Robert Verkerk, BSc MSc DIC PhD
Dr Verkerk, founder, executive & scientific director, Alliance for Natural Health International
Why are we getting fat?
Eat less calories and exercise more. That’s all you need to do to lose weight, right? Or eliminate the obesity epidemic?
Sorry, but if it were that simple, we’d have no epidemic. The Western world would be full of lithe people, who’d look – wait a minute – more like the majority of people in India and Africa who aren’t eating processed food, or Western-style diets?
Strange as it seems, the science is now increasingly clear that obesity and a wide range of other chronic diseases linked to disturbed metabolism, or should we say fuel utilisation and storage, are the result of complex interactions between our food, our minds, our lifestyles and our genes. It’s this complexity that makes obesity and other diet and lifestyle related diseases such tough nuts to crack. Did I say which other diseases? Just the biggest killer diseases in society, and the ones that lead to the greatest loss of quality of life and cost to society. They include many forms of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, anxiety and depression.
It’s a complicated business
We’ve not got space here to delve into all aspects of this very complicated puzzle over which there is still no scientific consensus. So we’re going to look at just a part of it; especially what combinations and forms of macronutrients, protein, fats and carbs you should try to aim for on a daily basis. This is actually something governments have been offering society views about for a long time, and they do this in the form of what are known as ‘food plates’. In the UK it’s called the Eatwell plate, in Spain it’s the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid from the Fundación Dieta Mediterránea, in the US it’s the MyPlate, and in Australia it’s the Eat for Health Plate. There are others too.
These are hypothetical meals that show the distribution of important food groups. They are meant to represent a typical day’s eating. The principle they are trying to convey is a reasonable one, scientifically: to get the relative composition of your three macronutrient groups right. But, as always with things, there are complications. Big ones too. Three of the biggest are: your level and type of physical activity, your metabolic flexibility and your genetics. Everyone is different.
In a perfect world, we should all be physically active every day. That means we should be spending at least 30 minutes of every day on sufficient activity to significantly raise our heart rate, and preferably break a sweat. It may be walking rapidly, cycling to work or even doing some vigorous vacuuming or gardening.
A really healthy person should also have a broad metabolic flexibility. This means the person should burn most fuels available, and set aside unburned fuel into healthy, brown fat stores to be burned when fuel supplies are low. You could also readily burn protein, from your food rather than at the expense of your muscles. Most importantly, someone who is metabolically flexible, is also a great fat burner. We call this being keto-adapted, because the person can not only use fat as a fuel, which provides over twice the amount of energy of either carbs or protein, but they can also use ketones, produced by partial oxidation of fats, as fuel. Among the best ways of getting to this place is to fast intermittently and consume more fat than is recommended by governments.
The third big complication for working out an average food requirement for the mythical average person is linked to genetics. We all have many thousands of specific genetic variations, or polymorphisms, that affect every aspect of our metabolism and health. While some might increase or decrease our risk of particular diseases, some also affect the way we use and store different fuels, and they also affect things like your ability to detoxify foods or toxins produced in your body, your food addiction or your ability to feel satisfied readily after eating (satiation). If you know what these particular polymorphisms are, you can often work around them. In some cases that might mean eating more or less of one food group than another.
For example, people who have one or more polymorphisms affecting their liver detoxification enzymes might benefit from eating a lot more dark, leafy greens that are rich in sulforaphane and folate. Someone who has a polymorphism affecting their lipid metabolism might not cope with the very high fat diet that would be ideal, for example, for a keto-adapted endurance athlete.
The ANH Food4Health Plate
These and other complications aside, let’s get back to the notional ideal daily food composition for the average person — mythical or real — who has the capacity to become, or is already, keto-adapted. We call it the Food4Health Plate.
Download ANH Food4Health Plate graphic.
At the bottom left of the graphic, you’ll see some additional guidelines, some of which help you to become a better fat burner, assuming you’re not already there. The notional ‘plate’ is not as fat-heavy as some, but it’s considerably more so than the government plates, which are still plugged into the ‘reduce-calorie-and-fat-intake’ altar that has been central to pushing our society into metabolic diseases for the last couple of decades. That’s another story however.
Are you keto-adapted and metabolically flexible…yet?
The Food4Health Plate might only appear to contain 10% fat. That’s absolutely not the case. The percentages on the plate relate to the fresh weight of food, and of course, while we recommend that around 10% of the daily weight of food is comprised of healthy high fat foods, there are also plenty of fats in the other food groups. When you work the plate out in terms of the weight of each macronutrient group, the split is something like this: 32% protein, 28% fats and 40% carbs.
That’s almost the same as the UK plate, isn’t it? The UK government recommends that about 50% of your energy comes from carbs. Well remember this; the ANH Food4Health Plate gives you amounts by weight. If you calculate the contribution of each macronutrient to energy, you get quite a different picture, because fats yield 9 calories (kcal) per gram, as against just 4 calories (kcal) per gram for proteins and carbs. The split, in terms of energy contribution now looks like this: 24% protein, 46% fats and 30% carbs.
The important point here is that fats, rather than being shunned, become your most important fuel source. We explain this in detail in a separate article.
But remember these are just guidelines. What it means, in essence, is that you more or less cut out your starchy carbs, the things that governments and Big Food are pushing on us as our main fuel reserve.
So, instead of going low fat and high carb, as recommended, we opt for a different configuration. It includes plenty of healthy fats, moderately high protein, prepared in such a way that it’s not excessively damaged, and low glycaemic carbs, primarily from vegetables not starchy carbs. That means cooking with heat-stable healthy fats like organic extra virgin coconut oil, and using plenty of unrefined extra virgin olive oil on our vegetables and salads. Substitute grains and pasta for vegetables of multiple colour groups. Eat plenty of tree nuts (as opposed to peanuts that are legumes) and seeds, these being rich in healthy fats too. And assuming you’re not vegan, enjoy that organic butter, but stay away from the margarine!
For many people, it helps to transition to a lower carb, higher fat diet over time. That’s because the body has to teach itself to burn fuel in a different way. The transition process can often be complete in one to three months, but it will depend on how metabolically flexible you are in the first place. As you transition, you can also increase the amount of physical activity you engage in.
Fats should be our primary fuel
As with any notional ‘plate’, there is no absolute right or wrong. What there is with the Food4Health Plate, unlike the government ones, however, is a pattern of eating that is associated with among the healthiest people on our planet, and that includes some of the greatest endurance athletes around. It’s no surprise that their food patterns are somewhat closer to our ancestral past, because they are reliant on fuel oxidation pathways that have developed over many hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
In the last decade or so, nutritional science has come on a long way, aided by the decoding of the human genome and the subsequent explosion of research in the fields of nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics. When you combine these multi-disciplinary sciences with those of sports physiology and sports science, we see even more rapid progress. It’s the culmination of all of this research, along with clinical experience gleaned from numerous leading practitioners of functional medicine and clinical nutrition, that the ANH Food4Health Plate was born. Those who want to see a selection (over 70) of scientific references underpinning it, can check them out here.
We’ve struggled to come up with a short description of the Food4Health Plate. Whilst the longer description may be correct, it doesn’t roll easily off the tongue! How’s this? "A largely unprocessed, relatively low carb/high complex carb, low glycaemic, moderately high fat and high protein, anti-inflammatory, pro-mitochondrial, longevity plate."
Is the Food4Health Plate the last word in food combining? Absolutely not. But is it the start of some guidance for that big proportion of people who are stuck in metabolically inflexible bodies that are otherwise carrying them towards a dangerously diseased later life? Then the answer is almost certainly a hopeful ‘yes’!
For more detailed information, please indulge in the following two articles by Rob Verkerk PhD on the ANH Europe website:
ANH-Intl Feature: Re-thinking your food choices for 2015, 21 Jan 2015
ANH Food4Health Plate: the starting point for metabolic flexibility, 4 Feb 2015