This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Dr. Richard Johnson. In his own words:
“The classic teaching is that too much food intake plus too little exercise equals fat. However, this book makes the strong case that obesity does not result from gluttony and idleness, but rather because we have activated a “fat switch” similar to that used by animals in the wild to increase fat stores. In this book Dr Johnson takes the reader on a medical detective story to find the fat switch and to learn how to reverse it to bring back health once more. The story includes discussions of emperor penguins, the art of Peter Paul Rubens; Friar Tuck; Falstaff; the Columbian World Exposition of 1893; the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela; the Inuit of the Arctic, San women with steatopygy (characterized by massive behinds); the gastric brooding frog (possibly extinct); hummingbirds; the desert gerbil; the gray whale; the bar-tailed godwit; the marine clam worm; and the great racehorse Secretariat. The story includes studies of wild animals, laboratory based experiments, clinical research, and history. Dr Richard Johnson makes the compelling case that certain foods, especially fructose from added sugars, may be driving the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. The book not only makes a compelling case for how the fat switch is turned on, but also state of the art science on how to prevent, treat, and potentially cure obesity. The book is highly illustrated (68 figures) and highly referenced, but is aimed for the lay reader who wants to know not only how to prevent and cure obesity but why it is occurring so rampantly in society”
The Slim Is Simple.org Non-Profit Nutrition Education Effort
Jonathan: Hey everyone Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast and today’s show is, I’m a little without words, obviously because that phrase did not make any sense. This show is going to be one for the ages because we have a man who demonstrates, he is just the perfect example of the problem with the current model of fat loss and help that we’ve been giving.
Which is and what motivates me, when you look at the actual research like when you talk to people like our guest today who spend their life researching metabolic function and the endocrinology and neuro-biology, like researchers – people who wear lab coats for a living, not spandex. They’ve known for a really long time what we actually need to do to make it function properly and that’s not what we’re told. The sciences it’s not even controversial, which is crazy. The mainstream media makes it out to be and that gets me fired up and I think if will get you fired up too. Certainly makes our guest fired up and that’s why he wrote the wonderful book ‘The Fat Switch’. He is the Tomas Berl Professor and Chief of the Division of Renal Disease and Hypertension over at the University of Colorado. Dr. Richard J. Johnson welcome to the show brother.
Dr. Johnson: Thank you very much. That’s a very nice introduction.
Jonathan: Well sir I want to tip my hat to you because you and so many others I’m literally in awe of because you spend your life just doing research, just researching away, researching away, researching away and I can imagine it must drive you crazy that there is this established science which just continues.
Dr. Johnson: Hello?
Jonathan: Dr. Johnson yes.
Dr. Johnson: Yeah I got cut off. Let me see if we can change this a little bit. Maybe you can repeat the question.
Jonathan: Oh sure.
Dr. Johnson: Hello?
Jonathan: Hello. Yes. Did you hear the question?
Dr. Johnson: No. For some reason we have bad telecommunication here. You’re going in and out.
Jonathan: Oh okay. Let me see here if there’s anything I can do on my end either. Actually I just recorded a show prior to ours so I think we’re all good. Let’s keep going, if it happens one more time maybe we’ll have figure something out but let me try that one more time with the question.
Dr. Johnson I have to tip my hat to you because you and so many other researchers out there you dedicate your life to establishing science. Like hard proven science and you’ve done that but it continues to be ignored by the mainstream and we continue to hear the same theories about eating and exercise that we were told 40, 50 years ago, wherein every other field of Medicine, Biology, Technology, we stay up to speed. What’s going on?
Dr. Johnson: Well you know there is this classic thinking that the reason people gain weight is because it’s our culture driving us and that we are just eating too much because people are just giving us larger plates of food and we’re having bigger servings and there’s smorgasbords and you know go back for seconds. It’s our culture that’s giving us larger and larger plates and we’re exercising less because we got the internet and TV and all the escalators and cars and cell phones.
So the classic thinking has been and it goes back to the 1920’s, has been that we’re suffering from over nutrition and the reason is largely because our culture has moved forward. It’s the success of our culture that we don’t have to work so hard and we don’t have to walk so far. This got into the system probably by 1925, 1930 and so everybody thinks that this is the cause but actually science shows that that is not the mechanism that is driving obesity and I suspect that’s the topic of your book and it is also a big topic in my book. The big breakthrough was when we discovered that satiety or your appetite, basically, is governed by hormones. It’s governed by hormones called Leptin a when you eat, normally an animal if it eats, it will get, when it gets full, that sensation of fullness is actually driven by hormones and then you quit eating but in people who are getting fat, that hormone system is screwed up and they become resistant to that hormone which is called Leptin.
So, what happens is, people keep eating more and more because they don’t know that they’re, they haven’t turned off their hunger response. So, the reason, the culture has responded to us by giving us bigger plates of food and by giving us more food. So, we go back for seconds, not because it’s there but because we can’t control our appetite. Now the other side is that studies have shown that people who are fat have trouble burning fat. They have a defect in their liver and other tissues in burning fat and so they don’t produce as much energy.
So, when you do not produce enough energy, you actually get a little bit tired and you want to sit in the sofa and watch TV. You know they did a study, you probably know about this study. It was published in JAMA where they took children who are watching 28 hours of TV and internet a week and they said, Aha! We can make these kids lose weight by just taking away their TV. They did a control trial and they took half of the children and they reduced their time watching TV by 50%. They put little monitors on the TV so they could really calculate how much time was being spent watching.
The theory was that if you reduced watching TV by 50% that you would exercise more. Makes sense, right? Guess what the result was? They exercised less. The ones they reduced the TV, they exercised less. That was a little bit of a mystery to the office but it’s not really that surprising. So, one of the key things is that, normally, animals regulate their weight and you know, in my book, I talk about this. You know, animals will normally keep their weight very, very carefully regulated and in fact, they not only regulated their weight, many of them will regulate their weight for a particular season. You know the classic is the hibernating animal.
He’ll stay nice and lean during the Spring and early Summer and then late Summer he’ll start eating more than he normally needs and starts to put on fat and it’s actually driven by hormones and all these different things and then they get really, really fat. They get insulin-resistant. They get like us and then they hibernate and burn off the fats. We are preparing for hibernation, I think but those of us who are getting fat tend not to hibernate and so we’re just preparing for hibernation. We keep storing and storing and we store more fat, we get more insulin-resistant until finally, things break through and we become diabetic.
These other animals, they know that they are going to hibernate and it’s all regulated. They hibernate, they burn off the fat and then the next year they repeat.
Jonathan: Dr. Johnson, we just got to get those bears on some treadmills because clearly, they’re not trying hard enough to avoid that hibernation weight. They just need to eat less and exercise more. They just need to try harder.
Dr. Johnson: Right. Tell you what, I am actually doing some studies on bears right now. In Northern Sweden where we are studying them when they’re hibernating, and then during Summer when they’re not. It is kind of, I’m working with a group of scientists in Northern Sweden. It’s kind of fun. It’s all done very safely, there’s no danger to the animals. They are darted with a little anaesthetics that makes them fall asleep and then we collect a blood sample and then when they wake up, we make sure everything’s okay but it’s true, we put a little GPS under their skin so we can track them when they hibernate.
I’ve got a nice picture, I’d shown one of our guys who when they go into the den to collect the samples, we put a little rope around their foot so that if the bear wakes up too fast we can pull the guy really quickly but anyway, you know, you can learn a lot from animals, even insects, they store fat when they go into the pupa, the cocoon, and then they burn it off. We’ve been trying to figure out what turns on and off the fat switch and that is the title of my book, where we looked at this and then try to link it over to what is going on in humans.
Jonathan: Dr. Johnson, what is so transformative about this research, it seems like you touched in the study about the children who watch television and other studies which I’m sure you’re familiar with in 2012 with – I’m going to mispronounce their name but it was the Hazada tribe, who had this idea that who were clearly just exercising too little and that’s the problem. Let’s go look at these on our foragers and let’s see how many calories they burn exercising and let’s show that that is why they are lean then the westerners are in fact not.
What the studies showed to no one’s surprise, was that the Hazada foragers did burn more calories through exercise but the shocking thing was that there was no statistically significant difference in total calories burned between Hazada foragers and Westerners of similar ages and they found out that this was because of using doubly labelled water and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, that when the Hazada foragers weren’t “exercising,” they just burned less than they would have had they not exercised to maintain that critical state you described, which is a state of balance and a state of homeostasis.
So, if the body is that brilliant and works this hard to automatically regulate us – our listener’s know the answer but I just want to hear you say it. Why are we told to spend so much time trying to forcibly override our body’s brilliance rather than working with it?
Dr. Johnson: Okay, I’m going to put a little twist on that. I’m not sure – well I think you probably know this but it turns out that if you make a defect, if you block the ability of the animal to make energy like by blocking the ability to burn fat, what happens is that it actually signals the animal to eat more itself. What it does is then it eats more to try to equate, so that in the end it burns the same number of calories as it wants to but at the expense of having to eat more and shifting more of the energy into fat. Let me try to explain this. So, the way that we regulate our weight is done by specific little organelles in each cell. We have these little things called mitochondria and the mitochondria are the little regulators of our energy and normally, the food comes in and the mitochondria turn it into energy that we use to burn things but what we discovered is that when the animal is trying to change its weight to gain weight, it has to trigger a change in the mitochondria where the mitochondria become less efficient.
So, they produce less energy for that amount of fuel coming in and that extra fuel is turned into fat. It’s actually highly regulated. Animals use it to gain fat. So normally it is hard to make an animal gain fat but if you trigger this change in the mitochondria, they will put more of the energy into fat than into the energy you use to burn things like APP and then when you produce less APP, then the body in many cases will try to eat more so that the complete output of energy becomes equal but at the expense of accumulating fat.
So, interestingly when we studied this, we found that certain specific foods could do this and in particular, one food dramatically does this. It’s the food for gaining fat and its fructose, which is the sugar that is present in table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. So, this little sugar is distinct from all other sugars in its ability to trigger those mitochondria to preferentially store fat. So, when we take animals, if we feed one set of animals fructose and we feed another set of animals glucose or some other nutrients, the fructose fed animals will always accumulate more fat in their liver and they will become more insulin-resistant than the other group.
There won’t be a difference in weight if you control the diet so that both groups are eating exactly the same number of calories because what drives weight gain is you actually, to some extent have to eat more energy than you expend. So if you control animals so that they are eating the same amount of calories, it’s hard to show differences in weight in a short term study. You can, over time because of changes in metabolism but it takes a year to really show a big difference in weight if animals are eating exactly the same number of calories but the difference is that when they eat fructose, they will put more of the calories into fat.
So you’ll see fat in the liver, you’ll see that amount of insulin resistance and all those things that you won’t see with the other nutrients. So, fructose causes weight gain in metabolic syndrome two ways. One is, it actually has this effect on the mitochondria where it preferentially switches food into fat but the other way it does it is it causes Leptin resistance itself, so, when you take fructose, you want to eat more. So if you do feed animals a lot of fructose over time, they can’t control their appetite and they will start gaining weight if they are allowed to eat more calories but if the calories are kept controlled, it is hard to show weight gain because to show weight gain in most short term studies you really have to eat more than the other, which they want to do.
Jonathan: I think you have hit on so many key things there. So, let me do a little repeating here and tell me if I get any of this wrong, I will just try to tailor it to the listeners here a bit. So, the first key distinction is obviously, calories in, calories out is applicable. It applies in this model, it’s just that we are saying the body is not some passive vessel that sits unconsciously calculated. In fact the body has an amazingly complicated and proven system by which it does its best to regulate calories in and calories out based on the needs of the organism. Is that accurate?
Dr. Johnson: Absolutely accurate.
Jonathan: That is great. So, listeners understand that. It’s not that people are saying calories are irrelevant. No, no, no, no. It’s just that the body is brilliant and it works to maintain homeostasis for calories just like it does for blood sugar and potassium, and sodium and everything else. Second point, you talk about fructose being uniquely, metabolically dis-regulating. That seems like it could be interesting, because you specifically said, rat studies, mice studies.
It’s hard to make them gain weight over time but if you feed them chronic levels of fructose, you will see over time, even if you keep them isocaloric, meaning even if you keep feeding them the same amount of calories over time, like let us say in a person from the age of 15 to the age of 45, you keep eating and exercising the same way but somehow, magically you gained 20 pounds of fat. Could something be going on there with fructose and metabolic deregulation?
Dr. Johnson: Let me give you an example. We did a study in rats, where we put them on a high sugar diet that contained fructose or we put them on a high starch diet but in both groups, we fed them exactly the same number of calories and in both groups, we put them on a diet. They were only eating 90% of what they normally eat. Now, when you put an animal on a diet, it’s going to be very hard to show them to gain weight. They are eating less than they normally eat meat but what happen was, the sugar fed animals, they still got really, really fatty livers.
Their livers were creamy white. They developed insulin resistance and then every one of them became diabetic. None of the starch rats became diabetic and none of them has fatty liver. So this kind study shows that there is something unique about sugar and about high fructose corn syrup and when we studied this, we discovered that it was the fructose that was the key issue. The reason it’s fructose is because the fructose specifically affects those mitochondria and it affects their ability to produce energy and it moves more the food in to fat than to energy out.
Now, I do have to tell you something. One of the things I like to point out is that when people gain weight, and they are exercising – we are eating too much and we are exercising too little. Well as I say, the primary problem is not our Western culture, it’s the fact that we’ve become Leptin resistant and we’ve got these defects going and fructose is one of those foods that causes this Leptin resistance and this defect in fat oxidation or our ability to burn fat but I do want to say that this does not mean that Western culture is not abating it. I mean, the TV has gotten so good, the movies are so good that some of us like to watch TV because we like the shows. So they are playing into trying to entice you to watch the TV more and there are enticements to try to go to these smorgasbords and things like these but the underlying problem is not the culture. The underlying problem is what’s going on in our bodies but it’s not to say, the culture is not contributing. So, there is some contribution from culture for making us do these things or exercising too little and so forth but the primary driver is what’s going on in our bodies.
Jonathan: Dr. Johnson, I so appreciate you representing this as a both and, rather than an either or because so often this is presented as eating too much and exercising too little is the cause and then someone says no, it is absolutely irrelevant. I think the correct answer, what the research is actually showing is, people, to gain weight by definition, are consuming too much and expending too little. However, why that is happening, it’s the why that we need to unpack.
If someone is anorexic, obviously the problem is they are eating too little and exercising too much but unless we understand why, like why is the person not eating, we can’t ever treat the cause, rather than the symptoms, which are the behaviour. The behaviour is the symptom in large part not the cause. This is caused by Leptin resistance or metabolic disorder, so, we can bridge this gap and help people to see this. It’s not that calories are irrelevant, it’s not that calories are all that count, it’s that there is this area in the middle which is this grey space which is what science has actually shown.
Dr. Johnson: This is one of the reasons that the classic person who goes on a diet – we have great, people do have great will power. Our cerebral cortex can tell us we shouldn’t do this thing even if we would like to. So, a lot of us can control things just based upon our will power and some people’s will power is less than others, sometimes by chemical reasons. So we do have the ability to say, okay, you know what, we’re going to go on a diet and I am not going to eat anything for – I’m going to reduce my intake or this or that and people can do it but if you don’t fix the underlying problem, the Leptin resistance and the trouble with oxidizing fat, you either have to always be hungry but just be super strong or you are going to relapse.
So, the problem is, many people can lose weight but it’s very hard to keep the weight off and the trick of course, is to try to get your mitochondria healthy again and to get off the foods that specifically triggered this. So, you need to reduce your sugar, you need to reduce your high fructose corn syrup. I am not telling you that you quit eating sugar and you don’t never have a birthday cake again. I mean, I’m not talking like that, I’m just saying, let’s reduce our sugar intake, lets reduce juices and stuff. Natural fruits are fine but try to reduce your juices. Don’t drink soft drinks, reduce your sugar, exercise – that’s a great way to stimulate your mitochondria.
Dark chocolate is another thing that stimulates mitochondria, but you don’t want dark chocolates that has too much sugar in it. So, there are different things you can do, but the trick is you do have to burn off that fat and so you need to exercise and probably reduce your carb intake to some extent, and then you need to be wise. If you do all those things, you will be able to keep your weight off.
Jonathan: Dr. Johnson, it sounds like a lot of those things ensue, meaning that if you fix your mitochondria, if you re-regulate your metabolism, you will experience, as the research calls it, a spontaneous reduction in caloric intake, that you will be full and you will eat less, but you won’t be hungry like you’re not trying to eat less, you’re just like I’m full and I’d like to go for a walk because I’ve got all this energy. Is that fair?
Dr. Johnson: Yes and I play a great trick to losing weight. I think that the Atkins diet is a wonderful diet but we don’t really want to be eating high fat and high protein for the rest of our lives because high fat can raise cholesterol, the high protein has its own issues and then you’re always going to have severe carb restriction. So, the diet that I recommend is actually to reduce your carbs and fruit sugars just for 2 of the 3 meals and what happens is, when you reduce the carbs for 2 of the meals per day like breakfast or lunch, it allows your body to burn the fat and it kind of cleans the system and then on your final meal, you can eat a little bit of carbs.
You don’t want to eat tons of sugar and things like that but you’re allowed to eat some and if you do, you can lose a pound a day. I talked a little bit about it in my book, but yeah it’s a very effective way because it almost like intermittent carb fasting, so, you’re really avoiding carbs 2 out of 3 meals and that allows your body to preferentially burn fat and then you can have delayed gratifications only 12 hours away, if you know what I mean. If you really want that carb, you can wait. You know you’re going to be able to have that bread tonight. So, I find this as a much more effective, long term kind of diet than the Atkins diet but those who can do an Atkins diet, all the power to you.
Jonathan: Dr Johnson, it sounds like you just described a lovely way for us to turn on our fat switch or off, whichever way is the better way, which is also the title of your book which is ‘The Fat Switch’ and listeners, you can learn way more about that as well from our friend of the show and a wonderful researcher, Dr. Mercola over at fatswitchbook.com. Dr. Johnson, you already mentioned that you’re tying ropes around people and ensuring they don’t get eaten by bears. What else is next for you?
Dr. Johnson: Well, we are some doing studies with hibernating squirrels and we are doing studies on people, where we’ve got studies going on in Kuwait and we’ve got studies going on in Poland. We have studies in Mexico. So, we are doing both clinical studies and research studies. We are really trying to get at the basis of what’s driving up obesity. So, thank you very much.
Jonathan: Well, thank you Dr. Johnson, this has been an absolute pleasure and listeners, do check out this book. It will help to replace that obsolete model in your mind that you have been given for the past 40 years, which is okay. I mean people, they did the best they could 40 years ago. They gave us what they thought they knew then but we’ve got people like Dr. Richard Johnson, who has done new science and new technology. It’s like we don’t have to use the same phones 40 years ago, we don’t need to use the same approach to fat loss that we did 40 years ago and ‘The Fat Switch’ book, again fatswitchbook.com by Richard J. Johnson is a great way to expose yourselves to the modern science of eating and exercise.
On that note, I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation as much as I did and please remember this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.
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