A Paradigm ShiftLooking at yourself as a machine that you pump energy in to (in the form of food) and get energy out of (in the form of physical activity or exercise) is the primary way people look at weight loss. This approach to weight loss is called the energy balance equation and it states that if you eat fewer calories than you burn you will lose weight and if you eat more calories than you burn you will gain weight. This approach to weight loss has been used for years and, unfortunately, it's wrong on a couple of accounts. The first law of thermodynamics, which the energy balance equation is based on, states that energy is always conserved in a closed system. One of the problems with using this law to dictate weight loss is that humans are not closed systems, closed systems do not interact with their environment but humans do. For one, if your 98.6 degree body enters a 70 degree room, your body will need to generate heat to maintain it's temperature. This is not a characteristic of a closed system, we are open systems.
Don't get me wrong, I am not denying that there is probably some relationship between the excess amount of energy we have left in our bodies at the end of the day and weight gain, but it is an indirect relationship. The problem is that accumulating or burning fat is not a process of physics, it's a process of biology. In other words, physics can't tell you how to lose or gain weight, it can only tell you whether you are in a negative energy state, a positive energy state, or a balanced energy state. Losing and gaining weight are biological processes carried out by your cells. You can see how important calories are in this process by looking at the number of calorie receptors on your cells (I'll give you a hint, it's zero).
When a person wants to learn how to lose weight, what they are really trying to accomplish is the burning of body fat. This process is dictated within you, a biological system, by the signals that are sent to your cells via hormones and enzymes. If your cells don't get the signals to burn fat they won't, regardless of how big of a caloric deficit you are in. Your goal, then, should be to send the proper signals to your cells.
How to lose weight using EpigeneticsYou are much like the cells within your body. In the same way you adapt to the environment you are in, they do the same thing. In fact, you relay information to your cells about the environment you are in via the hormones and enzymes your body pumps out. So, in a way, your internal environment is a hormonal representation of the external environment you live in. To understand how this works, we need to understand how your cells work. Within the nucleus of every one of your cells is something called DNA. Your DNA is basically a blueprint for you and it is identical in every one of your cells no matter what type of cell. Within your DNA are thousands of genes which are specific orders for the cells to carry out. If the DNA is a blueprint for a house, genes are the specific orders such as, "Put the front door here". If the DNA and genes are identical in all cells, why is a hair cell different than an eye cell? They are different because different genes are activated based on the environment the cell is in.
Molecules from the environment of the cell attach to the cell and tell it which portion of the DNA to read. Think of it like a DVD. The entire DVD contains all of the information, but you can read different parts of the DVD by starting the DVD at different places. The same thing happens with your cells, the environment the cell is in tells the cell which part of the DVD to read and it carries out this function. If we are looking to answer the question, "How do you lose weight?", the answer is simple...by getting your cells to carry out the function within your DNA that tells them to do so. But how do you do that? By providing the proper internal environment via hormones and enzymes for the cell to read that part of the DNA. This is called epigenetics, how your genes and environment interact. So how will this help you lose weight?
To lose weight all we need to do is understand the hormonal factors that lead to weight loss and do more of them, and understand the hormonal factors that lead to weight gain and avoid them. Over time, provided you spend more time doing the former and less time doing the latter, you will achieve the weight loss you are striving for. The problem with trying to lose weight via energy balance is that counting calories and trying to burn more calories than you eat will only work if it satisfies the epigenetic mechanisms that tell a cell to burn fat. This will lead to weight loss, at least the type of weight loss most of us are trying to accomplish. This is what I mean when I say energy balance will only work indirectly. Let's take a brief look at epigenetics in action.
Burning fat or losing water weight?How many calories do you need to burn to lose a pound of fat? Most people would probably say 3500 calories because that is what every trainer, dietitian, nutritionist or doctor has told them. While there is, indeed, 3500 calories in a pound of fat, that is not the question that is being asked. The question I asked is how many calories do you need to burn to lose a pound of fat. From a physics perspective 3500 is the number because that is how many calories in a pound of fat. From a biological perspective the number is actually much greater, and it increases as the intensity of your activity increases. This is because you are never burning 100% of your calories from fat, at most you are burning 60% of your calories from fat and this occurs at rest. So, doing a little math, you have to burn 5833 calories to burn one pound of fat and this occurs at rest.
As the intensity of your activity increases, you may burn more calories but a higher percentage comes from glucose. This is because this type of effort is primarily powered by glucose, so you send signals to your cells to burn more glucose. When you finish the effort and go back to rest, you begin burning fat again. In fact, you burn more fat than if you would have never done that intense exercise because your resting metabolic rate will increase due to your body using fat to recover from the intense effort. However, if you do this type of intense activity too much, you will exceed your body's ability to recover and you may get stuck in glucose burning mode, something we will discuss in a later blog. So while you may lose weight, you won't lose fat. You will just be shuffling water around in your body as each molecule of glucose requires 4 molecules of water for the cell to store it as glycogen. The next time you eat any significant amount of carbohydrate and drink any amount of water the weight you lose will come back on...Sound familiar? All of this occurs via the effect of hormones which dictate what your cells should do, which enzymes they should make, and which enzymes they should not. Ignoring all of this and focusing your time on energy balance will prevent you from effectively losing weight. Energy balance is not how you lose weight, epigenetics is.
In the next installment of this series, we will discuss some of the important factors that can tell you how to lose weight.