Is weight loss really about just “burning more calories than you eat”? Even though doctors and nutritionist have repeated this for decades, current research shows that weight loss is more complicated than a simple math equation. Food communicates to the cells in your body. What you eat influences your hormones, genes and even the good bacteria that reside in your body. All of these factors impact metabolism and overall health.
Your food intake can affect your hormones. For example, when you eat refined carbohydrates, especially sugar, your insulin levels spike. Insulin is a fat storage hormone, so you do NOT want to have high levels of it. Also, when you eat sugar, insulin may overshoot and actually cause low blood sugar, leading to cravings for more food – namely more sugar. This leads to a vicious cycle that can easily lead to weight gain.
Another hormone that affects weight is a hormone called leptin, which reduces hunger and helps us to stop eating when we’ve had enough food. The more body fat you have, the more leptin you have. So if that’s true, why don’t people with higher body fat have more leptin and in turn eat less? Two reasons – first, you can become leptin resistant, meaning your body doesn’t respond well to leptin (similar to insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes). Second, because we eat for many other reasons beside hunger! Social cues, availability of tasty treats, pictures of food (think Instagram and TV commercials), can all trigger you to eat, even if you’re not hungry. Also, remember that lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your hormones, so adequate sleep is crucial to weight loss.
Food can also affect your genes. The food you eat tells your genes to turn on or off. In other words, it’s not a matter of whether not mom & dad passed on their diabetes or heart disease genes, but rather, does your lifestyle turn those genes on? There is a saying, “genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger.”
For example, diabetes is a combination of genes and lifestyle factors. You need both to end up with diabetes. You can eat healthfully, get plenty of physical activity and never get diabetes. Or you can be sedentary and overweight and get diabetes early in life. On the other hand, if you DON’T have the genes that put you at risk, you can drink soda and junk food every day and be the lucky one who doesn’t get diabetes – of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll be healthy just because you didn’t get diabetes.
Also, food affects your GI tract and the good bacteria that live in your gut. Numerous research studies show that the type of bacteria that resides in your body affects your body weight. What we eat affects the bacteria in your intestines, for example some artificial sweeteners have a negative impact on our bacterial balance, while higher fiber intake has a positive effect. The bacteria in turn also affect us – the little critters can even cause us to have cravings for nutrients they need!
The bottom line is, there is more to weight loss than calories in, calories out. That’s not to say that calories don’t matter – they do. But our bodies are more complex than a simple math problem, and our overall health depends on eating foods that communicate the right things to our bodies.
4 keys to weight loss that go beyond calorie counting:
1. Increase plant foods.
Increasing plants, particularly unprocessed, non-starchy vegetables. They provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and help you feel full. Avoid refined fruit juices if possible, because without the fiber, the juice just hits your system and spikes your blood sugar. Vegetable juices, particularly those you juice yourself, is another story, but vegetable juices shouldn’t take the place of real vegetables in your diet, because of the lack of fiber.
2. Decrease or eliminate sugar and refined flour intake.
It doesn’t matter what sugar, whether it’s white sugar, coconut sugar, sugar in the raw, or if it’s white flour that gets turned into sugar rapidly in our bodies, it all can have a negative impact on our insulin levels, and doesn’t provide any substantial micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals. In addition, it leaves you hungrier and more likely to reach for more sugar.
3. Increase lean protein and healthy fats.
Protein and fat helps keep you full longer and should be included in every meal. Plant based proteins are particularly healthy. Beans and legumes are great choices, because they are full of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Nuts are also great choices because they contain healthy fat and protein. Try adding nuts, seeds or avocado to salads, smoothies and side dishes. Also include sources of omega-3 fat, such as fatty fish. If you don’t eat fish, you can get your long-chained omega-3 fats where fish get it – algae (available in supplement form)
4. Increase intake of good bacteria.
There are many sources of good bacteria, the most popular being yogurt – preferably unsweetened Greek yogurt. If you don’t eat dairy, there are other options there are other options, such as sauerkraut, Kombucha (fermented tea), and tempeh (a fermented soy product that’s high in protein).