Counting calories, exercising to exhaustion, or going fat-free? Do these and other popular weight loss trends really result in sustainable weight loss and good health? Let’s also take a closer look at the science behind weight loss, why diets don’t work, and what you can do instead:
1. Cutting calories just doesn’t cut it.
“Calories” have really been given a bad rap. Physiologically speaking, a “calorie” is just a unit of energy that our cells need to do something with. If we restrict caloric intake below our body’s needs, we may be trading in a few pounds of short-term weight loss for long-term rebound weight gain, and even more difficult weight loss in the future. On a primal physiology level, caloric restriction is perceived as a “threat” to our survival, and like any stressor, promotes the
production of cortisol (stress hormone). Cortisol promotes abdominal fat gain, while chronic deprivation triggers the metabolism into “conservation mode” – to ensure our survival through the “famine” (the body doesn’t know the difference between actual or self-induced famine). Once normal eating habits are restored, the metabolism has been trained for “conservation”, resulting in regaining of the weight that’s been lost, and often even more than before. This is a discouraging pattern that leaves you feeling miserable both during and after the dieting is done.
2. Do the Math: One Calorie Does Not Equal One Calorie
What? Are naturopaths really that bad at math? Allow me to explain. Successful weight loss goes way beyond “calories in < calories out”. Take a calorie’s worth of chicken, of rice and of extra virgin olive oil. You’ll get one calorie of energy from each of them but with incredibly different physiological effects alongside. The calorie’s worth of chicken is diverted to rebuilding your heart muscle; the calorie’s worth of potato is used to pump your heart; the calorie’s worth of oil is used in the protection of some heart cells from oxidative damage.
Let me offer you a more dramatic example. Suppose you consume a 2500 calorie diet consisting of adequate protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and modest amounts of whole grains and fruit. Sounds like a pretty balanced diet, yes? 2500 calories is considered to be more than enough for the “average” adult, yet you might lose weight on this diet because of the composition of the foods providing the calories. Meanwhile, imagine you were to consume a 2500 calorie diet that consisted of only potato starch (100% carbohydrate), no fat, no protein, and no vegetables. Assuming you could persist with this diet for more than approximately one day, you would almost certainly gain weight despite taking in the same daily 2500 calories as the previous diet where you were losing weight. (Please do not actually try this crazy potato starch diet, it is only intended to illustrate my point about not-all-calories-being-created-equal).
In essence, you can free yourself from calorie counting and still lose weight if you consume the correct proportions of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and antioxidants for your individual needs. If you’re not sure, check with your health practitioner.
3. Choose Friendlier Fats
It’s not too good to be true: fat is good for you. Don’t go fat-free! Every dietary fat and oil has a positive contribution to make to our physiology, with these two exceptions: (1) hydrogenated oils (shortening, trans fats) and (2) fried oils (rancid due to high heat and toxic to our cells). That’s right, even saturated fats have a place in a healthy diet and in promoting a healthy metabolism! Saturated fats support cholesterol levels, and cholesterol is used to produce glucagon which promotes fat breakdown, as well as sex hormones such as progesterone, estrogen and testosterone, bile salts, and vitamin D.
Extra virgin olive oil prevents belly fat accumulation and helps break down existing fat cells. Coconut oil also supports fat metabolism and is excellent for cooking as it doesn’t become oxidized (i.e. toxic) at higher heat. Omega 3 fats from seeds, nuts, flax seed oil fish and fish oils stimulate leptin, a hormone that naturally decreases the appetite. Fish oils also encourage sugars to be stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, instead of converted into fat tissue. Fish oils are also naturally anti-inflammatory, and anything that we can do to reduce inflammation will aid in weight loss as well as reduce risk of chronic disease development. DHA is a specific omega 3 fatty acid found in fish and algae that reduces insulin resistance and lowers blood insulin levels. Bring the insulin down, facilitate weight loss!
Fats in foods also promote feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction, may help us eat less carbohydrate, and slow the absorption of sugars into the blood stream, which means lower insulin spikes, fewer blood sugar “crashes” and 3P.M. carb cravings. Foods get a lot more processed (and inflammatory) when fats are removed in an effort to compensate for the loss of flavour and consistency that fats provide. When trying to lose weight, avoid the various refined starches, maltodextrin, corn syrup solids, glucose-fructose, and regular old sugar listed on the labels of reduced-fat yogurts, soups, breads, crackers, and other prepared foods.
4. Harness the Power of Your Hormones
I have mentioned above some of the hormones that are recognized to influence the metabolism “for” or “against” weight loss: insulin and cortisol promote weight gain, while glucagon and leptin are our weight loss allies. Many factors will influence hormonal imbalance. Sleep deprivation (shift work, new baby, emotional stress, the cat…) is a major contributor to hormonal imbalance and consequently an obstacle to weight loss. Today, we get about 1.5-2 hours’ less sleep than the average person did just 50-100 years ago. Melatonin is our deep-sleep hormone and the “conductor of the orchestra of hormones”. It’s also anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory. Melatonin levels are decreased when we aren’t consistently experiencing adequate hours of deep sleep in a pitch-dark, undisturbed environment – it usually takes some effort to create this sleep scenario in the modern world, but establishing healthy sleep habits or working as best we can around sleep obstacles is a priority when working on weight loss. Just one night of sleep deprivation (less than 6.5 hours) results in reduced leptin levels (the hormone that helps with appetite control) and consequently, increased appetite and cravings for high-sugar foods the very next day, and increased evening cortisol levels, which promotes abdominal weight gain and feeling “wired” at bedtime.
We can also make simple changes to how we eat to capitalize on our hormones. For example, eating three square meals a day containing adequate protein, rather than the popular “grazing” approach, actually helps to limit insulin levels and allows for enough time between meals for the hormone glucagon to kick in and start burning fat for energy.
5. Prioritize Protein
When making diet and lifestyle choices for long-term health, it’s always more enjoyable to add something than remove something (that you enjoy). That’s why it’s pretty easy to improve your weight loss success by adding protein – especially at breakfast. A protein-packed breakfast is a great strategy for anchoring your blood sugar control for the day. Want to avoid the mid-afternoon slump or need for a chocolate bar or coffee? Try adding eggs, nuts, seeds, a protein shake or even some leftover chicken or turkey to your breakfast, and make sure you do eat breakfast within 1 hour of rising. Also, a metabolic “trick” I recommend to my patients in the Healthy & Active Metabolism Program is to have a few bites of the protein portion of your meal (and you should have protein at every meal or snack), first, before you enjoy your vegetables, starches or fruit. Having protein first helps to further anchor that hormonal “sugar reward” rush that happens when we dig into the mashed potatoes first or have fruit as a starter.
Elizabeth Cherevaty, ND is a licensed and registered Naturopathic Doctor who is dedicated to helping individuals and families experience their best health. Her general family practice includes special interests in Naturopathic care for preconception, fertility, pregnancy, postpartum and pediatrics, and she also attends births as a Naturopathic Doula. http://www.norfolkwellness.com/