Emphasis on, not till exploding.

There is a common perception within the Paleo or low-carb community that one can eat as much food as they want (while adhering to those respective diets) and never gain any weight while simultaneously getting ripped.

This theory hinges on the idea that fat accumulation is driven by over-consumption of carbohydrates, something which is rather difficult to do on low-carb or low glycemic paleo diet.

Let’s face it, if your only source of carbs comes from vegetables like lettuce or cabbage, the large majority of your calories will come from dietary fat.

So, assuming that carbohydrates are the primary culprit in the problem of obesity, if one just eats mainly protein and fat can you then consume as much food as you want? I mean, can you just shovel mountains of bacon into your mouth every day? This is certainly the image that many people are portraying. Bacon has become the rallying cry of paleo’s everywhere.

If it were completely true, it would be one of the greatest revelations in the health and fitness fields, ever. I think somewhere in there is a bit of truth, but also a bit of exaggeration.

Half of the truth is that a person should be eating as much as they want until their body signals that they are full. Then, they should stop eating and not eat again until some time later when they are sufficiently hungry. The human body relies on a host of hormones to regulate this process subconsciously, like ghrelin, leptin, and cholecystokinin. You shouldn’t have to consciously decide when to eat or how much to eat.

  • Ghrelin helps to tell you when to eat, its release is entrained with meal patterns and stimulates hunger near meal time.
  • Cholecystokinin shuts down your appetite in the short term by slowing gastric emptying and jump-starting digestion.
  • And Leptin works to suppress your appetite in the long term (till your next meal) and is released in proportion to the amount of adipose tissue in the body.

It’s highly probable that leptin plays as much or more of a role as insulin in the development of obesity. Leptin resistance in the brain (by a similar mechanism as insulin resistance) would cause a person to have a progressively reduced ability to respond to endogenous leptin, and thus be unable to properly control their appetite.

So, a person who is experiencing some degree of metabolic derangement probably can’t rely on their body to adequately control their appetite. However, a perfectly healthy person should be able to. As body fat rises the circulating levels of leptin will increase as well, hypothetically causing you to reduce your long term food intake. Conversely, if you’ve been fasting for a long time your levels of ghrelin will shoot up and drive you to the dinner table.

This whole process is subverted somewhat if you choose to ignore the signals your body is throwing at you and continue to gorge yourself on bacon (or whatever paleo/low-carb food you like) until sick.

The mystical fairy tail we all want to believe is that we can eat like that all the time (because eating stimulates happy feelings) while still cutting fat and getting a ripped body builder’s physique. The full truth is that if you want to cut your weight to extremely low body fat levels then you will have to restrict your calorie intake.

You see, the amount of body fat stored in the human body exists on a kind of U-curve in terms of benefit to survival. Too much body fat will likely decrease physical capacity somewhat, and increase inflammation and risk of disease. Too little body fat and you won’t have much energy stores to rely on during a period of famine. Levels of food intake and activity will give your body the information it needs to decide what amount of stored body fat is appropriate or how to partition food intake.

Generally though, body fat is extremely important to the human body. Despite the amount of hate it receives from everybody, we couldn’t survive without stored body fat. Your body knows this, and it will relinquish that fat very hesitantly while adding to it whenever possible.

It all comes down to this:

  • If you eat just enough food to fuel your body’s needs (stopping when full) and eat types of food which don’t make you sick, while staying active, you’ll likely look trim and healthy and probably drop down to a very sustainable, yet relatively low body fat level.
  • If you start restricting your food intake a little bit (too much and the body will freak out and go to famine mode) while staying active, your body will rely on body fat stores to make up the difference while sustaining muscle capacity in the face of physical challenges. You will lean out,  and probably start to have extremely defined musculature. This may not necessarily be healthy or sustainable long term.
  • However, if you stuff your face past the sensation of fullness and keep going, and then eat 3 to 4 times a day, you aren’t going to lean out. Your obviously eating far more food than your body needs (you ignored it’s signals) to replenish energy reserves and it will have no choice but to store what it can and convert to heat what it can’t.

I understand why people want to eat as much bacon as they can. It tastes good, and food that tastes good stimulates our brain in such wonderful ways. Don’t let yourself fall into the food-as-recreation trap people. First and foremost, food is fuel.

With a car, if you overfill your gas tank the tank sensor may become confused and misreport your fuel tank levels until it reaches a normal volume again. Think about that.

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11 Responses to Eat Till Full, Not Till Exploding

  1. Karen P. says:

    Of course individual results may vary, but I find it impossible to overeat when I stick to the basics of this WOE. If I stay with good meats, veggies, and minimal fruits, I do great. If I feel cravings sneak up, I extinguish ‘em with fats (grilled ribeyes, anyone?).

    The exception is always ALWAYS the substitutions. Something about their texture and, as you mentioned, probably what they’re made of (not activating satiety correctly). I’m trying to keep them contained to special occasions. Just last night I made a Primal frangipane tart, and I’m starving this morning. Too bad I’m IFing… :)

  2. Chris Sturdy says:

    This is a very interesting post – one that all should keep in mind irrespective of one’s particular nutritional plan (paleo/primal etc) and fitness/health goals.

    I am reading this post now about 5 hours after a breakfast of 2 eggs fried in 1/2 tsp of coconut oil, about 5 oz of leftover roast chicken and 1/2 cup of blueberries (with, of course coffee with coconut milk). I am not even remotely hungry even though it is “lunch time” by the clock in my time zone.

    Too often we eat because it “fits” our schedule or because we “won’t have time later so we’d better eat while we can”. No wonder we have no concept of when we actually are hungry never mind when we are satiated!

  3. tess says:

    i think you’re preaching to the choir, here…. :-) beginners will be inclined to go overboard (for example, with bacon!) because they’ve been HUNGRY for so long, following the ludicrous instructions of Conventional Wisdom. once one gets past that, and starts giving the body what it needs, the temptations level out and it’s easy to eat for fueling purposes and no longer for recreation.

  4. wilberfan says:

    Yikes. Busted. I’ve been ‘paleo’ since last October (after being vegan for 18 years!)–and I’ve gained 5 or 6 pounds. Hard to say whether it’s ‘pudge’ or muscle–but I think I’m absolutely guilty of this “I can eat as much as I want” mindset.

    Thanks for the timely post!

  5. Jason says:

    The only issue I ever had with overeating was with cheeseburger dorritos. Then sadly I discovered those werent Paleo. Now I don’t eat enough. I need to prepare more Paleo friendly meals ahead of time. I would of made a bad hunter gatherer…

  6. Jason says:

    Oh and the only thing wrong with overeating bacon is running out of said bacon

  7. manny says:

    love this post. too many times people confuse things with over simplifying. although in general for paleo eating for overall health aesthetics and performance, we con’t ‘count calories’, the entire statement should be, ‘we don’t COUNT calories, but calories still COUNT”.

    i have found that the target isn’t moving, but the starting point is, that is, what direction are you facing and what side of the bulls eye are you on. if you’ve cleaned up metabolic derragement and your insulin signalling is goo and you’re relatively lean, then you can be a little more lax and not neccessarily gain weight provided sleep and stress are controlled for. but if you’ve got some midsection fat (more a reflection of hormone state vs. fed state) your sleep is haphazard and stress is chronically high, then your body is going to fight tooth and nail to lose fat and might even favor more deposits. hunger in this case is not a very good indicator since the signaling is a little wacky.

    getting super lean does require some due diligence, and sacrifice, although a paleo approach allows for less neurotic and healthier approaches, than traditional bodybuilding and figure dieting strategies. I have foudn getting very lean usually involves what John Berardi coined “higher g flux” where when the caloric deficit has to be there but is achieved through higher activity output and high caloriec intake , i.e. taking in about 3500 calories but having activity levels that put total expenditiure in the 3000 range vs just cutting calories by 500 and keeping activity the same (.i.e. traditional diet crap where you might take in like 1800 calores vs. 2300 which is SUPER low unless you’re a little kid or elderly and don’t move much).

  8. Like Karen P. says, I’m pretty much unable to overeat when I eat proper foods. So far I’ve (so far) lost 16.8 kg (37 lbs) since I switched to the paleo way of eating, and I am not limiting myself at my meals, at least not consciously or intentionally. However, I once I’m past the “I’m hungry” state and my body has moved into the “I’m full” state, more or less any food just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. On more than one occasion I’ve had to leave quite a bit of food on my plate because I simply can’t eat more of it, and the mind wanted more than the body wanted. Bacon is delicious, but once I’ve had enough, I can’t stand the taste anymore until I’m hungry again.

    The exception to this behavior comes only if I eat carbohydrate-rich foods. I don’t seem to get the “I’m full” signal when I eat those.

  9. [...] I had been trying really hard to stop stuffing myself with food, instead trying to only eat until I felt full, learning to recognise the feeling.  This was suddenly helped a huge amount by our trip to the Alps.  The week after I got back I felt “off my food”.  Not hugely, I just no longer got the enjoyment from the flavours.  I blame the “all bread” diet that I was on for two weeks.  The lack of enjoyment of my food passed after a week, perhaps brought to an end by a particularly sumptuous dinner out with Chris’s parents, but it gave me the time I needed to start boosting those hormones which tell you that you are full.  You can learn a bit more about those here. [...]