In an article by Thomas S Cowan in Spring Edition of Wise Traditions I recently read, Dr Cowan perfectly explains the issue of weight gain for most of us (with exception to underlying psychological and emotional reasons for overeating that a person may need to address).
Dr Cowan states that losing weight is not “rocket science” and after reading his article I have to agree. He focuses on health not weight and explains that the goal should be to get as healthy as possible, which usually means that they will end up at their optimal weight. In saying that, everyone’s ideal weight will vary, depending on known and unknown factors so a weight goal cannot be simply to attain a specific number.
Insulin and Weight Gain
Dr Cowan states that basically people gain weight because of insulin. Insulin is the endocrine hormone made by the pancreas. Insulin helps remove sugar from the blood and take it into the cells, where it is stored as fat. Despite a persistent belief that weight gain is all about calories, without insulin it is impossible to gain weight and become fat, no matter how many calories someone takes in.
We know this because someone who loses the ability to make insulin, which we call a type 1 diabetic, can eat 5,000 calories (two times the norm for any person) and still starve to death! If you stop making insulin you will go into starvation which in turn triggers a diabetic coma unless somebody gives them insulin. Weight gain is not about the calories.
Insulin production is the body’s way of saying that it is being overfeed with sugar. In evolutionary terms, this is a good thing. If you have the option of being overfed, you take it, and then because the body has to do something with the sugar. To deal with this you have an endocrine organ called the pancreas which is in charge of making the hormone insulin (specifically deigned to store some of that sugar as fat).
You can then look at something in your life that is causing you to create more insulin, you will store more fat. If you want to understand why you gain weight or why you create fat in your body, then you simply need to look at what is happening with your insulin. Simply, if you are storing fat, you have too much insulin.
From a macronutrient (meaning large nutrient) perspective, there are three food groups:
· Protein; and
Setting aside vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and so forth that also contribute to a healthy diet, Dr Cowan discusses the basic dietary building blocks that build human beings and how these building blocks give energy to move.
In a classic macronutrient profile, each macronutrient serves a purpose. The reason we eat fat is to make hormones to regulate inflammation (as a back-up source of energy). We eat protein to build the structure and integrity of our body. Protein also can be a back-up source of energy. Finally, we eat carbohydrates to make fuel to do activities. From an energy standpoint, all carbohydrates, whether from white sugar, brown rice, carrots or any other carbohydrate containing food, they are all the same.
Carbohydrates break down into glucose and pass into the bloodstream. Glucose provides cellular fuel when it converts to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that carries energy to where it is needed. To put it simply, fats and proteins are the car that we make in the assembly line, while the carbohydrates are the petrol.
I loved the way Dr Cowan explains that we all have an internal feedback system that lets us know whether we are overeating fat or protein. Most people who eat too much fat or protein will feel sick or nauseated. Although these are good foods, somewhere along the way your body will say ‘I’ve had enough’.
Whereas it’s an unpleasant experience to overdose on even the best fat, we don’t seem to have an internal mechanism that tells us to stop eating foods that are mostly carbohydrate. Excess carbohydrate does not make you sick the way excess fat and protein do.
Dr Cowan states that a person who does no exercise all day would only need about 60g of carbohydrates a day to make fuel to generate energy and keep going. An apple is 30g and a small bowl of rice might be another 30g. So, for a person who is perhaps sitting at a desk all day with no exercise, a balanced diet would be lots of fat, modest protein, lots of non-carbohydrate vegetables and about 60g of carbohydrates.
People who run a marathon every day would require a different balance. While they may eat roughly the same amount of protein and fat, they would need substantially more carbohydrate (up to 300g) because they are doing a lot of energetic work that demands fuel. Dr Cowan believes that your carbohydrate intake should entirely depend on your activity level.
The body has only two mechanisms to deal with blood sugar that goes too high – exercise and production of insulin. When someone consumes carbohydrate foods that chronically raise the blood sugar in excess of the amount of energy needed by the muscles for exercise, over time that person starts making more and more insulin. Over a period of five, ten or thirty years a person becomes a per-diabetic and then diabetic. What happens is that at some point insulin resistance sets in, meaning that the insulin is no longer as effective as it should be.
We do not want to be in an overfed state because insulin is a very inflammatory hormone. If you have high insulin levels, you will create a lot of inflammation in your tissues. Arthritis is an example of a condition that thrives in a high insulin environment. People with diabetes are twice as likely to have arthritis as those without diabetes. Insulin also signals the body to retain fluid, which fosters high blood pressure, furthermore, it is a growth hormone which is implicated in the development of cancer.
How to Loose Weight
Now at last let’s get to what Dr Cowan writes about losing weight! If you are gaining weight, the physiological reality is that you are eating too many carbs. If you are pursuing improved health with a related goal of weight loss, the first step is to adjust your carbohydrate level to be 10 – 20% lower than your activity level so that you are in a slightly underfed state.
If you are not doing any exercise, just sitting around most of the day, you might limit yourself to 45 grams of carbohydrate a day. With 60g as the baseline but consumption of only 45 grams of carbohydrate, your body will have to convert your fat stores into sugar to keep you from getting hypoglycemic. This is in situations where you don’t exercise at all, so it is much better to exercise and have a higher carb consumption.
I am sure that most of you have heard of intermittent fasting, this type of fasting is said to create an anti-inflammatory, anti-insulin and glucagon rich environment. It is probably the best anti-aging strategy you can adopt and it helps with detoxification. This type of fasting can also help with weight loss.
If you go 12 hours without eating any food-protein, fat or carbohydrate, we run out of the stored glycogen starch in our liver, which is there to get us through a 12 hour fast. After 12 hours, the hormonal situation switches over to make glucagon, which signals the body to mobilise the fat and turn that into sugar in the blood. So, with intermittent fasting the rule is to fast for longer than 12 hours on a consistent basis to mobilise fat and lose weight. This is called intermittent fasting.
(Note: If you fast for 12 hours and then eat, that does not do any good, but if you fast for 6 more hours bringing your total fasting to 18 hours, in those final 6 hours you are creating an anti-inflammatory, anti-insulin and glucagon-rich environment.
To lose weight you need to do an 18 hour intermittent fast at least 6 days a week. Intermittent fasting is not recommended for people who are underweight or pregnant.
There are many ways to do this 18 hour fast. This depends on your work schedule etc. One way is to stop eating or drinking (except water) from six o’clock in the evening until noon the next day. Another way is to eat a good breakfast, a big lunch at around 1.00 or 2.00pm and then not eat anything until 8.00am (breakfast the next day).
I find this one easy because I sleep most of those hours. You can work out your own schedule. An 18-hour time frame seems like a good choice because you still get to eat every day. The only thing you can have and does not seem to interfere with the hormonal situation is any kind of caffeinated beverage like black coffee or black tea with pure fat like coconut oil or ghee, but you don’t have to do that.
Build up to 18 hours slowly until you get used to it.
Exercise and movement are very important with helping to build health and losing weight. Do some sort of weight training to build muscle, the more muscle you have, the less restrictive you have to be in your carbohydrate intake because your muscles essentially eat the carbohydrates more than your fat.
Dr Cowan also mentions Wim Hof, otherwise known as ‘The Iceman’ who trains people to withstand cold through abdominal breathing exercises and ice-cold baths or showers. He says that if you regularly immerse yourself in cold showers, you actually will feel warmer most of the time.
In his experience, the process of losing weight entails a restricted carbohydrate diet, intermittent fasting, strength training to improve the integrity of your muscles and a cold shower after your warm one. He explains that if you use these techniques, not only will you be healthy but you will get down to somewhere near your optimal weight.
I agree with this process, I am doing the intermittent fasting and I find it easy. I am also exercising nearly every day. I have yet to get back to the cold showers!
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