In the last email, I gave you a brief introduction to the concept of “ad libitum” and how if you want fat loss that LASTS (as opposed to going on a diet only to regain everything you initially lost), you need to focus all your efforts on habits that promote fat loss EVEN WHILE eating ad libitum–that is, cause you to lose fat EVEN WHILE eating however much you want.
In this post, I want to ground all of this in a deeper context.
There are many different perspectives on fat loss that abound on the health and fitness forums of the internet today.
- Some say the secret is all about carbs. “It’s those damn carbs and insulin that make us fat. So the answer is EAT LOW CARB.”
- Others say that it’s all “just a simple matter of calories in, calories out. Sothe answer is EAT LESS FOOD. You know, just go on a low calorie diet and exercise more (burn more calories)”
Let me first start off by saying that the latter group is right. It is not carbs/insulin that is the determining factor in your body fat levels. It is unquestionably CALORIES that determine whether you gain or lose fat.
Now here’s the big difference between my approach and the approach of almost everyone out there who acknowledges that it’s calories that determine your body fat:
The answer is NOT simply a matter of new conscious decisions around eating less calories and going to the gym more frequently.
Most people ask you to conscious track and modify your calories, track your macronutrient ratios, or your portion sizes or whatever… and do plenty of workouts to make sure you’re in a state where you’re burning more calories.
Instead of doing that, I make the simple observation that every animal species on the planet–including primates and humans–has existed for millions of years WITHOUT OBESITY, without ever having to consciously keep track of calories or portion sizes.
We simply ate when we were hungry, and stopped when we were full, and we were naturally lean. (Just like modern day hunter gatherers like the Kitavans, Hadza, Kuna, Ewe tribes, and just like every other animal species on the planet that lives in the wild, like deer, wolves, lions, etc.)
None of these animals or humans even know what a calorie is, let alone have to consciously think about how much food they eat in order to stay lean.
So somewhere along the line, we humans did something that got us into the trouble–we did something NON-consciously that changed the way our bodies took in and burned off calories and drove fat gain.
What is that something?
Well if you’ve read my book, then you already know the major players here… Different types of foods in the food supply, decreased NEAT/movement deficiency, disrupted circadian rhythm.
All of these things profoundly changed the way our brains and our bodies regulated the calories in, calories out balance to drive fat gain.
But the answer to this is not simply to say that “it’s all just calories, so just make sure to consciously manipulate your calorie intake.”
And we already know this!
Remember this quote from obesity researcher Stephan Guyenet:
“If there’s one thing that’s consistent in the medical literature, it’s that telling people to eat less calories isn’t a very effective fat loss strategy.”
Why doesn’t conscious calorie manipulation work very well for long-term fat loss?
Because the things that made us fat in the first place were NON-conscious forces acting on our biology.
So rather than the answer to fat loss being “consciously force yourself to eat less calories” I believe that you should address the specific factors that (non-consciously) drove fat gain in the first place!
That way we can get back to being lean while eating however much we want!
FOOD REWARD – The Most Important Factor
Different types of food–depending on how they affect the reward center of our brain–have a massive impact on the overall calories we consume.
And specifically whether the appetite center of our brain is able to tell us to eat in accordance with our body’s actual need for energy–rather than getting confused and giving us bad signals to eat all the time even when our body doesn’t need fuel.
I believe that food reward is the single most important factor to address if your goal is fat loss.
- High reward food–particularly UNNATURALLY rewarding food–drives fat GAIN.
- Lower reward food drives fat LOSS.
What does it mean to say a food is highly rewarding, or unnaturally rewarding?
Food reward is complex, but a simple and useful way of thinking about this is this:
- Highly rewarding food = modern industrial processed foods, particularly those that are a concentrated mix of refined sugars and fats together.
(Think doughnuts, ice cream, pizza, breakfast cereal, candy, fatty meats with sugary sauces, etc).
- Lower reward food = whole unprocessed foods.
(Think carrots, potatoes, meat, fish, eggs, milk, rice, quinoa, almonds, etc.)
An important distinction: Processed foods are not inherently fattening–that is, they are not making you fatter mechanistically, like because they have different metabolic or hormonal effects. They make you fat by causing you to EAT MORE total calories.
To make this very simple:
Highly rewarding food –> Increased calorie intake –> FAT GAIN
Lower reward food –> Decreased calorie intake —> FAT LOSS
Again, this happens WITHOUT any conscious effort at manipulating calorie intake.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF HIGH REWARD OR LOW REWARD DIETS?
Well, let’s consider what happens when you give animals/humans access to different types of food without ever asking them to change their calorie intake:
*** THE EFFECTS OF A HIGH REWARD DIET: “The most highly rewarding and palatable rodent diet I know of is the ‘cafeteria diet’, composed of human junk food. This diet is unmatched among solid-food diets in its ability to cause persistent overeating and rapid obesity in rodents, easily surpassing high-fat and high-sugar diets, although these also cause fat gain to a lesser degree. Rodents will voluntarily endure extreme cold or foot shocks to obtain this food, even when regular chow is freely available.” (Note: The same basic effects of this diet are also observed in humans).
It is also important to note that the Western obesity epidemic has pretty much perfectly paralleled the rise of industrial processed foods.
Important note: This effect is NOT driven by sugar or fat (or any other specific nutrient)–it is driven by a high REWARD diet.
*** THE EFFECTS OF A LOW REWARD DIET: “One of the most striking weight loss studies I’ve seen was conducted in 1965 and involved feeding a bland liquid diet through a dispensing straw (12). Lean and obese volunteers were instructed to eat as much of the liquid food as they wanted, but they were permitted no other food. While lean volunteers ate a normal amount of calories and maintained weight, obese volunteers dramatically reduced their spontaneous calorie intake and lost fat rapidly, with one man losing 200 lbs in 255 days without hunger. This is exactly what one would expect if unpalatable/unrewarding food lowered the biologically “defended” level of fat mass. Interestingly, the diet was high in sugar but was otherwise very low in palatability/reward value.”
* “Similarly, diets that reduce major reward factors without deliberately calling for calorie restriction, such as low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets, all cause fat loss even though in some cases the diet changes that are implemented diametrically oppose one another. The further reward is lowered, the more effective the diet is for appetite suppression and weight loss.”
* One study found that just by changing the TYPES of food participants were eating, even while being allowed to eat however much food they want, participants spontaneously decreased their calorie intake from 2,478 to 1,584 calories and lost over 5 pounds of fat in the first 3 weeks alone. Again, that’s while eating however much they want! So this reduction in caloric intake is purely voluntary–which is the key to sustainable fat loss.
* Another study found that simply by changing the types of food eaten, participants spontaneously and voluntarily reduced their caloric intake by hundreds of calories per day, such that they burned over 30,000 calories of their own body fat over the course of the first 12 weeks of eating this way. WHILE ALLOWING PEOPLE TO EAT HOWEVER MUCH THEY WANT.
There are certainly many more keys (besides food reward) to achieving fat loss while eating however much you want. The others that I have identified are:
1) Food reward
2) Food variety
4) Micronutrient density of the diet
6) Meal timing and nutrient timing
7) Gut microbiome
8) Temperature variation
10) Circadian rhythm
(Note: Many of these are intertwined–like NEAT and meal timing both affect circadian rhythm, and protein affects food reward, etc. But they are largely distinct factors, that all separately impact ad libitum food intake).
But I *DO* believe that food reward is the single most important factor to consider if your goal is to lose fat while eating however much you want.
What does it require to lower the food reward of your diet and achieve fat loss while eating however much you want?
Simple: Eat whole foods. If it doesn’t run, fly, swim, or grow out of the ground, don’t eat it! Buy and eat single-ingredient foods (e.g. carrots, beef, milk, eggs, oatmeal, etc). Eat food in as close to it’s natural state as possible.
Beyond that foundation, you should start addressing the other 6 factors listed above (as I do in my program The Forever Fat Loss Formula) which also have a profound effect on the appetite and metabolism regulating centers of the brain.
That is the foundation for a good fat loss diet. And it is infinitely more important than whether you are eating so and so macronutrient proportions or how often you eat or whether you are a “sugar burner” or “fat burner” and all the other gimmicks you hear from various diet gurus out there.
EAT WHOLE FOODS.
That is the starting point for everything else when it comes to fat loss. And if you’re not doing that, then you probably shouldn’t be worrying about all the other so-called “advanced” fat loss nutritional strategies.
Food reward is the foundation.
Eating Whole Foods is Unreasonable?
Now, some people are critical of this approach and they say “But in the modern world, it’s unreasonable to expect people to eat whole foods… you know with all the processed goodies around us constantly, it’s inevitable that we’re going to eat a lot of those foods.”
And for some people that is true–they just can’t resist, and to try to eat whole foods feels like suffering and constant deprivation from the foods they love. (For others, like myself and countless other people I know, they have no problem at all eating a near 100% whole foods diet, and it NEVER feels like deprivation to do so. I personally find my diet incredibly delicious and satisfying.)
Yet, some people do find it “extreme” or “undoable” to eat a whole foods diet.
To them, I say this:
First, consider that if you want fat loss, SOMETHING needs to change. You DO have to do SOMETHING differently.
If you see someone selling a program that claims you can lose fat while eating however much you want of whatever kinds of food you want (e.g. “Cheat your way thin–eat all the junk food you want while losing weight”), get ready to be disappointed as you get fatter and fatter trying to follow that program.
If you want to end up like obese people, I suggest going on the “eat all you want of whatever you want” program–because that’s exactly what people do to become obese.
So again, you do have to change SOMETHING differently if you want fat loss.
Now, for those that believe a whole foods diet is too “extreme” or “difficult”, well, let me break down your real choice here…
If you want fat loss, your choice is essentially this:
1) You can either eat a diet of almost entirely whole foods while being able to effortlessly lose fat while eating however much food you want.
2) Or, if you want to be able to indulge in eating whatever kind of processed foods you want, when you want, then get ready to neurotically track your food intake and have to rely on willpower as you forcibly restrict your calorie intake constantly suffering through hunger pangs.
The choice is yours. But let me be clear: If you want fat loss, you do have to make this choice.
And if it isn’t clear by now, I think the former–eating a whole food diet–is far more likely to result in lasting and sustainable fat loss.
Personally, I find being neurotic about calories and suffering through hunger pangs to be a pretty miserable way to live one’s life.
I like smiling and laughing far too much to torture myself with that stuff.
If you want to eat however much food you want while still losing fat, it all starts with one thing: EAT WHOLE FOODS.