How do we get fat? You ask. 

Today I revert to my beginnings. I want talk on health, nutrition and wellbeing more broadly than yoga. After a few chats this week surrounding losing weight/fat, getting fitter postnatally after the new born phase is over, I thought it was a good time to bring up some basic physiological underpinnings of getting fat.

Almost everyone you know can tell you a million ways to lose body fat. From the 1950s’ advocacy for smoking cigarettes to yesterday’s newspaper there is a weight loss article to read. But if you understood how we get fat (no, not the simplistic idea of calories in and out), and how the body works to store excess energy, then hopefully despite all the faddy diets and exercise regimes you can reverse-engineer your body composition to a more healthy level. That has been my premise for twenty years now in maintaining healthy body fat levels, despite having a strong familial predisposition to be obese. So, in this post I am going back to basics. But before I start let me just say, once you know something that is only the beginning; the big prize goes to those who act on the knowledge. Remember the post on habit forming?

In this story of fatal attraction, there are two suitors and one princess. The handsome hunk is called muscle tissue and the ugly ogre is called fat tissue. The princess is sweet and delicious (even a slice of wholemeal toast eventually breaks down to sugar!). The princess secretly likes muscle, but muscle is such a Casanova, he is always hanging out with many girls. So the princess has no choice but to cosy up with fat. The End.

You see, our muscle tissue is the storage pot for all energy we eat. The size of the pot depends on the amount of muscle you have. The more muscle you carry, the more energy you can store as valuable ‘glycogen’ (the only way a body can store carbohydrates). Any excess energy is then converted to fat and stored as fat tissue. Every time you use your muscles the glycogen in them reduces, and every time you eat it gets replenished. However, if you eat when the muscle glycogen levels are not low, then it has no choice but to get stored as fat.

So, if you use this simple principle of making sure you have depleted your glycogen before meals (physical activity) you are less likely to store the energy as fat. Another time the glycogen is low is after your overnight sleep, when the glycogen is used up to repair the body as you sleep. So the simple principle here is to exercise first and eat after.

How does this food energy get into the muscles? There is a master controller in this game of storing energy, and his name is ‘Insulin’. Every time you eat carbohydrates, insulin is sent in to mop it out from the blood (the carbohydrates break down as sugar and come into your blood through the intestines) and store it in the muscles as glycogen. The amount of insulin sent in is generally well matched with the amount of sugar from the food in your blood. Especially if you have eaten complex carbohydrates (e.g. wholemeal bread) and their breakdown has taken some time for the sugar to drip feed into your blood, giving your brains plenty of time to calculate the amount of insulin to be produced (by your pancreas). However, if you eat (or drink) simple sugars (e.g. white bread/sweets) then its panic time! Since there is nothing to digest, all the sugars rush into your blood almost at the same time, leaving your brain very little scope to calculate the right amount of insulin needed.

It is very dangerous for you to have excess sugars floating in your blood, so the brain deploys as much insulin as it can in this rush to clear the excess sugars from the blood. Invariably you are left with more insulin than what was needed, and the blood sugars drop below the optimum levels. This is the cue for the other master controller to come in – ‘Glucagon’; he is the restorer of sugar in the blood. Mostly, this is done by giving you food cravings (particularly carbohydrate) and so the see-saw starts. Eat simple sugars, and after a while you will want to eat some more. See how that bag of sweets disappears despite all the will to eat only one?! This is how you end up eating more than you need to store the energy in your muscles. The overflow then gets stored as fat instead, as we are not programmed to let go of any spare energy (in case of a famine).

The other problem with this see-saw effect is that it also plays havoc with your energy storage system, as I explained earlier, and in the long run this perfectly calculated ‘insulin-glucagon’ synergy breaks down, leading to type 2 diabetes. Once you have reached this stage, your attempts for general weight loss will also be an uphill struggle.

So, here are my top five tips on working with your body rather than against it to maintain a lifelong healthy levels of body fat:

  1. Exercise – it fine-tunes the insulin-glucagon system, especially resistance exercise.
  2. Do aerobic/endurance exercise on an empty stomach (to accentuate the effect, exercise early in the morning when your glycogen stores are low anyway, forcing you to use stored fat as energy).
  3. Eat a mixed meal after exercise, not a high-sugar drink. Meals containing protein and fat reduce the rate at which the sugars come into your blood. If you want to drink something instead of eat, try milk.
  4. Control portions, and don’t eat too often – spiking insulin levels all the time will continually keep you in the energy-storage mode, and if you don’t have space in your muscles (which you won’t if you eat all the time) then that energy will get stored as body fat.
  5. If you must eat sugar, eat it first thing in the morning or after an intense exercise session, so the insulin can drive it into the muscles.
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