March 16, 2021


Minute read

Understanding the Real Causes of Obesity

We’re in the middle of a global crisis. But we’re losing the battle against it because we are failing to understand the real causes of obesity.

If you are someone who has struggled to fight off obesity, or just control your weight, you probably think that you merely need to eat well and exercise. After all, that’s what the media and all the fitness gurus pitch to you.

The problem is, it’s just not true. You must understand, the deck of cards is stacked against you.

If you want tackle your challenges with fat and obesity, you need to start with understanding that the causes of obesity are rooted in an inflammatory response — and how foods trigger it.

How Fat Really Works

The starting point for this conversation is to get real about fat’s true nature. You should think of fat like an endocrine organ, or part of the system that plays a critical role in controlling and regulating many body functions.

It is not something that just stores as fat droplets or triglycerides. It also releases hormones — specifically, ones that stimulate inflammation and drive up insulin resistance as fat cells grow.

And this process is the primary driver of you “getting fat.”

Like many people, you may think that merely consuming more calories than you expend is what creates fat. The problem with this thinking is that the inverse is only slightly correct.

Just because you go into a caloric deficit does not mean you will lose fat.

Not all calories are created equal. A calorie from a banana is not the same as a calorie from a French fry. I often say, “Do not count calories, count chemicals.”

The reasoning is that with most foods, there is some chemical additive, such as sugar, “added” to it to make it taste better. When we consume whole, natural foods, such as a banana, the calorie we eat is unadulterated. Compare that to the french fry, that was once a potato, then cut, fried in oil, salted plus who knows what else was added for taste.

When we talk about “processed foods”, this is the process. There are added chemicals in our food and, thus, you must be cognizant of the type of calories you consume.

Ultimately, the human body can “get fat” from decreased insulin sensitivity — we become insulin resistant.

Insulin is the primary key that unlocks an adipose cell, and as insulin gets released, it either opens the door for energy to be used or keeps the door shut. When you have sustained insulin in your blood, eventually, fat cells will become insulin resistant.

At that point, no matter how much insulin is released, that fat cell continues to grow in size because it is in a positive state of influx. It is important to understand that insulin is an anabolic hormone, it’s purpose is to help things grow in size.

We can trigger this process of becoming insulin-resistant in many ways, such as consuming refined grains, processed sugar and unhealthy oils, being under constant stress, doing minimal exercise, not getting enough sunlight, and more.

As we become more insulin resistant, our bodies develop a low-grade systemic inflammatory response. This response is full of macrophages that promote more inflammation and further drive fat cell formation — and is the real root cause of obesity.

The Inflammation at the Root of Obesity — and Health Risk

Understanding the inflammation process begins with understanding that fat cells can grow in two ways:

  • Hypertrophy, in which the fat cell actually grows in size
  • Hyperplasia, in which there are numerous small fat cells

As our fat cells expand or multiply, they become more insulin resistant, and as they become more insulin resistant, they grow and multiply.

With hypertrophic fat cells, the cells continually grows in size and, eventually, become so big that they smother all the components (nucleus, mitochondria) in the cell (Bikman, 2020). That causes cell death due to the cell struggling to remain active cells. They then have to add vascularity to keep themselves alive, which drives even more inflammation because more blood has to be pushed to the fatty area.

Remember that fat cells can only do what insulin tells them.

Insulin must be elevated for fat to increase, and it must be elevated for long periods for fat to grow. Once the fat cell becomes insulin resistant, the fat cell starts to leak its fatty contents in the form of inflammatory proteins or free fatty acids.

These two come together and make ceramides, which cause yet more inflammation and can — and will — gather in your brain, blood vessels, muscles, and organs and form a new insulin-resistant fat.

It is this process that continues over and over and which leads to obesity. But this viscous cycle does not end there — six of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States are linked to insulin resistance and its resulting inflammation (, 2021).

Breaking the Obesity Pattern

Overcoming these challenges requires a combination of re-education and re-focus.

Most people are unaware that fast food is full of processed sugars and toxic oils, or that most foods in stores are sprayed with chemicals such as glyphosate. We do not realize that sugar is one of the most addictive substances in the world, or that companies routinely add processed sugar to foods and drinks to trigger a dopamine response that leads to addiction.

In a study by Baune et al. (2007), they found that 94% of rats that were free to consume either water with sugar or cocaine chose the sugar water. They concluded by stating, “intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and addicted individuals.”

Instead of educating the ever-growing America (and, increasingly, world), we continually promote convenience foods, sugar-filled cereals, or refined carbohydrates.

So, what’s the fix — particularly if you’re struggling with fat and obesity? Is it simply to eat less and move more? 

Doctors and government officials have been telling us that’s the answer for the last 50 years — or longer. But if that were true, would the obesity rate still be almost 50% in America?

Instead, the answer is to focus on the types and quality of the food you consume, and the way in which you consume it.

We need to focus on the type of calories we’re eating and the time in which you eat them, rather than only focusing on the number of them. Restricted caloric intake is sufficient long-term and improves “both the median and maximal lifespan in a variety of lower species” (Redman, 2011). Fasting is an example of limiting the calorie intake to a certain time window and restricting calorie intake.

You also need to look at how you’re eating. For instance, intermittent fasting has incredible health benefits, including improved insulin sensitivity, mental clarity, improved body composition, reduced inflammation, improved cardiovascular health, autophagy, increased mitochondria density, and more.

Two of these benefits (improved insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation) directly impact weight gain and influence metabolic conditions.

Defeating Obesity: An Immune-centric Future

It all comes down to breaking the viscous cycle of insulin resistance and replacing it with a virtuous one: control your insulin to control your inflammation, which controls your fat.

And, as your body composition (including waist circumference), is directly related to your health, managing your insulin is a direct path to controlling — and improving — it!

This powerful connection is why I do everything to keep insulin at a stable level when I work with people in my program. I believe it will lead to a future based on immune-centric nourishment, in which we eat to control our health, our genes, and microbiome, rather than our looks — and kick obesity for good!

Image credit: Marijana1, Conscious Design and Joshua Coleman.

Tyler Lesher joined FAU as an assistant athletic trainer in November 2020. He comes to the Owls after spending the last four years in the NBA. Most recently, Lesher served as the head athletic trainer/strength and conditioning specialist for the Greensboro Swarm, the Charlotte Hornets’ NBA G League affiliate. Lesher worked for the Hornets from August 2017 up to his November 2020 departure for FAU. Lesher’s fist NBA opportunity came with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In Cleveland, where Lesher worked from September 2016 to May 2017, Lesher served as an intern athletic trainer. Lesher was also the strength and conditioning/assistant athletic trainer for the Canton Charge, the Cavs’ NBA G League affiliate. After earning a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from New Mexico State University in 2014, Lesher worked as a men’s basketball graduate assistant athletic trainer for California State University, Chico. He pursued a master’s degree in kinesiology at Chico while on the job from 2014 to 2015. After earning his graduate degree, Lesher returned to New Mexico to serve as an assistant athletic trainer at Onate High School in 2016. He worked with all the school’s sports teams during his tenure. Lesher is a certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) and Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES). He also has dry needling certifications and is a Precision Nutrition certified coach. Tyler is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Health Science and Exercise Leadership from California University of Pennsylvania, focusing on nutrition and the reduction of systemic inflammation. Click here to visit his site



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