Really, it does! One of the most important discoveries I have made in the past 14 months that has led to a sustained 18 pound weight loss is that eating more healthy fats in my diet keeps me feeling more energetic, more calm, less distracted and less anxious. I grew up drinking skim milk and clinging to a low-fat diet notion that was in vogue at the time, based on dietary guidelines set in 1970’s that were based on an untested ideas devoid of scientific research. I thought it was really fascinating to read about the evolution of this understanding in Dr. Jason Fung’s book The Obesity Code, a well-researched look at how obesity is driven by our hormones, not by how many calories we eat.
The low-fat, low-calorie diet has already been proven to fail. This is the cruel hoax. Eating less does not result in lasting weight loss. It. Just. Does. Not. Work.
Dr. Fung takes apart the studies that have been completed on obesity, most of them focusing on time frames of less and a year. But obesity typically develops over decades, not in one year. He provides a compelling case for the hormonal obesity theory. Basically, obesity is not caused by an excess of calories, but instead by a body set weight that is too high because of a hormonal imbalance within the body. He goes into great depth about how insulin, cortison, leptin and ghrelin are the major chemical messengers that help determine how our body fat is kept regulated by the body. Please consult his book if this interests you; the science behind this is fascinating and he writes at a level that you do not have to be a clinical researcher to understand.
Insulin is a storage hormone. When we eat, the body releases insulin to store excess glucose from the blood stream into the liver as glycogen, where it can easily be accessed for energy. When there is no intake of food, insulin levels fall and the burning of sugar and fat is turned on. It is quite an elegant “homeostatic” mechanism that keeps our body in balance, and our weight stable. Most people’s weight remains relatively stable, and even people who gain weight tend to do so gradually over time, 1-2 pounds per year.
However, our diets, which have moved away from healthy naturally-occurring fats, toward highly refined carbohydrates (sugar and flour) tend to raise insulin levels to an artificially high level. This results in greater fat storage and a long-term propensity for weight gain. Combine this with the stress hormone cortisol, which also raises insulin levels, we begin to see how these factors contribute to a condition known as insulin resistance. There are some disturbing findings reported about how treatments for diabetes type 2 usually require insulin, and how, even though the blood sugars are better, after standard medical treatment the diabetes actually gets worse. I urge you to read The Obesity Code if you struggle with obesity or type 2 diabetes. I am not a health expert, but I found the research to be helpful in understanding nutritional and lifestyle interventions that lead to reversals in insulin resistance and sustainable weight loss.
For this post I will focus on the recommendation to increase consumption of natural and unprocessed fats in our diet. These include olive oil, butter, coconut oil, beef tallow and avocado. Nuts are also a healthy option, and full-fat dairy can be enjoyed without guilt. We must be careful to avoid inflammatory fats (aka “trans” fats) that are processed such as vegetable, canola, peanut oils, or margarine which are high in omega-6 fatty acids and may have detrimental health effects. Basically, we need to eat “real food” that is minimally processed and balanced in terms of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. It is actually simpler than it seems. If we shop mostly on the outside perimeter of grocery stores, typically we can find those vegetables, meats, full-fat dairy products, eggs and other fresh, healthy options.
I realize some readers may be vegetarian, and while I tried to become vegetarian multiple times in my life, I now believe my tendency toward a.d.d. and anxiety probably do not lend themselves to a vegetarian diet in the long term. One positive side effect I have noticed from eating fat more freely is a sense of calm, satiety, focus on a more regular basis. This contrasts with my struggle with moods starting in my teens, and a cycle of being down, anxious, and more emotionally volatile when I was eating more sugar and flour in my diet. Sadly, so many people struggle with mood issues such as depression or anxiety, and healthy fats may be a key to helping our brains regulate and manufacture healthy neurotransmitters.
One helpful resource if you want to learn more is Nutritional Weight and Wellness and their podcast, Dishing Up Nutrition. As registered dietitians and licensed nutritionists, this team stays very up-to-date on the latest research about dietary interventions to help a variety of conditions. They explain in easy terms how to improve your overall health through dietary interventions. While you may also work with your primary care provider, please know that doctors do not receive much training in nutrition in medical school. Unfortunately, so many of the proactive things we can do to help our overall wellness are not a focus of the medical profession, and they often treat the effects rather than the cause of illnesses.
I work with outstanding nurse practitioner, who is open to supporting my personal experiments with nutrition, especially when based on sound research. She ordered blood tests every 6 months as I was making these adjustments and we both found that, contrary to popular belief, my high-fat diet did not lead to higher cholesterol. Actually my blood pressure was lower, my weight was down, triglycerides were normal and other numbers in the normal range.
Obviously, you need to find what works for you, not take my experience as gospel. Please work with professionals who have the experience and expertise to help you optimize your own health and wellness. For example, if you have nutritional deficiencies such as low Vitamin D (which almost all of us in Minnesota experience in fall/winter) or magnesium deficiency, there may be factors that would benefit from more personalized consultation. Also, getting pro-biotic supplement may help fight sugar cravings and balance your gut, making it easier to switch your diet to more healthy options.
Being willing to experiment with foods you once thought were forbidden, and realizing that you are actually allowed to enjoy food is a beautiful discovery. Full-fat dairy added to my coffee in the morning is delicious! Knowing I can put half an avocado in salad, add butter to my vegetables, and be liberal with the olive oil has made all of my meals taste better and led to more satisfaction. I no longer have gnawing hunger between meals, and thus I do not have a tendency to overindulge on junk food or to snack. My sleep quality and quantity has improved as well.
Fat is a beautiful thing. I say that as I happily note the spare tire around my middle has been steadily shrinking and my body fat has been reduced. Since my body is no longer “starved” for this important nutrient, I do not hang onto extra fat, and my brain is so much happier and less anxious. Granted, the meditation, yoga and running do also help. But nutrition cannot be underestimated when it comes to keeping our overall moods balanced and our energy high. It has been life-changing for me to realize this, and I am a big proponent of doing a few experiments and mindfully noting how you feel when you make these changes.
Since everyone’s body is different (some people with a dairy sensitivity for example, should not opt for cream in their coffee), please be mindful and intentional with your personal experiments. Seek help for the any major health issues and have confidence that your body, when regulated normally, has wisdom within it. It will give you signals to help know what is nourishing and what is toxic. That said: enjoy the journey!