Irish To Be Fattest In Europe- Why?

I’ve been sitting here for the bones of 20 minutes, thinking of what exactly to write about. I’m not a huge blogger. The Irish Introvert is the only blog I follow consistently, so I don’t really know how this is meant to go. I’ll start by introducing myself, I suppose.

Call me Fionnj (with a non-silent j). ‘The Guru’ might be a step too far, just yet. I’m a sports science graduate, and a PhD researcher in Nutrition. I’m investigating the performance and health implications of consuming a high carbohydrate diet, versus a low carbohydrate, high fat ketogenic (LCHF) diet. I first became aware of LCHF diets during my undergrad, and my initial thoughts were- ‘what, that must be nonsense’.

I was intrigued.

After completing 4th year, I spent the summer working at GNC in Brooklyn (a supplement chain). A research opportunity arose at WIT in August 2014, so I decided to cut my J1 in New York short and return home for an interview (heart-breaking at the time, but it payed off).

Up until that point, I would have considered my diet good- or ‘clean’ or ‘healthy’ as you might say. I personally dislike those two words. They are constantly thrown around the fitness industry with little or no meaning.

Since then my knowledge has grown, and my views on nutrition have changed significantly; I now view nutrition through a metabolism lens.

Today, I’ve decided to cover something very topical in the media this week, which is the obesity epidemic in Ireland.

Source: Irish Independent

Where do we go from here?

Eat less, and exercise more.

– Popular belief

I’m sure you’ve heard that little nugget of advice before, but is it actually well-founded?

Bouchard et al. (1997) carried out an incredibly well controlled trial using seven sets of identical twins. It was laboratory based, so meals were individually prescribed, and exercise was monitored daily. Each participant consumed a diet that should have maintained their weight for 93 days (so energy balance). On top of that, they exercised vigorously for 2 hours a day, so that each twin had a daily calorie deficit of 624 kcals. In theory, each twin should have lost in excess of 8 kg during the 93 day intervention.

Source: Bouchard et al.

Source: Bouchard et al.


As you can see in the graph above, only one set of twins lost 8 kg (Twin Pair 7). One twin lost 1kg and his identical brother lost 2 kg (Twin Pair 1). Now, take a look at Twin Pair’s 2-6. What we can take away from this study, is that there is great variability between twins, and twin pairs, so telling someone to eat less, and exercise more in order to lose weight, isn’t entirely accurate.

What works for others, won’t necessarily work for you.

So what’s causing people to gain weight?

Two things.

1. People’s lives have become increasingly sedentary.

2. People’s diets have become increasingly high in carbohydrates, and I don’t mean carbohydrates derived from green leafy vegetables.

People’s diets have seen significant increases in processed foods, and low fat products. For those of you who are unaware- yes brands are telling the truth when they say that their products are ‘low fat’, as they have removed the fat. However, they replace that fat with sugar, to give it flavour.

What are carbohydrates used for?

Carbohydrates are most efficiently utilized during high intensity exercise, for example, a 1RM lift in the gym, or a 100m sprint. Lower intensity activities such as walking, jogging or sitting at your desk in work, are more suited to fat metabolism.

So what happens if you eat a high intensity food like porridge or corn flakes for breakfast, and do a low intensity exercise like cardio, or sit at your desk in work? Access to your fat cells is blocked by carbohydrates; as you cannot store them in appreciable amounts (only 300-400g in glycogen), you’re prioritized into metabolising them for energy. Inevitably, you don’t burn them all off, as you are exercising at too low an intensity. What happens to the excess carbohydrates? Excess carbohydrates are stored as fat in your fat cells.

The ability to metabolise carbohydrates varies greatly from person to person. Some people can tolerate 400+g/d, and can easily maintain a low percentage body fat. However, another person may only be able to tolerate 100-150 g/d, and anything in excess of this will cause them to gain weight.

People who gain weight easily have an intolerance to carbohydrates, and this is a result of having some level of insulin resistance. If this is the case, they need to restrict carbohydrates to a level at which they can tolerate. Similarly, if you were lactose or gluten intolerant, you would restrict lactose or gluten to a level at which your body can tolerate. If your goal is to lose weight, you should restrict carbohydrate, and increase fat in your diet, not protein.

Here’s a list of research for the cynics out there, which you can look up in your spare time. Research shows that a high fat diet is more effective for weight loss and weight management, than a low fat diet.

Source: Fionn McSwiney

So if you’re a nutritionist, and you’ve been asked to design a diet for someone who wants to lose weight, where should you start? Well it follows, that you should design a diet which will allow access to the persons fat cells, by naturally lowering their insulin levels.


Sugar spikes your blood sugar, this gives you that quick burst of energy, fantastic! However- this spike triggers a release of insulin, a hormone which is secreted by the liver to lower your blood sugar. This process causes a crash in your blood sugar, which is why you experience a slump in energy levels after consuming a high sugar, or high carbohydrate meal. You may be left feeling grumpy, tired, and unmotivated, and this inevitably leads to you eat more carbohydrates and/or sugar to pick yourself up and boost energy levels once more.


Insulin is secreted by the liver to lower your blood sugar; once your blood sugar has crashed, your insulin remains elevated for hours afterwards. Your liver determines how much of the food you consume will be automatically stored as fat. Elevating your insulin levels increases the amount of food your liver automatically stores as fat. So, by just lowering your blood sugar, and lowering your insulin levels, you reduce the amount of food your body automatically stores as fat. Sounds pretty straight forward, right? It is.

Anything else?

Elevated insulin causes a rise in a hormone called cortisol, which causes a decrease in the human growth hormone and testosterone in the body. These are two of the most sought after performance enhancing drugs on the market, and they are naturally occurring within our bodies, but are often suppressed by a poor diet.

The quality of the calories you consume have a profound impact on how you look, feel and perform. Nutrition is really quite simple, so I encourage you to stop over complicating it. You don’t require a scales or a calculator to maintain a healthy body weight, you just need to eat foods that are suited to your metabolism, and your lifestyle.

Simplicity = Effectiveness.

– Fionnj

If you’re not happy with your metabolism, change it.

Ignorance vs Knowledge

This is where I’ll love you, and leave you. I hope at the very least it has been informative, and perhaps has given you food for thought, pardon the pun.

Fionn McSwiney is a PhD researcher and lecturer at Waterford IT; a specialist in the field of Exercise Science and Nutrition. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram– seek out the experts.