Note:  This is the first in a series of blogs that will be written by Erik Borgnes of Team Epic USA.  Stay tuned for more very insightful and informative content.  I am thrilled to have Erik sharing his wisdom with us in 2015

Not as Simple as Calories In / Calories Out

As surfski paddlers, we’re fortunate in that excess weight only slightly slows us down – unlike with runners and in any sport where an athlete goes up and down hills because in those sports it’s a huge liability. Weight loss seems like something that should be easy to do, right? Eat less, exercise more. Calories in, calories out. In reality, though, it’s more complex than that. It also doesn’t help that there are a couple of factors that work against us. But, with a few only mildly annoying tricks, it can be done.

We mammals have evolved a protective metabolism that works to save our hide when times are tough. If food is scarce, our metabolism slows down and we don’t feel very motivated to move that much. Conversely, in times of plenty, our metabolism speeds up and we generally feel more motivated to exercise and move around. If the above sounds like a recipe for not gaining or losing weight but remaining the same, you’re right. But then, how did we get overly fat in the first place?

I’ll begin by asking what makes logical sense nutrition-wise? Assuming that we evolved on real foods like meats, tubers, and berries primarily, then those are the foods that our guts and our microbial symbionts and our hormones know how to handle efficiently and effectively. If this is the case, then there should be well developed feedback loops between our guts and our brains that tell us to keep eating or to stop eating so that we eat enough to thrive but not so much that became slow and easy prey.

So then, how does our brain and gut reconcile the sour cream and cheddar potato chips, Nutella, apple pie, etc? At the end of a pot roast feast, when there’s no room for another piece of meat or a carrot, there’s usually room for a piece of cheesecake or pie. Why is that? Stephan at refers to this as “food palatability.” If it tastes good and lights up the dopamine “feel good” receptors in the brain then we can become addicted to those sweet, fatty, and salty foods. Palatability is probably only part of the equation, though.

What else conspires against us? Fructose. Half of table sugar (sucrose) is fructose. High Fructose corn syrup is more than half fructose. Fruits and honey are loaded with fructose, too. What’s interesting about fructose is that it has its own special metabolic pathway where it is absorbed, goes straight to the liver, and is easily stored or converted into fat. And here’s the important part – unlike glucose, it jumps the main control pathway in sugar metabolism. (Michael Eades discusses this nicely here). Is there any wonder then that animals such as bears in temperate climates gorge themselves on berries in the autumn to put on weight for the long winter’s hibernation? Fructose has that sneaky ability to slip through the liver right past the body’s setpoint guardian. The more of it we eat, the fatter we get because we don’t “see” it like we do glucose and protein and fat – and this is one reason why many of us gradually put on weight very slowly over the years.

Limit Sugar

On we go now to the dietary strategy. First, we need to limit sugary foods and those high palatability foods. Next, we need to shift our metabolism to run low-carb because fats and proteins satiate better, pack greater nutrient density and have the effect of lowering our appetite in between meals.   For other reasons which I won’t discuss, it’s important that we lower our average daily serum insulin level – insulin is the hormone that signals our body to store fat. If you haven’t done this switch before, you may find it a bit rough early on and may experience a sort of brain fog and be short on energy. But, this is the stressor that signals your body to ramp up its ability to maintain blood sugar levels using liver glycogen and by metabolizing your body’s fat stores.

Intermittent Fasting

The third and last part is intermittent fasting. I like 24 hour fasts every other day from early evening one day until early evening the next day. The first 8 hours of the fast is simple because you’re asleep. The daytime hours shouldn’t be too difficult if you’re busy working. I drink black coffee and tea throughout the day and do my best to avoid being around food. Also, I find that exercising in the morning before work can be appetite suppressing – and if I should happen to eat a little bit afterwards, then my appetite snowballs. On the other days of the week, when I don’t fast, I eat a normal amount of food, calorie-wise, and consciously avoid any attempt to make up for lost calories from the previous day’s fast. From my experience, I suspect that I lose about a half-pound of fat during each of these daily fasts. Times three per week equals about six pounds of body fat in a month. By eating a normal 2000-3000 calories every other day, and by maintaining a fairly normal exercise schedule, my motivation and energy stays high. I suspect that the intermittent fasting and regular exercise confuses the body’s regulatory mechanism as to whether these are time of scarcity or times of plenty so my metabolism doesn’t drop like it would with a simple calorie restricted diet.

To summarize this strategy:

  1. Limit sweet foods (even fruits), particularly those containing fructose or table sugar. The difficulty is in getting through the first few days of no sweets because you might find that the more sweets you eat, the more you’ll crave. Fortunately, the opposite seems to be true as well. It also helps to keep sweets and desserts out of the house as much as possible so that it becomes more difficult to give in to a sweets craving.
  2. Shift your metabolism to a low carbohydrate diet – and this is more important to those people who genetically, or who by their own metabolic history, have become sensitive to carbohydrates. If you need a number, aim for 50-100 grams of carbohydrates per day. This will lower your average insulin levels and will also point you on a path away from becoming a type 2 diabetic – if your genetics tilt in that direction.
  3. Begin intermittently fasting. Once you have transitioned to a low carbohydrate diet, your blood sugar levels should be stable and you’ll likely not be very hungry during the fasts and the fasts will become more annoying than painful. Also, it might help to do your daily workouts early in the morning when you are topped off from the previous evening’s meal.
  4. Once you have reached your goal weight, you’ll have to figure out how carbohydrate tolerant you are and you might then need to be mindful of how much you can add back in over the long term.
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