Conventional weight loss wisdom dictates that we must eat less and exercise more. This advice illustrates the danger in relying on academics and their textbook educations for our fitness and nutrition know-how. However well-intentioned, mainstream doctors and dietitians live in a theoretical world. On the surface, “eat less, exercise more” sounds plausible. But here’s how it usually plays out in reality:
1. You cut calories in an attempt to create a deficit. Within a short time, your body – sensing an emergency – responds by downregulating your metabolism to conserve energy.
2. This triggers an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which causes belly fat storage, among other health problems.
3. You increase your activity level, typically in the form of long-duration endurance training or “cardio,” i.e. jogging.
5. When you don’t see results you cut calories even further and extend your workouts, causing cortisol levels to become chronically elevated. The high cortisol levels and excess cardio cause muscle loss, triggering a bigger drop in metabolic rate.
6. The stress you experience from your failed weight loss efforts causes you to turn to sweets for their temporary feel-good effect (research has shown that sugar triggers cravings and overeating far more powerfully than dietary fat). The elevated insulin inhibits leptin – the hormone that tells your body you’re full – and slows thyroid activity, putting you in fat storage mode.
7. The cycle continues.
So how can you reverse the cascade of events that triggers weight gain? For starters, stop thinking of weight loss in terms of dieting. In fact, banish the word completely. Most people who lose weight by dieting gain it back because they never learn to become intuitive eaters. I’ve worked with many former Weight Watchers customers. The story is always the same, as it is with other popular weight loss programs that are heavy on marketing and light on science: They lose a few pounds initially but never learn to address the underlying hormonal and metabolic causes of their weight issues. With the focus on portion size, Weight Watchers creates the illusion of control. But because it’s victims…errr…. clients are told they can continue to eat the same types of foods that made them fat – as long as they stay within their daily point allotment! – they quickly come to realize the body composition pitfalls of “yo-yo” dieting, not to mention the health consequences of regular consumption of ingredients like hydrogenated cottonseed oil, modified food starch and corn maltodextrin. But, hey, who wouldn’t want to feast on “foods” like Salted Caramel Brownie Bliss, Three Cheese Macaroni and Belgian Eclairs if you could do so and still lose weight.
The quick fix promised by crash and fad diets is especially misleading. If your body isn’t sure it’ll be getting more sustenance, it will fight to hold onto the calories you do consume. Repeated cycles throw your hormones out of whack and can result in serious health issues.
Rather than counting calories, aim to increase your metabolic flexibility and shift your body from sugar-burner to fat-burner. Because glucose is such a quick-burning fuel source, you need to replenish your supply much more frequently throughout the day, as evidenced by the constant hunger that so many high-carb eaters experience. Fat is a far more efficient form of fuel for the body and results in steady energy with no crash. The transition requires that you reduce your intake of carbohydrates and the approach that works best for most is a gradual one. You’ll have to experiment to determine your individual carbohydrate tolerance but you can start by cutting out the refined, heavily processed, quickly digesting flours and sugars, which have absolutely no nutritional value anyway. By focusing on satiating foods like animal protein and healthy fats, you’ll prevent cravings and make calorie-counting unnecessary. This is the reason low(er) carb diets consistently outperform all others for LONG-TERM fat loss.
To lower cortisol levels, reduce caffeine and sugar consumption, consider stress-reduction strategies such as yoga and meditation and supplements like vitamin C, omega-3s, ashwagandha and rhodiola. Limit workouts to one hour and favor weight training and interval-based aerobics over traditional, long duration cardio sessions in order to preserve muscle mass and therefore keep metabolism up.
Other than that, it’s time to adopt a mistrust-but-verify approach to anything a weight loss guru purports. So stop assuming that because someone has initials after their name, wears a white coat or has a fancy title that they have the answers you’re seeking. If you want to get lean, listen to those who have actually done it (and, by the way, staying lean is more impressive than getting lean, especially in the 24/7 food fest that is America in 2015!)
The problem with doctors is that they have a hard time saying “I don’t know.” (yes, that’s a generalization and I’m well aware there are exceptions so spare me the hate mail!) If you’re overweight, your doctor can’t help you. But he knows he should be able to, so he’ll fake it. And the way he’ll fake it is by regurgitating the same outdated and untenable nutrition recommendations that precipitated the obesity epidemic. These generic guidelines manifest themselves in the latest incarnation of the politically cloaked Food Pyramid – the base of which is comprised of foods that didn’t exist for 99% of human history – great for agricultural institutions, corporate food behemoths and Weight Watchers but deadly for the rest of us!