Estimated reading time 35 mins.
Please see my article, “Don’t listen to me (or even experts): My blanket disclaimer” for a brief discussion of my goal in sharing ideas on health.
A key excerpt: “We all have different bodies, lifestyles, means, likes/dislikes, goals, and many other factors which make up the context in which we are making health decisions. So my attitude is always intended to be not, “This is the right way to eat/work out” or “You should try this.” But rather: “This is what is working for me in this way. How might it apply to you in achieving your goals?””
Fat loss is among the top health challenges many people struggle with. For myself, it has been the single biggest challenge among others, requiring so much discipline and effort in various directions. With diet, it has required constantly doing without, eating the things I don’t always want to eat while restricting the things I do want, generally feeling hungry—you know, being “on a diet.” It has also required exercise—lots of time-consuming, grueling exercise. No pain, no gain.
And even when I have managed to maintain all that for a period and see some success, it’s been too much to sustain, and I eventually revert to previous habits and the corresponding body and health. I’ve concluded that these waves are almost inevitable, so when people have said, “You’re looking great,” I demur that I just happen to be in a good groove at the moment and that without quite knowing how, I’ll lose hold of the precarious grip I have on myself, and I’ll slip back into a rut for another period before too long.
I say “almost” inevitable because, on the periphery of my awareness, I recognize the existence of “those guys” who stay in top shape while genuinely happy in their state of eating healthy foods and rarely enjoying anything indulgent. To that, however, I conclude that I just don’t have the character of those machines who are on top of everything. It’s very demoralizing, and tragically, it’s the heartbreaking story of many people.
But what if this was a completely needless story? What if fat loss was the result of something much different than perpetual starving and constant physical exertion, and “those guys” were not necessarily moral or genetic freaks?
In a previous article, I wrote,
…systemic denial is not a component of a flourishing life. It seemed that I had my own health set against my own happiness. How can this be, though? It is the cry across decades of modern, affluent societies…Is a malevolent universe set against us all in an elaborate cosmic prank?
And while I must say that I didn’t just wail without attempting to offer some answer to that question, I can say more happily that after reading Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code, I now have a much more complete answer.
Of course the universe is not set against us; of course our bodies could not be set so as to require the seemingly impossible. Perhaps, rather, it is a malevolent (in effect if not always in intent) Health Establishment that has offered us a framework for understanding and combating obesity which is set against reality and thus against our success. In his book, Fung offers a new framework for understanding the true causes of obesity, and thus how to effectively target and achieve fat loss.
I’ve been having success in the past couple of years with my body shape and overall health. Within the last half year or so in particular, I’ve enjoyed an elevated experience of health and good living, the integrated state I’d been certain was attainable and that everyone may earn but which had been elusive for so long. That next-level state is characterized by when I finally was able to maintain my body shape and fitness while not being overly conscious of my diet. From that time to now, I don’t crave the foods I used to, I don’t feel hungry as a matter of course, and I engage in a comfortable level of exercise that I really love doing and get efficiently great results from. I don’t struggle with diet, constantly living on the edge of satisfaction and denial. I’m one of those guys!
If the reader will pardon what seems a little gratuity here, my friend convinced me that for context and credibility, some photos were in order. If I’m going to discuss who I was, who I’ve become, and what I’ve done to achieve such-and-such, it will be helpful for readers who don’t know me to know what I’m referring to looks like.
Note that I’m not anything close to an “ectomorphic” body type which doesn’t gain fat easily. I assure you that I can put on fat without much effort. My current condition, as you’ll see me discuss, has not been achieved through the traditional “Eat Less, Exercise More” model, which is the whole point of this post. You’ll see more below about how little I exercise and how richly I eat, working within a proper framework for obesity.
For numbers, take a close look at the Inbody body composition readouts. You can see numbers from January 2017 to a day before the publishing of this article (July 1, 2019). I refer you most specifically to fat mass and fat percentage numbers, as we’re here discussing fat loss. “Weight” is an indication of some things, but it cannot tell you the whole story. For instance, while I’m about 7kgs lighter overall, I’ve lost about 11kgs of fat and cut my body fat percentage in half since a couple years ago. And as you can see in the graphs, I’ve been living with those low numbers for a long, long time now. I hope these images will add useful perspective in understanding more clearly what I discuss below.
I’ve reached this state over a long period through lots of careful consideration of lots of different pieces of health advice from lots of experts, and through lots of self-experimentation, feeling my way toward and away from the ideas and practices I judged and then saw to be beneficial or detrimental along the way. And while I’ve “followed my nose” to the joyous state I revel in now and do believe I have some solid ideas as to its cause, none of the existing frameworks for fat loss–particularly the predominant and pernicious “Calorie-reduction theory”—helps me explain most aspects of my success. The hormonal theory presented in The Obesity Code, by contrast, accounts for nearly everything I didn’t understand before—my successes and failures—and has empowered me to move forward toward even greater gains in fat loss and overall health, free of diet-related stress.
I am not going to attempt to even summarize the whole theory here. My main message in this post amounts to: Read the book to empower yourself with sound theoretical and practical information. Nor am I giving a blanket endorsement of everything Fung says. While I am very enthusiastic about this book and think it holds the main keys to breaking open the hope of successful and sustainable fat loss for anyone, I will point out a few questions I have and some areas which have left me doubtful. In this review, I propose to describe several examples of how things I was on to but couldn’t understand fully have been made clear after reading The Obesity Code. Through these examples, many of the book’s ideas will be revealed, and many indications of what the book suggests will come to light.
I think this style of review will be more useful to readers, as one can see the good reasons I have in accepting this theory. It is not because it sounds good or because I want it to be true or because it’s a fresh fad or a blind new hope. It is because no other theory corresponds to my own experience and general knowledge that I accept it and want to promote it.
What was I on to that has now been explained?
Hormonal theory and Body Set Weight. “My body just knows who I am.” Some version of this quote has been said by me to my friend many times in the past half-year after reporting a good Inbody body composition readout, particularly after having cataloged several dubious eating choices in the day(s) previous which should have had us expecting bad results. In an earlier period of my initial campaign back toward health over a couple years ago, I was able to more or less predict the results of my Inbody body check, given my behavior the day or days leading up to it. If it was pizza and ice cream on the weekend, the Monday Inbody readout would let me know it.
But in recent times, over the past several months, I’ve been constantly surprised by positive readouts when I was sure to see discouraging ones. It’s almost as if my body composition was independent of what I had eaten recently. And while it confused me some, I was no less happy to take it, because recurring as it was, I could see it was for real. And without being able to understand, I would say things like the above to my friend. All I knew was that my body was now some kind of different machine than it had been, and I was no longer playing the delicate game of day-to-day or even week-to-week highs and lows. I was consistently hitting the numbers I like to see. And while I was happy to take it, the only fear I had was that without being able to understand it fully, how could I ensure that I retained this state?
I know now. Hearing my words in regard to my body knowing who I am sounds amazing to me now, as I was essentially describing—albeit blindly—what is laid out in The Obesity Code.
The essential theory is that my body has its own “set weight” determined by hormones and which it struggles to keep in balance. Obesity, then, given this framework, is a hormonal imbalance in the body, as it constantly fights to maintain a weight which has been set too high. The key player in having set the “thermostat” too high is insulin resistance, which is caused by persistently high levels of insulin in the body.
There is much, much more to the theory than that, and many details to make it comprehensive and useful in prescribing action (not least of which is insulin’s role in the body and why it is the foremost determining factor in weight loss, or by what feedback responses the body maintains its set weight regardless of one’s caloric intake). But it is enough, for now, to help understand what I mean when I say that my body knows who I am. It had previously been employing multiple mechanisms fighting to preserve a fat guy. After a reset in my hormones and body set weight, it has since been fighting to preserve the current fit guy.
How did I reset my body set weight? Principally, that was achieved, as described in the opening paragraphs above, by lots of information consumption, thinking, and experimenting over a long period. But even then, it was still tenuous, as I wasn’t quite sure of the fundamental mechanisms at play. After having read Fung’s book, however, I can move forward with the confidence of knowing more precisely how I’ve set my body to be that of “one of those guys,” and how I can take action toward even further gains.
(Non) Importance of exercise. “I went to the gym once last week and that’s it.” This is another quote of mine said to the same friend after reporting new lows in body fat mass and body fat percentage. Even before I started my home pushup/squat regimen to supplement my lack of exercise, I had been making regular progress in fat loss during that period of next-level health and stress-free living described earlier. And this was all achieved while only being able to hit the gym once a week over a long period. I was also only able to squeeze a run in perhaps once a month. This is way less activity than I’m accustomed to, and certainly not anything most would generally associate with fat loss.
But as I kept seeing the gains, I kept flirting with the once-a-week routine, constantly expecting to see the numbers catch up to me and say, “Aha! Get moving, fatty! You didn’t think you could keep this up without lots of exercise, did you?” But somewhere in the back of my mind, I didn’t expect it to catch up to me. I knew what I was doing in terms of diet, and I was becoming more convinced that what and when I was eating was the driving factor in my fat mass and percentage numbers.
I was becoming so convinced, that for months now, I’ve kept notes for blog posts with working titles like “Diet is Key” and “Don’t Need to Kill Myself at the Gym” to indicate how little I was starting to think exercise had to do with fat loss. Of course, such posts would be yet more examples of me fumbling to describe some new phenomenon I was starting to realize but couldn’t really understand. And this is yet another instance of The Obesity Code enabling me to say: Until now.
While acknowledging the health benefits of exercise, Fung makes clear “the dismal truth: whether physical activity increases or decreases, it has virtually no relationship to the prevalence of obesity. Increasing exercise did not reduce obesity. It was irrelevant” (p.50). Rest assured that he provides plenty of evidence to support this assertion, and with the hormonal theory, one can understand just why exercise is irrelevant to fat loss, at least in the direct way we commonly think of it.
One can certainly argue that exercise relieves stress and helps deal with the emotional dependency on food through endorphin production (Fung has lots to say about the causal relationship between stress and obesity), or that (as Fung explains) a lack of exercise may lead to insulin resistance in the muscles, for instance. But as one understands that the secret of obesity does not lie within a “calorie-burning” framework, one can also understand why after being set to write about why “Diet is Key” and that exercise was appearing to have very little to do with my fat loss results, I was flabbergasted to read such corroboration as “Diet does 95 percent of the work and deserves all the attention” and that exercise, like bunting in baseball, while an important technique, “accounts for only perhaps 5 percent of the game” (p.53).
The key point here is that total energy expenditure is not the same as exercise. The overwhelming majority of total energy expenditure is not exercise but the basal metabolic rate: metabolic housekeeping tasks such as breathing, maintaining body temperature, keeping the heart pumping, maintaining the vital organs, brain function, liver function, kidney function, etc (p.52).
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is an additional piece of information that has just started to show up on my Inbody readouts, and I had never really heard much about it until then–and then again until The Obesity Code explained its importance. But it turns out that it’s THE thing. This is what I spend regardless of exercise, and it’s this I want to raise (and can affect through behavior). And then once again, I see the evidence before me in real life which had been there all along.
On the Activity app on my Apple watch, there are three rings that may be “closed” each day designating Move, Exercise, and Stand goals. I usually close my Stand and Exercise rings whether I exercise deliberately that day or just through regular activity, but I don’t always close my Move ring, being harder to do so at 810 calories.
810 calories. This means that after a full day of activity, including on exercise days, I sometimes don’t even burn 810 calories through activity alone. (Note: Account for the fact that I take the watch off for showers and some physical activity in which it could be damaged.) And that my Exercise ring is always closed long before I close my Move one, I can guess at how few relative calories exercise accounts for. And given that the BMR of an average man is, say, 1600-1800 calories, it is clear that exercise is not where I’m spending most of my calories. And now given this information, I am more focused on working to affect an increase in my BMR than I am on killing myself with more relatively futile exercise.
All the above relates to the hope referred to in the title. For most, the idea of losing fat involves an Everest of punishing exercise without even a guarantee of success. More likely, even, as described in the opening, whatever success one does have is bound to flee in time anyway. It means a lot of time, a lot of discomfort or even pain, and potentially a lot of money. It saps a lot of emotional energy as one sweats and toils with no visible result in the short-term, feeling like a Herculean effort is required just to break even with life. It’s a tragedy and a travesty that anyone should have to feel like this, as it’s completely unnecessary. Exercise is something we need to do, but it should be fun and life-enhancing instead of tortuous and life-drowning.
Protective Factors. For a long time, I’ve thought in terms of “ratios” in regard to healthier foods offsetting the intake of otherwise compromising foods. For instance, if I were enjoying an evening of food and drink with friends, I would make sure I kept attacking the protein and fat-heavy foods while I still drank beer and chips, pizza, etc. The next day, I would find regularly that my Inbody fat mass and percentage numbers were not negatively affected as one would expect them to be having consumed lots of refined carbs. So long as I kept up a high ratio of fat/protein in my consumption, it seemed to offset the effects of whatever else I ate.
Another example of this is when I frequently enjoy an avocado dip, which includes layers of salsa and cheese. Often, we feel it necessary to substitute the refined-carb nacho chips with some kind of “kosher” alternative. But for me, I just go with the chips, and experience shows me that the goodness within the avocado and cheese is what plays in my body composition. The ratio of fat to carb mitigates any ill effects the chips might have. I’ve been operating on this belief for a long time, enjoying my life in a stress-free and guilt-free way.
Fung also emphasizes what he calls “protective factors,” namely fiber and vinegar, in counteracting or offsetting the insulin-stimulating effects of carbohydrates. “Soluble fiber reduces carbohydrate absorption, which in turn reduces blood glucose and insulin levels” (p.182). And while I had so far been able to guess that I could offset the effects of refined carbs by eating relatively higher portions of fat and protein, I wouldn’t have guessed that many of the breads and other carb-rich foods I had been avoiding contained protective factors within them. Summarizing how almost all whole, unprocessed carbohydrates contain fiber, Fung adds, “Mother Nature has pre-packaged the “antidote” with the “poison”” (p.183).
I had already begun to no longer fear the bun on a burger; I just add another patty for good measure. But now I really don’t sweat it. And I had for a couple years mostly given up on sandwiches but for an occasional treat. Sandwiches! I used to say to my wife for years despairingly, “But I’m sure there are healthy people who regularly eat pasta and sandwiches.” I had almost given them up completely but for an occasional treat, but they are once again part of my regular diet. The point is that I’m not scrutinizing over my diet. Have a bun. Eat a pizza. It’s negligible to me, given the proper context and understanding, and it’s very liberating.
If I had not learned what I did in the book and gained the proper context, I would not have had the confidence to incorporate these things I loved back into my life. And on that, I want to recount one last example, because it’s been a real test against something I never would have tried before The Obesity Code.
I had given up cereal completely, after being horrified at the sugar levels in even the “healthy” ones. In Korea (where I live), Special K consists of large, brown, whole grain flakes instead of the small white ones I knew in Canada. In any case, it contains high levels of sugar, and I had avoided it for over a year. On each trip to Costco, I would take it off the shelf, read the label, sigh, and put it back. I once took it home and enjoyed it as an occasional treat, substituting it in the place where I would normally have a bowl of ice cream. (Yes, that’s how evil I regarded it in terms of diet.)
But after reading this book, I decided to test out just how protective fiber could be. The short story is that I started to eat a bowl of Special K after lunch or dinner quite frequently. (I didn’t have it as an independent snack because I didn’t want a separate insulin spike. Eliminating snacking is a big idea in fighting insulin resistance.) And the short result is that I didn’t gain any fat in spite of the sugary indulgence.
In the past several weeks since reading this book, I have eaten a bowl of Special K and a banana almost every day (again, with a meal, not as a stand-alone snack), not only because it’s very satisfying for me, but even specifically now because I want the fiber. And in that time, I’ve made my first breakthrough in fat loss in about a half-year, as I’ve lost another kilogram of fat. (I was very happy where I was, mind you, but I did think I had hit a wall after getting to a very low point, and it’s amazing to think there was somewhere further to go without some dire changes.)
Hamburgers, sandwiches, cereal. Of course, these are not the foods recommended in The Obesity Code to reduce insulin resistance and attain fat loss, and they are not the only foods I eat by far. Nor am I attributing my new gains to eating Special K. The point again is that I had given them up almost entirely. But with the proper framework of obesity I now have, I have been freed, empowered to work out just how I can properly integrate these foods I love back into my life.
You get the idea. I eat that stuff. Bun on. Regularly. (But not just whenever. It’s because I understand how intermittent fasting and insulin work that I’m able to incorporate such glory into my life.)
(May I add that it’s embarrassing to see that same cheesy grin repeatedly. But it’s usually just a quick photo to show my friend what I’m eating, and when my wife asks me to look up from my sandwich, I really am just too pleased that I’m having such delights while my body continues to look and feel the way it does.)
Satiety. I have referred for a long time to “green light foods” to mean those which it is almost always better to consume–and in large quantities. I’ve believed this in the way of my “ratio” mindset discussed above. If it’s fatty pork, (even fried) chicken, steak, bacon, or virtually any meat, avocados, cheese, eggs–anything high in fat and protein and lower in carbs and sugar–I shove in as much as I please (appropriately as manners indicate!).
And what does The Obesity Code have to say about this behavior? Well, Fung refers to the protective effect of satiety, and the foods mentioned leave me fuller for longer (and not in a lulling kind of way), while carbs see me hungry not long again after consumption.
But this is not merely a “fewer calories” equation. In fact, I said above that I consume large quantities, and this is true whether I’ve already consumed lots of calories or not. By the hormonal theory, my concern is insulin levels, not calories. And by being full from fat and protein, I can maintain longer periods of fasting, avoiding the insulin stimulation which accompanies any eating. And if the calories add up to more than I need, the fiber helps me get rid of the excess. So my green light is turned on even brighter now, as I gobble up the fats, proteins, and fibers quite freely, independent of calories. They’re irrelevant. Eat up.
Fatigue (lack of). In another article posted almost three months ago, I explain that “I’ve found that eating lightly and infrequently is excellent in making me feel good in general and in staying energized.” I add that in the past, I used to regularly need an afternoon nap, while in the past half-year with more intermittent fasting, I almost never need one, as I feel energetic–as well as more clear-headed–throughout the day.
Fung corroborates this experience in his discussion of fasting, as he allays misconceptions about fatigue, forgetfulness, dizziness, etc., as well as exercise and performance. I have generally exercised fasted for over a year, but even claimed in regard to that (in that same post referred to immediately above): “(No rules on that yet! Just happens to be what’s currently working!).”
Well, it pretty much is a rule now, as, combined with my positive experience, I’m even more encouraged now with “As your adrenalin levels will be higher, fasting is an ideal time to exercise” (p.260). Again, you don’t have to take it from just that; it’s all explained in the book. The point is that it is consonant with my experience once again. I had intuited that behaviors like less constant eating had resulted in my lack of fatigue and lethargy, but I now know why.
Coffee. I had heard many things regarding coffee, from good to bad, including one potentially devastating idea that drinking it would break a fast. But testing things myself as I do, I went ahead and discovered over time that coffee seemed to have no detrimental effects against the benefits I got from intermittent fasting, and I went on drinking it. And the ideas presented in The Obesity Code once again jibe with my experience.
But more than just coffee itself, Fung explains the protective effects of dairy, something which I was sure was taboo in any period of fasting. I had previously drunk only black coffee (no sugar, no milk or cream). And while I enjoyed that, a latte is nearly a sweet treat relative to that. Emboldened by his reasoning, I drank lattes every morning to see whether they would undermine my fat loss.
I currently drink 3-4 lattes a day. I’ll remind again that I’ve lost an extra kilogram of fat since adjusting my behaviors after reading the book. Another gratifying element added to my life without sabotaging my health.
Sleep. I have been thinking about and experimenting with sleep a great deal over the past year in relation to my idea of health and a flourishing life. I’ve made myself go to bed at certain times and under certain conditions, understanding which variations result in feeling better or worse the following day. I have also seen a correlation between my Inbody fat mass and percentage numbers and the quality of my sleep. There is a good discussion to explain the mechanisms of sleep deprivation, stress, and obesity in the book. And the better informed I am, the more efficiently I can tailor my life to optimize my time, productivity, health, and my enjoyment of all of it.
Intermittency, constancy, and resistance. For a long time, even during my strictest and “cleanest” periods, I had often thought that not only were occasional days and nights of poor behavior—or “cheat days”—okay, but that they were, in fact, good for me. It was like my body needed a shakeup or a purging of sorts. And while I might expect a bad Inbody readout after perhaps some drinking combined with high levels of carbs and sugar, I often found that my body responded well after such debauched events.
This idea is consistent with other things I’ve heard in regard to “cycling” creatine or other supplements, as we don’t let the body get acclimated to the thing—especially a good thing—as it will adapt and thus resist it. And of course, the fundamental idea in The Obesity Code is that of reducing insulin resistance.
With that, I’ve induced lots of about how to apply the principle of intermittency to more than just fasting. I’ve been experimenting with what might otherwise be regarded as numerous diet violations, but I do so with the confidence of understanding what had previously only appeared to be true to me. I’m not experimenting blindly. I have reasons for what I’m trying, given the information acquired from the book now integrated with my own experience and in my own mind. And with this, I am constantly developing ever more freedom in regard to how I eat.
Diabetes and obesity. To the extent I’ve seen obesity and/or diabetes in those around me, and to the extent I’ve personally experienced mild obesity, it’s amazing to me how all the habits these people (including myself) have engaged in mirror those described by Fung in accordance with the degree of their (or my) malady. From different kinds of stress to shift work to what and when one eats, among many other factors, I can now explain (more or less) the path toward poor health in those whose story I know to the extent I know it. My endorsement of this book owes great weight to how deeply the explanations for obesity and diabetes have impressed me.
Cravings and hormones. I wrote an article several months ago titled ‘Crave’ the body you ‘want’. The whole thing was an attempt to credit my profound conviction of certain ideas to eventual emotional changes in what I crave. It’s a fascinating (and somewhat embarrassing) read for me now in light of The Obesity Code. I had thought about pulling some quotes to demonstrate what I mean, but practically the entire text is a groping to explain what I now know the cause of. In the article, I constantly refer to “feelings,” “intuition,” and “emotional responses,” and to “being drawn irresistibly” to different foods than I had been. At one point, I even confess in parentheses as I go along with enthusiasm and sincerity: “(This is very hard for me to understand fully as of yet, and therefore hard to explain.)”
I can now sit alongside Jason Fung as he nods, smiles, shakes his head, and says, “Yes, I see. What you’re describing there can all be attributed to hormones.”
Describing the hormonal effects of the initial weight loss in a typical calorie-reduction diet plan, Fung explains:
Weight loss results in increased hunger and decreased metabolism. This evolutionary survival strategy has a single purpose: to make us regain the lost weight…In other words, it is harder for people who have lost weight to resist food…This has nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of willpower or any kind of moral failure. It’s a normal hormonal fact of life…One the of the great pillars of the caloric-reduction theory of obesity–that we eat too much because we choose to–is simply not true. We do not eat too much because we choose to, or because food is too delicious, or because of salt, sugar and fat. We eat too much because our own brain compels us to. (p.45-46)
We understand that different hormonal states cause different cravings. Pregnant or menstruating women (and their partners!) understand this. In periods of stress, we might crave “comfort” foods. For a variety of reasons, our cravings alter. And when we attempt to reduce our calories, our body responds with hormonal changes to protect us from what it evaluates as a threat to survival. The body’s mechanisms for survival are powerful. And it is with this that Fung calls the caloric-reduction theory a “cruel hoax” because “when it fails, we blame ourselves” (p.47).
This is the reason for my eager promotion of this book. I’ve been on the despondent side of diet failure and moral self-doubt, and I’ve seen so many I care about dejected in the same way. And now I live on the happy side. My “Crave” post was an attempt to share the hope that a life free of diet-related stress was possible to those I care about and anyone who cares for themselves. The Obesity Code not only confirms that, but it holds the theory which clearly informs us as to how we can attain it.
Allow me to add that my “Crave” article is still relevant in that one does need to make strong choices in the initial stages of changing one’s hormonal composition. That’s still a real challenge. And the ideas laid out there related to conviction and perspective regarding what we eat, I believe, are essential in helping to develop the good habits necessary to affect hormonal change.
Questions and confusions regarding The Obesity Code
Calories–right? The main confusion I continue to struggle with is Fung’s claim that body fat is not a simple equation of “Calories in – Calories out = Body Fat.” Throughout the book, however, he seems to constantly imply that this is the case. He regular cites “satiety” or a “decrease in caloric intake” as benefits of certain foods or behaviors, while “hunger” or an “increase in caloric intake” are assumed to be detriments of others. If it’s not a matter of calories, then why are satiety and hunger such big issues?
Clarity comes when he discusses the implications of the mistaken idea that “a calorie is a calorie,” which presuppose that “the only important variable in weight gain is the total caloric intake, and thus, all foods can be reduced to their caloric energy” (p.31). Calories of different foods provoke different metabolic responses, and this is very helpful to make sense of his antagonism toward the Caloric-Reduction theory.
I still get pushed back and forth on this, however, as it seems that the ultimate physical equation is still about spending more calories than you consume. But then, it is hormones which dictate how many calories you consume. But then, we can’t say that it’s not about calorie consumption. Yes, but it shouldn’t be our focus. Yes, but it still is ultimately what we’re trying to do, right? But which calories are we trying to reduce? Oh, right.
This issue is something that I think will untangle itself as I reread the book and as I live and learn within this framework. Already, I think I might be correctly summarizing it if I say: Diets that are fundamentally “Eat Less, Exercise More” don’t work in the long-run because they don’t address the underlying issue of insulin resistance, and thus, the body deploys its many mechanisms to reclaim homeostasis at the Set Body Weight. However, if one does primarily unlock the insulin resistance issue, from that point, it then does become an issue of calories. We just can’t begin with the sole idea of expending more calories than we consume. If insulin resistance is not addressed, calories are irrelevant.
Whether I’ve summed it correctly there or not, I am no less convinced of the paramount importance of insulin as the main driver in fat loss or gain.
‘Nature = good’ taken for granted. Issues of lesser importance arise in Fung’s seeming deference to all things “natural.” It is a deeply-rooted notion for most people today that things in their natural state are unquestionably healthier/safer than things which are “artificial” or somehow touched upon by humans.
I am completely on board when he explains how many foods are superior in their “whole” state, as they lose many advantages (e.g. protective fiber) through processing. He describes these and explains convincingly why they are important to our health. But there are other instances in which there is a hint of derision when he refers to humans thinking they’ve been “smarter than Mother Nature.” Often, this is in a legitimate context, but I got a sense of something else at times, perhaps because dutiful references to things “old” and “ancient” also pop up occasionally, with their wisdom implied to be superior because it is old or ancient.
I am only wary of this because I think it is a sign of a lack of conceptual precision combined with an anti-technology viewpoint. The latter is particularly suspicious in a doctor, who ought to be about science and progress and whose job is not to bow to nature but to improve upon it by seeking to prolong and enhance the quality of our physical and mental lives. This viewpoint then often leads one to default to the use of sloppy, ill-defined concepts like “natural” or “organic” as unequivocally “healthy.” For instance, Fung says, “While we ideally would all eat…organically raised strawberries…” (p.200).
Why is that ideal? I don’t want the most “natural” or “organic” medicine, for instance; I want the medicine most overall beneficial to my health, which may or may not be the same thing.
But these points are quite negligible in the face of the depth and quality of thinking throughout most of the book. This is a man who has challenged an entire field because he saw that it wasn’t working for his patients, then followed the facts and evidence to develop and promote a comprehensive theory which contradicts the Established medical orthodoxy. And in all crucial respects, he gives clear reasons and explanations for what he is advocating.
One would like to see such rigorous intellectual clarity extend to challenging such concepts as “natural” and “organic,” but his overall achievement outweighs any conventionality apparent in some of the details. It is up to readers besides to be vigilant in their own thinking and decide for themselves on what to make of any ideas in the book and on how to apply the sound principles laid out.
Conclusion: Hope through intellectual empowerment
I might not have made total sense in all I’ve said. And there certainly is not enough here for anyone to develop a comprehensive view of what Dr. Fung has presented us. It’s a book, and it takes a book to explain it.
I might also have even misrepresented or misunderstood some of the ideas in the book. But I’m working on it. And that’s the point. We’re all working on it. But we can work a whole lot better when the experts in the various fields we need to think and act on offer us sound information. And for decades in the fields of nutrition, physical fitness, and obesity, we’ve been offered partially true to contradictory to downright false (and ruinous) information.
While the false is particularly vicious, it is often the partially true which undermines our success. What is refreshing and inviting about The Obesity Code is that it’s not a prescription for a new diet, claiming to be the one thing we’ve been missing. While adherents to various camps bicker and deride, claiming that their diet or exercise plan is the “right” one, Dr. Fung tells us that any two diets may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. This is the voice of intellectual honesty, as it advises:
Obesity is also a multifactorial disease. What we need is a framework, a structure, a coherent theory to understand how all its factors fit together…All diets work because they all address a different aspect of the disease. But none of them work for very long, because none of them address the totality of the disease. Without understanding the multifactorial nature of obesity—which is critical—we are doomed to an endless cycle of blame (p.216-17).
And this last is the reason for my review. It is no less than a tragedy that people should feel ashamed of themselves for things which are not their own fault. Now at 40, I have experienced enough of the ups and downs of fat loss, and I have seen too many around me suffer from self-reproach and guilt coupled with dejection after having clung to the hope of yet another new fad, only to see their uncontrollable cravings and poor health reclaim themselves. But the hope offered within the hormonal theory is that of a permanent state of success.
This is not a dogma for me, and it is clear that Dr. Fung is also not laying down commandments. “What we have tried to develop here is a framework for understanding the complexity of human obesity” (p.251). I only say here that to the best of my experience and my judgment, this framework corresponds correctly to reality in its essentials. It is still up to each of us to think about how to apply true principles according to our own body constitutions, lifestyles, etc. and toward our own ends.
This, of course, is not easy. But to have any chance at good thinking, we need good information. “A deep and thorough understanding of the causes of obesity leads to rational and successful treatment” (p.251). For me, this understanding has enabled me to add gratifying elements to my diet, enriching my life while thoroughly attaining great health. From my “Crave” article: “It’s as if a benevolent universe was set in my favor.” Of course it should be like this!
And this is my hope for anyone who has struggled with fat loss and is looking for real information to help them build a healthy and happy life, and who is exasperated with fads prescribing partial fixes or offering even destructive wisdom. Empowered with a proper framework of the nature of obesity, no one need anymore be a victim of despair.