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Nutrition Files: Accessible Biochemistry

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Part 1: Leptin

I blame Hollywood for the current strategy of ” if your problem is [x],confront it”. This leads to people who are dieting trying things which are utterly bizarre to me. For example: If their diets are experiencing doughnut sabotage, they solve this by surrounding themselves with doughnuts and stare them into submission.

This works about as well as can be expected. Because all junk food has to do to win is….be. It just has to stick around long enough until you give in “just this once”. This is largely due to junk food nowadays being so pumped full of preservatives, that they’re probably shrinkwrapped when we poop them out. What winds up happening is that we “confront the enemy” so much that we eventually give in.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to improve willpower–there are–but that’s fodder for another article. Fat loss is total war, and in total war, you cheat. Fortunately, your body is full of mechanisms to help you do just that. Here are a few things that worked for me as a former fat boy.

Leptin is a hormone produced by your body’s fat cells from amino acids. Among other things, it tells the brain how much energy is in your system and thus plays an important role in governing things like metabolism and appetite. We’re going to focus on the appetite suppression power of leptin. To this end , leptin does 2 things: It stops your brain from receiving two signals that cause you to feed and increases the production of a signal that makes you feel full.

In other words,the more leptin you have in your system,the less appetite you’re likely to have. See where this is going?

No, this isn’t the part where I say: “buy my leptin pill and lose fat”. In fact, a study done by a hospital in New York found that when taken exogenously ( derived externally or not produced by the body),leptin only produced statistically significant effects in the most obese people taking the most extreme amounts of leptin.

No, mr dysmorphia, “most obese people” doesn’t include you. No exogenous leptin for you.

That leaves us endogenous leptin–i.e.: leptin that our body produces.

There’s a fair bit of literature on what causes your body to increase leptin production. There’s even a diet system by Joel Marion called ” Cheat to Lose”. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve ordered it as I’m a huge John Berardi fan and if he’s collaborating with someone, it’s likely going to be good.

Most of the amino acids your body needs to produce leptin can be found by eating lots of complete protein sources paired with monounsaturated fats while minimizing carbohydrate intake. The Mediterranean diet is a good one to follow. Its filled with lean meats, olives, nuts and veggies. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t exactly sound like a tough diet. This is however , the strategic portion of the campaign plan. Over time, your body will change to a state where its normal levels of circulating leptin will cause you not to want so much food.

Now we need some tactical weapons. Again, your body comes to the rescue with a signaling mechanism called oleoylethanolamide ( OEA). Unlike leptin, OEA is produced rapidly in your intestines and your body reacts to it just as rapidly. Foods high in natural fats like nuts, seeds,avocados, dark chocolate (70% or greater) and even raw whole milk will cause your intestines to start generating this ally.

“Wait!” you say, “if this stuff is so good and so fast,then why bother with leptin?”. Well mostly because fat comes at a whopping 9 calories a gram. Replace your snacks with healthy fat alternatives and wait awhile. A lot of the time, snacking is done out of boredom instead of true hunger.

Now for some news: The amount of circulating leptin in your body appears to be related to your energy intake (calories). This means that when you fast or go into a caloric deficit, you are necessarily lowering leptin levels in your body. The reason why people on a diet feel hungry all the time is because they are! There’s just not a lot there to tell the brain that they’ve got enough energy! The bottom line? Starving yourself isn’t the answer. Make good food choices and try to eat on a schedule. If your body knows to expect calories every so often, it won’t panic so much.

There’s a lot of literature out there that talks about “cheat meals” containing loads of carbs. Further, in several studies, leptin production and eating carbs seem to agree with each other. I use these cheat meals myself. However, I wouldn’t advise this strategy when just starting on fat loss. It’d be too much like showing up at an AA meeting with a bottle of scotch–just to take the edge off. As an advanced strategy–like below 15%fat–it’s probably fine.

A few last words:” fructose and its inbred cousin HFCS ( high fructose corn syrup) has been implicated with leptin resistance in several studies. That’s as awful as it sounds. Leptin resistance means that your body could be producing enough leptin to turn you into leptin man but you’d still feel ravenous. Stay away from fructose and HFCS.

Lastly, I don’t believe in replacing the food in your diet with unpalatable food that generally equates to roughage like lettuce. I have a few reasons, but mostly it’s because

1) It’s hard to stick to a diet composed of foods you hate

2) the reason why experts stick things like lettuce in diets is because lettuce takes up space in your stomach without too many calories.

Yes, but people who need to lose fat typically have larger stomachs. That’s a lot of lettuce. That you might hate.

The real world:

Now that you understand some of the mechanisms that’ll help you lose fat, here’s a few good starting points:

1) is an excellent website to check the fat, carb and protein content of your favorite foods. It might be a good idea to use it on your 5 favourite foods.Strive for a balance of 45% protein,35%fat and 20% carbs. Don’t go whole hog at once, you can tweak it a little till you get used to eating like this.

2) Asian audiences will be used to having starches with their meal–particularly rice. This is because the flavor explosion in Asian food is typically intense–starches like rice or bread are typically needed to “balance out” the meal. Now, East and Southeast Asians generally tolerate carbs from rice a lot better than others, but it’s probably better to try and get the meal-balancing from veggies like cucumber or carrots, beans like mung beans or chickpeas/garbanzos. Note that chickpeas actually have a fair amount of carbs, so try the other options first to see if you can hack them.

3) Sauces have calories too. Please don’t try and eat a tonne of cucumber by slathering it in ranch dressing.

4) Whenever possible, don’t buy stuff that comes in a box. If this is too hard, at least read the label–draw a line at any food that says it contains high fructose corny syrup.

5) Macadamias are probably the best nut to eat for OEA goodness. However, they’re very high in calories. Eat a bit, wait, and then eat again if you’re still hungry.

6) Eggs are a great source of protein and fat at 70 calories per egg. The best way to cook them are boiling or poaching to avoid oxidation. Stay away from scrambled eggs in buffets.

7) Till you’re under 20% , stick to lean cuts of meats –top sirloin,tenderloin,round for beef and skinless breasts for chicken. Always trim the meat. Always go for grass fed beef, most other beef just doesn’t have the nutritional profile of grass-fed beef. Beef will say it’s grass-fed on the label.

8 ) Eat fish. Wild salmon and other fatty fish like tuna are excellent sources of protein and dietary fat. I’ll post up some salmon recipes in the future.

9) Hummus and a veggies of choice–carrots or cucumber–are very good as a snack.

Happy Eating!


Former “fat boy” Jose Estrella is a software engineer based in Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include wushu and olympic style weight training. When he’s not researching on the next big thing in technology, he likes spending his time meditating on top of a lamp post. 

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