The Adrenal Reset Diet
why are we gaining weight?
One of my favorite possessions is a copy of Time magazine from July 1969. The cover story is about the historic Apollo 11 moon launch. The main picture in the story shows hundreds of people standing in an observation field, looking to the sky as the rocket lifts off. Recently, I looked again at the photo with a vague sense that there was something odd about it. After looking several times, I suddenly realized what it was: everyone in the crowd was unusually thin. The observers were mostly men, and they looked to be mostly in their early 40s.
In the 1960s, the average American male between the ages of 40 and 45 weighed 169 pounds. By the year 2000, that average weight was 196 pounds, nearly 30 pounds heavier.1 A similar crowd today would look quite different yet again.
a global obesity crisis—the stats
By 2010, rates of obesity had increased yet more; over 69 percent of American adults had become overweight or obese. And the same changes had happened worldwide; the number of overweight and obese adults around the world began creeping up in the 1970s, and then it doubled between 1980 and 2008. It is estimated that there are now over 1.4 billion adults in the world who are overweight. For the first time in human history, deaths from obesity-related illnesses have surpassed deaths from all other causes, including malnutrition and infectious disease.
If these deaths were not bad enough, the costs of managing future decades of chronic diseases are projected to cripple the global economy. It is estimated that in the next twenty years, obesity-related diseases will cost the global economy in excess of $30 trillion. To put this into perspective, the 9/11 attacks on the United States, combined with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are estimated to have cost roughly $5 trillion.2
There is no doubt that people are gaining weight faster than ever before, but why is this happening? Cutting-edge medical research has some good answers, but unfortunately most of the public and the majority of policymakers base their beliefs about obesity on theories we now know are not true. The popular view blames obesity on too many calories, too little willpower, and bad genes. It’s not that simple.
the calorie theory: no longer in
Let’s start with the calorie model for weight gain. It certainly is appealing in its simplicity: people gain weight because they eat more calories than they burn. Although the calorie model does reflect what happens to healthy people in controlled settings, it does not explain what happens when bodies are stressed and move into survival mode. During most of our past, stress came from immediate danger, such as predators trying to eat us or us having too little of our own food. Our genes adapted to stress by causing us to store food as fat rather than to burn it as fuel.
Even if it were true that heavier people just ate more than others do, this does not explain why, in the last few decades, people are suddenly seeming to eat more than ever. At best, the calorie model describes the situation; it does not explain the root cause. It’s just like saying “People in the Third World earn less” describes the situation, but does not explain world poverty.
babies do not need willpower
Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology, evaluated thirty-one long-term studies to see how effective calorie-based weight-loss programs were over the long haul. She reported that even for the minority of people who did lose weight, four years later, 83 percent of them were heavier than before they had started the program. In fact, more than half of them gained 11 pounds or more over the weight they had lost.3 If the problem was simply one of discipline, why did those who had enough discipline to lose weight then regain so much weight?
When presented with failures in dieting, many if not most people assume that those who did not succeed simply lacked willpower and did not try hard enough. They have no problem assuming that an adult’s weight is a result of his or her conscious choices, yet few would hold this same idea if it were applied to infants or animals. When a baby cries for a bottle, is she acting out of hunger or because she is being indulgent? How about wild animals—does willpower govern their body weight? Yet the rate of obesity, and morbid obesity, in infants has multiplied several times over the last decade, and it continues to increase rapidly. For the first time ever, 6-month-old babies are becoming morbidly obese. This is happening despite there being no related changes to the types or amounts of food they are given.4
And this widespread obesity issue isn’t affecting just the human population. In 2010, David Allison and colleagues evaluated weight changes spanning the last several decades in 20,000 animals from eight different species, including macaques, chimpanzees, vervets, marmosets, lab rats and mice, feral rats, and domestic dogs and cats. Some of the animals gaining weight lived in the wild, some were pets, and some were even on carefully measured diets. Shockingly, mid-life obesity had increased in 100 percent of the species studied. One of our closest living relatives saw especially shocking changes. Despite living in zoos and having their diets and activity levels controlled, the weight of male and female chimpanzees had gone up by 33.2 and 37.2 percent per decade, respectively.5 After evidence like this, the claim that obesity is a disease of willpower is completely unsupportable.
genes vs. jeans
Another popular belief about obesity is that it is caused by faulty genes. Many scientists say that the human body has had little major change in 200,000 years. Historically, we’ve seen populations suffer from weight loss due to malnutrition and famine, but global weight gain across many species has never happened before. Even if in the distant past there had been individual cases of weight gain, it was often limited to royalty. So how valid could be this idea about the role of genes in weight gain?
Genes can influence why one person may gain more weight than another, but familial genes alone cannot explain why weight gain has occurred all around the globe and to so many different living things. But epigenetics, a science that shows how our environment and genes interact, may hold some answers. Research in this area suggests that genes themselves may not be the culprits; instead, there may be ways the modern world has been changing our genes that is behind this global problem. What’s most exciting is that there are steps in The Adrenal Reset Diet that can fight these negative modern influences and help you change your genes back.
surprising causes of weight gain
If the global weight explosion is not caused by too many calories, lack of personal responsibility, or bad genes, then what is the cause? To answer that question we need to think about what else has changed during this same time period. Many researchers have wrestled with these questions, and some common answers have emerged. To begin, within the last few decades our world has gotten more toxic, a lot noisier, and much faster paced. Our food has more sugar, less fiber, and many more chemicals. We spend less time in sunlight and we sleep less. We take more medications, feel less certain of our financial futures, and have fewer friends.
Although experts debate which of these culprits is the most important, they strongly agree that global weight gain is brought about by some combination of these changes. Because any one of these causes has such strong evidence linking it to obesity, researchers have become individually fixated on one cause or another.
When I dug into this problem, in my work as a doctor, I realized that the answer to the obesity epidemic would have to encompass all of the possible triggers. (To simplify, these triggers can be thought of as processed foods, pollutants, and the pressures of life.) There had to be one thing they all had in common. I also realized that, even though there may not be a single cause, there still could be a single way by which different causes trigger weight gain.
a unifying theory of obesity
What was the single thread running through all these factors? It started to become clear one day when I was studying how obesity is tied to adrenal hormones. It turns out that adrenal hormones control a switch that sends calories to your belly fat or to your muscles. In layperson’s terms, when the switch is set to “fat,” calories go to your fat cells, making them larger. This is not good. When the switch is set to “energy,” calories go to your muscles, where they make energy. This is good. But why would our adrenal glands signal to our bodies to make our bellies fat?
They do it to protect us. When we are in danger, our muscles need to be able to burn large amounts of energy quickly, so we can run away or fight. Our muscles are unable to burn energy when they are storing energy, so your calories are sent away from them. Since these calories have to go somewhere, and since in our past “danger” often meant food shortages, our visceral fat (what we call belly fat, but is actually fat deposition around our organs) takes in these calories and stores them. This is survival mode, and it causes weight gain because our calories are taken from our muscles and placed in our fat cells.
In survival mode, most of us prefer foods that are higher in sugar, salt, and fat. In addition to causing us to gain weight regardless of what we eat, survival mode can cause us to want to eat more and to prefer foods that cause weight gain to happen even faster.
You can imagine that there is a switch in your body like the switch you use to turn on your lights. I think of it as the “fat switch”; and in survival mode, it is turned on. The Adrenal Reset Diet teaches you how to use everyday foods to reset your adrenal glands and turn that fat switch off for good. But to learn how to do this, it is important you have a better understanding of the survival mode.
survival mode is more than “stress”
Though we’ve come to think of stress as something we feel when we’re under emotional pressure—a response to feeling too busy, overwhelmed with duties and the rush of modern life—the earliest definition of the word stress included anything that would trigger survival mode in an animal. This trigger, thus, includes physical and environmental stress, dietary stress, and mental stress. To understand how many different factors can add up and push our bodies to create fat, therefore, it is important to think of stress in this broader way.
All animals can maintain their body weights within a certain range, even when food intake goes up or down. This is regulated primarily by our adrenal glands. In response to stress, the adrenal glands release cortisol into the bloodstream. Whether we are surviving or thriving determines how the cortisol will act in our brain, liver, and belly fat. In survival mode, the cortisol causes us to slow down and store fat. When we are thriving, we eat for hunger and our bodies are able to adjust the metabolism to keep our weight healthy, even with minor amounts of stress. But when we get pushed into survival mode, this all changes and we become more apt to gain weight. Stress does not create weight gain until there is a disruption in this adrenal rhythm.
Why would being in survival mode lead to weight gain? The lesson our genes learned during the last 200,000 years was that bad things do not happen during times of plenty. Stress usually meant danger, famine, or both. Our ancestors who stored fat during times of crisis survived better than those who did not. This means they were able to live and have babies, and share their gene pool with their descendants, us.
When we are under a constant state of adrenal stress, our bodies prepare for famine by burning fewer calories and storing fat around our organs—that visceral fat that was mention a little earlier in this chapter. Think of visceral fat as cash under the mattress. It is the quickest, most accessible fuel resource your body can have for a crisis. The fat on the hips, thighs, and under the skin is subcutaneous fat. It’s more like savings bonds: a safe source of fuel, but we can’t get to it very easily.
When a person is in survival mode, he or she will gain more visceral fat than an unstressed person eating the same number of calories. However, stress does not cause us to store more of the harmless subcutaneous fat below our skin, just the dangerous visceral fat around our organs. This is because our bodies rely on visceral fat as fuel during times of crisis. Not only that, the extra stress hormones prevent the body’s organs from effectively using energy in the muscles or brain, leading to fatigue and depression.6
What about those people who lose their appetite when stressed? It is true that not everyone gains pounds when under major stress, but those who do not gain scale weight still typically experience a loss of muscle mass and an increase in body fat.
If being in survival mode leads to weight gain, what triggers this reaction and what can you do about it? The known triggers come in three main categories: dietary, mental, and physical. Table 1.1 shows the three factors that lead to weight gain.
trigger #1: processed food
Processed foods in the modern diet can increase inflammation and disrupt blood sugar levels. This inflammation causes the body to make more cortisol to reduce that inflammation and control the blood sugar level in the same way as when the body makes more cortisol when it senses fright.
The main culprits of inflammation include fructose and toxic proteins. Fructose is a type of sugar that directly turns our fat switch to storage mode. It does this by activating liver enzymes with exotic names like c-JNK and 11-HSD, which make us store fat. Toxic proteins are proteins in our foods that are hard to break down all the way in normal digestion, and their unbroken parts are then attacked by the body’s immune system. These proteins are found in dairy foods, eggs, and wheat, and they often can trigger inflammation. You know how you feel when you have the flu? That sick feeling is not from the virus but, rather, the inflammation caused by your immune system attacking that virus. That same inflammation is created when your immune system attacks the undigested parts of protein.