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Focus on Hormonal and Enzyme Regulation of Fat Accumulation — Forget Calories

The theory that fat-restricted diets and calorie-counting will curtail weight gain has gone the way of dinosaurs. Most people believe that there is a magic formula for losing weight, and with that in mind, they simply begin to count calories. However, the issue is far more serious and the calorie-based weight loss theory as been debunked time and again.

According to Michael Schooff, MD, Clarkson Family Medicine, Omaha, Nebraska, a Cochrane Collaboration Study of a forty-year-old woman seeking advice on weight loss found that fat-restricted diets are no better than calorie-restricted diets in achieving long-term weight loss in overweight or obese people.

An obesity epidemic is on the rise in the United States, and people are confronted with intricate, complex problems that the law of thermodynamics — the calories-in-calories- out perspective — does not begin to address. Weight-gain comes with a host of metabolic disorders, which is why we not only need to maintain healthy body weight for the sake of aesthetics, but most of all, to live a quality life.

The general philosophy about weight loss is that we must decrease our intake and increase our energy expediture. So, the hypothesis is: increased food intake coupled with too little physical activity causes overeating (calories in-calories-out, greater energy intake than expenditure) that, in turn, leads to obesity. Science writer Gary Taubes calls this hypothesis “the greatest mistake in the history of science” In his 2014 lecture at Cornell University’s Science Media Production Center, entitled “Why We Get Fat:The Diet/Weight Relationship, An Alternative Hypothesis,” Taubes explores the causal relationship of obesity to poverty. As it turns out, obesity does not correlate with prosperity. In fact, there is an apparent paradox between obesity and undernutrition in some indigent countries. Taubes cites to a study by Benjamin Caballero, MD from Johns Hopkins University, in which the latter witnessed the coexistence of underweight children and overweight mothers in San Paolo, Brazil. He aptly notes that if obesity were associated with the superfluous intake of calories, why wouldn’t the children also have been overweight? Maternal nurturing and protection, after all, supersede even their need for food. Mothers would starve before allowing their children to go hungry. Therefore traditional theories of overeating don’t answer the question of why people gain weight. Taubes asserts that weight gain is akin to any other type of growth, when tissue increases in size. That is why some people, like some animals, gain weight even if they are not given enough calories to do so. Then, what regulates this fat accumulation?

Taubes’ explanation is as follows: “fat is stored as triglycerides, fatty acids are burned for fuel, fat enters and exits fat cells as fatty acids, and inside the fat cell, fatty acids continually cycle into triglycerides and back out again.” Simple biochemistry and conventional wisdom tell us that fat accumulates in fat issue due to elevated insulin levels, and decreases when insulin levels drop, and these levels rise with the increase of carbohydrates in our diets. Therefore, It’s not the carbohydrates (e.g., refined sugars, breads, pastas, etc.). that drive fat, but rather, the increase in insulin, made by the body in the pancreas, that helps to regulate sugar levels and regulates tissue fat. According to Taubes, the increase in insulin is the causation of weight gain and obesity. Thus, there must be a hormonal and an enyme regulation of fat accumulation. It’s not the calories that we take in that matter, but rather the effect of the quality of food we consume which, in turn, enables us to maintain a balanced, quality lifestyle.

What’s Wrong with the One-Size-Fits-All Mentality?

Dieting simply doesn’t work. The uniqueness of every individual, coupled with biological factors must be taken into account. According to Health and Wellness Consultant Amber Landsman, MSC, NSCA-CPT/TSAC, the success rate of those who follow the most popular diet plans and seek to lose and/or maintain weight is ten percent. That figure is astonishingly low and begs the simple question, “Why?”

“It’s a one-size-fits-all mentality that involves the pervasive belief that eating less and exercising more necessarily make us lighter on the scale. This kind of thinking fails to take into account much more significant weight loss factors such as individuality — genes and hormones, for example,” Ms. Landsman states.
It’s not all about self-control and willpower, either. There are three very real biological changes that occur during weight loss. The first is neurological. When we diet, we tend to notice food more — the way it looks and tastes — and this appeal to our senses makes it harder to resist the temptations we seek to avoid.

The second biological change is hormonal. As we lose body fat, our ghrelin and leptin levels (i.e., the hormones that indicate we are hungry and full) increase and decrease respectively. Therefore, we feel hungrier and are less likely to feel satiated, even when we eat the same amount of food.

The third biological change involves our metabolism, which slows down when we’re trying to lose weight, as if we were starving. Our bodies then begin to function on fewer calories, which causes us to store excess fat. Clearly, this is counterproductive!

Taking Note of Lifestyle and Metabolic Efficiency (Body Weight Set Point)

Lifestyle is also a factor in weight gain, as is genetic predisposition. The hypothalamus and other parts of the brain regulate body mass, and the tendency to be overweight or obese (adiposity) is the biological defense of elevated body mass or an increased set point.

Set point is tied to metabolic efficiency, such that when we lose weight, hunger increases, and energy correspondingly decreases. As we burn less calories, our bodies draw on the calories that we consume, and our metabolic efficiency increases.

During weight gain, on the other hand, the opposite occurs: hunger decreases, resting energy expenditure increases, fewer calories are extracted from our food intake, and our weight falls back down to the set point. In the case of obesity, the body defends a higher set point which corresponds to a higher fat mass. It’s a pretty efficient system, but makes weight loss a very difficult challenge.

The Importance of Weight Loss and Ghrelin Regulation

One way to reestablish our body weight set point is to regulate the hormone ghrelin. A Penn State study examined ghrelin in healthy, normal weight women between the ages of eighteen and thirty. At issue was whether ghrelin release was associated with body weight, physical exercise, reduced food intake, or an overall energy deficit. The study found that in the presence of an energy deficit created by changes in body weight, changes in ghrelin are most apparent, independent of the specific effects of reduced food intake and physical exercise.

Lasting three months, the study provided the test group with three meals (the participants’ sole food sources for that time period), two of which had to be consumed at the Penn State General Clinical Research Center at University Park.

The women were randomly assigned to three groups: a control group, a weight stable exerciser group, and a weight loss exerciser group. Those that exhibited weight loss on the closely controlled diet also experienced a corresponding energy deficit caused by exercise and a significant increase in circulating ghrelin.

The study showed no correlation between baseline ghrelin and body weight, body mass index, percent body fat, fat mass, or fat-free mass. Ghrelin levels in the weight loss group reflected energy status (i.e., deficit) which was due to decreased food intake and exercise, rather than the endocrine and/or metabolic effects of exercise itself. Therefore, by regulating the hormone ghrelin, people can defend lower set points, and maintain weight through a healthy diet, and sustaining healthy energy levels, without calorie reduction.

The Significance of Leptin, the Satiety Hormone

The functioning of leptin, the satiety signal to the hypothalamus, is also of crucial importance in weight loss. Leptin deficiency and unresponsiveness is a major factor of obesity in humans. From the perspective of physiology, leptin signaling communicates from adipocytes (or fat-storage cells) that regulate metabolism (among other processes) and feeding through neural pathways, thus controlling energy status.

The Effects of Cortisol on Weight Issues

As to cortisol, the injurious effects of its release not only surface in overweight individuals, but also manifest in those without weight issues, due to factors such as stressful circumstances, psychological proclivities for stressful responses, genetics, age, lifestyle habits (e.g., lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, etc.). One Yale study suggests that non-overweight women who are susceptible to stress exposure tend to have excess abdominal fat and higher cortisol levels. This tendency at first led to poor performance under stressful conditions and further cortisol release. The women also reported more stress in their lives. In response to stressful lab tasks for a third time, the lean women with excess abdominal fat still secreted more cortisol as compared to those with peripheral fat.

The Hormone-First Approach

So, the issue is not dieting and calorie-counting, but rather, the hormone-first approach. According to Ms. Landsman, this strategy depends less on dieting and calorie-counting than on sending the correct signals to the hormones in our bodies (i.e., ghrelin, cortisol, and leptin), in order to curb hunger and lose weight. If our cortisone levels are chronically elevated, we cannot function at our optimum. “High cortisol levels make significant changes in our physiology, especially if the high levels are chronic for long periods of time. When cortisol levels are raised, our hunger and satiety hormones are not in homeostasis; but when our bodies are content and balanced with normal cortisol release, for example, we experience less stress, less frequent lifestyle changes, and we are therefore able to sustain healthier habits.”

The wise approach, therefore, is to maintain balance – but this does not always relate to the way we eat. Regulating our hormones also involves repairing damaged tissue (e.g., after a workout) and helps to partition fat metabolism. They are important in maintaining muscle mass, even as we age.

“Sticking to a real food diet (that is, anything you can pick, raise, or grow) balances hormones, along with the intake of a variety of macronutrients and micronutrients. Getting sleep is also vital – at least eight hours a night,” Ms. Landsman advises. Sleep helps in revitalizing hormones, so that the body can act like clockwork.

A healthy exercise routine, along with establishing a mind-body connection is equally crucial in maintaining homeostasis. Think about the animal kingdom. Although animals don’t work out, as we humans do, they engage in a lot of restorative processes. They don’t eat constantly, and sometimes, they must give their bodies a forced break from food when it becomes scarce or even unavailable. They get proper rest and exercise enough for their bodies to maintain balance and allow their adrenal glands (which are responsible for cortisol release) not to be constantly on high-alert. Their bodies, therefore, naturally vacillate between rest and recovery, helping their hormones to work properly.

“Here’s what we do wrong,” Ms. Landsman concludes. “People get caught up in portioning out percentages (carbohydrates, for example), without taking other things into consideration, such as genetic predisposition, preexisting food intolerances, and activity levels, among other things. We have to get away from boxed and processed foods and artificial flavors that can trigger injurious physical effects like hyperthyroidism, which is present in more than sixty percent of the population now. Therefore, there doesn’t exist a simple calories-in, calories-out, cookie-cutter formula for maintaining and losing weight. We should focus on individuality and uniqueness, and how each one of us does better in our daily lives. Calories don’t control your metabolism. Hormones do.”

We at New York Health and Wellness help you to achieve balance and maintain a healthy lifestyle, not based on fads or quick-fixes, but rather, lifestyle practices that sustain you for the longterm — permanently.
Make your life count, not your calories!

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