We all know that obesity has become an epidemic in the Unites States. And actually worldwide the numbers are rising as well. When we consider that obesity is a risk factor for many chronic diseases, including cancer, this issue becomes even more concerning. In most towns and cities across the Unites States, you will now see more overweight people than those at a healthy weight. This ends up skewing our perception of what’s healthy. Although we might be overweight, when we look all around us and see people heavier than us, we think we’re good. Unfortunately, disease doesn’t just affect those at the highest end. For some diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, even being overweight puts you at risk. As of 2014, 70% of adults in the Unites States were overweight or obese. Of that 70%, 38% were obese. Our children are becoming more and more overweight as well. Again as of 2014, 20% of adolescents, 17% of children ages 6-11, and 9% of children ages 2-5 were all obese! Worldwide, the number of adults who are overweight or obese have doubled between 1980 and 2014. 41 million children world-wide under the age of 5 are now obese! These are staggering numbers to me. What’s even more staggering is the fact that people are trying to lose weight. At any given moment an estimated 75 million Americans are actively trying to lose weight; spending over $60 billion every year. The bulk of that money is spent on “diet” foods and beverages. According to the fitness industry franchise, 1 in 5 Americans have gym memberships and most of them are actually going to the gym. So what’s the deal? If so many people are trying to lose weight by eating “healthier” foods and exercising more, why isn’t it working?
Calorie Myth #1
We’ve been fed many myths around weight loss. The biggest being “Calories In = Calories Out”. If we were to believe this argument, then all these people (perhaps even you) who are eating less calories by consuming “diet” foods and burning more calories through exercise, should be losing weight and keeping it off. But for any of you reading this who have had your own struggle with weight management, you know this is not the case. Sure, you might initially lose some weight, but it never stays off, does it? It always comes back and unfortunately you often gain back more than you initially lost, keeping you in a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting. Foods affect our bodies in different ways and go through different metabolic pathways. Not only that, but the foods we eat can directly affect the hormones that regulate when and how much we eat. Just focusing on the calorie content of foods and disregarding the metabolic effects they have is a dangerous way of thinking. Protein and whole foods take much more energy to process and digest than refined and processed foods. Let’s look at an example, fructose versus protein. When fructose is consumed it enters the liver from the digestive tract where it can be turned into glucose and stored as glycogen. But if the liver is full of glycogen, it will be turned into fat. Consumed in excess, as is easily the case with high fructose corn syrup, it can cause insulin resistance, which can increase fat gain. Fructose also doesn’t lower the hunger hormone ghrelin. So, 100 calories of fructose (from added sugars, not fruit) may increase your insulin over the long term, lead to higher ghrelin levels and increased appetite, as well as elevate cholesterol and triglycerides from increased fat production. Then you have 100 calories of protein. About 30% of the calories in protein will actually be spent to digest it, because the metabolic pathway requires energy. Protein will also increase levels of fullness and can boost metabolic rate. This increased protein may even be used to build muscle, which is metabolically active tissue. So clearly 100 calories of fructose will have a completely different effect on the body than 100 calories of protein.
Everyone has their own individual resting energy expenditure. This is the amount of calories/energy you use just to be alive (sitting, sleeping, etc). This varies widely from person to person and influences your “calories out”. We often refer to this simply as your metabolism. Everyone’s metabolism is different and unfortunately long-term dieting will reduce your metabolic rate. If you cut your calorie intake by 10%, it works for a time until your metabolic rate adapts and you stop losing, requiring you to adjust your calories again. The body tries desperately to maintain its fat mass. This is referred to as the body’s set point. Eating less does not force us to burn body fat, it forces us to burn fewer calories. When our body needs calories for energy and none are around, it is forced to make a decision; go through all the hassle of converting calories from body fat or just slow down on burning calories. Given the choice, slowing down wins. If you don’t change the types of foods you’re eating, and only the amount of food, then your set point will never change. When we do not provide our body with enough essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids) or calories our body goes into starvation mode. What does our body want more of when it thinks we’re starving? Stored energy. What is a great source of stored energy? Body fat. So when our body thinks we are starving, does it want to get rid of or hold on to body fat? It wants to hold on! Once the body survives starvation, its number one priority is restoring all the body fat it lost and then protecting us from starving in the future. It does that by storing more fat. And thus the cycle continues.
Calorie Myth #2
The idea that “all calories are created equal” is a complete fallacy. Some foods are used to boost brain power, fuel metabolism, heal the body, while others are simply stored as fat. There have been a couple of very interesting studies demonstrating this fact. In one study participants were divided into 2 groups, both groups were assigned the same amount of calories from snacks. One group ate their snack calories from candy, the other from peanuts. After 2 weeks, the candy group had increased weight, increased waist circumference, and increased LDL levels. The peanut group saw no change in weight or LDL but did see an increase in their resting metabolic rate; which is helpful in losing weight. In another study, dietary patterns were explored. What they discovered is that the participants in the higher calorie but lower carbohydrate group actually lost more weight and more abdominal fat than the participants in the lower calorie, low fat group.
What’s Actually Going On
Up until a few decades ago, we were eating foods that maintained our body’s ability to balance calories automatically around a slim set-point. People ate far more of their meals at home, with their families, and at a leisurely pace. A hundred years ago there was no such thing as a snack food, nothing you could pop open and overeat. There were stew pots. Things took a long time to cook, and a meal was the result of someone’s labor. And the kitchen, not the television, was the heart of the home.
Increase in Processed Foods & Portion Sizes
Things began to change after the 1950’s when the idea of shortcuts and faster foods became the norm. Today, our processed foods resemble anything but their original intention. Nearly 80% of all processed foods in the US contain GMOs. They’re full of artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners. They’re stabilized with trans fats and chemical preservatives and then packaged in plastics that have been known to cause birth defects and cancer. Portion sizes also started to increase dramatically around this time. Consider a 1950s advertising jingle: “Pepsi-Cola hit the spot, 12 full ounces, that’s a lot.” Well, it’s not a lot any more, 12 ounces would be considered the small option. For decades, 12 ounces was the standard serving size for soft drinks. But since the 1970s, soft drinks have grown to 20 and 24 ounces. Today at the 7-11 convenience store chain you can find a Double Gulp cup filled with 64 ounces of ice and soda; that’s a half-gallon serving! We live in a “toxic environment” that in many ways discourages healthy eating. There’s the incessant advertising and marketing of the poorest quality foods imaginable; most of which occur during television commercial breaks, especially around children’s programming. These processed foods are addictive, alter our hormones, and actually make us hungrier. When you consider the fact that the fast food industry is a $300 billion per year industry and the junk food industry is a $100 billion per year industry, they have every incentive to keep us coming back for more.
People today are about 10% heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the same diet and exercise plans. How can that be? A possible explanation is our changing microbiome and how this contributes to weight gain. To read more about this visit my blog post on the Mysterious Microbiome.
Since the Industrial Revolution, and particularly in the last half-century, technology has enabled us to conduct an increasingly immobile daily life. Our grandparents, or great-grandparents, had much more active lives. Many were farmers or using their bodies in manual work. They weren’t going to the gym or jogging for an hour, they were active 8-12 hours a day. Our bodies were designed to be moving, not to be sitting in front of a computer for 8+ hours a day. Many other aspects of our daily life has become automated; even the most minimal actions like flushing a toilet or turning a faucet on or off has become automated. I’m reminded of the movie Wall-E, where eventually we won’t even have to get out of our chairs to live our lives. The other issue when dealing with overweight or obesity, is that you’re also dealing with hormonal imbalances that can cause insulin and energy dys-regulation. This causes increased fatigue and makes it even harder to be active. Yet another factor in the vicious cycle.
Another concern that afflicts our modern way of life, compared to that of our grandparents or great-grandparents, is the sheer volume of chemicals we’re exposed to. These toxins are in everything from cleaning products, cosmetics, and body care products, to our food, water, and even the air we breathe. Many of these toxins have shown the ability to alter hormonal processes and change the way our body puts on and maintains weight; not to mention that certain prescription medications, like anti-depressants, actually have the side effect of weight gain.
What Will Work
In some ways, obesity is really just the tip of the iceberg, sitting on top of huge societal issues. There are enormous pressures on homes with both parents working, often long days, commuting home, and maybe even working extra hours at night. People don’t have time to cook a healthy homemade meal. They need to make something fast and heating something in the microwave or hitting the drive-through on the way home are practical answers. If this is true for you, the only way you’re going to be able to start working on the tips below is if you plan ahead, shop in advance, and start making food ahead of time so it’s already at home and ready to be re-heated. Once some of those logistics are in place, then you can move on to my top 8 steps for restoring your metabolism and losing weight for good. 1. Remove processed foods and added sugars – In order to restore a healthy metabolism and start to shift the hormonal processes in your favor, you have to remove the foods that are keeping you from losing weight. The good news is the longer you avoid these foods, the less you’ll crave them, and the easier it will be to continue to avoid them. 2. Cook your own food – You need to know every ingredient that goes into your food; that’s the only way to be sure you’re eating real food. In his book Food Rules, Michael Pollan writes that the only junk food we should eat is what we can make ourselves. If you can make your own Twinkie, then by all means eat it. 3. Eliminate toxins – As much as you can control, remove toxins from your life; when possible choose organic foods, natural cosmetics and body care products, natural cleaning products, glass and ceramic containers instead of plastic, etc. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource when trying to transition from chemical-laden products to more natural ones. 4. Follow a Rustic Diet – Maintain a high intake of plants and probiotic-rich foods both of which will support your microbiome and keep you feeling full and satisfied. People tend to eat the same amount of bulk, no matter what the calories; they’ll fill their plate with the same amount of food. So foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains will fill you up in the same way but without the caloric load. 5. Increase satiety with protein, fiber, and fat – Eating a balanced meal with good quality protein, healthy fat, and fiber will keep you full and satisfied and will help eliminate cravings for sweets 6. Don’t count calories – As we learned above, a calorie is not a calorie; the quality of the foods you eat are much more important than how much you eat. Some people believe that any food can be harmful in excess but try over-eating broccoli or eggs. It’s impossible. You will feel full very quickly and will not want more. On the other hand, something like ice cream, is very easy to consume in large amounts. Track your nutrient intake, rather than calories, to make sure you’re eating enough of the right foods. 7. Move more – Although exercise is important, research is showing that the amount of movement you do throughout the day is much more important than the hour you spend jogging or at the gym. Find ways to move your body more over the entire day; wearing a pedometer can help, taking a break every hour to take a flight of stairs or do some jumping jacks, or walking or riding your bike to work are just a few examples. 8. Extend your night-time fast – Aim to get at least 12 hours every night between dinner and breakfast. This gives your body ample time to move through digestion and all the systems of detoxification before you start eating again. This step is essential in maintaining a healthy metabolism.
Take Home Message
If you made it all the way to the end of this article, pat yourself on the back. You are definitely invested in your health and with the information and tools you just learned you will be well on your way to stopping the vicious dieting circle and actually start repairing your metabolism. Once your metabolism and hormones are re-balanced, it will be surprisingly easy to maintain a healthy weight. You’ll no longer have to TRY, it will just BE. If you’re ready to dive deeper in your weight loss and health journey, then let the Rustic Dietitian be your guide with the transformative 12-week Group Rustic Remedy Program. It walks you through step-by-step the 12 essential tools to transform your health and lose the weight for good while receiving personalized coaching and group support from an online community. Contact me for more details. Join the Tribe and get more articles like this plus recipes, inspiration, and more delivered straight to your Inbox each week. (this article was first published on 10/24/16)