When your priorities shift to seeing changes on the scale, it's tempting to resort to what we've been told for decades: Slash the amount of food you eat and a slimmer waistline will be yours. But with so many people following this advice and still failing at the weight-loss game, how can this be true?
“[Weight gain] is usually not as simple as eating too many calories,” says Frank Lipman, MD, founder of bewell.com and author of How to Be Well: The 6 Keys to a Happy and Healthy Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). “It’s a symptom of a hormonal imbalance or an imbalance in another system in the body that affects the hormones.” A shift in mindset – away from the 20th century obsession with counting, measuring and logging one’s diet down to the last crumb – is necessary, he believes, to get the West’s weight problem under control.
Jason Fung, MD, author of The Obesity Code (Greystone Books, 2016) and The Complete Guide to Fasting (Victory Belt Publishing, 2016), agrees that our general understanding of the mechanisms behind weight gain and, subsequently, how to lose body fat is entirely too simplistic. “It’s an energy partitioning problem, not a total energy problem,” he says. “And that is determined entirely by hormones.”
Confused? We’re here to break down how hormones, your personal team of bodily micromanagers, are steering your weight loss results away from where you want to be – and what you might unknowingly be doing to contribute to the problem. Here are five health conditions and habits that might be impeding your progress, and how to fix them.
1. Your insulin is out of whack
The hormone with one of the biggest hands in this physiological phenomenon is also likely the most well-known: insulin, the hormone produced by the pancreas that moves glucose from the blood into your body’s cells. If your body’s ability to respond to this hormone begins to slow due to age, diet (such as a high-sugar diet), lack of exercise and sleep, or your family history, you can develop a condition called insulin resistance, one of the symptoms of which is weight gain. Worse still, if insulin resistance is left untreated, it can develop into a more serious (and unfortunately, common) condition, diabetes, which comes with its own brand of weight-related complications. Diabetics who are prescribed insulin to help manage their disease often experience weight gain – studies have shown that type 2 diabetics gain about 2.5% excess body weight during the first year of insulin treatment.
Signs that your insulin is too high (a precursor to insulin resistance) are dehydration (or increased levels of thirst and/or dry mouth), frequent headaches, dizziness and feeling fatigued.
The good news is that those who are insulin resistant can often manage their condition with diets that emphasize low glycemic index foods – fiber-rich and higher-fat foods that don’t raise blood sugar levels as rapidly as refined carbohydrates like white rice and breads. This advice can be extended to anyone trying to control their weight since, as Lipman points out, when you eat too many carbohydrates, regardless of whether they are refined or not, your body is cued to release insulin, which then affects your levels of cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, prompting the body to store fat.
2. You’re not being mindful of when you’re eating
Fung believes that we’ve forgotten an important aspect of our physiology that is intrinsically tied to our ability to gain and lose weight: the need to not eat.
“Think about it for a second: Every time you eat, your insulin goes up, telling your body to store that food energy,” he says. Your body only exists in one of two states: It’s either fed or fasting, or, in other words, either storing or burning food energy. Constantly grazing, as some health professionals prescribe, actually works against you by constantly telling your body to store fat via the release of insulin instead of burning energy off as it comes in.
How early or late you eat can also have negative effects. How? Your endocrine system follows your body’s circadian rhythm, releasing hormones in the early hours of the morning in preparation for the day ahead. These hormones, Fung says, push glucose out into your blood, giving you a source of fuel even before you wake, which is why many people report not feeling hungry when conventional wisdom tells them they should be eating breakfast. Fung himself practices what his books preach and tries to eat only within an eight- to 10-hour time block each day, a practice called “intermittent fasting.”
But it’s not just how often – or how early or late – one eats that can affect the body’s ability to properly manage its food energy. Speed eating can disrupt signals between the brain and the gut that triggers the feeling that you’re full.
“If you eat slowly, you give your body a chance to activate its satiety signals, causing you to stop eating when you are full,” he says. Eating a lot of processed foods that have been stripped of the fiber that helps slow digestion, thus giving your body time to feel satisfied, can also upset these signals – these foods are pushed through your body quickly, flooding your system with insulin and in turn telling your body to store the energy you’ve just taken in as fat, Fung explains. Being mindful and slowing down, both in how frequently and how quickly you take in food, are steps within your grasp to get your hunger, and therefore your weight, under control. Even better, make sure those spoonfuls are bursting with whole ingredients.
3. Your thyroid is sluggish
Though certain demographics are more prone to thyroid issues, they can affect anyone – the American Thyroid Association estimates that 20 million Americans have a thyroid condition – and unfortunately, because of its wide-ranging symptoms, this condition is sometimes misdiagnosed as another illness or written off as a patient simply getting older. According to the Mayo Clinic, women over 60 are especially prone to hypothyroidism which occurs when this gland, located deep within the front of the neck, stops producing enough hormones. Weight gain is one of the most commonly recognized symptoms of a thyroid condition; other signs include fatigue, weakness, sensitivity to cold, depression and fading memory.
See Also 7 Foods to Heal Your Thyroid
Thankfully, doctors and the public alike are becoming increasingly aware of the negative health repercussions of a thyroid condition. When approaching a doctor for advice on thyroid issues, Lipman suggests hedging your bets on a functional medicine practitioner since conventional medicine can sometimes miss the signs of low thyroid function. Remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so reach for foods rich in iodine and zinc to help keep your thyroid healthy.
4. Your microbiome needs a reboot
Lipman notes that an imbalanced microbiome – the community of bacteria that lives within your gut – can cause negative health repercussions across your body, from inflammation and food cravings to altered sleep patterns and moods. This happens when certain species of bacteria (Lipman refuses to use the term “bad bacteria”) outnumber others, and it can be prompted by a variety of reasons, such as stress or the overuse of antibiotics.
See Also 8 Steps to a Healthier Microbiome
Because gut bacteria play an integral role in the management of many bodily functions by telling the brain when to release hormones (and by actually producing some hormones, such as serotonin), researchers are finding that your microbiome is closely tied to how easily you gain or lose weight. Make sure to incorporate both probiotics and prebiotics into your diet, the healthy bacteria in your gut and the food that feeds it, as they can help set your microbiome straight and, manage weight.
5. Your sleep is sporadic
Remember that stress and weight are intertwined through the release of what has widely become recognized as “the stress hormone,” cortisol. And one of the most prevalent causes of stress today is a lack of quality sleep, affecting not only your cortisol levels but also your levels of ghrelin and leptin, the hormones that make you feel hungry and full, respectively.
The right amount of sleep varies from person to person, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours for the average healthy adult. Since it’s not only quantity but quality of sleep that matters, try a fitness tracker or app that specializes in logging your nightly hours – if the time you spend in deep sleep tends to be spotty, it might be time to see your health professional. Keep in mind that your body can’t “store” sleep if you don’t get enough. As Lipman waxes, “I’m not a believer that you can catch up with your sleep – I think it catches up with you.”
See Also 6 Supplements For Better Sleep
The bottom line is to look at your body as one machine with many interconnected parts – if one is underperforming, it will affect many others. If you’re eating whole foods, watching your sugar and carb intake and staying active, and you still aren’t seeing the results you are after, bringing in the big guns in the form of a health practitioner may be necessary. After all, success can’t be achieved in a vacuum – especially in terms of weight loss.
Balance Your Hormones, Lose the Weight
What you eat, when you eat it and lifestyle elements all factor into keeping your hormones in balance, which is key to keeping your weight in check. Focus on these expert-recommended tips to help keep your hormones healthy.
KEEP CARBS UNDER CONTROL: Too many carbs can lead to hormone imbalance, so emphasize foods rich in protein, such as wild fish and pasture-raised chicken, and healthy fats such as avocados, nuts and seeds.
DITCH PROCESSED FOODS: Most processed foods are stripped of digestion-slowing fiber and can mess with your body’s fullness signals. Stick with fresh vegetables and fruit to ensure you’re getting plenty of dietary fiber. Aim for at least 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men.
EAT FOR YOUR GUT: Avoid sugar and minimize all sweeteners, which can lead to the growth of unhealthy microbes in the gut. Eating a diet rich in probiotics, such as kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut helps support a healthy microbiome. You’ll also want to include prebiotics in your diet, the “food” these gut bacteria thrive upon, such as onions, garlic and asparagus. If you suspect you have food allergies, work with a knowledgeable health practitioner to figure out which foods you need to eliminate to keep your gut in tip-top shape.
SUPPORT YOUR THYROID: Iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones, so ensure you get enough iodine in your diet by including sea vegetables such as nori and seafood such as scallops or cod. Zinc deficiency is also linked to an underactive thyroid, so include sources of this mineral such as beef, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and cashews.
CONSIDER INTERMITTENT FASTING: Fasting helps stimulate the production of human growth hormone (HGH), which can increase the availability and utilization of fat for fuel by raising levels of key enzymes. While Dr. Fung chooses to eat within an 8- to 10-hour window, you can adjust the fasting window to work for you – anywhere from a 16- to 18-hour fast and a 6- to 8-hour feeding window.
FOCUS ON SLEEP: Avoid watching television or using your phone, computers or tablets about an hour before bed, as the light emitting from them is stimulating and can interfere with sleep. Ensure your room is dark and quiet – consider an eye mask or white noise machine if needed.