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Health and Weight-loss: Lessons from Biochemistry

Introduction

I understand why protein-rich, no-carb/low-carb diets are popular, I really do. I mean, who wouldn’t like be told that they can continue eating steak, cheese and pepperoni and ice cream, and still be healthy while losing weight? It’s like a dream come true!

However, eating healthy and losing weight, while often paired together, are not necessarily the same. In the following paragraphs I have explained what weight loss or gain is, why losing weight and being healthy are not always the same thin, and what role each major food group (protein, fat and carbs) play in our body biochemistry.

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Weight Loss (and Gain) Explained

The human body requires a certain amount of energy to carry out all its basic functions: breathing, walking, making blood, keeping the heart beating, digesting food, keeping the our bodies at 98.6 degrees F, etc.. We measure energy in calories, which the body gets from the food we eat. If the calories we consume through food are fewer than what our bodies require, the calorie deficit is made up for by the burning of calories that are stored in the body (e.g., in body fat). If this happens consistently, we lose weight, because excess body fat stores are being burned by the body to maintain physiological function.

The opposite happens when we consistently over-supply our bodies with more calories than it can use up: the extra calories get converted into the most compact thing that the body can store long term. What is this compact storage medium for excess calories? Fat — which we store inside special cells under our skin or as droplets inside our body’s cells. The weight of this fat is the weight we gain.

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Losing Weight vs. Being Healthy

Maintaining an appropriate weight, however, is just one of several things that contribute toward being healthy. Exercise is on that list too, but exercise alone will not make you lose weight, even if it does tone your muscles. Another important factor is the quality of the food we eat.

How does our food affect our body composition? This is where the difference between the rib-eye steak and the boneless, skinless chicken breast comes into play. Consider a rib-eye steak and a boneless, skinless chicken breast that have exactly the same weight. While both are sources of protein, the rib-eye steak has, in addition to protein, a significant amount of cholesterol in it, not to mention plenty of saturated fat. The boneless, skinless chicken breast is much lower in saturated fat (white meat, no skin), and lower cholesterol while having comparable amount of protein and is thus, leaner. This difference is important because excess cholesterol and saturated fat are deposited in the linings of blood vessels, thereby contributing to coronary artery disease and increased blood pressure.

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Major Food Groups and their Roles in Nutrition

Protein

While many popular diets stress protein, there is only so much protein that our bodies require. Protein requirements are driven by activity level and muscle stress – young children and adolescents require large amounts of protein because their bodies and muscles are growing. Likewise, Olympic athletes require large amounts of protein to replace muscle which is exercised during their rigorous trainings. However, adults that do not exercise regularly require far less protein – most require less than half their weight (in lbs) in grams of protein per day. For example, a 200-lb person needs – at the most – about 70-72 grams of protein a day. When a person does not utilize the excess protein which is consumed through their diet, the excess protein must either be excreted or must be converted into something else that the body needs – however, this conversion process stresses the liver and the kidneys, and can contribute to long-term damage to these vital organs.

You can build muscle, or convert fats to muscle, as gym instructors will tell you. Muscle is made mostly out of protein. But there is no ancient alchemy that will simply make muscle when you pump your body full of protein just because you will it to. Muscle is formed only when the muscles are exercised – regularly and vigorously – and protein intake accompanies that. Exercising with weights gives your muscles a workout, and cardio exercises do too, to a lesser extent. Muscles respond to exercise by toning and getting bigger. A small protein boost before and a bigger one right after such a workout has a two-fold effect: since the body uses up energy from the muscles before going to reserves in the liver, protein taken at those times will keep the body from breaking down a little of the energy stored within muscles, and has readily available protein to build more muscle after the workout.

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Fats

Now let’s talk about fats. Saturated fats – the type that is solid at room temperature (butter for instance) — are worse for you than oils (unsaturated fats), and trans-fats/hydrogenated fats (also solid at room temperature (margarine, lard and other types of shortening) are the worst. Fat, simply stated, is a very compact way for the body to store calories. Each gram of fat stores 9 calories, whereas each gram of carbohydrates or proteins stores just 4 calories. So fats rack up those calories quite quickly.

While it is true that you don’t consume (i.e., burn) fat until you’ve consumed through all your carbohydrate stores, there’s more to that story: the body actually needs carbohydrates in order to break down fat! Simply stated, if there aren’t enough carbs in the body for a long time, the body sends distress signals out thinking it is going through starvation, and uses all its resources to manufacture carbohydrates! (Yes, your body is an amazing machine that can actually manufacture carbohydrates).

If you are interested in the biochemistry of this process, drop me a line using the contact form, and I would be happy to go over it with you.

There is, however, such a thing as good fat. Avocados and peanuts contain good fats. It has this thing called High Density Lipoprotein, or HDL, which circulates in the bloodstream scavenging that sneaky cholesterol (and bad fats) from arteries and blood vessels and brings them to the liver to they can be dealt with.

Since fats quickly add calories to the daily limit, a balance must exist between eating good fat and keeping the calories low to lose weight.

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Carbohydrates (or Carbs)

But look at all this weight I lose in my very first two weeks of my (fill in the blank) no-carb diet, you say. To that I say, yes, you did lose weight, however it’s mostly water weight. Carbohydrates that are stored in the liver temporarily need a lot of water for packaging; when you first start to eliminate all carbs, you lose all that water weight and – presto! your weight plummets during week 1-2 of your favorite fad diet! But I would like to point out a few things:

  1. Your brain requires 120g of glucose – and only glucose – each day at the very least. It really needs more than that should you want to use your brain frequently.
  2. When carbs first run out in the body, the body starts using fat. But prolonged fat usage tells the body that it needs carbs, and the body just turns around and makes carbs and uses those and not all the fat that is hoarded up. The human body is evolutionarily optimized to use carbohydrates predominantly, so until we evolve out of it, forcing it to circumvent the process actually hurts the body in the long run.
  3. You will lose weight if you eat fewer calories than your body needs – even if you eat just butter for every meal – but that is not good for your body.

So why is it that we are at war with carbs? We should be at war with empty calories instead, that is foods that add calories without contributing any actual value to our diet, because such foods add calories fast without making us any healthier. Soda, for example, which adds calories through sugar but has nearly zero nutritional value. Need I say more?

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Bottom Line

  1. your body needs much less protein than people commonly believe;
  2. you DO need some carbs;
  3. too many carbs(or protein or fat) – like too much of any type of food – will make you fat;
  4. fats rack up calories fast, so try to eat more of the ones that are good for you
  5. no matter which diet you choose, you WILL lose weight if you consistently eat fewer
  6. calories than your body needs

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A Balanced Solution

Ask yourself:

You can lose weight with ANY diet, so why choose one that is not nutritionally balanced? Will you switch to a balanced diet after you have lost the weight you wanted? What happens if you gain the weight back? Will you start over? Why not lose weight and be healthy on the inside at the same time? It’s better in the long run AND it saves time. Double Win!

If your diet is not balanced, it may be time to switch. I chose the Herbalife diet because it is balanced, and still allows me to eat the things I love – in moderation. And unlike most diets, I have kept the weight off for 12 years! Let me say that again: I have kept the weight off for 12 years.

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Read my Herbalife story

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