It’s January 8, 2014 already. Are you still on the straight and narrow, following your resolutions to get leaner and meaner this year? Or have you given up and gone back to your old habits already?
If you resolved to eat better this year, what happened? Wait, wait don’t tell me. You got too hungry. At some point your stomach was growling, your blood sugar was dropping and you said, ‘to heck with it, I need to eat, now!’
And that is exactly why diets don’t work.
I’m here to tell you, you’ve been sold a wrong bill of goods. If you’ve been told you just need to “eat less and exercise more,” and have done just that, to no avail, it’s not you, it’s them. You are not lazy, you are not gluttonous, you are not weak, but you are metabolically broken.
See, calories in = calories out is a math equation. It even has some basis in physics. It works on paper. It doesn’t work in real-live human beings. Here’s why:
Think about it. Long ago, the amount of fat tissue we carried was crucial. Fat is very energy dense and is our stored reserves of energy. We needed a certain amount of it in order to survive, especially if food became scarce. If you’re female, you definitely needed a certain amount of fat in order to support a pregnancy, which is why females have a higher body fat percentage then males and why they will stop menstruating if their body fat percentage gets too low. Too much fat tissue isn’t ideal either. Back when we lived on the savannas, too much fat tissue would have made it more difficult to escape predators. It’s just like Goldilocks, we need the amount to be “just right.”
Ever notice how some people seem to have no problem maintaining a certain weight, despite their eating habits, while others just look at food and seem to gain weight? Well, there is a reason for it. Several actually, but its a complex topic so I’m only going to address a small part of it here. Researchers who study this sort of thing have proposed a ‘set-point’ hypothesis of weight regulation. What that comes down to is this… the brain has a set point, or weight, that it would like to maintain. It then does everything it can to maintain this weight.
This means that when we eat LESS, our brains DECREASE our metabolism and INCREASE our appetite, to make sure we take in and hold on to enough calories to maintain that set-point weight. Conversely, if we are eating too much our brains should be telling our bodies to INCREASE our metabolism and DECREASE our appetite in over to burn off the excess energy.
Ever notice that animals in the wild don’t get fat? They can get big… there’s enough food out there to make an animal as big as an elephant or as small as a mouse, but they don’t get obese out there. Part of the reason for this is the set-point theory.
Now, how does that come back to hormones? Well, hormones are how your body talks to your brain- and vise versa- about regulation of energy. The thyroid gland, for instance. Normally, if your thyroid gland is humming along and putting enough thyroid hormone out there, the brain is happy and doesn’t need to ramp it up by secreting TSH, thyroid-stimulating hormone. But if thyroid hormone production gets too low and metabolism drops, normally the brain will increase the amount of TSH in order to stimulate the thyroid gland to make more thyroid hormone. Normally. In the case of hypothyroidism, the brain may be telling the thyroid gland to make more thyroid hormone, but the gland can’t for some reason or other. Or maybe it can, but it can’t get delivered to the cells where it will increase metabolism for one reason or another. The result is that metabolism is slowed, while appetite stays the same or increases and the net result being weight gain. Is this person lazy? Are they a pig? Are they lacking self-control with food? NO! Their endocrine system is out of whack and foiling their efforts! (Having hypothyroidism is a not a get out of jail free card here. You still need to watch your diet and exercise, but just know that there is a right way and a wrong way to do this to get results, and if you are going with the old ‘calories in= calories out’ model, this is definitely the WRONG way to get the results you want.)
Another hormone that plays a key role in weight regulation is leptin. Leptin is actually secreted from the fat cells. It then talks to the brain about how much energy we have stored in the fat. The more fat tissue we have, the more leptin we make and vise versa. In normal, metabolically healthy individuals, more leptin signals from the body, especially if we are already at or slightly above our set point, means that our brain tells our body to increase metabolism and reduce appetite to burn off some of extra stored fat tissue that we don’t need. Less leptin signals do the opposite- decrease metabolism and increase appetite. Here’s the problem though, most obese individuals have what’s known as leptin resistance. The fat tissue is making plenty of leptin, but it has been doing so for so long that the brain doesn’t respond to it anymore. Imagine if someone is yelling at you all the time, so you start wearing ear plugs all the time. The ear plugs protect your ears from the yelling, but if that person decides to start whispering, you can’t hear a thing. It’s the same idea with leptin resistance and the only way to get more leptin to get through to the brain is to make more fat tissue.
(Breathe. Most of the science stuff is over. :-))
So if we have an obese individual with leptin resistance, what do you think happens when they try to eat less and exercise more??? That’s right, their body is now afraid that it is in danger of starving to death. It then sends out the message to DECREASE metabolism and INCREASE appetite, the LAST two things you want to have your body do if you are trying to lose weight.
Now, how do we start getting back on track and healing our metabolism? Well, first of all EAT. Think of your metabolism like a fire- if you don’t put a piece of wood on the fire every so often, it goes out. So don’t starve yourself and make sure you eat meals at regular intervals. Some people find that eating SMALL meals every 2-3 hours is really successful for them for this reason. It keeps their metabolic fire stoked. Second, pay attention to what you do eat. Calories in=calories out became popular for a reason- because there is a certain amount of evidence that at some point, the amount of calories you do or do not take in matters. Your best bet is to eat lots of nutrient dense, WHOLE foods. Animal proteins with their accompanying fat will help keep you satisfied by preventing wild swings in your blood sugar levels. Eat most of your carbs as veggies- they have more vitamins and minerals and fewer calories then processed wheat and grain products. By getting the nutrients you need, your body doesn’t need to increase your hunger to get them. And since they are lower in calories, you can eat more while feeling fuller, sooner and longer with fewer calories. Bonus: this method of weight loss doesn’t trigger the brain to defend the set-point weight in the same way as simply forcing a drastic calorie reduction on the body.
In time, when your body learns and begins to trust that it will be fed enough food on a regular basis and it will be fed nutrient dense foods with all the vitamins and minerals it needs to be healthy, it can heal the metabolism and begin to let go of the excess energy it was holding on to, thinking a famine was imminent. Losing weight this way is more natural, requires less discipline and lasts much longer then ‘crash diets’ with drastic calorie restrictions.
So ditch your diet. Eat real, whole foods exclusively. If it has a label with a calorie count on it, it’s probably a good idea to put it back on the shelf. Steer your cart over to the produce aisle and the meat case, where the food requires no labels, because its just food.