I hope to challenge what you think you know about nutrition.
Since we launched the National Healthy Lifestyle Program in 1992, Singapore’s obesity prevalence has doubled from 5.1% to 10.8% by 2010. And it’s going to get worse — by 2050, the rate will reach 15.9%. After more than 20 years, we have little to show for our efforts.
Is it possible that our understanding of what causes obesity is flawed?
I did a routine medical checkup in 2008, and my doctor told me I was way overweight. She advised me to eat a balanced diet, eat less fat, more fruits and vegetables, and exercise more…
Problem is I had already been doing all of that for the longest time — I jogged regularly, played tennis, and dutifully ate according to our food pyramid guidelines.
My doctor’s recommendation is the conventional wisdom that we have all heard of before. It sounds so logical and sensible and everybody accepts that it has to be true, right?
So why didn’t it work for me?
That’s what triggered my search for answers. I wanted to know what the best of Science has to say about nutrition and how to lose weight. And I started my search by first seeking out credible doctors and researchers who do not necessarily agree with the conventional wisdom…
Underpinning the conventional wisdom is the idea of energy balance — our body is like a physical system where we can independently control the energy input (what we eat) and output (exercise). If the balance is positive, i.e. input is greater than output, the difference will be stored as body fat. To lose weight, we need to tip the energy balance to the negative— by exercising more, or eating less, or preferably both. So if you are fat, well, that’s because “you take in more energy than what you spend.”
Imagine if you asked me why Warren Buffett is so rich and I explained to you: “it’s because he earns more than what he spends.”
The energy balance idea, as illustrated in the Warren Buffett example, is just not useful as a model to guide our efforts. It is only stating something that has to be true for the end results that we see. It does not explain how we got there.
We’re so used to looking at our eating in terms of energy. In our minds, what we eat is a Physics problem that needs to be solved. What if we looked at this as a Biochemistry problem instead? This alternative considers how our body responds to the different kinds of food that we eat, from fat to carbohydrates. As it turns out, this is very well understood — insulin is the most important fat storage hormone — and a high level of insulin will drive our body into fat storing mode. Where does insulin come from? — it is secreted by our pancreas, and is driven, primarily, by the carbohydrates that we eat.
Yes, carbohydrates, not fat or oil.
So if we are struggling with weight gain, we need to keep our insulin level low by eliminating as much carbohydrates as possible from our food.
This alternative Biochemistry obesity model is about how our body deals with the specific food that we eat, not about how much energy we take in or expend; it’s about being deliberate on the type of food we choose to eat, not obsessed with counting energy or calories.
Simplistic? Well, I have been doing this since 2008 — thoroughly enjoying my food, always eating as much as I want, and whatever I want (except carbohydrates) until I am full. I am never hungry. I feel great, and I‘ve lost 10kg.
With thanks to Tim Ferriss, I got to know of this quote by Harrington Emerson:
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
I hope my sharing will contribute to your understanding of the “principles.” As to “methods,” you will need to self-experiment with your food to find out what works best for you — we all have our personal preferences when you come to food, and also our individual genetic susceptibility. Fret not, genetic makeup is not destiny, and it certainly does not change the underlying principles. I will share what has worked for me in future posts.
Thanks for reading, and I welcome your comments.