Announcing the Ideal Weight Program

I often receive requests from people asking for my overall perspective on fat loss and health.  I share my opinions here, but they're scattered throughout hundreds of posts, there's a lot I haven't had a chance to write about, and I rarely give practical recommendations.  However, I knew I'd eventually put everything together into a cohesive fat loss program-- it was only a matter of finding the right opportunity.

That opportunity presented itself in 2011 when I met Dan Pardi, a researcher whose work focuses on sleep and food intake, and the CEO of a company called Dan's Plan.  I was immediately impressed by Dan because he stood out as someone with a high level of expertise in sleep and physical activity, as well as someone who has successfully lost a substantial amount of fat and kept it off for several years.

Dan and his team had developed a set of unique and engaging tools for tracking weight, sleep, and physical activity to help people maintain daily mindfulness over the simple fundamentals of health.  These tools are 100 percent free and incredibly easy to use, particularly if you sync them with an electronic scale and step counter.  When synced with these devices, the Dan's Plan website automatically uploads and displays your weight, sleep, and physical activity score, as well as integrating them all into a single user-friendly Health Zone Score that lets you know your overall performance at a glance.  Even if you have no interest in fat loss, I highly recommend using the free tracking tools on the Dan's Plan site-- I do.

Glucagon, Dietary Protein, and Low-Carbohydrate Diets

Glucagon is a hormone that plays an important role in blood glucose control.  Like insulin, it's secreted by the pancreas, though it's secreted by a different cell population than insulin (alpha vs. beta cells).  In some ways, glucagon opposes insulin.  However, the role of glucagon in metabolism is frequently misunderstood in diet-health circles.

The liver normally stores glucose in the form of glycogen and releases it into the bloodstream as needed.  It can also manufacture glucose from glycerol, lactate, and certain amino acids.  Glucagon's main job is to keep blood glucose from dipping too low by making sure the liver releases enough glucose.  There are a few situations where this is particularly important:

  1. Hypoglycemia.  When blood sugar drops below a certain threshold, for example if a diabetic injects too much insulin, the brain senses it and initiates a response (the counterregulatory response) to bring glucose back up and prevent unconsciousness and death.  Glucagon release is an important part of this response.
  2. Fasting.  Glucagon helps support blood glucose levels during fasting, when glucose intake is zero, by stimulating the production and release of glucose by the liver.  This sustains the brain, which has an absolute requirement for glucose (though it can derive some energy from ketones).
  3. High-protein meals.  Protein stimulates insulin release as much as carbohydrate does (because one of insulin's jobs is to send amino acids into lean tissues such as muscle), but protein doesn't supply rapid glucose like carbohydrate does.  If this process went unchecked, eating a high-protein meal would cause hypoglycemia because insulin release would suppress blood glucose too much.  Glucagon release counterbalances insulin, preventing hypoglycemia when we eat a high-protein meal.

New Review Paper on Dietary Fat and Heart Disease Risk

A new review paper on dietary fatty acids and heart disease risk was just published by Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury and colleagues in the Annals of Internal Medicine-- one of the top medical journals (1).  The goal of the paper is to comprehensively review the studies evaluating the effect of dietary fatty acids on heart (coronary) disease.  The review covers observational and intervention studies pertaining to saturated, monounsaturated, trans, omega-6 polyunsaturated, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats.  The paper is notable for its comprehensiveness (inclusion criteria were very lax).

Here is a summary of the results:

  • In observational studies that measured diet, only trans fat was related to cardiovascular risk.  Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats were unrelated to risk.
  • In observational studies that measured circulating concentrations of fatty acids, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (DHA, DPA, EPA, AA) were associated with lower risk.  The dairy-fat-derived margaric acid (17:0) was also associated with lower risk.  No other fatty acids were related to risk, including trans fatty acids.
  • In controlled trials, supplementation with omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids did not alter risk.
The authors conclude:
In conclusion, the pattern of findings from this analysis did not yield clearly supportive evidence for current cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of saturated fats.  Nutritional guidelines on fatty acids and cardiovascular guidelines may require reappraisal to reflect the current evidence.

Metabolic Effects of a Traditional Asian High-carbohydrate Diet

A recent study supports the notion that an 'ancestral diet' focused around high-starch agricultural foods can cultivate leanness and metabolic health.

John McDougall gave Christopher Gardner a hard time at the McDougall Advanced Study Weekend.  Dr. Gardner conducts high-profile randomized controlled trials (RCTs) at Stanford to compare the effectiveness of a variety of diets for weight loss, cardiovascular and metabolic health.  The "A to Z Study", in which Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diets were pitted against one another for one year, is one of his best-known trials (1).

Dr. McDougall asked a simple question: why haven't these trials evaluated the diet that has sustained the large majority of the world's population for the last several thousand years?  This is an agriculturalist or horticulturalist diet based around starchy foods such as grains, tubers, legumes, and plantains, and containing little fat or animal foods.  Researchers have studied a number of cultures eating this way, and have usually found them to be lean, with good cardiovascular and metabolic health.  Why not devote resources to studying this time-tested ancestral diet?  I think it's a fair question.

The reason seems to boil down to practicality: it's hard to get people to eat that way for a long period of time.  It's not easy to get people to adhere to a relatively bland 'third world diet', and the NIH isn't overly excited about studying a diet style that can't reasonably be applied to the general population of an affluent nation.

Beans, Lentils, and the Paleo Diet

As we continue to explore the foods our ancestors relied on during our evolutionary history, and what foods work best for us today, we come to legumes such as beans and lentils.  These are controversial foods within the Paleolithic diet community, while the broader nutrition community tends to view legumes as healthy.

Beans and lentils have a lot going for them.  They're one of the few foods that are simultaneously rich in protein and fiber, making them highly satiating and potentially good for the critters in our colon.  They're also relatively nutritious, delivering a hefty dose of vitamins and minerals.  The minerals are partially bound by the anti-nutrient phytic acid, but simply soaking and cooking beans and lentils typically degrades 30-70 percent of it, making the minerals more available for absorption (Food Phytates. Reddy and Sathe. 2002).  Omitting the soaking step greatly reduces the degradation of phytic acid (Food Phytates. Reddy and Sathe. 2002).

The only tangible downside to beans I can think of, from a nutritional standpoint, is that some people have a hard time with the large quantity of fermentable fiber they provide, particularly people who are sensitive to FODMAPs.  Thorough soaking prior to cooking can increase the digestibility of the "musical fruit" by activating the sprouting program and leaching out tannins and indigestible saccharides.  I soak all beans and lentils for 12-24 hours.