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Understanding How Weight Loss Works

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

This blog post was created to help you all understand the basic fundamentals when it comes to weight loss.

Before we go into how weight loss works, we need to understand how weight gain works. When we understand how our bodies start to gain and retain weight, we can work towards getting rid of it.

If I ask, how do we lose weight? Most people would say restrict calories, it's all about calories in vs calories out. You can eat what you want, as long as you control your total calorie intake daily, you're good to go. What if I told you that it wasn't only about calories in vs calories out. What if I said that it was the type of calories that were more important than the amount of calories you're eating. I'm not saying that calories in vs calories out isn't important, it would definitely be wise for us to control how much we ate, but that is not the main point of weight loss, it is about the type of calories. We shouldn't be focusing ONLY on restricting our calories daily and starving ourselves. If we think weight loss is only about calories in and out, we are assuming that all calories are the same. But does a calorie from olive oil and a calorie from coke have the same effect on our bodies? Obviously not.

First, we must understand that our bodies need a certain amount of calories daily for normal bodily functions. Depending on many factors such as height, weight, muscle mass, genetics etc, this could range from anywhere between 1400 - 2000 calories on a daily basis for general population. Females will be on the lower end of the scale and males on the higher. Knowing this, we should ask ourselves, why are we cutting calories below 1200 or below 1000 calories daily when our basic bodily needs are above that? We are starving our bodies of what it needs, energy. As we starve our bodies of calories, our calorie expenditure reduces and our hormones that signal hunger rises as our bodies are pleading with us to give it what it needs, two things we don't want for weight loss.

If our daily energy needs are 1800 calories for example and we only eat 1200 calories daily, our body is lacking 600 calories. Our bodies are usually smarter than we are, so if our body is not getting what it needs, it will slowly start to use less energy to accomodate for what is lacking. This is called a state of homeostasis (ability to maintain internal stability and balance). This is why when we restrict our calorie intake, we may see results initially as our bodies learn to adapt. But after a while, we will find that we stop losing weight or even start to gain weight. So what is the next option, we restrict calories even more. How is that sustainable? Eating isn't supposed to be this hard.

So when we accept that calories in vs calories out isn't the be all and end all, what are we looking for to lose weight? As mentioned before, it is the type of calories. Different calories from different foods have different effects on our bodies. As I stated earlier, a calorie from coke and a calorie from olive oil affect our bodies differently, they have different effects on our hormones which are what control our bodily functions and processes. Since different calories affect hormones differently, and hormones are what control our bodily processes, we can hopefully start to see that weight gain or weight loss depends on hormones instead of calories in vs calories out. Being overweight is a hormone problem, not just a calorie problem, this is why I say it is more about the type of calories instead of amount.

So what now?

We now know that being overweight is a hormone problem, our hormones have changed our body's "homeostatic weight" (weight that our bodies think is normal, so homeostasis fights to keep it there) to high. So now we need to know how to affect our body's hormones so that our "homeostatic weight" moves to a lower weight.

The main hormone at play here is insulin. Insulin is the hormone that controls blood sugar levels and puts glucose from the blood into storage in the muscles and liver. Insulin is an anabolic hormone, meaning that it stores energy. Knowing that insulin is an anabolic hormone, it makes sense that insulin is one of the fundamental hormones that promote fat accumulation and storage. When we eat certain foods, our blood glucose rises more than we need it to, so insulin comes into play to move it out of the blood stream to store it in our liver and muscles for energy later on. Liver and muscles only have a limited storage for energy, so what happens to the excess? I'm sure you guessed it, it turns into fat and it is stored, a process called 'de novo lipogenesis' which means 'to make new fat'.

Generally, when we eat, insulin rises and stores glucose as energy, when we stop eating (for example when we sleep, assuming we don't eat at night right before bed) our insulin levels drop and we use those energy stores. This is how it should work. But due to the high amount of food we eat and how regular we eat and snack these days, our insulin levels are always pumping, it never has a chance to go down meaning our bodies are always storing and storing away.

The more insulin is being pumped, the more chance of diabetes also. This is because exposure leads to resistance. The more our cells are pumped with insulin, the more it gets used to it effects and the more we will become resistance to it. It's like drugs, when we first take it, we feel the slightest hit. But the more we use it, the larger dose we need to feel that same effect. Same with our bodies, the more exposed our cells are to insulin, the bigger hit it needs to have the same process. This is how insulin resistance starts to happen which means that our bodies are producing even more insulin to get the same effect! Since we know that insulin stores and causes weight gain, this should be a scary thought. This is also why most type II diabetics are also overweight.

Since we know that insulin is the cause of weight gain, and that insulin is what sets our "homeostatic weight" to high, I'm sure we are all wondering what foods cause such high insulin secretion from our bodies. The short answer is carbohydrates, especially refined sugars and simple carbohydrates. Protein also stimulates insulin production but it has little effect on blood glucose. Fats have little effect on insulin production.

This means that any refined carbohydrates should be avoided as much as possible. If we go back to our calories in vs calories out method, although we are only eating 1200 calories a day, but if most of that is refined carbs, our insulin will still be pumping regardless of how little we ate that day. Insulin is a response to a type of food, not only amount. Yes, it is true that if you eat 1kg of ice-cream compared to 100g of ice-cream, your insulin levels will raise a lot more for a lot longer. But even the 100g of ice-cream will cause a spike in blood sugar due to it's easily digestible nature and insulin needs to be produced quickly to lower blood sugar. This is a bad thing for weight loss regardless of how little the amount is. As long as the food causes a spike in blood sugar (all refined and processed carbs) our insulin needs to be pumped into our blood to lower blood glucose levels.

Foods that cause a quick rise in insulin are foods that are highly processed and easily absorbed into our bloodstream. These foods are:

  • Breads and wraps of all kinds

  • Confectionary of all kinds

  • Potato chips and crisps

  • Cakes and pastries

  • Cookies and biscuits of all kinds

  • Anything made from refined or white flour

  • Processed or instant foods such as instant oats

  • Pasta and noodles

Basic rule of thumb is that carbohydrates should be enjoyed in their natural state. I don't want us to think that carbs are the devil. There are great uses of carbs and it is vital we consume the right types of carbohydrates as there are many benefits to complex carbs. Complex carbs are not absorbed into the bloodstream as quickly meaning insulin production won't be too high in a short time period, it will be more sustained.

As mentioned before, fats have little to do insulin production, I also don't want us to think fats are the end all and be all, consuming the wrong types of fats such as saturated fats and high cholesterol foods are not beneficial also.

What we need to focus on here is to reduce our insulin productivity by cutting back on foods that cause it to rise and rise rapidly. This is NOT all carbs, but most carbs we eat in our current society, the sweet and processed goods.

The changes we need to make differ from person to person, circumstance to circumstance, there is no one size fits all. Depending on genetics, age, sex, how overweight we might be and how long we have been overweight, it all plays a factor on insulin sensitivity. Some people might need to cut back on carbs only slightly to see weight loss. Some people need to cut out carbs completely to see weight loss.

The main point is this - if we want to lose weight, we need to go back to a natural and unprocessed diet, we need to cut out the processed sugars and the refined carbs. Stick with more healthy and natural fats such as avocado and nuts etc. Moderate your protein and lower your carbs.

Important to read this Stress and Cortisol blog also. Cortisol has a part to play also when it comes to insulin production. I hope this blog has given you more clarity in terms of losing weight and how it can be effectively done!

Read the Carbohydrates blog, the Fats blog and Protein blog to understand in detail what carb, fats, and protein choices are best for weight loss.