Catching Up With Leptin Pioneer KAT JAMES
Interview with TotalHealth editors
Editor’s Note: For Kat James it’s been a long journey, not only from dying to thriving, but on her twenty-five-year road from being a lone voice in her once-controversial (but clearly effective) method of transforming herself and others, to the scientifically vindicated and internationally endorsed pioneer we are proud to feature in this interview. Her own extraordinary inside-out transformation and that of many others who have adopted her extremely unique lifestyle protocol—which harnesses the power of the “master hormone” leptin—have been featured here, in TotalHealth, and in many other forward-thinking magazines over the years. But with the recent turning of the scientific and popular tides away from what James calls “the fat-phobic, dietary dark age” and the controversial recent headlines and media rhetoric regarding the Biggest Loser study (with its cryptic mention of leptin), we couldn’t think of a more fitting expert to shed light—not only on the critical hormone leptin—but on what a post dark-age health renaissance could look like.
TWIP: Kat, it’s been six years since you last graced our cover, but it’s been twenty-five years since that dying woman you once were hit bottom and pieced together a new way of living out of desperation to save her own life. After nearly two decades of sharing your pioneering Program and honing your results with others through your Total Transformation® Programs, it must be gratifying to finally see your long-challenged, core dietary principles not only scientifically validated, but possibly the hottest new direction in nutrition. Could you share some of the new science that has turned the dietary tides with readers?
KJ: Sure. Recently, the largest dietary studies in history by far, such as Stanford’s A to Z study and the Swedish Council on Health and Technology Assessment review of 16,000 dietary studies, have clearly invalidated 40 years of faulty, and what many believe to be politically and economically-driven dietary disinformation and shown clearly that low-carb— and especially very low carb, high-fat diets like mine—reign supreme for both weight loss and health outcomes. Sweden has officially acknowledged “LCHF” (Low Carb High Fat) as the healthiest diet as has Norway. The USDA won’t “go there” yet, but they did strike cholesterol from their list of things to avoid for the first time since 1980. Lard recently won out over other common “healthy” oils in one study for promoting the greatest longevity in calorie-restricted rodents. Another study showed that low carb was the diet that allowed cancer- fighting herbs like turmeric to actually work (they could not in the presence of sugar). Very low carb diets are being used as cancer treatment. “The fat-phobic, dietary dark age is officially over.”
TWIP: The rash of headlines and media stories about the Biggest Loser study struck a personal as well as scientific nerve with you. Can you share what the study “found” and some of your personal reasons as to why the study and the conclusions and commentary have you concerned?
KJ: To make it brief, the study found that all but one of the season eight winners studied over six years gained their weight back, and all virtually destroyed their metabolisms and bottomed out their leptin levels with the show’s regimen. What was left out of the articles I read was a detailed look at what their “winning” regimens actually were (generally low fat foods, calorie restriction and a ton of exercise). Instead it was simplistically concluded that the only “solution” is more of the same... or surgery or, of course, drugs. A new drug mimicking leptin was mentioned in one of the major articles, with suggestion that obesity should be treated as a chronic disease with life-long drug “therapy.” The conclusions effectively assert that what I did for myself and have helped others consistently do for nearly two decades—lose weight and gain incredible health without struggle, cravings, or metabolic backlash— is impossible. And what the stories failed to touch on in my view is that the critical key to effortless normal weight—the opposite of what I experienced for the first half of my obese and diseased life—is recovering our body’s function of the “master hormone,” leptin. When that is lost, there is no satiety signal to the brain and no burning of fat. In fact the body will stay in a famine, fat-storing mode and never know when to stop eating as long as your brain can’t “read” leptin. Beyond that, which I can get into in a moment, are leptin’s regulation of virtually all hormonal, neurological, immune, inflammatory, digestive, and energy productive systems in the body are lost. No leptin-like drug can bring that life-changing sensitivity to leptin back. Only we can, through diet, and my clients and I are proof that it’s not only possible to do this in a matter of days, but also the most struggle-free way to lose weight and live at peak health.
TWIP: Before we get into the science on leptin, we know that you became an expert on it from what is now seventeen years of hands-on and observational work with countless retreat participants. But your greatest lesson might be from your own brush with mortality and what you thought was a hopeless eating disorder, long before leptin was even discovered in 1994. Could you share some of that journey to your own dramatic transformation?
KJ: By 1990 my twelve-year eating disorder digressed into autoimmune thyroid and skin syndromes, then near liver failure. With no Internet I researched the notorious immunosuppressant drug I was supposed to take, finding that there was not much hope for healing my liver unless I looked at alternatives. I was skeptical about herbs but wound up surprising both my doctor and myself by bringing my sky-high liver enzymes back to normal over a few months by taking them. But my bingeing, even on organic “health foods” continued hopelessly, in spite of “white knuckling” my way through each day, determined not to succumb. Then several months later, on two occasions, while traveling, I experienced strange, fleeting periods of respite from the usual cravings, energy slumps, and moodiness. These two, distinctive “incidents” were so bizarre to me that I became obsessed with replicating that unforgettable feeling of freedom for more than a year, writing down any food combination, omission, or addition that preceded that phenomenon, but unable to sustain it continually. The one food that always preceded that elusive, deeply-sated, calm state, was the last food I would have imagined would soon become my go-to “sanity” food: Fat. At first I added fat to my grains, sprouted bread, beans, and stir-fries. I’d been vegetarian for seven years. I was amazed, though, at how each time I decreased those things and even cooked vegetables, and upped the fat, I could sustain that “freedom feeling” longer and longer. I could not imagine ever cutting them out altogether, though. Even more unimaginable would be cutting out dozens of other health foods and beverages that I would eventually learn could yank me out of that amazing new way of feeling.
TWIP: What changes had you experienced physically at that point? And when did you achieve what you call “the flip” into leptin sensitivity?
KJ: My weight loss and skin changes had become significant just from those preliminary dietary changes. My body even rejected the coffee that I drank a lot of. But nothing prepared me for what would happen when I decided to cut out all grains, starches, juices, and low fat stuff, and anything else that I’d been eating prior to any energy lulls—even at lunch and dinner... About two days into this innocent experiment, several truly shocking things happened:
- My appetite suddenly dropped by about half. I found myself staring at the remainder of my mouthwatering lunch and could not eat another bite. It was surreal.
- My energy suddenly became so steady that I forgot about the time of day or when the next meal was. 10 a.m. felt the same as 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.
- A sudden loss of facial and body-wide swelling—unmoved by years of intense exercise—visibly reduced overnight. My rings spun in the morning. Clothes were immediately loose, and finally:
- My body suddenly demanded much more fat (as in, immediately). This was not premeditated or learned, but an unexpected, “primal” physical demand that stunned me.
My body no longer “saw” most of what was in my refrigerator as food. I was bewildered by this new urge. No meal thereafter was complete without ample fat. A week or so later, I was compelled to eat meat again after seven years. Not too many mornings after that, I remember washing off my makeup, mid- application, realizing that a different person was looking back at me from the mirror.
Then came the “incredible shrinking woman” phase, which continued, uninterrupted, for two more years until I’d lost 10 dress sizes. I became literally unrecognizable, even to a high school friend at a reunion, who wouldn’t believe it was me standing two feet in front of him, even after a conversation. In addition, virtually every chronic, head-to-toe condition I’d accepted as my fate fell away during this time Gone were the painful canker sores, bladder infections, bloating, black moods, sniffling, flaking, red eye and chin rashes and dry skin, dizziness upon standing, and blurry vision. Last but not least, the bingeing demon that had controlled me for more than a decade vanished, never to return, not even for a day in the twenty-five years since. Family and colleagues assumed it was willpower. It wasn’t. It was profound, permanent, mind- blowing biochemical peace.
TWIP: That is truly an incredible chain of events. How did your change in appearance affect your beauty career? Did the media want to know how you transformed yourself?
KJ: People were clamoring to know... but the “industry” had its hands tied. At the time I was a celebrity makeup artist, working with several top magazines. The art directors and photo crews were extremely inquisitive (if not shocked) about what was happening to me physically, especially when they saw how I was eating. I worked in a sea of anorexics and fat-phobes, mind you. It was ironic that the cosmetic company spokesperson contracts that started pouring in were all offers for me to talk about superficial beauty on camera and flash my “before and after,” but never featured the details of how I transformed myself. Imagine talking about what color lipstick makes the teeth look whiter and what color eyeshadow goes where but not being allowed to talk about what transformed me beyond recognition without struggle. I was to be interviewed by a top morning show anchor, only as long as I didn’t get detailed about diet or talk about supplements (a huge part of my initial recovery, as the show had a lot of drug company sponsors). A major magazine ran a “vanilla-fied” version of my story with photos and some Stuart Smalley-type motivational stuff, but again, they didn’t want any dietary details. In fact they found mine somewhat disturbing. Fat phobia was the “cutting edge” then, so I sounded like a freak. One food editor at a well-known magazine would not even stand near me at our photo shoot after I told her that it was fat that had most transformed my body, my brain, and my relationship with food.
An “extreme makeover” reality show pursued me to play the “lead motivator” role. I took issue with the low fat and calorie counting, shaming weigh-ins and constant plastic surgery. I passed on what would have been instant fame and fortune, knowing that no reality show would be interested in anything that could make all the suffering, shame, and drama obsolete. Solutions just aren’t sexy. If I’d sold out then, thousands would never have had their lives transformed by my “weird,” non-intuitive methods, which, by the way, TotalHealth has been kind enough to allow me to talk about over the years. I (and countless others) can literally thank you and the handful of other magazines who believed that I was “on to something,” long before the medical establishment began to acknowledge the inconvenient science.
TWIP: How long did it take for you to learn, with limited science and support, that you were on to something big that could help others? And how did you start to share what you’d learned?
KJ: Years passed, but I kept waking up to the same incredible “dream” of literally effortless physical freedom. I researched to find clues as to what I’d done, but no dietary information aligned with what I’d discovered for myself. Much later I came across Atkins and even met him, but I was eating much more fat, much less protein, very different foods than his diet, and my physical changes were far broader. In the meantime I watched my powerful little health savior, fat, become demonized more than ever, and watched healthy people steered by nutritionists toward rice cakes and Snackwells, bringing on the same dangerous food obsession, weight struggle, and mental anguish (setting the stage for today’s obesity and psyche drug eras) in the average person that I’d narrowly escaped when it was still rare.
Publishers wanted a “beauty book” from me. But I finally found one who would let me write The Truth About Beauty. I set up my “research lab” in the form of “transformation cruises” for women and the men they dragged along (little did I know it was the only such real-time lab in the world that was observing the transition into leptin sensitivity, as it happened). I quickly confirmed that what I’d done for myself could work for others. After fifteen years of honing and eliminating surprising foods that hindered success or threw off peoples’ glucometer readings—such as juices (even vegetable), coffee, and even most coffee substitutes, nut flours and milks, and butters (in certain quantities or combinations) most protein powders, bits of carb or alcohol in flavorings and tinctures and much more—I could predictably guide others through the same set of sudden changes I’d had, consistently, on the third or fourth day. I’d come to call that set of sudden changes, the “flip.”
TWIP: You worked with groups, individuals, and even celebrities and pro athletes for years before you understood the leptin mechanism you’d harnessed. When did you first learn about leptin and how did that change your work?
KJ: At a function in 1994 I met the scientist who’d just identified leptin at Rockefeller University, Jeffrey Friedman. When I heard about its weight loss and satiety effects in rodent studies, which had the pharmaceutical world salivating for a blockbuster drug, I did not make the connection between leptin and the countless ways—far beyond weight—that I had been transformed. Those other capabilities of leptin were yet to be discovered. Then ten years later, by an amazing coincidence, I was describing the “flip” phenomenon I was helping people achieve to a group at a book signing, when one of the foremost experts in the world on leptin, Dr. Ron Rosedale—whose book signing followed mine—heard me talking about the shocking appetite and weight drop-offs, the bizarre sudden calmness... and the end of portion control, “as long as carbs were radically cut, and you eat a lot of fat and extremely few carbs.” At that, his jaw dropped. I figured that a heated debate would follow (I was use to it), but instead he said: “You are resensitizing people to the hormone leptin. And you’re one of the only ones.” He’d been doing it at his diabetes clinics since around 1990, too.
From that day, knowing about this “master hormone” secreted by every human’s white fat cells, gave me a new perspective on each area of health recovery I continued to witness, whether it was thyroid, mental clarity, weight, ADHD, fertility, energy, epilepsy, digestive, mood, skin, allergies, and countless other issues. The emerging science on leptin—as a quick Pubmed search on it will show you—explains it all. More than 8000 studies show leptin’s multi-faceted hormone-regulating, tissue-healing, and anti-inflammatory effects. It even was found in 2014 that leptin has direct impact on creating favorable microbial balance in our guts, which we now know to be a huge factor in obesity, immunity, and even personality. Most affirming of all for me was it’s impact on eating disorders and all addictions, via its balancing effects on dopamine pathways and ability to grow the cerebral cortex (our self-control center), and its ability to balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, explaining why most people who resensitize to it describe a sudden clear- headedness and calmness. Its immune-modulating effects explained why my autoimmune thyroid and skin problems cleared up and why so many at my events quickly lose their food sensitivities—even to dairy. Leptin even frees up testosterone, improving muscle to fat ratio independent of exercise as well as libido, in both men and women. That explained the fitness model from Canada that attended my Costa Rica Program and had to fire his trainer who insisted he’d started steroids.
For me, the mystery was over. And you wonder why no one hears of this hormone whose recovered function—achieved only by dietary avoidance of all blood sugar and insulin spikes and plenty of fat—could make every blockbuster drug obsolete.
TWIP: After being a lone voice for so long, what do you make of all of the new popular diets cutting out sugar and grains and of the Johnny-come-latelies promoting fat and even leptin in the last few years—many of them literally eating their fat- phobic words?
KJ: I’m thrilled that the truth about fat has more medical and media advocacy now (although I’m amazed at how many people and even doctors still don’t hear it!) but there is widespread misunderstanding among those newly-converted fat and cholesterol-phobes as to how the everyday, higher-fat dietary application will play out on peoples’ plates and in their real lives outside the clinical setting—especially for those with food, yeast, adrenal, and other crazy-making or compliance issues that I’ve observed will inevitably influence their choices and health outcomes. For the ultimate goal in my view— sensitivity to the hormone leptin (where the end of the need for willpower and a quantum leap in fat burning come into view)— is off the table because it requires individually calibrating one’s dietary choices for their own unique thresholds and that takes brand new knowledge. It is not intuitive. And the “deal- breaker” food choices I see in virtually all books that talk about leptin are rampant. In fact, I am saddened to think how many people who are desperate to experience the same level of permanent freedom that I have maintained for decades, never will if they are following any one-size-fits-all, low-carb(ish) guidelines that can only work for what I call “Tarzan Types” but not for the metabolically challenged folk like I was, who, today, make up the vast majority of people. In other words, the science on leptin is well established, but the dietary execution is a complex new frontier. The observational study I’ve done for nearly two decades—literally observing peoples’ every bite and what makes (or interferes with) this “flip” happen over a five-day period—has been a very unique and telling way for me to hone my regimen.
TWIP: It is surprising how limited dietary studies really are. Other than population studies, most human studies are based on voluntary food reporting. There is literally no one living along with people through this process, in control of, and observing food intake over multiple days, as you have. What do you see as the biggest caveats in today’s low-glycemic, paleo, gluten-free, among others being promoted?
KJ: All of the diets you just mentioned—although people may feel incredible improvements—are generally rife with “leptin loopholes” such as excess protein (spikes insulin and is pro- cancer), superfood powders, tinctures, coffee, alcohol, nut powders, butters, and milks, types of chocolate, tomato sauce and more, which can—at certain amounts and in combinations in challenged people—halt leptin sensitivity.
Most don’t realize that they could be far freer of energy lulls, weight loss “plateaus,” sleep, joint, thyroid, autoimmune, skin, mood, or any remaining cravings issues if they avoided the dangers of excess protein—which most people gravitate to naturally when they cut out obvious sugars, go even lower carb, eat even higher fat, and include saturated animal fat and cholesterol from grass-fed products. Just how high and how low depends on a person’s history, genetic heritage, and current metabolic health. That is what I teach people to determine, based on symptoms. Going “all the way” is especially important for those with stubborn weight, energy, sleep, yeast, autoimmune, and mood or cognitive issues like I had. It is also a must for those who experience epilepsy or migraines, “itises” and “incurables” they’ve accepted as a part of aging. Once mastered, it’s a stunning mechanism you can turn on or off at will, once you understand your own thresholds for doing so. No more counting. No more portion control (you never experience hunger once you are leptin sensitive). If you’ve done it right, it can be maintained by feel. The little known requirements to make that happen are what people (and most experts) are missing.
Because of my own former addicted history (which was deeply healed with leptin functioning and various supplements I put together), I truly understand the “psyche” of food obsession, including being a “foodie” (which I still am and enjoy with more peace and satisfaction than ever). I’ve become an expert at strategizing what I call “loophole exploitation avoidance” for people by customizing their food choices to “scratch their itches” without interfering with their biochemical progress. There is no more biochemical craving once leptin signal is back. But there is some nostalgia involved in our relationship with food. Even fear in the transition, as it is nearly impossible to convince people that their taste-buds and sense of smell also transform, so the foods they fear they will miss will no longer appeal. No more willpower is required. Only logistics and planning. Without this critical understanding I believe it is impossible—whether scientist, author, doctor, or otherwise—to go beyond just talking about the science of leptin and seeing temporary results. Other major experts on the hormone agree that the psychological and culinary aspects are critical for long- term compliance, which for most leptin experts, has remained elusive.
TWIP: How does one know if they’ve succeeded and achieved leptin signaling in the brain?
KJ: If one doesn’t experience what I call a “day of reckoning” (several types of transition and/or withdrawal symptoms, including a temporary drop-off of energy and likely yeast die- off symptoms) before the body accepts fat as its primary fuel, followed by the aforementioned “flip” including the sudden appetite drop-off, strong new preference for (and burning of) fat, and other symptoms I mentioned previously, then leptin function still hasn’t been recovered. Only once you’ve achieved it, can you actually feel what it’s like to fall out of it, which becomes an obvious, unpleasant reminder of the subtle (or not so) misery you lived in before without realizing it. If I ate what most people eat for breakfast (even “advanced” health food eaters) I’d look, feel, and function like I used to (as if I was twenty years older) by this weekend. Good thing I have zero taste for what most people eat for breakfast, which I once was addicted to. The “flip” goes both ways, but few realize they are only a handful of days away from the flip into the “freedom zone” I’ve lived in for twenty-five amazing years.
TWIP: You clearly demonstrate physically that there has been no backsliding through your photos through the years [see photos at beginning of interview] and I understand that you don’t do formal exercise or limit your food intake. There is much more to talk about in your future articles. We are excited that this is only the first of several upcoming articles focusing on the role of leptin in a variety of issues ranging from menopause to thyroid, to autoimmune disorders and even how it affects personality through its recently identified impact on dopamine pathways and even our microbial balance, affecting obesity, as well as ongoing success stories from your work. In the meantime, thank you for lighting brushfires for so long to illuminate these incredible truths that were clearly suppressed for so long and taking the time to discuss it with our readers.