Why Ditching Processed Foods Helps You Burn Fat, According to a Doctor
The diet debates rage on: Sugar is the enemy, while fat is fine. Saturated fat causes your cholesterol to climb (bad for long-term risk of heart disease), and a diet rich in complex carbs is the way to go. Eat protein to build lean muscle. Stay away from nightshades. All of the above approaches have their fans and detractors. But there is one thing everyone agrees on: If you want to lose weight and eat healthily, throw out all the processed foods.
Sorry chip lovers, but here is the latest: A new study finds that insulin resistance -- which means the propensity to store fat in the body -- is related to when inflammation goes up. And inflammation is caused by various types of chemicals and foreign molecules that enter the body and cause your cells to react. These "disrupters" exist in processed foods.
To quote the study and tell you exactly what to do to lose weight, we interviewed Dr. Caroline Apovian, an obesity specialist and professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. First the study, and when you read "Insulin resistance," hear the words, the signal that tells the brain to add fat to my body:
The human body has developed an extraordinary number of systems to maintain stable blood glucose and to avoid broad swings in its level. These systems include hormones that are directly or indirectly generated by the diet. These hormones sense dietary nutrients and send appropriate neural signals to the brain (specifically the hypothalamus) to orchestrate fuel usage for either oxidation into energy or long-term storage. The central hormone involved in this metabolic communication system is insulin. However, increased inflammation can disturb these complex communication systems eventually leading to metabolic defects (obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes).
So how do we stop the inflammation that is telling the brain to store fat, and get the body to burn fat instead? Dr. Apovian, who treats patients with obesity, first wants you to know that not everyone is the same and that obesity is a disease. So don't blame yourself if you have extra fat or are overweight since it could be an underlying genetic or environmental issue. Still, for anyone who wants to lose fat and be leaner and healthier, the first thing she does is cut out all processed foods: Chips, sodas, cookies, and everything that we call junk food.
Obesity and being overweight have many underlying causes
"There are many reasons for obesity. It is a disease, not a matter of willpower. We look at lifestyle, but there are elements in the environment that can be contributing to the person's obesity and figure out a plan for treating."
Some of the things that could be leading to obesity are chemicals in the foods we eat, and there is even research showing that whether a mother smoked when her child was in utero could affect that person later in life. Essentially chemicals that are called metabolic disrupters (or endocrine disrupters) upset the normal body functions and confuse the healthy energy burning that your body knows to do: Burn fuel for organ function and to move the muscles, or store it as fat for later.
These metabolic disrupters throw a virtual wrench into the system, telling the body to store fat even though you don't need more fat for later. They can be found in medicines, such as antihistamines, birth control, beta-blockers, steroids, antipsychotic drugs, to name a few. They can be found in preservatives and other chemicals used to make foods that come in bags in the "snack" aisle of your supermarket.
"We have to look at the family history of obesity and we have to look at processed foods and endocrine disrupters," Dr. Apovian says. "Certainly sugar and saturated fat can be a problem."
So what is worse to eat if you want to lose weight: Fat vs. Sugar.
"We used to think fat was bad and that spurred the fat-free movement in the 80s and 90s, but it made people fatter because calories were removed from taking out fat and put back in by adding sugar. And the sugar made it more palatable because we ate more calories. But now we realize it might be the sugar and the other non-foods (preservatives) and whatever else was put in the processed food. So now defending a higher set point. So our body weight now is higher than 30 years ago.
"If someone says, 'Should I cut out fat or sugar?' I tell them to cut out sugar and processed food."
Does a keto diet help someone lose weight and if so, can they keep it off?
"The original ketogenic diet was based on the work of Geroge Cahill, who did fasting studies in man, and found that during fasting the body turned to fat burning. Then later another scientist, O.E. Owen found that ketones are utilized by the brain in the absence of glucose. Which is amazing. Before that [in about 2006], we thought the brain needed glucose to function. So the reason that you don't die when you don't eat is that the brain is burning your fat, which is amazing.
"And Owen also proved that the ketones block the exclusion of alanine from muscle, hich means you don't lose or burn muscle. Alanine is an amino acid, which is a building block of your muscle, which means when you fast you don't lose muscle. So that is why fasting and eating a keto diet can help you lose weight effectively.
"That was really the first ketogenic diet, which was fasting. So it's not a diet, it's a treatment plan, because it creates a physiological change in the body to burn fat, and while you fast, the brain burns fat.
"But you should not be on a high-fat low-carb diet for a long time because it is deleterious for your lipids--meaning it can raise your LDL your total cholesterol, which raises your risk your heart disease.
"Your body needs carbohydrates and antioxidants and fiber to be healthy, fight off disease and function, which are found whole foods plant-based fruits and in vegetables. A healthy diet is one without processed foods."
What is the "optimal diet" to lose weight and eat healthily?
There is no reason not to do a ketogenic diet if that is what you want to do, and like to do, but there are many other diets that help lose weight. The Mediterranean Diet or DASH or Dr. Ornish's diet, which is eating plant-based. Any of those diets essentially work by reducing your intake and making yourself full on high fiber foods and healthy protein and fat, and the easiest way to add fiber is to add vegetables, fruit, and whole grains and legumes. All of those options work– it is preference.
If we want to tell the body to not store fat, how is Insulin triggered by fat?
Any food -- a protein, a fat and a carb --can trigger insulin to be released from the pancreas. High fiber will cause the delayed absorption of glucose. This is a simplification but when you get the nutrients into your body if there is a lot of fiber with that food, it delays absorption of glucose, and as that happens, you burn the calories steadily and don't cause insulin to spike and tell the brain to store the energy as fat.
The best way to do this is to eat a very low processed food diet. Endocrine disrupters are still being studied. We know that in a petri dish they alter fat and lipid and protein metabolism. They are disrupting metabolism, but we have not proven how this works in vivo [the body].
Chemicals in food may confuse the body's satiety hormones, making you eat more.
"These chemical disruptors in processed foods may alter satiety hormones in the body and also alter metabolism to signal the body to deposit more fat. They can disrupt the pathways and lead to obesity. Artificial sweeteners may affect the pathway in the brain to make you want to eat more of that [sweet tasting food] and even let the brain think sugar is entering the body, and while we don't know the exact mechanism, people who drink diet sodas tend to gain weight.
So far this theory is not based in science. It's taken as dogma... meaning that in ordrer to scientifically show the relationship between diet soda and obesity researchers create a thesis. There are some MRI studies that sweeteners cause alteration in the brain circuitry. But the entire science around artificial sweeteners is not yet known. Until then just stay away from them.
How does inflammation affect weight gain and fat levels in the body?
There is a study from 1995 by Rudy Leibel that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that made us understand how body weight is regulated. He discovered Leptin, which is the hormone released from fat that protects fat stores. That study was published and nobody read it. Then another study came out in 2011 that created a real-life experiment of Leptin, and it made headlines. Leptin tells the brain that you have enough fat. So when someone stores too much fat they may have leptin resistance, but so far, giving leptin to people does not work.
There are ways to regulate leptin and what appears to work is to lower inflammation in the body. To do that you need to lower chemicals in processed foods, lower stress levels, and not eat too late. The other thing that affects leptin is sleep. Getting to sleep early can help. And get your Omega 3s, which are anti-inflammatory foods. For a full list of foods that fight inflammation check out The Beet's story here.
But the number one foods that cause inflammation are chemicals in processed foods. So as you think about your diet, macros such as fat and carbs and protein, there is one major macro to avoid: processed food."