Weight loss is a term commonly used to refer to fat loss. After all, the aim of any weight loss program should be to lose fat, not lean tissue or fluid. Fluid and lean tissue levels are important for maintaining health, while excess fat is not. Unfortunately, the aim of specifically losing fat is too often overlooked in weight loss programs or products. This is commonly due to the lack of evidence that their approach actually contributes to fat loss and not just fluid or lean tissue loss. The weight loss industry is very lucrative and organisations will use whatever tactics they can to lure in potential clients.
Carrying excess fat increases your risk of a host of diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer & obesity. These conditions can decrease your quality of life while increasing your risk of dying at a younger age. Therefore, it’s important to act early on weight loss. If you’re overweight, it’s also good to assess indicators of disease risk, such as pathology testing, blood pressure etc. These can be good motivators for change and provide baseline data on health for future comparison.
We also know that about 30% of obese individuals are metabolically healthy i.e. they are not at an increased risk of metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease etc. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that fat people can be healthy too and thin people can be unhealthy. Insulin sensitivity likely plays a key role in determining someone’s metabolic health. A healthy diet and lifestyle are key to maintaining insulin sensitivity.
Unfortunately, the conventional nutritional approach for weight loss to date has probably done more harm than good. The thinking has been that fat gains are simply due to excess energy balance i.e. calories in are greater than calories out. The main failure with this approach is that it assumes all calories are equal, which they’re not.
For example, studies have shown that consumption of rapidly digested carbohydrates (RDC) can lead to a greater consumption of food, probably due to increased cravings. The consumption of too many RDC over the long-term contributes to metabolic dysfunctions, such as insulin and leptin resistance.
Leptin is a hormone that’s secreted by fat cells when they are full i.e. when we’ve had enough to eat. Once leptin is released into the blood it normally travels to the brain to tell us to stop eating. However, in leptin resistance the brain no longer receives the message. In people with leptin resistance, blood levels of leptin are high but the brain is starved of leptin. It is the same as insulin resistance where blood levels of insulin are high, but the brain doesn’t sense this and so keeps pumping out insulin. Actually, insulin resistance and leptin resistance seem to occur together in people who are metabolically obese.
It’s not clear why people become fat in the first place, but one hypothesis suggests that the consumption of too many RDC could be a significant factor. RDC cause blood glucose levels to rise quickly, followed by a rapid spike in insulin. The spike in insulin causes blood glucose levels to drop and this creates food cravings. Therefore, consuming RDC leads to eating more in the short-term. It is also hypothesised that long-term consumption of RDC leads to leptin resistance via dysfunctional inflammatory and metabolic signals. Actually, low grade inflammation is closely associated with metabolic disorders, including obesity. Given that fat cells secrete pro-inflammatory chemicals, being fat is probably a significant barrier to improving leptin and insulin sensitivity and therefore to losing fat. This highlights the importance of minimising fat gains and promoting fat loss.
There’s no question that chronic stress is particularly bad for our health. Stress may actually be the root cause of fat gains for a lot of people. Our bodies perceive stress as danger i.e. there is a tiger chasing me! So the brain sends messages to the body that it needs energy. To get the energy we need to run away from the tiger, glycogen and lean tissue (muscle) are broken down to supply the energy. What the body doesn’t understand is that the stressor is not a life threatening situation that we need to run away from. We just have a deadline at work, or the car broke down, or a divorce etc. Therefore, we now have all this energy running around in our bodies but there’s nowhere to run. We don’t actually burn up the energy by running away from the tiger, because the tiger doesn’t exist. The protein that we used can’t be turned back into muscle again, so the body has no choice but to store the energy as fat. So we have just manged to break down healthy lean tissue and turn it into fat….not such a good outcome.
Chronic stress may also lead to leptin and insulin resistance in the body. We also know that leptin and insulin resistance is associated with obesity. Therefore, it’s pretty safe to say that exposure to chronic stress is a contributing factor in obesity.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) are chemicals that can interfere with the action of hormones. Given that fat cells (adipose tissue) secrete hormones, they can be collectively considered an endocrine organ. Studies have reported that, exposure to certain EDC may contribute to metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and obesity. These chemicals are known as obesogens and are found in pesticides, plasticisers, antimicrobials, and flame retardants. There is still a lot to learn about obesogens, but I recommend that everyone should implement strategies to reduce exposure to these chemicals, especially those who carry excess fat and those wanting to have a baby (males & females).
So, there’s now sufficient evidence to suggest that simply telling someone to eat less and exercise more is unlikely to work. It’s not entirely clear why some people gain fat while others don’t. It’s obvious that poor dietary choices, particularly too many RDC, and a lack of exercise are factors that lead to weight gain. But getting to the root cause of why someone makes poor health choices is more complex. Until we know the answer, the best approach is to address all possible factors – psychological, emotional, nutritional, environmental, physiological, exercise etc.
The key message to everyone should be that gaining fat is much much easier than losing it. Once fat is gained, resulting biochemical changes in the body become a significant barrier to weight loss. In other words, dysfunctional neuro-hormonal signals in the body lead to over-eating, not a lack of will-power! This is why ‘dieting’ simply doesn’t work! This is also the reason why we need to focus on educating the younger generation about how to be healthy and why. Not allowing yourself to get fat in the first place is absolutely the best option!
It still takes will-power to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle but it’s well worth the effort. Fortunately, it gets easier with time as fat is lost, health improves and cravings diminish. Ongoing support is also really important to keep on track.
So, calories are important, but the type of calories you’re consuming is more important than calorie intake alone in long-term weight management. Of course someone can lose some weight in the short term through calorie restriction. However, most people put all the weight back on again because it’s simply not sustainable – The Biggest Loser is a depressing illustration of this.
Healthy dietary choices will naturally lead to the consumption and absorption of less calories and better overall health. Therefore, focusing on what you eat, rather than just how much you eat, is the key nutritional strategy to lose fat and keep it off long-term. A diet focused on a good variety of whole foods with sufficient protein, fibre, vegetables, fruit and healthy fats are all important. Like I said before though, a holistic approach is required to increase the chances of treating the root cause of excess fat gains.
If you’re struggling to lose weight through calorie restriction, maybe it’s time to try a better approach!
Nutrition education is obviously a big focus of what I do, but there are many potential barriers to successful fat loss. Therefore, I take a holistic approach that also considers physical, biological, psychological, emotional, environmental, genetic and other factors.
A general overview of the weight loss consultation process includes:
Rick Hallion is a nutritionist located in Coffs Harbour NSW. Rick has special interests in weight loss, sports nutrition and digestive issues. He firmly believes in his whole-health approach in treating a whole range of health conditions, such as obesity. Contact Rick today if you would like to take your health to the next level.
Investing in your health is the best investment you can make
Health Generation are offering free 30 minute consultations for new clients. This allows us time to assess your health needs and decide if we can assist you further. It also provides you with the opportunity to assess our suitability to your needs and expectations.
So what have you got to lose?