Forget about Calories, think of hormones

  (Versión en español: pinchar aquí)

One of the most useless messages about nutrition that can be given is «eat healthy». Just imagine your doctor telling you that you should get better, instead of giving a you treatment, or a teacher saying that a problem can be solved using the correct procedure, when asked about the solution. Useless.

Does it mean anything to «eat healthy»?

A few days ago I was at the grocery store of El Corte Ingles (one of the biggest department stores in Spain) and there was a section called «Healthy Food». The contents of the shelves were basically food for birds and rodents (see). Lots of energy, very little nutritional value and gluten … Obviously not all of us understand the same thing by «healthy eating». If someone says «eat healthy», they say nothing. To some of us it means not eating animal fats, for others not eating red meat, for others not eating fast food, and for others, like me, not eating processed foods, avoiding carbs and basing the diet on healthy fats.

If I am overweight, what is healthy for me?

Let’s start by clarifying that counting calories is not going to give you answers to that question. The «calorie counters» are wrong in their thinking and in their forecasts because we are not an oven; we are human beings. And we don’t eat calories, we eat foods.   Calories have no effect on our hormones, but foods do. An oven doesn’t have hormones, humans have.

Counting calories has to do with combustion, not nutrition.

In short, the same foods have different effects on different people, even when calories are the same (seesee, see, see). That doesn’t happen to ovens. If you are overweight, thinking of hormones may help you, thinking of calories won’t.

Someone said that if you walk towards a wall and the first thing that touches the wall is your belly, you have insulin resistance (see). That means that in response to the same amount of food your body secretes more insulin than a «healthy» person. And since insulin is the main hormone involved in fat accumulation (see), that means that when you’re fat, you probably accumulate more and burn less fat, eating the same foods as a healthy person eats. Just the opposite of what «calorie counters» predict. Bread won’t have the same effect, rice won’t have the same effect, pizza pizza won’t have the same effect, legumes  won’t have the same effect, fruit won’t have the same effect in you and in a slim and healthy person.

For example, look at the effect that the same foods (several legumes and glucose in light green) have in blood insulin in two groups of people, healthy on the left and insulin resistant on the right (see):


If you have obesity you should think that maybe your body reacts to carbs as people in the group on the right, segregating too much insulin and forcing your body to accumulate body fat instead of burning it.

Another example: in this study you can see how after following the «Control» diet obese people created much more fat than lean people from carbs («de novo lipogenesis»).The small difference in carb intake between the two groups doesn’t justify the different fat production rate:


Same food. Same Calories. Different hormonal reaction. Different body fat accumulation.

In obesity the problem is the dysfunctional management of body fat, not the energy balance

  • If you are obese, your body converts more carbs into fat than a lean person. Your rate of «de novo lipogenesis» is greater  (see).
  • When your body shifts its metabolism into burning (oxidation) of carbs instead of burning fat burning you will probably end up obese (see)
  • In obese people fat burning is diminished (seesee, see), if we see it in proportion to the fat mass they have.
  • Low-carb diets shift our metabolism from burning carbs to burning fat (see)
  • Carbs stimulate fat creation («de novo lipogenesis») more than an equivalent amount of dietary fat (see)
  • Losing weight can be counterproductive in the long term, as our body initiates compensatory mechanisms to preserve energy and increase food intake. It can also worsen the way your body manages fat.

«Because weight loss is rarely sustained and causes additional impairment of fat oxidation, advice to obese patients to lose weight by curbing caloric intake seems misplaced.» ( see )

What conclusion can we draw from this if we want to lose weight?

If you have a weight problem, your body is probably not capable of processing carbs and you accumulate more fat and burn less than other people, even when eating the same foods. It seems complicated to escape from this situation unless you limit the amount of carbs in your diet. Or in other words, it is absurd to think that a diet based on the intake of unnecessary carbs of low nutritional quality (grains, pasta, bread, etc.) is healthy for you. This is not a matter of calories, but hormones and the way your body reacts to what you eat. And your body does not react like a lean person’s body.

In conclusion, may be everything I’ve told you is false -I don’t think so-, but the facts are undeniable: low-carb diets are healthy (see) and perhaps the only realistic way to lose weight (and keep that weight in the long term) while hypocaloric diets don’t work in the long term. On the other hand, don’t forget that being fat is not just a cosmetic issue, it is about health.

NOTE: there are thin people who actually have the same health problems as obese. They are TOFI, Thin Outside Fat Inside. It is also said that there are obese people who are actually healthy, but not everyone thinks that that is possible (see).

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