Sometimes, the world assumes that everyone who is obese is just a glutton. While that may be true in some instances, it is not always the case. The truth is that some of the things we call food today, and the cultures we have built around eating are the ones leading to increased incidences of obesity and all its evil cousins which it tends to come with like cancer, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, type two diabetes, hypertension etc. And most importantly, I think we don’t talk enough about what the food that we do eat does to our bodies; how it breaks down and interacts with our hormones. I believe everyone must get interested in learning the science behind our bodies so that more and more people can begin to practice mindful eating.

This article is not about those people who choose to deliberately stuff themselves with junk food, sometimes on camera, to satisfy some fetishes. It is also not about those who take pride in being able to down unimaginable amounts of nshima like bricklayers do. In fact, let me pause here first and do some mulomo. So, I just used to hear people saying that bricklayers eat a lot of nshima. Now, most people I know eat one to three lumps of nshima, maximum. So, I thought maybe the A LOT people were always talking about in reference to bricklayers was double that amount at one sitting. But recently, I had to pull out my calculator and try and remember some appropriate math formulas to understand just how possible it is that five bricklayers can be finishing a 25kg bag of mealie meal in four days! Four days! And as if that is not shocking enough, they would also finish 2.5 litres of cooking oil within the same timeframe. The site of that construction will remain unnamed, just as the legends involved, lol. And in case you were wondering, no, those five bricklayers are not obese, they look pretty fit. But anyway, this article is definitely not about people like that.

This article is about those people who eat the standard Zambian diet which constitutes three meals and a late afternoon snack (16) for the middle class and well to do people. In most homes, people will eat several slices of bread for breakfast and some tea with sugar and, if they can afford it, some milk and eggs. For lunch, nshima and some protein and vegetables, or just plain vegetables, the same for dinner which can sometimes be had as late as 22:00 hours. The late afternoon snack varies from home to home but usually, it is another carb-heavy food like scones or fritters with tea and some porridge or custard for the kids. For those of us with office jobs, when there is a conference to attend, there’s not one, but two tea breaks! And the offering? 95 percent carbs; foods like mini pizzas, muffins, brownies, apple crumble, etc. Another thing we have popularised is having some fruit juice with almost every meal, or we sip it as we go about our daily affairs without even thinking about it, as though the high levels of fructose count for nothing. This article is not about those people who “do nothing” wrong; they eat what has been stipulated as normal – so why do they keep gaining weight even when they add some gym time in their routine? Is it a matter of genes? Turns out, the answer is not quite. The food which we eat today, and the timeframe in which we eat it, sets us up for obesity. So, I say it again, it is not your fault you’re fat, but staying that way after finding out the science behind what we eat and how our body processes it is a choice.

As usual, I’m not just rumbling on, today’s piece is based on the work of Dr Jason Fung, a kidney disease specialist, who is now known as the father of intermittent fasting. He recently featured on one of the most popular podcasts in the world, Diary of a CEO, and he too, spoke about the dangers of high carb diets and how they spike a fat storing hormone, insulin. He also explained why the “calories in calories out” or “eat less, exercise more” idea of weight loss is simplistic and ineffective.

“Calories in, calories out, watch what you eat idea of weight loss is what is taught to all doctors, but it is extremely unhelpful for people, it doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t work for patients and it doesn’t work for doctors who want to lose weight either,” Dr Fung says.

I will just go ahead and share his detailed explanation of what leads to weight gain below:

“The problem is not that people didn’t realise that they have to reduce their calories or increase their calorie expenditure, the problem was that why were they eating more calories than they could expend? It is because the body is being told to store energy. That is how it works…your body has hormones that tell you to store calories, so there’s a hormone called insulin, for example, and if you give people insulin, inject them with insulin, which is a drug for type two diabetes, almost everybody gains weight. It has nothing to do with your will power – if I gave you insulin, you would gain weight, why? Because I am giving your body the instructions to store energy.

The real question is why are you storing more calories than you are expending? And it is because you are telling your body to do so. For example, I will give you an analogy, alcoholism is alcohol in, minus alcohol out, right? Same idea…so can you simply cure alcoholism by telling an alcoholic ‘just drink less alcohol than you expend?’ Yes, you can say that, and it is absolutely true, but it is not useful in any way because you have never gotten to that deeper understanding of why that person is taking in more alcohol. You have to get to that next level; ask why are they drinking more alcohol? Maybe they are depressed, maybe they are addicted, deal with the addiction, that is the way to deal with alcoholism. You can’t cure it simply by just saying drink less alcohol, the same way you cannot cure obesity simply by saying eat less calories. You’re not understanding why the body is storing more energy.

…You can choose to eat less calories, yes, that’s true, but you have to ask yourself, why are people eating so many calories? Well, it is because they are HUNGRY. And you can’t choose to be less hungry. Therefore, you really have to talk about controlling the hunger and controlling the hormones that are behind the calories that you eat and that’s going to be even more successful for you. If you take two different foods, equal number of calories and you eat them, the hormonal response to those calories are completely different. So, you eat two slices of white bread and jam, all that energy, your insulin spikes up because it is very high in carbohydrates, all that energy goes straight into your body fat and you have left none of it for energy for your day. By 10:30 [hours], you are ravenous and you go get yourself a low-fat muffin, again, pure carbs, insulin spikes up, all that goes into your fat stores, why? Because you told it to. Remember that when you eat white bread or refined carbohydrates, you are going to have this huge insulin spike which is going to tell your body to store energy. If you eat an egg, you don’t get that spike in insulin. So, that energy that you have taken, those calories are there, you can use it and that keeps you full during the day. If you are telling your body to immediately store those calories as body fat, you are going to gain body fat because you told those calories to do that. If you eat an egg, you don’t get that spike in insulin so you haven’t told your body to store that energy so it is going to be around for you to use all day long and you are not going to be hungry – because your body is like ‘why do I need to eat again?’ Because you basically have the energy that you need available.

If you go to the grocery store, suppose you put all your food away, lock it in the refrigerator, well, now you have nothing to eat so you are going to say I need to go out and get some food. So, same thing with your body. If you take food which spikes up your insulin, you are going to lock away all that energy into your fat stores, it is not going to be available for you to use and then you will go out and get more. So, you haven’t controlled the hunger that’s going to lead to the caloric intake which is going to lead to the weight gain.”

So, once again, it is not your fault you’re fat. The standard Zambian diet is just extremely carb-heavy and we eat at any time of the day we so wish. Carbs are not satiating, they keep you feeling hungry every couple of hours, and no one really teaches us about this. Having a carb-heavy diet keeps you getting hungry at short intervals and therefore eating. What is wrong with constantly eating? You keep your insulin levels high and so begin many problems. Coincidentally, this article today has been published in the same edition with Information Ministry Permanent Secretary Thabo Kawana’s journey with kidney disease, I highly recommend you read it too if you haven’t yet already.

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