Dieting. Oh what a daunting task! Counting calories, daily trips to the bathroom scale, enjoying ALL those Valentine chocolates vicariously through someone else. Discipline! Discipline! Discipline! Something about it is just so intimidating. But when we don’t understand how specific foods affect us, eating becomes a daily struggle. For those who are overweight, it’s often a never-ending effort of trying to find the magic diet to lose those extra pounds and keep them off. There are those who drop the pounds with a strict vegetarian diet, and others who slim down eating meat three times a day. And what happens? We hear everyone else’s stories of weight loss success and then try the exact same diet that worked so well for them. But often the results are disappointing. The truth is—there is no one diet that fits all. Each one of us has a unique biochemistry and we need to fuel our bodies with foods that are appropriate for us as individuals. In other words, if you try someone else’s diet, what makes them fit could make you fat.
The problem is, we need more specifics. In the doctor’s office weight loss is usually addressed briefly, a comment in passing. The doctor suggests that weight loss will help a particular condition and then you’re sent on your way. There’s a hope that at your next visit there will be some progress in that area, but all too often the scales continue to tip the wrong way. Even with good practical advice to help weight loss, patients tend to fall back into old habits over the course of a few months. We know that diet matters, but somehow we never seem to make those important changes.
Good Food/Bad Food
Early on, most of us made a connection between what we eat and how we feel. We noticed that a healthy meal helped us feel energized, calm and alert but if we filled up on “junk food” we might get headaches, jittery, or even an outbreak of acne. Maybe we didn’t make those connections, but usually a firm inner voice reminds us that there is a reason why we have to eat vegetables and that we can’t eat chocolate all the time.
Even with our best intuition, it’s still not easy to decide what the best diet is. Nutritional Advice is always changing. Those of us who were around in the 70s remember a time when wheat germ and whole grain bread were considered healthy foods. Now gluten is considered bad, and if someone wants to lose weight they’re told that they’d better give up bread altogether. Once yogurt was the secret to a long life; after all in some places in the world where people routinely live to 100, they eat yogurt every day. Then dairy products were put on the list of bad foods. We’re told that people can’t tolerate lactose, and since no other species has milk past infancy, maybe humans shouldn’t either. Even a food as nutritious as broccoli may have a down side and suppress the thyroid. It seems that for every good food out there, there is some reason not to eat it. Often it seems the more we read, the less clear it is and the harder it is to simply enjoy our food.
Of course there are some universally bad foods that don’t do anybody any good. Some nutritionists call them “food-like substances”. Artificial colors, even more than artificial flavors and preservatives, are best avoided. Hydrogenated oils—fats that come out of a factory, promote inflammation and serve only to extend a food’s shelf life. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a concentration of everything bad about fruit and none of the benefits. HFCS is associated with obesity and is an independent factor driving up blood pressure. We might as well just throw away all diet products made with artificial sweeteners. There may be fewer calories, but artificial sweeteners slow down the liver and our metabolism, making us burn calories at a slower rate. Do we ever really see people reach their weight loss goals with diet sodas?
As a general rule it is best to avoid foods made in factories or foods that didn’t exist somewhere on earth 100 years ago. After that, it can be difficult to clarify what foods are good for a particular individual. Some people include low fat products in their diet. We use the same word “fat”, to describe lipids in the diet and adipose tissue on our bodies. But one type of fat does not equal the other. The more as a society we incorporate fat free and low fat foods, the more our obesity rates soar. Modern people are often shocked to see recipe books from colonial America where many foods are covered in cream, butter and lard. Interestingly enough, the colonists did not struggle with obesity, even those who didn’t earn their living through hard manual labor. Our sedentary lifestyle is often blamed but in the 1950s people worked office jobs and didn’t go to a gym—and yet they were not obese.
Which Diet Works For You?
What really matters is that you eat foods that work for your body. Just as someone wouldn’t knowingly put unleaded gasoline in a car that requires diesel, a body should be given the right food based on the particular requirements. In the early 20th century Dr. Weston Price studied the diets of native populations around the world. Dr. Price found a wide variety of diets from India where people ate mostly vegetarian food to the Masai of African who ate almost all animal products to the Eskimos who had whale blubber as a staple in their diet. Despite the differences, over many generations, the population had adapted to their surroundings and lived well with their local resources.
The science of genetics is confirming this idea of natural variety and adaptation. We now know that those with ancestry from cold climates have mitochondrial DNA that helps them burn more calories to stay warm compared to those with ancestry from a tropical environment. Just as our genes define our uniqueness in terms of our height, the color of hair and eyes, and the structure of our facial features, our genes play a role in our metabolism. They define our nutritional requirements as well as what foods are right or wrong for us.
It’s true. We are all different. Some people require a high daily intake of protein. Others thrive with rice and beans. Some need a small percentage of calories from fat and others need a greater amount. Discovering a new relationship with food can be an eye opener. Often the foods that were eaten in abundance are the ones that need to be limited. And if the patient is open minded, hopefully they will discover the need for healthier choices among foods they hadn’t previously considered. True lasting change doesn’t always come easy as habits can be hard to break.
Most of us have blind spots when it comes to our diet. It’s easy to kid oneself and eat a sugary treat here and there, and still think it’s eating healthy. In fact 80% of the time dieters either don’t make their goals or make their goals and then gain the weight back. Some of us want to lose 20lbs. but others need to lose over 100lbs. Just having a list of good foods is not enough for most people. We need support to change emotional eating and the comforting habits that often started in childhood. If this is going to happen, it’s essential to have the accountability of seeing a trained professional once a week and going over the details of what you’re actually eating and how you’re feeling.
An individualized diet, the right diet for your metabolic uniqueness, has a built-in reinforcement. With the right diet, many people gradually lose their taste for eating the garbage they used to consume. Unhealthy food cravings start to go away with food that satisfies their nutritional needs and balances their blood sugar. Their own body gives them the feedback that they’re on the right track. They notice right away that eating fast food or other processed garbage makes them feel “off”. For many who have struggled for a long time with food, there’s a great sense of liberation to know what is working for them and they’re less likely to fall prey to the fad of the month.
The right diet not only helps one lose weight, it improves their quality of life. The proper diet may even slow the aging process and improve mental clarity as well. A healthy side effect of good nutrition is increased focus and memory. But many patients find improvements in long standing conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Some patients find a lessened need for prescription medications.
Obstacles that Prevent Weight Loss
Identifying the right diet can be a struggle. Then implementing the diet and sticking to it is a challenge. But what happens if you’re on the right diet and you stick to it, but still the weight doesn’t come off? Working with a medical professional, especially a naturopathic physician can help identify and address some of the other obstacles that can hold us back from weight loss. Low levels of specific nutrients like iron, iodine, magnesium or zinc can affect our ability to lose weight. Ideally we should be able to find all our nutrition through food, but there are cases where targeted supplements can help.
Problems with our hormonal system can also hold us back from achieving our ideal body mass index (BMI). Low thyroid function and adrenal fatigue are issues that naturopathic physicians can address. Even if our initial screening tests look normal, a naturopathic doctor often looks deeper into the situation, getting to the root cause of why we feel fatigued and can’t lose weight. Sometimes detoxing from environmental toxins is called for. Sometimes we need to address digestive health and the bacteria in our gut. Inflammation associated with chronic pain or allergies can be another factor holding us back.
To make it more complicated, the specific foods that work for us are not set in stone. After we’ve addressed specific health issues like a low thyroid, eliminated foods of low nutritional value, exercise, get more sleep, and drink more water, our bodies shift. Sometimes the diet that worked for 6 months needs to be revised. We may need more or less protein, fats or fiber. A trained health professional can guide us through the modifications we need to make along the way.
Get the Help of a Professional
Because naturopathic physicians are trained to see the whole person, they are often able to help patients identify a diet that will work for them. A structured program can help a dieter through challenging situations. Grocery shopping and meal planning can be a challenge, especially when the dieter has to cook for their whole family. A trained life coach can help a person implement the changes in a targeted, well-informed way rather than being forced to make purchases in a random, haphazard fashion, based largely on guesswork about what might or might not be good for them and their family.
A Life Coach can also help you work through any emotional eating issues you may have. Regardless of how good a diet may be, if you don’t deal with your emotional hunger, it may grow along with your waistline. From the very beginning of our lives we associate food with being protected and comforted. Perhaps you fell and scraped your knee and your mom soothed you with a cookie, or rewarded you with food for a good grade. This memory of food as comfort stays with us as adults. We have more receptors for serotonin (the feel-good hormone) in our bellies than in our brains. But food is only a quick fix.
Consciously we say we want to lose weight, but somehow we end up sabotaging our success. Why? Because our subconscious mind is what really determines our behavior. Without addressing the underlying emotional needs, we are not getting to the root of the problem. Chances are it’s not just the weight on the scale, but something else is weighing heavy on the heart. A life coach can help you get to the bottom of what is getting in your way and will help you avoid self-sabotage.
Eating right on a whole foods diet shouldn’t be complicated. But each individual is unique and we all face our own challenges in achieving optimal health. Losing weight takes diligence and commitment, but with the right tools and good support, anything is possible. Naturopathic doctors are trained to look at each person as an individual and help them understand their unique nutritional needs. The right diet not only helps people achieve their ideal weight but improves our overall health, allowing us to feel more calm, alert and energized.
Submitted by Dr. Jenna C. Henderson. The Life Center offers medically supervised weight loss using the metabolic typing system. Patients meet with a life coach weekly and a licensed naturopathic physician once a month. These services are covered by most insurance. Members of the weight loss program eat real, whole foods, and while results are not always quick, they are almost always lasting. The Life Center has a very high success rate, and their weight loss program was voted #1 in New Haven County 2 years in a row. The Life Center has offices in North Haven and West Hartford.