Weigh Less, Live More
(This is the third in a series of articles on finding the right foods to naturally rev up your metabolism and see lasting weight loss.)
By Ellen Kittredge
While there are as many fad diets these days as you can count on your fingers and toes many times over, there is not a lot of good solid information available to the public explaining exactly why and how the body holds onto weight. This is the reason I was so excited to discover the work of Dr. Mark Hyman, a practicing physician and medical researcher, who introduced the concept of nutrigenomics to the world. The theory behind nutrigenomics is that the food we eat sends specific messages to our genes that affect our weight. If we eat certain foods our genetic potential for weight loss is increased. Other foods, however, cause us to gain weight or make it difficult for us to lose it.
In earlier articles, we covered the key concepts of chemical imbalances and oxidative stress, and described the role these play in any efforts to lose weight. Now we will investigate two other very important components to successful weight loss, stress and inflammation.
First, a brief summary of the previous information shared: Chemical imbalances or miscommunications between the gut, the brain and our fat cells are a huge problem for weight gain. Why? Because these miscommunications can cause us to eat more and not receive the appropriate hormonal signals telling us when we are full. Many of us suffer from this “communication breakdown” between these three key parts of the body that regulate appetite. The best way to re-wire this faulty system is to eat more whole foods that are naturally high in fiber. These could include green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and fruit. Finding a good balance between protein, fat and carbohydrates at every meal is also important to adequately addressing this specific component to weight loss.
The other concept we have explained in past articles was oxidative stress, which involves the impact that environmental toxins, poor eating habits and other physical stressors have on the ability of our cells to carry out their daily functions. When a cell has been damaged through oxidation, which is the same process that causes a car to rust, it is no longer able to function at its full potential. That causes a wide variety of symptoms, including impaired metabolism. The best way to heal oxidative stress is to eat foods high in antioxidants. You’ve all probably heard of antioxidants, but do you know the best way to get more in your diet? It’s very simple. Eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as you can. Fruits and vegetables (also any member of the plant kingdom, such as beans, grains and nuts) are very high in antioxidants. We all know fruits and veggies are good for us, and here’s one more reason why. Whole, fresh (ideally organic) fruits and vegetables contain many, many different types of antioxidants, those wonderful components that help to combat weight gain.
The next area that we need to address to optimize our body’s potential for weight loss is one that almost every single one of us can relate to on some level — stress. Stress is a significant factor in weight gain, and in fact, in most of the chronic health conditions Americans are facing today. Much research points to the fact that 80 percent or more of our chronic diseases are directly linked to stress.
Stress can be any real or a perceived threat to your body, or to your ego. It could be that nothing that is actually stressful may be happening to you. But just the pure act of thinking about the things that could go wrong in your life and living in a constant state of worry and anxiety can trigger the same hormonal reactions that you would experience running from a rabid dog. Psychological stressors can include depression, anxiety, grief, low socioeconomic status, divorce, loneliness or unemployment. Physical stressors can include infection, anything that triggers inflammation, cold temperatures, environmental toxins, pain, excessive exercise, smoking, alcohol and stimulants. Being overweight itself is a significant stressor because it impacts you both physically and psychologically.
There’s the link between stress and weight gain: When you are under stress, a hormone called cortisol is released into the blood stream, causing you to become less sensitive to another hormone, called leptin. Leptin is the hormone that tells your brain when you are full. When we become less sensitive to leptin we tend to eat more and to crave more sugar. So, the upshot is the body slows down the metabolism and tells you to eat more. It’s no great leap to understand that this is a bad combination.
While there are certain foods that help to ease our stress response by feeding us the nutrients we need to minimize stress, I want to address this topic from a slightly different perspective. We often focus so much on the foods that we are or aren’t putting into our bellies that we forget there are other things that are just as important to optimal metabolism as the food we eat. One of the things we most often forget to do on a daily basis is very simple, breathing. When is the last time you took a nice deep breath, one you could feel in your belly?
Deep belly breathing, which involves breathing in through the nose, is a natural stress reducer. When we breathe in through the nose, this triggers the lower parts of the lungs to send a calming message to the nervous system. Breathing in through the mouth, which activates the upper lobes of the lungs does the opposite; it excites the nervous system.
To start to work on reducing your stress, simply focus on breathing in through the nose more, especially when you sit down to a meal. Since you will be calming the stress response, you will be reactivating your body’s ability to determine when you are full, which is obviously a key component to weight loss. This will help with portion control, digesting your food better and enjoying your meal because you are taking a moment before eating to appreciate what is in front of you.
Of course, you can do some deep breathing any time during the day. I would recommend taking at least a minute or two to practice deep breathing in the morning when you wake up, in the evening before you go to bed, and any time you start to feel stressed. It is a very simple meditative practice that will provide amazing results if done consistently.
Inflammation is the next key to understanding why some of us find it so hard to lose weight. Inflammation, like stress, is also the underlying cause of many, many illnesses. But when addressed appropriately, it can bring lasting healing to the body.
More than half of Americans are inflamed. The classic signs of inflammation are swelling, redness, warmth, etc. The kind of inflammation that is important to weight loss, however, is a different type called silent inflammation, which can occur without any obvious symptoms. Silent inflammation is not only connected to weight gain, it is emerging as a major cause of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and aging in general.
There are numerous reasons why we can become inflamed, which is why it can be tricky to determine the root cause. However, the primary cause is almost always diet-related. The processed foods of modern civilization, combined with lack of exercise, are a huge factor in triggering inflammation. Environmental toxins, food allergies, excess calories, hidden infection, stress — all of these also play a role in inflammation.
In addition to eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, more whole foods that are high in fiber and making sure to have an appropriate balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates at every meal, an important step is to eliminate some of the worst offenders that can cause inflammation.
When it comes to food, unfortunately two of our favorite foods in America are also two of the foods that are highly inflammatory, and could just be the reason you are unable to lose those extra pounds. These two foods are wheat and dairy. Approximately 25 percent of the population is estimated to have wheat or dairy allergies.
Anything we are allergic or sensitive to will cause an inflammatory response. This may be most familiar to you as the running nose, itchy eyes and sore throat that you might experience seasonally in the spring or fall. Wheat, dairy and other inflammatory foods will cause a similar reaction, except that in this case it is hidden in the the intestines, and we may not notice it.
The reason wheat is problematic is that it contains gluten, a protein that is difficult for the body to break down, absorb and assimilate. When the body has a hard time absorbing food it causes an inflammatory response. Wheat or gluten intolerance can cause fatigue, depression, bloating, intestinal gas and bowel changes. My main recommendation to ease your body’s inflammation is to start to experiment with foods that are wheat-free and gluten-free. You can find bread made with rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa, or oat flours; crackers made with rice or potatoes; pastas made with rice, quinoa, or buckwheat; and cookies made with rice, oats, or millet flour.
I generally don’t recommend restrictive diets, where you cut out everything that tastes good to you, as I think restriction is not a healthy long-term solution to any health concern. So, instead of thinking that you need to avoid wheat for the rest of your life, simply decide to go wheat-free for one week and see if you notice any changes in the body. This can be a fun experiment, and is really not that challenging as there are so many great alternatives you can try. You will likely notice significant positive changes, not only in weight, but you may also see an increase in energy, you will likely start to think a little more clearly and you will probably have less digestive discomfort.
If giving up wheat for one week seems too difficult, another option would be to try going without dairy. Dairy products, another primary source of food allergies, are the main dietary sources of something called arachidonic acid, a fat the body uses to produce inflammatory hormones. Instead of cow’s milk and cheese, try rice or almond milk and cheese. Goat and sheep’s cheeses are another option, as these are more easily digested by the body than cow’s milk and cheese. Again, try going without cow dairy for one week and see if you can note a difference in how you feel. If you do, you may have discovered a key reason you haven’t been able to experience the lasting weight loss you desire.
Ellen Kittredge is a nutrition and health counselor practicing in Annapolis who helps her clients experience real and lasting weight loss, eliminate cravings, gain more energy, and improve overall health and well-being. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 577-1940.