body fat for fuel.
Because most of us have a virtually unlimited supply of stored body fat at any one time – this way of fuelling our body means that we aren’t dependent on regular top-ups across the day. Our body can tap into its own energy stores and we can burn fat for fuel all day long without feeling tired, hungry, irritable, anxious, shaky, or depressed.
What Are Healthy Sources of Fat?
We’ve been through a lot of information here, but what is the take-home message?
Don’t be afraid of fat!
Healthy sources of fat are contained in whole foods that have been minimally processed and are rich in flavour. They should make up a generous portion of your dietary intake to help give you the energy that your body needs to tackle each day.
It’s time to switch gears and think about what changes you can make to fuel your body right for weight loss and good health!