I overheard someone talking about a friend the other day, saying “She’s so slim, she’s so lucky!”
As it happened, in this case, luck certainly had nothing to do with it.
The individual in question actually used to be considerably over-weight, but had transformed her figure through a combination of diet and lifestyle change, strength and conditioning based exercise, and taking up triathlon training. I think dedication and consistent effort would be a more appropriate description than luck!
It did get me thinking, however, can some slim people be considered as “Lucky”?
I’m sure we all know someone out there who’s able to eat whatever they want, does no exercise or activity whatsoever, but never puts on a pound. Those individuals who eat out of the vending machine all day, always have three courses, extra portions and super size options when eating out, and carry around a constant supply of snacks, sweets and chocolates which get consumed the entire packet at a time, all washed down with litres of sugary soft drinks and huge mocha syrup sweetened lattes – but still look like a magazine cover model!
Have these people hit the genetic jackpot? Should those of us that have to be mindful of what we eat, and keep active and exercise in order to maintain our physiques be jealous of these people who seem impervious to the waistline expanding effects of the modern lifestyle?
My short answer would be a simple No. I don’t think these people are lucky at all, in fact quite the opposite. I would actually argue that it is those who put on extra body fat easily that might just be the lucky ones!
Why a predisposition to body fat gain is a good thing
It is pretty much universally accepted in the scientific and medical community, that being over-fat, and in particular obese, is a bad thing.
Carrying too much body fat is strongly correlated with hugely increased risk from a host of lifestyle related diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.1
Avoiding or reversing excess fat gain is undoubtedly one of the most important things one can do to avoid an early demise, and indeed to improve your quality of life during whatever time you spend on this planet.
As always, however, one must be careful not to make the mistake of confusing correlation, with causation.
Following this logical fallacy, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that as increased body fat is associated with increased risk of these NCDs (Non-Communicable Diseases), that this means that increased body fat is the cause of increased risk of NCDs.
Building on this error in logic, one might then draw the conclusion that if an individual is of normal weight, they must therefore be at low risk of the NCDs which are plaguing society.
What if, however, excess body fat gain is not a causative factor in these NCDs, but actually another potential symptom from an underlying, hidden cause?
In other words, what if obesity should be grouped in with heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, as a symptom, and we should instead still be looking for an underlying cause?
It has been recognised for some time, that being overweight or obese are not prerequisites for developing any of these NCDs AKA the diseases of civilisation. Scientists have developed the term “Normal Weight Obesity (NWO)”2 and “Metabolically-Obese”3 to describe individuals who still succumb to these conditions, and exhibit many of the same metabolic symptoms as obese individuals, without becoming over weight.
Could it be that we have been looking at the problem from the wrong perspective?
For the purposes of illustration, I’m going to use an over simplified example with very basic numbers – these are not meant to represent actual statistics.
Let’s take 12 imaginary people. 8 of them are slim, 4 of them are overweight. 3 of the overweight individuals go onto develop life threatening NCDs, as opposed to only 2 of the slim individuals.
75% of the overweight individuals became seriously ill, as opposed to only 25% of the slim individuals, therefore being overweight is clearly bad for you, isn’t it?
What if we re-frame the question, however, and look at the individuals calorie consumption? When the diets of the 12 individuals are investigated, it turns out that 6 of the individuals over consumed calories on a daily basis, the other 6 stayed within their daily requirements. Of the 6 which over consumed calories, 3 became obese and developed life threatening NCDs, 1 became obese but didn’t develop any other NCDs, and 2 developed life threatening NCDs, but didn’t become obese.
If we categorise obesity/excess fat gain as an NCD, we see a new correlation – in this hypothetical case of these 12 individuals, excessive calorie consumption is 100% correlated with increase risk of NCDs, with all 6 individuals who over consume developing one or more manifestation.
It has also been demonstrated that dietary changes which result in reduced caloric intake, are not only effective for fat loss, but can also reduce inflammation and other NCD risk factors in normal weight individuals.3,4
Of course, one must be careful once again not to leap to the conclusion that correlation necessitates causation.
It could be possible that excessive calorie consumption is simply a marker for something else – perhaps excess calories can be correlated with an excess of a particular macronutrient, or specific food type, or possibly it is the presence of the various NCDs which increase appetite, or maybe it could be nutrient deficiencies causing the diseases and also increasing appetite, which calorie dense but nutrient sparse processed foods are not satiating?
There is a fair amount of evidence which indicates that none of these theories hold however, and support the evidence that it is simply an over consumption of calories which is the primary (though by no means sole) cause of the modern epidemic of NCDs.
For example, one can reduce their body fat, and their risk factors for NCDs by any number of dietary interventions – low carb diets, low fat diets, Mediterranean diets, paleo diets, vegan diets, calorie restriction and intermittent fasting/alternate day fasting have all been shown to be effective interventions.
If it were one specific element of the diet, a specific nutrient or food stuff – either good, or bad – there is no way all these differing diets could all have such similar positive benefits. The only factor which they all have in common is that they result in a reduction in calorie consumption.
Further to this, we also have proposed mechanisms behind the link between overconsumption of calories, inflammation and NCDs:
Excessive ingestion of calorie-dense, easily digestible foods causes abnormal surges in blood glucose and triglyceride levels (11- 13). This bolus of energetic substrate overwhelms the metabolic capabilities of the mitochondria in the overnourished muscle and adipose tissues. Glucose and free fatty acids flood the Krebs cycle, stimulating an excess of the reduced form of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide production, which outstrips the capacity of oxidative phosphorylation and drives the transfer of single electrons to oxygen, creating free radicals such as superoxide anion (17). Post-prandial glucose excursion correlates directly with the ensuing increase in free radicals (Figure 2). This post-prandial oxidant stress acutely triggers atherogenic changes, including increases in low-density lipoprotein oxidation, sympathetic tone, vasoconstriction, and thrombogenicity (5,17). Meal-induced inflammation is evidenced by immediate increases in C-reactive protein, cytokines, and endothelin-1 (Figure 3) (3,17). Even hyperglycemic spikes induced artificially using intravenous glucose infusions in lean nondiabetic individuals have been shown to markedly increase free radical generation (18)
So why do I think that people that gain fat easily are the lucky ones? Because excess fat accumulation is a highly motivating factor for people to make lifestyle changes.
None of the other NCDs caused by the over consumption of calories have any visible warning signs. Without medical tests, it is impossible to tell if your arteries are calcifying, your insulin sensitivity is decreasing, or your cells are beginning to replicate uncontrollably – at least not until it is probably too late.
Even for those who are aware that there is more to health and longevity than being slim, the potential threat of lifestyle related diseases and decreased lifespan are often too intangible for people to take affirmative action. If you can “eat whatever you want” and still stay slim, it’s much easier to put off change until next week/month/year, than if you’ve just reached the last notch on your belt buckle!
I don’t just think that those that gain fat easily are lucky because they get a warning sign that they are heading for danger either.
It was my expanding waistline that motivated me to change my ways – I’d become sedentary, and was living on convenience foods and boozing too much. Had my gut not begun to bulge I might still be doing that now.
Fortunately my vanity motivated me to make a change, and what a change it was.
I rediscovered my love for cooking and great food, and also my love for activity and adventure. Even if it had made no difference to my physique or my health, I still would not switch back to my old way of life.
The food I eat now, cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients is so much more tasty and satisfying, I’d never want to eat anything from a packet again.
I love training Primal Fitness style, rock climbing, cycling, running and practicing body-weight gymnastics style training.
I love being able to go any where, do anything, and take on any physical challenge life throws at me (or more often I choose to throw myself at).
It was these lifestyle changes that also ultimately led me to getting out of a 9-5 I hated, and starting my own businesses – another decision from which I will never look back!
So if you are one of those people that just “have to look at a cake” to put on a few pounds, don’t think of it as a curse, see it as a blessing. You have a state of the art early warning system, that might just not only save your life, but enrich it and take you down new paths you never even knew existed…
1) Causes and consequences of adult obesity: health, social and economic impacts in the United States Nancy S Wellman PhD, RD, FADA, Barbara Friedberg
2) Normal weight obesity: a risk factor for cardiometabolic dysregulation and cardiovascular mortality
Abel Romero-Corral1, Virend K. Somers1, Justo Sierra-Johnson, Yoel Korenfeld1, Simona Boarin, Josef Korinek1, Michael D. Jensen1, Gianfranco Parati and Francisco Lopez-Jimenez
3) The “metabolically-obese,” normal-weight individual Neil B. Ruderman, Stephen H. Schneider, and Peter Berchtold
4) Dietary Strategies for Improving Post-Prandial Glucose, Lipids, Inflammation, and Cardiovascular Health James H. O’Keefe, MD; Neil M. Gheewala, MS; Joan O. O’Keefe, RD