Why you are designed to eat and burn fat…your big brain


I’ve just finished a couple of public lectures and had a big two page spread and a front page piece in the national newspaper about our work in low carb high fat eating. That’s prompted quite a few questions about how some people can eat carbs and not get sick.  

Here are a few of these questions:

“Why are some people and populations fine on higher carb diets?”  

“Why are you promoting a higher fat lower carb approach given many people (and sometimes populations) exist disease free eating higher carb diets?”

“Why do I put on weight so easily and others don’t?” 

“How does a low carb approach change things?”

These questions are very important and I think understanding the answers helps us understand the whole situation. My take is simplified into this:

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas which helps move glucose into cells. It is essential for life.

Sometimes cells become resistant to insulin so it is harder to move the glucose onto those cells. This, no surprise, is called insulin resistance.  Insulin resistance is a normal and useful human condition, at least in our natural (ancestral) environment.

Humans very easily develop insulin resistance for two historical (and evolutionary useful) reasons.  First , in times of starvation, insulin resistance helps shunt any extra glucose to the large, energy demanding brain (12-1400 cc and consuming around 25% of our energy). This temporary peripheral insulin resistance helps turn on fat burning and when extra carbs are eaten, there is very little insulin response because glucose can be taken up in the brain without insulin.
The second reason to develop insulin resistance is to store fat in times of plenty of food. This system is mostly stimulated by high carbohydrate foods. The resulting chronic high insulin response shuts off fat burning, down regulates spontaneous energy expenditure, blocks leptin, and stores extra energy as fat. This metabolic syndrome probably works best as a temporary and seasonal effect.  I think we see this in animals preparing for hibernation who need to store fat as they subsequently rely on it as a fuel source for extended periods. The idea is that we can’t down regulate brain fuel demands, so need fat stores to help with this. We have much more fat mass and less lean muscle mass than a chimp who has a brain 1/3 the size of ours. So really the evidence is that we are designed to store and use fat. We easily put weight on to provide a source of constant fuel through fat for times of low food availability.
So insulin resistance is a really useful mechanism in human evolution and survival.  The problem now though is that insulin resistance is also caused by inflammatory processes and other means through the following things at least (there are probably more) – stress, poor sleep, too much exercise, too little exercise, high sugar diet, high Omega 6/trans fat diet, poor gut micro biome, high alcohol diet, age?, obesity, genes, smoking, pollution, other environmental toxins, too much sun, too little sun……
So I think you see the problem.  Modern life induces insulin resistance.  Some are more prone than others.
When you become insulin resistant then you will have trouble moving carbs (glucose) into your cells.  You probably will be able to do this, but just need loads of insulin to do so. So a relatively high amount of even “healthy carbs” for the insulin resistant person can result in constantly high insulin. We call this “hyperinsulinemia”.
This condition is probably the mechanism which causes most modern chronic diseases – cancer, diabetes, CVD, and neurological degeneration. Hyperinsulinemia is the direct and indirect cause of these. The mechanistic, epidemiological, and experimental evidence is strong.
Chronic hyperinsulinemia probably also makes you more insulin resistant and it becomes a vicious cycle.
Here’s why:
  • Humans who are not insulin resistant can thrive on higher carb diets as long as they don’t live a western industrial food and stress lifestyle.
  • Modern society is toxic in so many ways to our basic function – because it induces insulin resistance through inflammation.
  • Reducing dietary carbs for those who are insulin resistant (also know as metabolically dysregulated, also sometimes called carbohydrate (in)tolerance) is a useful way to proceed. Probably we can reset the system using this method, but we must first stop chronic hyperinsulinemia. More work needs to be done to understand exactly how this might work and if and when carbs might be eaten again in bigger quantities.
  • Living a life which resembles that of your ancestors minimises our chance of becoming metabolically dysregulated.
  • People vary in their personal carbohydrate tolerance and how that affects their health because they vary in their insulin resistance.
  • When you go on a low carb high fat diet you can burn fat, feel energised and easily manage your own hunger and eating.  Will power is over rated, especially in the face of dysfunctional physiology.
Anyway that’s a quick scientific primer from my perspective and the basic mechanisms behind what I am talking about. Here’s a reference for the adventurous and scientifically minded which goes in to more detail – Lifestyle and nutritional imbalances associated with Western diseases: causes and consequences of chronic systemic low-grade inflammation in an evolutionary context

Low carb high fat lecture full, so we are doing another

NEW DATE due to popular demand 22 October

Thanks to the many who have registered and shown interest in this seminar at AUT Millennium on October 16th.  Its been wildly over subscribed to the point we have decided to do a second seminar.  So please if you are interested, its filling very fast, get registered today.

Event Details
Date:   Tuesday, 22 October 2013
Time:   7.00pm – 8.30pm
Venue: AUT Millennium Institute, 17 Antares Place, Mairangi Bay, Auckland

Free public parking is available


6.00pm – 6.50pm       Registrations open
7.00pm – 7.45pm       Event commences.  Keynote presentation from Professor Grant Schofield
7.45pm – 8.30pm       Q&A session and open discussion followed by refreshments

Note, we will also be taking registrations on the night for a series of corresponding paid workshops that will be held in November. Details about the workshops will be posted on this site once confirmed.

RSVP to attend the event by providing your name, email, and contact number REGISTER

For those international and out of town, we will video and make available online.

We’re doing a public lecture on Low Carb High Fat

Low Carb High Fat_16 Oct 2013

Click here for the full PDF version of the invite Low Carb High Fat_16 Oct 2013

Join me and my research team to see the latest in the world of Low Carb HIgh Fat (LCHF) research and practice.  We will look at what the research shows, what we are doing, and what this means in practical terms.  We will be discussing both health (weight loss, diabetes, and chronic disease), and athletic performance.

Get in quick to register if you are in Auckland as seats are free but limited.

When: Wednesday October 16th 7-8.30 PM

Where: AUT Millennium INstitute, Mairangi Bay Auckland

Register by emailing hpc@aut.ac.nz

The structure of great communication

This is a great TED talk by presentation guru Nancy Duarte. Her ideas about speaking are what you get given when you are invited to do a TED talk. It’s a really powerful and simple analysis of great speeches in history including Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech and Steve Job’s IPhone launch speech in 2007.

Great communication is of course essential to changing the world. It is essential to any good idea. Without great communication, great ideas are lost. Mediocre ideas can flourish because of great communication. That’s such a shame on both counts. The good news is that this is totally learnable. I did it myself in my TED talk which I’m pretty proud of.

The basic idea is that great speeches all have the same structure – a shape which describes how the world is, and then switches back to how it could be. It always ends with the “new bliss”. It pulls the audience between what is and what could  be  –  the powerful idea you have of “the new bliss”.

Enjoy the video.

Be the best you can be


(pic: the entrance to AUT Millenium where I work)

I’ve wanted to start a blog for quite some time now. The trick is to get the technical skills together well enough to actually know how to run one and do it regularly. Well, I’m just about there.

What will I blog about?

I am really interested in the science of how we can be the best we can be. This crosses disciplines such as biology, medicine, pubic health, and productivity management. The cornerstones are nutrition, exercise, sleep, neuroscience, psychology and well-being. I’ll be covering these topics under the broad heading of the Science of Human Potential (the name of this blog).

I’ve been interested in human health and performance for my whole career. I started in psychology then into sport and exercise psychology, then into public health especially physical activity then obesity.

There have been some twists and turns along the way which might help to give a view of why I do what I do and where it can go.

About me

Sport and exercise has always been a massive part of my life. From an early age I played rugby union, learned to sail and race, and eventually ended up in the high school rowing squad. Rowing at my high school had no room for anything but high performance. So I was introduced to this at age 13. From there we won national championships most years. The combination of the sheer physicality of the sport and the team work and individual excellence required both mentally and physically really defined my teenage years and who I could become as an adult.

Being fit and involved in some sort of high performance activity has been part of my life since then.

I finished bachelors, Honors, and doctoral degrees in psychology at the University of Auckland by 1994. At the same time I had got into triathlon as a sport. I ended up racing semi-professionally. That’s code for “was never quite fast enough to earn a decent living, so had to supplement prize money income by working“. In the end I raced professionally in several world championships in long course triathlon, ironman and duathlon. That was great fun, and the skills and work ethic I have learned from triathlon are important to me.

The extra benefits from the high performance sport world, especially triathlo,n include:

  • I met my wife Louise because of triathlon. She ended up also as a professional triathlete, a better athlete than me. We’ve been married since 1995 and have three boys – Sam, Jackson and Daniel. Louise also started Vitality Works, a workplace health company acquired by Sanitarium in 2012. Vitality Works has allowed both of us to benefit from a huge amount of professional and personal development in health and well-being.
  • I figured out early that a high performance life is just as much work as a low performance life, so you may as well take the high performance life. It just requires a bit more work up front, but frankly you avoid work later and you get more choices.
  • I have the skills to stay fit and enjoy maximizing my biology for my own personal peak performance.
  • I still get to compete at a reasonable level in triathlon and running. This is cool because the age group triathlon and running groups are really fun, and you get to hang out with people of a similar performance, health, and happiness mindset.

My academic career began with part-time teaching in the Psychology Department at The University of Auckland during my PhD tenure. I moved to Australia (Central Queensland University in Rockhampton) and worked in the School of Psychology there for nearly 10 years. Most of our spare time then was dedicated to triathlon training and racing with Louise. I wasn’t going fast or far in the academic world at that point. Enter Kerry Mummery.

Kerry Mummery is now the Dean of Physical Education at the University of Alberta. He really mentored and started me on the journey to becoming a decent academic. We worked on several physical activity and health projects together. The most notable was 10,000 Steps. This started as a whole community project and morphed into a nationwide program which is still running successfully today.

This was the entrance into public health proper for me. I started at AUT in 2003 after the birth of Jackson our second son. Back in Auckland and into a new country with plenty to do. That’s when things really took off. I had the good fortune to have several great staff members and PhD students under my guidance. Almost all of these are still with me.

The highlights in the last decade are:

  • Working with dozens of talented doctoral and masters thesis students
  • Being highly successful in obtaining research grants and funding. This is the life of an academic and you live and die by this success. We are up over $20 million in funding.
  • A solid and respectable publication record. Ditto above. Important for gauging success. But by itself is unlikely to put much of a dent in the universe.
  • Being involved in Vitality Works. This has put a dent in the universe and allowed me to develop more formally into peak performance, well being and neuroscience.
  • Being the youngest full professor around for a while. That wore off as I aged!
  • Moving our work beyond physical activity into obesity, well-being, productivity, and nutrition/weight loss. Most recently the work we are starting in metabolic efficiency and weight is likely to put the biggest dent in the world.
  • Starting the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition and eventually morphing that into the Human Potential Centre at the new Millennium Campus.

So that’s where I’m at. Where I want to go now, and with this blog, is to explore the science behind what helps us “be the best we can be.” It’s an emerging and multidisciplinary science. Let’s go!