Photo: Steve ice climbing at Sandstone, MN, January 2021
I had the privilege last week of ice climbing with my twenty three year-old son Charlie. It felt good. I am sixty six years old, but good nutrition, exercise, and a goal of younger every year is working. I can still do well all the activities I want to do.
My client was twenty five pounds overweight. A common problem in our country where over forty percent of the population is obese.
When I started full-time personal training at Lifetime Fitness, the company’s weight loss philosophy could be summed up in the phrase, “eat less, move more.” Unfortunately, this simplistic model of weight loss does not work. Scientific studies show reducing calorie intake reduces resting metabolic rate. Simply put, if you eat less, your hormones slow your metabolism and increase hunger. Studies of contestants on the reality show, “Biggest Loser” show this reduced metabolic rate persists even after normal calorie intake is resumed. Most of these contestants gained all of the their weight back.
Over the last five years I researched the scientific literature for studies on weight loss. I combined this knowledge with my own experience with weight problems detailed in my article: Creatures of Habit, https://crooked-thumb.com/2020/10/28/creatures-of-habit-small-changes-big-results/
I worked with my client changing what she ate, when she ate, and modified her workouts to become more efficient at burning fat. Slowly, but surely it worked. Over a one year period, she lost twenty one pounds, dropped her body fat from 35% to 22%, and reduced her waist circumference by over two inches.
In this article, I write about what I have learned about weight loss: the concept of body set weight, the drivers of weight gain, weight loss myths, and why it’s so hard to lose weight. Elite athlete or inactive individual; young or old, it is possible to achieve a healthy weight and maintain it.
Body Set Weight
The body set weight theory states our bodies have a normal weight wired into our brain. This weight is determined by genetics, psychological and environmental factors. The body has a regulatory system that resists changes to body set weight. The theory says in response to weight gain or loss, our metabolism adapts returning the body to its original body set weight.
In addition, our bodies have intricate hormonal systems that guide body fat regulation. Fat stores are regulated by hormones that regulate growth, blood sugar, hunger and satiety. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle throws this elegant system out of whack. If we chronically subject our bodies to eating high calorie processed foods and everyday lifestyle stress, we will drive our body set weight higher over time.
Weight Gain Drivers: Stress and Insulin Resistance
Cortisol is our stress hormone: think fight or fly and preparing our bodies for action. Stress elevates cortisol levels which in turn, raises blood glucose providing readily available energy; and raises insulin levels to store reserves as glycogen and fat. With lifestyle stress, blood sugar is not burned. Instead, insulin levels rise and glucose is converted to fat. Chronic stress causes weight gain and an increase in body set weight.
Eating carbohydrates raises blood sugar which increases insulin production. Insulin is a hormone that is the key that opens the lock in cells to deliver blood glucose for the production of energy into the cell. Eating a diet high in refined or process carbs and frequent eating leads to chronically elevated levels of insulin.
With persistent exposure to high levels of insulin in the blood, cells become resistant to insulin. It takes more “keys” of insulin to open the cell lock—insulin resistance. Your body ends excess blood sugar to the liver to be processed and stored as fat. The longer the cycle persists the greater the increase in body fat and body set weight. Once your set body weight increases, your brain, hormones and metabolism all act to maintain that set weight. Weight gain is not moral failure. We eat too much because our brain and body tell us to.
Weight Gain and Addiction
Comfort food. What an interesting term used to describe food that tastes good, makes you feel good, but is high in calories, carbohydrates, and lacking in fiber and nutrition. You are depressed, or maybe just bored, so you eat. Comfort food. That begins the habit loop that I wrote about in Creatures of Habit, https://crooked-thumb.com/2020/10/28/creatures-of-habit-small-changes-big-results/ . If left unchecked, the habit can become an addiction to junk food and overeating resulting in insulin resistance, obesity, pre-diabetes, heart conditions and cancer.
Weight Loss Reality
Over the years as a personal trainer and nutrition coach I have heard a number of weight loss strategies that science has proved wrong.
Myth 1: Eat frequently
The logic behind this myth is that eating burns calories—the thermogenic effect of food. Unfortunately this effect, while real, is so small it’s insignificant. Another thought is frequent eating controls hunger and keeps blood sugar from getting too low. There is no scientific effort that frequent eating controls hunger. You shouldn’t worry about blood sugar unless you are a diabetic or an endurance athlete. The body is designed to burn fat and manufacturer new glucose or blood sugar from fat stored in the liver.
Myth 2: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
The body gives us a natural wake-up call known as the “Dawn Phenomenon.” Upon waking, the body produces growth hormone, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenalin) which signals the liver to make new glucose. Delaying “breaking your fast” is one of several intermittent fasting strategies for weight loss I will write about in the next newsletter. If your goal is to lose weight or keep from gaining weight, breakfast is the best meal to skip.
Myth 4: Drink diet soda and eat sugar free products.
Studies beginning in 2008, show diet beverages increase the risk of obesity by 47%. Why? Because it is insulin resistance that drives obesity not calories. Artificial sweeteners increase insulin levels by as much as 20%. Insulin resistance keeps glucose out of the muscles where it can be burned for energy and sends it to the liver to be stored as fat. There are no weight loss benefits from sugar free products and they increase other health risks.
Myth 5: Eat high protein diets
High protein diets don’t really work for weight loss. Think Atkins in bankruptcy. While proteins don’t raise glucose levels, they do cause a surge in insulin levels. Dairy protein, and whey protein in particular, raise insulin levels. This surge is balanced partly by the release of satiety hormones. You feel fuller longer after a meal high in protein. The goal here is too keep your insulin levels low to prevent or reverse insulin resistance.
Why it’s So Hard
All diets produce short term weights loss. All diets plateau… then begins the relentless march to regain lost weight. It’s a two-step process. The brain sets the body set weight. Insulin acts to move body set weight higher. When your weight falls below body set weight, the brain activates mechanisms to regain weight actively resisting long term weight loss. Weight gain is multi-dimensional, there is no one single cause. All diets work because they address a single aspect: saturated fat, carbs, red meat, processed foods, high fat dairy, wheat and sugar. All diets fail because they don’t address the root cause—insulin resistance and stress. In our next newsletter, we will address how to prevent or reverse insulin resistance by what you eat, when you eat, and reducing stress. And in the process, achieve a healthy weight.