I’ve been interested in the study of health for a lot of years and if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the body is an incredibly complex creation and there are no quick fixes when it’s malfunctioning.
Keeping a healthy body healthy is not complicated though. There are a few simple things you have to do to keep it functioning well:
- eat a variety of unprocessed and uncontaminated food
- drink lots of clean water
- breathe clean air
- move often and in different ways
- get enough deep sleep
- learn to manage stress appropriately.
Simple yes. Not easy.
But easy is what we all want, right?
Everything else in our lives is so complicated. We just want the magic bullet that will remove the need to follow these simple principles.
And nowhere is this more true than with our weight.
As many of us get older, we struggle more and more with age-related weight gain.
It wasn’t until my early forties that I started to pack on the pounds. I’d never really struggled with my weight before then. I could eat whatever I wanted and only had minor fluctuations in my weight.
I got interested in nutrition and natural remedies in my twenties, back when “health food stores” were rare and us early adopters were referred to with disdain as “granola heads.”
So by my forties, I had already established good eating habits and regular exercise. I was fortunate enough to inherit good genes so I felt pretty invincible back then.
The wake up call came with the onset of peri-menopause, followed by a back injury that restricted my movement for several months.
I gained about 30 pounds that year, then continued to add 3-5 pounds a year for the next few years. As I entered my fifth decade, I was pushing the 200 pound mark on my 5’6’’ frame.
At that point I didn’t have the energy to exercise, and my joints hurt so much when I did that I was afraid I would damage them.
I stuck to walking my dog, swimming and cycling which certainly helped but weren’t enough to make any sort of dent in my weight.
I felt totally helpless and frustrated. Here I was, someone who was commited to living a healthy lifestyle, but moving quickly into the obesity category with all its related ills, and I couldn’t seem to do anything about it.
I knew there had to be an answer, so I started to learn everything I could about how the body stores and releases fat.
As you can imagine, I had to sift through tons of misinformation and marketing nonsense, but I eventually found some solid resources and smart people who helped me understand some fundamental pieces that just made sense.
By following a prescriptive ketogenic program, I was able to lose 55 pounds in a little over 5 months, and actually gained muscle mass – a key factor, it turns out, in longevity.
Usually this kind of weight loss is accompanied by a loss of water and muscle tissue. Not a desirable situation and too often the case with many “diet” programs.
But following the principles I learned turned things around for me so I feel a need to share them.
Two Things We Know
I acknowledge that there are several factors that contribute to weight gain and loss including medical, psychological and hormonal issues which are in themselves worthy of further exploration. It’s not a simple topic.
But for the average Jill/Joe, there a couple of things we know:
- optimum health is directly related to our fat to muscle ratio
- muscle mass is the common denominator among the longest-living people.
Understanding the Metrics
It’s really important to know what we’re measuring.
Losing “weight” is not the same as losing “fat.” Muscle weighs more than fat so you can gain weight in muscle and still lose fat. In fact, this is the ideal scenario.
Unfortunately most “diets” don’t acknowledge this. They measure in pounds lost, rather than inches, which is usually a better measure of fat loss. If the pounds you lose are made up of water and muscle, you’re paying a hefty price with your health and those pounds will return in no time and then some.
So the measure I use for healthy “weight” loss is actually fat loss, without water loss and with muscle gain.
The Bad News
North Americans are the fattest people on the planet.
Apparently more than half of North Americans are carrying an unhealthy amount of excess fat and that number is increasing every year. It’s estimated that individually each of us is getting about 2-5 pounds fatter every year.
Some experts say that children living in North America today will live less long than their parents because of growing obesity numbers due to poor nutrition and a lack of exercise.
And it’s all entirely preventable.
Time to Face Facts
We know that excess fat is related to a significant number of our most serious health issues.
And now more and more research is pointing to our excess consumption of sugar in all its many forms; grains (glucose), fruits (fructose), dairy (lactose) as a key factor.
Go to any grocery store and cruise the aisles. You’ll find that at least 90% of everything in the store will have some form of sugar in it. (Even the roast chicken has sugar in the basting sauce.)
With our dollars we support an agricultural industrial complex that largely controls our food supply, and whose primary objective is not to create nutritious food but rather to maximize profits for their shareholders.
Combine that with our busy, stressed, instant-gratification culture and you have the perfect storm.
As with most things, the answer lies in education.
Choosing Your Octane
Energy is required for all the body’s processes: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Without energy, we’re toast.
The body uses three types of fuel to create energy: carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Carbohydrates metabolize into glucose (sugar) which is the easiest and fastest source of fuel the body can access, so it will always burn glucose first. If you stop eating carbohydrates, your glucose reserves will run out usually in about 3-5 days.
After that the body turns to fat and protein as fuel.
For efficiency, the body will burn the fat you’ve just eaten before it burns the stored fat.
If you give the body the right amount of protein, it will use that to build tissue, including muscle tissue. If you give it too much protein, the body will convert it into glucose.
The key to healthy weight loss, without losing water and muscle, is to shift your body into fat burning vs sugar burning mode.
You do this by reducing your carbohydrates, determining the right amount of quality protein for your body, and increasing your consumption of healthy fats.
Yes, it seems counter intuitive doesn’t it? Stay with me.
Many diets focus specifically on caloric restriction but they don’t address the kind of calories you’re reducing.
While it’s true that you can’t continuously eat more calories than you burn and not gain weight, calorie restriction alone doesn’t consider how the body responds to different kinds of fuel.
Simply reducing calories usually leads to hunger, cravings, feelings of deprivation and eventually abandonment of the program.
Lowering your caloric intake will also eventually lower your metabolic rate so your body will require less fuel because it’s producing less energy.
This will thwart fat loss, not enable it. It’s why you tend to feel less energetic in mind, body and spirit on a calorie restricted diet. It’s also why so many diets fail and generally result in a loss of water and muscle instead of fat.
To reduce stored fat, you have to burn it. And when you burn it, it provides your body with high quality caloric fuel that eliminates cravings and provides a feeling of satiation.
You have a lot more energy when your body is burning fat which makes you want to get up and move. Movement gives your body the oxygen it requires for the fat burning process and keeps your metabolism at an optimum level.
If you’re getting enough, but not too much, (quality) protein at the same time, your body will build muscle instead of losing it. In turn, the greater your muscle mass, the more energy, or fat fuel is required.
Double Up on the Right Fuel
Calories are used to measure the energy value of food. Carbohydrates and protein provide the body with about 4 calories of energy per gram. Fats provide the body with about 9 calories of energy per gram.
So when your body is burning fat as its primary fuel, you’re getting more than twice the energy. Fat is higher octane fuel. This is why people on a “ketogenic” (i.e. fat burning) diet have more energy, fewer cravings and better success reaching their goals.
There are a whole host of other benefits being uncovered with this way of eating as well. (See the Resources section below.)
Learn to Read Labels
The first step in taking responsibility for what you eat is to learn to read labels. There is a lot of important information there if you know what to look for. I’ve learned to focus first on how many carbs a food contains, then I look at protein and fat.
Why? Because here’s a scary fact.
Four grams of carbohydrate is equivalent to 1 tsp of sugar. When you start to read labels, or do research on different foods, you begin to realize that while some “healthier” carbs have more fiber, they are still very high in what the body recognizes and utilizes as “sugar.”
You’ll hear the term “net carbs,” which is carb grams minus fiber grams. While there are proven benefits to fibre, some fibre (soluble) is still counted as a carbohydrate. Some carbohydrates burn more slowly than others (e.g. beans vs. grains) but still convert to glucose (sugar).
Quality carbohydrates are definitely part of a balanced nutritional approach. However, while you’re trying to lose excess body fat, they just present a roadblock. If these foods are the main staple in your diet, you’re not going to be burning fat. Instead your pancreas will be producing more insulin to deal with all the sugar intake, leading you to store more fat.
Fat Loss Success Principles
Disclaimer: I’m not a health practitioner. If you have health issues, consult your health practitioner before making big changes to your diet.
The following principles are designed to help you lose fat. Once you’ve reached your body mass (fat to muscle ratio) goal, you may want to adapt these strategies somewhat. However, many people find they feel so much better eating this way that they continue to follow them while only occasionally veering away.
This type of nutritional program, known generally as ketogenic, has proven to be especially beneficial to those with specific health issues such as epilepsy and attention deficit disorder.
Reduce all carbohydrates to under 30 grams per day. This includes eliminating fruits, dairy, grains, beans, starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes, carrots, beets), alcohol and all obvious sugar. Instead eats LOTS of low carbohydrate vegetables (raw & steamed). Read your labels and count your carbs.
Reduce Bad Fats – Increase Good Fats
Eliminate unhealthy fats (hydrogenated oils, margarine, fried foods). Eat only good fats (e.g. virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts & seeds). Let go of the fear of fat. (See Resources below for links to research on the many benefits of ketogenic diets.)
Increase Protein (Marginally)
Increase your (quality) protein. Eat a variety of sources; lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts and seeds.
Find a quality protein powder. Be sure and check the carb count though. Just because it says high protein, it doesn’t mean it isn’t also higher in carbs. Avoid whey and whey isolates as it raises blood sugar and insulin levels and often contains preservatives and artificial flavours.
There’s increasing concern about soy too as it has been known to impact the endocrine (hormonal) system.
Look for other options like collagen and pea protein. If you can find it, try cricket protein. It has half the fat and a third more protein than beef, and is much more environmentally sustainable. It has a surprisingly neutral flavour.
Consume no more than 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. Slightly less if you’re not very active.
Drink More Water
I’m sure you’ve heard this one a zillion times. And yet I don’t know anyone who thinks they drink enough water. The list of benefits from drinking water is ridiculously long.
Find a way to increase your water intake. The recommendation is to drink ½ your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of clean water. Seriously.
Try this strategy…
Fill a litre bottle and keep it within reach. Make a commitment to finish it by the end of your day. Refill and repeat. You’ll be amazed how much better you feel.
Do something/anything physical every day. You don’t have to go overboard but try to get physically tired. This will help with the next two points. Take the stairs, park a couple of blocks from your destination, go for a swim or a bike ride.
If you’re carrying a fair amount of weight, or lead a sedentary lifestyle, it’s a good idea to cut your activity down a bit at the beginning of this program and increase it as you have more energy from the fat burning. (i.e. you may have low energy and food cravings for the first 3-5 days while your body burns its sugar reserves and converts to burning fat)
Use your lungs. Learn to breathe into your belly. Get outside into fresh air. Open your bedroom window at night. Take a few minutes during the day to take 10 full deep breaths.
The fat burning process requires oxygen – and so do we!
Get enough good quality sleep. For most people this means about 6-8 hours. If you move enough to tire your muscles, you’ll sleep better. Open your bedroom window and make the room as dark as possible. A cool, dark room is ideal for quality sleep.
Most of our cellular regeneration happens while we sleep. Many of us spend a lot of our time with our faces buried in some kind of screen; computer, TV, smartphone. You’ll sleep better if you shut your screen down an hour before you go to bed. Pick up a book instead. Fiction is a good way to wind down busy brains before sleep.
Add Quality Supplements
Add a good multi-vitamin/mineral complex, omega oils, a calcium/magnesium supplement and a good digestive formula for optimum results. (e.g. aloe vera, bitters, enzymes)
Transitioning To & From
For those of us used to our culture’s high carbohydrate diet, following these principles is a huge change and often very difficult.
There is a way to transition more gently though. I recommend you explore Tim Ferris’ Slow Carb Diet. You begin by transitioning from simple carbs (sugars) to slow carbs (beans and legumes).
You may find it easier to follow the Slow Carb program for 6 months, then move into the ketogenic program for as long as you need to bring your fat-muscle ratio into a healthy range.
Then you might find it works for you to go back to Slow Carb as a lifelong program. It all depends on how much fat you want to lose. Your approach will be different if you are carrying an extra 100 lbs vs 20.
Slow Carb Rules
The Slow Carb program consists of 5 rules (below) that you follow for 6 days a week. On the 7th day (your choice but the same day every week), you eat whatever you want. This is called your Cheat Day.
On Slow Carb, six days a week I eat lots of vegetables (except potatoes, beets, corn), lean protein, beans and legumes (slow burning carbs) and drink lots of water. I’ve never been a fan of pop or fruit juice so I don’t miss them. I only occasionally drink wine, although Tim says a glass of red wine a day won’t negatively impact your results. If I have wine, I pour 1/2 a glass of wine, then add water.
The 7th day is Cheat Day when you can eat whatever you want and as much as you want. It sounds crazy but it actually serves you to gorge for that one day because it keeps your metabolism from slowing down, and you actually look forward to getting back to your ‘normal’ healthy eating the next day.
If I have a craving for something sugary/carby during the week (which is rare), I save it for Cheat Day.
Tim suggests Saturday as your Cheat Day because that’s usually when people are out socializing. But Sunday is the day I reserve just for me and the things I love to do so I chose Sunday. You choose the day that works best for you.
Many people have had significant weight loss on the slow carb program on its own, but it’s equally valuable as a lifelong way to eat. Try it and see how it works for you.
Here are the 5 rules for 6 days a week:
- Have 30 grams of quality protein within 30 minutes of waking up.
- Avoid all “white” carbohydrates (sugar, pasta, rice, bread, cheese) (Exclusions: cauliflower)
- Eat the same meals over and over again (especially breakfast and lunch)
- Don’t drink calories (fruit juice, pop, sugary drinks)
- Don’t eat fruit (tomatoes and avocados in moderation)
Making Different Choices
Making dietary changes isn’t easy. Especially if you’re responsible for cooking for and feeding others. You need to be motivated to succeed (ask yourself what will happen if you don’t do something about the fat you’re carrying), and you need to ask for support. From family and perhaps from a trusted friend who will hold you accountable.
Some of the things that motivated me were the loss of flexibility that I had always enjoyed, not fitting into any clothes I liked, not having any energy and experiencing more and more joint pain.
It also helps to set yourself up to win. I organized one cupboard for my cheat day high carb foods while doing the Slow Carb program, and removed them from everywhere else. I live alone so this was easier for me than it may be for you. But you can come up with your own “systems” to support your success.
It’s most important that you be gentle with yourself and go at your own pace.
Afterward & Ongoing
Once you’ve reached your healthy goal weight, which is individual to each of us, you can begin to gradually add some high quality, high fibre, slower burning carbohydrates back into your diet.
But beware. Carbohydrates are very addictive. Once you start eating them again it’s hard to stop. And you will probably experience a drop in your energy. I quickly realized that our standard high carbohydrate diet didn’t work for me. I felt much better, mentally and physically, by keeping my carbohydrate intake low.
And there are now so many resources for low carb and ketogenic cooking. One of my go-to sites for recipes is Wholesome Yum. You won’t feel at all deprived of your usual favourites once you’ve tried some of these delicious, low carb alternatives.
I also found it helped me to track my progress. I use an Omron body composition scale as it gives me my body weight, body mass index, fat %, muscle %, visceral (belly) fat %, body age and the minimum number of calories needed for my body to function (Kcals). Doing a weekly weigh in helps kept me motivated.
I have a Fitbit Inspire that helps me track my steps, my heart rate during exercise and my sleep stats.
I followed Mark Sisson’s instructions for a Keto Reset at the beginning of last year and plan to do it again at the start of 2023.
I hope this information will help you reclaim or retain your health. In my experience, health is an ongoing mission. Whenever I fall off the horse, I just get right back up on it.
Living is learning.
If you want to go deeper, check out the resources below.
On ketogenic and low carbohydrate diets
- Very thorough Ketogenic Diet Resource and Ketogenic Diet Plan
- Watch Dr. Peter Attia’s powerful TED Talk on Insulin Resistance, and his blog.
- Check out Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. It contains all the details of the Slow Carb diet.
- Tim’s interview with Dom D’Agostino on the power of ketogenic diets. He’s since done some good follow-ups with Dom.
- Check out Mark’s Daily Apple. This site is choc-a-bloc with great information on a “paleo” lifestyle.
On metabolic health
Two good books on metabolism by Stephen Cherniske:
Disclaimer – Affiliate Links for Amazon books
For all book recommendations, if you’re on a book budget as I am, always check your local library or used book store first.