by Sean Croxton
Let’s talk about fat loss.
It’s definitely not as easy as calorie-in/calories-out. That seldom works from anyone in the long term!
Why? Well, because your body is super smart and wants nothing more than to ensure your survival in times of famine (either real or self-induced).
Since it’s the giving season (isn’t it always?), here’s a section on the forgotten fat loss hormone leptin from my ebook The Dark Side of Fat Loss. The only thing you’re missing are the really cool graphics that go with the text.
If you’re not much of a reader, you can watch the video instead.
Chapter 2: It’s All About the Hormones
The Dark Side knows that dieting makes you fat.
It knows that every time you go on a diet, you end up heavier than you were when you started. This is no coincidence. It’s just basic human physiology with a dash of logic.
Your weight gain is not a simple matter of overindulgence and indolence, but of survival and miscommunication. You are NOT a gluttonous sloth with a predisposition for stuffing your face all hours of the day while planted firmly on your backside. There is a perfectly good answer as to WHY you eat too much and move too little. It’s just that no one bothered to tell you until now.
The answer is not one of psychological defect — you just want to be fat — or thermodynamics, but of hormonal imbalance.
Getting All Hormonal
Hormones are the chemical messengers that tell your cells what do. Since your body is made up of 50-75 trillion of these cells, you certainly want to be sure that they get the right messages and do the right things. Your health depends upon it.
Hormones do it all. They are what make you a man or woman. They put you to bed at night and wake you in the morning. They govern your heart rate and blood pressure. They calm down your anxieties and relieve depression. They help you digest your meals. They control your sex drive. They fight stress and infections. They regulate your blood sugar. And they are also responsible for the burning and storage of fat. Any and all attempts to lose fat without first restoring the proper function of the fat-burning and fat-storing hormones will be in vain. Hunger and hardwiring trump willpower every time.
Many volumes and literally hundreds of thousands of pages have been written on how hormones impact human physiology, function, and fat storage. In fact, the human body contains more than 100 different hormones. This stuff can get pretty darn complicated! So in this chapter, we will cover the basics. If you wish to go deeper down the hormonal rabbit hole, please refer to the recommended materials and scientific references at the end of this chapter to further your understanding.
While we’ll keep it rather simple here, I guarantee these fairly basic concepts will go well above and beyond anything you’ve ever heard or read before regarding how your body burns and stores fat. I even recommend you break out a pencil and paper for note-taking. As you take notes you’ll likely end up with a messy sheet of paper with arrows pointing from each hormone to several others, demonstrating their interdependency. This hormonal interplay exemplifies the extraordinary balancing act your endocrine (hormonal) system must perform in order to keep your body’s fat burning furnace fired up.
The interdependency among hormones is both a gift and a curse. Like dominoes, when one hormone falls out of balance, others soon follow. Imbalances can be a matter of excess or deficiency. In other words, you don’t want too much of a hormone and you don’t want too little.
To illustrate this concept of too much or too little, let’s consider the amount of water you drink. If you drink too little, you become dehydrated and your body begins to shut down. If you drink too much, you can throw off your electrolyte balance – a condition called hyponatremia – and end up in the ER. Neither situation will lead anyone to believe that water is bad for us. The problem resides in its excess or deficiency.
In the same regard, too much or too little of a hormone can cause serious health problems. For example, too much thyroid hormone — called hyperthyroidism — may give you heart palpitations, cause chronic anxiety, and keep you awake all hours of the night. Conversely, not enough of the same hormone — called hypothyroidism — will cause you to gain weight, make your hair fall out, and have you feeling frostbitten on a warm sunny day.
If you are a woman (pro female bodybuilders, for instance), too much testosterone might give you an Adam’s apple and a Tom Selleck mustache. Too little will pull your libido right out from under you and keep you from burning fat and building muscle.
Instead of too much or too little, you want just enough. In the pages that follow I will show you how your body employs hormones — primarily leptin and insulin — to ensure that you have just enough bodyfat and blood sugar. Once these vital hormones lose their way, the result is an internal environment that is highly conducive for a
reduction in metabolism, increase in appetite, sedentary behavior, and storage of fat.
Your weight gain is what I like to call survival gone haywire. To understand this concept, we have to go back.
How easily we forget that regardless of how modern and high-tech things may seem, you and I are still living in prehistoric bodies. If you’ve ever seen the movie Encino Man, Sean Astin stumbles upon a caveman in his backyard frozen in a block of ice. He and his best friend thaw the Neanderthal out, clean him up, give him a wicked haircut, and end up with Brendan Fraser!
Yeah, I know it’s just a movie (it’s actually pretty funny), but it makes some great points. From a physiological perspective, cave people were really no different from us. Give them an afternoon with the Extreme Makeover team and I bet you wouldn’t recognize them on the streets.
We are cave people! What separates us most from our prehistoric ancestors is our environment. Caveman never imagined that there would be a such thing as a supermarket, that we could turn darkness into daylight, and that the famine would never come. He didn’t have a refrigerator or freezer. No free samples at Costco. No media telling him how he ought
to look or dress. In fact, the only way he knew what he looked like was by catching his reflection in a stream or puddle.
Mirrors and media were the last thing on caveman’s mind. He had more important matters to deal with, like finding his next meal while not becoming one. Survival was the
name of the game. Lucky for him, he had a few built-in mechanisms to ensure that he lived to see another day. And it is these very same mechanisms that have been working against you in your many failed attempts to starve and strain yourself to fat (err, weight) loss.
Fat: It’s Alive!
Caveman never cut calories on purpose. He never caught a glimpse of his reflection and decided it was about time he go on a diet. In fact, going on a diet would have been caveman crazy talk, especially when he wasn’t always sure where his next meal was coming from. Some days there would be plenty of food to go around. Other times the primordial fridge was empty. Since starving was just as uncool back then as it is today, the body had to possess some kind of starvation defense system. If not, you and I wouldn’t be here. The first winter famine would have been the end of us all.
As bizarre as it might sound, your fat stores are that very defense system protecting you from the perils of famine and death. You may think of your fat as just an unsightly energy storage depot. But it has recently been discovered to be an actual hormone-producing organ just like your thyroid, adrenals, and pancreas. Yes, fat is an organ!
Discovered in 1994, leptin is a hormone secreted by your white adipose tissue, otherwise known as the unwanted fat collecting on your butt, thighs, and abdomen. And it’s not just any hormone. Leptin is the master hormone, charged with the crucial role of keeping you from starving to death by monitoring how much fat you have on board. That way, when the famine comes you can live off of your fat stores until it’s time to eat. If the famine arrives and you’ve got just four-percent bodyfat, you’re in big trouble, my friend!
Leptin is in direct communication with a gland in your brain called the hypothalamus. When your fat stores are sufficient, your hypothalamus gets a phone call from leptin saying all is well and that making it through a food shortage won’t be a problem. As a result, the hypothalamus keeps your metabolism humming along and your appetite at bay since there is no need to store any additional fat.
How Diets Make You Fat
What’s important to mention here is that the starvation defense system is under subconscious control. Your brain has no idea what you look like in the mirror. Nor does it care what or who you want to look like. All it cares about is your survival by way of ensuring that you have enough fat on hand to make it through the famine that never comes.
So when our caveman—we’ll call him Link, like the movie character—was short on food, his body shifted to his fat stores for fuel. As his fat stores shrank over the scarce weeks or months, they produced less leptin. And since there was less leptin, the phone call being made to the hypothalamus was of an urgent nature. Fat stores down! Fat stores down! Mayday! Mayday!
When fat stores are on their way down, the last thing your body wants is a turbo-charged metabolism. In terms of survival, that would be pretty boneheaded, since a hot metabolism
would only serve to burn through your fat stores at a blistering pace, thus expediting your impending doom.
So when the hypothalamus gets word that Link’s fat stores are dwindling, it does a couple of really smart things. First, it tells the thyroid gland—the metabolic control center located in the throat—to turn down his metabolism. This metabolic slowdown is an ingenious survival tactic that preserves fat while matching the limited supply of food. That way Link won’t run out of fat before the famine breaks. Second, the hypothalamus increases his appetite (more on this below) so he’ll be super-motivated to go looking for food to replenish his fat stores. In other words, his body responds to the prolonged food shortage by slowing his metabolism and making him hungry.
Wait a minute!! Isn’t a low-calorie diet pretty much the same as a food shortage? Could leptin be the reason WHY you can’t stick to your diet and exercise program without hitting a plateau—because your metabolism slowed—or eventually getting your daily Thanksgiving on (a reference to the last chapter, for those of you reading this on my blog) — due to increased appetite — like the poor lady in the previous chapter? Remember, calories-in and calories-out are Siamese twins. You can’t fiddle with one without affecting the other. Leptin is the glue that binds the two.
By the way, will someone please tell me why a caveman would go running during a famine? Because that’s exactly what The Box has been telling you to do to “lose weight”. It really makes no sense at all when you think about it.
Why You Gain It All Back…And Then Some
When the famine breaks and Link gets his mitts on some venison and wild berries, you better believe that those calories are going straight to his fat stores. As his stores are replenished, his leptin will rise and his brain will get a phone call from his fat cells saying that everything is cool. Link’s metabolism and appetite will normalize. The famine will come again and he will be well prepared.
This is why 95% of dieters regain all of their lost weight. They simply can’t outsmart leptin. The two main conditions that set off your starvation defense system are reduced fat stores and caloric restriction (cutting calories). As you go on and off of diets, time after time, again and again, your body starts to smell a diet coming from a hundred miles away. So when you eventually pack the fat back on, it stows away a little extra for added insurance. After every diet, you end up heavier than you were when you started. This is how diets make you fatter!
Leptin Resistance: A Failure to Communicate
Your survival defense system works both ways. It doesn’t want you too skinny, nor does it want you too fat. Your subconscious mind is well aware of the fact that a portly version of you would have a hard time running from a saber tooth tiger. So it wants to keep you lean enough to fight-or-flee and fat enough to survive a famine. It prefers just enough fat.
Let’s consider what happens when a guy like me actually puts on a few pounds from having a few too many servings of birthday cake, late night cervezas, and one-and-a-half almonds. If my fat cells and hypothalamus are communicating optimally, my brain will sense the extra leptin — from my extra fat stores — and once again do two very intelligent things: it will turn up my metabolism to bring my fat stores down to where my subconscious likes them to be, and it will turn down my appetite to keep me from packing on more fat.
The human body is friggin’ smart! This is why the Dark Side doesn’t count calories. When leptin and the other hormones you’ll be meeting soon are in balance, appetite and calories just tend to take care of themselves.
I know exactly what you’re thinking. Wouldn’t overweight and obese people make a ton of metabolism-increasing, appetite-reducing leptin due to such superfluous fat stores? And if so, why don’t their bodies protect them from that same saber-tooth tiger?
Great questions! Yes, people with excess fat stores are pumping out plenty of leptin, which should relay a message to the hypothalamus that there is way more than enough fat on board. Metabolism should crank up to burn off the excess fat. Appetite should calm down as well. But they don’t. Why? Because the hypothalamus has become leptin resistant. In other words, leptin is making the call, but the brain doesn’t hear it. The darn ringer is off!
When the brain becomes leptin resistant, the subconscious mind is completely oblivious to the fact that there is way more than enough fat on hand to get through the famine. It thinks it’s dealing with a rail-thin supermodel with extremely low fat stores and leptin levels, not the overweight guy or gal trying to sweat off the pounds in Zumba class. So the brain sends out the command to slow down the metabolism and increase hunger. No bueno!
How did things get this out of hand? Leptin resistance has been attributed to overeating (not so uncommon these days), frequent blood sugar surges (from our Standard American Diet), high triglycerides (ditto), excessive fructose consumption (the stuff is in everything!), and chronic stress (got some?).
Down Go the Dominoes!!
Here is where the hormonal interplay comes into the picture. When leptin levels are low (or the brain thinks they are low because of leptin resistance), the stress hormone cortisol goes through the roof. This presents quite a problem since cortisol is a fat-storing and muscle-wasting hormone. We’ll discuss the evils of excess cortisol in Chapter 6.
Reduced leptin levels also triggers an increase in a little-known appetite-regulating hormone in your stomach called ghrelin. When ghrelin is up, so too is your appetite and food intake. And to make you even more motivated to pay a visit to a vending machine near you, Neuropeptide Y (NPY)—a hunger signal produced by your brain—surges when leptin is down. NPY drives you to crave carbohydrates. And I’m not talking about broccoli and cauliflower; I’m talking about the sweet stuff that drives up your insulin levels. And as you’ll soon learn, insulin stores fat!
Please keep in mind that your actual leptin levels don’t have to be low for this hunger-inducing, fat-storing cascade to take place. If leptin and the hypothalamus are in a state of miscommunication (leptin resistance), leptin may be sky high, but the brain is deaf, dumb, and blind to it.
Now would be a good time to think back to the question posed by Taubes in the previous chapter, “WHY do you overeat?” I hope the last few paragraphs shined a little dark on that.
Again, your body would rather you not starve to death. And that’s exactly what it’s thinking when you cut your calories in an attempt to lose weight.
You can’t cheat the system. It’s way smarter than you.
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Author, The Dark Side of Fat Loss