Let’s face it, losing weight is hard. There is more to it than just counting calories and exercising. There are many physiological barriers that stand in the way of us seeing the results on the scale that we desire. This is why at least 90% of diets fail in the long term. They do not account for these physiological barriers.
The drive to eat food has always been an integral part of our survival. If it wasn’t we would not have made it to the days of supermarkets lined with our favorite treats. Our bodies have mechanisms that drive us to eat and then it rewards us for doing so. Our modern lifestyle has collided head on with how we are wired. In order to truly lose weight and to help reverse the obesity epidemic we need to understand which modern changes to our lifestyle negatively affect the physiological process of eating and storing energy.
In my almost 10 years in this field I have comprised a list of the areas that I feel influence our eating and fat storage the most and they are:
3. Poor digestive health
4. Nutrient Deficiency
5. Vitamin D deficiency
6. High palatability of modern foods
7. Eating too frequently
8. Deliberate calorie counting/yo-yo dieting
All of the above can drive us to seek out food and overeat, leading to a surplus of stored fat. When we do seek out food we tend to seek out food that is highly processed, which in turn increases our ability to overeat, and the cycle continues.
You may have noticed the last category in my list, deliberate calorie counting. The majority of us have been told to eat less and exercise more to lose weight. However, this fails much more than it succeeds in the long run.
I am not saying that calories do not matter, because they do. We need to reset our physiological system so that our body naturally takes in fewer calories and utilizes our stored fat to burn to make up the difference.
Our body needs a certain amount of energy to survive and carry out tasks. Not supplying the body with this energy will only increase hunger. Once this happens it is only a matter of time before you fall off of the wagon and give in. This is especially true if we start hitting the gym hard at the same time.
If we are overweight our energy homeostatic hormones are all out of whack. We develop resistance to our fat burning and fat storing hormones. This sets the stage for us to become very good at storing fat, but not so great at utilizing it for energy. Even though we have plenty of surplus fat in storage. This is why overweight people still get hungry.
I have written in the past about our energy homeostatic hormones here. That article also addresses why I believe more meals is not always the best option for weight loss.
So how do we reset our system? We go back to our list of key lifestyle behaviors that can influence our hunger response and maximize them.
One night of sleep deprivation alone can lead to an increase in food intake of roughly 300-600 calories per day. Other studies suggest that one night of sleep deprivation induces insulin resistance. This means poor sleep alone can make us eat more food and store more fat (1). Most of us are chronically sleep deprived.
We need to be getting 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep in a completely blacked out room. We also need to make sure that we are setting ourselves up for a goodnight sleep before bed. Shut off the lights 90-120 minutes before bed and relax in some candlelight. This lets our body know that it is night time and to start the physiological process to put ourselves at rest. Try listening to calming music or books on tape. If you just HAVE to watch televisions before bed purchase some amber sunglasses to at least filter out the blue light.
Stress is a big one, and one that people often overlook. When talking with clients I often get the “I am not generally stressed” as a response. I then will come to find out that they sit in traffic every day, have financial problems, problems at home, problems at work, and a number of other issues. All of the other lifestyle behaviors listed create a stress response. Poor sleep, nutrient deficiencies, eating processed foods, and not eating enough.
Stress creates a physiological tornado in our bodies. The stress response was built to help us evade situations where we could be killed or injured. It was never intended as a way for us to deal with the modern lifestyle. Being stressed occasionally is actually a good thing, but we run into problems when it becomes chronic.
A chronic stress response creates a hormonal environment that is completely imbalanced. It can set us up to eat more food and store more fat (2). It can also affect our mood in a way that we reach for food as an emotional crutch (3).
We need to bring balance back into our life. When we get stressed out it initiates a response from our sympathetic nervous system. Our parasympathetic nervous system is the one that allows us to relax. We need balance between these two. This is why active stress management is important for EVERYONE. Try some meditation or deep breathing exercises. I have actually found a brainwave app for the iPhone that I have been using with success. This utilizes certain frequencies to get a desired calming effect in the brain.
The modern lifestyle has also led us to become nutrient deficient. This is due to an increased consumption of less nutrient dense food and poor digestive health. Our body needs nutrients to perform every metabolic task. If we are deficient in any nutrient the body will increase hunger until it gets what it needs. This is why we need to make sure we focus our diet on nutrient dense foods.
Nutrient dense foods are foods that are high in nutrients, but lower in calories. I tell people they should be getting 9-10 big handful serving sizes of non-starchy vegetables per day. I do this for more than one reason. One, it makes sure that they are taking in as many nutrients as they can. Also, non-starchy vegetables expand the stomach. There are neurons within our stomach that identify this and tell the body to stop eating. This is one way we can decrease calories without deliberate calorie counting.
Non-starchy vegetables also give our gut microbiome the nutrients they need to survive and thrive. More and more research is being published recently showing how important our gut microbiome is to overall health including obesity and the desired weight loss (4).
Vitamin D is its own category for a reason. Recent research is suggesting that vitamin D may actually play a critical role in appetite control directly in the hypothalamus of the brain (5). In a study published about a year ago it reported that rats that had vitamin D injected straight into the hypothalamus lost weight and decreased their caloric intake significantly when compared to the controls.
It is hard to get all of those servings of nutrient dense food when we are constantly being surrounded by more enticing processed foods. These foods actually elicit a response in our brains similar to drugs. I have written about food addiction extensively on the site (6, 7, 8).
The problem with food addiction is if we are deficient in any neurotransmitters we will seek out behaviors or actions that balance us out. This is known as the reward deficiency syndrome. We need to identify which neurotransmitters we are deficient in and get them balanced. Eating a nutrient dense diet will work for most, but others may need to seek extra help. I utilize specific amino acid therapy. For more information regarding that topic check out Julia Ross’ book the Diet Cure.
We need to set our lives up in a manner in which we will reestablish hormonal balance. This means getting quality sleep, eating nutrient dense foods, avoiding processed foods, managing stress, having adequate vitamin D levels, and spacing out meals roughly 5 hours apart to allow the fat burning and fat storing hormones equal amounts of time in the bloodstream.
This is no easy task. If there was an easy solution to this complex problem the obesity epidemic would have been stopped in its tracks. Instead it only continues to get worse. If you need to lose weight focus on as many areas as possible that may negatively affect your goals. This can help ensure you that your hard work pays off in the end.