What a stupid question, right? We all know that eating too many calories and burning too few of them make you gain weight. But if that is all there is to getting fat, why do sleep deprivation and chronic stress have such an impact on fat gain? These things don’t have calories, and you can’t eat them, yet they impact whether we store fat or burn it. They also dramatically affect our hunger, motivation to workout, and cravings.
So, while it is true that calorie excess is required to gain weight, just as calorie deficits are required to lose it, it is short-sighted to pretend that is all that is involved in fat gain.
The body is a highly complex biochemical machine, not a simple math equation.
The assumption that anyone overweight is a lazy, glutton is insulting.
There is nothing more ignorant and judgmental, in my opinion, than assuming anyone who does not get results from diet and exercise change is not being “compliant”. Or that those who are unable to control their eating are simply lazy gluttons with no willpower who just need to be yelled at and berated.
The truth is, when you really begin to look into the question of “What makes us gain weight?”, you start to find it is a bit more complex than the “eat less, exercise more” model leads us to believe.
Fat gain and weight loss is multi-factorial and individual. It involves understanding individual genetics, unique metabolic expression, psychological sensitivities, and even personal preferences. But there does appear to be some overarching themes.
The Fat Gain Formula:
Want to know what the fat gain formula is? (F + S) x St= Fat Gain. High fat (F) along with high sugar (S) combined with stress (St) is the recipe for fat gain. I can hear the calorie zealots now scoffing at the ridiculousness of this assertion. Sure you can get fat overeating anything, including broccoli and chicken breasts. Except that it is virtually impossible for any free living human to do.
A high fat/sugar combination has been shown in mammals to completely disrupt the normal metabolic regulation that occurs with either high fat or high sugar diets. So, this combination is not only a higher calorie diet, but it seems to have the impact of assuring we continue to crave high fat, high sugar foods in the future as well.
The combo of high fat with high sugar alters brain chemistry in a way that disrupts the natural ability to self-regulate calorie intake.
Fat & sugar sabotage willpower.
Here is how it works: you have a control center for appetite in your brain that resides in a place called the hypothalamus. There are chemicals that stimulate eating, Neuropeptide Y (NPY) and Agouti related peptide (AGRP). And those that suppress food intake, proopiomelanocortin (POMC).
Think of NPY & AGRP as feeding gas peddles. They make us hungry and make us eat. Think of POMC as the brakes on food intake. If you are wondering how hunger hormones like ghrelin and leptin figure into this, they work by impacting these chemicals.
Two diets containing the same number of calories can impact these hunger regulation chemicals differently. Fat and sugar in combination seems to “short circuit” the hunger centers resulting in a constant desire for food.
An Interesting Study:
A study published March 2010 in the International Journal of Obesity looked at this issue in rats. The animals were fed a base diet of standard rat chow. Then they were given free access to extra fat (HF), extra sugar (HS) or extra fat and sugar (HFHS).
Imagine you were a part of a study where the researchers gave you a normal healthy diet but then put you in a group that had free access to bacon, cream cheese, and other high fat items. The HF group. Or perhaps you end up in the group that got the standard healthy diet with additional access to cotton candy, pixie sticks, Coca-Cola, and other high sugar no fat items. The HS group. Or maybe you got to be in the high fat and high sugar group, receiving a normal healthy diet plus cupboards stacked with cookies, cakes, pastries, ice cream, and other foods loaded with both fat and sugar which you could eat freely. The HFHS group.
So, what do you think happened? Well, rats exposed to all you can eat palatable foods like this do what we humans do. They eat the normal rat chow and then chow down on the fat and sugar items. All three groups consumed extra calories and gained weight. But within a week or so, two groups, the HF and HS groups, were able to self-regulate their food intake, lower their calories, and adapt by shutting off hunger. This natural adaptation did NOT occur with the high fat and high sugar combination group. In other words, eating a high fat, high sugar diet caused a loss in the ability to properly regulate appetite almost like an appetite stimulating drug.
The researchers noticed that the HF group and the HFHS group had the exact same hormone response from the diets (i.e. leptin, a hunger hormone, had the same response in the HF and HFHS groups). This caused the researchers to look for other hormones or nerve signals that may have caused this. And what they discovered is that something about the high fat, high sugar diet was being communicated to the brain via the gut and liver. While they didn’t say what was involved, we have written about the gut hormones before in this blog and this blog.
It looks like this happens in humans too (studies here, here and here). These studies show humans who are isolated in a metabolic chamber and given free access to highly palatable foods, do what the rats do; they overeat by huge margins. The participants in these studies end up eating close to a 1,000 calorie surplus and gain on average 6 pounds in only 7 days. While the metabolism does ramp up its calorie burn as well, you can see something very detrimental happens when these types of junk foods are chosen.
With a cherry on top:
There are several other studies that show a similar effect. I have linked another for you HERE. But there is one more very interesting piece to this story. Remember, we talked about the fat storing formula as being (F+S) X St? Fat combined with sugar magnified by stress.
Stress is like the cherry on top of the fat-storing, hot fudge sundae.
If you are a savvy fat loss lifestyler or fitness professional, when you think stress you think cortisol. And if you are really savvy you will also think catecholamines. And if you are really, really savvy you will think of one more hormone, NPY. You have seen that before, right? NPY is involved with hunger in the brain, and it is also released from the sympathetic nervous system during times of stress.
When you are under acute stress you release more of the catecholamines and cortisol. When you are under chronic stress you release more NPY. And unlike the catecholamines and cortisol which are mainly catabolic hormones (i.e. they burn fat), NPY makes you gain fat, especially when it is around with cortisol. When NPY is released in large amounts it causes fat cells to go from immature baby fat cells to full grown mature fat cells. And cortisol makes the body more responsive to NPY. In other words, NPY makes us grow more fat cells and cortisol makes it more efficient at doing it.
Confused? Here is what I just said. Chronic continuous stress releases a unique mix of NPY and cortisol. Cortisol combined with catecholamines, like it is in short-term stress, helps us burn fat. Cortisol combined with NPY, as it is in chronic stress, equals increased fat cells. For a cool study on this whole mechanism see HERE.
Another interesting aside about some of these studies on rats. Even when you feed mice high amounts of fat and sugar, obesity is not guaranteed. But add stress on top and BOOM, it seems you can induce obesity very easily.
One final note on the stress weight gain response: low calorie diets increase cortisol levels and perceived psychological stress and some researchers believe this is one of the key reasons they fail. See these studies HERE and HERE
The fat gain formula (F+S) x St
If you read this article carefully, along with the resources provided, you will notice a couple of interesting things. A high fat diet with the same number of calories as a high fat/high sugar diet has a very different impact on metabolism. The metabolism adapts to the extra calories in a high fat diet by decreasing appetite so that, after a few weeks, the calories are no longer high. This explains why studies on the high fat Atkin’s diet usually show a low calorie, not high calorie, intake over time. The metabolism adapts.
The high fat and sugar combination creates the exact opposite changes in the hunger signaling molecules in the brain and results in insatiable hunger that continues. Ironically, this change is almost exactly the pattern seen in starvation.
We can see that high fat, high sugar foods are not just simply high calorie, but they also cause us to lose our ability to regulate and suppress hunger. They cause hyperphagia (the fancy medical term for continuous eating). And when we add chronic stress on top of this we create the perfect fat storing atomic bomb.
Want to understand more about why we believe fat combined with sugar/starch is the absolute worst food for fat loss? Check out this blogWant To Learn To Beat Stress Related Fat Gain?
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**last update 1/1/2017**