You’ve probably tried to get rid of those extra pounds a couple of times. It turns out that shedding that extra weight is now more complicated than ever. Scientists have come up with some answers to your most pressing questions to help you reach your weight loss goals. Let’s start by taking a look at some of the medical considerations that may have been standing in the way of your weight loss goal.
1. Your Genes
There are 100 different genetic markers that influence how you break down calories and store fat. These genes have been examined to find the link to being overweight. The most studied, and most blamed for obesity, is called the FTO Gene. Researchers believe that its genetic influence on our weight is actually quite small.
John Mathers, professor of Human Nutrition at Newcastle University says “Carrying the high-risk form of the FTO Gene makes you more likely to be a bit heavier, but it shouldn’t prevent you from losing weight.”
I will remind you that your genes are handed down generationally and have changed little between generations. You may look like your mother or father, but you may choose a healthier lifestyle and thus be healthier than your ancestors despite what your genes imply. Your parent’s genes influence your body type, but not necessarily your weight. Genetic testing, however, can give us clues as to your preferred diet, the best kind of exercise for your body, and your ability to utilize certain nutrients. The rapid rise in obesity isn’t simply our genes but is more likely to be related to how our genes respond to food, exercise, pollution and chemicals in our environment, stress of all kinds, and the overall American lifestyle.
2. Good Fat and Bad Fat
Nutritionists and doctors have finally realized that some fats are good for you. The Mediterranean Diet, which includes olive oil and nuts, has been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both of which are linked to obesity. A study published in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology found that individuals who followed a high-fat, Mediterranean diet lost more weight and reduced their waistline more than people who were instructed to reduce their overall fat intake. Please note that this study promotes olive oil and nuts, NOT hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils found in processed food or processed vegetable oils like cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, soybean, and canola oils. Insist on extra virgin olive oil and know your source.
The FDA states, “That eating about 2 tablespoons of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil should replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.” Remember that 1 tablespoon of olive oil is 125 calories so, in terms of caloric intake, more is not necessarily better. The question of how much good fat we need has yet to be answered. It’s likely that it’ll be far less than we desire.
3. Healthy Hormones
Leptin is the controversial hormone that helps to regulate your energy while inhibiting hunger. Ever since the discovery of leptins in 1994, scientists have tried to blame obesity on leptin resistance. At this point in research, we can’t blame ordinary obesity on this hormone. Nor can we blame ghrelin, the so-called “hunger hormone”. Scientists report that the biomolecule may actually be a mediator of fat storage, rather than an appetite driver. Ghrelin does appear to be activated when you are full by a bacteria called H. Pylori which in large amounts is associated with gastric ulcers. Because of the common use of antibiotics very few people have H. Pylori and most of us have lost many other bacteria that actually belong in the GI tract.
Then there’s insulin whose functions we understand a bit better but has surprised scientists with new information on what to eat. A review of 3 large studies suggests that the amount of fat we need is dependent on our blood sugar. Researchers analyzed the data of three dietary clinical trials: the Diet, Obesity, and Genes trial, the OPUS Supermarket intervention (SHOPUS), and the Nutrient-gene interactions in human obesity (NUGENOB) trial. In total, the study included the data of more than 1,200 overweight adults. Looking at fasting blood glucose levels and fasting insulin levels of each participant, they assessed whether these levels were associated with weight loss in response to certain diets. For people with type 2 diabetes, the researchers found that a diet rich in plant-based, “healthy” fats and low in carbohydrates was best for weight loss. In the NUGENOB trial, adults with type 2 diabetes lost around 5.3 pounds more over 10 weeks on a diet that was high in plant-based fats and low in carbohydrates, compared with those whose diet was low in fat and high in carbohydrates. If your blood sugar is within normal limits, a lower-fat, higher-carbohydrate diet is better for weight loss. This is so important, because according to the CDC, if people with prediabetes, lose around 5 to 7 percent of their body weight and increase their exercise levels, they can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by as much as 58 percent.
The issue of hormonal health is now being linked to your toxic environment. Things like the bisphenol A, or BPA plastic, now banned and replaced with an even worse form of the chemical, is found in the linings of canned-foods and cash-register receipts. Flame retardants in sofas and mattresses, pesticide residues on our food and the phthalates found in plastics and cosmetics are all likely to be contributing to obesity. These chemicals mimic human hormones, and may actually be driving fat storage. “The old paradigm was that poor diet and lack of exercise are underpinning obesity, but now we understand that chemical exposures are an important third factor in the origin of the obesity epidemic,” says Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and population health at New York University’s School of Medicine. “Chemicals can disrupt hormones and metabolism, which can contribute to disease and disability.”
Despite the success of The Biggest Loser as a TV program, it turns out that more exercise is not better. A study published in the journal Current Biology found that people who engaged in moderate levels of physical activity burned about 200 more calories per day than those who had the lowest levels of physical activity. However, strikingly, the people who were the most physically active burned, on average, the same number of calories as those who were moderately active – as the body adapts to higher levels of activity. Exercising a lot may actually prompt the body to make adjustments to adapt and actually keep its energy expenditure at the same level as it does when exercising less.
The solution to this may be high intensity interval training that continues to burn fat after you’ve been exercising so, in total, you burn more calories and you spend less time exercising. I’m sorry to say, those long cardio sessions are not promoting weight loss.
5. The Microbiome
We each share our physical body with billions of bacteria, viruses and fungi and yeasts. They help us in a myriad of ways, including maintaining our weight. New research is examining how our individual gut microbiomes may shed light on whether – and to what extent – we are able to lose weight while following particular dietary guidelines.
Researchers saw that participants who had a higher ratio of the bacteria Prevotella-to-Bacteroides, lost more weight when following a New Nordic Diet, compared with people who followed an Average Danish Diet. The New Nordic Diet is fruit, vegetables, fiber, and whole grains. The average Danish diet includes more meat and processed foods.
People with a low ratio of Prevotella-to-Bacteroides bacteria did not lose more weight when following the New Nordic Diet. The researchers noted that about half of the population has a higher amount of Prevotella-to-Bacteroides. The interesting thing about these dietary recommendations is that the balance of bacteria can change rapidly in response to the food you eat.
In the US, researchers Dr. Jeffrey I. Gordon and colleagues published a study in the journal, Science Translational Medicine. They transplanted human intestinal microbes into germ-free mice and then switched their diet from a low-fat, plant-based one to a more Westernized diet – high in fat and sugars. They found that within one day, obesity-linked microbes were thriving in the gut and the mice eventually became obese. The researchers also discovered that the guts of the mice on the high-fat, high-sugar diet had more obesity-related gut microbes and genes devoted to extracting calories from food. The genes were “switched on” when the researchers started feeding the mice the Westernized diet. Regardless of the mice’s genetic makeup, the high-fat, high-sugar diet increased the abundance of Firmicutes bacteria and reduced the abundance of Bacteroidetes bacteria.
This study is the first to determine that specific gut microbes are heritable and that the variation of these microbes is not solely influenced by diet, environment, lifestyle and health.
6. Soothing Sleep
Your mother likely told you not to eat before bed. It turns out she was right. Numerous studies have provided evidence that too little sleep — less than five hours — messes with your hormones, slows down your metabolism and reprograms your body to eat more. Our circadian rhythm affects our metabolism and vice versa. This doesn’t appear as simple as underweight people sleep better or are more active than overweight people.
Research from the Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine and the School of Food Science and Nutrition, involved 1,615 people ages 19 to 65 in Great Britain.
Very simply, people in the study who were sleeping an average of six hours each night had waist measurements about 1.2 inches more than those getting nine hours of sleep a night. Those with less sleep also weighed more. The relationship between more sleep and smaller waists and a lower body mass index (BMI) appeared to be almost linear.
When you’re sleep-deprived, your body makes more ghrelin and less melatonin which signals your brain that it’s time to eat no matter what time it is and no matter what you’re staring at in the refrigerator. Andrew McHill, Ph.D., researcher with the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at BWH, says “These findings suggest that the timing of when you consume calories, relative to your own biological timing may be more important for health than the actual time of sleep.”
Melatonin metabolism is complex and simply taking melatonin supplements doesn’t always solve the problem. Clinically, responses to differences in timing and dose are individual. In a nutshell, get a good night’s sleep, don’t eat before bed, go to bed early and sleep long.
7. Slow and Steady
According to a new study the key to losing weight and keeping it off is consistently losing a small amount each week. Researchers from Drexel University have confirmed that the best way to trim down is to steadily – not drastically – cut down your calories. The researchers studied 183 obese and overweight people aged 18-65, 80% of whom were women, on weight loss programs for a year. The participants who lost a consistent amount of weight week-in and week-out for the first six weeks had lost more weight a year later than the yo-yo dieters, despite the fact that they’d seen more dramatic results in the early stages. Even better, those who’d lost weight consistently were more likely to have kept it off. The study’s lead researcher Dr Emily Feig said: “It seems that developing stable, repeatable behaviors related to food intake and weight loss early on in a weight control program is really important for maintaining changes over the long term.” To prove the point, scientists have followed up with 14 “Biggest Loser” contestants and found that, after six years, they had regained 68 to 90 pounds and their metabolic rate (how many calories they burned at rest) had slowed. People who lose a lot of weight in a short period of time do almost always gain it back within the next few years.
The hard part of weight loss is figuring out exactly what you, as an individual, need to nourish your body, heart and mind. Your optimal diet is yours, and not the same food plan your friend is following. Some of this discovery is trial and error although the basics are similar. The most common programs use meal replacements, reduced caloric intake and increased activity levels. The bottom line is that slow, steady weight loss is supported by a balanced food based nutrition plan, regular exercise, good sleep and taking it slow. Think nourishment not deprivation. Addressing behavioral, familial and cultural patterns of nourishment, emotional eating, and mistaken beliefs about food and nutrition increases your chances of stabilizing at an optimal weight. Consistency works best.
So, in answer to the question, “What is your secret?” This is my answer: I have spent over half of my life practicing ancient methods of natural and holistic heal-ing, while working to reduce my stress levels by living in mindfulness and acceptance and wholeness. That is my secret, and now it is yours too.
Dr. Anne Mitchell is a naturopathic physician with more than 35 years of experience in alternative medicine, and the Clinic Director of The Life Center of Connecticut. The Life Center is known for providing excellent naturopathic care as well as for its pain management, weight loss and allergy desensitization programs. Dr. Mitchell is a cranial-sacral practitioner and an acupuncturist in addition to her comprehensive knowledge of naturopathic medicine, nutrition, homeopathy, and botanical medicine. She works with people who have chronic illness, confused immune systems, and inflammation, or who have experienced physical or emotional trauma, as well as those who have not achieved their goals with other therapies.