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Fasting, Diet, Carbohydrates, Cause & Effect

The principle hypothesis, generally accepted, is that obesity is caused by eating more calories than are expended, the excess being stored as fat. Reduce intake, increase output, or both, and fat comes off. It's a tidy equation. Overeating causes obesity.

Suppose you come up with a competing hypothesis that says that over or under eating, and/or low or high energy output are caused by the accumulation of fat, i.e., a hypothesis that at first glance seems more complicated, but is actually -- Occam's Razor style -- simpler. What if, for whatever reason, a body simply accumulates fat, and overeating and sedentary behavior are in response to it? Can you see how that's simpler?

So then the question becomes: what causes fat accumulation, which then sets off what in some ways is a positive feedback mechanism, including behaviors that are widely seen as causal rather than effects?

Well I'm no expert at this, but Gary Taubes has spent the last several years pouring over studies going back as far as the 1800s. Rather than rehash it, I've got links for you accumulated from Chris at Conditioning Research.

The lecture is by far the most compelling, I think. Much of what he demonstrates seems to contradict the conventional hypothesis and his "anarchy of fat" hypothesis seems to fit better. It really seems to come right back to Atkins. I had tried that diet several times going back as far as 1991, but could never stay on it. I always lost weight, always felt good, but would eventually give in to very strong cravings for bread and other high-carbohydrate foods. Then I thought walking 3+ miles per day would help. In five years and over 5,000 miles, I put on another 25 pounds. Walking increased output, which made me hungrier, and my finely tuned fat-storing machine, my anarchistic fat, was all too happy to gobble up those calories as even more fat.

The workouts over the last nine months -- eventually combined with a more evolutionary approach to eating -- got the ball rolling, but the fat loss was very slow. That's fine, but it would have taken about two years had progress remained steady. In less than a month, I have lost more fat than in the previous eight months combined, and with no change in my exercise schedule of two intense 30-minute sessions per week to build muscle.

The big change began with the fasting. The first two fasts (right before the Holiday break) lost me about a pound. The next two, first week of January, about two pounds. But then I began to notice something really interesting and profound: my appetite began to change. I've lost all appetite for fruit and I just pick at vegetables a bit. I like nuts and blueberries, I'll eat a salad but it seems what I'm feeding is the desire for crunch more than anything. What do I crave? Meat (the fattier the better), eggs, cheese. Here was my dinner, Saturday night.

Steak_dinner

A 20oz T-bone. By the time I got three bites into it, I had no interest in the salad. I finished off the entire thing with ease, and though I didn't feel full, I only cared to pick at the salad (I went for the avocado and radishes).

In other words, I find myself eating more of an Atkins style quite by accident, unexpectedly: as a style I crave rather than forcing it on myself.

It leads me to a simple question. In an evolutionary context, where does everything begin? My answer: hunger. Before we ever ate a bite, we were hungry, and over two million years of primitive existence, we were hungry and that was the primary motivator of everything. And, so, what did we desire to eat, above all, when hungry and we had a choice? For me personally, I know the answer to that and the signal is clear as a bell. And I don't think our primitive ancestors tossed away the strip of fat, either. I don't think so, because for more than 40 years of trimming it off, I now find myself eating every tiny bit of the fat, enjoying it immensely. And I crave that fat far more than that salad, and that surprises me. I suspect that we have the capacity to eat other things because meat sources weren't always around, just as other primarily carnivorous animals will graze on grass (like bears) when their primary food isn't present.

Anyway, in the last four fasts over two weeks, I've lost 8 pounds. Now that I'm eating mostly meat, fat, and eggs (a little veggies too), the fat is falling off me at a rate of four pounds per week. Here's a typical breakfast, though this was last week and I'm now skipping the apple and adding more bacon, and it's usually three eggs now.

Baccon_and_eggs

The bacon goes straight from the pan to the plate so it's plenty greasy, then the eggs are fried in the bacon grease as well. Most satisfying.

I'm not going to be foolish, though. Another 20 pounds, which will come off quickly, and I'll schedule a physical and have the blood work done. I suspect it will be fine and much better than the last time. I feel just fabulous, am sleeping better and longer than since I was a teenager, and I turn 47 tomorrow.

These are my personal experiences and results -- certainly not advice for anyone. But if you've struggled with being a gluttonous fat slob like me for the last two decades, it might be worth a serious look.

Comments

  1. Interesting change. I've been watching from afar throughout this process. I'll be most curious to see how the blood work turns out as well as if you find this to be sustainable (do you see yourself moving back to more vegetables/fruits a la the evolutionary fitness route?).

  2. Justin:

    It's an interesting question. Like most animals, if I find myself hungry in a place where my primary desired food isn't available, I'll make do with what is. I have already done that. The fasting, which I enjoy doing (and I haven't even delved into the cool aspects of running on ketones instead of glucose), seems to allow for flexibility, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective — preferred foods weren't always available.

    I think that none of this is exact, or that our evolved bodies have to have it one way or we blow up. It took years and years to put on the 40-50 pounds I don't need, and I was a real pig. I suspect that a few slices of pizza now and then aren't going to set me back, especially if I keep up the fasting, which I'll cut back on and make more intermittent once I get rid of the 20 or so pounds of fat I need to loose. At 3-4 pounds per week, it's not going to take long.

    To sum up, when I have the option, I'll eat what I desire, which for the moment is as I said. Most of the time, what I desire will be within my reach, so I don't expect any problems.

  3. That steak looks fantastic! Your experience matches my own. i still feel guilty about moving away from eating so many veggies, but a lot of that is just fighting the culture of so-called healthy eating.

  4. I used to just look at the static analysis: calories in > calories out = weight gain. That premise is still completely true, but it's also as boneheadedly oversimplified as "we can't privatize schools because private schools are too expensive for most people."

    The fact is that every change in both diet and exercise change the dynamics of the whole system. Both diet and exercise are inputs to the function that determines future calories in, and both are input into the function for future calories out.

    I started to learn a slice of this when I got interested in Atkins. I believe Atkins is still valid as far as it goes, but the whole picture only started coming together when I started reading Art's blog.

    I have a lot further to go than you do (did?). I haven't begun the whole meal planning part of it, nor the exercise regimen, but a couple of simple changes have made a difference already: satisfy those carb cravings with fruit, and don't eat in the car.

  5. Kyle, if you haven't already, you might give the fasting a try, as a start.

    Maybe it's just me, but I find it immensely more difficult to control what I eat meal-by-meal, and deciding how I'm going to satisfy my latest hunger pang withing some discipline. With fasting, I simply don't eat anything, so the decision mechanism is more simple that what and how much.

    Brad Pilon shows in his book that the greatest fat burn over time is 18-30 hours in, where it begins to taper off over time. So, I begin my fast after lunch, then nothing until dinner the following day. First couple of times were difficult, but then it got easy. The first night is still a bit tough, but I wake up really refreshed and the whole of the following day (the 18-30 hour part) is a cinch. No problem at all. It's weird how you go to bed hungry, go right to sleep (I just slept 9 hours, waking only once), wake refreshed with no hunger at all. I sit here 18 hours into my current fast and I feel great.

    The appetite changes, so though I really like those steaks, I'm only eating two meals per day when off fast, and it's just because I'm not hungry enough to eat.

    The other thing I do, and this is something that someone not fasting ought to practice as well, is that from the last thing I eat the night before, I make sure that at least 12 hours elapses before I eat anything the next morning.

    But I gotta say: eight months of exercise and eating mostly right (with the last few months eating really right), and the fasting was the big missing piece for me. In fact, I think it's the foundation for everything. I don't think you can know what your true appetite is until you put yourself in an evolutionary state of hunger so that your genes begin to express themselves in regard to what and how you would eat if you didn't always have food readily available, which is of course how we evolved.

  6. …Also, regarding calories in, it's kind of a subtitle difference in Taubes' hypothesis. Really, what he's saying is that it's not the calories that drive fat accumulation, it's the hormones, and then the fat accumulation sets off a positive feedback loop.

    Intuitively, if you restrict calories enough, then you're going to loose weight. However, they have shown in lab animals that you can starve them to death with all their fat intact. You can feed them a starvation diet, and they will accumulate fat and use muscle and organ tissue for energy, eventually dying fat, from starvation.

    This is why he calls his hypothesis, and Art titled his blog entry on Taubes' lecture as the "anarchy of fat." The fat takes over and sacrifices the rest of the body in order to sustain itself and grow, much like a tumor.

    What if we thought of fat in such a way, like a self-perpetuating tumor that eventually kills the host organism because it's hormonal effect puts itself as primary.

  7. "if you haven't already, you might give the fasting a try, as a start."

    I need to start more basic than that. I have to start breaking patterns. For instance, I always have a big breakfast before leaving for work, or stop somewhere on the way, on the idea that I have to decide there and then what I need in order to make it to lunchtime without getting too hungry.

    So all I did was decide that I would leave work to get breakfast, or lunch, or whatever whenever I got hungry enough that I needed to do so, even if it was five minutes after getting in. So all last week, I ended up skipping breakfast entirely without ever explicitly deciding to do so. And when lunch came around, some fruit and cheese ended up being totally satisfying till dinner.

    It came from noticing that when I am at home all day, I tend not to eat breakfast until after I've been up for a few hours and gotten some work done. That psychological barrier – the "now or never" way of looking at breakfast – was the root of a significant portion of the problem. I'm working on finding the others, then, when I can be more proactive instead of reactive, I can work on specific plans.

    And, as a side note, it highlights just how unnatural and damaging in non-obvious ways the whole idea of "9-5" is.

  8. Kyle:

    Interesting. I'm a big breakfast guy. Favorite meal, and it's not because I'm really hungry. I just love bacon, eggs, hash browns. I could eat it every day of my life and never tire of it.

    For years my wife and I have to battle on weekend mornings, because I always wanted to go have breakfast. But since my appetite has changed so dramatically, I don't eat in any case 'til I'm hungry, which is typically 10-11 am. Then I can't really eat again until dinner. So, Bea's happy, because though she likes breakfast, she doesn't feel like eating until later so now we're in sync on that.

    Interestingly, when I lived in France one of the ways I stayed trim was that I had very little for breakfast, because they don't eat much. Usually, just a little bread with butter, jam, or honey, along with coffee and warm milk. Lunch was the big meal, and dinner usually smaller. But you didn't eat in-between, and lunch and dinner were always whole food, never junky stuff. It's also kind of a myth that the French eat a lot of bread. It's good bread, but they eat a little with their meals. They don't sit and chow down three or four slices before the meal comes to the table, as we tend to do here at restaurants. That was always a biggie for me. I can get full on bread and butter even before the salad comes to the table.

    I think there's probably some lower mix of reasonable carbos and calories where the original calories in/out hypothesis holds, or, the alternate hypothesis isn't strong enough. This might be why some people get fat very slowly. But now kids are getting fat and I think it has nothing to do with the calories, but that the high and heavy carbo load is enough to send even their efficient calorie burning bodies into a positive feedback loop, the carbos causing too much insulin too often, causing fat accumulation, and then the fat gets to a point where it takes over and then the alternate hypothesis rules.

    Try to watch that Taubes interview if you haven't. You'll see some amazing things. For instance, obese, 300 pound American Indian women in 1900 existing on government sugar and flour, and their babies are malnourished. Try to wrap the "calorie is a calorie" hypothesis around that.

  9. …Oh, I was going to say that you might consider blogging about your experience. At first, I did it to keep myself honest. Now I'm finding I enjoy it more than the political blogging.

  10. …Damn, another thing: while it may seem that changing some of your behaviors might be a prerequisite to fasting, consider how hunger is really a prerequisite to everything.

    My eating breakfast later, for an example, is a consequence of the fasting and happened without even thinking about it. It does take 3 or 4 fasts to really get on track, and headaches and "intestinal issues" are not uncommon. But I found that it just made everything else fall into place naturally. Now, other than disciplining myself to fast, which has become easy and actually anticipated, everything else is perfectly a matter of desire and appetite. It would make sense from an evolutionary perspective. Primitive man didn't need to diet, and animals don't diet. They go hungry for substantial period and everything else takes care of itself.

    Anyway, I hope I don't sound like I'm preaching, and that's not intended. I'm really glad you're finding interest in this and have decided to do something about it. That goes for anyone out there.

    I'm open for email on this topic, or post a comment. I'm no authority, but we can bounce ideas around and compare notes and results. I might blog emails and my responses, but I'll certainly keep identities private.

  11. Interesting thoughts here – I need to check out that lecture ASAP.

    BTW, happy birthday – mine is a week from yesterday (Feb 4) — I'll be 27!

  12. Richard – great post and interesting comments.

    you might be interested in Matt's blog – he is thinking about how diet, fasting and training sequence properly.

    Happy Birthday by the way

    Chris

  13. Chris:

    Yes, I have it marked in my RSS reader, but haven't gotten to it, yet. But I sure will.

  14. After reading through the comments I noticed you mentioned "intestinal issues". What types of issues are can one look forward to?

    I chose to limit the caloric intake to lose weight just over a year ago (Jan 6, 2007). I started at 226 and stopped journaling my meals when I hit 205 (about 3 months in).

    A couple of intersting things took place socially and physically. What was most odd was that I really liked the way I looked but some people said I looked almost "sick or ill". Interestingly all of these people are obese to morbidly obese-connection I don't know. Also, without being to graphic, my bathroom time was dramatically reduced. I was a 1-2 timer per day and a good 15 minutes each time. During the diet (1800-2000 cals a day) I went about every other day and it was "wham-bam" and off to bigger and better. Have you experienced anything like these?

    I am happy to say that I am currently 209 (6' 4") and have been for several months. Ten years ago I was 256 (my peak-late nights at Palace will do that to you)! 3 years ago 238. And as I said earlier, 226 a year ago.

    Also, what does your meal consist of before the 30 hr fast? Or the 12hr period between meals.

  15. …As far as meals, I try not to pig out too much. I like to try to take in both a breakfast and lunch before commencing a fast (I go from after lunch, to dinner the following day). I can't always do that, because I'm just not hungry.

    Lot's of times it'll be either a 8-10 oz steak from the local diner, or a plate of roast beef from the local haufbrau. Today, maybe a large breakfast of burger patty, eggs, and maybe even a little hash browns.

    Potatoes remain (in small infrequent quantities) my one sin.

  16. Adam:

    Sure, why not? The first few fasts, there were some bouts of diarrhea. Really nasty. Seemed odd, as you're not eating anything. On the other hand, some percentage of such elimination is simply body tissue.

    I didn't really look into it, but chalked it up to autophagy of a more pronounced nature than usual due to fasting.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autophagy

    See also Art's entry:

    http://www.arthurdevany.com/?p=674

    Could have been something else, and could have just been me.