No this is not a book review of Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat. Rather, this is a post about the reality of how people pack on extra weight minus Taubes’s incorrect and shortsighted assessment of biochemistry.
A question I get as often, or more often than any other, is “Well then, what does cause people to become fat?” Believe it or not, this question involves more than just a one-word response, such as “carbs” or “fat” or “junk” or “stress” or “calories.”
I’m finding it difficult to coax some people who really need a dense calorie supply in order to normalize their metabolic rate into eating common foods. It seems that many people who gravitate towards strange diets find a lot of comfort in the strangeness of their diet because there are a lot of people that eat “normal” and are obese and sick. Eating abnormally provides a feeling of security that, because you don’t eat like Uncle Diabetes, you therefore cannot ever have diabetes – as if food is the only factor, or even the primary factor, in diabetes… and it probably isn’t. Hence the frequency of hearing the “How do we get fat?” question when I recommend stocking the freezer with Haagen-Dazs.
For starters, there is no one macronutrient – be it carbohydrates, fat, or protein that causes us to become fat. One is not really better than the other. Although there are a few errors, Lyle McDonald lays out a pretty fair summary of the equality among macronutrients when it comes to fat storage in his very own article entitled How We Get Fat.
I thought I would share some common ways that people gain fat in the first place. Like anything intelligent, it won’t pin it all on one villain, but will take an honest look at what is a multifactorial process. Here are 10 of the biggest contributors to an increase in body fat…
1) Binge Eating – Eating a ton of food doesn’t always cause fat gain. I have some followers that report eating in excess of 8,000 calories per day without following a structured exercise program that have been in fat balance (storing and burning the same amount of fat, and thus not increasing total body fat levels) for a year or longer. My girlfriend’s daughter who I mention a lot, is just finishing up the equivalent of a 5,000 calorie meal for a full-sized adult. Eating a ton doesn’t cause fat to accumulate outright.
Binge eating only seems to be particularly fattening when done in a reduced metabolic state, frequently, and/or done while on a restricted diet. For example, if you are on a low-fat diet that suppresses fat oxidation, and binge on ice cream, you’ll probably store a lot more fat than you burn until that becomes your normal way of eating and your metabolism adjusts to the higher fat and higher calorie intake. Of course, the gaining of weight and increase in metabolic rate that accompanies the fat gain is your body’s way of healing itself from a suppressed metabolism. For many, some short-term fat gain is necessarily to achieve peak function.
I think this is why dieting is so fattening long-term, as dieting increases the tendency to binge eat, particularly on foods you have restricted. This is particularly problematic, as eating a low-carb diet for a long time can make carbs additionally fattening. Likewise, eating a low-fat diet for a long time can make fatty foods additionally fattening. You could further break this down to say that eating in any way that reduces the tastiness of the food will cause a return to better food to be fattening in the short-term. So be careful about eating a diet that you can’t continue.
You can imagine the redundancy with which I am told that “adding ‘x’ food back to my diet makes me gain weight.” Dietary restriction causes self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that “x” food is making you fat, taking it out of your diet and then putting it back in later will often make you gain weight – one of the reasons I look at dietary restriction as a last resort unlike most nutrition gurus.
But you have to ask yourself a question. Is it the binge eating or the restriction that actually causes the fat gain? Without prior restriction, eating a ton of food isn’t nearly as fattening, nor is the desire to binge present. A gun must be loaded for it to actually kill someone when you pull the trigger. I’ll let you answer that one for yourself, as it is obvious that I view the restriction, not the calories one consumes, as the primer for fat gain.
2) Chronic Stress – Acute stress doesn’t seem to have a fattening effect. Stress of any kind often has a short-term fat lowering effect. But there’s something about chronic stress, day after day, month after month, that has a fat accumulating property for many people. My mom, for example, has gained 20 pounds in the last 10 years. She gained 10 pounds in a month when switching to a new job without noticing any other changes to her diet and lifestyle. A few years later she switched to a new job again and put on another 10 in a month. Thus, she gained 20 pounds in 10 years, despite remaining perfectly weight stable for 118 out of the last 120 months.
This is how most people accumulate fat – in quick bursts followed by a stabilization of weight at a slightly higher set point. This weight comes during stress, or immediately after stress – similarly to what would happen to people if they cycled on and off of amphetamines. This is because immediate stress decreases appetite and stimulates metabolism, but it does damage to the thyroid gland so that when the stress is finally removed, or the body adjusts to the stress, the metabolic rate is lower and appetite is higher.
Stress can be psychological or physiological due to inflammation, injury, or otherwise. Humans will probably always have the worst obesity problems because of our complex psychology and complex interaction with food.
3) Lack of sleep – For similar reasons as stress, the declining amount of time of the average night’s sleep over the past couple of centuries is a big factor in weight problems. Lack of sleep, like any stress, decreases metabolic rate and often increases appetite along with it. It only takes a few nights with little sleep to trigger pretty severe insulin resistance, a metabolic state typically seen with obesity.
4) Television – Television, as well as the use of computers, video games, etc. causes a large reduction in brain wave activity and non-exercise physical activity (NEPA). Television in particular, which the average American watches 4 hours of daily, puts the brain into a low-alpha wave, high serotonin state – putting the body into a fattening state similar to a bear right before hibernation. The sort of iconic portrait of obesity would be mindless eating in front of a television, and this is probably somewhat accurate – as engulfing lots of food in a metabolically-suppressed state can certainly add body fat.
5) Erratic exercise patterns – In my own personal history, I have found erratic exercise patterns to be the single biggest source of cumulative fat gain. Going from exercising a lot to exercising very little often triggers some short-term weight gain before the body acclimates to the change. And this weight doesn’t spontaneously come off in any hurry.
6) Pregnancy – Men and women during pregnancy gain over 10 pounds on average. Many women eventually have a surge of weight gain with pregnancy that doesn’t resolve itself afterward, especially in the mid to late 30’s and beyond.
7) Age – Age is of course the greatest stimulus for fat gain, related primarily to the decrease in metabolic rate that occurs with aging. It certainly isn’t related to increased fat, carbohydrate, or calorie consumption – as consumption of all three of those decreases with advancing age.
8) Food – The food we eat does have an impact on long-term metabolic rate and thus proneness to store excess fat. Of all the foods I’ve investigated, the most likely to cause a long-term worsening of metabolic rate are foods containing a large quantity of unsaturated fats. So our modern junk foods like potato chips, French fries, doughnuts, fried foods, mayonnaise, salad dressings, margarine, and most commercial packaged foods – as well as a high consumption of pork and poultry, certainly appear to contribute.
9) Heredity – Many of the above factors impact the metabolic programming of a young child during pregnancy and during the early developmental period. Heredity is obviously the biggest of all factors when it comes to the propensity for storing excess fat in the modern environment. Obesity researchers estimate that heredity is more than half of the contribution to any individual’s weight. Studies of identical twins make this the most abundantly clear, as most twins will gain the same amount of fat, stored in the same parts of the body in the same proportions, and gain the fat at the same age even if they are reared in different households. Certain ethnic groups are a lot more prone to fat gain as well. Generally-speaking the whiter you are the less obesity prone you will be, which is even true when controlled for socioeconomic status (another well-known fattening factor).
10) Medication – Medications like anti-depressants, corticosteroids, and birth control pills, just to name a few, are very fattening. Many gain a great deal of excess fat while taking these medications.
Remember that this is just a list of contributing factors looked at in isolation, and there are dozens of others. The bigger picture that I want people to see is more the interaction with several factors at once, creating sort of a perfect storm for fat gain. And even when there is a perfect storm for fat gain, in my experience most people still gain their fat in brief periods of a month or two, while spending most of their lives perfectly weight stable whether retreating to some harsh diet or not. Hope it helps some to better understand their own personal fat fluctuation history. YOU can become weight stable. And you can probably do it eating just about whatever the hell you want. In other words, you don’t have to drink 1 percent milk. You could drink whole if you wanted to.
Feel free to leave your own “How I Got Fat” story in the comments to add to our understanding…