(aka Injustice Exposure, Episode 2: Widespread societal damage arising from the pressures of a free-market economy, medical system miscalculations, and the natural tendency of people to want to have a good time).
If you are an American, chances are you are overweight. Why? What are we doing wrong? I have struggled with this question for the bulk of my adult life, even before medical school, even before my own weight started climbing (I was always the super-skinny kid that could eat damn near anything and everything). And no, it’s not that we are all just lazy. Americans just got to affluence first, and the rest of the world is following.
I am going to make it super simple, then I will explain a bit (probably for longer than you care to listen):
Instead of thinking of fasting as starving yourself, think of fasting as a workout. It’s a workout where you are training your body to use stored energy, to actually burn fat. Here is my take on the food triangle:
The bright orange arrow represents weight loss, plain and simple. We want to make that arrow BIGGER. And that is exactly what fasting does, it trains your body to build the enzymes and metabolic processes that convert stored energy into energy for you to be you, whatever that happens to be. Your body works on one overarching principle: use it or lose it. So if you are never in a fasting state – you never need to burn stored energy to power you because you are never without food in your belly – it loses the ability to do so. And if that’s the case, and you don’t eat? Your blood sugar drops and you get super hungry and you feel like complete shit.
But I promise you, you can change that. (And it’s pretty easy, and the results are pretty epic).
Think about all of the advice you have probably heard about losing weight: breakfast is the most important meal of the day; eat multiple small meals; don’t let yourself get hungry or you will overeat; eat healthy snacks; don’t eat fat; do eat fat; don’t eat carbs; don’t eat gluten; walk; take the stairs; exercise at high intensity; exercise at low intensity; do exercises that use your bodyweight; exercise in the heat; exercise naked. Notice that none of these things – none of them – have anything to do with the orange arrow. All of these things have to do with food (energy in), or you being you. But doesn’t that orange arrow represent the very thing you are actually trying to do? The orange arrow is weight loss, and it has nothing to do with what you eat, or how much energy you burn during the day.
If you are immediately thinking, to burn fat, I have to exercise, or eat certain foods, or take a diet pill, (or be born with the metabolism of a humming bird), there is a reason. Excepting your family doctor, pretty much everyone that says they want to help you lose weight really just wants to sell you something.
You are not going to see anyone that sells food of any kind, “healthy” or not, suggest that you skip a meal. Just the opposite: they are going to put mouth-watering images and ideas in front of you that will make you want a big, juicy whatever-it-is-that-you-like-to-eat-most.
Why is breakfast the most important meal of the day? Because it’s is the easiest one to skip and extend the period of fasting while you were asleep later into the morning. Or even the afternoon. And if you start doing that, you might find that this whole breakfast thing is not really needed at all. And then the number of bacon, egg, and cheese biscuits that gets sold goes down dramatically. Or boxes of cereal. Or protein shakes, or whatever. And we can’t have that, oh no.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but when I say that, what I am talking about is exactly when you break your fast.
All these weight-loss people start with their success story. They talk about their trials and tribulations, and how they are just like you, and they were able to make this revolutionary change by doing or buying this. (And you can too!)
So here is my story: I stopped eating breakfast. That’s it.
And by doing that, by progressively extending my period of fasting to noon (or now 1:30, 2:00, it doesn’t seem to matter much) I started developing that orange arrow, I started building up my body’s ability to burn stored energy. Looking back on my life, I don’t think there has ever been a time when I could do that. Hangry was like my middle name.
And I will tell you that being able to use stored energy is really cool. I don’t get hangry at all now. Hell, I don’t even really feel hungry anymore. That’s not to say that I don’t want to eat, or even really crave food at times (when we were at the beach and people would get up and put bacon on the stove at 8 am…). In fact, the hardest part of giving up breakfast for me happens when I drive by Montana Plains on the way to work and think about their yummy scones. But that is a habit. I no longer get the low-blood-sugar-crash, true physiologic I need food! phenomenon of someone who is unable to convert fat to energy. I am now really good at burning me. As I write this, it is 11:13 in the am, and my family is wanting me to go to the store to get stuff to cook for breakfast. I have had a cup of coffee with a bit of half and half today. I am not hungry, and I am busy writing! (No, I have not assimilated the others in my household…yet…).
What else did I do, besides dropping my morning meal? Nothing. I didn’t change what I eat for lunch, what I eat for dinner. I still drink beer. I did give up the little snacks I would eat all morning and sometimes in the afternoon because I was hungry and that’s what I was told to do. I have never counted calories or kept a diet diary, but I would guess this whole thing dropped my caloric intake by at least a third, maybe more. But I honestly couldn’t tell you for sure.
So what happened?
I have always been active, and I think it is fair to say I am fitter than average. I lift weights twice a week, and I try to do some other exercise another 2 times a week. That being said, my activity has slowly declined over the last decade and a half, and my weight has slowly gone up from an end-of-college 160 lbs. to over 170 pounds. But more alarming has been the rise in my blood pressure into the “pre-hypertension” range, and lab results that put me in a “pre-diabetes” group. Say what?!?
It has been about 6 months, and I am now under 160 pounds (just), my blood pressure is normal, and my labs are slowly trending in the right direction. No change in what I am eating, no change in my exercise routine, no drugs, still drinking beer.
I don’t notice the labs, but I do notice the weight. I had to buy new pants. Moving through your day even 10 pounds lighter makes a big difference.
I also have more time. Eating breakfast in the morning takes time. Making a healthy breakfast takes even more time. Not eating breakfast? Precisely none. I save 20 minutes, every workday. That’s more than an hour and a half a week, just Monday to Friday. During those 6 months, I have saved 45 hours.
It’s also free.
For just a minute, imagine a hypothetical person who is unable to burn stored energy. What does their life look like? First, each meal needs to be big enough to get them to the next. Which means things become a bit of a challenge. They have to really be careful about what they eat and when, and be really diligent balancing the amount of activity they do with the amount of calories they take in. Because if they overdo the intake, the excess calories get stored, and it’s nearly impossible to get rid of them. So they do things like calculate the amount of calories they are taking in, or eat smaller meals more often to make things easier to manage and limit the damage of overdoing it. They try to eat things that provide longer lasting energy. But in the real world, it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to live without upsetting the balance now and again, especially in a culture that revolves around food. So over time, their weight has a tendency to gradually climb, especially as they get older and their metabolism slows and they have less time to be truly active in a busy day. Losing weight means increasing activity without increasing intake, or cutting back of food into a point that is uncomfortable – your body is not happy when it doesn’t have the energy it needs. Plus, the heavier they become, the harder it is to exercise, activity becoming exponentially more difficult.
Does this sound familiar?
Some 70% of Americans are overweight, and obesity is so rampant that we are training ourselves to think it’s normal. Because it is normal, if you think about a bell-curve. But it is far from optimal. The impact of obesity on our society goes well beyond healthcare, affecting the mental well-being, work performance, even relationships of millions. It’s a big deal, and we have to find a way to curb the trend.
Have I stumbled on some revolution? Google “benefits of fasting” and read a bit. And then ask yourself why you aren’t hearing more about it. And then remember that no one but you is going to benefit from this. And remember that doctors don’t always have all the answers <gasp!>. I lived through (barely) the no-fat era, and now it seems the gluten may get me. What do you think would happen if the surgeon general came out and declared that skipping breakfast was a good idea? Seeing as some 40% of McDonald’s profits come from breakfast, I think the lobbying would be intense. And let’s face it, the government is not (currently) capable of resisting that level of financial pressure.
I have said nothing about what you eat (which is still important) or doing exercise (which is also important). Whatever you do, it has to be a sustainable lifestyle. Everyone is different, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But look back at that diagram, because simple as it may be, it is irrefutable. You cannot burn fat without the ability to burn fat. So if your goal is to lose weight, I suggest training yourself to do just that.