May 27, 2014

Fuel Partitioning 101: Discipline and "Willpower"

Fat people are so lazy, aren’t they?

So weak-willed and undisciplined.

Such greedy sloths.

I mean, really. Eat less, move more. It’s not that hard. They’ve been saying it for decades. All the experts: doctors, personal trainers, dietitians and nutritionists, and all the bigwig MDs, PhDs, and politicos behind the USDA, FDA, American Heart Association, and American Diabetes Association. In order to lose weight, all you have to do is eat less and move more. That’s it. Two steps. Take fewer calories into your body, make sure more get expended via exercise, and you’ll lose weight. Done. Period. End of story. If it wasn’t true—or at least, wasn’t the whole truth—surely someone would have said something by now, right?

Seriously. Obviously everyone struggling to lose excess body fat eats too much and moves too little. That’s really all there is to it. Put down the Fritos and get up off the couch, fatties. Problem solved.

Um, not exactly.

See, this sounds like a logical equation. Eat less, move more, and the body has no choice but to get rid of excess weight, right? I mean, if you’re expending more energy than you take in, that energy’s got to come from somewhere, and where else can it possibly come from except the excess fuel you have stored in your belly, hips, thighs, and backside?

The problem with this is that sometimes what sounds logical just doesn’t hold true in the real world, among actual, living, breathing human beings who are not bomb calorimeters that completely and fully oxidize every single molecule of food they ingest. Human beings are dynamic, open, systems. We interact with our external environment and, for sure, our internal environment (think hormones and enzymes) changes based on different inputs we receive from the food we eat, the movements we perform, and even how much sleep, daylight, and darkness we get. Bomb calorimeters—the machines they use to determine the total amount of calories (energy) in a particular food—are closed systems. They do not interact with anything. No enzymes are required to oxidize the food; no hormones change based on the type of food being burned. In a bomb calorimeter, 300 calories of Skittles are equivalent to 300 calories of ribeye steak, or 300 calories of pork belly, or 300 calories of steamed broccoli. Considering how different the biochemical effects of those foods would be upon a human being, it’s fairly funny (and not a little tragic) that we’ve based decades of health and fitness advice on nothing but consuming fewer calories, with (until recently) very little regard for where those calories come from.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back on target. Last time, I said this next post might well be the most important thing I’ve written so far on this blog (except for the post that will come after this one). That’s how strongly I feel about what we’re about to get into. As for whether or not it is as eye-opening as I think, I guess you’ll be the judge. (All four of you.)

After last time’s foray into the hormonal control of fuel partitioning, let’s get back to the (I hope) helpful analogy of the human body being like a hybrid car. I think we’ve pretty well established that our bodies use more than one type of fuel, and can switch between these fuels depending on the hormonal state of the body, different types of work being performed, and a couple of other inputs we haven’t addressed yet. So let’s stick with the analogy and think about the gasoline.

When your tank is nearing the “E” and you head to a gas station to fill up, where do you put the gasoline? Into the gas tank, right? And why do we do this? Well, I know less than nothing about automobile design, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the inner workings of our cars make it so that gasoline can get from the tank and into the engine, or the rods & pistons, or whatever it is that makes the car actually go. One place I can tell you the gas does the car no good is sitting in gallon jugs on the backseat. Think about it: if we had ten gallons of gasoline in jugs on the backseat, can the engine use any of it? No. The fuel is inside the car, but it’s not in a place where the engine can access it.

Let’s see how this relates to an overweight human being. Recall from this post that the human body has an almost unlimited capacity to store fat. But then recall from this post that, depending on our hormonal state, we can’t always use that fat as fuel. (As just one example, when insulin levels are high, we cannot use a lot of fat. High insulin levels basically shut off fat burning and force our bodies to use carbohydrate instead.) So a person with excess body fat who—in trying to do “the right thing”—consumes a low-fat diet high in whole grains, other complex carbohydrates, and fruit, is just like a car with a bunch of gasoline gathered on the backseat. Fuel is inside their body (stored in the adipose/fat tissue), but the hormonal state is such that their “engines” (cells) cannot access it and burn it. Having all that rich, beautiful fuel all over their body—such a wonderful source of tons of ATP—does this person no good if they can’t use it.

Let’s see how this relates to the notions of “willpower” and “discipline.” It’s easy to judge overweight people. We have visible proof that something isn’t right in their bodies—and people who don’t know any better tend to have a knee-jerk reaction and automatically assume that larger people must be eating too much and moving too little. After all, if they had more “willpower,” they wouldn’t eat so much junk food, and if they were more “disciplined,” they’d exercise more. It’s as simple as that.

Here’s the thing, though. Most of the overweight people I know (myself included, back in the day), are not lazy, greedy, or undisciplined. Some of them are, sure. There are people out there who eat too much junk and sit around all day. But if you’ve ever watched a marathon from the sidelines, you’ve seen people of all shapes and sizes cross the finish line. So unless the heavier folks are downing milkshakes and multiple super-sized fast food meals every day, something’s fishy, because training for a marathon requires a lot of “moving more.”

But let’s talk about the people who want to exercise, and who want to start eating better, but can’t seem to muster the discipline for the former or the willpower for the latter. To a certain extent, if you’re fatigued, tired, in pain, or otherwise feeling lethargic, exercise is going to be the last thing on your mind—whether we’re talking a hardcore lifting routine or just a slow walk around the neighborhood. If all your fuel was sitting in gallon jugs on the backseat, how far do you think you could drive your car? Answer: that car ain’t goin’ nowhere. The engine has no access to the fuel—to the energy. Same goes for the overweight person with elevated insulin levels. They cannot access any of their fuel. No wonder they have no energy. No wonder they don’t want to get up and go for a walk. They almost can’t. Even though they have that rich fuel stored all over their body, their hormonal state is preventing them from accessing it and getting it to where their body, on a cellular level, can use it.
You can only white-knuckle it 
for so long. Your mind is powerful, 
but eventually, the physical drives 
in your body will win. 
They have to.

(This is where that vague notion of “discipline” comes in. This person can force him/herself to exercise, but it won’t be pretty. And it will be just that: forced. It’ll be a struggle from start to finish, because they are working with an empty tank. And there’s only so long the mind can win out over the body in this scenario. Eventually, the body will either fall apart, or fall face-first into a key lime cheesecake with extra whipped cream.)

According to Jonathan Bailor, author of The Calorie Myth, “Telling hormonally clogged people to eat less and exercise more is like telling depressed people to frown less and smile more.”

Think about it: eat less, move more? Call me crazy, but to me, this sounds like putting less fuel in your car and expecting to drive farther. Your car doesn’t work that way, and neither does your body. We don’t need to eat less and move more; we need to eat better and move better. Or eat smarter and move smarter. Whichever you prefer.

When all your fuel is sitting on the backseat, is your car going to be able to go very far? No. But when we get it into the tank, you can rev the engine and get moving. Things are eerily similar in the human body. When we realign the hormonal state to one that gives our engines (cells) access to all our beautiful fuel (stored body fat), we’ll be able to get moving. One of the most often and most quickly reported “side effects” of a low-carb diet in someone who is insulin resistant and overweight is a huge increase in energy levels. And we can easily figure out why:

By dramatically lowering insulin levels (via reduced carbohydrate intake), we’ve removed the barrier that was preventing the fuel from getting into the tank and being passed to the engine. Upon switching to a lower-carb diet, for the first time in years—sometimes decades—people know what it’s like to have some pep in their step. Clearer thinking is also a prominent “side effect” of cutting back on carbs – because the “brain fog” and fuzzy thinking so many people accept as “normal” is actually just the natural outcome of riding the blood sugar rollercoaster all day. The only people who need to eat every few hours to “keep their blood sugar up” are people who are running on carbohydrates!

Here’s the funny thing about all this: Science journalist Gary Taubes nails it when he says something to the effect of, “People don’t burn fat because they’re exercising; they’re exercising because they’re burning fat.” Say what?

Here’s how it works:

Take an overweight, sedentary, insulin resistant person. If all their fuel is not in a place where their body can use it, are they going to have any energy? Are they going to have the desire to work out? Of course not! They would barely have the energy to get through the work day and then go home and plop down on the couch and call out for pizza! But if they cut way back on the carbs, insulin levels go down, which allows them to switch over to fat burning. So all of a sudden, they have access to all that luscious fuel, and they want to start moving more. They start exercising because they can’t sit still anymore! They’re bursting with energy for the first time in years. They have to get up and move around just to do something with all this new energy. So Taubes is right: they move more because they’re losing (burning) their fat stores, not losing their fat stores because they’re moving more. The causality is reversed. (Note: that word is CAUSALITY, not casualty. The only casualty in this scenario is the years of human creative productivity and enjoyment of life lost to calorie counting, racking up treadmill miles, tears shed in womens dressing rooms, and other wastes of time spurred on by clinging tightly to an explanation for fat loss that just isn't true.)

To put it another way, as Bailor says, “More body fat may lead to less exercise, not the other way around.” And according to the study he quotes, “Physical inactivity appears to be the result of fatness rather than its cause. This reverse causality may explain why attempts to tackle childhood obesity by promoting physical activity have been largely unsuccessful.” (Emphasis mine. Also: UPDATE 5/28/14: Check out this article from The New York Times -- it basically affirms everything I'm saying throughout this post.)

Let’s get back to willpower for a minute, because this is a sore point for me. If you happened to read the posts that served as the intro to this series on fuel partitioning, then you know I was not lazy, weak-willed, or undisciplined a few years ago when I was desperate to lose body fat. I worked out harder and more often than most of the people I knew—people who were leaner than I was. (Maybe not healthier, but certainly “thinner.” These two do not go hand in hand, but we’ll save that can o’worms for another time.) But someone who didn’t know me could easily have looked at me and automatically assumed all I did was lay on the sofa and eat potato chips all day.

Overweight people are the last acceptable targets in our ridiculously politically correct environment. You can’t crack a joke about anything anymore without being subject to disciplinary action at work or some seriously horrified looks from the people around you. Gender, race, religion: they’re all off-limits, but it’s always open season on fat people, no? We tend to judge based solely on what we see, because we think they have complete control over their body size. We can’t control the color of our skin, our height, or things like that, but we can sure control the economy-sized tub of M&Ms we pour down the piehole and the 19 hours of television we watch every week, right? And we assume that this is what overweight people are doing. And the truth is, yeah, there are probably some people out there doing that, but in my personal experience, and what I’ve witnessed with friends, the more likely story is that they’re dutifully following a low-fat diet filled with lots of complex carbohydrates, and they’re unknowingly shooting themselves in the foot every time they sit down to a “healthy” meal.   

If you are on the blood sugar rollercoaster—which many people are, thanks to longstanding guidelines for all of us to consume low-fat diets high in carbohydrates—your body will be screaming out for more carbohydrate all throughout the day. So you listen to your body and give it the carbohydrates it’s begging for, and in the process, you put the kibosh on getting your most powerful fuel source—fat—into your gas tank. Eat carbs, burn carbs, crave more carbs, lather, rinse, repeat. Because your metabolic fire is being fueled by crappy kindling (glucose) instead of nice, thick logs (fat), your energy levels are in the toilet. Eat less? NO! Your body is telling you you’re hungry. Move more? NO! You have no energy. So we have overweight, insulin resistant people stuck in this hormonal hell, and instead of thinking that they just need to reset their hormonal state, people who don’t know anything about this (probably because they don’t read my blog, losers…) instead jump to conclusions about these people being weak-willed, lazy, greedy, and undisciplined. Being overweight becomes a moral judgment. A character flaw.

THIS is what gets me, people. THIS is why I’m writing this series. Because I’ve been there, myself. I am fortunate that in all the years I spent on the chubby side, I was never subject to ridicule. I never got teased, never got called names. That is, never by other people. The names I hurled at myself, I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Despite my hours upon hours of exercise every week, and my consistently low-fat diet, I remained chubby, and how could I come to any other conclusion than it was still my fault? When all the “experts” agree about the way to lose body fat, and you follow that advice and do not lose fat, what can you conclude but that you are not following it hard enough? Maybe you need to eat even less and exercise even more. (Even though, as I said, I had friends and coworkers who ate all kinds of crapola and wouldn’t know a workout if a kettlebell smacked them upside the head—yet they were leaner than I was.) At some point, the math stops adding up. Not that it ever did.

And this is ridiculous. When someone puts on a thick coat to step outside in winter, we don’t say they’re weak-willed. We don’t say they’d be able to spend an hour out in a blizzard without a coat if they just had more willpower. Please. (Possible exception: Tibetan monks who have trained themselves to be human furnaces and can sit outside on blocks of ice, and rapidly melt said blocks.) It’s not being “weak” when you follow the physiological signals your body is giving you. And insulin-resistant, overweight people’s bodies are telling them to eat more and move less. (Specifically, eat more carbs—the very thing that is ultimately causing this cycle. There is just a little more to this, though. I'll post a clarification on willpower/discipline later in the week. And that one might be even more important than this one.)

I know I’ve said the same thing over and over here, in just slightly different ways. But I hope it’s given you something to think about—and maybe even share with a loved one who’s struggling with weight. If it gives someone out there a new perspective on their battle—and, hopefully, allows them to see themselves in a new, more positive, self-affirming light, I’ll consider this useful. Because if anyone out there is calling themselves the names I called myself, and thinking their failure to lose excess body fat is some kind of personal weakness or character flaw, I cannot allow that to stand.

This is probably the biggest single reason I became a nutritionist.

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. You'll be pleased to know you've picked up another reader from the hybrid car series, so you have five now, maybe? I know you have another most important post coming up so once again I might say something you've already addressed or are going to address next time.

    I was reading elsewhere how protein also raises insulin (and that insulin gets kind of a bad rap in obesity discussions but I'm not ready to form an opinion on that one yet). Wikipedia has numbers from some study where they examined both the glycemic index and insulin responses from various foods (, and sure enough, beef, fish, eggs and cheese do raise both glucose and insulin levels. Surprisingly some carbs like pasta have a lower insulin response than the animal foods. It's also surprising that potatoes have the highest glycemic index and are second only to candy in insulin index, but they're also the most satiating food listed. Anyway, I see a consistent theme to the various satiety scores and it seems to me that calories as a rough measure of "food energy" would still be relevant for someone trying to lose weight, but _most_ carb sources would make it easy to over-eat. As people are notoriously unreliable when self-reporting food intake, I wouldn't be surprised if folks struggling to lose weight while eating the so-called heart healthy grains-with-sugar were actually eating more calories than they realized.

    On the "move smarter" bit... I think a lot of folks may be sabotaging themselves when they go for long periods of low-intensity cardio in an effort to stay in the "fat burning zone" (again, by following expert advise). Sure, the body probably does burn more fat as a proportion of fuel expended, but probably also gets very efficient at said cardio and reducing the energy required. Most folks don't typically associate strenuous exercise or resistance training with weight loss, but for someone trying to lose weight I think moderate to high intensity exercise involving the whole body is good bang for the buck (timewise) since fatigued muscles seem to raise resting metabolism for many hours afterward. There's also something bad about elevated cortisol levels for long periods, but then again there are some marathon runners out there who don't seem to have any health problems.

  2. Hey Elliot, thanks for the great comment. I agree with just about all of it. As regards the glycemic/insulinogenic impacts of protein and carbs, it's fascinating, because there's also likely a lot of individual variation there -- partly due to genotype. (Don't some Asian people have many more copies of the amylase gene, for example? Their carb tolerance and physiological response might be different from some other cultures'.) And of course, there's individual variation based on pancreatic function. For someone who spent decades living on soda and candy, they'll likely reach a point where their metabolic response to carbohydrate (or protein, for that matter) is different from someone who ate a better diet all their life.

    Protein is pretty damn cool. Yes, it raises insulin, but that's because insulin is anabolic -- it builds things up/makes them bigger -- and this applies to adipose tissue as well as muscle tissue. So that's why a little insulin spike from protein isn't worrisome (at least, not to me) -- the insulin helps get the amino acids into the cells. The cool thing about protein is that while it stimulates insulin, it *also* stimulates glucagon. If we had the insulin release without some degree of carbs (let's say you ate a steak and nothing else), you'd end up with lower than normal blood sugar. So the glucagon is there to *raise* BG (or, rather, not necessarily raise it, but make sure it doesn't drop too low).

    Totally agree with what you said about people eating a lot of grains & sugar potentially consuming more calories than they realize. Very easy to overeat sweet yumminess. I put myself squarely in this camp, before I went lower carb. I had a bowl of cereal every morning -- and I mean a BIG BOWL, plus 2 pieces of toast with (ick) margarine. I think just about every single day I was in high school, I had a bagel (a huge NY bagel) with cream cheese, sometimes added jam! I still think the hormonal effects play a bigger role than the total number of calories consumed, but you're right in that people probably do consume more than they think they do, even when it comes from Kashi cereal and fat-free muffins. Easy to overeat because they're yummy, but also the near total lack of satiety they induce. Others have speculated that *that* is how low-carb diets really work -- by creating such a high level of satiety that people reduce their caloric intake without even trying. This is neat in theory, but they've also done studies with *isocaloric* food intakes, and the people doing LC *still* lose more fat, so I firmly believe there's more to it than calories.

    And about the exercise: yep, seems like shorter bursts of high intensity work give the biggest bang for the buck. That's why I like Mark Sisson's approach so much -- what is the least amount of effort/pain/discipline for the biggest payoff? A few minutes here and there of all-out effort, or an hour or two of slogging away at a steady, slowish pace on a machine that doesn't even *go* anywhere? I think there's probably room for both in a decent program, but the steady slow pace would be more along the lines of enjoyable walks and just getting *movement,* rather than 10 mile jogs 5 times a week. You're right about the cortisol/stress -- I've suggested to more than one client to actually *cut back* on working out. ;-)

  3. Reading Taubes, was eye opening on the aspect that people who are fat (been there) may be trying to lose weight, but are going about it the wrong way. As one reads more of the literature out there, it shows that there are many variables that contribute to fat gain and retention. Chronic stress from work, life (and the universe) contributes as well. Reducing the stress in my life, along with reducing the carbohydrates, such as bagels, Montreal style, better than New York style yesterday : ) , helped to kick start my losing weight. Plus more regular exercise, plus doing short high intensity workouts, plus regular sleeping, etc., etc. (according to the gospel of Saint Sisson).

    In the end it does go back to the individual to take the initiative to try and do something, and try different approaches until they can find a healthy, sustainable way to lose fat and keep it off.


  4. I guess my thoughts on calories are that extreme changes would make a difference too great for hormones to counteract completely. That's my theory anyway, based only on personal experience and my own meager research. For me there appears to be a "range" of calories I can consume without either losing or gaining weight (to my annoyance). I don't mean to discount the effects of individual variation or hormones, especially when talking about someone used to living on soda and candy, but maybe calories would be more of a concern for someone who's relatively lean already and trying to get closer to their "ideal" body composition. I was in that situation recently, and despite reducing carbs proportionally I had to count calories and deal with hunger pangs to move the scale. Unfortunately I'm not quite "ideal" but at least now I know I have no issues with a high-fat diet.

    By the way, the Fat Tuesday post of January 8 seems to imply that you would elaborate more on the interaction/competition between omega-3 and omega-6 but in a future post that I did not find... did I miss it or did you not get a round tuit?

    1. I haven't posted the n3/n-6 bit yet. I got sidetracked by posting about other things, but if people are interested, I'd be happy to get back to writing about fats. (I started that "Fat Tuesday" series back when I really did only have about 4 readers.) ;-)

      As for body comp -- I think you're right. When people are already pretty close to where they want to be, calorie counting can be a useful part of the puzzle. (The closer people are to their goal, the more challenging it is to get the rest of the way.) I'm not sure how enjoyable that is to do long-term, though. If *maintaining* that lower body fat percentage doesn't require being as meticulous as losing it, then I can see it lasting. Just doesn't seem like something too many people would want to do for the long haul... (Probably why there aren't more people running around out there with six packs.)

  5. Please can you comment then on this problem? I have been Paleo for 4 years. I'm not insulin resistant. I recently had all my blood work checked over. yet since I turned 50 I'm putting on more and more with and its all around my stomach. I have chronic ill health and cant exercise. But I've never had this amazing turn around from burning carbs to burning stored fats. I'd love to know what the hells going on with my body!! And yes my Thyroid is fine. had that checked too.

  6. Hey Cinders, without more information to go on, it's difficult (no, actually, it's *impossible*) for me to say what might be holding things up for you. Have you looked into your adrenal function? Elevated cortisol and insufficient sleep are fat loss enemies #1 and #2. And at age 50, you are also fighting the unpleasant uphill battle with changing hormones. You say you have "chronic ill health" -- I can only assume that whatever is behind that is also interfering with fat loss. And you say your thyroid function "is fine," but that's a somewhat loose claim. Depending on which doctor you ask, or which "expert" you believe, thyroid numbers that seem "normal" are sometimes anything but. Feel free to email me privately if you'd like. Without a little more information, I really can't speculate as to what might be going on.

  7. Fascinating and yet logical stuff -- thanks for sharing your wealth of information!

  8. Fascinating and yet logical stuff -- thanks for sharing your wealth of information!
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