What makes us fat?
I try to pitch myself and force of nature personal training as being about health. Usually when people think about PT all they really think about is fat loss. Maybe muscle gain for guys but mostly the fitness industry and personal training is just thought of as a euphemism for the fat loss industry.
Be that as it may but losing a bit of fat and gaining a bit of muscle is one of the healthiest things you can do. Forget vanity or aesthetics for a moment and just think about health. Besides excess fats very existence causing health problems the steps you need to take to lose it require you to make some extremely benificial changes to your lifestyle.
While it's true that weight loss does not have to be healthy when you also work to improve your strengh and maintain or gain muscle you can only be doing yourself and your health good.
Muscle is another subject for another time so let's just stick with fat. If you want to be in the loop when information on muscle and strength is published please subscribe here.
What makes us fat?
We are fat. Maybe not individually. You might not be. But on balance we are all fat. We are fat, getting fat or getting fatter.
When I say 'fat' I don't mean the media's definition of anyone without visible veins crossing their protruding abdominal muscles. I mean the natural health definition. Enough fat to reduce and shorten quality of life. While I guess I would agree that people have a right to live their life however they want to I still can't really see being intentionally less healthy and short-lived as a defendable argument.
Just like choosing to smoking or training for ultra endurance running.
Very few people except for the occasional concerning cam girl and her creepy bald partner want themselves or anyone else to be fat. However here we are back at the beginning again. We are fat against our wishes and there must be a reason for it.
The most common explanation for this for the last 80 or so years is that we are all less active than we used to be and are eating too many calories. The argument is that that its all a big maths equation. Too many calories in and not enough calories out. It's a simple argument and easily understood. Easy to understand sells well.
While there is some logic to this and it's comforting to our Christian approach to sin and punishment to be able to write off anyone overweight as being greedy/gluttonous and lazy/slothful the calories in calories out theory does not hold weight, pun intended.
To quote nutritionist Jean Mayer "to explain obesity by overeating was about as meaningful as explaining alcoholism by overdrinking".
Two studies on some very unfortunate rodents were conducted. One study used mice that were specially bred to become obese and the other study took the low road and just lobotomised their little helpers to destroy the part of the brain that regulated weight.
Both studies split their animals into three groups. One group was fed as much as they wanted, one group was fed a measured 'correct' number of calories and the final group was kept on a calorie restrictive diet. Both studies had the same results.
The rodents allowed to eat whatever they wanted unsurprisingly became extremely overweight but remained relatively active. The rodents given just enough food also became obese but unlike the first group their activity levels dropped hugely. The final group is the most interesting. The rodents on a restrictive diet STILL became obese and their activity levels dropped to zero but they also suffered a massive loss of organ and bone density.
To sum the studies up simply, you do not eat too much and because of it become fat. Your body decides to become fat and then you begin eating too much.
Simply eating less of the same foods with no change of lifestyle would put you in the same boat as the 'just enough' group of rodents or if you had enough misplaced willpower the restrictive group. Either way you will be unable to maintain your energy levels and maybe even damage your health. You may manage for a while but in the end you will fail. However poor your own choices are Mother Nature is looking out for you. Just like Arnie in Terminator 2 we find it extremely hard to self terminate. After awhile you would crack and binge to prevent anything serious happening.
So what is it that makes our bodies want to become fat. With the animal studies it was a clear enough reason. For one group a little bit of genetic tinkering and for the other group a little bit of soldering iron brain surgery. As a side note if either of those things has happened to you then get to a real doctor right now because I'm way way out of my depth.
There are lots of reasons people get fat and while I'll try to make it seem clear cut it will always be a combination of some or all of the following.
Ultimately it will always come down to hormones and inflammation.
Hormones are the bodies messengers and allow regulation of everything else. The following is so simplified that I am truly sorry to any endocrinologists in my audience for butchering the complex science and delicate interactions... I did what I had to do and I'd do it again.
Inflamation is the body being in a general state of distress. You are probably familiar with local inflammation caused by an injury or infection. Systemic inflammation is when your entire body responds to something in a similar way.
Systemic inflamation affects hormones and hormones cause inflamation so the whole thing can spiral downwards fast. Or to be optimistic the whole thing is like a knot and once you can find the loose end the whole tangle comes apart easily.
The important hormones here are insulin, leptin, cortisol, testosterone/progesterone and estrogen.
Insulin is the storage hormone. It tells your body to store blood sugar in the muscles, liver and to turn excess into fat. When you eat a source of carbohydrate insulin will be released in order to balance it out. Unfortunately when your body is required to produce insulin too often and for too long it starts too lose its sensitivity to how much it has already produced. Imagine trying to hold a normal conversation wearing headphones. You would end up shouting in order to feel like you were talking at a normal level. If too much carbohydrate is eaten with too few breaks between eating eventually you will produce far far more insulin than required causing a gain in fat or burn out your ability to produce it at all leaving you with type two diabetes. After eating the over estimated insulin release will cause your blood sugar to fall too low and you will crave more carbohydrate to balance you out again, repeat until failure. It is also inflammatory which can cause other health problems such as arthritis. Having your blood sugar constantly too high or too low will cause energy levels and mood to be uneven and will interfere with sleep.
Leptin is the fat regulation hormone. It checks how much body fat you have and how much you need and sets the 'speed' of your metabolism based on how much is to spare. If a person with enough stored body fat eats a meal then leptin will increase and the speed of your metabolism will increase with it. It SHOULD work to keep you at a perfect healthy weight and adjust your metabolism to how much you are eating. Unfortunately when insulin is too high your body stops listening to the signals from the leptin and wont up regulate your body to keep you lean. If this goes on for too long then just like with insulin your body will get used to the current leptin level and decide it is 'normal' even if it is in fact very high as with an obese person.
Cortisol is the stress hormone. It frees up stored carbohydrate energy from the muscles and liver to allow us to run away from stuff or to fight it as appropriate. The problem here is that the things that will cause a rise in cortisol are often unavoidable. Early mornings, sleep deprivation, fluctuating blood sugar, anxiety about money, stressful jobs, poor nutrition and even spending too much time under artificial lighting all cause a rise. When the cause of stress doesn't go away then just like with insulin and leptin you will just gradually produce more and more until the adrenal glands shut down. The elevated level of cortisol will cause a drop in blood sugar which causes you to eat and then produce insulin that causes your blood sugar to drop which causes a release of cortisol and so on and so on. Again this is a hormone that can cause inflamation and almost any health problem you care to name.
Cortisol is not a 'bad' hormone. It is vital for life and health but it is designed to solve problems that can be fixed with either running away very fast or beating with a heavy rock until they go away. Few modern problems can be solved this way but if you want to give it a shot let me know how it goes in the comments section.
Rather than burning out permanently like with insulin and diabetes when cortisol is too high for too long the result is adrenal fatigue. After a too stressful a day your glands switch off and then fail to go back to work in the morning. It takes zombie walking through a good chunk of your day without cortisol before your levels can return to normal or whatever normal is to you. As you are actually more sensitive to cortisol after spending time without it you will end up feeling awake and wired towards the end of your day, especially when you should be sleeping. The following days sleep deprivation will only make things worse.
Finally the balance of testosterone in men and a mix of progesterone and testosterone in women against estrogen decide whether your body is going to look like a Greek warrior statue or one of those round lumpy fertility goddess statues.
Obviously it is not as simple as testosterone/progesterone good estrogen bad. It is all about balance, however it is not difficult in the modern world to end up with a very high estrogen level and becoming testosterone dominant is unlikely without buying it per 5cc from a scary man at the gym.
My previous articles have covered how to avoid and reduce estrogen and foods that are benificial to this so I won't go back over that and will instead focus on things that raise testosterone/progesterone.
Raising the level of these sex hormones requires a very holistic view on your health. You have to sleep enough, eat enough, get ALL your vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, avoid stress and most of all excercise. To an extent these hormones are a good indicator of your overall health. This is why I consider strength training so healthy. Not only does it improve you physically but in order to improve and progress you have to take care of everything else.
Progress in training would stop long before more serious health problems presented themselves due to poor nutrition, sleep or lifestyle. If a person who is losing fat is unable to improve or even maintain their strength then they are headed for disaster sooner rather than later. Bottom line is get strong. Obviously there is a little bit more to it than that but worry about that once you run out of heavier weights.
I know lots of people see weight training as a very masculine 'hobby' but our bodies are designed to be strong, flexible and explosive. To live as natural and healthy a life as possible you have to live up to your potential as an apex predator. This is just a statement of fact, we are meant to be able to do certain things.
Finally systemic inflamation can be caused by lots of different stuff in your life. Chronically elevated levels of insulin from a sugar and carbohydrate heavy diet and chronically elevated levels of cortisol from constant stress are the hormonal reasons. Other reasons could be nutritional deficiancys, food intolerances or even dehydration or sleep deprivation. The big kicker here is that as a said before the inflamation can cause a loss of sensitivity to hormonal levels and as those levels rise the inflamation will only get worse.
As this has gone on long enough I will call it a day there and go over the solutions in the next article. For first dibs on that please subscribe here.
Please get in touch and let me know if any of this sounds like it applies to you in the comments. Please share and I'll be back in touch soon.
If this article rang true check out the follow up on what to actually do about it all.