Fat loss for good: the one article you need to read.
In the first post I published on this blog, I talked about (more like hinted at) the true measure of the health of a body. True health is not measured by body composition or by muscular strength or cardiovascular endurance. And it’s not even measured by perceived energy or mental clarity, although these are often tell tale signs of what lies within.
If we want to know if we're healthy, we need to take a closer look at our hormones.
WHY HORMONES ARE KING
Our bodies are more or less an extravagantly complex cocktail of chemicals that fluctuate in response to their ever-changing biological environment and neurological messages. Yes, all you health gurus out there, that is a grossly simplistic explanation of the miracle that is the human body, but hang with me.
Hormones play the most critical role in weight loss and management. They're why some people can seemingly never lose weight while others can’t keep it on to save their life. They’re why some gain 20 pounds almost overnight while some (in illness) drop the same amount in the same short amount of time. And they’re why some people can enjoy some pizza and ice cream on occasion without negative repercussion while some gain weight just walking by the pizza joint.
Dysfunction in our hormones can lead to disease, chronic conditions and disturbances in our mental health and mood. Hormones have a hand in nearly every physical or mental symptom you experience. In the following section we'll cover the major hormones at play in terms of weight regulation, and what that means for you today.
MAJOR HORMONES AT PLAY
The modern hormone celebrity. Insulin is a blood sugar regulator. It’s secreted by the pancreas in response to high levels of glucose in the blood. As one of the primary anabolic hormones in the body, insulin is responsible for promoting the storage of blood sugar in the liver, adipose tissue and skeletal muscle cells. Foods that are high in sugar or simple carbohydrates will have a greater and more immediate impact on blood sugar levels will elicit a stronger insulin response than foods that are low in sugar or high in dietary fiber/complex carbohydrates.
This one is your best friend. Adiponectin tells your body to burn fat for fuel. Adiponectin is secreted by adipose tissue (including adipose tissue found in bone marrow) and has been found to improve insulin sensitivity, meaning your body can do more with less insulin floating around in your blood, storing things away as fat. There are a number of foods that have been found to positively influence adiponectin levels, including foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, tuna, mackerel, chia seeds, flax seeds, to name a few) and foods high in fiber, like fresh vegetables and some fruits.
Ghrelin just sounds like a little hormonal monster. And it is. Ghrelin promotes appetite and feelings of hunger, increases fat and glycogen storage, decreases the amount of stored energy we use to power our activities and last but certainly not least, it activates the neurological pathway and reward link that give a pleasurable sensation as a result of consuming natural rewards (like tasty food that we probably shouldn’t be eating on a regular basis).
You can think of leptin as the anti-ghrelin. Secreted by fat cells, it acts on receptors in the same area of the brain but in a completely opposite way. Leptin inhibits hunger and promotes utilization of fat stores as energy. Much like insulin, we can develop a resistance to leptin levels in the body if body fat stores are too great, as a result of an overload of leptin in the blood.
Cortisol can save your life. It can also wreck your health. Cortisol is the hormone secreted by your adrenal glands in response to stressors in life. It’s primary goal is to prepare your brain and body to be able to respond to potential threats. But when this hormone stays elevated chronically (all too common in this day and age thanks to every day environmental and emotional stressors) It causes major problems. Firstly, it promotes the storage of visceral fat, or fat around your waistline. Secondly, it’s catabolic and breaks down muscle tissue. And lastly, it disturbs mental clarity and can prompt you to reach for those foods that are satisfying, like sugary or salty foods.
PYY is secreted by the ileum and colon in response to eating and decreases in response to fasting. PYY is an appetite suppressor. Eating foods rich in dietary fiber or crude fish proteins help to stimulate the release of PYY.
This one is released in the small intestine and acts an appetite suppressor. Consumption of fats and proteins have been found to stimulate the secretion of cholecystokinin.
Secreted in response to feeding, pancreatic polypeptide is an appetite suppressor and may help to slow gastric emptying (keeping you feeling fuller longer).
WHY CALORIE COUNTING SUCKS
Well, besides the fact that obsessing ourselves over the energy content of every morsel that goes down the gullet sounds like a horrible way to spend our short time alive, it also doesn’t even really work. The outdated idea that achieving true health and body composition is as simple as eating less than you expend is a very narrow-sighted and short-term approach, and it will backfire on you in the long run. Because hormones will not be outdone. They will have the final word, and that’s a guarantee.
For most of us, when we resort to counting calories our end goal is to eat less. We decide on some magical number (or numbers, in the case of macro counting) that dictates how much we can/cannot eat for that day. And often, in an effort to not cross our calorie line for the day, we resort to “diet” foods that are low in fat/calories (and actual nutrition) and high in processed junk and full of forced flavor.
What happens next? We get hungry. And we’re malnourished. And when we’re both of these things together our bodies respond by shifting our hormones to become survival machines.
The hormones that promote feeling full and satiated drop (see list above for all of these hormones), the hormones that are responsible for mobilizing fat stores and utilizing stored energy to power our bodies drop, and the hormones that promote feeling hungry and promote fat storage skyrocket. And the scary thing here? Studies have found that these hormonal changes were still present at least one year after the “starvation” calorie counting had stopped. Let that sink in. One entire year after individuals had stopped under eating, their hormones were still off-balance in an unfavorable direction.
Have you ever found yourself saying to someone, “I’ve tried everything! I just can’t get this weight off”? Have you also gone through periods of intentionally under eating? There might be a connection there.
And that's just the energy deprivation side of the story. Along with calorie counting comes malnourishment, which is often another consequence to dieting.
WHY DIETS SUCK
Not only do most diets advocate for calorie restriction resulting in the above catastrophic effects, they also tend to herd people into a very narrow frame of eating. Eliminate this, only eat this, NEVER EVER touch this or you'll break yo' mama's back, and the list goes on.
It goes without saying that I have to mention that in the short term these measures might actually work. Might being the key word here. You might lose some weight and you might feel better. But studies have shown that 69% of trendy diets fail to EVER reach the goal weight of the individual, while 95% of trendy diets result in a complete relapse of weight loss (and typically gaining even more... thanks, hormones.) within 12 months of finishing the diet program or duration. Yikes.
So aside from the hunger and the resulting mudslide of hormone balance, what else is wrong with a diet? It promotes malnourishment by limiting intake of food variety and makes it seem okay to eat low-calorie/carb/fat "food like items" that are completely empty of true nutrition. And this is oh so important, because our body depends on micronutrients in order to be able to produce the hormones and enzymes needed to carry out bodily processes.
Additionally, many of our appetite suppressing and fat utilization hormones are promoted by nutritional uptake. This means that when we eat a bunch of dark leafy greens full of nutrition, our bodies recognize that they are being fueled with the stuff they actually need to survive, and we are more likely to have healthy hormonal activity as a result.
WHAT THIS ACTUALLY MEANS FOR YOU
So now that we have all this information it’s time to distill it into some key points that you can start using in your life today to make for a healthier tomorrow.
- Eat for your cells. Choose to fill the majority of your day with real, from-the-earth FUEL that's made it to your grocery shelves without processing or additives. This includes an abundance (I just LOVE that word) of colorful veggies, eaten raw or cooked minimally, healthy fats, clean (organic, grass-fed, no hormones, etc) protein sources and fiber-rich complex carbohydrates and fruits.
- Skip the wrapper. And read this article by Carol. Invest a little more time into your health by preparing snacks ahead of time so you're not reaching for the diet food bar in a hangry crunch. Even the "healthiest" of food bars is filled with hidden sources of sugar or additives, causing hormonal disturbances.
- NEVER eat fake sugar. Go for the real deal, every time. Fake sugars are toxic man-made chemicals, and your body treat them as such. As a result, they're either stored in fat cells as a way to protect your body from encountering them or they're pushed through the filtration system, degrading your body's ability to naturally detox in the process.
- Respect the food journal. It's okay, and even encouraged, to sometimes track food intake in order to bring awareness to our own habits. But don't abuse this useful tool by manipulating it into your obsessive calorie control center. (This just sounds stressful, and we can't let our cortisol levels spike, remember?) If you eat slowly and mindfully, consuming real foods that have built-in hormonal stop signs (as opposed to those fake foods that know one speed: consume indefinitely) your body will release the correct hormones when it's time to stop eating.
- Don't skimp on healthy fats and protein. Your cholecystokinin secretion depends on it.
- Take a chill pill, literally and figuratively. Adding a natural adaptogen supplement (ashwaganda is my favorite) to your daily supplement routine can help you to manage cortisol levels. Also, taking time to intentionally drop stress levels throughout the day is invaluable in managing lifestyle stress.
- Take your vitamins. No matter how good you think you eat, you are still not getting enough micronutrition. Thanks to the degradation of our soil conditions, our food supply just doesn't have the nutrients that it once did, making taking a multivitamin a health non-negotiable. Choose wisely. Pharmaceutical grade supplements are the only ones guaranteed to be no BS, at least 99% pure and in their most bioavailable form. I like these: Thorne Research (no affiliation with the company).