are we genetically programed to gain weight in the fall?
In this post I want to highlight the importance of choosing the correct foods to get us through the winter.
The animals who hibernate, migrate, and many of those who stick around during the winter, gorge and fatten up for the coming season. So, we should pack on the pounds, too. Right?
Well, not exactly. It’s true we have a driving need to eat more but I argue that we need to eat for fuel, not for fat. Follow me as I dip into the shallow end of the pool.
You Are Not A Bear
To prepare for hibernation, bears store a lot of fat because they will be fasting during their hibernation period. The fat provides fuel for their basic functions as well as the correct nutrients. For example, female bears grow a couple of cubs, give birth, and nurse them, all in a fasting state. https://medium.com/a-dose-of-curiosity/how-much-do-bears-eat-before-hibernation-9a5bd1305be6
When humans fast, they consume their own fat for fuel, just like the fasting bears. But after fasting, unlike the bears, humans often resume an eating habit that can store fat again. The clever trick of burning body fat for fuel may stop. That's when the body reverts to adding to the fat stores. If weight gain follows fasting, it is known in the diet world as “rebound”.
You Are Not a Goose
Some animals like geese and ducks fast for short periods of time when food is scarce. They will build up a store of fat before migration and forage for food along the way, taking advantage of many sources of food. A migrating duck, for instance, feeds on seeds, grains, berries, barley, alfalfa, and winter wheat. And they are not shy about taking artisan bread from kind people.
Like most other wildlife, geese increase the carbohydrates in their diets in the fall and winter. For these animals, carbohydrates provide energy for traveling and produce elevated body heat, which helps to protect against the colder temperatures of the season.
But people have a different response to food. Although they can survive on a huge variety of foods, each of these food types affect the internal chemistry differently.
You Are Not a Cow
Cows don't seem to fatten up or slim down according to the seasons but they, and other ruminates, have an elaborate digestive system of unique microorganisms and several intermediate steps of digestion that allow them to chew grass, semi-digest, chew it again "chewing the cud", etc. These various stages turn these animals into digestive machines and, for them, it is a full-time job..
People have a microbiome of intestinal microorganisms of our own, and the extraction of nutrition from our food depends on it.
The microbiome must be considered one of the essential aspects of human health.
Human Specific Diet for Fall
So, what are we humans supposed to do in the fall when we start feeling the need for more food than we ate in the summer?
Thanks to grocery stores, convenience stores, cafes, etc. we have food all around us. We don’t have a natural period of fasting, so here is the important point: As long as we are eating, our system remains in storage mode. This storage process goes into overdrive when we consume carbs and sugars.
While food is eaten, any carbohydrates that are not used immediately as energy, get packed away as body fat. All the stored fat in the tissues remains locked in, resulting in weight gain.
As you probably know, there are three types of essential food groups: Doritos, Mountain Dew, and Dunkin Donuts. Just kidding! I’m talking about protein, carbs/sugars (lumped together as "carbs"), and fats. There is, also, a powerful component affecting fat assimilation and storage that has only recently been recognized... the microbiome.
A certain amount of protein from animals is a good foundation for a healthy diet. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but enough to replenish the proteins that make the microsystems inside our cells fully functional. Also, protein provides maintenance and growth for our muscles.
We also need the correct fats. And we need more of them than you probably think.
Correct fats are include butter (regular or ghee), tallow, coconut, and pure olive oil. Any combination of these work well for both taste and nourishment.
Fats are important in this discussion for three very important reasons:
- They satisfy the gnawing need to eat a lot. The satisfaction fats provide is called satiation. Relief from food cravings shows how important fats are to our overall health. (People report improvement in many symptoms and even report improved sleep .)
- The body’s temperature regulation is essentially a function of the mitochondria which rely on the proper fats, see "Looking at the Hot Science of Mitochondria in references below.
- Another benefit: metabolizing good fat powers all our functions including protection from inflammation and infections.
Dr. Cate Shanahan covers this topic extensively (reference at the end).
Our fall cravings for extra fuel are often interpreted to be a need for carbs. The industrial complex that provides all the processed food we consume thrives on the high carb/low fat paradigm. When healthy fats are eliminated in favor of inexpensive and shelf-stable seed oils, they use sugar and other sweeteners make these products palatable (and addictive). More sugars and carbs means more disruption to natural body functions.
By choosing to reduce carbs and increase healthy fats you can make a shift toward balancing your weight.
The newly Appreciated Microbiome
Although not a food group, the microbiome is an essential component of our nutrition. Only recently have we begun to realize the vast influence these microorganisms have on our metabolism and overall health. By determining how we process and extract nutrients, these microorganisms influence what we should eat and whether we gain or lose weight.
Each animal type has it's own microflora that determines it's choice of food. As the saying goes: "Cows eat grass, so I don’t have to."
Here are 3 principles to remember:
#1 Be Trim With Satisfying Food
You may have heard this one: Fats do not make you fat.
Why? As mentioned above, the satiation hormones signal satisfaction when adequate amounts of healthy fats are consumed. This is how you can reduce your drive to eat the foods that stimulate insulin. Once satisfied with adequate amounts of healthy fats, the craving for carbohydrates and sugars is drastically reduced, if not eliminated.
#2 Become Flexible With Intermittent Fasting
Putting on body fat is easy but switching to burning body fat for energy is not automatic. Our insulin hormone is always trying to protect us from starvation by locking the carbohydrates we eat inside our fat cells. This is a great system if eating alternates with fasting. How can we do this?
Harness the effect of insulin by introducing short fasting periods within the day. That means eating all your food within a 4-6 hour window each day. It promotes metabolic flexibility by releasing and easily burning body fat.
However, if the fasting period is followed with a low fat/high carb diet, the use of body fat for fuel will stop and weight gain will resume. So, take care. When you get the fall munchies, you probably shouldn’t be eating all those seasonal cakes and breads and Halloween candies.
#3 Be Warm with Good fuel
Fats provide efficient fuel to keep our tiny mitochondria happy and regulating our body temperature. This is an elegant design. Eating natural fats keep us warm because our mitochondria are well fueled. Eating carbs, as mentioned earlier, can add pounds but this does not translate into body warmth. So, if you are smashing in the food and feeling confident about preparing for cold weather you may want to take a moment and remember the intelligence of your body. It responds differently to different foods.
Now You Know
Eating carbohydrates triggers insulin production. Eat a lot of carbs and you will find body fat will grow and you health will suffer. When eating more than a small amount of carbs your insulin level rises and goes into fat-storage overdrive. Our insulin levels determine if we gain weight or lose weight and it is one or the other.
Reducing the carbs and increasing fat confuses the body, initially. But then a switch is flipped:
Fat storage stops and fat burning starts.
If you understand this simple relationship, you can see why I, and many coaches and nutritionists, say that counting calories is usually a waste of time.
As the autumn leaves are falling, drop the old habit of eating a low fat, high carbohydrate/sugar diet that locks energy away in body fat. Begin a new habit of eating healthy fats that easily transform into satisfaction and good energy.
For More Information...
- David Asprey interviews Dr. Cate Shanahan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lZmT3ub71A
- Bella, The Steak and Butter Gal, corrected her extensive illnesses after years of strictly following a vegan when she changed to carnivore. She is now a high energy concert pianist and big on social media. In this video, “What I eat on a fall day”, you will find her making a stew of chuck roast and beef shanks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RF4DZ4ZZJA.
- The Fatburn Fix: Boost Energy, End Hunger, and Lose Weight by Catherine Shanahan, MD.
- Looking at the science of “hot” mitochondria: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005272820301985 To ensure a stable internal temperature, endothermic species make use of the heat released during the final steps of food burning by the mitochondria present in all cells of the organism. Indeed, only a fraction of the energy released by the oxidation of respiratory substrates is used to generate energy, while a substantial proportion is released as heat.
- This video ties health of the mitochondria to weight loss: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8qsup-M-bo