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The Body’s Metabolism Is Like A Furnace
Ever wonder why most diets fail in the run run? Why after losing a good amount of weight, it is so hard to keep it off? Well, the body is super efficient at keeping your body as close as possible to it’s “set-point” as possible.
It is kind of like a thermostat. When you put on a couple extra pounds, the body will work to burn it off by decreasing hunger. Same thing goes when weight is lost. The body goes into conservation mode and increases hunger.
How does this happen?
The body’s metabolism is like a thermostat.
The body’s metabolism is mostly controlled by hormones. The “set point” is the weight your body wants to maintain. It is actually a pretty well regulated machine, resistant to both weight gain and weight loss.
Now, under most circumstances the set point stays at a certain level, unless we slowly make it increase over a period of time. Obesity is then the result of slowly increasing the body’s set point too high.
How is set point controlled?
Hormones, such as leptin, ghrelin and insulin are a few key players in metabolism and fat accumulation. Insulin is a storage hormone that turns sugar into fat to be stored for energy use when readily available energy is not available.
Fat is likened to money in the bank and cash is like the sugar and protein you eat on a daily basis. Once our readily available cash is used up (sugar and glycogen stores) our body taps into the reserves account for the needed energy – fat. If you continually replenish the available cash, then the bank account just continues to grow and fat accumulates. That fat deposit causes a host of problems that contribute to obesity and the vicious cycle of diet fails.
When the body falls below its set point, hormones circulate telling you to eat and your “thermostat” actually goes down. People who go on ,low calorie diets actually reduce their metabolism by just lowering calorie intake.
Over time, we can increase our set point by putting on an extra pound or two, slowly. This long-term weight gain, gradually resets our set point higher and higher. The body tightly regulates this set point through hormonal pathways in the body. This is not a result of willpower.
We know that higher levels of resting insulin levels are associated with obesity. In fact, higher insulin levels actually cause weight gain!
Remember, insulin is a fat storage hormone. Unless you use up all the sugar entering the body with each meal immediately with exercise, the body will store extra sugar energy as fat.
A Vicious Cycle
The connection or bottom line is that high insulin levels cause weight gain. Weight gain causes our hormones to raise our set point. Leptin levels increase with body fat – this is the body’s way of saying stop eating. Recall that the body wants to maintain a set body weight. When leptin levels increase to decrease hunger and this becomes constant, the body becomes resistant to leptin. That mechanism for weight control becomes ineffective and we continue to eat despite really needed to.
Constant exposure to leptin creates resistance in the brain, thus leptin becomes less effective the more our body is exposed. Normally, leptin helps to reduce body fat while insulin stores body fat.
Calorie restriction will not affect this hormonal cycle in any useful way. Weight loss is not reliant on calorie reduction, as much as it is affected by insulin levels and the hormonal balance or your body’s metabolic thermostat.
Most of the time, obesity is something that occurs over a long period of time. Over twenty five years, someone can experience a 50 pound weight gain by just gaining 2 pounds a year. People with this kind of longstanding weight gain have a much harder time keeping weight off when starting a quick fix diet. Again this is because of the very resistant to change “set point”.
The culprit behind obesity is insulin.
One piece of the obesity puzzle that is crucial to understand is insulin resistance. How it develops and how it effects weight gain. Insulin resistance occurs when cells no longer allow insulin to attach and let in the glucose molecules – to clear it from circulating blood. This is necessary for energy consumption and to prevent the damaging effects of high sugar levels in our blood. When the cells become resistant to insulin and realize there is too little glucose inside, more insulin is secreted to compensate. As we become insulin resistant, our body produces more insulin to get the same result. More insulin means more fat storage.
Why do cells become insulin resistant?
The best explanation for insulin resistance is similar to the reason behind resistance to antibiotics or certain drugs. Persistent exposure causes the body to become resistant or tolerant. Repeated high exposures causes the body to need more to perform the same job. Over time, this can also happen with persistent high levels of circulating insulin levels. High insulin levels leads to obesity which leads to high levels of insulin and insulin resistance. This vicious cycle continues and after many years can be very hard to break even with healthy diet changes.
The rise and fall of hormonal levels happens all the time with growth stimulating hormone, thyroid-stimulating hormone and cortisol. This ebb and flow prevents resistance in the body, as whenever the body is constantly stimulated it acclimates to it.
Why small meals and snacking is not healthy.
So, remember the recommendations to eat small meals throughout the day? What effect does that have on insulin levels? If you are eating any kids of carbohydrate or protein it will spike insulin levels. The theory that your blood sugar will drop if you do not continuously snack is misleading. Unless you have Diabetes this is not really an issue. Under normal conditions, blood sugar levels remain constant whether you eat 2 or 5 times a day.
If your body is constantly fed sugary treats or refined carbohydrates or even protein sources, your body becomes accustomed to needing sugar for energy and the ability to burn fat for energy becomes weakened. The process is a bit more complex than this, however, fat burning is essential to weight loss and it will not happen when eating 5-6 small meals a day. Snacking is not necessary, although if you are used to snacking, it becomes tricky to give up.
A few misconceptions that will lead to long-term diet failure:
- Eat 5-6 small meals a day.
- Cutting out a whole food group will lead to long-term weight loss success.
- It is my fault if I regain weight after following a strict diet plan.
- I can cut calories and fat and healthily lose weight.
- I can exercise away all the “bad” food I eat.
A few general rules that WILL help you be successful in long-term weight management:
- Losing weight is multifaceted and should address mindfulness, stress management, sleep and whole foods.
- Lowering insulin levels will help to burn fat – avoid snacking and sugary foods.
- Strength exercise help the muscles use glucose and reduce insulin resistance.
- Calories are less important than what you are eating.
- Your body’s set-point must be lowered (reset) for successful weight loss.
- Your body must have an opportunity to burn fat to successfully lose weight – metabolic flexibility.
- Obesity is a hormonal problem.
- Inflammation and a leaky gut can cause weight gain (topic for another blog!).
- Meal timing is an important aspect to a healthy weight management plan – intermittent fasting has a key role in weight loss and set point (another blog topic!).
This brings into question the idea of meal timing.
Back in the 60’s, people did eat sugary snacks. They ate Oreos and Kit-Kats, just like us. The difference, however, was that they rarely ate those snacks and ate only 3 meals a day. Their overall sugar intake was quite a bit less.
We do know, that sugar is addictive for many people. Our body is not adapted to eat the high concentration of sugar and refined starches found in much of the processed foods we are surrounded by today. We will not become addicted to whole foods like apples, bananas and pineapple even though they are quite sweet!
Process and refined carbohydrates are manufactured to be highly addictive – so that we want more of them. These highly tasty and addictive foods are perpetuating this loop of high sugar, high insulin which eventually increases the body’s fat, set point and resistance to insulin. A process that takes years to develop and cannot be cured by a quick fix diet that only addresses limiting foods…..
There is another piece to the puzzle very often not addressed in many diet plans.
When you stop eating at 6 and have breakfast at 8am, that is 14 hours of fasting. Fasting creates periods of low insulin. Periods of fasting is something we have always practiced. Whether we look back to paleo time or even fifty years ago. The interesting thing about fasting is the many health benefits.
One health benefit of periodic fasting is the reduction in insulin levels and the adaptive response of your body to gain energy from tapping into fat burning – this process does not rely on insulin levels or burning sugar. Being adaptive to fat burning is crucial for weight loss and will not occur if a person constantly is fueling the body with sugar or even protein sources, as both increase insulin levels. Fat burning is the body’s secondary fuel source and is very efficient.
So, as many people know first hand, many diets do fail in the long run. Many do work in the short term to some degree. Many, however, will experience a period of time when weight is no longer lost and then a regain.
This is NOT your fault! It is not a willpower problem. It is your body’s highly efficient way of maintaining its set point.
So why do so many diets fails?
Permanent weight loss is multifactorial and a 2 step process. There are many short-term ways to reduce insulin levels which will cause weight loss. The actual long-term losses require a new set point, so that your body does not work feverishly to regain the weight to restore homeostasis.
Other factors often not addressed in many diets causing weight gain also need to be considered.
Weight Loss Is Complex
Nutrition is only one piece of the puzzle. Sleep deprivation, high stress, insulin resistance, emotional ties to eating and lack of fiber can all contribute to weight gain. Teaching someone mindful eating techniques who is chronically sleep deprived will not necessarily solve the problem. Likewise teaching stress reduction techniques to someone with insulin resistance will not be effective. Somewhere in between, however, there is a solution.
Long-term diet success relies on many factors. Not only is there a physiological mechanism at play, but we all function in a complex world. Factors such as stress, emotional trauma, relationships, careers, sleep etc impact pour success in most anything in life. The endless chatter in our head effects how confident we are to succeed. The people we spend the most time with effect our habits and how we view the world, as well. All of these factors will affect weight loss and management.
The Bigger Picture
For complete and long-term success the plan must include all aspects with an emphasis on the areas that are contributing to the problem: healthy nutrition, sleep, habits, mind-set, support and accountability, emotions, relationships.
One thing that is for certain, by addressing these areas you can control your weight and overall health. Once you are able to make some small wins with your health, you will begin to feel better. Once nutrition and self-care becomes the fuel your body needs, you will see improvements in all aspects of your life.
If it is overwhelming to even consider such big changes, keep your goal set on the long-term and make small easily attainable goals. That goal may be to start walking for 15 minutes each day or cutting out just the processed foods in your diet. Make one small goal and stick to it. Once you have established some confidence from a small win, you will have more strength to tackle another goal.
Remember, if it has taken years to put on weight, the long-term success your looking for will not happen overnight. Be patient. Keep your eye on the prize and be kind to yourself along the way.
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