The dreaded moment has arrived, the annual comedown. It’s austerity season, the time to pay for our sins. But why is it that we find ourselves back in this same, dull place year after year? We’ve all heard the formula: Eat less, burn more. But two new books are taking an aggressive stance against the dieting mantra that losing weight is a simple matter of burning off more calories than you consume.
In Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, science journalist Gary Taubes completes an exhaustive investigation of the issue. Examining 100 years of medical assumptions, Taubes laments the “misconception” that overeating causes obesity and that undereating cures it. Instead, he argues, the reverse is true: Obesity causes overeating. The fatter we get, the more we need to eat, and the less energy we will expend.
It’s all about insulin, Taubes writes. The hormone the body secretes to deal with rising levels of glucose in the bloodstream, insulin pulls glucose molecules out of the blood and makes them available as energy, wherever they’re needed.
Ideally, insulin levels are only as high as “nature intended,” he writes. Once they subside, the body turns to fat to burn as fuel, good news for those of us who’d like a little less of the stuff.
But it’s only in the absence of high insulin levels that the body will use fat as fuel. As long as insulin stays high, our fat tissue doesn’t budge. And insulin stays high as long as blood sugar levels stay high—the direct result of eating a high-carbohydrate diet. In other words, “carbohydrate is driving insulin is driving fat,” says George Cahill, a professor at Harvard Medical School.
And there’s a “vicious cycle” here, writes Taubes. The fatter we get, the more “we’ll be driven to crave precisely those carbohydrate-rich foods that make us fat.”
What to do? The New Evolution Diet has a suggestion.
Published last month, The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us About Weight Loss, Fitness and Aging lays out an approach to food and exercise that feels intuitive.
The basic principles of the diet line up directly with Taubes’ own conclusions: The more carbohydrates we eat, the higher our blood sugar, the more insulin we require, the more fat we store.
Arthur De Vany, author of The New Evolution Diet, frames his plan in terms of evolutionary logic—how do our genes intend for us to eat?
This is why De Vany argues that the traditional paradigm of eat less, burn more is so wrong-headed. It doesn’t work because it goes against millennia of human instinct, which dictated eating as much as possible when food was available, and moving only when hunger or threat required it.
When in doubt, eat foods “that you (or someone else) can either pick or catch and kill.”
Though The New Evolution Diet uses the Paleolithic lifestyle as a model, it too, just like Taubes’ book, is most centrally about controlling levels of insulin.
De Vany, who has a Ph.D. in economics, started on his paleo-esque lifestyle years ago, long before low-carbohydrate diets were fashionable, when his son and wife were both diagnosed with diabetes. De Vany writes that the medical advice they were given—eat lots of starch and follow with an injection of insulin—was crude and counterproductive. It was impossible to perfect the science of matching insulin injections to the rise in blood sugar triggered by each meal. And in the meantime, De Vany noticed, this “blood glucose/insulin seesaw” wreaked all kinds of metabolic havoc for his wife and son. They gained weight, suffered extreme mood swings, and had scary encounters with insulin shock, the result of having too much insulin and not enough glucose available to provide the brain with energy.
De Vany went against what his doctors were suggesting and devised an eating plan for himself and his family based on foods that triggered the lowest possible rise in blood sugar level, thus minimizing the amount of insulin needed to keep the balance.
Only when he and his family were well into their low-glucose lifestyle did De Vany realize that they were eating a diet that closely resembled that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who roamed the earth in 40,000 B.C. These ancestors are the ones who mark the end of significant change to the human genome. In other words, De Vany writes, a baby born 40,000 years ago was no different genetically than a baby born today. What has changed since then is our environment. The New Evolution Diet is based on the argument that our genes were not forged for our present environment, which is too sedentary, plentiful, routine, and artificial. There’s a disconnect between how we were designed to live and the way we are now living. De Vany’s plan is all about closing that gap.
The New Evolution Diet proposes a much different food pyramid than the USDA. Ideally, the diet should be composed of one-third raw vegetables and fruit, one-third cooked vegetables, and one-third animal protein. When in doubt, eat foods “that you (or someone else) can either pick or catch and kill.”
Dairy is fine in moderation, and so are nuts, but stick with almonds or Brazil nuts—peanuts are not nuts, they’re legumes, and they’re highly carcinogenic.
For the most part, these come as no surprise. Anything that was not around 40,000 years ago is probably not included in the New Evolution Diet. “Just because you can eat it doesn’t mean it’s food,” says De Vany, who abhors French fries, diet sodas, high fructose corn syrup, and bread (“the ultimate poverty food”). Alcohol is allowed only in moderation, and not at all for the first month of this diet.
In contrast to many other diets, eating several small meals through the day is strongly discouraged. Every time you eat, De Vany writes, “you turn off your body’s fat-burning mechanism.” The body burns glucose before it burns fat; snacking keeps up the supply of glucose, preventing your body from turning to its fat supply for fuel.
On the bright side, there is no calorie counting and no portion control on the New Evolution Diet.
“A smart diet reduces the amount of energy (meaning food) you feel like consuming at the same time that it increases the amount of energy you feel like spending. And this occurs spontaneously, without any thoughts of counting calories, or exercising more, or anything else,” he writes.
So eat Paleo and the rest will follow.
Perhaps the most daunting aspect of this diet is the intermittent fasting that it requires. Our ancestors were routinely subjected to periods of starvation, and De Vany advocates skipping at least one meal a weak. When blood glucose levels are low, our DNA, he says, gets the signal that resources are scarce and this is a bad time to reproduce. Instead, the DNA goes into self-repair mode, concentrating on fortifying itself. De Vany advocates intermittent fasting not for purposes of calorie restriction—feel free to make up the calories on the following day, he says. Rather, these mini-fasts are a way to trigger the body’s self-repair mode, which promotes metabolic efficiency, longevity, and resistance to disease.
Here, too, the Paleo mind-set applies. The New Evolution Diet suggests sporadic bursts of vigorous exertion—sprinting, or playing basketball—and urges an end to endless dull hours of cardio at the gym. Much better to impersonate our distant ancestors, who would have had a mad dash to kill prey and haul it back to camp, but who would also have experienced periods of total inactivity in between. De Vany takes a strong stance against gym rats engaged in droning routines, arguing that prolonged exercise, especially long-distance running, are counterproductive and cause the body stress and inflammation. The reason so many people discontinue their exercise routine, he points out, is boredom, and “boredom is one way that the brain stops you from harming yourself.”
De Vany’s caveman aesthetic is apparent in his advice for squeezing in physical exertion without really trying:
“Hug your wife and lift her carefully off the ground, or move something you have been meaning to relocate or get rid of.”
Casey Schwartz is a graduate of Brown University and has a master's in psychodynamic neuroscience from University College London. She has previously written for The New York Sun and ABC News. Currently, she's working on a book about the brain world.