A Fool Proof Weight Loss TemplateThe United States of America contains over 220 million overweight citizens. That’s more than 2 out of every 3 people in this country. And, while there ARE a lot of low quality foods, and people DO have more sedentary lifestyles than they have had in the past, for many of these 220 million people, repeated efforts at reducing calories and increasing exercise hasn’t, and won’t, result in lasting weight loss. There is often more going on than simply “calories in versus calories out”.
In our last two articles we looked first, at some surprisingly common imbalances in the fundamental systems of the body, imbalances that can occur as the result of exposure to environmental pollutants, hormones that have gradually gotten out of sync, or chronic, low-level inflammation. In our second article, we looked at simple steps you can take through diet, lifestyle and with some commonly available supplements, to address these obstacles to successful weight loss. In today’s article we present a simple template for successful weight loss. There are a few key concepts that you need to adhere to in order to make a weight loss program effective. Apply those, and modify the rest to make it fit your lifestyle and goals. For the majority of people, following these key principles will result in progress. If you haven’t had a chance to read the previous two articles, we suggest you go back and read them now as, this article assumes that you already understand the concepts covered in those articles, but also, the steps we suggest here should only be taken once you have already addressed those issues we discussed in the previous articles.
You have probably heard that losing weight is just a matter of “calories in versus calories out.” And, yes, of course, on paper that is exactly true. However, there is a lot that takes place in the mind and physiology of the human body that isn’t contained in that simple equation. A much better model has been researched, proposed, and well described by a researcher and neurobiologist from the University of Washington in Seattle, Wa. Stephan Guyenet proposes that weight gain and loss are determined by how a food influences two separate tracts of appetite regulation: the hedonic system, and the energy homeostasis system.
The energy homeostasis system is akin to the thermostat in your house, only this one regulates fat. (Many refer to it as an adipostat (“adipo-” meaning fat), which is the term we will use.) The body has an ideal body weight that it strives to maintain. An interaction between the various metabolic hormones (leptin, ghrelin, insulin, glucagon, adiponectin, etc.) and appetite and satiety processing parts of the brain located in the hypothalamus all work together to maintain an ideal weight. It strikes a balance between having enough stored energy (in the form of fat) to make it through gaps in available resources, yet not so much that the ability to move efficiently and purposefully is hindered. The body has some surprisingly powerful mechanisms in place to maintain the body at the appropriate weight. One such mechanism is of course, the appetite. A hormone called leptin is produced in relation to the amount of fat stored on the body, with more fat resulting in more leptin circulating. This leptin in turn signals the appetite center in the hypothalamus to suppress appetite in order to reduce energy stores. Movement is also regulated by our adipostat. We are compelled to move more when we are carrying more than our body thinks is ideal, and we become lethargic when stores are low and need to be replenished. One quick look around any public place in America will tell you that the adiopostat system isn’t working, we still seem to have no problem accumulating more stored energy than is practical or ideal. This is where our conversation turns to the hedonic system of appetite.
In our evolutionary history there were times when we were confronted with a food that is so full of calories and beneficial nutrients that our best interests would be served by eating more than what would simply fill us up. In other words, the hedonic value of the food would override the adiopostat regulation of appetite. These types of foods were rare in our evolutionary history, so there was little risk of overeating as a result, and from a survival standpoint, there was good reason to take in these energy dense and nutrient dense foods whenever possible. Unfortunately, the food industry has capitalized on this aspect of our physiology and actively engineers our food to trigger a hedonic effect. There are various cues in a food that triggers this override of our energy homeostatic system: rich flavors, combinations of sweet, salty and savory flavors as well as certain textures such as crunchy or juicy. Many of the foods at the grocery store are carefully designed and engineered to strike exactly the right balance between these flavors and impart a pleasing mouth feel in such a way that it is very hard to let appetite work as intended. In his book, “The End of Overeating” former FDA commissioner, David Kessler described this ongoing battle food manufacturers are waging over our mouths and our dollars. At one point he quotes a food industry scientist, saying “ For product developers, it is of interest to add elements to a food that make a food highly desired and liked, both initially and over repeated consumption.” He goes on to describe the lengths and research the food industry has gone to in order to create foods that hack our biology and create highly pleasurable food, from little chemical nuggets of artificial flavor, to seemingly endless refinement of recipes to get that perfect product. In short, the goal is food that is very difficult to say no to, food that entirely bypasses our adipostat. This brings us to our first principle of successful weight loss: “eat close to the ground”. Avoid processed foods because they don’t work with our physiology the way they should. Processed foods bypass our natural system for weight maintenance. An example from my own life is steak, I really enjoy a good steak. But I couldn’t sit down and eat six steaks. I could on the other had sit down and eat an entire bag of potato chips, no probelm. Steaks are not a novel food for my physiology. Humans have been eating red meat for a long time, and my adipostat knows what to do when steak comes in. Potato chips on the other had, are a carefully engineered food, one that strikes the perfect balance between salty, crunchy, and fat. If you eat those sorts of foods, maintaining a healthy weight, or losing weight will be difficult.
1. The first principle of successful weight loss is to avoid processed food of all kinds.
Only shop the perimeter of the grocery store (the produce section, the frozen section, and the bulk section) avoid anything that has extra steps of processing, instead choose the foods that are as close to their natural form as possible, the foods that are “closer to the ground.”
The second principle, which is crucial for successful weight loss, is to restore insulin sensitivity. Everyone knows insulin as the hormone that relates to diabetes, where it is responsible for shuttling glucose into cells. A better way to think about insulin would be as a director that switches us to storage mode. When insulin is circulating, energy gets stored. This storage can take place in a few different ways. First, the glucose goes directly into cells where it can be converted in energy (in the form of ATP). When you are physically active, this glucose is used up and the system returns to a state of homeostasis. In a more sedentary state however, the cell’s need for glucose is met more quickly, but there is still glucose in the bloodstream that needs to be removed. In this case glucose moves into additional storage locations. First the glucose can be bound into starch chains called glycogen, which is then stored in muscles and in the liver (this is the goal of carb loading familiar to endurance athletes). Once these stores are filled, the remaining glucose is converted into free fatty acids, which are then stored in adipose cells, as fat. (for simplicity we paint this process as sequential, when in reality it is much more complex, with all three of these process happening at once, but the concept is accurate and sufficient for our purposes). The important part is: the more insulin is circulating, the more glucose is stored as fat. When the body becomes resistant to insulin, it takes more insulin to get the same effect. This accelerates the process of fat accumulation. In order to stop storing fuel as fat, you need to bring down the insulin levels. Fortunately, that can be easily done. Insulin is released with the consumption of carbohydrates mainly (but also to a lesser degree, with the consumption of protein.) The more carbohydrates in a food, typically, the higher the insulin response will be, however several other factors also influence how a food influences insulin levels. The more processed a food is, the more severe the insulin response will be. For instance, corn on the cob causes a rise in insulin, but not as much as cornmeal, which also doesn’t raise insulin nearly as much as corn flour, which in turn doesn’t raise insulin nearly as much as cornstarch. The more processed a carbohydrate, the more rapidly the glucose derived from it reaches the bloodstream and the more quickly the body needs to respond in order to maintain balance. Those severe spikes in insulin level are what drives insulin resistance, and increasing insulin levels. Improving your insulin sensitivity requires two steps: first avoiding process foods because they cause a more rapid spike, and second reducing your intake of carbohydrates. If your goal is weight loss, you should ideally be getting between 10-20% of your calories from carbohydrates. Protein and fat on the other hand are able to supply energy needs without damaging insulin sensitivity, so increasing your intake of those two classes of calories will actually result in weight loss. I know it can seem counter intuitive that eating fat can result in losing fat. If you just remember that it isn’t about fat, it’s about insulin, then it makes sense. In fact, this was borne out in a study in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2007. This study, termed “The A to Z study” compared the effects of a several different diets including a high fat-low carbohydrate and a high carb-low fat diet, and found that the biggest reductions in weight and waist measurement happened with the high fat-low carbohydrate diet. Not only that, but the high fat diet also caused the greatest improvement in blood pressure, and cholesterol. The vilification of fat that has been a main talking point from the medical community for the last several decades is not in agreement with the most current research, and the best informed doctors are changing their recommendations on this issue. Having addressed that aside, by reducing one’s carbohydrate intake, the body’s response to insulin returns to normal and the body can function properly again. So the second step is:
2. Reduce your carbohydrate intake to 10%-20% of total calorie intake.
First calculate the number of calories per day that is ideal for your target weight (here’s a great calculator). Next, multiply the total calories by 10%. There are 4 calories in each gram of carbohydrates, so to figure out how many grams of carbs you need per day, divide the number of calories from carbs by 4. This will yield the number of grams of carbs you should eat to reach 10% of calories from carbs. Repeat the process for 20% to get a range to stay within each day. For example in a 1,800 calorie diet, you should consume between 45 and 90 grams of carbohydrates per day.
The third crucial piece to a successful weight loss diet, is that unyielding fact of thermodynamics: calories in must be fewer than calories out in order to reduce energy stores in the body. The good news is that your body is very good at regulating this when you are eating the right foods. Once you cut the processed food out of your diet, you’ll find that it is much, much easier to only eat the calories you need. Not only that, but unprocessed food is much more dense with vitamins and minerals than processed food, so you’ll feel more satisfied, have more energy and likely other symptoms will improve as well. (Poor sleep, reduced energy, muscle aches, headaches, and many other symptoms can all relate to nutritional deficiencies.) Adhering to the calorie target you used above to calculate your total carbohydrates is a valuable part of a weight loss program. In my experience however, it isn’t as important than counting carbohydrates. In other words if you consistently go over on calories, but maintain within your goals on carbohydrates, you’ll do much better than the if you err in the reverse fashion. The impact on insulin is just too strong to ignore that of the equation. Keeping track of carbohydrate and calorie numbers is difficult at first. You’ll need to keep a journal of some kind and write down everything you’re eating and look them all up as you go (I like the site http://nutritiondata.self.com/) Once you have those numbers looked up, it becomes very easy. From one day to the next most people eat a lot of the same foods. Most of it is just copying and pasting. In time you’ll start to recognize what a plate of food should look like for your weight. That is a valuable lesson. The servings in America are way too big, a problem continuated by a largely cheap and processed food supply. Getting a sense of what is a realistic serving size is a valuable lesson and one that will help to make your weight loss a lifelong change rather than just one cycle of the yo-yo.
3. Stay within the target calories for your weight loss goal.
So to review, the three key pieces of a weight loss program are:
1. Eliminate Processed Food.
2. Reduce Carbohydrates to 10-20% of calories.
3. Reduce Calories to align with your target weight.
We hope you appreciate this information. This three part series is a basic skeleton of the dietary program we run in our office. With our program we add acupuncture to help reduce food cravings, and address the underlying obstacles to weight loss through herbal supplements, and dietary counseling. We’ve also partnered with a local gym to get you a discount on your exercise program. If you’re serious about weight loss, our program gives you the guidance and support that ensures success.
Unlock your Weight LossFor some, despite repeated weight loss programs, countless hours sweating away at the gym and following whichever new super diet is the fashion at the time, efforts to lose weight never materialize. You’d be justified in feeling frustrated. You may wonder, “How can I not be losing weight?!” If this is you, the problem may not be a lack of trying or a lack of willpower. For many, there are problems in the core, interrelated systems of the body, keeping the weight from coming off. In our last newsletter, we reviewed the three hidden obstacles to successful weight loss. In today’s article, we’ll cover strategies to address each of these concerns using only diet, lifestyle changes, and commonly available supplements. In our final piece in this series, we’ll cover a basic diet template that is remarkably effective, once these three obstacles have been addressed. First, let’s review briefly the three weight loss obstacles that we covered in our last newsletter.
First, blame goes to our chemical laden environment. Compounds like BPA, and brominated flame retardant actively interfere with hormone signaling and metabolism to cause weight gain, and impede weight loss. These compounds deposit in fat stores, where they are so potent in interfering with weight loss that a new term was coined to classify them: “obesogens” (meaning: “make obese”). The second cause is latent inflammation: by driving up stress hormones, latent inflammation makes the body resistant to insulin and drives the body to store more energy as fat. The third common underlying obstacle to weight loss is hormonal imbalance. Most often, this relates to elevated estrogen compared to progesterone, however, imbalanced thyroid, and dysregulated adrenal hormones can both also hinder weight loss. Any, or all of these three basic physiological imbalances could be getting in the way of weight loss for you, and without addressing them first, weight loss can be very difficult.
When we work with patients, frustrated with repeated attempts at weight loss, we usually start with a blood panel that identifies how severe these underlying issues may be. This is a valuable step to save time and money. It ensures that our efforts are being focused at the most important aspects. But, even without the insight from a panel of blood tests, there are still some clues that may indicate that one (or more) of these core problems exist for you, which in turn indicates the need for steps you can easily do on your own, with dietary change, some lifestyle interventions, and some simple supplements you can obtain from your local supplement store. Each of these topics are vast, and an entire series could be compiled on each, but in this short article we’ll give you the most effective steps that you can take without getting professional help.
Excessive Burden of Environmental Toxins
In our last article we looked at how an excessive burden of certain types of chemicals called, “obesgens” can interfere with hormone signalling and metabolic function. The best approach to finding out if this is a concern for you is reviewing your personal history. If you have an occupational history or exposure to a wide variety of industrial chemicals, live, or lived, in close proximity to an industrial area, or use a lot of mainstream cosmetic or personal care products, then addressing your body’s detoxification pathways is a worthwhile step towards your weight loss goals. While the links between occupational and industrial areas is clear, the concern around personal care products may be less obvious to some. Many of the personal care products and cosmetics used today contain a variety of synthetic, petroleum based ingredients that are absorbed readily through the skin. Some of these compounds, such as parabens and pthalates are established obesogens. Other compounds are toxic to liver cells and directly affect the ability of the body to clear toxins. These compounds include Hydroxymethylpentylcyclohexenecarboxaldehyde, often referred to, for obvious reason, by its tradename, “Lyral”. Lyral and other compounds like it aren’t directly listed on the ingredient list,they are all clumped together under the heading: “fragrance.” It is an extremely common ingredient, used in the majority of mainstream personal care products, including deodorant, perfumes, shampoo body wash, shaving gel and cosmetics. The accumulated burden of Lyral and related compounds continues to increase over years and decades. Switching to higher quality brands that only use natural ingredients is the only way to be sure that you are not continuing to be exposed to these chemicals.
When you embark on a new weight loss program and begin liberating fat from storage, you are also liberating the toxins stored in that fat. When these toxins return to circulation they further impeded the weight loss process. The more fat you lose, the harder it is to make any progress.
You eliminate fat soluble toxins through the liver. The liver converts these compounds into less harmful forms and expels them through the bile into the intestines to be carried out. Less commonly, the liver also converts them to water soluble forms which are filtered out of the body by the kidneys. Another important pathway for detoxification is through sweating. Both in preparation for, and as you are losing weight, make sure to follow the steps to ensure the burden of toxins isn’t slowing down your process.
Address any sources of Latent Inflammation
Even without doing more in-depth testing, there are still some general steps you can take to reduce your background inflammation level. The two main causes of underlying latent inflammation are: smoldering low grade infections (often dental or digestive) and nutritional deficiencies (the body’s ability to quell inflammation is dependent upon the presence of several key nutrients). Here are some simple steps you can take:
Balance your Hormones
Even without knowing which hormones are out of balance, there are three steps you can take that will have a general effect on balancing your hormone levels.
If you are embarking on a process of weight loss, it would be best to follow these recommendations for a period of time prior to initiating that weight loss program. Depending on how influential any of these three obstacles are for you, taking 1-4 weeks focussing on the above recommendations before starting would be appropriate. If you want to work on these at a deeper level consider seeing a practitioner to get a closer look at where exactly your system is going wrong.
Okay, so now you know how to unlock the weight loss process. In the next article we’ll cover a basic template that will result in rapid and easy weight loss for you.
Why is it so hard for some people to lose weight?
Sometimes, there is more to weight loss than simply cutting calories. For some, despite all their efforts: following a diet and exercising consistently, progress is fleeting and painfully slow. This is a familiar story for many, and they know, the problem isn’t a lack of willpower. The problem can be an imbalance in one or more of the underlying systems of the body, making weight loss difficult if not impossible. The good news is that there are ways to remove these obstacles. Identifying these imbalances and resolving them should be the first step in your weight loss plan.
Obesity is all to common in our culture. While the availability of empty calories and our sedentary lifestyles are largely to blame, there is more going on here than just sloth and gluttony. For many there is a hidden problem in the body that is locking their metabolism in a fat storing mode. In the first part of this series we’ll cover three common obstacles getting in the way of successful weight loss. In a following article we’ll give you the basic steps for addressing each of these. Our third article will cover the steps for successful weight loss once you have these first three obstacles addressed. Following these steps will result in significant changes in most people seeking weight loss.
After pain, the second most common complaint we hear from our patients is that they have difficulty losing weight. While, obviously, exercise and proper diet are essential to weight loss, in some, that won’t be enough to reach their weight loss goals. Without addressing the underlying imbalances, the proverbial monkey wrench will continue to hamper your progress. The three main obstacles that we see are:
1. Excessive burden of environmental toxins
2. Hormonal imbalance, and
3. Latent inflammation
Any one, or all of these, could be shackling you to extra pounds. As a result of poor diet, ubiquitous environment toxins, and lack of consistent exercise, these three issues are surprising common in Americans. Let’s look closer at each.
Excessive burden of Toxins
We live in an environment that is increasingly laden with chemical pollutants. Many of these compounds have entered our environments within the past few decades. Unfortunately, despite all your efforts to minimize exposure, it is unlikely that anyone is able to truly avoid these chemicals. Studies have shown the presence of more than 200 chemical pollutants in the umbilical cord blood supplying newborn babies. Even in this most precious of places, at the deepest recesses in the body, and filtered by the placenta, these chemicals are still able to find their way. Just imagine what is running through your blood! These toxins burden the liver, interfere with hormone signaling and trigger inflammation. All of these can indirectly cause weight gain by interfering with fundamental processes in the body. But, some of these compounds can also directly cause weight gain. Called "obesogens", these compounds include Bisphenyl A, polybrominated flame retardants, pthalates, many pesticides and even many medications, including the popular SSRIs, used to treat depression. These compounds directly alter your physiology, resulting in weight gain. They compounds bind to receptors in the body that regulate metabolism or appetite and directly cause increased weight gain and make weight loss more difficult.
Many of these compounds are fat soluble. Because they dissolve in fats, they become stored in fat tissue. This makes losing weight increasingly difficult. As soon as you make progress in weight loss you liberate more of these compounds into your blood stream, making future progress even more difficult. In order to make weight loss possible in the presence of these toxins, you need to support your body’s natural detoxification processes, so that as these toxins are liberated they are effectively flushed from the body, allowing your weight loss to continue unfettered.
Identifying if you have an excessive toxic burden can be done through a combination of blood work, reviewing your occupational history, and discussing your personal medical history. One blood test called GGT, or gamma glutamyl transpeptidase, measures the activity of an enzyme that becomes elevated when the requirement for the body’s natural anti-oxidant, glutathione, is increased. This increased demand can indicate that there is an increased toxin burden on the body, requiring targeted treatment and dietary interventions.
The HPA axis is a term used to describe the triad of endocrine glands: hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal. These three glands interact and influence each other and a great many other hormones and glands in the body. When dietary, emotional, lifestyle, and environmental factors cause a disruption in any of these glands there can be a cascading influence on the body. Weight gain is one of many possible symptoms when these hormones are out of balance. Improperly converted, produced, or binding thyroid hormone, for example, can result in difficulty losing weight. Impact on the hormone leptin can result in difficulty regulating appetite properly. Excessive, or deficient adrenal output of the hormone cortisol can result in elevated blood sugars, insulin resistance, and weight gain. Simultaneous fatigue and anxiety can also make weight lose much more difficult. If you experience certain symptoms including unexplained fatigue, a history of extreme or prolonged stress, anxiety, short temper, or difficulty regulating temperature these symptoms may indicate that a closer look at your hormones is warranted. Identifying if there is an underlying hormonal imbalance can often be done through simple saliva testing, and herbal, lifestyle, and dietary interventions are often sufficient to restore balance.
When most people hear the word inflammation, they think of something red, swollen and painful like a sprained joint or an infected cut. But inflammation doesn’t always have to be so obvious. Sometimes inflammation can be more like a smoldering fire hidden within the body, quietly eroding your health. This type of latent inflammation may be occurring anywhere in the body. Common locations include the digestive system, a dental abscess, or the blood vessels. This constant inflammation causes weight gain by driving up the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn drives up blood sugars. It also reduces the body’s sensitivity to insulin, making your body store more energy as fat. The longer the inflammation is present the more damage is done to your metabolism. Identifying and treating the underlying inflammation is essential to losing weight and restoring a healthy metabolism.
How do you know if you have a smoldering fire hampering your weight loss efforts?
Often, current symptoms or clues in your health history can raise suspicion, which is further investigated by looking at some specific blood tests. The specific test will depend on the organ system that is suspected. Tests such as C reactive protein, homocysteine, adiponectin, and an essential fatty acid profile can all help to identify locations and causes of latent inflammation.
Identifying the systems in your body that are imbalanced is the first step in restoring a healthy metabolism.
Once you know how your metabolism is going wrong, that paves the way to determine your specific interventions. Even though the goal weight loss is the same, the interventions for you may be very different from someone else with a different set of metabolic challenges. This is one of the reasons that no weight loss program works for everyone. If you've tried many different approaches without seeing results, it is likely that there is something going on beneath the surface that needs to be addressed before weight loss can proceed. You may have a suspicion that one of the above issues applies to you, and fortunately, there are many interventions that you can do yourself that are both effective and safe to try at home. We'll cover strategies to resolve each of these issues in the next article.
Yours In Health,
I'm Kieran, clinician and founder at The Parani Clinic. I'm an acupuncturist, herbalist, and functional medicine practitioner for the past 10 years. I have a deep curiosity in health, biology, culture, medicine, history, and a healthy obsession with the pursuit of the perfect state of health.