Hormones and Weight Gain:
A Bulletproof Argument That Carbohydrates Cause Obesity
Hormones and weight gain. Would you agree that ANY relationship exists between them?
If so, then guess what? You have logically implicated carbohydrates as the primary cause of obesity!
But below we have sketched out a point-by-point argument to support this provocative assertion.
Just try to rip it apart. It's harder than it seems.
1. The body is awash in both catabolic and anabolic hormones.
Hormones signal the body to do things. Endocrinologists often roughly classify hormones into two key categories: anabolic and catabolic.
Catabolic hormones break down large molecules into smaller ones and encourage the release of chemical energy (most notably ATP) for the body to use. These include: cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon.
Anabolic hormones do the opposite. They create longer chain molecules from smaller ones and use up ATP in the process. These hormones include: testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin.
Any discussion about hormones and weight gain must acknowledge how ferociously complex the body's metabolic/hormonal apparatus is. Hormones often have multiple functions, and they exert profound influences on one another as well as on metabolism.
2. Any talk about the relationship between hormones and weight gain must include a discussion about a key anabolic hormone called insulin.
Insulin is a stupendously important hormone. It’s made up of 51 amino acids linked together, and it is produced in the beta cells of the pancreas. It serves numerous critical functions, including -- notably -- the regulation of the uptake of blood sugar into fat cells. Without adequate circulating insulin, it is not possible to store excess calories as fat.
3. How, specifically, does insulin drive weight gain?
The pathway is somewhat technical, but we will try to break it down for you here. Bear in mind that the science here is non-controversial--the impact insulin has on fat tissue metabolism has been known for 40 years.
So here is what happens.
a. Provoke the secretion of insulin (e.g. by eating high carbohydrate meals)
b. Insulin pulls blood sugar into fat cells.
c. This blood sugar is then burned for energy (oxidized).
d. As a result, a molecule called alpha glycerol phosphate is created.
e. Alpha glycerol phosphate disrupts a naturally occurring cycle in the fat tissue called the fatty acid triglyceride cycle, driving the preferential production of triglycerides over fatty acids. Why is this important? Because triglycerides are bigger than fatty acids. Once triglycerides have been made in a fat cell, they can’t readily escape the cell membrane.
f. The fat tissue fills up with triglycerides when you have too much alpha glycerol phosphate, and you get fatter.
g. Rinse and repeat over time, and obesity results.
4. Let’s put aside the talk of hormones and weight gain for a moment to consider the conventional wisdom about weight gain: that it is caused by overeating and inactivity.
Listen carefully to what public health authorities tell us about obesity. They never talk directly about hormones and weight gain. Their primary concern is calories. We are told that if you overeat calories and don’t burn off enough of them, you will get fat.
5. Where do we get this idea that calories are important?
From a construction called the Energy Balance Equation. This equation derives from the First Law of Thermodynamics. It tells us that energy coming into a system must equal energy coming out of it. Therefore, for the body, the following must be true: Energy stored equals calories in minus calories out:
Energy Stored = Calories In - Calories Out
So if you raise Calories In (overeat) and/or lower Calories Out (not exercise), this will cause a "positive caloric balance." Since the energy balance equation is an equation, for it to remain true, the left side of the equation (Energy Stored) must rise to compensate. Hence, we get the idea that overeating and inactivity cause weight gain -- not hormones.
Chances are, if you are normal people (like we were prior to learning about all the stuff), you have probably understood these ideas intuitively without knowing the theory.
But look around the CDC and NIH websites. You will find this justification for calorie counting. Researchers assert that the First Law of Thermodynamics requires that "calories count" and that the relationship between hormones and weight gain is not as important as the relationship between calories and weight gain.
6. Notice that this way of looking at energy balance leaves NO ROOM for anything other than calories to be a factor in weight gain.
So if you want to talk about hormones and weight gain, according to this view, you may do so only by talking about how they influence calorie balance. So you might get a relationship that looks like this:
Hormones → Positive Caloric Balance → Increase in Energy Stored as Fat in the Body
7. This line of thinking is, on its face, preposterous.
If a positive caloric balance causes us to store energy, how precisely does it do so?
We are never told how. We only told that overeating WILL make us fat. But this lack of technical justification is a huge problem. In fact, thousands and thousands of contradictions come off of this "Caloric Balance Hypothesis."
Here is one that may first seem absurd but actually just illustrates how ridiculous the Caloric Balance Hypothesis is.
Consider a pregnant woman. Over the course of her pregnancy, she will grow a fetus. To make that fetus, her body will need a surplus of energy. She will have to take in more calories than she burns off. In other words, the growth of a fetus requires a positive caloric balance. This is obvious.
But we would NEVER say that the positive caloric balance CAUSES the fetus. What CAUSES a baby to grow is far more complicated: an interplay of hormones, enzymes, genetics, etc. These factors primarily CAUSE the pregnancy. The positive caloric balance is an EFFECT OF the pregnancy.
No obesity researcher will disagree with this point. But when you start talking about the fat tissue instead of a fetus, all of a sudden it’s a different story. We are drawn into a debate about calories -- overeating and inactivity -- instead of what we should be talking about, which is hormones and weight gain.
8. We believe that there is a far better explanation.
As science writer Gary Taubes has pointed out, you can simply reverse the causality of the energy balance equation. Instead of a positive caloric balance CAUSING changes in energy stores; changes in energy stores CAUSE changes in caloric balance. Thus, you get:
Changes In Energy Stored → Chances in Caloric Balance
To explain the influence of hormones and weight gain, we simply write the relationship like this:
Changes in Hormones → Changes in Energy Stored in the Body → Changes in Caloric Balance
Ah, there we go. That makes so much more sense!
9. Once we think about the fundamental problem of obesity as a dysfunction of energy storage as opposed to a dysfunction of caloric balance, everything about our viewpoint on this subject must change.
Whatever makes us over-secrete insulin, for instance, must cause weight gain. And when you look at the regulators of insulin, one of the biggest dietary ones is carbohydrates. When you eat a lot of simple carbs and refined sugars, this drives insulin secretion, which in turn causes us to store fat. Until you fix the problem with hormones and weight gain at its source, you will keep having problems, even if you lower your caloric balance.
Did you enjoy this article? It's been over 4 years since I wrote it or edited any of the other content you'll find on this site. :]
During this hiatus, I've had the privilege of talking about these concepts with many renowned authorities in the fields of diet and health, including Gary Taubes... as well as many of his critics.
After researching and thinking for four years, I came to a startling revelation about how to simplify the fat loss question. I call this concept "The Black Box."
I explain it all in a free (for a limited time) short report, which you can download via the form below. Check it out! It's a legitimately new idea, and a lot of people (including many respected obesity researchers) have found it compelling. Thank you! - Adam