An Effortless Diet, revisited October 2012

I am a male standing 5 feet 10 inches, now 60 years of age. Almost three years ago, in January 2010, I stepped on the scale and saw 215 lbs; I decided to take action to begin losing weight. I have lost a bit over 35 lbs so far. I call what I have done a "Lazy Man's Diet" because it has been effortless; I have never gone hungry, never done exercise beyond what I was doing before, never suffered cravings or felt deprived. I have never counted calories, never weighed or measured my food beyond the simplest rules of thumb, never kept a journal or confessed before a crowd. I have read a lot of books about diet, but never followed any single book strictly. It could be said that I have slowly focused in on one coherent approach, and gotten gradually stricter.

I had gained my weight slowly, over decades; I was content to lose it slowly. Good thing, because I hit several "plateaus" lasting months. I resumed losing weight only after making some changes, and it seems this pattern will stay with me.

The approach I am using, the biochemical logic of it, the research backing it, is best presented in the book WHY WE GET FAT and what to do about it, by Gary Taubes.

It is often said that weight gain and loss is a matter of simple physics; calories in from food must balance calories expended, in metabolism and activity. Taubes points out that a 165 lb man who maintains a steady weight for 20 years (and there are some who do) has matched calories in to calories out to a precision of better than one twentieth of one percent. If you overeat by 20 calories a day (one bite of some foods) you would gain two pounds a year, 50 lbs in 25 years. Those who maintain a steady weight long-term clearly do not do this consciously. They do not count calories in their food to see if they should eat two more grapes, or three fewer potato chips. They do not calculate that to balance their lunch they should walk exactly 1,637 yards. Their body does the balancing for them, automatically, by the balance of hormones in their bloodstream. They feel hungry or satisfied, restless and energetic or lethargic and tired, as needed to achieve this balance.

Using the "calories in, calories out" model, people have tried to lose weight by "eating less and exercising more". But eating less leaves you hungry, and exercising more makes you hungrier. Few people are willing to suffer hunger for a long time. By this approach, many people can lose some weight, but sooner or later they go off the diet and gain the weight back.

Taubes argues that people get fat, not because of gluttony or sloth or lack of willpower; they get fat because the hormones in their bloodstream have been thrown off balance. What hormones cause the body to store fat, to create more fat cells and fill them? Primarily insulin, with cortisol a distant second, and many distant also-rans. They get fat because their glands secrete too much insulin, over a long period of time.

The cells of the body need fuel, for metabolism and activity. They can burn three fuels: glucose (from digestion of carbohydrates, i.e. sugars and starches), fatty acids (from digestion of fats) and ketones (from digestion of protein, and conversion from fat.) The liver and the fat cells can convert glucose to fatty acids, and do when insulin levels are high. The cells burn glucose first, in preference to the others, because if the level of glucose in the blood gets too high it becomes toxic. The Pancreas secretes insulin in direct response to glucose levels; it secretes whenever the tongue or stomach tastes anything sweet, in anticipation of glucose soon to come; it even secretes insulin when the brain THINKS about eating sweets. Insulin does many things, has secondary effects on other hormones, but the net result is that when insulin levels in the blood are high, your body stores calories as fat; when they are low, your body releases fat to be used as fuel.

Eating fats or protein does not generate this kind of insulin response; your fat cells store the fat you eat, and release it for fuel as needed. Eating fat does immediately make you fatter, BUT it also satisfies your hunger quickly, so it does not prompt you to overeat. A diet low in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and high in fat will leave your body burning fat for fuel most of the time, both the fat you eat and the fat you have stored. You can eat until you are satisfied, and your stored fat will stay stable or decline, depending on how low you keep your carbohydrates.

What relation does this have to the Paleo diet? For at least two million years our ancestors lived by hunting and gathering. The food they ate was the kind of food you can get BY hunting and gathering. This is the sort of diet our bodies are adapted to live on. What they ate, mostly, was meat of all sorts (fish, shellfish, birds, eggs, and whatever animals they could catch or trap), leafy greens and vegetables, fresh fruit in season, and tree nuts. What they ate very little of, on rare occasions, were tubers and honey. What they didn't eat were grains, beans, dairy, refined sugar, and white potatoes (white potatoes are native to North America, which was colonized by humans much more recently).

In 2000, researchers published a study of the diets of 229 hunter-gatherer populations that had been studied by anthropologists in the 20th century. Whenever possible, they ate lots of animal food; one in five of the 229 ate almost entirely by hunting and fishing. Only one in seven got more than half of their calories from plant foods. None were exclusively vegetarian. Averaged all together, these 229 populations of hunter-gatherers got about two-thirds of their calories from animal foods and one-third from plants. They typically averaged 19 to 35 percent of their calories from protein, 28 to 58 percent from fats, and 22 to 40 percent from carbohydrates. They ate the fattest animals they could hunt, ate all the fattest parts of the animal (organs, tongue, bone marrow), and ate essentially all of the fat on whatever animals they caught. The carbohydrates they ate were the sort with a low "glycemic index", i.e. they digested slowly, with lots of fiber, so they provoked only a small and gradual insulin response.

The paleo diet is a naturally low-carb diet. One Paleo writer, Mark Sisson (THE PRIMAL BLUEPRINT) makes the connection explicit. He recommends, for maintaining a stable weight, roughly 150 grams of "net carbs" per day (total grams of carbohydrates minus grams of fiber). For slow, effortless weight loss, keep your net carbs below 100 grams per day; for faster weight loss, below 50. He recommends a little booklet, DR. ATKINS' CARBOHYDRATE GRAM COUNTER, which I found available at Barnes and Noble. Other paleo writers don't bother with counting grams; if you don't eat grains, beans, potatoes, or sugar, only leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables, and fresh fruit, it is very easy to stay in the neighborhood of 150 grams net carbs per day. An example would be Robb Wolf, THE PALEO SOLUTION.

Gary Taubes in WHY WE GET FAT concludes with an appendix giving an example diet for treating obesity, derived from the Atkins diet, with a detailed list of foods that can be eaten "as much as you want", a list that can be eaten "in limited amounts", and a list of foods to be avoided. Basically, a diet of meat, salad, and non-starchy vegetables. But he says, there have been many variations on this theme published over the years, and every doctor who has discovered this approach has slightly different lists. We do not have the research to know in fine detail which foods should go on which lists. He says, summing up: eat as much as you like of meat, fish, fowl, and leafy green vegetables. Avoid starches, grains, sugars, and anything made from them, including bread, pasta, sweets, juices, sodas. Learn for yourself how much fruit and non-starchy vegetables your body can tolerate.

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Comment by Wendy Hughes on November 4, 2012 at 1:19pm

Hi John - I'm sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. I remembering wondering how WW works - and that it seemed kind of mysterious. After all, they are a for profit company, and if they give away their secrets, they will not make money to pay their employees. So - I looked around the website, and found this following link to a story in US News and World Report that had a link to how WW works, sort of.

If there is a consistent profile of the science, or how it works, I'd say that it's about consuming fewer calorie dense foods - even though WW does not count calories. Tell me what you think.

Comment by John B Hodges on November 2, 2012 at 10:25pm

To Wendy Hughes-

Thank you for the info, but it's not really what I was looking for. For example, you say you add points based on the nutrition fast on the packages, but the package info is not in points, it's in calories, carbs, protein, fat, and fiber. Is there some formula for calculating points, based on those? In particular, I was wanting to know if foods with high glycemic index and/or high glycemic load consistently had high point values in the WW point system. 

If there is a formula for calculating point values based on the package Nutritional info, that would answer all my questions... it would give me an idea of what theory the WW system uses. Are they anti-calorie, anti-carb, anti-fat, or striking a compromise? I'm glad to hear that fresh fruits and veggies have zero points... does that apply to bananas, too? White potatoes? What about nuts, like almonds and cashews?

Comment by Wendy Hughes on November 2, 2012 at 5:48pm

Here's the deal. As I mentioned, all packaged food has "Nutrition Facts" that include calories, fat grams, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbs, fiber, sugars, and protein per serving. On WW, there are online lists, and also books with meat, fish, poultry, fruit and vegetables, as well as many packaged foods, that give the number of points per serving, as weight or volume, however you are measuring. So - for example - if I'm having boneless, skinless chicken breast, I can look at the entry for that food and it says 1 1/2 cups of Chicken breast, cooked without skin is 8 points. If I cooked it with marinara sauce, I add that separately using the nutrition facts on the jar, and vegetables are zero points, and whatever else I'm having for my meal. Even candy has nutrition facts - so there is no deprivation unless what I want is a pound of chocolate, but the points I can budget are more like your example of a dark chocolate kiss or two. Hershey's Extra dark chocolate bar (3 blocks, 12 grams each) is five points. So - if that's what I want for dessert, voila! I have found bread that is low points and actually tastes pretty good toasted. I eat a piece of toast every morning, Trader Joe's 100% Whole Grain Fiber bread is two points. I add a hunk of laughing cow light swiss cheese (two for one point), and a half serving of TJ's eggplant hummus (0), and a smoothie made with all fruit and a little water, (0), and that's a good breakfast and I happen to like fruit, so that satisfies my sugar cravings. I don't use vitamins or supplements. I think they are unnecessary unless you've been diagnosed with a deficiency. TJ's has seasonal specialities, and this past October has been rich with everything you can think of made with pumpkin, including an eight ounce nonfat Greek Yogurt, five points for the whole container. It's as good as ice cream, I think, and if I budget the five points, it's a delicious treat. I hope I'm giving you the information that you wanted. I also realize I don't have any food allergies - so it has been easier for me to find a range of foods that are both low points and delicious.

Comment by Wendy Hughes on October 31, 2012 at 12:06pm
John, thanks for your questions. I'm happy to answer them - a little now, and in more detail a little later. The WW points are like a budget, and you can spend them on whatever you choose to eat. If you end up hungry when you've consumed your 26 or however many daily points are in your budget, there are strategies: eat fruit (0 points); borrow some points from another day (supposing you didn't use them up on a previous day) (I actually think of the points averaged out over several days, like the balance and variety of foods anyone consumes), but I've been doing it for over a year, and that experiment does not seem to have hurt my success. Hunger should be avoided, and boredom. I'll post the points for bread and the other foods you mentioned, soon.
Comment by John B Hodges on October 29, 2012 at 9:36pm

To Wendy Hughes--

I don't know what version of Paleo you read about... The fat I eat comes from one tablespoon of olive oil per day on my afternoon veggies or salad, one to fry my morning eggs in, four grams of fish oil capsules per day, just under a half-cup of mixed nuts per day, and whatever fat is in the meat that I eat. And two Hershey's Special Dark kisses per day. I've never added more fat than I desired, never so much as you describe.

I'm glad to hear that the Weight Watchers program works for you. I've never heard anything bad about that program, but it does involve bookkeeping of a kind. I'm curious... how much bread, sugar, and potatoes to you wind up eating? Are they cheap or expensive under the WW Points program?

Comment by Wendy Hughes on October 29, 2012 at 9:15am

I have heard about, and had vigorous discussions about, Gary Taubes and the various versions of Paleo diets. I just couldn't do it. I am not a vegan nor vegetarian - but I just couldn't get past the sinking feeling that smearing a half stick of butter on everything I ate was probably not good for my heart - even though it was pointed out that the native Alaskans ate nothing but blubber and had very low rates of heart disease and cardio vascular disease. I went to Weight Watchers (WW). The WW Points Plus program does not count calories. Instead, it translates carbs, fat, protein and fiber from the Nutrition Facts on all packaged food, into points per serving. Members are allowed a certain number of points daily (I had 26), and 49 extra points weekly for special occasions. All fruit and most vegetables had zero points. Members pick their favorite foods from extensive lists; I had no problems with this because I have no food allergies. I also added exercise to my life. I walk 30 minutes to an hour daily. I don't even walk fast. I listen to music or podcasts, or recently, sometimes with friends. It costs some money to attend WW meetings which are conducted by WW professional motivational speakers, and there is a mobile app that makes it easy to keep track of the points instead of carrying around books with food and their points, and little tracking booklets. I WAS NEVER HUNGRY. I get it about Taubes' and the Paleo advocates' attempt to link obesity with modern access to simple carbohydrates - but I am not sure I buy it. Humans are generalists; we are like rats. We have lots of different kinds of teeth so we can gnaw, bite, chew and otherwise consume a wide variety of foods. That's how we've been able to exist in such different kinds of environments - we can always find something to eat. As opposed to koalas, specialists that can only eat one kind of eucalyptus leaf. If that tree goes extinct, so do the koalas.

That being said - I'm glad if anyone who is unhappy with their shape has been able to find a way to lose the weight and feel better about themselves. On WW, once I achieved my goal weight, and maintained it for six weeks, I stopped having to pay for the meetings and etools, as long as I weigh in once a month and have not gained back more than two pounds. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

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