When a new client comes to see me, they almost always mention weight as their number one health concern. Here’s what I wish was commonly understood about carrying excess weight:
- It is a symptom of an imbalance somewhere within the body; and
- There is more to it than poor self-control and not enough exercise.
I recently read a book that takes a deep dive into the “why” and “how” of obesity. The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat by Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph.D. was an engaging read. I admit that I tend to geek out over such things but do not fret, this book hits the Goldilocks spot of providing an excellent level of detail while not being too sciencey. This book provides a good understanding of the complicated science behind the conscious and unconscious factors that lead to so many of us becoming overweight, struggling to lose excess pounds, and keeping them off.
Dr. Guyenet discusses the following factors that drive us to overeat:
- The brain views fat, sugar, starch, and salt as valuable nutrients and motivates us to consume them;
- Our brains are wired to favor calories above all other factors including nutrient contents;
- The lipostat is the part of the brain that regulates appetite and fat deposits in the body. Its sole job is to prevent fat loss;
- Satiety signaling regulates how much food we eat. The food industry designs highly processed, convenience, and fast foods to bypass this important signaling mechanism causing us to overeat these foods;
- A sleep-deprived brain causes us to eat more and favor junk food over healthier choices; and
- Stress causes us to eat more and choose calorie-dense “comfort foods”.
Ok, so now we know that our brain has mechanisms that can derail our best efforts to make healthy food choices and drop excess weight. So, what does all this mean? Is there anything we may do to dial down the activity of these mechanisms and win the battle of the bulge? Yes! Dr. Guyenet advised ways to indirectly influence the body’s willingness to release and keep off excess fat:
- Time for a pantry and refrigerator purge. Get rid of high-calorie junk food e.g. chips, cookies, ice cream, crackers, cake, bread, pizza, French fries, etc. If these foods are not readily available, then you are less likely to eat them.
- Out of sight, out of mind. If you are going to have junk food around, get them off the kitchen counter and out of sight. Apply this technique to your workplace as well. Put the old adage to work for you.
- Create obstacles to snacking. Buy whole fruit and nuts rather than prepackaged snack packs. Having to peel fruit or shell nuts will provide an obstacle to eating, giving you time to consider whether you are really hungry.
- Let your brain know you are not starving. Choose naturally occurring whole foods that provide a high level of satiety. These foods generally have a higher protein and fiber content, a lower caloric load, and are not intensely flavorful but are of moderate palatability. Examples include colorful fruits and veggies, meat, seafood, and eggs.
- Bring out your inner Sleeping Beauty. Research has shown there is a relationship between sleep quality and its ability to impact food choices. Making healthy food choices becomes more difficult when we are not well-rested. Spend some time researching “sleep hygiene” for tips to improve sleep quality.
- You got to move it! Exercise can influence the lipostat to reduce the level of body fat needed to feel safe and avoid triggering factors that cause us to overeat. Aim for 30 minutes a day. Find an activity that you enjoy and get your sweat on!
- Figure out if you are a stress eater. Does stress send you running to the pantry for a bag of chips, chocolate, or cookies? If there a food that you reach for to soothe frazzled nerves, then you are a stress eater. Look for ways to mitigate stressors. There are a lot of options to choose from so take some time to explore and find techniques that will work for you such as breathwork, meditation, go for a walk, call a friend, sing or hum loudly, do a short qi gong or yoga flow.
As I mentioned, carrying excess weight is often a symptom of an imbalance somewhere within the body. These imbalances may show up as blood sugar dysregulation in the form of hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, or type 2 diabetes. Chronic infection, certain medications, hypothyroidism, Cushing’s Disease, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, and sleep apnea are all known to include excess weight as a symptom.
The human body is a complex organism of interacting systems which makes it impossible to point to one single solution for any given problem. There are many and varied reasons why we may carry excess weight. Weight management requires the identification of the root cause and the application of a holistic approach. Regardless of the root cause, your health will be well served by doing the work Dr. Guyenet suggests: adjust your diet, build a movement practice into your daily routine, improve sleep quality, and mitigate stress.
Feeling overwhelmed at the thought of making big shifts? Start slow! Progress is measured by steps forward whether big or small. Need help getting started? The RESTART® Program is a great way to kick off adopting the diet-related strategies discussed here. Classes are forming for March. Click here to learn more.
Guyenet, Ph.D., S. J. (2018). The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat (First Flatiron Books Paperback Edition). Flatiron Books.
Mary is a Functional Nutrition Therapy Practitioner and Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition. She helps women identify the missing pieces of their thyroid disease management plan. Mary believes food is medicine. She uses a food-first approach to build a foundation for health and wellness so you may live your most vibrant life. Contact Mary to discuss how nutrition therapy may propel you to a higher level of wellness.