Food Freedom Part 3 - Ditch Sugar & Burn Fat
Fat, Sugar & Carbs, Oh My!
I’ve been really bothered by something lately.
As a nutritionist, I’ve always got health on the brain. Whether it’s reading a new study, the latest nutrition book, or listening to health podcasts – I’m constantly (& gladly) immersed in the word of nutrition.
Lately, probably because of the low-carb craze that everyone (including myself) seems to be talking about, I’ve been particularly in tune with the excessive amount of sugar and carbs in the modern Western diet.
I ate lunch with three of my kids recently and was shocked by the amount of refined and processed foods, especially sugary foods, the other kids were eating.
Look, I'm definitely guilty of sending my kids with some processed goods every now and again, but the extent of how MUCH these foods versus nutrient-dense foods predominated was troubling.
I also went on a field trip with my daughter to a local children's museum and again saw thousands of adults and children alike eating plate after plate of refined, processed and sugary foods. I saw no vegetables and only a handful of whole fruits. Need I mention the unavailability of any sort of healthy options at the cafe's and cafeterias? It was disheartening.
In the past several months, I’ve read several books talking about the health advantages of lowering your carbohydrate, sugar, & processed food intake.
Each book was written from a different health perspective, i.e. cancer & mitochondrial health, lowering blood sugar, overall wellness, & brain health, but they all said the same thing – excessive carbohydrate & sugar intake are destroying our health!
The Evolution of Ancestral Diets
If you were to analyze how our ancestors ate before the rise of grain cultivation and industrialization, foods higher in carbohydrates made up the smallest percentage of their diet (unlike our Nutritional Guidelines which recommend adults eat at least 8 to 12 servings per day!)
Most ancient civilizations hunted wild game & caught fresh fish (protein & fats), foraged for nuts & seeds (protein, fat), and ate vegetables & fruits when they were in season, which was typically not year-round (minimal carbohydrates).
And those cultures that did have a higher carbohydrate intake (the Kitavans in Papa New Guinea, for example) ate unrefined carbohydrates in the form of yams, taro, and fruit, along with coconuts and fish.
These populations had virtually NO signs of chronic or degenerative disease. However, researchers have witnessed disease enter when traditional cultures of modern day started consuming a Western diet including processed and refined foods, especially refined carbs.
Richard Wrangham, a primatologist from Harvard, stated the following in a National Geographic article looking at the Evolution of Diet:
It’s this shift to processed foods, taking place all over the world, that’s contributing to a rising epidemic of obesity and related diseases. If most of the world ate more local fruits and vegetables, a little meat, fish, and some whole grains (as in the highly touted Mediterranean diet), and exercised an hour a day, that would be good news for our health—and for the planet.
I could go down a long rabbit trail as to why refined & processed foods, in general, are a bad choice for your health, but I want to focus on sugar & carbs.
The Carbohydrate-Insulin Cycle
I want to get a little techy for a minute.
In order for you to understand the importance of why you should consider “watching your carbs”, I need to explain how your body burns fuel & stores fat.
Study the picture above for a minute. When carbohydrates enter your body in the form of food, they are broken down in your small intestine by specific enzymes into glucose, a simple sugar (i.e. the white hexagons).
Once glucose enters the bloodstream, your pancreas (the yellowish Frito-shaped organ) releases the hormone insulin (i.e. the green triangles) to carry glucose to various cells throughout your body.
In the picture above, you see insulin carrying glucose to a muscle cell, but this is only part of the picture. Glucose has several pathways:
It is either burned quickly in the bloodstream, transported to the liver for conversion into glycogen to be stored in muscles and the liver for use later, or transported by insulin into fat cells to be converted into triglycerides, the STORAGE FORM OF FAT.
When liver glycogen stores are full, the liver then converts excess glucose into triglycerides, which are then transported to cells throughout the body and STORED AS FAT.
If you are constantly ingesting carbohydrates & sugar, your body is constantly producing insulin and then having to STORE THE EXCESS AS FAT! Insulin is actually known as a “fat-promoting” hormone.
Are you getting the picture here?
Finally, once your body has used up its glycogen stores (which doesn’t take long), your brain receives the message that your blood sugar is low and amps up your hunger cues, causing intense carb & sugar cravings, and then the cycle continues.
But here’s the unfortunate rub. When your body is processing carbohydrates (and therefore releasing insulin) after every meal AND snack, your body is UNABLE TO ACCESS YOUR FAT STORES!
Elevated insulin levels literally block your body from using fat for fuel, and you stay in a vicious carb-reliant, fat-storing cycle. (And I should also mention that any fat you consume in this state is also STORED AS FAT along with the excess carbs since it is not used for energy).
And if you think more exercise will help solve this problem, it won’t. Yes, you may burn off the carbohydrates you just ate and deplete your glycogen stores, but then your body just wants more (hence why you have to eat immediately after you exercise) and oftentimes STORES MORE FAT as a result.
“Okay, well who cares about that?? I love working out!” Well, so do I, but I’ll tell you this (and then save the gory details for another post):
Burning sugar on a regular basis increases free radicals in your body (sugar is known as a “dirty fuel”) and promotes inflammation & oxidation. Healthy fats do not (see this post for a list of healthy fats).
AND chronic exercise patterns (which are needed to burn off all those carbs you’re eating), elevate cortisol levels, which then increases your body's need for fuel (i.e. more carbs), which increases oxidative damage, and eventually leads to burn-out (among other things.)
Chronic exercise can also obstruct immune system function, destroy white blood cells, elevate cortisol levels, suppress testosterone levels, and trigger chronic/systemic inflammation.
However, when your body does NOT have a steady flow of carbohydrates coming in, it will either rely on the breakdown of muscle into amino acids (gluconeogenesis) as a source of glucose OR access your FAT stores.
Become a Fat-Burner
So, the obvious question now is, “How do I become a fat-burner instead of a sugar burner?”
The answer: You basically have to “train” your body to use fat for fuel instead of glucose, and it starts by lowering your carb intake.
If you were to reduce your intake of carbohydrates below a certain level (50-150 grams, depending on the person), your body would then have to rely on ketone bodies (a breakdown product of fat) as an energy source.
Your body really only needs around 50-100 grams of carbohydrates from your diet to perform optimally without having to break down your muscle stores.
To put it into perspective, our modern diet has us taking in a whopping 500 or 600 grams of carbs a day, mostly in the form of processed and refined carbs!!
And in case you’re wondering, carbohydrates are found in the following foods (this list is NOT comprehensive): grains, legumes, breads, crackers, cereal, pasta, baked goods, soda, coffee drinks, snack bars, cookies, candy, chips, French fries, sandwiches, gluten-free replacement foods, fruit, and to a much lesser degree, vegetables.
Your body will be confused at first, and you may find yourself with some severe cravings (especially for sugar) – BUT trust me when I say that there are lots of other truly delicious and satisfying foods you will learn to enjoy in place of the carbs.
How To Start The Process
I started this process gradually and over a period of time, reduced my intake of carbohydrates.
I’ve always been a conscious eater, but I had let sugar sneak back in through my coffee creamer, breads, and other processed “treats”.
I started by cutting out processed goods and focused on eating whole foods.
Having 4 children (and a husband) in the house almost ensures there will be “snacky” foods that are full of carbohydrates. It’s just a pattern we get sucked into so easily!
I had to start thinking about alternative snacks like nut butter with apples slices or celery sticks, nut- & seed-based granola, avocados, almond flour muffins, date balls, cheese sticks or slices, veggie slices with guacamole, hummus or ranch, and Fat Bombs - yum!
I made my own sourdough bread for my family (super simple) and bought only minimally-processed rice pasta when my kids wanted pasta.
I cut out crackers and used crisp veggies and dip instead. I also eliminated the high-carb cereals my kids (& husband) loved and replaced them with more nutrient-dense breakfast alternatives. This was a hard one, but I felt it necessary for their health too.
Once I had this pattern down, I removed carbs from my diet after 4:00 pm. This was definitely a game-changer for me! I didn’t realize how often I ate potatoes and rice with dinner and fruit for dessert.
Not that these foods are inherently bad, for some they are not. But this pattern allowed me to pay attention to what and how much I was eating. I soon noticed my body shedding some weight, which was incredibly motivating to keep going.
Next I eliminated gluten and any “bready-type” foods and did not replace these items with gluten-free alternatives, which are also high in carbs.
This was partially due to my own suspicion that gluten was causing some problems for me and partially from the recommendation of my doctor who suspected Hashimoto's.
Again, I noticed I was continuing to slim down AND feel better. I had finally lost some weight in areas I thought would never slim down.
Weight loss was NOT my goal (I was honestly just trying to get healthier), but I certainly didn’t mind the side benefit!
What’s crazy is that I was not missing the foods I cut out, especially breads and “baked goods”. I felt so much better without them.
I also had more energy and my early morning workouts were rarely tiring; in fact, they were more energizing! I didn’t have to eat before OR after I worked out, which was a huge shift from my normal pattern of having a protein smoothie after every workout.
But as my body stopped relying on carbs to meet its energy needs and started accessing my fat stores (hence the slimming-down effect), I didn’t have to eat as much.
In fact, I noticed I was not as hungry in the mornings and didn’t usually eat anything until 10 or 11 o’clock. I later realized this was the “intermittent fasting” practice I was hearing about in the blog and podcast circles but hadn’t really looked into.
Before I knew it, I had become what Mark Sisson calls "fat-adapted"!
Would you believe me if I told you that this was NOT my goal?? I didn’t even know what fat-adapted meant at that point. I actually wandered into a ketogenic-eating style BEFORE I had read all the books and articles talking about its benefits.
My goal was improved health, and after I reduced my carb intake (and, therefore, my dependency), I noticed a remarkable change in how I felt and I saw the proof of it in my lab tests.
I had spent the past three years pursuing my masters in holistic nutrition and, ironically, didn’t take very good care of myself during the process. I was worn down and knew something was amiss.
I had some lab work done and sure enough, I had extremely low nutrient levels (vitamin D, omega-3s, and CoQ10, specifically), a few high inflammatory markers, and low HDL.
Thankfully, I knew that changing my diet and lifestyle would improve my health, and three months later it did!
Accountability is Key
I just want you to know that I understand how difficult it can be to remove certain foods from your diet. I’ve walked that road and I talk about the difficulty of food addiction in my post Finding Emotional Freedom.
I also want to emphasize that transitioning your body to a fat-burning machine does not mean you can never eat carbs again – quite the contrary!
You will, however, find yourself wanting less and less carby-type foods, but this does not mean you can’t celebrate your son’s 7th birthday like I did last month.
Many health experts who maintain a ketogenic-eating style (Dr. Mercola, Dr. Perlmutter, Dr. Hyman, Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, and others), cycle in and out of ketosis.
They might be in ketosis for 21 days or so to get their bodies fat-adapted or to prime their health, and then they’ll up their carbs a bit, staying around 100 to 150 grams a day most of the time. In truth, staying in ketosis is not meant to be a long-term commitment, rather a therapeutic & temporary state to better health.
You can still enjoy your Thanksgiving Turkey dinner and maintain your fat-burning ways, as long as Turkey dinners (and all the fixin’s) do not become your normal pattern of eating.
However, if you start your carb-heavy ways of eating again, your body will transition back to a sugar-burning mode and you’ll find yourself in that vicious carb cycle again.
So, in order to avoid those pit falls, you need to have a community who will support you, if not your own dedicated health coach (ah-hem… Yours Truly).
I say this in jest and in seriousness. Change is tough, no matter how type-A you may be! You’re going to want someone in your corner who is knowledgeable, encouraging, and honest.
I would obviously LOVE to be that person for you and am passionate about teaching clients how to step into healthy patterns. I always say that being healthy is a process!
If you’re looking for someone to be your ally and your guide, check out my Coaching Sessions. I offer a FREE 15-minute session for those wanting to get a sneak peak, and then we can determine where to go from there.
And by the way, I want to include some “Sugar Stats” below to further slam the nail in the coffin on getting sugar OUT of your diet!
- On average, 20% of our daily calories come from sugar (that’s about 100 grams!)
- The average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar & 133 pounds of flour annually, which combined equals more than ¾ a pound of sugar & flour EVERY DAY!
- Sugar causes obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, stroke, & depression
- It rouses inflammation, accelerates weight gain, increases risk of heart disease & strokes, contributes to Alzheimer’s & cancer, and damages the liver
- It causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglyceride levels, and high blood sugar and insulin levels
- Leading health organizations recommend no more than 10% of your diet come from added sugar (which is still too much in my opinion); YET the average American adults eats twice that amount AND CHILDREN EAT 3X that amount!!
- There has been a 400% increase in Diabetes 2 since 1980, which can be attributed to sugar and excessive carbohydrate intake (1980s was when the low-fat, high-carb craze started)