The Obesity Code

The Obesity Code
© 2016 Jason Fung
326 pages


Jason Fung begins with a question: why are there fat doctors?   If the conventional analysis  of fat and its prescription are accurate, why do many people struggle to make long-term headway against obesity?   The Obesity Code  argues the case against the caloric model, presenting its own: obesity is a multi-factorial disease,  one whose chief driver, insulin, is sorely unappreciated.   Related to Gary Taubes’ work arguing for the hormonal model (Good Calories, Bad Calories;  Why We Get Fat; The Case Against Sugar) and others,  The Obesity Code wraps up with advice for attacking fat by land, air, and sea. Those trying to understand the challenge of obesity, either for personal or social reasons, will find it a helpful resource — though one marginally diminished by its breeziness.

Fung begins by dismantling the caloric model,  both in theory and in practice, evaluating numerous studies which demonstrate the inadequacy of the calories in, calories out approach. The body responds to a drop in its caloric intake the same way those of us not holding political office respond to a drop in our income;  it spends less.  Those who attempt to eat less than they need, at the same time trying to increase their activity,  will find themselves beset with misery and cravings.   The crucial misstep in the caloric model is that it misses how fat is regulated by the body — every body, regardless of age or health.   Hormones drive the creation, dispersal, and use of fat, whether the case is girls developing curves in middle school or both sexes fighting the pudge amid their freshmen years in college. Although the main manager of fat is insulin, Fung points to several other factors, notably cortisol — a stress hormone that, if consistently present in the body, reliably drives weight up.

Because the lion’s share of weight problems are driven by by how modern diets interact with the insulin cycle in our bodies,  Fung devotes more attention to that factor than any others.  He uses an interesting example of money management to explain how it works.  After a meal, your body is flush in glucose and insulin, the latter of which has emerged  with one job: to get the glucose where it needs to be. That will be into your cells, at first, but you don’t need that much energy at one time, so it converts the glucose into glycogens, which it stores in the liver. Fung likens this to a wallet: it’s easy for insulin to move glucose in and out of the liver.   Wallets, though, have limits to how much they can hold — and so insulin creates fat to store the rest.    Because people in the modern world never stop eating,  we continually keep the short-term storage filled to capacity, and the fat stores…..are never touched.   If someone truly wants to lose weight,  they need to give their bodies time to empty the short-term storage and then begin using the long-term. This will not happen if they snack throughout the day, even if they’re just sipping a diet soda:     artificial sweeteners may not have calories, but they still summon forth insulin hormones to patrol around looking for glucose to store, and so long as insulin is around, it’s not letting your fat escape.  Fung advocates the practice of intermittent fasting (which can be something as simple as a no-snacks rule to reducing eating windows in a given day, to extensive multiday fasts)  to address the insulin problem head on. He’s written extensively on fasting’s application for both obesity and diabetes.

The Obesity Code is not a rehash of Gary Taubes’ work, though, because Fung addresses more factors — cortisol, for instance, and the body’s sleep cycle, and considers various kinds of diets.   There are several diets that work within the hormonal model, like Atkins and Keto,  but following a specific diet in perpetuity is difficult for most people. There are some items that should be avoided, like sugar and  highly processed foods,  but regulating the when of our food intake is more important than banning or promoting whole classes of macronutrients. Yung partially echoes Michael Pollan’s food rules:  Eat real food, not too much of it, and mostly plants.

1. Reduce your consumption of added sugars. 2. Reduce your consumption of refined grains. 3. Moderate your protein intake. 4. Increase your consumption of natural fats. 5. Increase your consumption of fiber and vinegar.

More importantly, however, he asks the reader to consider the virtues of current political and medical practices in the light of the hormonal model’s accuracy.  If the hormonal model is true, then Americans are being taxed to provide subsidies to the very companies growing products destroying our health;    and even more disturbingly, if the model is true,  the conventional treatment for type 2 diabetes will only lead to its growing progressively worse,  and inducing obesity in the bargain.

I began reading The Obesity Code merely as a reminder for what I knew:  I dropped a lot of weight in a short amount of time back in 2011-2012, and Taubes and others were the ones who helped me make sense of how that had happened.*  Yung’s work proved far more expansive than I figured for. While Gary Taubes’ work  is more professionally presented (Yung has a casual style),  there’s no denying the amount of useful content here. I can well understand its positive reception among those seeking to understand obesity both personally and as a medical crisis.



* In autumn 2011 I was diagnosed with hypertension. I was still looking for work and couldn’t afford to stay on medication, so I changed my diet to avoid high-salt foods, and began neighborhood walks because exercise was supposed to be combative as well.  Starting from the high 300s, I dropped down to 206 thanks to a diet very low in processed foods. I blame Mexican food and IPAs for never being able to crack the 200 barrier —  I love  tacos al pastor more than I love the idea of being in the hundred club.

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10 Responses to The Obesity Code

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I’ve long considered weight to be a (relatively) simple energy/calories issue. More in than out you gain weight. Less in than out you lose weight. Naturally it’s a bit more complicated than that – but not much. We are ‘designed’ by evolution to crave foods that provide lots of energy for little work. A few millimetres of fat could be the difference between life and death on the savanna or the tundra. But we’ve designed our world – at least in the ‘West’ – to give us that kind of food on demand (and we are a VERY demanding species) so naturally we put on far more than a few millimetres! But at base its still about reducing energy intake *whilst eating well*. You don’t need to starve – which is a bad thing in *so* many ways – but to regulate your diet. It’s that simple and that hard.

    • Fung describes caloric intake as the proximate cause like attributing a ship’s sinking to the amount of water entering its hold — but the ultimate cause is the hole. In our case, the constant stimulation of insulin is the hole.

      Intermittent fasting doesn’t involve starvation. Most who practice it will skip a meal a day, sometimes two — but they’ll make sure to eat a varied, full meal that one time. I’ve found that I can almost always skip breakfast, because I’m simply not hungry when I wake up. According to those who have tried longer fasts (Upton Sinclair wrote a book called The Fasting Cure, which I read this year) remark that hunger disappears after the first two days. I’ve done a 48 hour fast myself, and found that while I wasn’t particularly hungry, I did terribly miss the *fun* of eating — the taste of sweetened coffee, or cheese. It’s also something of a…wisdom exercise, one I think the Epicureans and Stoics would approve of for different reasons.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        I was ill with flu a few years back and didn’t eat anything for around 72 hours without feeling any hunger pangs. The only reason I ate anything after that was the thought that it might cause me problems – especially whilst running such a high temperature. Skipping a meal isn’t really a problem for me. I can’t really remember the last time I was actually *hungry* – as in definite calorie deficit. I eat through habit, because I have to and because what I eat tastes nice. I’m gaining weight ATM for two reasons: I’m not as active as I was at work and I have more time to eat. Not a great combination! So trying to increase my output and control my input (at least a bit more!) and trying to eat less processed food!

      • Something I’ve noticed…no one can out-run a bad diet. Best of luck from a fellow fighter…

  2. Marian says:

    That reminds me, I’ve been waiting for the Fung fasting EBOOK from the library since your review back in February. *mild grumbling* Anyway this sounds very interesting, too. I lost 15lb since October, and the fasting was a big part of it… I went back to no breakfast (or very light breakfast), cut out candy/snacks, and started walking. Did not know about vinegar for weight loss, though I’ve heard good things about apple cider vinegar. Is that something you’ve tried?

    • I haven’t, but it’s recommended favorably in here. One of my coworkers often talks about its virtues, but she’s never gotten around to actually trying it!

      Congratulations on the loss! 🙂

  3. Lots of interesting information to consider. I want to be thinner again, but like you I love tacos and I especially love cheese. I know dairy is not so good but I don’t think I would want to live in a world where I could not eat cheese.

    • I’m aided somewhat in that the coronaitine seems to have killed off my favorite local Mexican place. Now I have to drive 40 minutes if I want to eat Mexican food that isn’t the same ol’ tacos & quesadillas. I’m with you on the cheese. It’s my go-to guilt-free snack.

      • I realized I might have an addiction to cheese when I was making tacos one night and Eleanor came up and started eating shredded cheese right out of the bag. Clearly she learned that behavior from SOMEONE, lol.

        That is such bad news for the Mexican restaurant you liked. Maybe they will be able to re-open in the future? A place I love in my grandparents’ town had posted on Facebook that they were closing until further notice because they were not able to stay in business on curbside pick-up alone, and thought they would be closing for good. I was heartbroken. But a couple weeks ago they announced they would be re-opening for dine-in (with appropriate regulations and precautions) again.

      • Two months ago, FB gossip just said they were doing some work inside the place. But more recent gossip says they’re permanently closed. Well…I can’t say I didn’t take advantage of them while they existed, because I was there every single week!

        LOL on your daughter on the shredded cheese. My father was that way with block cheese, and I’ve inherited the habit. I just cut off a chunk and nibble on it like a big mouse.

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