by Jessica Nagelkirk
The multi-billion dollar weight loss industry has a dirty little secret: Dieting doesn’t work. You name the diet, there’s a book selling it and people buying it. The problem is, most diets have it all wrong. Dieting typically focuses on food deprivation, which actually drops your metabolism and makes your body want to store fat. Here we’ll explore the physiology of metabolism and some simple steps you can take to change your life for good.
The Anatomy of Digestion
In the center of the brain, you’ll find the hypothalamus, an important regulation control center for your body. Appetite for food and thirst, as well as metabolism, are all controlled by this little almond-size structure. Here, two important hormone regulators, CART and NYP, are released to control the brain’s biochemistry of hunger. These hormones have opposing effects (CART increases metabolism and reduces appetite, while NYP makes you hungry) and are in a constant battle for control of your appetite. The release of CART and NYP are controlled by events that occur in the gut.
In the gut, when you eat healthy fat or protein, your intestines release a messenger called CCK that turns on the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system, allowing your body to focus all its energy on breaking down that meal you just ate. This messenger also causes the release of another messenger hormone, leptin, stored in fat cells. Leptin activates CART, telling you to stop eating.
NYP, on the other hand, is stimulated every 30 minutes by the stomach’s release of a substance called ghrelin. So why don’t we get hungry every half hour? It turns out the leptin pathway is able to override NYP’s response to ghrelin and keep you feeling satisfied. This is why including healthy fats and protein in your diet is so important for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
The Role of Food
A healthy diet is all about including healthy fat, fiber and protein. By eating the right kinds of foods, you can trick your brain into believing that you’re full. Eating a little bit of good fats, like a handful of walnuts, approximately 25 minutes before a meal, stimulates the production of CCK, activates CART, and helps you eat less at mealtime because you don’t feel ravenous. If you do this, you’ll be able to eat for pleasure rather than hunger.
An adequate intake of healthy fat, (around 25% of your daily calories), includes a healthy balance of omega-3, 6, and 9 essential fatty acids. Some good sources of fat include avocado, coconut, nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, fish and fish oils from deep-water fish, and organic eggs.
Eating a diet high in fiber slows the time it takes food to move from your small intestines to your large intestines, resulting in increased appetite-suppressing signals. Studies show that bulking up on fiber in the mornings makes you less hungry in the afternoons. Vegetables and fruits, (especially leafy greens and apples), are an excellent source of fiber. The revised USDA food guidelines suggest each plate at mealtime to be 50% vegetables. It is recommended to eat size to nine servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
Protein gives you energy, helps burn off extra calories, and satisfies hunger. Studies indicate that a high protein diet does a better job of reducing hunger between meals than high-carbohydrate vegetarian meals. According to the Mayo Clinic, a good, lean source of protein should make up 25% of your diet. Try free-range beef, eggs, dairy, deep-sea cold water fish, legumes, nuts, wild game, and poultry.
Bust a Move
After you eat, your body has glucose available for energy. Normally, the pancreas secretes just the right amount of insulin to move the glucose into muscle cells for energy, keeping the blood sugar stable. Many overweight people are insensitive to insulin so the pancreas secretes more and more insulin in an attempt to get a response from the body. An elevated level of insulin in the blood stream encourages fat deposition and the development of obesity. Clinical studies have shown that regular exercise improves the muscles’ sensitivity to insulin and lowers blood insulin levels. When you improve insulin sensitivity, you also reduce your appetite by preventing large swings in blood sugar levels. Excess circulating insulin in an insulin-insensitive person can cause blood sugar to drop too low, causing hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia makes you hungry, even if you have just eaten a large meal. Exercise sets the metabolic stage for weight loss to occur by controlling your blood sugar.
In addition to its effects on insulin, regular exercise can increase good cholesterol, reduce triglycerides, lower blood pressure, and have a positive impact on bone density.
Here are some tips for applying the knowledge you now have about the physiology of metabolism.
Know where you’re starting. Get off the scale and pull out a tape measure. Studies show that waist circumference, not overall weight, is the most important indicator of mortality to being overweight. Measure at the point of your belly button. Measurements over 37 inches for females and over 40 inches for males indicate an increased risk to your health.
Eat before you’re famished. Eat a healthy balance of fat, fiber, and protein at each meal. Try using a nine inch plate if portion control is difficult for you.
Identify food sensitivities. Although the relationship between food sensitivities and body weight remains uncertain, according to research, chronic food allergies may lead to overeating, resulting in obesity. If you believe food sensitivities may be playing a role in your weight gain, contact your physician to talk about food allergy testing or an elimination diet.
Learn stress management techniques that work for you. NYP, the chemical in the hypothalamus that decreases metabolism and increases appetite, is a stress hormone. This may explain why some people in chronically stressful situations tend to gain weight.
Eliminate high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Your brain doesn’t recognize HFCS as excess calories or as a NYP suppressant. It may contribute to weight gain by both making you hungry as well as unable to shut off your appetite.
Exercise. In order to gain minimal health effects of exercise, you will need at least thirty minutes of aerobic activity at moderate intensity on most days, preferably all days, of the week. It’s important always to listen to your body and increase or decrease your exercise accordingly. Strength training is an extremely important aspect of exercise and should not be neglected. Work with a personal trainer, physical therapist, chiropractor, or your physician to come up with an exercise regimen right for you.
Every person is unique, Naturopathic physicians expect the reason for weight gain to be equally individual. Before starting any weight loss plan, consult your doctor to make sure your weight gain isn’t from a medical condition that requires treatment other than lifestyle changes. Implementing healthy lifestyle habits will not only help you shed those unwanted pounds, but also help you have more energy and less risk for serious medical conditions.
For more information on dieting, including low carb diets, the danger of yo-yo dieting, and more, visit my blog at http://modernnaturopath.blogspot.com/ and click on “weight loss”.
Jessica Nagelkirk, medical student at National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon will graduate in the spring of 2012 as a Naturopathic Physician (ND).
Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Spring 2012.